Imagine a young Irish priest in the early 1960s in Miami, with little or no knowledge of Spanish or Cuba, organizing the largest exodus of children ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere -- and keeping it secret for more than a year.

Nicknamed Operation Pedro Pan, this grassroots effort led by Father Bryan Oliver Walsh brought 14,048 unaccompanied Cuban minors to the United States. The children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, entered the U.S. borders from December 1960 to October 1962, when the Cuban missile crisis put a halt to commercial air service between Havana and the United States.

"It's very difficult today to understand what Cuba in 1960 was like," said Miami's Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesús Estevez, himself a Pedro Pan. "All the Catholic and Christian schools were closed; 150 priests had been thrown out of Cuba," said the bishop, who left Cuba in 1961 at the age of 15. "There was a determination by the revolution leaders to repress any dissent or any democratic thinking -- and it was a totalitarian hard line."

Fleeing the regime

In 1960, a year after rising to power, Fidel Castro's regime had already transformed Cuba's landscape. Neighborhood committees, fashioned after Nazi Germany, were set up to control and spy on every block. Cubans who recalled the Spanish Civil War and the 5,000 children who were sent to the Soviet Union for indoctrination feared the same thing would happen in their country. Parents reasonably feared losing the "patria potestad," the parents' right and duty to raise their children.

Raul Lorenzo Acevedo vividly remembers the scene. "My [Catholic] school was closed, I was discriminated against in the public school for being a former Catholic-school student. My choices were to either become a communist, be sent to Russia to study, forgo college or leave the country,"said Acevedo, now an IT architect in Sun Valley, Calif., who was 16 years old when he left Cuba in 1961. "I would make the same decision today with my children, given the same circumstances."

The operation

Operation Pedro Pan evolved quite by happenstance. In October 1960 a boy named Pedro was sent to the United States unaccompanied by parents. When refugee relatives couldn't care for the 15-year-old he was taken to the Catholic Welfare Bureau (CWB), and Father Walsh, director of the bureau, made arrangements for him. About the same time, a Cuban mother brought two children to Key West, Fla., and returned to Cuba. Walsh realized the mounting Cuban exodus would likely include more unaccompanied "Pedros," and he began to lay the groundwork to address the issue.

Back in Cuba, parents worked with James Baker, the head master of Ruston Academy in Havana, on plans to get their children out. Baker traveled to Miami and asked Father Walsh for assistance. A few days later, Baker submitted a list of possible unaccompanied children. On Dec. 26, 1960, the first children arrived.

After the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961, the Department of State authorized the CWB to notify parents in Cuba that student visa requirements had been waived for their children, enabling children to travel by commercial flights to the United States.

As word got out about the priest in Miami who would look after young refugees, news of the clandestine exodus network spread. Thousands of visa waivers were sent by Miami exiles to their relatives in Cuba.

Miraculously, Father Walsh and his network of agencies convinced the media to embrace a "spirit of cooperation" that kept Operation Pedro Pan out of the news for most of its existence.

Approximately 50 percent of the children were reunited with relatives or friends at the airport.

According to Bishop Estevez, it was only a few years ago that he learned part of Operation Pedro Pan included visas for the parents left behind. An important aspect, he said, because "it reflects a Catholic understanding of immigration, which is family reunification."

The real heroes

In a 1971 journal article, by then-Msgr. Walsh wrote, "The real heroes of Pedro Pan were the parents who made the hardest decision that any parent can make."

Miriam C. Bello-Duman was 12 when she and her two brothers left Cuba. "Each of us made sure that Mom and Dad knew that what they did was very courageous and ultimately gave us a better life," said Bello-Duman, who now lives in Miami Lakes, Fla., and works for the public school system. "Kissing their feet would not have been enough."

Carlos Humberto [Frank] Soler, who was 16 when he arrived from Cuba, said, "We would have had a very limited future living under a totalitarian regime, let alone a communist one." He and 39 other Pedro Pan children were relocated to Villa Virgen del Cobre in Albuquerque, N.M. His family arrived four years later. "Typical Americans," said Soler, a college professor in San Jose, Calif., "don't understand the 'fiber' or the fundamentals of such a decision."

"As the 50th anniversary of this operation approaches, it is important that people find out about this story that has changed so many lives," said Maria del Carmen [Perez] Romanach, who was 15 when she left Cuba. "Operation Pedro Pan [strengthens] my faith in the goodness and unselfishness of others. It shows, like no other, the generosity of the American people."

For Bishop Estevez, the real story finale is still unwritten. "Until the Pedro Pan children can visit Cuba, a free Cuba, I don't think this story will be fully completed," he said.

Pedro Pan networks

Modern technology has made it possible for Pedro Panes to reconnect using Facebook and group websites. Some of the largest groups on the Internet include:

The Pedro Pan Database

This past May, the Miami Herald launched the first ever Operation Pedro Pan database, a Facebooklike platform for reconnecting that also allows the incorporation of individual stories and photos.

Operation Pedro Pan Group

A charitable organization that sponsors aid to children in need and children without parents; it aims to locate and document the history of Pedro Panes.

Cuban Kids from the 60s Exodus

California social network for locating and gathering Pedro Panes.

Veterans of Camp Matacumbe

Collecting data and stories of visitors to camps and temporary shelters in the Miami-Dade area operating between 1960 to approximately 1965.

Part two available here»

This is part one of a two-part series on Operation Pedro Pan. More information on the 7,000 children who did not have family and were placed under the care of the Cuban Children's Program will be published in the Nov. 8 issue, click here»

María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda writes from Oklahoma.