Date: Sun, 28 Dec 1997 00:23:00 -0400
She lay dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seemed so young and unharmed
By Larry Daley, 27 December 1997
Here is the second revision of: She lay dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seemed so young and unharmed
It was November or December of 1958, I was with Company Six, Column One, in late 1958. Company Six was lead by Orlando Rodriguez Puerta and Column One is Castro's own column. We were winning on the plains of the Cauto, the forces of Cuban Dictator Batista were hiding out in their strong places fearing our attacks.
We were in a large pasture by the Central highway, just west Contramaestre or was it Jiguani a little west of where an overpass makes a dogleg to the north and then the east. The road was about 150 yards away a two lane ribbon of black asphalt going east west. A barbwire cattle fence separates the highway from the field. The low bush and short grass of an overgrazed pasture spread below, between us and the road.
Beyond the road is a mixed savanna of tall trees, swamps and pasture extending north to the horizon line. To our right the road curved north, went over the over pass, and then returned running to the east. The height of the overpass, sitting on skinny concrete pillars, blocked most of our view to the east north east.
We were on a slight rise about 150 yards south of the highway. The rise was covered with short saplings among higher trees. We stop to set up an ambush.
I was terrified because if tanks came down the highway there was nothing we had that could stop them, and there was nowhere to run. So I took one of the shovels and began to dig a short narrow slot trench. First the others laughed and made remarks, but I kept on digging. Then the others began to look around and think. They looked and they thought. Then one of them said: 'it's my turn with the shovel'.
I did not get a chance with any of the shovels the rest of that day. After a while the rise was covered with foxholes and short trenches. Still unhappy about security I cut the droopy leafed saplings and placed them around my trench. The idea caught on. That was fine that day it looked green.
Next day the leaves had wilted in the hot sun. I am walking on the road, the Central Highway. Walking alone along the empty, empty road, scouting something or other. I am distracted by some vague thought, I do not listen, I daydream. An avioneta, a machine gun carrying spotter plane, comes out from behind some trees and flies towards me. I have no where to go. I am in the open.
The avioneta makes one pass. I fire my accurate Springfield 30.06 that I had swapped for my San Christobal after Guisa. If the avioneta gets its machinegun going I am lost, there is no cover. My mind in its panic dissociates fear from fight, a strange focused calm comes over me.
I try to make every one of my rifles slow fire count. I must make every accurate, powerful rounds count, every shot absolutely perfectly aimed. I fire one plane length ahead. I fire once, twice, perhaps three times. I must have hit something, because the avioneta, breaks out from its run, and suddenly climbs high. Happy in false triumph, I too am a fool, the spotter plane now knows that rebels are near the spot.
Time passes I return to the ambush. A man comes across the field he looked familiar, but I was not sure. We stop him. He gives a cock and bull story about crossing the field. We do not believe him.
Then somebody else recognizes him, he is Jacinto the barefoot spy who had escaped from Las Pe~nas. I said nothing not wanting to see him shot right there. It is too late somebody else recognized him, mercifully, he was not shot there, he was taken to headquarters. His escape from Las Pe~nas has only given him six more months of life.
There are three gunners, just nondescript short, and brown. Their hairs is black and straight, their faces too young, or with too much Taino, to grow a beard. They are just boys perhaps seventeen, yet they are charged with the machine gun. They sit on the rise south of the central, their red bandanas around their necks and set up their 30.06 air cooled, belt fed, Browning on its tripod. A black metal box, a heavy air cooled barrel, sitting on three wide spread low legs; it is set up right in the open.
I ask them about their red bandanas they say it is to honor the African gods, I am not sure they tell the truth, for their skins are not dark enough for Africa. They are from Manzanillo the home of the communists in Cuba, does red mean red? I do not know. Much to my horror, Captain Puerta tells a few of us to give the machine-gunners rifle support, to share the hostile fire that their stupidity and lack of stealth will surely bring.
We dig in even further, the machine gunners do not. I suggested as tactfully as I could that they should perhaps dig in. One of them replies when "you are going to die you are going to die" something that even then I recognize as a sophism of the worst sort. They, just boys, are obviously marked for death.
We watch the machine-gunners a while. In the heat of midday waves of shimmering air ripple above the black perforate cooling jacket of the machine gun barrel and over their red bandanas like spectres of ghosts laughing at a foolish death. We hope they will dig in, the machine gunners do not. So then discretely and quietly we move our positions as far away from them as possible and dig in even deeper.
We know violent death. We have been escopeteros. We know, from Coroneau death at Guisa that the machine gunners will be a magnet for enemy fire. If the enemy tries to force its way west on the Central high way we will fail, because the machine gunners are not dug in. The Casquitos have plenty of fire power, most have San Chrisobal automatic long range carbines, many more machine guns of their own. Soon after first contact our machine gunners will be dead and with their deaths we will lose the support of the machine gun.
The three fates, measure the end of the machine gunners lives. Atropos the mother of atropine will widen their eyes and prepare to snip the thread of their lives. We know then that outflanked we will have to retreat across open country taking losses. Those idiots are going to kill us all.
We hear firing to the east-north-east. We cannot see anything the overpass blocks the view. A runner comes up breathless giving orders to bring up the machine gun to the point of contact. Fearing the contagion of the self doomed machine gunners, I ask if that is an order for general support or just for the machine gun. The runner, to my great relief says just the machine gun.
