~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Military Operations Resume,
1929-1931




As far as military operations were concerned, the lull ended early in January, when a band of about 100 rebels attacked a Guardia patrol led by 1st Lieutenant Chester A. Davis, GN. Near Guancastilla, Neuva Segovia, on 10 January 1929, Davis, with 2 other officers and 15 enlisted men, managed to drive off the ambush party, killing seven of them. His own losses numbered two killed and four wounded.<88>

Less fortunate was a seven-man mounted patrol led by 1st Lieutenant Alexander Galt. Pausing at the village of San Antonio, the Marines had asked a native for directions to Constancia. When the trail he pointed out came to an abrupt end in a coffee plantation, the disgruntled Marines turned around and began retracing their way to the village. They were a weary lot, some walking, others riding, none of them with weapons ready. At midmorning on 21 January, 30 rebels struck from ambush. At no cost to himself, the enemy killed 3 Marines and captured 2 rifles, 3 pistols, a submachine gun, and 400 rounds of ammunition. A relief patrol under 2d Lieutenant Marshall C. Levie arrived on the scene too late to avenge the attack.<89>

Carelessness may have taken the lives of three Marines near San Antonio; but it was the vigilance of a veteran Marine officer, 1st Lieutenant Herman H. Hanneken, that accounted for a spectacular coup, the capture of Manuel Jiron, near San Albino. Since the Marines had pitched camp on the bank of a small stream, Hanneken sent eight of his men to the creek to bathe. Fully alert to the possibility of an ambush, he saw to it that four men remained on guard while the other four took their turn in the water. At 1030, one of the sentries spotted a mounted man shambling along the bank. Immediately the Marines leaped from the water, grabbed their Springfields, and waited. Head down, half asleep, the notorious rebel wandered blindly into their midst and was taken prisoner.<90>

Although Jiron's capture raised American morale, this incident did not lead to the capture of Sandino; for the wily rebel chieftain was on his way to Mexico City to raise funds for his army. In his absence and in spite of the loss of Jiron, the rebels continued to wage a guerrilla campaign. Contacts with the enemy were numerous, but seldom were large numbers involved. Typical of rebel hit and run tactics was the ambush on 19 February of a patrol led by 2d Lieutenant Harold D. Harris. The Marines had stopped to talk with a Nicaraguan civilian living near San Antonio. The farmer assured Harris that not a single rebel lurked in the area, so the patrol pushed on. Five minutes later the enemy struck.

Surprise gave the attackers an initial advantage, but the Marines and Guardia rallied quickly. The lieutenant himself was wounded, but not before his men had built up an effective base of fire. After 22 minutes,:the enemy vanished as quickly as he had come. In addition to Lieutenant Harris, two members of the Guardia were wounded, but the ambush party definitely came out second best; for 3 were killed and possibly as many as 17 wounded.<91>

Sandino's departure for Mexico had deprived the rebels of an inspirational leader. As their zeal waned, the liberators concerned themselves more and more with the difficult business of staying alive. Rather than defeat the "Yanquis," they hoped to elude the Marine patrols, steal what they needed, and somehow keep the cauldron of revolution boiling.

Moncada's Voluntarios were taking the field. For the time being, the danger inherent in this system could be forgotten for General Juan Escamilla, a militant liberal of the Moncada faction, had proved a trustworthy leader. On the last day of February 1929, to the accompaniment of guitars and singing, the volunteers moved into the wilderness. With the 80 Nicaraguans was a Marine patrol of 3 officers, 33 enlisted, and a Navy corpsman under the command of 1st Lieutenant Hanneken. During the first phase of this expedition, 74 days on the trail, there was one casualty, a Nicaraguan wounded in the arm during an encounter with rebels Mar Los Cedros on 27 April. Phase two, which lasted 38 days, also resulted in but a single contact with the enemy.

Although Moncada's Voluntarios gleefully boasted that they alone could save Nicaragua from the rebels, the organization was destined to disappear before the end of the year. Conservative politicians as well as Marine officers remained convinced that these volunteers, men intensely loyal to President Moncada, would, in the event of his defeat at the polls, become his private army. True, the existence of this force allowed a reduction in Marine strength and gave the Nicaraguans themselves a greater role in restoring order to their country, but these same goals could be attained by simply increasing the strength of the Guardia. Reluctantly, Moncada yielded to the advice of the Americans, and in June 1929, further appropriations for the volunteer army were withheld.<92>

In the meantime, the Guardia was having troubles of its own. Shortly after Colonel Douglas C. McDougal assumed command of the Guardia on 11 March 1929, President Moncada began using the guard itself to consolidate his political position.

