Aug 16

U.S. Marines in Nicaragua, 1927-1932

Thursday, August 16, 2018 12:01 AM

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Marines on Patrol (USMC History Division)

Marines on Patrol (USMC History Division)

The Second Nicaragua intervention of 1927-1932 marks a unique and very interesting chapter in Marine Corps history. Marines were dispatched to the Central American republic to support democracy by supervising a contentious presidential election and building an apolitical internal security force, the Guardia Nacional, that could take over from the Marines and police their own country. However, U.S. Marines soon found themselves deep in the jungles, manning lonely posts and on the trail chasing elusive rebels that refused to honor a political process they saw as being tampered with by meddlesome foreigners.

Many innovations were developed and countless lessons were learned that proved valuable in the future. Furthermore, some of the Marine Corps’ greatest heroes distinguished themselves while young Marines in Nicaragua. Marines that would go on to play pivotal roles in World War Two. This intervention, though important to the institutional development of the Marine Corps, has been largely forgotten or at least overlooked. However, recent missions undertaken by the Corps cast new interest on the Second Nicaraguan Intervention, because Marine operations in the last decade have shown themselves to be quite similar. These similarities bridge the gap over the decades and demonstrate that chasing insurgents is nothing new for Marines.

By 1927 Nicaragua had been embroiled in a brutal civil war for three years. The fighting became a threat to American interests when rebels began to menace American companies. President Calvin Coolidge sent former Secretary of War Henry Stimson to mediate a solution. The resolution agreed upon called on the United States to oversee the Nicaraguan Presidential election in 1928 and train an incorruptible national security force that served the Nicaraguan state and its people. The force assigned was the Marine Corps, which accomplished similar missions in Haiti and Santo Domingo in the previous decade. Within months over 3,000 Marines were deployed to the country (Tierney, 182). Soon the Marines spread across the country securing the major population centers and establishing various Guardia posts. Garrisons ranged in size from a squad to a company not counting their Marine mentors. The Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua was created from scratch, as no national constabulary existed. Marines served as the leadership cadre and Nicaraguans filled the enlisted ranks until adequate Nicaraguan officers were trained to replace the Marines. A Marine Colonel was even placed in charge of the Guardia Nacional.

With Marines establishing garrisons across the country the first step in Stimson’s peace plan could move forward, disarmament. Both sides and the Marines collected over 14,000 weapons (Langley, 187). Despite this success, one rebel leader refused to turn in his weapons, his name, Augusto Sandino.

A.C. Sandino (USMC History Division)

Augusto C. Sandino (USMC History Division)

Rather than surrender, Sandino attacked the joint Marine-Guardia post at Ocotal. Under the cover of darkness on 15 July 1927, hundreds of rebels infiltrated into Ocotal. But Sandino’s surprise attack was spoiled when a vigilant Marine fired on a shadowy figure rustling in the bushes. As soon as the shooting began, the rebels attempted to storm the garrison by sheer force of numbers and made three charges at the barracks, each repulsed by withering fire from the Marines and Guardia troops manning the walls above. Sandino called off the attacks but kept up pressure on the Marines through the rest of the night with sniper fire.

When morning came, a messenger approached the barracks with a flag of truce, beseeching the Marines to surrender and promising to spare their lives if they did. “Marines don’t know how to surrender,” responded the commander of the garrison, Captain Gilbert Hatfield, and the fighting resumed once again when Sandino received the Marine’s reply (Boot, 238). The outnumbered Marines kept their heads down and their wits up as they waited and dodged sniper fire throughout the rest of the morning. They were running low on ammunition, but they defiantly defended their post.

That afternoon five DeHavilland DH-4’s swooped in from above, bombing and strafing the rebels with automatic weapons fire. This was the first dive-bombing attack in the history of the Marine Corps, as bombs exploded and the biplanes roared overhead the terrified rebels quickly dispersed and retreated into the jungle. One stubborn group of insurgents that remained was soon routed when Marines came out from their post and attacked. Sandino was defeated and retreated into the jungle.

