Marines in Nicaragua, Part IX

El Tigre is out of his cage

The rebel camp was located in an excellent position along a ridge bisecting the trail.   Deciding on a double envelopment maneuver, Puller ordered two-thirds of the company into a frontal assault, while he and a dozen guardias executed a flanking movement.  The bandits thwarted the attack by fleeing on their horses after firing a few rounds. Lieutenant Puller pursued the band, eventually forcing the bandits to abandon their mounts in order to make better time over difficult terrain.  Puller called off the chase at nightfall. A large quantity of equipment was found in the area of the rebel camp, including fifty-two animals, two rifles, and food rations.  Puller burned anything that could not be carried back to his base, returning there on 21 August.  For their gallantry under fire, Colonel McDougal recommended Puller and Lee for the Navy Cross.

Puller and Lee continued offensive operations into September.  A three-day patrol departed Jinotega on 28 August, and within nine-hours of their return, set out again for a nine-hour sortie.  Puller and Lee both led small patrols two nights later, which were likely security ambushes just outside the town.

On 5th September, Puller and Lee departed Jinotega with thirty-five men, and joined up with another twenty-three guardias from Corinto Finca.  Their initial destination was in the region of Mt. Guapinol.  In the absence of any sign of bandits, Puller ordered Lee and part of his men back to base.  Puller continued on with 35 guardias heading southeast toward Río Gusanero.

Puller and his men discovered a well-used path on 10 September and followed it.  The next morning, Puller sighted a rebel camp.  Since the terrain prohibited any off-track movement, Puller ordered an immediate assault.  Surprised rebels scattered, of course, but not before guardias mortally wounded three.  One rebel survived long enough to inform Puller that Sandino had been there a week before.  Puller’s patrol took possession of the normal assortment of weapons; documents confirmed the earlier presence of Sandino.  Due to shortage of rations, Puller decided to return to Jinotega.  Once resupplied, Puller and his company returned to the field for another 30 days.

A new central area commander arrived in mid-October; a seasoned veteran by the name of Julian C. Smith[1].  Smith had a few “new” ideas about the Nicaraguan campaign.  He instructed his subordinates, “Action promptly initiated and rapidly carried through will invariably produce better results under present conditions than plans requiring elaborate preparations and considerable time.”  Smith placed less emphasis on combat patrols, and greater importance on frequent police patrols of fewer men.  He wanted these patrols to safeguard the fincas and rural population.  By protecting the people from rebel depredations, he felt he could win the hearts and minds of the civilian population.  Under these circumstances, there was nowhere the rebels could hide.  Smith reduced Company M from 35 men to 25 and armed them with two BARs, three Thompsons, and six grenade launchers mounted on Springfield Rifles.  The standard rifle continued to be the Krag.

On 6 November, a force of 150 rebels attacked the ten-man garrison at Matiguás.  Held off throughout the night, the rebels abandoned their attack at next light when they ran out of ammunition.  Lieutenant Puller and Lee mustered twenty-one men to search for the rebels, but had no luck in discovering where they had gone.  They did find the trail of about 30 or so rebels who had been terrorizing the people of San Isabel, closing with them on 19 November.  A running gunfight ensued in which several of the rebels were wounded, but made good their escape[2].

On 20 November, Puller and his men reported in to Corinto Finca where they were resupplied with fresh pack animals and supplies.  They left on the same day with orders to check out the report of rebel concentrations commanded by El Patron near Mount Guapinol.  Heavy rain and muddy trails slowed Puller’s progress, but did not deter him.  On 25 November, Puller’s patrol encountered a bandit trail and decided to follow it.  The Guardia eventually sighted about ten rebels resting among some fallen trees.  The moment Puller’s men opened fire, the rebels took off running.  About 1,000 yards further on, Puller discovered a rebel camp consisting of four buildings with well-constructed log barriers in the front, and a hundred-foot cliff in the rear.  The forty or so rebels fought briefly before throwing their belongings (and their wounded) into the ravine, and then climbed down into it themselves using robes and ladders.  These were pulled down after them, preventing Puller and his men from following.  Eventually, one of the Guardia found another way into the gully, which the patrol immediately advanced.  At the bottom of the draw, Puller found two dead bandits and some supplies.  Captured documents also revealed that Puller’s patrol had killed a minor chief during an earlier engagement.  Puller returned to his base on 27 November.

In December, Colonel Smith congratulated Puller and his company for having displayed the qualities of courage, persistence, physical endurance, and patience.  At this small ceremony, Lewis B. Puller received his first Navy Cross medal and was granted a few weeks of R&R.

