Date: Wed, 31 Dec 1997 00:34:04 -0400
Date: Tue, 30 Dec 1997 13:21:43 -0800
Ambush at Central America (rev 2)
By Larry Daley, 30 December 1997
The corn was taller than most of our heads, and since we had all grown up in the country we walk down between the rows respecting the crop. The air is cool it was early morning and it is December, 1958. We, the Castro led rebels fighting Batista now control a few town such as Guisa and Bueycito, and most of the country side. Here in Old Oriente Province we still do not control the larger cities like Bayamo and Holguin.
We are winning. We are confident, perhaps we too confident. We are well armed now. The surviving member of the machine gun crew carries the 30.06 belt fed air cooled machine gun, his new crew carrying, the ammunition and the tripod. Our leader Captain Orlando Rodriguez Puerta tells us our orders. We are to go into, the sugar factory town "Central America," in the old muncipality and old battle ground of the Wars of Independence Palma Soriano. Great grandfather has been here, sixty years before. This seems not to offer much danger, it seems a harmless romp.
I had my 30.06 Springfield 1903, the others semiautomatic 30.06 Garands and automatic San Christobals. The precision of the Springfield and the accurate fire of the Garand are well known, but the San Christobal was different. The San Christobal, a heavier version of a 9 mm Beretta double trigger Italian submachine design, was made in the City of San Christobal Dominican Republic by Trujillo supporters; it shot the 30 calibre carbine round. Pulling the front trigger, the San Christobal fired single shots much like the standard US carbine, pulling the back trigger released a torrent of very rapid fire.
Without warning without us hearing the engine, a spotter plane, a belt fed machine gun armed avioneta, flies over the cornfield right over our heads. The plane turns towards us, we know that pilot can see us and his gunner is preparing to fire his machine gun at us. We open fire in a torrent of bullets, the sound is deafening, the boom of the Springfield and the Garands, vrooming swoosh of the San Christobals, and the steady rapid beat of the machine gun fill the world with noise.
I was aiming one to one and half lengths ahead of the plane but most were firing directly at it and thus the bullets were falling behind the plane. The pilot and his plane fled banking steeply upward and to one side, we were amused at his desperate haste, for a moment.
Then as our ears began to recover, we realized what had happened. We had lost surprise, and realizing this we begin to run. We are no longer careful of the corn, we crush it as we run towards the little town. We run faster, we must get there before the Batista soldiers, the Casquitos in the town react. We run until we reached a simple tidy five strand barbwire fence and begin to go through its lower strands.
The fence seems to mark a time space discontinuity, a time warp. In the corn field we are in rural Cuba a land we know so well. Beyond the fence it is another country, a country strange to us.
On the other side is a paved street lined one each side with neat and comfortable wooden houses, a piece of small town USA transplanted to Cuba. Thick trunked, wide and shady canopied, unknown, perhaps sweet gum, trees lined the apparently bucolic street. Suddenly we could be in Maryland or Alabama on a quiet autumn day.
The streets and houses are deserted and quiet, nobody walks the street, nobody is in the houses. The towns people, 'they know', we realize to our horror, that we rebels are coming. They have fled. The street leads after a few blocks to the Central the immense complex of large, high, corrugated sided and roofed, dull colored, unreflective yet not rusty, metal buildings of the sugar factory. The giant grinding mills, immense steel maws, which swallow railroad car loads of cane at time are silent.
Nobody moves on the street, no children play, no old folks rock on the porches, no wives gossip, over the empty verandas. No men rest from their work shifts. The second story bed rooms are empty, no secret lovers meet behind pulled curtains with pillow muffled cries of passion, while husbands work and children go to school. There are no cars parked here, no dogs bark, no cats scatter out of the way.
The fence had slowed us down, those through first, run far ahead. The rest of us trail behind. As I go though below the lowest strands for a moment, my new uniform shirt catches on a barb. I unhook rather than try to rip the heavy cloth, which if it did not rip would trap me on the fence. Then I was through the fence, but at the tail end of our group.
Shots sounded, the pop and snap of carbine bullets not very impressive, then a storm of fire in which our machine gun could be heard clearly and then the firing slacked. We are stopped halfway to the Central, to the metal buildings of the sugar mill, and anybody who goes further dies.
The opposing fire is not heavy, it does not need to be. The Casquitos have a marksman. It must be an officer for we hear the sound, the unimpressive pop, of a .30 M1 carbine.
