U.S. Marines Have a Long (and Mixed) History in Nicaragua

October 18, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. Marine CorpsMarinesNicaraguaMilitary HistorySandinistas

U.S. Marines Have a Long (and Mixed) History in Nicaragua

For more than two decades, U.S. Marines fought bandits and put down political insurrections in Nicaragua—with mixed results.

Bandits of the West

In spite of the new armistice, guerrillas and bandits roamed the countryside at will. Most of the bandit activity took place in the country’s western region, a rugged terrain reminiscent of the American West. The provinces of Neuva Segovia, Esteli, Jinotega, and Cabo Gracias a Dios were especially troublesome. On May 16, approximately 300 bandits attacked the village of La Paz, southwest of Leon. Although outnumbered, Captain Richard Buchanan and his Marines charged the mob. Gunshots from a window killed Buchanan and another rifleman, but the Marines drove the rebels out of town.

Ten days later the Marines found the bandit leader who had masterminded the La Paz incursion. When Captain William Richards entered the dwelling, he was set upon by a woman wielding a machete. As the bandido jumped out of bed and pulled a pistol, Richards had no alternative but to kill both of them. If they had known they were confronting the best pistol shot in the Marine Corps, they might have reconsidered and surrendered peacefully.

In addition to the infantry, Marine aviation units were also sent to support the efforts to stop the insurgents. A number of DeHaviland DH-4 two-seater bombers were dispatched to Managua at an airstrip that was once an old baseball field. The aircraft flew reconnaissance flights to spot the enemy and relay information back to headquarters. By flying at low altitudes, the pilots became an inviting target to the rebels, who often fired upon the rickety planes.

On July 1, the first Nicaraguan National Guard units were assigned to Ocotal, a town situated in the northwest section of the country, near the border of Honduras. By the end of the month, they would be engaged with rebels in the area. Marine Colonel Robert Rhea and his successor, Colonel Elias Beadle, worked feverishly to train the Guardsmen prior to the 1928 elections. All Guard units were commanded by Marine officers.

Rise of the Sandinistas

During this period the most feared of all the rebels came onto the scene. His name was Augusto Sandino. Resembling a school teacher instead of a bandit, Sandino had learned revolutionary tactics from none other than Pancho Villa when he was in Mexico. Although of slender build and not looking anything like a revolutionary zealot, Sandino would demonstrate to the Marines and Guardsmen that he was a man to be reckoned with.

With a force of 40 men calling themselves Sandinistas after their leader, Sandino linked up with rebel general Jose Moncada and immediately seized the town of Jinotega. When the Stimson-Diaz armistice was announced, Sandino refused to turn in his weapons unless the elections were controlled by the United States. The cunning Nicaraguan realized that a fair election would ensure a Liberal victory at the polls. When Stimson refused his demands, Sandino fled to the hilly, rugged northwest corner of Neuva Segovia and set up headquarters near the village of Ocotal. Here he gained support from the inhabitants and vowed to rid Nicaragua of the Conservatives and the Marines.

Major Harold Clifton Pierce led a 50-man patrol to Ocotal to find, among his other responsibilities, the elusive Sandino. Upon his arrival, he quickly diffused a situation between Liberals and Conservatives and confiscated their arms. A crude airfield was then constructed so the DeHavilands could have easy access to the area. When Pierce received intelligence that Sandino was in the area, he gathered up his patrol, with the exception of 10 Marines and some Guardsmen under Captain Gilbert Hatfield, and set out to capture the clever rebel. Since most of the residents of Ocotal were sympathetic to Sandino, Hatfield was suspicious when he saw people gathering their valuables and leaving town. He immediately had extra sentries posted and waited for the inevitable assault on his position.

In the early morning hours of July 16, a sentry spotted something in the darkness and fired. With their element of surprise gone, three companies of rebels moved into a three-pronged attack by striking City Hall and the Guardsmen’s barracks and killing any Conservatives they could locate. The Liberals had two machine-gun emplacements to cover City Hall and another nearby to fire diagonally across the plaza. When the firefight started, Guardsmen under 1st Lt. Thomas Bruce began a covering fire from the barracks with their Browning .30-caliber machine guns.

