The Man Who Made The Yanquis Go Home

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Months of search and foray by American troops through the cordillera ended in the last days of 1927. Col. L. M. Gulick, commander of the 2d Marine Brigade, learned through spies of Sandino’s whereabouts—on a nearly impregnable mountain in the Segovias called El Chipote. Harold Norman Denny, a New York Times correspondent, described the territory: “Chipote was a mile-high mountain overgrown with forests looming above the valleys at its base like the prow of a titanic battleship,” he wrote. “Its flanks extended back fifteen miles and in the center of this triangle was the house in which lived Sandino, surrounded by a small picked bodyguard. The prow of the mountain was studded with trenches and machine gun nests, and at the top were quarters for men and storehouses for supplies. Sandino, the neighboring Indians said, had boasted that it never could be taken.”

An American Marine patrol along with a detachment of the Nicaraguan National Guard and a large convoy of pack mules were dispatched by Colonel Gulick to attempt to storm the mountain. It was a tragic blunder. The patrol was surprised on a cliffside trail, and its captain was badly wounded in the first attack. The men rallied, taking their dead and wounded with them as they pushed forward to a level place where they held off waves of attackers. A reinforcing column fought its way to their side on January 1, 1928. The combined force was besieged in a hamlet called Quilali for a week by Sandinist snipers in the overlooking hills.

 

With five killed and twenty-three badly wounded, the beleaguered Marines appealed for aid in an ingenious way. They had no radio, so they strung wires between poles to which were attached messages. Airplanes snagged these with grappling hooks. In an era when aviation exploits made headlines daily (it was only seven months since Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic), what followed thrilled the world. A pilot, C. F. Schilt, volunteered to rescue the wounded. A single lane ran through Quilali, and the Marines widened this by demolishing the adjoining board-and-adobe houses with their bare hands until an airstrip was created. While a brother aviator strafed the surrounding hills to keep the Sandinist snipers down, Lieutenant Schilt dived into the town ten times to evacuate the wounded. It was a feat that won him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

The bravery of American aviators and ground troops notwithstanding, the incumbent Republican administration wished Nicaragua would go away. A Pan-American conference opened on January 16, 1928, in Havana, and as a contemporary historian wrote, “The sharpest debates that had ever occurred in the history of Pan-American conferences took place in a special sub-committee to which [the question of American intervention] was referred.” The attacks against the United States were led by El Salvador and Mexico, and to a somewhat lesser extent by Argentina and Chile. Even the representatives of pro-American countries acknowledged that Sandino had a wide appeal across Latin America. His dispatches and manifestos, printed word for word in many newspapers, touched Latino nerves rubbed raw by years of foreign domination. Among some elements in Latin America, Sandino’s symbolic eminence was approaching that of the two great liberators, Bolívar and Martí.

Sometimes Sandino’s program was obscured by an inchoate pan-Latin Americanism, but behind the rhetoric lay two goals: Latin ownership of natural resources, and education and jobs for the poor. Above all, Sandino believed that nothing could be accomplished until U.S. forces were out of Nicaragua.

“When [the Yankees] speak of the Monroe Doctrine, they say, ‘America for Americans,’” Sandino wrote. “Fine, well said. All of us born in America are Americans. But the imperialists have interpreted the Monroe Doctrine as ‘America for the Yankees.’ Well, to save their blond souls from continuing in error, I propose this reformulation: ‘The United States of North America for the Yankees. Latin America for the Indo-Latins.’”

By the time the conference ended, with any anti-intervention resolutions postponed until the next session, five more American destroyers were steaming toward the Nicaraguan shores, twelve hundred additional Marines were on their way there, and an air bombardment of El Chipote had blasted the mountain bare.

“During the sixteen days when we were under siege,” Sandino wrote, “the pirates’ air squadrons paid us daily visits. The first four planes would come in at 6:00 A.M. and start dropping bombs. Naturally we shot back at them, and several of their steel birds were mortally wounded. After four hours of bombing, another squadron would appear, bomb for four hours, and then be replaced by another—they kept this up till nightfall.

“The bombs did little damage to our men because we were well protected, but we lost some two hundred cavalry mounts and cattle for our table. The situation was serious because the animals’ decaying bodies made the camp insupportable. The air was full of vultures for days. They did us a service in wrecking visibility for the planes … but life there was getting tough and we decided to clear out.”