March 1931

"And in Sunny Tropic Scenes"

Volume 14, Issue 3
Category: 

On the last day of 1930 the nearly extinguished embers of banditry By Frank Hl in Nicaragua flared up and ten Marines were ambushed and shot, eight of them killed. Although not without orecedent this tragedy represents the highest percentage of casualties yet suffered by any detachment of our forces in Nicaragua.

This "Bamboo War," as it is facetiously termed by many, embodies all the physical hardships of larger campaigns. Every element of warfare is present, and added to them are many disagreeable features peculiar to the circumstances.

Paradoxically the Marines are armed missionaries of peace. At the request of the present government of Nicaragua they are striving to restore and maintain order in the explosive little republic. It is a gigantic undertaking, under conditions that prevent them from conducting other than a defensive campaign. The most surprising feature is that the mission has been as successful as it has, and accompanied by the proportionately few casualties suffered.


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In 1912 Marines died at Barranca and Coyotepe, and at Leon; but we will concern ourselves here with only the present phase of the Marine occupation of Nicaragua.

The first serious encounter between Marines and bandits occurred at La Paz Centro on the morning of May 16, 1927. The town of some four thousand population, lies along the Corinto-Managua railroad. To expedite troop movements and to facilitate the circulation of supplies, it was important to the Marines that this route, be kept open. Detachments were placed at strategic points along the right of way. At La Paz Centro eightythree Marines from the U. S. S. "Florida" and the U. S. S. "Arkansas," commanded by Captain "Robert B. Buchanan and Lieutenant C. J. Chappell, were encamped just north of the town. A naval radio station had been established here, but about May 14th this was abandoned and moved with one platoon of the Marine force to Nagarote. This reduced the strength of Captain Buchanan's command to about forty-five men.

It was nearly one o'clock on the morning of May 16, 1927, that a fusillade of shots rattled out in La Paz Centro. The Marine camp was instantly astir. Call to arms bit into the blackness and almost immediately Captain Buchanan, Lieutenant Chappell, and one platoon of Marines were under way to investigate the trouble. One squad remained behind to protect the camp.

Moving in patrol formation the Marines entered La Paz Centro. Corporal Truesdale proceeded with one squad to the eastern area of the village. Sergeant Fitzgerald with four men covered the main street. Captain Buchanan and Corporal Strickland headed the point and moved south toward the heart of town. Behind them was Lieutenant Chappell leading the main body.

A gust of fire crackled out from their left and Captain Buchanan swung toward it. He could distinguish the spang of Springfields and the captain knew Sergeant Fitzgerald's detachment had made contact. The point advanced a block and a half before a blast of bullets drove them to cover.

In the meantime Sergeant Fitzgerald and his men had advanced about three blocks down the main street. Suddenly they encountered a band of some sixty rebels who replied to the Marines' challenge with a volley of shots. The patrol returned the fire, driving the bandits to seek shelter in houses and a cantina. The Marines advanced to the next block to take advantage of cover offered by a breastwork of railroad ties.

The little patrol was in desperate circumstances, enfiladed from all directions. Private Marvin Jackson fell with a bullet through his head, and several more struck him before he could be dragged behind the bulwark.

The other detachments were struggling to cut their way through to the relief of Sergeant Fitzgerald. Corporal Rausch was badly wounded, once in the chest and again in the arm, but he continued fighting. Another man's finger was blown away. A bullet struck the rifle carried by a Marine and drove part of the butt plate into his side.

Captain Buchanan at-tempted to move to a position closer to the beleaguered patrol. Fired upon from the cantina, he fell mortally wounded. The sergeant had been concentrating his fire on this house and soon silenced its opposition. The captain and Jackson were carried within.

Slowly the other detachments were driving the guerillas from the city. After three hours of intense fighting the Marines were able to reorganize and take the offensive. A few bandits were captured, but most of them escaped, and it was impracticable to pursue them. At dawn the bodies of Captain Buchanan and Private Jackson, along with the wounded, were carried to the railroad station for transportation to Leon. Thus ended the first of a long series of engagements between the Marines and Nicaraguan bandits.

Two months later, on July 16th, Sandino suddenly swept in from the mountains to attack the Marine garrison at Ocotal. Small groups of his men had previously filtered into town, and had not the surprise assault been frustrated by an alert sentry, the American force might have been wiped out.