With Puller on leave, command of the company fell to Guardia Second Lieutenant (Gunnery Sergeant) Lee, who initiated aggressive patrolling on the 12th, 15th, and 19th of December.  Lee’s patrol resulted in four bandits KIA, but Company M had lost its first battle casualty: a private was killed at the engagement at Vencedora —the most severe fight Company M had experienced up to that time.

At Vencedora, Lee and his patrol aggressively attacked a bandit group numbering around two-hundred.  Lee expected the rebels to scatter, as they had always done before, but this time they decided to dance.  The rebel force was buoyed by two Lewis guns and four Thompsons, from which the fire was so intense that it forced Lee to break off their assault and take cover.  The fight lasted for thirty minutes, during which the rebels attempted to employ an envelopment of the Guardia Patrol.  After attacking Lee’s patrol, the rebels quickly retired.  After their second withdrawal, Lee began receiving fire from his flank.  Lee began to consider withdrawal himself in order to avoid being overwhelmed by this superior force.  In desperation, Lee rallied his men and led a new assault on the enemy’s forward position, which caused the rebels to flee the battle site.

At the end of 1930, the war in Nicaragua was beginning to take on a new and deadlier character.

(To be Continued)


[1] Smith served in the Marines from 1909 to 1946, retiring as a lieutenant general.  Serving for more than 37 years, Smith participated in the battles of Veracruz, occupation of Nicaragua, and in World War II commanded the Marines at Tarawa and Peleliu.

[2] In his book Chesty, Colonel Jon Hoffman explained the difficulty of operating in the jungles of Nicaragua.  At one point, Puller’s company was well-concealed at an ambush site along the trail.  Suddenly, the manager of a local finca walked up to where Puller was concealed and began to engage him in conversation about where Puller might find the rebels.  The man knew exactly where to find Puller, which educated Puller to the fact that the enemy was always well-informed about Guardia Nacional operations.  Captured letters from Sandino warned the elements of his army of pending Guardia operations, telling them when the operations would commence and what areas the rebel forces should avoid.  Apparently, local telegraph operators were one source of Sandino’s expanded intelligence network.


Marines in Nicaragua, Part VIII

Eye of the Tiger

Puller 1930Lieutenant Puller’s patrol came under fire again on 6 June while moving toward the village of Los Cedros.  This time, bandits occupied the top of a hill some 175 yards above the trail.  Puller and his men immediately returned fire, but with barely a pause, Puller charged the hill rallying his men to join him in the assault.  The bandits maintained steady fire as the patrol advanced and began tossing down dynamite bombs[1].  Lee distinguished himself by his physical prowess and courage; he and a private dodged dynamite explosions while making a beeline for the top of the hill.  Most of the bandits began their withdrawal, but the leader who remained was shortly shot and killed by Lee.  Discovering seven bodies in the camp, Puller concluded that rather than a formal ambush site, the bandits were in camp and surprised by the arrival of Puller’s patrol. Puller was also able to obtain valuable intelligence about the insurgency —letters from Altamirano outlining his strategy in opposing the Guardia.  It was a fruitful patrol.

On 21 June, Puller’s unit joined another patrol led by Major Webb.  Webb intended to investigate a bandit camp reportedly bombed by Marine aircraft.  The counter-insurgency group arrived at the scene on the following afternoon, where they discovered one dead rebel.  The next morning, hoping to cover more territory, Webb divided his force.  In two days, however, Webb withdrew his patrol due to casualties from fever, foot soreness, and because he was short on rations.

After joining up with Lieutenant M. K. Chenoweth’s 30-man patrol, Puller and Lee left Jinotega for Santa Fe.  There, Puller picked up an additional fifteen guardias.  After five days in the field, Puller moved his men to Yali, where he could check-in with the area commander via telegraph.  Colonel Wynn informed Puller that Marine aircraft had been looking for him for two days to inform him that he was being assigned an expanded patrol area.  Puller’s enlarged group operated for nearly two additional weeks.  Puller adopted a new strategy: he divided his expanded patrol into two groups, one following another at some distance hoping to surprise more bandits.  The patrol ended on 12 July having killed only two bandits —the only bad-guys discovered for the entire month.

Marine TransportIn his after-action report, Lieutenant Puller opined that the Guardia encountered so few contacts because their rate of march was far too slow.  This was due to the fact that most patrols took with them mule-trains, which confined Guardia patrols to well-established trails.  In contrast, Company M officers and troops walked and carried their rations and supplies in backpacks.  In Puller’s view, spare uniforms and rain-gear amounted to excessive baggage.

