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NICARAGUA: The Battle of Ocotal

NICARAGUA. Geography: Nicaragua has a long and disputed border with Honduras. About a quarter way up from the Pacific,the piece of Nicaragua jogs into Honduras, I don't know how that fits into the dispute. Years ago, my friend Heliodoro Valle was Honduran Ambassador to Mexico. When a newsman asked him about the border. He simply said "it is in dispute". This was sufficient for the Honduran government to fire him. Ocotal is at the base of this jog. Now the Pan American Highway goes through there. Nearly sixty years ago I went through it, before the highway was finished.

Nicaragua. History: "In 1901 the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty gave the US the undisputed right to build a canal across the Isthmus, In 1909 the US supported a Conservative insurrection against the Liberal dictator JosÚ Santos Zalaya. In 1910 agreements were signed making Nicaragua a financial ward of US bankers. From 1912 to 1933 US Marines repeatedly intervened to support the Conservative Party. President Solorzano was ousted by a rival Conservative group, which proclaimed Emiliano Chamorro president in 1926. This resulted in a civil war. The US mediated and brought about the Pact of Espino Negro. A Liberal group led by Augusto CÚsar Sandino refused to sign the pact and denounced US intervention. This is the confused background of the battle of Ocotal.

Marine General Sullivan says: "I was very interested in Henry Carlisle's words on the first "collateral damage" deaths from aerial bombardment during the battle at Ocotal, 16 July 1927, shortly after midnight up through mid afternoon. I found a detailed report on the battle in a book called Soldiers of the Sea by Robert D Heinl Jr, (United States Naval Institue, 1962). It's an amazing story and ushered in the first Close Air Support ever conducted in warfare and, of course, it is still the hallmark for the Marine-Air Ground Team today. The chronology of the battle can be found on pp. 267-269. A summary of the battle is as follows: The Marines had a small garrison in Ocotal of 37 Marines with a Capt Hatfield in charge. The Nicaraguan Guardia across the plaza, also commanded by a Marine, Lt Darnall, had 47 "guardias". Both the Marines and the Guardias were very lightly armed and , in fact slept with their rifles due to the impending threat. Capt Hatfield heard that Sandino was close by and passed the word that it was time for him to come in and surrender. Sandino and his forces came in all right but not to surrender. By late in the night on the 15th most of his forces had drifted into Ocotal. He had a force of 800 men and 8 machine guns. Sandino's men also carried extra rifles and ammunition to be issued to sympathizers in the town. More than one hundred habitants of the Liberal persuasion responded. Telegraph lines were cut, and a team was selected to blow up the local airstrip where planes could land. Additionally they were told to blow up any Marine aircraft, however, none were there. It was a brilliant plan, and Sandino related that the purpose of the attack was to "drink Yankee blood". A Marine sentry at 0115 on 16 July saw a suspicious figure moving and challenged him, but the challenge was met with a burst of gunfire. Seconds later a machine gun opened fire and within 3 minutes both the garrison and the Guardia were taken fire from all directions. The battle raged for 2 hours and then slackened as Sandino's bugles sounded recall. An hour later a second attack commenced but, it too, was repelled;steady firing continued till 0810. Once again, the Nicaraguans checked their fire. But this time a flag of truce came forward to the Marine garrison delivered by a Sandino envoy. Sandino complimented Capt Hatfield on his resistance but stated he knew they were out of water (they weren't) and that with overwhelming odds he demanded their surrender within the hour. Capt Hatfield, feeling that Sandino exhibited supreme impudence, sent the envoy scurrying back saying "Marine don't know how to surrender and, water or no water, we will stick it out till captured or killed. We will commence firing as soon as the bearer of the truce flag has turned the nearest corner!" At that very moment in Managua a section of DH-4s were getting ready to take-off on normal patrol. At 1010 the two aircraft chugged over Ocotal, and it was apparent something was wrong. One pilot landed his aircraft on a deserted airsrip, collared a frightened townsman and was told what was happening. The other aircraft had flown over the Marine garrison and saw panels displayed in the compound that said "Being attacked by Sandino". Both pilots then expended all their ammo in strafing attacks and then scampered back to Managua to get reinforcements. At 1230, Maj Rowell, Commanding Officer of Marine Observation Squadron 1, launched out of Managua with all the operational aircraft he had, 5 DH-4s,and flew to Ocotal through some poor weather but they made it by 1435, anyhow. Each aircraft had four 25 lb bombs and all the machine gun bullets that could be belted. The attacks totally decimated the enemy and this was the first dive bombing attack in the history of war. Major Rowell relates the tactics they used and he states "After the second pass of the planes, the enemy began pouring out of the town and ran wildly to cover, horses were dispersed, and in general there was a wild scramble. This afforded excellent targets for the planes with their machine guns. Bombs were reserved for larger groups." They were strafing at 300 feet and at the slow speed of those aircraft it was deadly accurate. After 45 minutes the DH-4s were running low on gas so they broke it off and headed home. The battle of Ocotal was over! After the planes departed the Marines and Guardias warily mopped up the battered town. Approximately 300 Sandino bandits and sympathizing townspeople had been killed, about two-thirds by Rowell's dive bombing and straffing. Capt Hatfield commented that "practically every Liberal family in town being in mourning". Friendly casualties were one Marine killed and and four Marines and guardias wounded. This tremendous defeat of Sandino in his first major battle gave a sense of false security to the Conservatives who thought they'd never hear from Sandino again. As history tells us this was not to be the case! I believe the "collateral damage deaths" were minimal as the townspeople sided with the wrong side and paid the price of fleeing in the open under an air attack. All this is such fascinating reading and the courage of all combatants under such Spartan condition really earns my admiration and respect..."

My comment: Again, we see history from two different perspectives. Sandino┤s Liberal troops are not regarded as "bandits" by most Nicaraguans, for whom Sandino is a hero. A big picture of him hung over the old Managua cathedral destroyed by an earthquake. My guess is that it is not in the new cathedral, built with American money and surrounded by barbed wire for fear of attack. The "first dive bombing attack in the history of war" was a first, but Nicaraguans do not appreciate it. We must get hold of some Nicaraguan history textbooks to see how they tell the story. Henry Carlisle can help us here. He must know some Nicaraguans who can give us their "Carleton Beals" viewpoint and send us a history textbook for us to analyze. Or perhaps two, one giving the Conservative, the other the Liberal view of history.

Ronald Hilton - 4/2/02