Sandino quickly realized that he could not defeat the Americans in large battles as he tried at Ocotal. He decided to pursue a guerilla strategy of fast ambushes followed by even faster retreats. He withdrew to his mysterious mountain lair known as El Chipote, deep in the Nicaraguan wilds to plan the next phase. He divided his forces and sent them out in packs. It became a war of competing patrols, each hunting the other. Nicaraguan jungles, as one Marine later described, “Furnish ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. Vast in extent, they consist of almost unbroken chains of mountains, whose rugged peaks afford ideal lookouts and whose densely forested slopes and secluded valleys furnish numerous hiding places secure from observation and attack from airplanes and inaccessible to all but the most lightly equipped of ground troops,” (Tierney, 183).

Crest of Chipote mountain (USMC History Division)

Crest of Chipote mountain (USMC History Division)

In the beginning, the Marines sent out large columns, 100-200 men, on search and destroy missions for weeks at a time (Bickel, 171). These expeditions sought to find guerrilla camps, like El Chipote, attack and destroy them. However, the Marines encountered difficulties with this strategy and changed tactics. As they spread their influence throughout the countryside and established new garrisons in towns and villages along the way, the Marines found they had less men available for large patrols. In addition, such large patrols were slow and especially vulnerable to rebel attack. Often times, it was only the shear advantage in firepower that repelled rebel assaults on jungle trails.

Eventually the Marines settled on smaller patrols, usually two officers and 25 men, that set out for only a few days at a time and patrolled in between their scattered garrisons, covering up to 30 miles in a single day (Bickel, 172, Langley, 207). Garrisons were established in populated areas of significance. To facilitate these efforts Nicaragua was partitioned into five zones, the Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western and Central zones. Each of these was then divided into districts which were assigned to a Marine captain and two lieutenants with 30 to 50 troops under their charge (Bickel, 167). From these posts the Marines and their Guardia brethren hit the trail after the rebels. These patrols were successful in making contact with and defeating Sandino’s rebels, although often times the Marines were outnumbered. “Our patrols were constantly attacked by bandits from individual snipers to bands as large as 250,” observed one Marine (Bickel, 159).

Captain Stockes' patrol on hill "La Palanca". Patrol was ambushed by bandit, General Ortez, from this hill (USMC History Division)

Captain Stockes’ patrol on hill “La Palanca”. The patrol was ambushed by bandit, General Ortez, from this hill (USMC History Division)

Contact was typically initiated by the insurgents and their actions were often well planned. In addition to attempting to inflict as many casualties as possible, the rebels attempted to maneuver the Marine patrols and turn their flanks. Rebels used the micro terrain to their advantage and practiced good cover and concealment. Furthermore, to reduce the effects of Marine marksmanship they sprang ambushes at night (Bickel, 158-159). The rebels were able to move quickly through the bush while the Marines were slowed by horses and pack mules (Bickel, 160). The rebels also knew the ground intimately. In addition to these sound tactical movements, the rebels employed automatic weapons and improvised explosive devices made from dynamite wrapped with raw hide, rocks, glass and nails (Langley, 193).

One operational problem for the Marines and Guardia allies was logistics. Resupply was a serious problem to the far-flung posts and the patrols. The rugged terrain of Nicaragua and its scattered villas meant neat roads were few and rough paths were many. The tropical climate could turn these jungle trails into soggy morasses and rivers of mud at a moment’s notice and the rainy season inhibited movement in entire swaths of the country for extended periods of time. Here again, Marine Corps aviation played an important role. By the late summer of 1928 the Marines were operating five Fokker trimotor transport planes, each with a lift capacity of 1,300 pounds (Nalty). The Marines hacked landing strips out of the jungle and resupply now came from the air. Food, weapons, ammunition, reinforcements and even mules were brought to the outposts deep in the jungle. In areas too rugged for planes to land, Marine aviators pioneered air drops for isolated posts and forward patrols.

Nicaragua was the scene of the first close air support bombing mission in Marine Corps history and the Corps’ first medevac. When a Marine column took refuge in the town of Quilali after being mauled by rebels it seemed they were doomed. Hundreds of rebels surrounded the town and the Marines could not help their wounded. In the sky appeared a Vought O2U Corsair piloted by Lieutenant Christian Schilt. The Marines on the ground immediately set about knocking down walls, chopping down trees and clearing brush to make a crude landing strip for Lieutenant Schilt to land on. Because the plane lacked brakes the Marines ran up and pulled the aircraft to a stop on the short runway. Between January 6 and 8, 1928 Lt. Schilt made 10 flights back and forth to Quilali. Under rebel fire, he evacuated 18 wounded Marines and brought in 1,400 pounds of supplies to the besieged Marines, who would later make it out (Boot, 240-241). For this act of valor Lt. Schilt was awarded the Medal of Honor.