“After becoming hardened, a foot patrol can average 25-miles per day, whereas a patrol with a baggage train can only achieve 18 miles, and this containing them to fixed trails.  On one day, Company M marched 36-miles without undue hardship to either the officers or the Guardia.  When I say a foot-patrol can average 25-miles per day, I mean for a period of 30 days with a lay-over of not more than one day each week.  Company M has only had one day lay-over in the past 31 days, and no officer or Guardia was mounted; on the afternoon of the 31st day, we marched 21 miles in only four hours and thirty minutes.”

Puller also favored the BAR[2] over the Thompson because the BAR had a longer effective range of fire.  Moreover, he believed that some patrol members should wear civilian clothing in order to facilitate combat reconnaissance.  Furthermore, jungle vegetation rendered binoculars worthless —so why carry the extra weight?  Eventually, senior Guardia offers embraced Puller’s suggestions: Colonel Wynn noted, “The only successful offensive operations have been by small, mobile patrols capable of living off the countryside and following the bandits wherever they have been able to go[3].”

Colonel Wynn concluded that Lieutenant Puller was perfectly suited for independent style warfare.  “He was probably the bravest man I ever knew.  His was cool courage.  About the only way to contact the enemy [in Nicaragua] was to let them ambush him [Puller].  He would go anywhere without support, knowing that if he got into a jam he had to get himself and his men out.  He not only never hesitated, he invited that kind of work.”

On 21 July, acting on information that a wounded bandit chief and a few men were hiding in the mountains a few miles north of San Antonio, Puller’s patrol climbed toward its summit through dense jungle vegetation and suddenly stumbled into the bandit camp.  Alerted by the sound of men moving through the brush, the bandits rushed forward shooting.  When Puller’s men returned fire, the bandits withdrew.  The contact lasted only about five minutes with Puller’s patrol firing less than two-hundred rounds —resulting in no casualties on either side. Nevertheless, the patrol recovered six rifles, a horse, a mule, rations, and equipment.  At the end of the engagement, Puller continued north toward Mount Guapinol.  In this phase, only one bandit was spotted and killed; before he died, the man informed Puller that El Tigre was quite effective keeping the Sandinistas on the run.

Nicaragua jungleIn early August, Puller was sent to track down a bandit group operating south of Jinotega.  Puller kept his patrol on the move for five days, slowly circling their way north to Corinto Finca.  There, Puller received orders to proceed to Rio Tuma.  On the evening of the 15th an informant told them that eighty mounted men had crossed the river two days prior, heading north.

In spite of their considerable head-start, or perhaps because of it, the bandit group went into camp on 17 August to rest their animals.  On the next day, the bandits ambushed a Guardia patrol, and then ran into another while making their escape.  Luck was not with this group because a Marine air patrol located the group and bombed them.  Puller, meanwhile, maintained his hard pace along the hilly jungle paths.  Rain and mud were a nuisance, but these conditions did not stop Puller’s company.  Then, late in the afternoon of 19 August, Puller closed with the bandit group.

(To be continued)


[1] These were crudely made grenades made from a cowhide sack filled with stones or scrap metal, with a stick of dynamite in the center.

[2] Browning Automatic Rifle.

[3] Despite the Brigade Commander’s guidance to “employ heavily armed patrols, moving secretly at night, and resorting to ambushes in order to obtain surprise against outlaws during the daytime,” Marine and Guardia units operated almost exclusively during the day and camped at night.  Nearly all contacts occurred during daylight hours; rebels almost always initiated their attacks at night.  It was a workable solution in Nicaragua, but at no time did the Nicaragua military effort experience the knockout blows it had inflicted upon Haitian bandits.

Marines in Nicaragua, Part VII

The story of the Tiger continues …

While the Nicaraguan rebels remained elusive, Guardia Nacional was still in its development stage.  Only two of the Guardia were killed between October 1928 through the end of September 1929, but in that same period, 47 died from causes other than combat, and 480 deserted.  Under such circumstances as these, it was nigh impossible to withdraw American Marines from Nicaragua.

Puller 1929When Lieutenant Puller wasn’t leading combat patrols, he fulfilled the duties of battalion quartermaster.  This was not his favorite assignment, but he did learn to appreciate the importance of logistical support to forward units —a lesson he carried with him into future conflicts.  (Shown right, Puller with Company M, Guardia Nacional).

