Date: Thu, 22 Aug 1996 10:19:41 -0500
> S * IN ACTIV-L
> print 08180
Revolutionary Cuba: Che Guevara Describes `Baptism Of Fire'
Excerpts from Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58, by Ernesto Che Guevara. In the Militant, Vol. 59, no. 48, 25 December 1995
The following are excerpts from Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58 by Ernesto Che Guevara. The book was written as a series of articles that appeared in Verde Olivo (Olive Drab), the weekly publication of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. The first article, on the battle of Alegri'a del Pi'o, was published in February 1961. It is published below along with the author's introduction. The last article in the Verde Olivo series appeared in 1964.
Early next year Pathfinder Press will release a new edition of the Episodes, including material previously not available in English. These excerpts are copyright Pathfinder Press and are reprinted by permission.
For a long time we have considered how to write a history of our revolution that would encompass all its many facets and aspects. The leaders of the revolution have often privately or publicly expressed their desire to write such a history, but the tasks are many, the years pass, and the memory of the insurrectional struggle is dissolving into the past. We have not yet clearly set down these events, which already belong to the history of the Americas.
For this reason I am beginning a series of personal reminiscences of the attacks, skirmishes, and battles in which I participated. It is not my intention that this fragmentary history, based on remembrances and a few notes, should be taken as a full account. On the contrary, I hope that all those who lived through these events will develop them further.
The fact that I personally was limited to the fighting at a given point on the map of Cuba during the entire struggle prevented me from participating in battles and events in other places. I believe that to make our revolutionary actions understandable and to do so in an orderly manner, I can best begin with the first battle, the only one Fidel participated in that went against our forces: the surprise attack at Alegri'a de Pi'o.
There are many survivors of this battle and each of them is encouraged to contribute his recollections so that the story may be filled out. I ask only that the narrator be strictly truthful. He should not present any inaccuracy in order to clarify his own role, exaggerate it, or claim to have been where he was not. I ask that after writing a few pages to the best of one's ability, in line with one's education and disposition, the author then criticize them as thoroughly as possible in order to remove every word that does not stick to the absolute facts, or in which the author is not fully certain. With this aim I begin my recollections.
[Published in Verde Olivo, February. 26, 1961]
Alegri'a de Pi'o
Alegri'a de Pi'o is a place in Oriente province, Niquero municipality, near Cabo Cruz. There, on December 5, 1956, the dictatorship's forces took us by surprise.
We were exhausted from a trek not long so much as painful. We had landed on December 2, at a place known as Las Coloradas beach. We had lost almost all our equipment, and with new boots we had trudged for endless hours through saltwater marshes. As a result, almost the entire troop was suffering from open blisters on their feet. But boots and fungus infections were not our only enemies. We had reached Cuba following a seven-day voyage across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, without food, in a boat in poor condition, with almost everyone plagued by seasickness, unaccustomed to sea travel as we were. We had left the port of Tuxpan November 25, a day when a stiff northern gale was blowing and any navigation was impossible. All this had left its mark upon our troop made up of novices who had never seen combat.
All that was left of our war equipment was our rifles, cartridge belts, and a few wet rounds of ammunition. Our medical supplies had disappeared, and most of our knapsacks had been left behind in the swamps. The previous night we had passed through one of the canefields of the Niquero sugar company, owned by Julio Lobo at the time. We had managed to satisfy our hunger and thirst by eating sugarcane, but due to our lack of experience we had left a trail of cane peelings and bagasse all over the place. Not that the soldiers looking for us needed any trail to follow our steps, for it had been our guide-as we found out years later-who had betrayed us and brought them there. We had let him go the night before-an error we were to repeat several times during our long struggle until we learned that civilians whose backgrounds were unknown to us had to be closely watched in dangerous areas. We should never have permitted our false guide to leave.
By daybreak on December 5 hardly anyone could go a step further. On the verge of collapse, the men would walk a short distance and then beg for a long rest. Because of this, orders were given to halt at the edge of a canefield, in a thicket close to the dense woods. Most of us slept through the morning hours.
At noon we began to notice unusual signs of activity. Piper planes as well as other types of small army planes together with private aircraft began to circle overhead. Some of our group went on peacefully cutting and eating sugarcane without realizing they were perfectly visible from the enemy planes, which were circling slowly at low altitudes. I was troop physician at the time, and it was my duty to treat the blistered feet. I recall my last patient that morning: his name was Humberto Lamothe and it was to be his last day on earth. I still remember how tired and worn-out he looked as he walked from my improvised first- aid station to his post, still carrying in his hand the shoes he could not wear.
