PASSINGS: Jyoti Basu, Joe Shannon

PASSINGS: Jyoti Basu, Joe Shannon
In his later years, Jyoti Basu became a widely sought-out and respected elder statesman. (Saurabh Das / Associated Press)
Jyoti Basu

Communist statesman of India

Jyoti Basu, 95, a veteran communist leader who in 1996 came close to becoming India's prime minister, died Sunday in Calcutta of multiple organ failure, a party spokesman said. Basu became chief minister of West Bengal state in 1977 and served for 23 years, making him the longest-serving chief minister in India's political history.

In 1996, a group of parties asked Basu to lead a coalition government in New Delhi. However, the Communist Party declined, saying it did not want to be part of a government in which it did not have a majority. Basu later described that decision as a "historic blunder."

A charismatic leader, Basu in his later years assumed the role of an elder statesman whose advice and opinion were sought and respected across the political spectrum.

"It's a sad day for all of us," India's Home Minister P. Chidambaram said. "He was a great patriot, a great democrat, a great parliamentarian and a great source of inspiration."

Born July 8, 1914, in Calcutta, Basu began his political career in the 1940s as a trade union leader.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) became a key ally of Congress Party Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government from 2004 to 2008, when it used its influence to stall the sale of shares in state-run companies and block the entrance of foreign investment in banking and insurance.

Joe Shannon

He trained pilots for Cuba invasion

Joe Shannon, 88, a retired Alabama National Guard pilot who trained anti-Castro pilots and flew in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, died Jan. 5 in Birmingham, Ala., after a brief illness, said Lewis Shannon, one of his three children.

About 1,500 Cuban exiles trained under CIA guidance in Guatemala and invaded the island in April 1961, trying to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist regime.

Shannon was among Alabama National Guard members who were recruited to help in the invasion. He flew a last-ditch mission into Cuba before the invasion failed.

"This was . . . a desperate mission to save the guys on the ground," Shannon told The Times in 1998. "We were told we wouldn't be able to fly even if we wanted to. But we were so close to the Cuban exiles, their cause sort of became our cause."

Shannon said members of the Alabama Air National Guard were recruited because they were still flying B-26 bombers, the same planes used by Castro's forces. The CIA painted B-26 bombers with Cuban markings, Shannon told the Birmingham News in 2001.

Shannon was the last surviving Alabama Guard pilot who had flown in the invasion, according to Jim Griffin, director of the Southern Museum of Flight.

Born in Alabama in 1921, Joseph L. Shannon was an Army Air Forces pilot during World War II and was recalled to active duty during the Korean war. Then he received a call from the CIA about participating in a top-secret plan. Shannon headed to Guatemala to train the Cuban exiles.

He later worked as a corporate pilot.

Shannon remained close to a Cuban pilot he helped train for the Bay of Pigs, and he wanted to visit Cuba a few years ago with a university group. The U.S. government advised against it.

"Castro still had me on a hit list," Shannon said.

-- times staff and wire reports