Terror of the Bandits, Tiger of the Mountain
At the end of 1930, the Sandinistas were fighting smarter, and harder. They were better armed. On 31 December, a patrol of ten Marines were detailed to check the telegraph lines north of Ocotal when they walked into an ambush of an estimated 100 rebels. After an hour of fighting, the Sandinistas withdrew leaving eight dead Marines along the trail; the remaining two were seriously wounded. On the next day, a Central Area patrol struck a large rebel force behind a stone wall and were unable to dislodge them until reinforcements arrived. That night, rebels employed machine guns to fire on Ocotal from long-range.
1931 was shaping up to be a bad year for the Guardia Nacional, which was still trying to establish itself as a national force. At the end of 1930, from a total strength of 2,200 men, the Guardia lost 12 men killed in action; 200 more were sent to prison for various crimes, and 323 deserted. Colonel Julian Smith, a proponent of four-man patrols, was stymied about what to do. The small sized patrols were completely ineffective against large bandit groups. He requested additional men, more automatic weapons, arguing that the Guardia in its present configuration could not sustain a war of attrition against significantly larger forces.
Lieutenant Puller briefly rejoined Company M in January and immediately took to the field. Being almost constantly on patrol through mid-month, his roving patrols made intensive efforts to establish contact with rebel forces. He made not a single contact during this period. Part of the reason for this was that the Sandinistas had shifted their activities to the northern area. There were 13 separate engagements in the northern area, only five in the Central region. Through February and March, the Central Area established enemy contact on but two occasions; in the same period, the northern region experienced seventeen firefights.
Puller was pulled from the field in February; he had incurred severe skin ulcers on both legs. He was on light duty for over a month while undergoing medical treatment. In spite of this debilitation, which Gunnery Sergeant Lee described as “bad,” Puller continued to work as a staff officer and supernumerary. He supervised escort missions to the aviation field outside of Jinotega, or led half-way patrols to nearby outposts to transfer personnel or deliver supplies.
On 31 March, Managua experienced a significant earthquake. Within two minutes, the entire city was devastated. In the aftermath, fires broke out and raged through the rubble for several days. The Marine Brigade joined the Guardia in a massive rescue effort: fighting fires, providing medical treatment to the injured, digging out trapped Nicaraguans, and feeding the homeless. Of the city’s 35,000 inhabitants, ten percent were injured, another five percent were killed outright or later died of injuries.
Puller was detached from the Central Area on 2 April to help convey relief supplies into the capital city from Jinotega; he remained in the city until 20 April leading the graves registration effort. Two weeks later, Puller was back in Jinotega. He was assigned one last patrol toward Poteca, formerly the stronghold of Captain Merritt Edson and his Coco River Patrol. The withdrawal of Marines without Guardia replacements had left this area unprotected and available intelligence suggested that Sandino might be located in this region. Puller discovered that it had been so long since patrols operated in this area that the trails were once more overgrown with vegetation.
Puller’s patrol reached the Rio Cua on 9 May and then proceeded southeast along its banks. At mid-morning, four bandits appeared in canoes near a bend in the river. The opposing efforts spotted each other at about the same time, but quick reaction among the Guardia resulted in two rebel deaths. The remaining two escaped. Having captured the canoes and two weapons, Puller noted the absence of food and surmised that a bandit camp must be nearby. Puller continued his march up the river to the mouth of the Rio Kilande, where his point man discovered a large abandoned bandit camp. Company M torched nine buildings and a large quantity of supplies and equipment, including several pole-climbing kits, which Puller guessed had been taken from the Marine patrol the previous December.
Puller then ordered his patrol to backtrack to the Rio Cua, where he joined up with another patrol along the river. The next morning, the combined force moved north along the Rio Coco, but high water forced the Guardia to cut a new path through thick vegetation on higher ground. Puller returned to Jinotega on13 May having averaged 16 miles each day.
Puller’s 30-month tour of duty was drawing to a close. With orders to attend professional schooling at the US Army’s Infantry School, Puller departed Nicaragua on 12 June. His last official act was to recommend Gunnery Sergeant Lee for an appointment as a Marine Gunner (Warrant Officer). Subsequently, Puller was awarded the Nicaragua’s highest military decoration (Presidential Medal of Merit). Lieutenant Colonel McDougal rated Puller as, “… the most active patrol leader in the Guardia.” Colonel Smith observed, “[Puller] is an excellent officer in every respect. Possesses highest moral and physical courage, persistence, patience, loyalty, endurance, and sound common sense. He is one of the best officers I have ever known.”
The citizens of Jinotega were not happy to see Lieutenant Puller transferred —they petitioned the Marines to allow him to stay in Nicaragua. They referred to Puller as the Terror of the Banditos and Tiger of the Mountains. El Tigre had earned more than a nickname in Nicaragua … he became one of the Marine Corps’ best junior combat leaders.
But Puller wasn’t done in Nicaragua … he would be back for another tour.
(To be continued)