The embroilment of the Guardia in politics had immediate repercussions--a mutiny. On the morning of 6 October, at Telpaneca, malcontents faked a bandit raid and in the confusion shot and killed Lieutenant Trogler, the commanding officer. Trogler was succeeded by 2d Lieutenant Charles J. Levonski, GN. For a time all went well; but when 2d Lieutenant James C. Rimes arrived at Telpaneca with ten replacements, a second mutiny erupted. On the morning of 21 October, the two lieutenants were arrested. That night the entire command set out for Honduras. Fortunately, the two officers managed to escape with the aid of some of the replacements. In fact, all of Rimes men and some members of the original garrison made their way back to Guardia outposts. Those who escaped to Honduras were jailed for a time, but they were not returned to stand trial.<93>

In spite of its political difficulties, the Guardia was fast developing into a splendid military organization. As more and more Nicaraguans took the field, Marine Corps strength was drastically cut. By 20 August 1929, the last elements of the 11th Regiment were on their way to the United States.<94> Yet the pressure on the enemy was not relaxed. From March, when Colonel McDougal took command, until December, the Guardia took part in 22 actions, lost 3 wounded and 1 killed, while killing 35 rebels, wounding 5, and capturing 6.<95> All in all, their work was most impressive.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the year was the establishment of a road program. For a year, September 1929 to September 1930, the Guardia furnished protection for construction camps as the roads cinched their way across the country-aide. Thanks to this program, an investment of $150,000, many men who might have turned bandit or rebel were given a chance to earn their way. To earn 50 cents per day, 125 known Sandinistas lay down their rifles to go to work on the project at Yali.<96>

The year 1930, brought with it an increase in rebel banditry. Silencio in Neuva Segovia was the center of this new outburst, so on 5 February, patrols from Condega, Telpaneca, and Quilali were ordered to converge on the town. From 28 February, until 4 March, Marines and guardsmen scoured the area, but found no trace of the enemy. The operation dragged on into March, with an increasing number of minor brushes with rebel bands, but the main body of Sandinistas could not be trapped. The Marines simply did not have the necessary mobility. Although aerial supply helped, they were dependent upon pack trains for heavier items of equipment, while the rebels carried as little as they could, relying on the countryside to provide them with food.<97>

Since this ability to live off the land gave the rebels a tremendous advantage, the Marines began devising means to deprive the enemy of food. In May, the time honored policy of reconcentration was tested in the area around Ocotal. With the consent of the President of Nicaragua, the local inhabitants were ordered to leave their farms and bring their property and cattle to those protected by Marine or Guardia detachments. Anyone found roaming the countryside after 1 June would be considered a bandit. On 8 July, the experiment was quietly abandoned.<98>

A few days after reconcentration was first announced, Sandino returned from Mexico once more to take an active part in the fighting. By 19 June, he had gathered a force of about 150 men and fortified a hilltop north of Jinotega. There, Marine aircraft discovered his presence and greeted him with a shower of high explosives. A bomb fragment struck Sandino in the leg and he was forced to retire to the wilds of the Coco Valley to recuperate.

The Marines began thrusting into the rugged mountains lying between the Coco and Bocay Rivers. Between August 1930 and February 1931, three expeditions, each made up of several closely coordinated patrols, probed the area.

Typical of the first offensive was the work of a patrol under Captain George F. Good, Jr. Posted on the left flank of the nine-patrol expedition, he was to strike southeast from the junction of the Pantasma and Coco Rivers. To accomplish this mission, he carved a trail over some of the most rugged terrain in all Nicaragua. Arriving at the base of Pena Blanca mountain, on 20 August, the patrol scaled the rugged northwest slope, a difficult task but one which paid great dividends. When he reached the summit, he was greeted by the placid strumming of guitars. A rebel camp lay a few hundred yards distant. If one of the Guardia had not been spotted by the enemy, the rebel force probably would have been wiped out. As it was, one of them was killed and the rest scattered in a ten-minute fire fight.<99>

Even more successful was Captain Lewis B. Puller, GN. With 2 other officers and 32 men, he attacked a rebel camp at Portreras on 11 September, killing three of the enemy. He also captured a store of weapons and ammunition. For these and other exploits, the indomitable Puller came to be dubbed "The Tiger of the Mountains."<100>

Far from being cowed by the intense patrolling, the rebels gamely fought back. As always, their principal weapon was the ambush. In fact, the year ended with an attack upon a party of telephone linemen repairing a break east of Ocotal. Ten Marines under Sergeant Arthur Palrang were surrounded at a point some 12 miles east of the town. Eight of them were killed; the other two, although wounded, managed to escape.<101>

January 1931 offered promise that the Marines at last would be absolved or responsibility for enforcing the peace in Nicaragua. Early that month, Secretary of State Stimson began urging an increase in the tempo of training for the Guardia Nacional. This organization would be able to assume the entire burden of maintaining order within two years. To meet this goal, an additional 500 men would be recruited, and the Guardia would be relieved of those tasks which could be carried out by local police. In other words, the organization was to throw its entire weight into an offensive against the rebels, while local police protected those places not threatened by the Sandinistas.