The thirty-nine Marines and forty-seven members of the Guardia Nacional, outnumbered five to one, completely surrounded and exposed to fire from all sides, and from the heights above them, were staggered by the first onslaught. The street in front of the barracks was swept with machine gun fire, and snipers in strategic positions commanded a view of the Marines' quarters.

For two hours the battle raged. Then there was a slight lull, in which only two automatic rifles and some snipers maintained occasional fire against the Americans.

About 4:00 a. m. the second attack was launched. This continued for more than four hours, stopping abruptly upon the appearance of a flag of truce from the bandits. A messenger was admitted to see Captain Hatfield, commander of the Marines. The note was from Sandino, saying he knew the Marines were nearly out of water, and magnanimously offering to treat them as prisoners of war, providing they surrendered at once. Otherwise they would be slaughtered to the last man.

Captain Hatfield's answer was brief and to the point. Marines did not know how to surrender, he said, and water or no water they would stick it out until killed or captured.

Hostilities were resumed as soon as the white flag disappeared around the corner. Then came a wild, frenzied attack, met and broken by a grim defense. The Americans were fighting for their lives, and it was apparent that Sandino was trying to fulfill his threat to wipe out the entire garrison. A sniper killed Private Obleski, and was in return shot through the head by Sergeant Blackburn.

The heavy firing continued until about 10:15 in the morning, when two planes flying from Managua caught the distress signals of the beseiged troops. With their machine guns splattering death they dove against the bandits. One plane flew away to summon aid. The other circled above the battle, strafing the ground forces gathered outside of town. Then, with gas nearly exhausted, it was forced to retire to Managua.

The aerial attack did little to lessen the intensity of fire, nor did the drenching from a tropical storm. Slowly but surely the guerrillas were closing in, and the powder-stained defenders had their backs to the wall. One Marine and three of the Guardia lay wounded. The fighting had continued for nearly fifteen hours, with little indication of ceasing.

Suddenly from out of the sky dove five Marine planes, led in formation by Major Ross E. Rowell. They rained machine gun bullets and bombs on the bandit positions. For thirty minutes the Sandinistas returned the planes' fire, then they fled into the hills and forest. The siege of Ocotal had been raised.

The next Marine to die in battle was Private Rafael Toro. On July 25th a detachment of Marines patrolling in Nueve Segovia encountered armed bandits. It was a sharp, bitter engagement, in which the Marines took San Fernando. Private Toro died August third from wounds received in this contact.

For a time the offensive operations of the bandits were negative, except for sudden attacks, momentary contacts in which they dispersed as soon as fired upon. Major Floyd and his column of Marines penetrated deep into the heart of hostile territory, with instructions to avoid combat, but by pressure to force Sandino to retire. The Marines were ambushed repeatedly, but fought their way into the village Jicaro, which the bandit leader called his capital and named "Sandino City."

About one o'clock on the morning of September 19, 1927, a force of twenty-five Marines and twenty-five Guardia Nacional, occupying the town of Telpaneca, were attacked by a superior force of bandits. Captain Keimling, of the Guardia (First Lieutenant, Marine Corps), commanded the garrison.

The battle opened with the explosion of a hand-made bomb in rear of the Marines' quarters. A fusillade of rifle, shots burst out in the black, foggy night. Private Russell, sleeping near the front door was wounded. He sprang to his feet and began firing at the attackers. He was struck again near the heart. He put down the rifle and went to his bunk, and died within a few minutes.

The bandits laid down a barrage of machine gun and Thompson gun fire on the Marine and Guardia quarters. Two groups rushed forward with grenades, dynamite bombs and machetes. In the commanding officer's office Captain Keimling, Sergeant Eadens and a handful of Marines were located. The attacking bandits swept toward them. There was a savage fight, and Private Glaser was mortally wounded before the bandits could be beaten back.

The battle continued throughout the night; but the marksmanship of the defenders was too appalling to endure in daylight when targets would be visible. The guerrillas began withdrawing their dead and wounded about 3:00 a. m.; and two hours later peace again reigned in Telpaneca.

The next important contact took place near Quilali. A Marine plane, piloted by Lieutenant Earl A. Thomas, with Sergeant Frank E. Dowdell as observer, had crashed in the dense jungles. Although the fliers were observed to crawl uninjured from the wreckage, they were never seen again. A fairly authentic and logical report of their death was obtained from natives, but not for a year were they officially reported dead.