We keep behind trees and wait in the protected side streets. The machine gunner, crouched behind sand bags and the concrete steps of a house the bullet creased "boina" on his head, held the street with periodic bursts. Ahead of us our dead wait and our wounded call for treatment. This was not the way it was supposed to be; in our world we did the ambushes and the casquitos did the dying. Puerta tells us to hold our positions and we wait.
The marksman fires, his carbine pops and the bullets dance on the road and on the hard ground between the trees. I waited behind a tree on the other street, the street not held by the marksman. The marksman is firing from high up in the corrugated metal bulk of the sugar factory building about six blocks away. We cannot see exactly where. I began to fire as precisely as I could just below the left side of each window. I am betting my life that the marksman is not left handed.
My Springfield's bullets make a very satisfactory noise as they cut through the corrugated metal walls and a whine down the isles of machinery in the long lengths of the dark vaults of the factory. However, I am not hitting or even discouraging the marksman, and his bullets dance behind me, on the hard dirt beneath the grass, as they hit the near by trimmed lawn beneath the trees.
Puerta called from the side street, 'You idiot stop firing. He is only going to kill you." I hide behind the tree knowing that Puerta is right. Then I run to join a group in the side street between the two streets we wait and rest. Puerta leaves his position and goes to check on the others.
We try again to move. We suddenly run across the street and the marksman's bullets whine, pop and bounce on the blacktop behind the last of us. The marksman's reaction time was not good enough to get us, since he could only see us for a fraction of a second. We play with the marksman running back and forth across the street. We laugh when he fires late. Puerta yells at us and we stop and try something else.
We hoped he thought that there were hundreds of us. I tried to lure him with a hat on a broom. I poke the hatted broom out above a hedge at the edge of one of the houses to see if the marksman can be coaxed to fire at the hat. We position ourselves, so we can get him on a massive return volley. Either he could not see the hat or more likely he was too smart, the marksman just waits holding his fire.
Night comes and Puerta has two of us cut the power cable with axes and this costs us two more dead by electrocution, but the street lights are out, and we can adjust and improve our positions by moving forward. We rest and spent a fitful night sleeping on the grass of the side street.
Next morning the casquito soldiers are still around, but they are ready to escape. They know in another night we will be right on to them.
We lined up in ranks in the side street and Puerta distraught counts our losses. We are sad and angry. We setup ambush positions for next morning at the other end of town. We see the soldiers crawling away under cover.
Puerta tells us to hold our fire as the soldiers crawl along behind a row of bushes. My glasses corrected my miopic, my short sighted, vision to better than 20 20, and my red green color blindness, the mark of a predator, allows me to see the enemy against the bushes leaves as clear as day. I lay on the ground steady and locked in a cold rage and I knew I can not miss. Yet, we have orders not to fire. That is the job of others in an other ambush.
Bypassing the other ambush, the casquitos escape to Contramaestre. Today in forty years later I am glad I did not kill them; then my blood was up and I was full of rage and disappointment.
Puerta calls two of us, and we move between the factory buildings. We pass one of our dead, he lays there on the side of the street close to corrugated metal wall touching his right forefinger to the hole in his forehead. All my life I will remember in Central America that look of wonder on the dead face of one of our own. He has been shot with what was probably the 0.30 calibre carbine, he dies in thought his finger touching, feeling, testing that hole in his forehead. There is little blood around the hole. He seems to be wondering how we had gotten ambushed, it was supposed to be the other way round.
I freeze at the macabre spectacle, and do not hear when Puerta yells take his ammunition belt. Puerta takes the belt himself and angrily he yells at me to cover him and the other and I did. They pass safely to the other side of the street. They would have kept on going, but I yelled at them to cover me and reluctantly they do.
We search the metal buildings. No casquitos are dead. No ammunition is found except a single 0.45 calibre round in a second floor bedroom dresser. I gloomily I hand it to Puerta almost as a rebuke. None of us is happy, that day we had taken a Central, but we had lost friends and especially some of our confidence.
Larry S. Daley, copyright@1996, revised 1997 permission to copy granted for non-commercial purposes.
Footnote The Central America is now called Central America Libre and is located in the old municipality of Palma Soriano but now in the new municipality of Contramestre. The Central Oriente also called Altagracia has not existed in quite some time; it was also located in Palma Soriano/Contramaestre, in the old barrio of Juan Baron.
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