22. SHOOTING AT AN EMPTY CAN OF PILCHARDS
22. SHOOTING AT AN EMPTY CAN OF PILCHARDS
It was in
I had taken ill among the cloud forest at the Minas del Frió. My ankle has a jungle sore so wicked, that I am forced to rip off my shoes, and go barefoot for a while. And I go to recovered from my jungle sores and my other ailments in the sunny tranquil valley of the
From these heights the rivers Jibacoa and Yara flow to the north. On the Yara close to Bayamo the Taíno, some say part Caribe, Cacique Hatuey was burned for rebellion by the Spanish. Yara the ancient Arawak sensual spirit of the forest is also the fount of Cuban independence from
Yara, in mainland Arawak mythology was a woman seduced by the great Anaconda, she a daughter of mythical Cacique Yaracuy would become goddess of love. She has green eyes; her hair is long and her hips voluptuous. She makes herself known by the flash of iridescent blue of the Morpo butterfly in flight. The Island Arawak, the Taíno or Siboney of Cuba and the
In Cuban wars of
Yet messages came. Mora gives us marching orders. We walk, again up the mountains. Surprisingly we are stronger and the hills do not leave us tired. We are now without weapons are mere replacement cannon fodder. The weapons of both rebels and enemy dead will be our inheritance. We may have to take them under fire.
Hunger is still our constant companion. Somewhere, sometime, in the high mountains, we find a field, a sloping field, cleared out of the nearby woods. There among the dead felled, burned forest trees we find food. It is a field of yuca, manioc, cassava, the bread of the ancient Taínos, and still a staff of life for the Güajiros of Cuba.
To the uninitiated it seems just a field of thin, notched, stems with thin umbrellas of lobed fingered, hand sized, emerald green leaves. However, we know that beneath each stem is a bounty of pounds of starchy, but poisonous roots. We run forward.
Most who have lived in
However, this time we are starving. I lose my judgment. Hands clawing the loose rich loam of the dead forest, I dig up the roots. I bang the dirt off the coarse bark-covered roots against a tree. I eat first without peeling, then splitting off the loose bark still without cooking. It tastes good I recall the roots seem to have been crunchy like carrots.
My wiser companions look on, expecting the worst they await my dying convulsions, but I feel fine, I feel full. They pass by, looking at me strangely, and then proceed to cook their roots. They still watch me as they cook and as they eat. Seeing I am still in this world, they offer me some of the cooked root. We eat our fill and rest a little.
Full and rested, we gather up our jolongo packs to ready to march on, but when I try to walk I am out of breath. My mitochondria, which give the energy for my muscles, are now almost nonfunctional; I am poisoned, I can barely breathe. We leave. My fellow rebels walk slowly to help me, soon they stop and pitch camp, waiting for me to die. We sleep.
To everybody’s surprise, I wake. It seemed because it was sweet yuca, with low cyanide, and because I am young and strong, next day I am OK.
We walked up to the forest, up towards the ridge, past the dug-in fortified positions that the Che Guevara, or was it Huber Matos the Che always tried to take credit, had built to defeat the Batista soldiers. As we pass climb the great hill past the pastures, through the coffee groves we, see the bunkers, dug deep into the red clay. Square holes roofed with layers of heavy tree trunks and clay to defend against mortar shells. The rifle slots cover the hill paths in front, the escape route cut in the ground at the back. Here the coffee is new, the fields of fire too bare, in the “Ofensiva” no Batista soldiers ever got past here.
We walk further up the steep, almost vertical, mountainside. Higher up more rain falls. We see that the upper half of the mountain is still covered with rain forest.
The going becomes more and more difficult; our calf muscles tightening. I still feel no pain, for I weigh far less than before and more accustomed to these mountain heights.
We enter the gray-green of the forest. There is free water pooling on the forest floor. Thin trunks of tall saplings gather below the buttressed giant trees, a harem of slender women around a great fat sultan.