However, ground patrols searching for the missing aviators had many thrilling contacts and narrow escapes from traps and ambuscades. On October 9th Lieutenant G. J. O'Shea, with eight Marines and ten Guardia soldiers, and Dr. J. B. O'Neill, marched toward Quilali with the idea of rescuing the flyers.

On a narrow trail that wound up Sapotillal Ridge the advance guard was suddenly fired upon by concealed marksmen. The column halted, took cover and returned the fire. For two and a half hours the Marines and Guardia battled for their lives, and finally cut their way through to a small stream, where, unseen by the enemy, they reorganized and resumed travel toward Jicaro. By some miracle of battle four Guardia soldiers were killed, but the Marines who fought side by side with them escaped uninjured.

For a time things were quieter, although contact with armed bands was the rule rather than the exception. On October 18th a mixed patrol of Marines and Guardia, under Lieutenant M. J. Gould, left Matagalpa for Quilali. A second patrol, under Lieutenant Chappelle, left Jicaro October 23, with orders to effect a junction with Lieutenant Gould near Quilali.

Both patrols were attacked and only after the most desperate fighting was the junction established. The combined forces repulsed the rebels and threw them back. In scouring the area they discovered the wreckage of Lieutenant Thomas' plane. The Lewis guns were missing and other parts of the ship destroyed by fire. For two days they searched in vain for some trace of the missing aviators. The detachment then set out for Jicaro. Near Espino they were ambushed by about 250 men. One Marine and one Guardia were killed before the bandits were routed.

Private Albert W. Rue, of the 49th Company, died at Somoto on November 27th as result of gunshot wounds received in an ambuscade about four miles north of Somoto; and three weeks later Private Bernard F. Callaway, of the same company, was killed in action near Maculizo.

In the meantime reconnoitering patrols had located and mapped the position of El Chipote, Sandino's stronghold. Fliers had bombed and strafed the entrenchments, but Marine authorities decided that such destruction alone would vitiate any chance of capturing bandit leaders. The aerial attack must be augmented by infantry.

Accordingly, on December 19th, a strong combat patrol, consisting of six officers and 108 Marines, under Captain Richard Livingston, left Jinotega on an expedition against El Chipote. A second force, commanded by Lieutenant M. A. Richal, of forty Marines and twenty Guardia, left Telpaneca to join Captain Livingston at Quilali, whence the joint attack was to be launched.

On the morning of December 30th Captain Livingston and his patrol had arrived within nearly a mile of Quilali. Marching single file along a narrow trail, bordered by heavy undergrowth, a withering volley was suddenly poured into the column. Hidden riflemen at the right of the trail, and at the left, from a hill across the river, directed a murderous fire against the surprised Marines. The captain was wounded almost at the first volley. Lieutenant Gould took command of the situation and finally succeeded in battering his way through the hostile cordon. Five Marines died and twenty-three were wounded before the shattered column reached Quilali.

In the meantime Lieutenant Richal's patrol was marching on Quilali to effect junction with Captain Livingston. Single file they were moving up a narrow mountainous trail when fire was opened upon them from their left flank at a distance no greater than fifty feet. First Sergeant Bruce (Lieutenant, Guardia Nacional) was killed, and the bandits drove the Marine point back some fifty yards where the column had established a machine gun. The weapon jammed. Lieutenant Richal was severely wounded, and Gunnery Sergeant E. G. Brown took command.

Firing became heavier. The Marines repaired the machine gun and gained fire superiority over the enemy. The bandits fell back and the Marines settled down in a defensive position, from which it would have been hazardous to move.

A reinforcing column arrived from Quilali, being informed by aeroplane of Lieutenant Richal's predicament, and the detachment was able to reach that town without further casualties.

