Marine Corps Brigadier General Logan Feland arrived in Nicaragua in March 1927, when President Calvin Coolidge sent the Marines to protect U.S. interests in the country wracked by fighting between the conservative government and its liberal opponents. A laconic, MIT-educated Kentuckian, Feland had received a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery at Belleau Wood and commanded the 5th Marines through the rest of the Great War. Experienced in both fighting and administration, he was one of Marine Corps Commandant Major General John Lejeune’s key lieutenants during the 1920s.
In Nicaragua, Feland reported to the naval commander in the region, Special Services Squadron commander Rear Admiral David Foote Sellers, whose headquarters was located in the Panama Canal Zone. Sellers had received the Navy Cross during World War I and served as aide-de-camp to Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby in the early 1920s.
A peace treaty brokered by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson in July 1927 promised a national election in Nicaragua in November 1928, but there were legitimate worries that plans for a peaceful transition of power would be thwarted by rebel Augusto Sandino and his band of patriots (or bandits, depending on one’s viewpoint), who opposed the Nicaraguan government and threatened U.S. plans for the country.
Resenting the U.S. intrusion into his country’s affairs, Sandino attracted a small band of supporters in northwestern Nicaragua, and together they refused to lay down arms as mandated under Stimson’s peace treaty. Conducting a guerrilla war, they fought the Marines and Nicaraguan Guardia Nacional, a constabulary force reorganized under Marine Corps leadership. Shortly after the peace treaty was announced, Sandino’s forces attacked Ocotal, held by a small force of Marines and Guardia under Captain Gilbert Hatfield. Besieged by a force outnumbering his command by an estimated six to one, Hatfield and his men barely repulsed the Sandinistas until a force of five Marine de Havilland DH-4 biplanes arrived. Led by Major Ross “Rusty” Rowell, the Marine fliers broke up the attack in one of the first successful uses of close air tactical support of ground Marines.
Sellers arrived at his command post in the Panama Canal Zone a few days before the Ocotal battle. By the time he traveled to Managua to meet Feland and U.S. diplomatic officials, he believed that the Ocotal success had broken the Sandinistas. According to rumors, Sandino had fled to Honduras.
Faced with a separate crisis in China, Lejeune reduced the Marine commitment in Nicaragua, and Feland returned to the United States to command the Marine Corps base at Parris Island. Sandino, however, had not given up. By October 1927 the Sandinistas had regrouped; they shot down a Marine airplane and killed the pilot and gunner. In January 1928 they attacked the town of Quilali, prompting Marine aviator First Lieutenant Christian Schilt to make ten flights into the besieged town to evacuate the wounded, a feat for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.
With the conflict heating up again, Feland returned to Nicaragua in mid-January 1928 with a larger Marine force, intent on restoring the peace necessary for the national election in November. Feland and Sellers renewed contact and met with the other two key U.S. officials, who arrived within days of each other: Army Brigadier General Frank McCoy and diplomat Charles Eberhardt, the U.S. minister in charge of the legation. All four men agreed that more had to be done to eliminate Sandino.
Feland reorganized the Marines, instituted a stronger intelligence system, garrisoned key towns in Sandinista areas in northwest Nicaragua, and sent out patrols to keep the opposition on the run. These strategies worked: Sandino and his followers avoided the Marines. When intelligence reports indicated the Sandinistas had moved into northeastern Nicaragua, Feland and Sellers traveled to Puerto Cabezas on the northeastern coast, where they consulted with a young Marine captain in charge of Marines in the region: Merritt Edson. Feland immediately gave permission for Edson to lead patrols up the Coco River into the jungle interior of the country to seek out the Sandinistas and keep them at bay.
By April 1928 the Marines seemed to have the situation well in hand. They were learning to fight a guerrilla war in challenging terrain and were successful in keeping the Sandinistas under control. Sandino had failed to gain further traction outside his limited sphere of influence; no national uprising occurred. The Nicaraguan guerrilla leader’s mere existence, however, continued to vex Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and McCoy. Pressured by Congress and public opinion, which increasingly clamored against U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, Kellogg asked McCoy for an assessment of the military situation. Although he recognized difficulties with terrain and resupply, and Sandino’s advantage in being familiar with the region, McCoy reported that Sellers understood the situation and had been cooperative but said Feland’s leadership was neither vigorous nor compelling.
Sellers, however, thought differently. He believed Feland capable but lacking the necessary men and material for a difficult task. He also agreed with Feland over another contentious issue: who would control the Guardia Nacional, which was commanded by Marine Colonel Elias Beadle. The Guardia officially reported to the Nicaraguan president, but McCoy believed he should control the Guardia as the head of the Nicaraguan national election committee. Feland and Sellers both believed the Guardia should be under a unified command reporting directly to Feland. The two men also resented that McCoy sent a civilian member of the election committee staff to interrogate Feland and Beadle about military matters. Sellers assured the Chief of Naval Operations that the Marines were conducting offensive operations against the Sandinistas that would ensure a proper election campaign. He also did not intend to interfere with Feland’s actual military command in-country.