The saplings survive at the mercy of the sultan trees, as the odalisques of
A forest of weighed shrouds of hareem once stood on the sea floor waving to the currents of that wine dark sea. At their dead feet lay the bones of thousands more who in Noah’s time, had drowned ten or more thousands years ago in the great deluge. Here in west of here at that same long lost time, perhaps as many, or more had died as the great ice melted, for Cuba is to some mere highlands of lost Atlantis..
Like the slave Janissaries of the Turkish Armies, we are not allowed the joys of sexual rapture. It is for our leaders to enjoy the pleasures of women, our leader delights in venery; he penetrates the lank flesh of Celia Sanchez. Our officers service the curvaceous strong bodies of the women soldiers of the Mariana Grajales contingent. We do no try our luck; we know draconian laws of the Sierra can give us death for a moment of forbidden pleasure. Until the fall of Guisa, we are only to be rewarded with the perverted delight of giving death. No matter, we are exhausted most of t
We go above the rain forest, climbing along the ridges to the lower trees of the higher mountains. We climb up to the stunted high cloud forest full of tree ferns; we pass Las Minas del Frío; we cross that meandering muddy stream and go upwards along the ridge to the east. We walk through the forest among the woods and the silence. We arrive at the ridge of La Plata.
We don’t see Lynette Rath. I would not recognize her anyway, for she, to me, belongs to the future. She, radio operator in the Radio Shack of Radio Rebelde, is mourning passionately the death of her beloved, who Batista troops executed during some rebel coastal landing. In our terminology, Lynette’s beloved was expeditionary, one who came armed from out of
There are weapons here, real weapons in assorted and complex array. I see no shotguns; instead there the common military arms of our time and place: the M1-Garand and
Although there are relatively few of these first-line weapons here we see these as treasures beyond compare. Yet, we know that with victory in the mountains most of the best guns were heading to the plains. We know now that we will be victorious.
I observe this residual arms cache with interest. There is much exotica such as Reising .45 sub-machine guns, wood-bound, less effective they tended to fire far too fast and break down; these are merely less reliable poor relatives of the far more prized Thompson.
There are even Boy’s “anti-tank” .55 caliber rifles, weapons of the
Weapons to warriors are alive. To me these great rifles brood on memories. I recall the tales of my childhood in England’ the eerie squeal of the bagpipes before dawn, Bren gun carriers and old-fashioned tanks kicking trails of dust, legs running across sand in absurd baggy shorts. The soldiers of the British Empire move below netted broad brimmed helmets, there bodies move, and then stop as blood spills, and guts burst open on the barrens of Al Alamein. The rifles bring back the war memories, and images that I saw as a child in the large photographs of the front page of the English Daily Mirror.
The lesson is that the front is now in the plain, all good weapons and all tried warriors are on the flat lands now. Only aged and less useful, weapons and men are up now here, a thin reserve in case of defeat below.
We get some additional training. We had had woefully too few target shooting drills, and what little we did, was at the Minas del Frió, involved “dry firing” an old .22 caliber rifle without ammunition, so that we could practice the correct shooting positions, and recognize the proper sight image.
We were, we set up to target practice with a 7 or 8 mm Mauser type rifle. Now I know that this rifle was from a weapons shipment sent March 30th of this year of 1958 by Costa Rican President Jose Figueres that arrived that night with Huber Matos and a number of others. Castro’s original
There were 38 of these much maligned Mauser rifles and 5,000 rounds for them included in this shipment. They had been used to stop the Batista “Ofensive” in the Sierra. We are here after that battle was won, and since nobody liked these rifles so we are allowed to use one of them for target practice.
We are first warned about confusing the ammunition of this rifle with the then standard 30.06
Thus our group is given a Mauser, and a target which is an empty oval can of those large sardines I knew in
Perhaps twenty of us rebels get to fire, each in turn. All who try fail to hit the target. I am at near the end of the line of those waiting to shoot. Perhaps our group leader stops the practice; I do not shoot. Perhaps he knows I shoot well; perhaps my avoidance of an execution has not escaped this attention. Or perhaps the rifle is very inaccurate and he is embarrassed.