In January 1930, Puller led three patrols … one of these sent in response to a report of Padron’s location.  It turned out to be a false rumor, however, and all Puller ended up with was a bull loaded down with bags of salt, covered over with a Marine Corps-issue poncho.  Marines found it frustrating to go into the field for days at a time and come up empty-handed; during all of 1929, the Guardia had only engaged 26 battles —and most of these were minor incidents.

In February 1930, Puller’s commander ordered him to conduct a sweep of the territory north of Jinotega, with specific instructions to check for bandit camps on Mount Kilande.  On 16th February Puller’s patrol moved out from the village of San Antonio at 0800; he organized his force into three sections (point, main body, and rear guard) with an officer commanding each of these.  Puller stationed himself on point with eight other men.

Thirty well-concealed bandits waited for the Guardia patrol some three miles outside the village; the initial fire came from a Lewis gun[1], and as it opened up, patrol members hit the deck and returned fire with Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs).  The Lewis gun soon went silent, but rifle bullets continued to pepper the column; pissed, Puller suddenly stood up in the hail of bullets and ordered a charge toward the bandit’s positions.  Surprised by such aggressive behavior, the bandits executed a speedy withdrawal.  Puller’s patrol pursued the bandits, but he was unable to regain contact.  The entire episode lasted barely twelve minutes … which is a bit longer than average for most fire fights.

The next day, Puller determined that the route to Mt. Kilande would take him through heavy foliage without the benefit of a foot path.  He would need time to cut one, so after making a foray across the Coco River, and being aware that several of his men had worn out their shoes, Puller determined to head back to his base.  On the return march, the patrol discovered the disinterred remains of a member of the Guardia killed earlier; bandits had mutilated the corpse and hung it from a tree.  Thereafter, Guardia members had no great respect for Nicaraguan bandits.

Returning to camp, Puller reflected on the firefight and concluded that his Nicaraguan Guardia contingent were seriously lacking in marksmanship skills —a deficiency he was committed to correct.

Morale was not high among the Nicaraguan Guardia; over the next several months, Marines experienced increased violence directed toward them by their Nicaraguan subordinates; several Marines were assassinated.

After the arrival of the new Battalion Commander (Colonel C. A. Wynn) and Executive Officer (Major James W. Webb) in May 1930, Lieutenant Puller received his first combat command.  He was to take over the Guardia’s newly created and only dedicated field force, designated Company M (for Mobile).  Colonel Wynn did not realize it at the time, but by assigning Puller to command this company, he had helped to create a Marine Corps combat legend.  Initially, however, the company’s complement consisted of only two officers and 36 men; it would take some time to get the company up to strength.

Puller-Lee 001Puller’s assistant (Company XO) was an athletic Marine by the name of Gunnery Sergeant William A. Lee (serving temporarily as a Guardia second lieutenant).  (Shown right, Lieutenant Puller (with pipe) is standing center left, Lee is standing center right).  Having enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1918, Lee (like Puller) missed participating in the Great War.  In 1930, Lee was 30-years old.  Before joining the Corps, he had learned field craft from Cherokee Indians in North Carolina.  His skill-set included the ability to track man or beast through dense jungle, and maintain a fast route of march with a heavy load on his back.  In a short time, Nicaraguan bandits would learn to fear Lee as much as they feared El Tigre.

Puller wasted no time initiating aggressive patrols; his initial patrol encompassed a five-day sweep in an easterly-northeast direction.  Each night the Marines/Guardia set up camp inside a local village.  On the evening of 4 June, Puller and his men were preparing rations for their elongated patrol into the uninhabited area of Mount Kilande when they heard several shots from north of the village.  Puller sent 13 men to investigate and within short order, a firefight ensued, which lasted less than a full minute; one bandit was killed.  Puller and Lee became curious about the dead man’ weapons: he was armed a relatively new Springfield rifle, a Colt revolver, and he had plenty of ammunition for both.

(To be continued next week)


[1] The Lewis Gun was a World War I-era light machine gun of US design, perfected and mass produced in the United Kingdom.  Its inventor was Colonel Isaac Newton Lewis, US Army in 1911.  When the US military failed to adopt his machine gun, Lewis resigned his commission and moved to Belgium, where he established the Armes Automatique Lewis Company.