The U.S. leaders in Nicaragua were under a great deal of pressure to ensure a peaceful election, but they could not agree on how to guarantee success. Over the course of a few months, they broke into factions: McCoy and Eberhardt acting in their diplomatic roles versus Feland and Sellers. McCoy wanted more vigorous action to hunt down Sandino in the jungle; Feland sought to secure cities and towns where the balloting would take place.
Hence tension existed at a fateful meeting at the U.S. Legation on 18 April 1928. Worried that the impending rainy season would stifle Marine initiative and help Sandino gain traction, McCoy lashed out at Feland. “I want to talk about the military situation,” McCoy thundered. “It is NOT satisfactory to me; you are making NO progress and I am not satisfied.” After these meetings, Feland reported to Sellers that McCoy did not seem to have any animosity toward the Marine commander personally, but that he was speaking about the deficiencies of the “Naval Forces on shore in Nicaragua.” Feland understood the complementary nature of their missions and the importance of Navy/Marine cooperation, having written earlier in the decade an article for the Marine Corps publication Leatherneck, reminding Marines that they were “Soldiers of the Navy.”
Believing he had full responsibility for the overall military situation in Nicaragua, Sellers found McCoy’s outburst “remarkable” and thought Feland had displayed a great deal of patience and tact. Soon after the incident, McCoy traveled to the Canal Zone, where he visited with Sellers and backed off his criticism, which helped decrease the tension among the U.S. leaders. Unfortunately, the disagreement undermined the working relationship and set the stage for future antagonism.
Plans proceeded apace for Marines to supervise the national election. Given a favorable military situation, in midsummer Sellers prophesized to naval officials in Washington that Sandino would not be a disruptive force. A few minor problems with McCoy lingered, however, reflecting interservice rivalry. Sellers rejected suggestions that Army aviators should augment the Marines, and that Army officers should serve in the Guardia. He also did not appreciate it when naval ensigns assigned to McCoy’s national election committee received lower pay than their Army counterparts.
The first free, untroubled Nicaraguan election took place on 4 November 1928, under the watchful eye of Logan Feland’s Marines, who kept order at the polling places and guarded against election fraud. Nicaraguans elected a new Liberal Party government under José Maria Moncada to take the reins from Conservative President Juan Bautista Sacasa on 1 January 1929. On the birthday celebration of the Marine Corps, 10 November, McCoy sent a letter of congratulations to Feland. The Marines had succeeded in overseeing a peaceful election.
McCoy’s departure from the country soon after the election temporarily eased tensions among U.S. authorities overseeing Nicaraguan affairs. However, friction had been building between Guardia commander Elias Beadle and U.S. minister Charles Eberhardt on one side, and Feland and Sellers on the other. Eberhardt was not happy when President-elect Moncada sought to have Feland appointed as his special assistant, and was riled when the Nicaraguan Congress gave Feland and Sellers special diplomatic titles. With Eberhardt, Beadle also resented Moncada’s request that a Marine officer in the Guardia, Captain Arthur Challacombe, serve as the President’s aide-de-camp; Challacombe was a protégé and aide to Feland.
Sellers traveled to Nicaragua in February 1929 to insist that the Marine and Guardia commanders cooperate. After all, the election was over, but Augusto Sandino still posed a threat to the new government and to perceived U.S. economic interests in the country. Sellers again supported his Marine commander, finding Beadle lacking in tact when dealing with Feland and Moncada. He also had a problem with Eberhardt, who he believed had deliberately discredited the admiral and Marine general to State Department authorities.
The tension among the U.S. authorities finally ended in spring 1929. Beadle and Feland were recalled by Headquarters Marine Corps and given new assignments. Eberhardt moved off to a new posting, as did Sellers, who became the Navy judge advocate general.
Sellers eventually finished his naval career as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy from 1934 to 1938; he died in 1949. Feland finished his career in 1933 as the commander of the Marine Corps’s Department of the Pacific, after narrowly losing a bid to become Marine Corps Commandant in 1930. Feland died in 1936. For their service, both Admiral Sellers and Major General Feland had U.S. Navy ships commissioned in their names.
The Navy-Marine Corps collaboration in Nicaragua between Sellers and Feland helped underpin the successful mission of the “Naval Forces on shore in Nicaragua.” Lejeune said the Nicaraguan situation had been the Marine Corps’ first major challenge since the World War, and it required strong leadership from both commanders. Sellers placed great faith in his subordinate in-county and strongly supported him; Feland did not disappoint. The Marines accomplished their true mission and oversaw a successful national election. In turn, they gained experience that led to the creation of the Small Wars Manual in the mid-1930s, which recently served as the basis for a revised counterinsurgency manual for fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The U.S. Marine Corps left Nicaragua on 2 January 1933. A little more than a year later, Augusto Sandino signed a peace treaty and attended dinner with Nicaraguan President Jean Bautista Sacasa. After dinner, future Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza had Sandino taken to a nearby airfield and shot.
Dr. Bettez is author of Kentucky Marine: Major General Logan Feland and the Making of the Modern USMC (2014) and Kentucky and the Great War: World War I on the Home Front (2016), both published by University Press of Kentucky.
Andrew Bacevich, Diplomat in Khaki: Major General Frank Ross McCoy and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1949 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.
David J. Bettez, Kentucky Marine: Major General Logan Feland and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014).
Neill Macaulay, The Sandino Affair (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1967).
Papers of David Foote Sellers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.