I Fought For Fidel

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After the Las Pozas attack Escalona and his men returned to the Organos range, and we went back to the Sierra del Rosario. On Halloween Claudio took over the mountain resort of Soroa, where we killed one informer, wounded another, and captured three policemen. One of our men was shot in the leg and had to be left behind when we withdrew; we took the policemen with us as hostages to ensure decent treatment of our wounded comrade. We left the prisoners under guard in the sierra when we moved back to the northern highway to ambush a two-car patrol of Batista’s hated SIM (Military Intelligence Service). That action resulted in seven batistianos dead at no cost to Claudio, but the next day the SIM hanged fourteen peasants in two-for-one retaliation.

By November 1958 most of the rural population of Pinar del Rio was under fidelista control and a militia structure was in place. What we lacked were arms. Shortly before Thanksgiving Claudio authorized me to go to the United States and arrange an arms shipment to our area.

Locating military weapons was no problem for me, a product of the shooting and gun-swapping culture of the American South. I still had a Thompson submachine gun, an M1-A1 carbine, and various rifles stored in my parents’ home, while some of my boyhood friends had similar or better collections or knew others who had them. One friend of a friend had stashed in the basement of his parents’ home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, an arsenal that included machine guns, automatic rifles, submachine guns, recoilless rifles, and hand grenades. I made a tentative deal with this fellow to buy most of his collection, plus ammunition and a few other items he could procure for me, for less than three thousand dollars. At a South Carolina fishing village near Edisto Beach, where I used to hang out during college days, another buddy introduced me to a shrimp-boat captain who agreed to run the stuff to Cuba for two thousand dollars.

Returning to Cuba with photographs of the weapons and a price list, I celebrated Christmas with Claudio’s band and then went to Escalona’s camp to make the final arrangements for the arms deal.

At that time the decisive battles of the revolution were being fought in central Cuba. Comandante Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara, after imposing fidelista control on the independent guerrillas of the Sierra del Escambray, had moved out of the mountains to attack the main government garrisons in Las Villas Province. On New Year’s Eve I listened on Escalona’s radio to rebel shortwave transmissions from Las Villas and, with all the frantic jabbering about casualties and pleas for help, got the impression that the situation there was desperate. But at seven the next morning, when I tuned in the news from Key West, I learned that Batista had fled Cuba.

Escalona introduced me as “the American who is training the firing squad.” Fidel thought that was a great joke. He roared with laughter and gave me a bear hug.
 

I shouted the news to Escalona, who was standing just outside his headquarters cave. For a moment the comandante seemed to be paralyzed, his face frozen in an astonished stare. Then he leaped into the air and began yelling to his men. “¡El Hombre se fué!” (The Man has gone!)

I turned the radio volume as high as it would go and began translating the newscast. Camp discipline evaporated as guerrillas crowded around me in noisy jubilation. As the transmitter of the good news, I was the hero of the hour.

Escalona left the sierra on New Year’s Day to seize Pinar del Río Province for the 26th of July Movement. It was a perfect Cuban winter’s day, bright and crisp, when we marched down the mountains toward the northern highway. Peasant militiamen joined our column at almost every turn in the trail; some came on horseback and carried huge Cuban and 26th of July flags. At dusk, when we reached the highway at Las Pozas, more militia appeared with trucks and jeeps.

Radio reports from Havana were confusing, but I had no doubt that we were winning and that Cuba would soon have a fidelista government. Since Americans who served voluntarily in the armed forces of a foreign government risked losing their citizenship under U.S. law, I submitted my resignation from the Cuban rebel army on the night of January 1. Escalona didn’t accept it. Instead, after we’d taken the surrender of several cuarteles and distributed their arms to the militia, he commissioned me first lieutenant, gave me a platoon of militiamen, a .50-caliber machine gun, and a stake-body truck, and sent me to the south coast to help local forces deal with batis>tiano holdouts.

The batistianos were gone by the time we reached our objectives, but we were received as conquering heroes nonetheless. Everywhere peasant families stood along the highways and country roads and cheered wildly as our truck hurtled past, its exuberant occupants waving ther newly acquired rifles above their heads. The people of La Coloma set up tables in the town plaza and served a magnificent victory dinner to Lieutenant Americano and his muchachos.