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)

Notes:

[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