- 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
Once again it was the fledgling Marine air power, represented by the two-seater Corsairs and obsolescent de Havillands under Major Rowell’s command at Managua, that was called upon to balance the odds. Planes on constant reconnaissance over rebel territory spotted the fighting at Quilali. Lieutenant Gould, now in command of the combined ground force, strung messages on wires stretched between two poles, which the pilots picked off with grappling hooks. Among other things, Gould asked if his wounded could be evacuated.
A dashing and skillful pilot, Lieutenant Christian F. Schilt, volunteered to fly out from Managua, land at Quilali, and remove the wounded—or at least try to. Meanwhile Gould and his men hacked out a landing strip. The only possible place where Schilt could land his Corsair was on the three-hundred-foot stretch of the road that ran through the village. Houses on both sides of the road were demolished and cleared away. Then, with picks and shovels dropped by other planes, Gould and his men widened the strip to seventy feet. Lieutenant Schilt would have to land on and take off from a rough patch of ground about the size of a football field.
Somehow Schilt managed to pull off the evacuation despite intense harassing fire from Sandino’s men in the surrounding hills. Another Marine pilot circled overhead and poured machine-gun fire into Sandino’s positions while Schilt made ten nerve-shredding landings in the besieged village, took out ten of the most seriously wounded, and brought in supplies and a relief officer; it was one of the greatest flying feats of all time. Schilt was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Marine air unit continued to support the detachment at Quilali by dropping ammunition and supplies, and by strafing the enemy positions. Captain R. W. Peard, the officer flown in by Lieutenant Schilt, took over the command and moved it to the San Albino mine, a more suitable base for operations against Sandino’s camp on the mountain towering over them. Two relief columns under Major Archibald Young also arrived, by truck and on foot. On January 14, 1928, Captain Peard led his command up the trails leading to the summit of El Chipote, supported by a flight of dive-bombing planes, and captured one of Sandino’s outposts. The guerrillas’ camp itself was repeatedly bombed and strafed. On January 26, Major Young’s reinforcements joined them and the combined force attacked Sandino’s headquarters—and found it empty.
The moment that news of the heavy fighting at the base of El Chipote was received at Washington, orders were given for a heavy reinforcement of the Marine units in Nicaragua. General Feland was restored to command there, and rifle battalions sailed once again from Guantänamo and other bases until there were 5,700 Marines on the scene. The build-up came at an embarrassing time for the United States. It was the eve of the Pan-American Congress at Havana, and many Latin-American nations were restive over the American intervention. The State Department defended the increase of troops in Nicaragua by declaring that Sandino’s guerrillas were “regarded as ordinary bandits, not only by the Government of Nicaragua, but by both political parties in that country,” and that American forces would stay only long enough to make certain that a free and fair election would be held. At the conference the delegates of Mexico and El Salvador tried to bring the Nicaraguan question to the floor but were outmaneuvered by the U.S. delegate, former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes.
Meanwhile, the Marines and their Guardia allies were launching intensive efforts to catch Sandino and stamp out his rebellion. The northern area, comprising Nueva Segovia province and the adjoining territory where Sandino’s bands were operating, was declared a military zone and was handed over to Colonel Robert H. Dunlap and his 11th Marine Regiment to be pacified. His patrols moved throughout Sandino country, often supplied from the air by newly arrived Fokker transport planes. On February 27, 1928, a Marine patrol was ambushed in southern Nueva Segovia: five were killed and eight wounded before a relief column rescued them.