Kelly: Omahan was in picture with JFK when history was made, was later grilled by Fidel -
Published Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:13 pm
Kelly: Omahan was in picture with JFK when history was made, was later grilled by Fidel

Don Chapman of Omaha has a tale to tell, a story of being hauled before Fidel.

Yes, Fidel Castro, who spat on the floor and asked pointed questions about explosions in Havana harbor that killed close to 100 people — and which El Comandante soon blamed on America and the CIA.

“I don't really discuss it too much,” said Don, a vigorous 80 years old. “I've had a good life, and I could go tomorrow and be happy with it. But I was really shook up for a while.”

His 15 minutes of fame came up recently at lunch with buddies. That's because — unrelated to his role in the 1960 international incident — he was pictured in The World-Herald in the background of an iconic 1959 picture of John F. Kennedy, which became JFK's presidential campaign photo.

In that photo, shot at a political rally in an Omaha backyard, Chapman is seen holding a camera for WOW-TV, where he worked. But he soon quit to “bum around” Europe for six months.

To return to the U.S., he booked passage on a French freighter, La Coubre, with a ticket to Miami. But near the end of the six- or seven- day voyage, he learned that the ship carried a load of arms to be dropped off in Havana.

The freighter docked, and on March 4 at 3:10 p.m., Don was sunning on the top deck when an explosion knocked him out of his chair and out of his shoes.

“The only thing that saved me was that a smokestack stood between me and the explosion,” said Chapman, whose only injury was a cut on his neck. “All I wanted to do was live. I saw a lot of bodies and body parts.”

People onshore rushed to help, and a second explosion killed and injured many of them. After helping for a while, Don went to a police station and phoned in a first-person account to United Press International.

He soon was detained by Cuban authorities. Hours later, in walked Castro. With him, Chapman recalls, were his brother Raul and Che Guevara.

Fidel asked the American what he knew about the explosions. “Nothing,” Don said, explaining how he happened to be on board.

The bearded leader asked why Chapman was wearing a beard. Don replied that he had stayed in European hostels without hot water, and it was easier to grow a beard than having to shave with cold water.

The grilling lasted 10 to 15 minutes. Chapman also went before a military tribunal and had a brief civilian trial, and was released after 48 hours.

“I was treated pretty well other than the mental anguish,” he recalled. “There were always guns pointed at me.”

The Cuban government had confiscated all his belongings, including his cameras and photos from Europe. He spent a night at the home of the U.S. vice consul, shaved his beard and boarded a plane for Miami. (He was pulled off for more questioning and took a later flight.)

A native of North Bend, Neb., and a Navy veteran, he had made front-page news around the country, with elected officials calling for his release. A World-Herald reporter met him at the airport in Kansas City, Mo., and interviewed him on the final leg home to Omaha's Eppley Airfield.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Because he had no shoes, the Cuban government had given him a pair of army boots — which he had bronzed and which still sit on a living-room shelf at home.

Months after his return home, he and Robert Spittler started the Spittler and Chapman advertising production company, which later became Chapman & Associates. Don made films for many large corporations, and retired in 1996.

He and wife Beverly raised a daughter, Linda, and a son, Jason. He and his wife have visited Mexico many times, enjoying its architecture. He is a veteran river-rafter and remains in good physical shape.

Surviving the explosions and standing before Castro marked his only visit to Cuba, and he would like to go there again if the U.S. ever restored normal relations with the island country.

When he returned home after his ordeal, he said he assumed that the La Coubre explosions were accidents. But over the years, he said, he has come to believe that the CIA — which is known to have worked against Castro and funded the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion — was behind what happened in Havana harbor.

There is no proof, and U.S. records on the incident remain classified. The French line that owned the ship also has sealed its records on the incident.

Donald L. Chapman is just glad he made it home.

“At the time,” he said, “I didn't know if I'd ever get out of Cuba. Everywhere I looked, there were guns.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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