Marines in Nicaragua, Part VI

(El Tigre goes to War—Again)

Over a period of nearly four decades active service, Lewis B. Puller became a legend in the U. S. Marine Corps.  His comparatively short stature and barrel chest resulted in him gaining the nom de guerre “Chesty.”  Over the span of his long career, Chesty Puller became one of the most highly decorated officers in the United States.  He was awarded five (5) Navy Cross medals and the Army’s equivalent, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Puller 1924Not long after the much-publicized Battle of Belleau Wood in July 1918, a young Lewy Puller enlisted in the Marines Corps, attending boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina.  The war was still on, and the Marine Corps was expanding.  After graduating from boot camp, Puller attended NCO School, and after that, Officer’s Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia.  World War I ended quite suddenly on 11 November 1918 and within a short time the Marines determined that they didn’t need as many officers as originally thought.  A very disappointed Second Lieutenant Puller had two options: he could accept his discharge from the Marine Corps Reserve and go home, or he could reenlist in the Marines and serve as an enlisted man.

It was thus that Corporal Puller began his long career as a battle-tested Marine and a combat leader.  Puller would spend nearly ten years in the Marines before finally arriving in Nicaragua.  Included in that time was service in Haiti as a lieutenant of the Gendarmerie d’Haiti[1].  While in Haiti, Puller participated in 40 combat engagements against the Caco rebels.  By the time he arrived in Nicaragua as a Marine Corps Second Lieutenant, Puller had already become a hardened combat veteran and had earned for himself the reputation of a man consistently demonstrated courage and coolness under fire.

Puller arrived in Nicaragua in early December 1928; he was surprised (perhaps disappointed would be a more appropriate word) to learn that he would be assigned the Personnel Officer at Guardia headquarters.  It wasn’t his first staff assignment, of course, as Puller previously served as Adjutant in Haiti and at the Norfolk Naval Base —what he wanted, however, was a combat assignment.

Nevertheless, Guardia headquarters needed a good personnel officer because in one six-month period in 1928, the Marine Corps transferred out 31 NCOs judged to be unsuitable for “detached” duties.  Personnel turbulence detracts from unit efficiency and esprit-de-corps, and so too did the bureaucratic practices of the Guardia Nacional: all post-operational combat reports had to be filed in quadruplicate.  To Puller, it seemed as if the Marines were obsessed with paperwork —a notion he would carry with him into the future— but archived records did allow the Marine Corps to develop their Small Wars Manual in years to come.  Whatever Puller thought about his staff assignment, he performed his duties to the best of his ability and was rated very high by the Director (jefe) of the Guardia Nacional.

Within only a few months, Puller took command of the Guardia garrison at Corinto, the major seaport on the West Coast of Nicaragua.  Policing a large town was no simple task, especially considering that the civil populace was engaged in civil war.  Puller did well enough to earn his promotion to Marine Corps First Lieutenant in May 1929; he was advanced in rank to Guardia Captain almost at the same time.  As a captain, he was too senior to command such a small garrison force as that at Corinto, so Puller was ordered back to Managua to command the Guard Force at the national penitentiary.  He served in this post for about one-week before receiving another set of orders, this time assigning him to the First Battalion at Jinotega.

Altamirano 001Ultimately, Puller’s responsibility would include both Jinotega and Matagalpa … the latter being a small city at the juncture of two rivers.  The principal economic activities in this region included cattle raising and coffee growing.  Nicaraguan ranches were called fincas.  Marine aviators maintained an airstrip four-miles to the north.  To the west was the Northern Area, which included Nueva Segovia and Esteli.  It was the principal operating area of Augusto César Sandino and his compadres … which included Pedro Altamirano (called Pedrón) (shown left) —one of the most powerful and ruthless Sandinista generals.  Even in Nicaragua, where the execution of opponents was ritualized, the behavior of Pedrón was considered particularly despicable.  He had sufficient guile to avoid battle when he did not have the upper hand, was an expert in using Nicaragua’s jungle to his own advantage, and whenever he did decide to fight, he was a brutal adversary.

Puller’s first operation (July) involved a force of four patrols (5 officers, 80 troops).  Moving northward on a parallel course, the patrols swept the area for bandits.  They saw no significant action in the eleven days in the field, their only success being a bandit storehouse, which they set afire.  The following month, sixty bandits launched a night raid on the town of Jicaro; there were several waves, but each one was met with devastating automatic weapons fire.  When the bandits finally withdrew, the Guardia pursued them for several hours, but no trace of the enemy or their casualties were found.

