The Second Nicaragua intervention of 1927–32 marked a unique and interesting chapter in Marine Corps history. Marines were dispatched to the Central American republic to support democracy by supervising a contentious presidential election and building an apolitical internal security force, the Guardia Nacional, that could take over from the Marines and police their own country. However, U.S. Marines soon found themselves deep in the jungles, manning lonely posts and chasing elusive rebels who refused to honor a political process they saw as being tampered with by meddlesome foreigners.
Many innovations were developed and countless lessons learned that proved valuable in the future. Furthermore, some of the Marine Corps' greatest heroes distinguished themselves while young Marines in Nicaragua. The intervention, though important to the institutional development of the Marine Corps, has been largely overlooked. However, recent Corps missions cast new interest on the Second Nicaraguan Intervention, because Marine operations of the last decade have shown themselves to be quite similar. These similarities demonstrate that chasing insurgents is nothing new for Marines.
By 1927, Nicaragua had been embroiled in a brutal civil war for three years. The fighting became a threat to U.S. interests when rebels began to menace American companies. President Calvin Coolidge sent former Secretary of War Henry Stimson to mediate a solution. The resolution agreed on called for the United States to oversee the Nicaraguan presidential election in 1928 and train an incorruptible national security force that would serve the Nicaraguan state and its people. The Marine Corps was selected for the training mission; it had been assigned similar tasks in Haiti and Santo Domingo in the previous decade. Within months, more than 3,000 Marines were deployed to the country. The Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua was created from scratch, as no national constabulary existed. Marines served as the leadership cadre, and Nicaraguans filled the enlisted ranks until adequate Nicaraguan officers were trained. A Marine colonel was even placed in charge of the force.
Soon, the Marines spread across the country, securing major population centers and establishing various Guardia posts. Garrisons ranged in size from a squad to a company, not counting their Marine mentors. With the garrisons established, the first step in Stimson's peace plan—disarmament—could move forward. Marines and both sides in the civil war collected more than 14,000 weapons. Despite this success, one rebel leader refused to turn in his weapons—Augusto Sandino.
Rather than surrender, Sandino attacked the joint Marine-Guardia post at Ocotal. Under cover of darkness on 15 July 1927, hundreds of rebels infiltrated Ocotal. But Sandino's surprise attack was spoiled when a vigilant Marine fired on a shadowy figure rustling in the bushes. As soon as the shooting began, the rebels attempted to storm the garrison by sheer force of numbers, making three charges at the barracks. Withering fire from the Marines and Guardia troops manning the walls above repulsed each attempt. Sandino then called off the attacks but kept up pressure on the garrison through the rest of the night with sniper fire.
When morning came, a messenger approached the barracks with a flag of truce, beseeching the Marines to surrender and promising to spare their lives if they did so. "Marines don't know how to surrender," responded the garrison's commander, Captain Gilbert Hatfield. The fighting soon resumed. The outnumbered Marines kept their heads down and their wits up as they waited and dodged sniper fire throughout the rest of the morning. They were running low on ammunition, but they defiantly defended their post.
That afternoon five DeHavilland DH-4 biplanes swooped in from above, bombing and strafing the rebels with automatic-weapons fire. This was the first dive-bombing attack in the history of the Marine Corps. As bombs exploded and the aircraft roared overhead, the terrified rebels quickly dispersed, retreating into the jungle. One stubborn group of remaining insurgents was soon routed when Marines attacked. Defeated, Sandino retreated into the jungle.
The rebel leader quickly realized he could not defeat the Americans in large battles. He decided to pursue a guerilla strategy of fast ambushes followed by even faster retreats. He withdrew to his mysterious mountain lair known as El Chipote, deep in the Nicaraguan wilds, to plan the insurgency's next phase. Dividing his forces, Sandino sent them out in packs. The conflict became one of competing patrols, each hunting the other. Nicaraguan jungles, as one Marine later described,
Furnish ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare. Vast in extent, they consist of almost unbroken chains of mountains, whose rugged peaks afford ideal lookouts and whose densely forested slopes and secluded valleys furnish numerous hiding places secure from observation and attack from airplanes and inaccessible to all but the most lightly equipped of ground troops.
Early on, the Marines sent out large columns of 100 to 200 men for weeks at a time on search-and-destroy missions. These expeditions sought to find guerrilla camps, such as El Chipote, attack, and destroy them. But as they spread their influence throughout the countryside and established new garrisons in towns and villages along the way, the Marines found they had less men available for large patrols. In addition, such large patrols were slow and especially vulnerable to rebel attack. Often, it was only the shear advantage in firepower that repelled rebel assaults on jungle trails.
Eventually, the Marines settled on smaller patrols, usually 2 officers and 25 men, that set out for only a few days at a time and patrolled between their scattered garrisons, covering up to 30 miles in a single day. Garrisons were established in populated areas of significance. To facilitate these efforts, Nicaragua was partitioned into five zones: Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western and Central. Each was then divided into districts that were assigned to a Marine captain and two lieutenants with 30 to 50 troops under their charge. From these posts the Marines and their Guardia brethren hit the trail. Their patrols made contact and defeated Sandino's rebels, although the Marines often were outnumbered. "Our patrols were constantly attacked by bandits from individual snipers to bands as large as 250," observed one Leatherneck.