The Casquitos, the helmeted ones, the Batista soldiers, our enemies, make their move out of Jiguani or Contramaestre, they are trying to cross the plain beyond the swamp to the north of the Central trying to reach Bayamo. They are moving in the opposite direction on a similar route to that successfully taken by Spanish General Pando in 1898. The firing to the east north east is intense. We can hear the individual rifle shots, and the deadly rhythm of the automatic fire from the San Christobals.
The machine gunners followed the runner and were soon out of sight. Firing became more, and more intense, the San Christobal fire burst grow together, with the MI rifle fire and the heavy beat of the machine guns, even that rises mixing the elements now indistinguishable to a loud sustained roar. Then the individual bursts are heard again, they slackened and become sporadic.
Later we find out that the self-doomed machine gunners had placed their weapon too close to the small, white, concrete block structure perhaps an irrigation pump house where the Casquitos were anchoring their positions. The machine gunners, had not pulled back to find a position from which they could sustain killing fire. Instead the poor doomed boys, unwise to the end, lay firing in the open field and very soon two of them are dead, belly wounded somehow by ground grazing bullets. The third gunner pulls John Wayne and runs firing the machine gun, burning his hands, but surviving.
The idiocy of the machine gunners gives the Casquitos a chance. The Casquitos take it and run. They are in trucks, we are on foot, they get away. They are going west north of our ambush site. They are moving fast on the firm soil of the pastures north of the swamp. We cannot stop them. The Casquitos now free from accurate fire from the machine gun continued to the west over plains towards Bayamo. The self-doomed machine gunners die for nothing.
We all rise and go north across the highway in lost pursuit, in failed attempt to cut off the Casquitos. We hear the exchange of fire of the pursued and the pursuers. The Casquitos, having killed our machine gunners have move further to the north of us, then we hear the fire change direction as they try to escape to the north west. We, are further west, and try to cut them off by crossing the Central, and going due north.
One thing the Batista planes did well was to make us take cover. The first low whine of the armed spotter planes or the much heavier drone of the B-26s makes us seek shelter to hide; and thus the noise the planes were passing over was sufficient to immobilize us.
Our greatest terror was to be caught in the middle of a great pasture far from trees or bushes. There in caught the open, our only recourse was to stand straight up. So very straight up, by the fences pretending to be a fence post, or worse far from the fence to roll up in a ball and pretend to be a boulder. Here we have the great trees of the plains of Cuba to hide behind.
We could not move forward when the planes begin firing. The best we can do, we are so lucky to be by large trees. We walk around to the bullet shade--the otherside of the great tree trunks-- as the planes circled and shoot at us. It is a matter of honor not to push others out of the way, to avoid the error of making it a kind of potentially lethal game of musical chairs each vying and pushing to get the most protected spot. Such a game that would have soon attracted the lethal attention of those keen eyed pilots and gunners selected for their excellent vision.
Airplane attacks warn the Casquitos to be ready for us, and in the case of the sugar mill Central America this will allow the Batista soldiers, the "Casquitos ", to ambush us and cause us a number of casualties. Here on plains of the Cauto near Santa Rita, the two B-26 strafing our group do not allow us to block the escape of a convoy the Casquitos.
The pair of B-26 fighter bombers delay us, their fire is withering, they normally have eight fifty caliber machine guns. Rafaelito my cousin the pilot, say's they only had four, we did not count. The bursts of fifty caliber fire boom like thunder. I spend time circling around a giant spreading tree, it was not a raintree, the algarobbo, for it had smooth bark, it must have been some kind of ficus. What ever it was it could stop 0.50 calibre bullets. None of us are hit.
The planes go away.
We continue north and try to cross a swampy area of head high cortadera, razor edged, saw grass. I and two others are sent ahead, but we cannot not locate the heavy incoming fire that was all around us, chopping down the grass. So with some speed I and my two friends withdraw, report the situation and wait behind cover. There is nothing more we can do.
Later things calmed down and we followed the tracks of the casquito's trucks, south of the endless fence line, gathering whatever ammunition they had dropped. We watched the bleeding, wounded, giant, white, Charolais cattle grazing. At the end of some miles we find, a broken down flat bed truck, a pile of deliberately burnt, twisted rifles and the woman. I still see her in my dreams, and still don't know who she was, and why the Casquitos left her there.
She lay dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seemed so young and unharmed. She is an ordinary woman not strikingly beautiful, nor ugly, her hair is dark, her face unlined. Her body is slim, her breasts and hips normal, feminine, and ordinary. Her calf length dark dress covers her with modesty flairing out as if she was running, one shoe, a city woman's pump, has fallen off.
What was she a noncommissioned officers daughter, a soldier's wife, a generous camp follower enjoying unrestrained the burning passions of ardent young soldiers. Was she an informer who must leave with the Casquitos or face death at the hands of the relatives of the betrayed, or a hard working prostitute servicing tens of soldiers a night? I do not know, it does not matter, she is dead.
I look closer and then see the wound that had penetrated through her shoulder. I looked at the pile of fire destroyed, twisted, Springfield 30-06 rifles, although they were intact, none seemed useful and I think the bolts were gone. The Casquitos must have had time to set them on fire and destroy them. Perhaps, our Asturian armorer machinist from "El Sordo" could do something with them.
Larry Daley copyright@1997, permission to copy granted for non-commercial purposes
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