(To be continued next week)


[1] Marine Corps NCOs received officer’s commissions in the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, enabling these Marines to assume command of Haitian platoons and companies.  Marine officers (Captains and Majors) served in a similar capacity, receiving appointments to senior officer Gendarmerie positions

Marines in Nicaragua, Part V

La Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua was the official police force and national guard of the Republic of Nicaragua.  It was an organization entirely distinct from the Marine Brigade, even though Marine Corps officers and NCOs served as Guardia officers.  One division of the Guardia (a company strength unit) was assigned to each of Nicaragua’s political departments.  Two or more towns might be administered as sub-divisions (perhaps a platoon), and each village of any import would have a post, manned by a squad detachment.

Creation of the Guardia was an ambitious undertaking —particularly since the work had to be completed in advance of the 1928 elections.  Colonel Robert Y. Rhea (shown left) and his successor, Colonel Elias Root Beadle worked tirelessly to ensure that the Guardia would be able to assume its responsibilities for maintaining law and order.

While the Guardia was being formed, an uneasy peace settled over Nicaragua.  The liberal army disintegrated into small difficult to locate bands of thugs.  Even Marine Corps observation aircraft had its limitations in locating and fixing the position of rebel bands.  It was also convenient for these small groups to slip over the Honduran border.

Along the northern border lie the departments of Neuva Segovia, Esteli, Jinotega, and Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Caribbean coast.  These were sparsely populated areas of coffee plantations, a few mines, and family-sized farms.  In peaceable times (if any could remember any of those), these remote areas were roughly equivalent to wild-west America, but during revolutionary times it became a sanctuary for the worst of Nicaragua’s bandits.  Some of these cut-throats had been incorporated into General Jose Maria Moncada’s Liberal Army.  None of these people were likely to surrender their weapons —it was their only source of income.

One of these bandit leaders was a man named Francisco Sequeira—known among his own kind as General Cabulla.  Sequeira was involved in the murders of Captain Richard B. Buchanan and Private Marvin A. Jackson[1].  General Cabulla made the greatest mistake of his life when he pulled a revolver on Captain William P. Richards, one of the most formidable shots in the Marine Corps.  Cabulla’s next job, as it turned out, a permanent assignment, was pushing up daisy’s.

Nevertheless, as one of this filth was killed, another took his place.  Another scoundrel was Pedro Salgado, whose power base was a small village called Somoto in Neuva Segovia.  Salgado was an illiterate Indian and somewhat typical of the jungle bandits: fat, barefoot, and nearly fifty years of age.  Yet another was a one-time coffee plantation laborer called Centeno … now elevated to the position of a village chieftain-bandit who never wandered far from his home.  And then we had Jose Diaz, was a veritable intellectual in a field of illiterate swine, a man who was cruel beyond our darkest imaginations.  These men were thoroughly bad actors, but none could compare to the most fearsome of all: Augusto Cesar Sandino (shown right).

As Brigadier General Logan Feland (shown below) embarked upon an aggressive campaign to run Sandino into the ground, the US State Department pressed forward with its program of reconstituting a new national guard.

At the top of General Feland’s list of places to pacify was the very place to which Sandino had retreated: the inaccessible mountain region of Nuevo Segovia.  The principal city of this area was called Ocotal, and the local government jefe[2], a man known as Arnoldo Ramirez, stated that he would not enter that town unless or until he was provided escort by U. S. Marines.  Feland dispatched a 50-man patrol under the command of Major Harold Pierce.  Pierce was ordered to escort Ramirez into Ocotal, peaceably disarm everyone, and secure information that will facilitate the coming supervision of elections.  Major Pierce was to conciliate with firmness, tranquilize without force of arms, avoid combat if possible, and conduct himself with dignity.

“General” Sandino issued the first of his many manifestos from San Albino.  He declared that the American Marines had not come to provide stability to the people, but rather to murder them in their own lands.  What Sandino wanted most was a fight with American Marines —and who are the Marines to deny anyone this opportunity?

Located at the center of Nueva Segovia, Ocotal presented extreme danger to the Marines; it didn’t take long for them to observe strange behavior among the local people —a comportment so odd that the Marines began to suspect they were surrounded by the enemy (called Sandinistas).  Captain Gilbert Hatfield, commanding Marines inside the town, suspected the village priest of providing intelligence to General Sandino.  Hatfield stationed his 39 Marines inside the town hall, while Captain Grover Darnell commanded an additional 48 Guardia Nacional of the 1st Company, stationed across the plaza.