Contact was typically initiated by the insurgents, and their actions were often well planned. In addition to attempting to inflict as many casualties as possible, the rebels tried to outmaneuver the Marine patrols and turn their flanks. Rebels used the micro terrain to their advantage and practiced good cover and concealment. Furthermore, to reduce the effects of Marine marksmanship, they sprang ambushes at night. The rebels were able to move quickly through the bush, while the Marines were slowed by horses and pack mules. The rebels also knew the ground intimately. In addition to these sound tactical movements, the rebels employed automatic weapons and improvised explosive devices made from dynamite wrapped with rawhide, rocks, glass, and nails.
One operational problem for the Marines and their Guardia allies was logistics. Resupplying patrols and far-flung outposts was a serious problem. Nicaragua's rugged terrain and scattered villas meant improved roads were few and rough paths were many. The tropical climate could turn jungle trails into soggy morasses and rivers of mud at a moment's notice, and the rainy season inhibited movement across entire swaths of the country for extended periods of time. Here again, Marine Corps aviation played an important role. By the late summer of 1928, the Marines were operating five Fokker trimotor transport planes, each with a lift capacity of 1,300 pounds. The Marines hacked landing strips out of the jungle, and resupply came from the air. Food, weapons, ammunition, reinforcements, and even mules were flown to the deep-jungle outposts. In areas too rugged for planes to land, Marine aviators pioneered air drops for isolated posts and forward patrols.
In addition to being the scene of the first Marine close-air-support bombing mission, Nicaragua was also the scene of the Corps' first medevac. When a Marine column took refuge in the town of Quilali after being mauled by rebels, it seemingly was doomed. Hundreds of rebels surrounded the town, but wounded Marines needed to be evacuated. In the sky appeared a Vought O2U Corsair piloted by Lieutenant Christian Schilt. The Marines on the ground immediately set about knocking down walls, chopping down trees and clearing brush to make a crude landing strip. Because the plane lacked brakes, when it touched down, Marines ran up and pulled the aircraft to a stop on the short runway. Between 6 and 8 January 1928, Schilt made 10 flights back and forth to Quilali. Under rebel fire, he evacuated 18 wounded Marines and brought in 1,400 pounds of supplies to the besieged Marines, who would later make their escape. For this act of valor, Lieutenant Schilt was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Besides close air support, medevac, and resupply, Marine pilots in Nicaragua were also used for scouting and air reconnaissance. They searched for rebels from the sky and seriously inhibited rebel movement. Major Ross Rowell, leader of the flight of DH-4s at Ocotal explained how Sandino's men avoided Marine air patrols: "They move almost entirely at hours when the planes cannot reach them. They camouflage their camps and stables and confine their operations to terrain offering the best cover from aerial observation, and never fire on the planes unless they find themselves discovered and attacked." In fact, a Marine pilot discovered Sandino's hideout, El Chipote. After weeks of dive-bombing the Sandino's fortress, a column of Marines reached the mountain. After storming the summit, the Marines came across an empty camp. The only inhabitants were straw dummies around still-smoking campfires. Sandino had escaped again.
The presidential election took place in November 1928 as planned and without a problem. Almost 90 percent of registered voters participated in what was regarded as the fairest election in Nicaraguan history. After the election, the United States dramatically drew down the numbers of Marines in the country. A residual force of Marines remained for five more years, but their mission changed to preparing the Guardia Nacional to take over operations. Large Marine forces withdrew and were replaced by Guardia formations. But remaining Marines led Guardia patrols for the next few years until they were replaced by Nicaraguan officers and NCOs. Marine aviation assets remained to support the Guardia as well.
The last Marine left Nicaragua in 1933. At the height of U.S. involvement in 1928, almost 4,000 Marines were in country. By 1930, this number had been slashed to less than 1,000. In total, 136 U.S. Marines died during the six-years deployment in Nicaragua. Two Medals of Honor were awarded to Marines for actions in Nicaragua, as well as 100 Navy Crosses. Among the recipients of the latter were Lieutenant Evans Carlson, who went on to command the 2d Raider Battalion in the Makin Island Raid; Captain Merritt Edson, who commanded the 1st Raider Battalion on Guadalcanal; and Lieutenant Lewis "Chesty" Puller, who earned the first two of his five Navy Crosses. He later commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, on Guadalcanal and the 1st Marines on Peleliu and in Korea. Augusto Sandino was never caught. The director of the Guardia Nacional, General Anastasio Somoza, double-crossed him, having the rebel leader murdered after a day of peace talks and dinner at the Presidential Palace in 1934.
The Second Nicaraguan Intervention holds a special place in Marine Corps history. Marines were first dispatched to support democracy in Latin America, but the lessons they learned lent directly to the defense of U.S. democracy only a few years later. Nicaragua was the training ground for World War II, where Marines learned how to live and fight in the jungle and work together as an air-ground team. There is no doubt that the frustrating lessons learned in Central American jungles became golden rules on the tropical islands of the South Pacific. The Nicaraguan experiences also offers lessons for present-day Marines. It seems that supporting democracy in faraway lands, chasing insurgents in exotic locales, and training indigenous forces will be in the purview of our Marines for years to come.
1. Keith B. Bickel, Mars Learning: The Marine Corps' Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915–1940 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001).
2. Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002).
3. Lester D. Langley, The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean, 1898–1934 (Washington DC: Scholarly Resources, 2002).
4. Bernard C. Nalty, B., The United States Marines in Nicaragua (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, 1968).
5. J. Tierney, Chasing Ghosts: Unconventional Warfare in American History (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2006).