One of two aircraft with DH wheels, used to evacuate casualities from Quali, flown by Lt Schilt (USMC History Division)

One of two aircraft with DH wheels, used to evacuate casualities from Quali, flown by Lt. Schilt (USMC History Division)

Besides close air support, medevac and resupply Marine pilots were also used for scouting and air reconnaissance. They searched for rebels from the sky, and seriously inhibited rebel movement. Major Ross Rowell, leader of the flight of DH-4’s at Ocotal explained how Sandino’s men avoided Marine air patrols. “They move almost entirely at hours when the planes cannot reach them. They camouflage their camps and stables and confine their operations to terrain offering the best cover from aerial observation, and never fire on the planes unless they find themselves discovered and attacked,” (Tierney, 204). In fact, it was a Marine pilot who discovered Sandino’s hideout, El Chipote. After weeks of dive-bombing the Sandino’s fortress, a column of Marines on the ground reached the mountain. After storming the summit, the Marines came across an empty camp. The only inhabitants were straw dummies around still smoking campfires, Sandino escaped again.

The presidential election proceeded in November of 1928 as planned without a problem. Almost 90% of registered voters participated in what was regarded as the fairest election in Nicaraguan history. After the election the United States dramatically drew down the numbers of Marines in the country. A residual force of Marines remained in Nicaragua for five more years but their mission changed to preparing the Guardia Nacional to take over operations. Large Marine forces withdrew and Guardia formations were put in their place. Marines still lead Guardia patrols after rebels for the next few years until they were replaced by Nicaraguan officers and NCO’s. Marine aviation assets remained to support the Guardia as well.

Waiting in line to cast their votes (USMC History Division)

Waiting in line to cast their votes (USMC History Division)

The last Marine left Nicaragua in 1933. At the height of American involvement in 1928 there were almost 4,000 Marines in country. By 1930 this number had been slashed to less than 1,000 and by 1933 the Marines were gone (Bickel, 164). In total, 136 U.S. Marines died in the six years in Nicaragua (Boot 252). Two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines and another 113 Navy Crosses awarded to Marines and Sailors, 100 of these to Marines. Among these were Lieutenant Evans Carlson, who went on to command the 2nd Raider Battalion in the Makin Island Raid, Captain Merritt Edson, who commanded the 1st Raider Battalion on Guadalcanal, and Lieutenant Lewis “Chesty” Puller who was awarded the first two of five Navy Crosses. He later commanded the 1st Battalion 7th Marines on Guadalcanal and the 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu and in Korea. Augusto Sandino was never caught. He was double crossed and murdered by the director of the Guardia Nacional, General Anastasio Somoza, after a dinner in the Presidential Palace in 1934.

The Second Nicaraguan Intervention holds a special place in Marine Corps history. Marines were first dispatched to support democracy in Latin America but the lessons they learned lent directly to the defense of American democracy only a few years later. Nicaragua was the training ground for World War II, where Marines learned how to live and fight in the jungle and work together as an air-ground team. There is no doubt that the frustrating lessons learned in Central American jungles became golden rules on the tropical islands of the South Pacific. Nicaragua can also be looked upon for lessons by modern Marines. It seems that supporting democracy in faraway lands, chasing insurgents in exotic locales and training indigenous forces will be in the purview of our Marines for years to come.

Sources:

Bickel, K. (2001). Mars learning: The Marine Corps’ Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915-1940. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Boot, M. (2002). The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Langley , L. (2002). The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898-1934. Washington D.C.: Scholarly Resources.

Tierney , J. (2006). Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books.

Nalty, B. U.S. Marine Corps, Headquarters. (1968). Marine Corps Historical Reference Series: The United States Marines in Nicaragua. Historical Branch, G-3 Division.
Retrieved from: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/usmchist/nicar.txt