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.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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