Comrade Montane' and I were leaning against a tree talking about our respective children, eating our meager rations-half a sausage and two crackers-when we heard a shot. Within seconds, a hail of bullets-at least that's the way it seemed to our sagging spirits during that baptism of fire-descended upon our eighty-two-man troop. My rifle was not one of the best; I had deliberately asked for it because I was in very poor physical condition due to an attack of asthma that had bothered me throughout our ocean voyage and I did not want to be responsible for wasting a good weapon.
I can hardly remember the sequence of events. I recall that Almeida, then a captain, came beside me to get orders, but there was nobody there to issue them. Later I learned that Fidel had tried vainly to get everybody together into the adjoining canefield, which could be reached by simply crossing a path. The surprise had been too great and the gunfire had been too heavy. Almeida went back to take charge of his group. At that moment a comrade dropped a box of ammunition almost at my feet. I pointed to it, and he answered me with an anguished expression, which I remember perfectly, that seemed to say "It's too late for ammunition boxes," and immediately went toward the canefield. (He was murdered by Batista's henchmen some time later.)
Perhaps this was the first time I was faced in real life with the dilemma of choosing between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. There, at my feet, were a knapsack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. I couldn't possibly carry them both; they were too heavy. I picked up the box of ammunition, leaving the medicine, and started to cross the clearing, heading for the canefield. I clearly remember Faustino Pe'rez, kneeling and firing his submachine gun. Near me, a comrade named Albentosa was walking toward the canefield. A burst of gunfire hit us both. I felt a sharp blow to my chest and a wound in my neck, and I thought for certain I was dead. Albentosa, spewing blood from his nose and mouth and from a deep wound made by a .45-caliber bullet, shouted something like, "They've killed me!" and began to wildly fire his rifle at no one in particular. Flat on the ground I turned to Faustino, saying, "I'm hit!"-only I used a stronger word-and Faustino, still firing away, looked at me and said it was nothing, but I could read in his eyes that he considered me as good as dead.
Still on the ground, I fired a shot in the direction of the woods, following an impulse similar to that of the other wounded man. Immediately, I began to think about the best way to die, since all seemed lost. I recalled an old Jack London story where the hero, aware that he is bound to freeze to death in the wastes of Alaska, leans calmly against a tree and prepares to die in a dignified manner. That was the only thing that came to my mind at that moment.
Someone on his knees shouted that we had better surrender, and I heard a voice-later I found out it was Camilo Cienfuegos-shouting: "Nobody surrenders here!" followed by a four-letter word. Ponce approached me, agitated and breathing hard, and showed me a bullet wound, apparently through his lungs. He said, "I'm wounded," and I replied indifferently, "Me too." Then Ponce, and other comrades who were still unhurt, crawled toward the canefield. For a moment I was left alone, just lying there waiting to die. Almeida approached, urging me on, and despite the intense pain I dragged myself into the canefield. There next to a tree I saw Comrade Rau'l Sua'rez, whose thumb had been blown away by a bullet, being attended by Faustino Pe'rez, who was bandaging his hand. Then everything became a blur, as low-flying planes strafed the field.
This only added to the confusion, with scenes ranging from the Dantesque to the grotesque-such as a comrade of considerable corpulence desperately trying to hide behind a single stalk of sugarcane, while in the midst of the din of gunfire another man kept on yelling "Silence!" for no apparent reason.
A group was organized, headed by Almeida, including Lt. Ramiro Valde's, today a commander, and comrades Chao and Beni'tez. With Almeida leading the way, we crossed the last path among the rows of cane and reached the safety of the woods. The first shouts of "Fire!" were then heard in the canefield and columns of flame and smoke began to rise. I cannot say this for certain, however, since I was thinking more of the bitterness of defeat and the imminence of my death than of the events that were occurring. We walked until the darkness of night made it difficult to go on, and we decided to sleep, all huddled together in a heap. We were starving and thirsty, and the mosquitoes added to our misery.
This was our baptism of fire on December 5, 1956, on the outskirts of Niquero. Such was the beginning of forging what would become the Rebel Army.
[Published in Verde Olivo, February 26, 1961]
To get an introductory 12-week subscription to the Militant in the U.S., send $10 US to: The Militant, 410 West Street, New York, NY 10014.