Mr. Coolidge’s Jungle War

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It was Marine air reconnaissance that finally tipped off the American authorities that a new Sandino build-up was in progress. The “squadron” in the Managua cow pasture had been reinforced with new Corsair fighter planes, forerunners of the Navy’s World War II carrier planes, and they kept a close surveillance over the mountains of Nueva Segovia province where Sandino was presumed to be hiding. In mid-October it finally became apparent to the Marine headquarters in Managua that their field commanders were right: Sandino was about to stir up trouble again.

The Marine aviators flying over the mountains of Nueva Segovia observed much activity on the trails. In October a plane piloted by Lieutenant Earl A. Thomas, with Sergeant Frank E. Dowdell as his observer, crashed near Quilali in the heart of Sandino country. The pilot of another plane in the same flight saw the two men crash-land and escape from the wreckage. A patrol was sent out to rescue them but became engaged in a heavy fire fight with an estimated three hundred guerrillas; the patrol was forced to withdraw after three of its men were killed. Marine intelligence officers later learned that Thomas and Dowdell were killed by Sandinistas after they took refuge in a cave.

About that time the Marines managed, from aerial reconnaissance and other reports, to pinpoint the center of Sandino activity. It was a mile-high, heavily forested mountain named El Chipote—meaning in Spanish slang “back-handed slap”—in southeastern Nueva Segovia. The mountain was fifteen miles long and shaped like a battleship. On its prow Sandino had established a fortified camp scored with trenches and pitted with foxholes and machine-gun nests. The Coco River flowed down just to the south of the summit of El Chipote, the Jicaro through a valley on its western flank.

Rooting Sandino out of that stronghold became the Marines’ immediate objective. On December 21, 1927, two columns set out on converging marches toward the fortified hogback of El Chipote. They were curiously undermanned, considering the fact that Marine intelligence credited Sandino with having close to a thousand men under his command. One column—one hundred fifty Marines, seven members of the Guardia, and a long pack train, commanded by Captain Richard Livingston—marched from Jinotega; another column, commanded by First Lieutenant Merton A. Richal and consisting of sixty Marines and constabulary, set out from Pueblo Nuevo. They were to meet at Quilali on the Jicaro River and join forces for the climb up El Chipote.

By the morning of December 30, both columns were within a few miles of Quilali. Suddenly Sandino’s followers, awaiting their foes’ slow and ponderous approach, sprang a double ambush. Less than a mile south of Quilali, as it proceeded along a narrow trail clinging to the flank of El Chipote, Captain Livingston’s column was attacked by a large force of Sandinistas from concealed positions above the trail. The guerrillas rained down fire from automatic rifles and trench mortars. (The mortars, homemade, had been produced by Sandino’s armory at the Butters mine a few miles up the Jicaro. They were fashioned from lengths of iron pipe, and the missiles they fired were rawhide pouches packed with scraps of iron, stones, and glass fragments; the pouches were tamped into the pipes with charges of dynamite.) Before the column could fight its way out of the trap, five Marines were killed and twenty-three others wounded, six of them, including Captain Livingston, seriously. Their pack train was scattered and most of their supplies lost. Livingston’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Moses J. Gould, took over the job of leading the detachment to the village of Quilali through snipers’ fire on both sides of the trail.

A short time later the other column was similarly surprised a few miles west of Quilali. It took that detachment two days to fight its way out of a succession of ambushes; Lieutenant Richal himself was seriously wounded and three other Marines were also hit before they reached Quilali. Lieutenant Bruce, the machine gunner who had fought so valiantly at Ocotal, now commanded Richal’s Guardia detachment; he was killed in one of the running battles.

The remains of the two columns barricaded themselves in the score of stone-walled and tile-roofed houses of Quilali; between them they could muster less than two hundred men able to shoulder arms. Against them were an estimated seven hundred guerrillas who had obviously been trained to a pitch far above that of the usual Central American bush army. The village was under constant fire. Its defenders would be starved out unless relief arrived in a hurry.