The fact was, the Marines were surrounded: Sandino had placed 60 of his insurgents throughout the town.  They were armed with rifles, machineguns, and dynamite stolen from a nearby mine.  Sandino ordered these men to infiltrate the town and, working with collaborators, attack the buildings where the Marines and La Guardia were posted.

Octotal GarrisonAt 0100 hours on 16 July 1927, an alert Marine sentry noticed movement on the main street leading into the town plaza.  His challenge was met with rifle fire.  The jig being up, Sandino’s men charged into battle shouting such nonsense as “death to Yanquis.”  Accurate Marine fire took its toll; one well-aimed shot ended the life of Sandinista lieutenant Rufio Marin.  His death brought a temporary halt to the rebel onslaught, but having re-grouped, enemy fire continued into the next afternoon.  (Shown left, US Marine garrison at Octal displays captured Sandinista flag).

Just after 14:30 the following afternoon, Major Rose Rowell led an air assault over the city.  Captain Hatfield placed panels to communicate with the Marine aviators as to the location of the guerillas.  Diving from 1,500 feet, Marine airmen leveled off around 300 feet to deliver their bombs; once the plane had dropped its munitions, machine gunners delivered suppressive fire against the insurgents.  The delivery of high explosives caused the rebels to scatter and subsequent sounds of nearby aircraft caused a lot of twitching among the Sandinistas.  Out of ammunition, Major Rose returned to Managua and filed this report: “Since the enemy had not been subjected to any form of bombing attacks, they had no fear of us; we were able to inflict damage that was out of proportion to what they might have suffered had they bothered to take cover.”

Despite the success of the Marine defense, Sandino knew his terrain and made good use of the inaccessibility of the surrounding mountains and the long, unguarded border with Honduras.  There were no roads, and no navigable streams.  Moreover, Sandino correctly assumed that Marine reinforcements were five days away.  The Marines managed to retain Ocotal, but Sandino knew he was in a strong position.

Rear Admiral Latimer, who wanted a more aggressive land campaign, ordered Feland to clean out Nueva Segovia and force Sandino into a retreat into Honduras.  On 15 July 1927, Major Oliver Floyd led a Marine company, reinforced by La Guardia troops, totaling 225 men, into the Nicaraguan jungle.  Described as a patrol in force, the Marines left their base at Esteli and headed toward an abandoned mine at San Albino.  Sandino could not have been happier to learn of this.

USMC PatrolFloyd’s task was challenging, for beyond the tactical concours was the logistical problems of securing sufficient pack animals, bull carts, and supplies to sustain his men over a long period of time.  As Floyd went about solving these problems, Sandino’s elaborate spy network kept him appraised of the Marine’s progress; this knowledge gave the rebel general sufficient time to prepare well-laid ambuscades.  If the Marines wanted to reach him, Sandino reasoned, they would have to go through hell before arriving at San Albino.

After reinforcing the Marines at Ocotal, Floyd’s company was now fifty men short of its desirable strength.  He had already violated one important tenet of war: he’d divided his forces.  The native population, caught between these two opposing forces, fled into the jungle to save themselves.  The first ambush occurred at San Fernando where a band of forty Sandinistas opened fire on the Marines as they approached the town.  In a furious fight, the Marines fought their way through the town and forced the rebels into a head-long retreat.  The battle that Sandino wanted ended with one wounded Marine and seventeen dead rebels.

On 12 August 1927, Major Floyd ordered First Lieutenant George J. O’Shea to lead a 21-man patrol into Jicaro and along the trail to a place called Quilali.  During the afternoon of 17 August, while still about five miles from their objective, Marines spotted a rifleman moving along the trail.  Additional guerrillas were flushed from a house some 300 meters distant.  As it was getting late in the day, O’Shea decided to bivouac two miles outside Quilali.  Early the next morning, several rebels were spotted prowling the Marine perimeter; an alert sentry drove them off.  O’Shea led his Marines into the town, but his approach was cautious.  Just inside the town, Marines espied four natives, each carrying a rifle, and each leading a pack mule.  The Marines fired at the natives, who immediately cut loose their packs and fled with their mules into the surrounding wood.  The abandon packs revealed supplies being sent to Sandino.  A search of now-deserted houses disclosed copies of Sandino’s latest manifesto.

Lieutenant O’Shea’s patrol returned to Jicaro on 3 September.  All along the route, farm houses lay empty and there were no men to be found in the entire region.  This suggested to the Marines that rebels were massing in the region of Quilali … O’Shea was personally convinced that Sandino might be found within a jungle fortress.

