A Trip on The Carmac and an unexpected front seat to the Cuban revolution

On January 4th 1959, a group of eight passengers left the port of Miami aboard the Carmac— a 135-foot, fully staffed and stocked yacht owned by the Cargill grain trading company. Hosted by company chairman John MacMillan, Jr. and his wife, the trip was intended as a reward for three company executives and their wives: Cliff and Sue Roberts, Ben and Harriett Jaffray, and Barney and Lois Saunders.

Barney Saunders was based in Minneapolis, the company's headquarters, and was in charge of all grain merchandising. Ben Jaffray, who had been working for Saunders for a year and a half in Minneapolis, was the newly appointed regional manager of Cargill's Norfolk operations. Cliff Roberts was the regional manager for St. Louis.

The plan was for the group to meet in Miami to board the Carmac and travel together to Jamaica. The MacMillans would disembark there to stay at their plantation estate on the island, while the remainder of the group would enjoy a leisurely return to Miami, lingering to enjoy the sights of both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands along the way. In John MacMillan, Jr.'s invitation to Cliff Roberts he wrote:

"We will meet for dinner in Miami on January 3rd and be in Jamaica [a]bout the 7th or 8th, and the boat will be back in Miami (probably via Havana) about a week later-- say about the 14th or 15th. . . we would like nothing better than to have you and your wife join us."

Letter of invitation sent on October 28, 1958, by John MacMillan, Jr. to Cliff Roberts

A welcome respite from a particularly cold winter that year, the group could never have anticipated the surprises that were in store for them.

A letter from Sue Roberts written to her mother from the Carmac near the end of the trip detailed the story of the group's unexpected night in Havana, shortly after Fidel Castro's triumphant arrival in the city to take control of Cuba from Fulgencia Batista and his regime. This letter, unearthed by Sue's daughters as they went through the family papers after their father's death, led to a quest to recover as much of the story of this trip as possible.

Several letters provided from the Cargill company archives offered details of the travel and stops along the way. In addition, Sue's children located their mother's photo album, which contained 20 photographs from aboard the yacht. Two people who were on the trip, Ben Jaffray and Harriet Dayton (who was married to Jaffray at the time), both graciously shared their recollections. As the last two people still living who were on the trip, both Jaffray and Dayton underscored that what unfolded because of bad weather turned into an experience of a lifetime— a front row seat to history.

Given that 57 years have passed since the trip, some of the details have been lost. For instance, it is uncertain if all who were listed in John MacMillan, Jr.'s invitation were actually on board for the trip. While Mr. and Mrs. Cargill MacMillan, Jr. and Mr. and Mrs. Hugh MacMillan (officially known as John H., III) were originally on the passenger list, recollections from those aboard indicate that neither couple traveled with with the group. Yet, there are several people aboard the boat in Sue Robert's photo album who cannot be identified and whose presence shows that more than eight people were on the ship. It is possible that guests joined those on board while at port or that one or two additional couples were, indeed, on the Carmac for the journey.

Dates mentioned in this account are the best approximation that can be determined based on Sue Roberts' letter coupled with John MacMillan, Jr.'s correspondence prior to the trip with his boat crew and a thank you letter from Ben Jaffray to John written January 23, 1959, just after the group's return.

Despite the fact that some of the details have been lost, the essential story remains. And much of the credit goes to Sue Roberts who, in her letter to her mother, said,

"Are you saving these letters? It's like a diary, and I'd love to have them."

Thus, she ensured that one day her children would have an eyewitness account of a night in Havana on the heels of the revolution, meeting the soldiers of Castro's army and dancing the night away at the legendary Tropicana night club.

The Journey of the Carmac

Setting Out

The group convened on the Carmac on Saturday, January 3rd and dined together on the boat that evening. The next morning, they set sail at daybreak, headed for Jamaica.

All photographs from the Carmac contained within this story are © Sue and Cliff Roberts Family Collection.

The man in the photographs is believed to be John Aldean, the Carmac's steward.
Barney and Lois Saunders on the deck of The Carmac. Others pictured have not been identified.

Not long after leaving Miami, they encountered their first round of bad weather. Nearing Cuba, the captain recommended they take shelter in Guantanamo Bay. The group did not go ashore, but stayed on the boat in the bay and waited for the storm to pass.

Drinks before dinner. Barney Saunders on the right.
Cocktail hour. Cliff Roberts on right.
Sue Roberts
Cliff Roberts. The headline of the newspaper in his lap reads: "Inside North Korea."
Lois Saunders
Cliff Roberts in the Carmac dining room.

Arriving in Jamaica

On Friday, January 9th, the Carmac arrived at Port Antonio, Jamaica. Once there, the MacMillans were summarily "dismissed" from the boat "crew." Apparently, the boat's passengers were all listed as crew, and in order to disembark they had to be "discharged" from their posts. Sue Roberts wrote to her mother in amusement, "We saw the papers at Port Antonio and Mr. and Mrs. McMillan — Seaman 1st class — were 'paid off in full by mutual consent.' Isn’t that a riot?"