When presented with the blunt fact that neither the American people nor the Congress would tolerate an indefinite occupation of his nation, Moncada agreed to cooperate in strengthening both the Guardia and the police force. On 19 February, Stimson proclaimed the determination of the United States to withdraw the Marines as soon as the next Nicaraguan Chief Executive was sworn into office. In the meantime, Marine strength would be drastically reduced until, by 1 June 1931, only an instructional battalion and the aviation units were serving on Nicaraguan soil.

The Monoada government was far from pleased with the arrangement. First of all, the enlarged Guardia would cost money. Second, and far more frightening, was the fact that the revolution was not ended; nor was there any assurance that the Guardia alone could end it. Many patriotic Nicaraguans regretted the move, for they feared that innocent lives would be lost; but nothing could be done. Sooner or later, the Leathernecks had to leave.<102>

No sooner had these diplomatic problems been resolved than the Moncada government found itself face to face with another crisis--a natural disaster. At 1019 on 31 March 1931, the wooden shacks that comprised most of Managua began to tremble. Within three minutes, they lay in ruins, battered to splinters by a dozen earth tremors. Marines stationed at Managua worked with the Guardia in rescuing the injured from wrecked buildings, evacuating casualties, and caring for the homeless. Fortunately, there was water enough in the fire reservoirs to enable the Marines to save what remained of Managua from the flames. Drinking water, however, was scarce; and the spectra of typhoid loomed in everyone's mind.

As it had in the fighting, aviation played a stellar role in relief operations. On the morning of the earthquake, Marine pilots took off from the Managua flight strip to determine the extent of the shock. They discovered that Managua had borne the brunt of the tremor. Because of the damage to the engineering shops, few planes could be kept in the air; but the command was able to provide a campsite for refugees and send rescue parties into the shattered town.

On 1 April, the first plane load of medical supplies touched down on the Managua airstrip. A steady stream of aircraft, most of them carrying food or medicines, arrived throughout the day. In the meantime, the Marines themselves were flying the first of 92 relief and evacuation missions. By 4 April, they would log 88 hours flying time, carrying 129 passengers and 21,196 pounds of freight.<103>

An estimated 2000 Managuans perished in the earthquake and fire. The toll, no doubt, would have been much higher had it not been for the work of the Americans. Checking the fires, restoring order, and caring for the injured were the contributions of the Marines, Guardia, and Army Engineers.

While the world's attention had been riveted upon the tragedy at Managua, the rebels had launched another offensive, this one in eastern Nicaragua.

From a base near Bocay on the Coco River, a band of about 150 rebels led by Pedro Blandon began pushing downstream toward the coast. On 11 April, a Marine-Guardia patrol was ambushed near Logtown, and Captain Harlan Pefley, commander of the Guardia at Puerto Cabezas, was killed. Two days later, with the aid of Marine aircraft, a second patrol located the enemy and attacked, killing Blandon and seven of his men. Blandon's death did not end the threat to eastern Nicapagua, for other rebel columns were drifting into the region.

Especially nervous about the bandit build up was Secretary of State Stimson, who repeatedly urged that the Marines and Guardia concentrate to parry the new thrust. El Gallo was rumored to be the objective of the rebels, so a detachment of Guardia was rushed there from Bluefields. Security of the latter town became the temporary responsibility of the Marines of the USS SACRAMENTO, who were landed there on 18 April. Three days later, 18 Nicaraguan guardsmen were flown from Managua to Puerto Cabezas; and for the first time in weeks, Mr. Stimson could rest easy.<104>

This sudden shuffling of personnel may have discouraged the raiders; at any rate, almost a month passed before the enemy made his move. Pedron Altamirano and some 150 men suddenly materialized at the Neptune Mine on 12 May. Although ragged-looking, the men were heavily armed and well disciplined. On the 15th, the rebels marched back into the interior taking along gold, dynamite, supplies, two new recruits, and one captive.<105>

Fighting continued in the eastern part of the country well into the autumn. Again, Marine aviators rendered outstanding service in forcing the rebels deep into the interior. On 23 July, they roared down upon a rebel encampment at Saclin, killing two of the enemy. During the attack, one plane was hit 16 times by small-arms fire. The pilot, Staff Sergeant Gordon W. Heritage, managed a crash landing; but he had to destroy the plane to prevent the enemy from salvaging its parts. With his observer Corporal Orville B. Simmons, he struck out for the coast. After struggling 40 miles, fording 5 rivers, and wading through trackless swamps, they reached a small village, where they were picked up and returned to Puerto Cabezas.

In November and December, when the rebels began another drive, this one in western Nicaragua, Marine pilots provided the eyes which enabled the Guardia to spy out enemy concentrations. Aerial patrols, low-level attacks, and the transporting of supplies all contributed to the success of the Guardia in scattering the rebels and forcing them to retire northward.<106>




NEXT: 1932




Return to
U.S. Marines in
Nicaragua