As previously alluded to, Sandino was not a stupid man.  He had instituted a rather elaborate intelligence gathering network, and a counter-intelligence arrangement as well.  When 2nd Brigade intelligence officers began to receive reports of a rebel redoubt somewhere in Nueva Segovia, one that served as Sandino’s main base of operations, Feland ordered Colonel Louis M. Gulick (Commanding Officer, 5th Marines) to intensify his combat patrols in this region.  Regimental planners began to refer to this area as El Chipote, a fortress that became a Marine fixation.

El Chipote didn’t exist; it was a ruse by Sandino to attract the Marines into the deep jungle, where Sandino and his followers could deal with them.  Consequently, Marine combat patrols, who were seemingly “going through the motions,” suddenly began to experience a surge in enemy ambushes.  Marine casualties began to mount.

On 18 September, 200 Sandinistas gathered at the outskirts of Telpaneca.  Stationed inside the town were 20 Marines and 25 members of La Guardia Nacional, First Lieutenant Herbert S. Keimling, commanding.  At 0100 on 19 September, the Sandinistas tossed dynamite toward the rear of the Marine quarters; Marines were scrambling into their uniforms when the rebels opened fire.  Two groups of rebels assaulted the Marines, but they were repulsed.  Marines and national guard held firm despite their initial surprise.  A dense fog began to lift around 0230, and the enemy began their withdrawal soon after.  By dawn, all was quiet.  Friendly casualties were two Marines killed, and one guard seriously wounded.  Lieutenant Keimling estimated 25 rebels were killed and twice that number wounded in the fight.

Failure to pacify the interior was not only vexing to the Marines, it also served to illustrate what the future would look like to members of La Guardia once the United States withdrew their Marines.

With the arrival of the 11th Marines in January 1928, Marine manpower increased by 5,000 troops; it was the largest deployment of Marines since World War I.  This additional strength enabled the Marines to initiate offensive operations against Sandino, the effect of which provided better security for election workers.  General Feland ordered the Colonel Robert Dunlap, commanding the 11th Marines, to push into the heart of Nuevo Segovia.  He was ordered to pacify this region before the national elections.

More than 900 American servicemen participated in monitoring the Nicaraguan elections of 1928 with troops provided by the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.  An American military officer was appointed overall responsibility for each of Nicaragua’s thirteen election regions; there were nearly 450 polling stations to guard, not only from the standpoint of security, but also to prevent fraudulent voting[3].  Voting officials required everyone who cast a vote to dip their fingers into a bottle of red ink.  In this way, US officials could certify fair and honest elections.  More than 133,000 citizens cast their votes, an increase of 30,000 from the elections of 1924.  The winner was liberal candidate Jose Maria Moncada.

Depending upon who you read or what you are prepared to believe, an enlarged Marine presence began to pay off by the Spring of 1929.  The fact is, Augusto Sandino remained elusive and the Marines were never able to completely pacify Nicaragua’s interior.  Nevertheless, guerrilla activity did fall off and it was now possible for the United States to declare victory and begin withdrawing from Nicaraguan towns.  The Marines were replaced by a reinvigorated national guard, but this transition was no cake-walk[4].

In the summer of 1929, Colonel Calvin B. Matthews arrived to assume command of the National Guard.  By this time, the Guard consisted of 267 officers and 2,240 enlisted men.  One year later, the Marine led guard forces were aggressively patrolling the country’s interior —the purpose of which to keep the insurgents off-balance.  Marine Corps guard commanders included such men as Captain Evans Carlson[5], and First Lieutenants Lewis B. Puller[6] and Edward A. Craig[7].

(Next Week: El Tigre goes to Nicaragua)


[1] Both Marine were posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

[2] Meaning local chief.

[3] Voting fraud, similar to what is going on inside the Democratic Party today.

[4] Between 1927 and mid-1932, there were no fewer than ten La Guardia mutinies.  Five US Marines, serving as guard officers, were assassinated.

[5] Achieved World War II fame while commanding Carlson’s Raiders.

[6] Respectfully referred to as Chesty Puller, Lewis B. Puller served with distinction in Haiti, Nicaragua, during World War II while commanding the 1st and 7th Marine Regiment, and while commanding the 1st Marines during the Korean War at a place called the Chosin Reservoir.  He was awarded five Navy Cross medals.  Because of the ferocity of his attacks against guerrilla forces in Nicaragua, Puller’s guardsmen called him El Tigre.

[7] Edward A. Craig commanded the 1st Marine Brigade at the Pusan Perimeter, South Korea, 1950.