An expert (Emary 2002) in these things, tells me that this is probably attributable to un-calibrated front sites on the weapon. Then again a Mauser is often sighted in for 200 meters, so at shorter ranges the bullets go high, as a young Churchill mentioned in his 1895 descriptions of war in
Death however, is still near. Apparently, Fidel Castro decided, ignoring our prior experience, that we needed to be blooded, we needed to be taught to kill.
We are given orders to form an execution squad. The unfortunate is one of the prisoners held, in a dark little valley almost certainly “Puerto Malanga”, on a slope near
Having gotten in trouble for such protests before, I take the cowardly route. I leave the group discretely, to wander though the woods deep in anguished thought, berating myself for my fear of protesting. Soon it is all over, I do not hear the shots, and the others return.
To this day, Fidel Castro is still miffed at Don Jose “Pepe” Figueres, remembering him for sending him “junk” weapons. His selective memory forgets the excellent Berettas, M-3 grease guns, .60 mm mortars and .50 caliber heavy machine guns that came with that shipment.
These machine guns were Madsens, made by the Danish company of the same name, which manufactured a wide variety of weapons. These machine guns were designed for use against aircraft or vehicles, as is the US M2HB, a heavy machine gun of the same caliber but different in function and appearance.” (Dan Shea, 2002).
The .50 Madsens machine guns are particularly useful for these weapons far out range the standard .30 caliber weapons of the time.
These .50 weapons yield particularly destructive results on infantry. It was common knowledge at the time that
In addition, the old Mausers were still in use by German infantry in WW II.
Thus, it seems that Castro’s words maligning weapons of this critical shipment had more to do with his need to not to be grateful than anything else. Besides, the peppery old Figueres would rebuke Castro publicly for his procommunist and dictatorial intentions in
Late in the summer of 1958, weapons and ammunition are arriving at least once a week to the Sierra. It is secret but we know we hear the circling night drown of the plane. At least some of the weapons are being dropped, perhaps without parachute, into the forests near Turquino.
On one occasion, a .50 caliber machinegun was lost in the drop, and a massive search was initiated to find it. It was perhaps this weapon and certainly the Madsens with the mortars that would forced the Batista Forces to abandon their positions around Bueycito. These are crucial positions that together with similar positions at Guisa that blocked our best accesses to the Cauto plains.
Now we going on the offensive, we unarmed porters, are loaded like despised pack animals with ammunition. We start the walk to the plains. We are going to the plains, and the march is now a blur. It seemed that the long column is marching up and down every mountain in the Sierra.
We are going towards Guisa although we do not know it. Some idiot is standing by the edge of the road with boxes of ammunition. This idiot hands each of us, one for each hand, two 60 mm mortar shells.
Puzzled and surprised, we hold the mortar shells, by the narrow part just below the little boxed in black fins.
The mortar shells with their attached fuses, firmly fixed to their little fat bellies, are very dangerously pointing down. Since we hold one in each hand, we cannot readily change that. We, walk down the trail, too tired to be more than vaguely concerned that somebody would drop their mortar shell on a rock and kill us all. Friends tell me today that the mortar shells would “probably” not have gone off, for the fuse needs to be “armed” in the weapons lethal flight.
We marched in the shaded clouded mountain daylight and we marched at among the shadows and ghosts of the night. We kept marching for what seemed like days. My memory of this cuts in and out, like a failing, flickering, light-bulb. Scenes of memory are spaced apart by long periods of zombie like walking.
I am alternating between two fugue states. I feel the biting pains of the lactic acid accumulating in my calf muscles keeping me awake as we walked uphill. I feel relief from pain, change to worry of tripping, with the heavy load of ammunition we are all porting, as we walk down hill.
I am surprised to see important anti-Batista politician Pardo Llada, who struggling along with a pack on his shoulders. Julius Cesar aside and that was a long time ago, out of shape politicians do not make good soldiers.
