William Morgan, from revolutionary hero to executed traitor

Those were the days: William Morgan being applauded by Fidel Castro in Havana in 1959.

William Alexander Morgan Ruderth, “el Comandante Yankee”, the American who helped Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro (1926-2016) to secure victory, was executed by firing squad on March 11th, 1961 on orders of those he had previously supported.

He was born in Cleveland on April 19th, 1928 to Alexander and Loretta Morgan. Although raised in an affluent neighborhood in nearby Toledo, he repeatedly escaped from home, was often in trouble with the law and finally dropped out of high school.

Shortly after World War II, Morgan decided to enlist in the US Army at age 18 and was stationed with Company B, 35th Infantry, in occupied Japan.

Before leaving for the Far East, Morgan spontaneously married Darlene Edgerton, whom he had met only one day earlier on a train, but the marriage was annulled after a year and a half.

Nevertheless, in Asia Morgan lost no time to father a child with a hostess named Takeda Setsuko , whom he would abandon after his forced return to the United States.

Not allowed to be present at his son’s birth in 1947, he went absent without leave, was arrested and escaped from custody by overpowering a guard and taking his firearm.

Recaptured, Morgan was court-martialed in 1948, sentenced to five years of imprisonment and received a dishonorable discharge. He was released after two years from a federal prison in Michigan for good behavior and settled in Florida.

There Morgan joined a vaudeville troupe, where he met snake charmer Ellen Theresa May Bethel. They got married in Miami in May 1954 and had two children, Anne Marie (born 1955) and William A. Morgan Jr. (born 1957).

Unable to find a more stable occupation, he ended up doing errands and other work for the Mafia, which had good business relations with Cuba’s President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973), but since 1955 also organized arms sales to his opponents, among them Castro’s rebels.

Unstable, restless and laddish, in 1957 Morgan abandoned his second wife and children to join a guerrilla force in the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba.

After distinguishing himself in a series of battles, he was promoted to the rank of Comandante by Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo (1934-2012), who would later also turn against Castro, and allowed to lead his own column.

The New York Times published a flowery statement by Morgan, «Why I Am Here», in which he explained his participation in Castro’s activities with a belief in freedom and not just pure adventuresomeness.

In December 1958, Argentinian professional revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967) merged his forces with Morgan’s group to achieve the final decisive military victory of the revolution.

Together they captured Santa Clara, capital of the province of Villa Clara, on December 31st, effectively cutting the island in half. Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, where he enjoyed the protection of President Rafael Trujillo (1891-1961).

While Morgan and his men on January 1st, 1959 occupied the city of Cienfuegos, 250 kilometers south of Havana, Che did the same with Cuba’s capital. Castro would arrive almost a week later.

Shortly afterwards, Morgan expressed concern about how US authorities would respond to his involvement in Cuba. His worries were justified, as in March 1959, the US embassy in Havana warned Americans that participation in foreign military service could jeopardize their citizenship.

In September 1959, the US authorities revoked his citizenship, a move that was prompted by members of Congress who had supported Trujillo, later assassinated by conspirators sponsored by the CIA. Morgan first contested the action, only to accept it publicly on a Havana radio station by the end of the month.

As a double agent, in August 1959 Morgan helped smash a coup attempt orchestrated by Trujillo to topple Castro, who thanked him on Cuban television for his role in the suppression of the counterrevolution.

In November 1958 Morgan married again, this time Cuban fellow fighter Olga María Rodríguez Farinas, and had two daughters with her, Loretta and Olga.

Disenchanted with Castro’s socialist leanings, Morgan started a farming business that employed around 600 workers and shipped an average of 50,000 pounds of frozen frog legs to the US every month.

On March 6th, 1960 two explosions on the French freighter La Coubre, that was unloading a cargo of 76 tons of Belgian munitions in Havana harbor, killed around 100 people.

A memorial for the victims was held a few days later. Morgan, accused by a Miami newspaper of being involved with the sabotaging of the ship, was pictured arm and arm walking through the streets with prominent members of the new government, including Castro and Che.

At that time, it was obvious that Castro was indeed a Communist and that Cuba wouldn’t become a capitalist parliamentary democracy as Morgan had told the press on numerous occasions.

In mid-June 1960, Morgan and selected former Escambray leaders met to discuss Castro’s turn towards Socialism and how to protect their own revolutionary ideals.

As the detentions of Morgan’s former comrades started to increase, he organized weapons to be smuggled to those again fighting were his own struggle against Batista had begun.

On October 21st, 1960 the Cuban Army announced Morgan’s arrest on suspicion of having aided insurgents “at the direction of foreign interests.”

Formally charged with plotting to join and lead the Escambray counterrevolutionaries, Morgan denied all accusations with the help on an interpreter.

After a biased military trial at La Cabaña, an old fortress turned into a jail, Morgan was shot with the Castro brothers in attendance. The other defendant, Comandante Jesús Carreras (born 1933), died the same day.

His spouse Olga María was found guilty of co-conspiracy and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Released after 10 years, she left for the US in 1980, where after two decades she admitted their involvement in an attempted coup d’état.

Morgan’s US citizenship was effectively restored in April 2007, though despite all the efforts made by his widow, his remains are still waiting to be reburied in his homeland.

Allegedly, Castro in April 2002 agreed to return Morgan’s body. Before his own death, he didn’t keep his word. Probably his hatred of the American follower turned traitor never vanished.


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