As bullets whizzed all around, Hatfield and his men raced across the plaza and joined their counterparts to fight the Sandinistas. The fighting seesawed all night and at dawn Sandino demanded that the leathernecks surrender. He thought they were low on water (which they were not) and even threatened to burn the village to the ground and watch the defenders all die a horrible death. Unmoved, Hatfield sent a curt note to the rebel commander that read: “Received your message, and say, with or without water, a Marine never surrenders. We remain here until we die or are captured.”

Several aircraft began circling the town and noticed something was amiss. Landing at the newly built airfield, Lieutenant Hayne “Cuckoo” Boyden learned from a local the severity of the situation and took off to lend his support. He and another DeHaviland pilot strafed the rebels until their ammunition ran out. By mid-afternoon, Major Ross Roswell and four other pilots were circling Ocotal. The Sandinistas found cover, expecting another strafing by machine guns, but instead Roswell’s sortie dropped bombs on their positions. The terrified rebels had never experienced a bombing run and scurried into the countryside. The Marines suffered one dead and five wounded, while 56 rebel bodies littered the area and another 100 were wounded.

Wanting revenge, Sandino set up an ambush at San Fernando to annihilate a 225-man patrol of Marines and Guardsmen headed by Major Oliver Floyd. Again, one of the Sandinista lookouts erred, allowing the leathernecks to enter the village. Floyd’s men attacked, killing 11 rebels, with Sandino himself narrowly getting away. Realizing he could not match the firepower of the Marines, Sandino decided to use the guerrilla tactics he had learned from Pancho Villa to defeat them. He took his men to the jungle stronghold of El Chipote to plan his next move.

Hunting Down the Sandinistas

For months, Marines and Guardsmen combed the northwest area around El Chipote looking for the ghost-like Sandinistas. On January 1, 1928, a patrol snaking its way along the San Albino-Quilali trail was met by a broadside of machine-gun fire and makeshift dynamite bombs. The patrol leader was wounded, but Gunnery Sergeant Edward Brown brought up a 37mm gun and pounded the rebel positions on Las Cruces Hill. As the leathernecks and Guardsmen scurried up the hill, the Liberal force ran.

Once the summit was occupied, another patrol fought its way through to reinforce the beleaguered Marines. The next morning they made a hasty withdrawal and entered the town of Quilali to await medical supplies. Sandino’s troops soon surrounded the village and the Marines and Guardsmen found themselves cut off. The only method of resupply was by air. First Lieutenant Christian Schilt volunteered to pilot a Vought O2U-1 onto a crude runway that was actually the main road through Quilali. Because the aircraft lacked brakes, Marines had to grab the wings as the plane slowly rolled down the street slowing it down so they could get their much-needed supplies. For three days, Schilt made 10 trips into the besieged town transporting 1,400 pounds of supplies. Eighteen wounded were taken back to Managua for medical treatment. For his extraordinary actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

While the Marines were chasing the Sandinistas throughout the countryside, the 1928 elections were a resounding success. At more than 400 polling places, Marines and bluejackets made certain everything went smoothly. Every eligible voter had to dip a finger in red ink to ensure that they did not vote multiple times. When the 133,000 votes were finally counted, the Liberals had beaten the Conservatives by 19,000.

For the next five years, Marines and Guardsmen patrolled the rugged interior of Nicaragua, encountering the Sandinistas in numerous bloody skirmishes. In spite of the Liberal victory at the polls, Sandino did not recognize the new administration and he vowed to drive the leathernecks from his country. The Marines could not remain in Nicaragua indefinitely. The U.S. government expanded the training of the National Guard. Led by Marine officers and enlisted men assigned to the Guard as officers, the conventional units began to depart and, by 1933, they were gone.

The Marine Incursion: A Political Failure

The National Guard, formed to save the country from the rebels, eventually became its rulers. When he was given amnesty, Sandino was assassinated by the Guard in 1934 and Anastasio Somoza became president in 1936. He and his family would rule the nation with an iron hand for more than 40 years before he was ousted by, ironically, the Sandinistas.

The Marines in Nicaragua gained valuable experience in jungle fighting, expertise they would put to good use against the Japanese in World War II. Individuals such as Lewis “Chesty” Puller, “Red Mike” Edson, Evans Carlson, and Alexander “Sunny Jim” Vandegrift were educated in jungle warfare and small unit tactics that would prove to be extremely beneficial during their future island campaigns. In addition, close air support, still in its infancy, would come into its own in the years following the Nicaraguan campaigns. Pilots who had honed their skills in that country would use their knowledge well in the next war.