Harriett Dayton noted that after leaving Port Antonio, the group took a rafting trip down the nearby Rio Grande River before driving to the the MacMillan's plantation, Green Castle. John MacMillan had bought the estate in 1950 and revived the farming operations, growing bananas, coconuts and pimientos, and raising cattle. After a luncheon with the MacMillans, the group said their goodbyes to their hosts and headed to Montego Bay by car to rejoin the boat.

Montego Bay & Grand Cayman

The morning of the January 10th, the group woke to lovely weather and spent the morning swimming at Doctor's Cave beach in Montego Bay. However, stormy weather seemed to be following them. Ben Jaffray reported:

"At noon of that day we were advised by the Montego Bay Yacht Club that another 'Northeastern' was blowing and therefore the captain deemed it advisable to move approximately 20 miles up the coast to Lucea Harbor."

The storm arrived that night as predicted, bringing "a good deal of turbulence even within the reasonably well sheltered harbor," Ben reported. The weather the next day was still unfavorable for sailing so the group had a day of sight-seeing in Lucea the following day.

Taking refuge from the storm.
Sue Roberts on right.

From Ben Jaffray

"On Monday [January 12], the weather continued to improve, so immediately after breakfast we disembarked for a vaccination we discovered we re­quired, and then went back to Montego Bay by car for lunch, sight-seeing and shopping. We arrived back at Lucea at approximately 3:00 P.M., at which time the Captain advised us we would be able to depart for the Grand Caymans. We set forth at about 4:30 and almost immediately upon leaving the harbour began to take some rather severe swells. That night was reasonably rough, as was the following day, but we reached the Grand Caymans at approximately 3: 00 P. M. on Tuesday afternoon [January 13], and immediately disembarked for a delightful swim at that marvelous beach."

Cliff Roberts, left, with Barney Saunders on right.
Sue Roberts on left.

Ben's report continues:

"Wednesday [January 14] we spent in its entirety on the beach, where we had a delightful picnic lunch, and also had an opportunity for some water skiing. We walked up to the Galleon Beach hotel, but unfortunately did not make contact with your friends, the Manager and his wife. We returned to the boat late in the afternoon and promptly after dinner set sail for Miami. That evening was perfectly delightful and we all had an excellent night's sleep."

Sue Roberts

Ben's notes on the trip continue:

"Thursday morning [January 14th] we awoke to a good following wind and had an­other very pleasant day. Thursday night was a bit rough but all slept well, and Friday morning [January 15th] was another beautiful day and our good following wind continued. About noon, however, tremendous dark clouds appeared and the wind came up to 35-40 miles per hour."

Taking Refuge in HAvana

While the Carmac was setting sail from Miami and making its way to Jamaica, the Cuban revolution to overthrow the Batista government was coming to an end. The front page of the January 9th edition of the New York Times shows a photograph of Fidel Castro triumphantly arriving in Havana the day before with his rebel army.

Clips from newsreel footage of Castro arriving in Havana in January, 1959, give a glimpse not only of the crowds of people celebrating his arrival but also of the violence that preceded his victory.

Just a week after Castro's arrival in Cuba's capital city, the Carmac found itself in another round of stormy weather, with sea swells causing 30 to 40 degree rolls in the boat, Ben Jaffray reported. Now off the coast of Cuba and in the final leg of their trip, they needed safe harbor to wait out the storm. Ironically, a country at the conclusion of a tumultuous revolution became their safe haven.

Sue Roberts described the sudden change from sunny skies to turbulent weather and the decision to go to Havana.

". . . we were sunning ourselves on the top deck when suddenly, about noon, an awful squall came up and we had to come in. Things started flying around and poor Lois gets so frightened. She’s really terrified. Well, the storm kept getting worse and worse and we were sitting on the floor again. The captain came down and said the winds were predicted for 50 miles an hour and now should we go into Havana. We say yes, so in we went. Really, getting in was awful. We were really rolling and for the first time I got scared.

We got in about 6:00, had dinner and found out from our agent that it was perfectly safe to go ashore, so we get all dressed up and take off."

Ben Jaffray recollected that when they arrived, they knew there had been a change in regime and that Castro had come to power, but they did not know whether the new regime would be friendly to them as Americans or not. However, shortly after docking in the harbor, they were greatly reassured when the three Cuban customs officials came aboard and welcomed them warmly to Havana.

The local agent handling their travel had provided the group with a driver who took them on a tour of the city. Ben reported that as they passed the Presidential Palace, their driver noted that a machine gun had been mounted on the building's roof for the entirety of the Batista regime. The driver expressed how relieved the Cuban people were to have Batista gone and how hopeful they were that the Castro government would bring new hospitals, schools, and businesses to the country.

After the group's tour, they went to a restaurant across the street from the Hotel Nacionale to have a glass of wine. Striking up a conversation with the bartender, they learned that a reception for Castro was being held at that very moment right across the street at the hotel. The group decided to go. Finding the grand ballroom, Ben said the door was slightly ajar and that he could see Castro speaking on the stage. He asked one of the officials at the door, "Is there any chance that we can go in and hear Castro speak?" Ben reported that the official very politely responded, "I know you are Americans and I know you are probably very interested in what is going on, but this is a night for Cubans so I am very sorry but I cannot let you go in."