It was at Quilali that Lieutenant C. F. Schilt performed the difficult task of removing the wounded to Managua. On a narrow, muddy road, from which the flanking houses had been pulled down to accommodate the wings of his plane, the lieutenant landed and took off ten times under fire. On January 6, 7, and 8 he not only evacuated eighteen wounded men, three of whom would most certainly have died had they not received immediate medical attention, but returned to Quilali with a relief commander and emergency supplies and provisions. For this the lieutenant was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

There were further contacts in January, 1928. El Chipote was bombed from the air and subsequently occupied by ground troops. On February 27th an empty pack train and escort of thirty-five Marines, under command of Lieutenant Edward F. O'Day, was ambushed about three quarters of a mile west of Bromaderos. A ripple of fire ran along the entire line, stampeding the mule train. The Marines dove into the bush on their left and opened fire. For an hour the bandits drenched the Marines' position with machine gun and rifle bullets. Then they advanced in skirmish line. The rifles of the Marines broke them and they fell back. Three hours of incessant fighting passed. The bandits charged again, and once again they shattered themselves against a wall of fire. Three Marines had been killed and two more lay dying. Night fell and through the darkness the Marines were harrassed by snipers.

With dawn the firing increased. Lieutenant O'Day suddenly heard the sound of men approaching. "Who's there?" he called from his concealment. The answer came: "Captain McNulty with the 57th Company." By a forced march, beginning shortly after midnight, Captain McNulty had driven his men hard and they had hammered their way through in time to save the beleaguered train.

Throughout the remainder of 1928 there were fewer casualties, although some fifty contacts of minor importance were reported before the end of August. On May 13th, in the valley of the Cua River, a patrol was ambushed. Captain Robert S. Hunter later died from wounds. and Corporal William Williamson was killed before the bandits could be routed.

On August 6th Private Stengle was killed by hostile natives; and no further casualties were suffered by Marines for four months. December 6th a detail under command of Captain Maurice G. Holmes intercepted a group of bandits who had murdered a peasant south of Ocotal. In the subsequent conflict, near Chuyelite, Gunnery Sergeant Charles Williams was shot through the head, dying an hour later.

1929 opened with a flourish, for on January 21, near San Antonio, Privates Rector, Collins, and Oswill died in combat with guerrillas. Throughout the rest of the year there were no battle deaths recorded, although on April 30th Private Robert E. Dixon, who had received news of the serious illness of his parents and was coming in from the hills to be furloughed, preceded the patrol and was presumably killed by bandits.

The year of 1930 seemed, for the most part, to be free from serious engagements, and the Marines, despite the withdrawal of many, appeared to have the situation well under control. On July 28th there was a clash near La Cruzes, in which Sergeant Norman Gregg Freeman was wounded and died four days later at Jinotega. On September 29th Private Paul Laster Culbreth died at the Managua hospital from wounds received in action.

It began to look as if things were quieting down, and the Marines settled into routine duties. Then, abruptly, on the last day of 1930, just three years after the ferocious attack on Captain Liyingston's command, the Marines received the most staggering blow of all.

A detail of ten men, commanded by Sergeant Arthur M. Palrang, rode out to repair a telephone line on the trail from Ocotal to Apali. Near Achuapa, deep in the densely wooded, mountainous country, they found the severed wire. One private climbed the pole while the others busied themselves beneath it.

Suddenly a rattle of rifle fire burst out from all sides. The man on the pole thudded to the ground with a bullet in his head. Sergeant Palrang deployed his men and sought cover. For over two hours the unequal battle continued, with the Marines seldom seeing anything at which to shoot, and being picked off one at a time by the hidden marksmen.

Half the patrol was dead when the sergeant ordered Private Mack Hutcherson to attempt to crawl through the hostile lines and make his way to Ocotal, about twelve miles, to summon help. The messenger fell wounded before he was fairly started on his mission, and the Marines settled down to sell their lives as dearly as they could.

About noon a badly frightened native burst into Ocotal, and told a wild tale of a battle raging, of Marines hemmed in on all sides and being annihilated. Lieutenant Joseph J. Tavern, with twenty-five Marines, immediately rushed to the relief of the wiring party. Hutcherson they found alive, and Private Frank A. Jackson, who was the last man to be struck down and had crawled unseen into a nearby cornfield. The rest were dead.

This, then, is a partial story of the Marines' occupation of Nicaragua. It is the story of unsurpassed bravery, and of men who laughed at death when the odds were against them. It is the story of the Corps from its first inception. And to the long Roll of Honor from Chapultepec to Belleau Woods are added the names of those who so gallantly died in a war that was not a war, in Sunny Tropic Scenes.

Tags: Nicaragua