Without a word I take Pardo Llada’s pack and carry it above mine, he is so tired he does not seem to notice. After some miles I return it to him, he does not seem to notice either. He does not say thanks.
Pardo Llada, once by far more important, appears to be accepting the fact that Castro has relegated him to a minor position. Castro’s star is in ascendance;
Those politics were not clear to me at the time of these events. I was very tired; I remember halting waiting for the porter ahead of me to move, and after several minutes discovering that the person I was waiting to move was in reality a burnt tree stump.
At some unknown stop, by a small shaded beautiful stream, perhaps the
At another stop, we gladly surrender the mortar shells. We stop above Bueycito. It is very dark that night. We are told to camp, but nobody tells us anything more. Then as we rest in our hammocks suddenly the world explodes in noise.
It is June 1958 and unknown to us mere ammunition carriers we are near San Ramón Braulio Coroneaux, and his machinegun crews, are firing the .50 caliber machine gun; the same weapon that we had searched for when it was airdropped. I do not know who is firing the mortars. The volume of fire is so tremendous that we porters think that only the Batista forces could have that much ammunition and we are being attacked.
In a certain sense, we are correct. It was machine gun fire, by a well- trained regular army gunner since Coroneaux was an ex-Batista soldier. It is said, it was his machine gun fire, that frustrated Castro’s first attack at the Moncada barracks.
It is also said that Coroneaux, later jailed by the Batista Army for criminal activity, escaped and joined up with Castro. Whether this is true or not, what is certain is that Coroneaux was a virtuoso playing his weapon like a percussion instrument, in dread rhythmic beat.
This we did not know; then we did not even know the Coroneaux legend. We are helpless, unarmed. We cannot fight back; we do not know the terrain or where the enemy is; we do not know even where to run.
Woefully ignorant, we stay our ground and simply suffer fear, and while lost in our sweating dread we await our fate in horrible apprehension throughout the night. We are sure, in the fatalistic false calm that follows our terrible first panic to find ourselves lost to events so far beyond our control, that we will soon be killed by advancing Batista soldiers.
We spare captured Batista soldiers, but they in turn are rarely as honorable. When capture comes, Batista troops rarely give quarter. It is useless to deny our allegiance to the rebel cause since we are loaded with ammunition and in ragged uniforms.
We, at least most of us, I am an exception but then who is going to believe me, have been part of Castro executions of “traitors and spies.” We are guilty; we have sinned; we are stained with blood. We are sure that we are about to be killed executed one by one, unable to resist, as so many have died before us on both sides of this horrible war.
Since there is nothing we can do; we prepare ourselves to die. Perhaps, we hope, we will be lucky and not be tortured much, before we are shot.
I that time gave me a mental wound that lingers. It is a mental lesion that disturbs my children, a wound that still shows if I get too tired, in my delayed stress mutterings of –“.50 caliber! .50 caliber!” My children, as teenagers, feared that I would say this in front of their friends and they would have to explain why their old man was mad.
By morning, Bueycito fell to Coroneaux's, rhythmic, night long, 0.50 caliber machine gun fire and the crumping of our mortars, the sound and the fear still in my dreams. We are so very much relieved to learn the truth of these events. While we are ashamed by our now clearly unjustified fears, we are proud we held our ground.
Bueycito falls, we head down the Buey and Yara valleys towards the plains. It is said that at this point Coroneaux has an argument with Castro because he does not want to leave the .50 caliber machine guns. knows it is a death sentence, for the .50s outrange infantry weapons by several miles, .30 caliber machine guns do not. Some say Coroneaux used .50s at Guisa, but I did not hear them.
Every infantryman knows a machine gunner, after he is located by the enemy, has a half-life, a half chance to live, of about three minutes in a heavy firefight. That bitter experience of WWI still lives in military manuals.