When the group arrived, the streets of Havana were filled with armed soldiers.

Sue Roberts described their arrival:

"Well, Mr. Castro and his men had just arrived in Havana the Friday before so his soldiers were still all over the place. They are all young and have let their hair and beards grow, a vow they took with Castro. They walk along the streets nonchalantly swinging submachine guns and tommy guns."

"The first nightclub we went in, we sat right next to a table of them all leaning on their guns and the guns loaded. We were flabbergasted and really kind of scared although Mr. Rocca, the agent there, and our driver, assured us it was perfectly safe and we got long lectures everywhere about how well behaved the solders were and how wonderful it was to be liberated from that horrible Batista and his henchmen, the horrible stories of torture etc that Batista and his men put them through and how we must go home and explain to the Americans how Castro has saved them and the executions of Batista men, which was going on right in the prison on the bay— Moro Castle— that we were docked in. I think they executed 100 the day were were there."

©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

"The city is in the best shape it’s been in in years and there is no sign of violence at all. Although Cliff was having a fit about how the soldiers walked along swinging those loaded guns, we finally got used to it and thought nothing of it.

"We went to the most fabulous nightclub 'The Tropicana' and Cliff was in 7th heaven with the Cuban music. All around the dance floor stood these soldiers, leaning on their guns, with the most haunted look in their eyes, long hair and beards. I can’t explain how we felt towards them, They had been fighting in the hills for three years and here they were, free at last and had taken the capitol and everyone was so happy to see them. We asked some of them to have their pictures taken with us. (We were one of the few tourists in the city) so they did."

"One [soldier] asked me to dance so I gulped and said 'I would love to.' He put down his gun and off we went."

"It really was an amazing experience. We picked just the right time to go as the soldiers will all leave to go home- probably by now. We were all thrilled to have been there really, at the tail end of their revolution."

"We held their guns while they held our wives," Ben Jaffray said with a laugh, describing the feeling he, Cliff Roberts, and Barney Saunders had when their spouses took to the dance floor with the soldiers.

©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

American photographer Burt Glinn was in Cuba at almost the exact time as the travelers from the Carmac. His photographs of Havana in the week after Castro arrived illustrate the scenes Sue Roberts described in her letter.

©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Crowds gathered to celebrate the arrival of Castro and the departure of Batista.

©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

The group stayed aboard the Carmac for the night but had to go ashore again in the morning. Because of the delays from the storms, the Saunders and the Jaffrays decided to fly home from Havana to Miami to save time. To disembark in a foreign port, they needed to secure permission at the American Embassy.

Sue and Cliff Roberts explored the city while the others were at the embassy:

"While they waited to get their papers etc. cleared, Cliff and I walked over to the Havana Hilton, a beautiful new hotel, where Castro was staying."

The Havana Hilton shortly after its grand opening in 1958. ©Time/Getty.
Havana Hilton, January 8, 1959 ©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

"We saw all these soldiers and people waiting in the lobby so we asked someone and they said Castro was coming down. We waited for half an hour and he never came. I was crushed," Sue wrote.

©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

©Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

Castro on a balcony of the Hotel Hilton, his headquarters in the aftermath of the revolution.

©Time/Getty

"We were all thrilled to have been there, really, at the tail end of their revolution." — Sue Roberts

"So we are now approaching Miami and home," Sue concluded. "We loved Havana, a beautiful, clean modern city. We’ve loved the whole trip. It’s been fabulous."

Epilogue

Two years after the group's visit, the United States' relationship with Cuba had deteriorated to the point that President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed the American Embassy in Havana and terminated diplomatic relations, making travel to Cuba nearly impossible for Americans for the next five decades.

In 2015, as the American Embassy in Havana was re-opening after 54 years, the Roberts family was discovering the letter in which their mother described the unexpected trip she and their father had taken there in 1959. Along with the small album of photographs and the typewritten invitation to travel on the Carmac, two souvenirs brought home by the Roberts also survived in the family memorabelia: a tiny Castro doll and a glass commemorating the Castro revolution. These relics became the starting points for recovering this story.

© Sue and Cliff Roberts Family Collection

One item that was searched for meticulously but has not yet been found is a photograph taken the night the group was at The Tropicana. Pictured were Harriett Jaffray (now Dayton), Sue Roberts, and Lois Saunders arm in arm with the three Cuban soldiers who had asked them to dance.

Ben Jaffray's recollections, shared in 2015, helped bring the story to life. An excerpted audio recording of that conversation can be heard below:

Sue Roberts' letter, the thread that began the entire process, can be read at the link below, in her own hand, written on stationery from the Carmac:

With the refreshing, immediacy of her narrative, she brings us along on the journey, making us witnesses right alongside her— a powerful testament to the value of a letter home.

“A letter always seemed to me like immortality…” — Emily Dickinson

Story researched and produced by Lucy Mathews Heegaard at Studio-Lu.

Created By
Lucy Mathews Heegaard
Appreciate

Credits:

Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos, Time/Getty, Sue & Cliff Roberts Family Collection

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