Eye of the Tiger
Lieutenant 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. 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.
In 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 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.”
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.
In 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)
 These were crudely made grenades made from a cowhide sack filled with stones or scrap metal, with a stick of dynamite in the center.
 Browning Automatic Rifle.
 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.