- Historic Sites
Mr. Coolidge’s Jungle War
Forty years ago, American Marines tangled with a tough Latin-American guerrilla leader whose tactics against “the capitalists” would evoke an unhappy shock of recognition in Vietnam today.
December 1967 | Volume 19, Issue 1
Sandino’s objectives were succinctly stated in a message he left at the La Luz mines after levelling the American-owned property there: “The most honorable resolution which your government could adopt in the conflict with Nicaragua is to retire its forces from our territory, thus permitting us, the Nicaraguans, to elect our national government, which is the only means of pacifying the country. With your government rests the conservation of good or bad relations with our government and you, the capitalists, will be appreciated and respected by us according as you treat us as equals and not in the mistaken manner which now obtains, believing yourselves lords and masters of our lives and property.”
The mordant edge of Sandino’s humor was soon felt by Marine Captain G. D. Hatfield, whose force of thirty-seven Marines and forty Nicaraguair constables occupied Ocotal, the largest town in the province of Nueva Segovia, and formed the spearhead of the forces charged with running down the rebel. Captain Hatfield and Sandino exchanged a number of letters inviting each other to surrender or, failing that, to “come out and fight.” Sandino easily outdid the Marine commander in bravura. One of his messages was decorated with a drawing of a guerrilla brandishing a machete over the prostrate form of a Marine; it was signed, “Your obedient servant, who wishes to put you in a handsome tomb with flowers.” Meanwhile, Sandino was striking hard at foreign-owned mining properties in the northern mountains. The managers of French and German mines near Ocotal were kidnapped and held for $5,000 ransom. Sandino and his followers also wrecked the gold mine operated by Charles Butters, an American, at San Albino, where Sandino had worked as a clerk just before joining the Liberal revolution.
On July 15, on orders from his superiors, Captain Hatfield sent Sandino an ultimatum demanding that he surrender within twenty-four hours or be wiped out. “I will not surrender,” Sandino replied, “and will await you here. I want a free country or death.”
Actually he had already decided against “awaiting” the Marines in the mountains above Ocotal and had begun deploying for an attack. One day after receiving the ultimatum, at 1 A.M. on July 16, he launched a furious assault on the garrison at Ocotal with an estimated six hundred followers. Only luck saved Captain Hatfield and his men from destruction. A Marine sentry patrolling one hundred yards from the city hall sighted a shadow moving along a line of bushes. The shadow, startled, fired on him. The Marine raced to the city hall, where Hatfield’s headquarters were located, and the town’s defenders were alerted just before Sandino struck in force. The Sandinistas had infiltrated the town and were closing in on the main defense positions around the city hall.
Outnumbered by almost ten to one, the Marines and the constables reacted with admirable discipline and poured rifle, grenade, and machine-gun fire on the attackers from the rooftops, courtyards, and windows. One group of Sandino’s men charged into the courtyard behind the city hall and killed a Marine, but was forced to withdraw. In the square fronting on Hatfield’s command post, the partisans were caught in a crossfire between Marines in the city hall and the Guardia (constabulary) in the nearby church tower. Thomas G. Bruce, a Marine first sergeant commissioned as a lieutenant in the Guardia, lay in the street behind a heavy machine gun and accounted for many of the Sandinistas trying to cross the square.
At dawn, Sandino realized his surprise attack had failed, and he withdrew his followers from the center of town. The garrison, he decided, would have to be starved out. A heavy fire was poured at long range into the two buildings held by Hatfield and his men.
Two Marine reconnaissance planes, part of the nine-plane unit of World War I de Havillands based in a cow pasture outside Managua, happened to fly over Ocotal late that morning on a routine patrol. On glimpsing the battle below they streaked for their base. At three o’clock that afternoon a flight of five planes led by Major Ross E. Rowell swooped out of rainy skies and proceeded to demonstrate what air support could accomplish even in what the Marines called a “bamboo war.” Major Rowell and his flight loosed small bombs and strafed Sandino’s positions for a half hour before running out of ammunition.
At nightfall, Captain Hatfield was able to report that Ocotal’s defenders had given Sandino a sharp setback. His own casualties included one Marine killed and two wounded and four members of the Guardia wounded, against reports from residents of the town that forty of Sandino’s followers had been killed and an unknown number wounded.
Sandino, at any rate, was forced to lift the siege and pull back into the mountains to the east when a column of Marine reinforcements arrived. Several days later he issued a proclamation that he had attacked Ocotal to “prove that we prefer death to slavery” and added that “whoever believes we are downcast by the heavy casualties misjudges my army …” Another column of Marines and Guardia was sent into the mountainous heart of guerrilla country and occupied the village of Jicaro, which Sandino had renamed Sandino City and designated as his “capital.”