Consequently, and as is predictable, without the 0.50, Coroneaux is fated to die at Guisa. And he will die, after doing very considerable damage with his 0.30 caliber machine guns. The machinegun crews, except for their leader Coroneaux, are all women of the Mariana Grajales “Brigade.” They are mad, carnal women who wear tight tops, rounded breast proudly displayed, and skintight trousers low over their narrow waists displaying their well curved, full hipped bodies.
These women of Coroneaux confuse love with death, and often reject fear to take their pleasure with men during a firefight. Coroneaux entices and renews his women’s lusts by playing his machine gun in a tattoo of sensual rhythms. The complex beat arising from the touch of his light, swift hand on the trigger of his weapon, evokes the woman warriors’ all too ready passions.
But this was future then, so rested we march on. A very thin woman, with a face worn beyond her years, and dressed in rebel uniform, olive green with huge pockets on the side of her legs, stands at a shady spot where the path down from Bueycito made a turn.
There are buckets of milk and orange juice by her side and perhaps an old wooden table with food. It is Celia Sanchez standing at in some little shaded valley giving each of us, as we passed some nutritious drink.
Celia mixes orange juice with milk in a bucket. Then for each of us, as one by one as we turned down the path, she pours the mix into our extended cups. We drink the quick-curdled quasi-yogurt immediately; it tastes delicious.
I remember Celia, a kind woman and Fidel Castro’s lover, skinny, hair severely pinned backs and her lank features showing her early aging. She is said to be priestess serving the unruly pantheon of Yoruba African gods.
She and Huber Matos were among those of the Josue and Frank Pais underground who saved Castro’s life. They rescued the survivors of his more than decimated troops, after his maladroit landing in the swamps at the western foot of the Sierra Maestra.
Celia has surprisingly little ass, traditionally a Cuban always checks this out first. I puzzle over her looks because generally Cuban leaders take up with the most attractive females. For there and then, as is still here and now, it is a mark of importance to possess “trophy” women.
The ammunition we are carrying to the plains, heavy little boxes of .30 caliber carbine rounds for the
automatic carbines weighs us down. We walk it seems forever, without rest.
We are tired beyond tired and hungry beyond hunger, walking one after another like a long line of zombies. As we walk without stopping Celia and some other women, hand us food and drink; Celia does not say anything. We did not speak either, but we are so very grateful.
All of us love Celia, I never heard a bad word about her, even after the revolution took power when good turned to evil. We eat and drink without stopping.
CASTRO GIVING A LESSON ON TRIGGERING MINES.
When we came out of the mountains after Bueycito. Castro personally, stopped our column of porters, to give us lessons on how to blow up tanks using an electrically triggered fuse the end of electric wires.
Castro showed us in a roadside demonstration that it was possible to re-elevate a thrown “tin-can” as it fell through the air by triggering a dynamite cap lying on the ground beneath the falling can. He, “giving the Devil his due” for his skill and coordination, was quite good at it.
Yet, Castro, with his usual prudence avoids personal involvement in battle; he only uses the dynamite caps to demonstrate his skill. At the prolonged ambush at Guisa, Castro will remain at headquarters either at the hacienda of Mon
Others will trigger the mines to destroy the Batista armored cars. The charge usually TNT obtained from unexploded bombs was quite large it filled a milk can of at least ten gallons. These unwieldly devices were to be buried in the road or in a drain that passed under the road; but all this was in the future then.
We pass the once dreaded headquarters of Rebel Comandante Universo Sanchez, at Las Peñas where that old gray spy was executed right besides me, and he and so many others are buried. This time we need not show discretion by moving among the tree shadows, but we boldly pass the place by walking along the dusty main hill roads. I wonder at our new boldness.
We are on the offensive. The Batista troops stay in barracks waiting for our coming attack.
We keep on going. Again I, see famous politician Pardo Llada, trudging along unsteadily, still near to collapse. He was too tired to say thanks, I doubt he recognized me; but I will bless his weaknesses because his decision to run under artillery fire at
Larry Daley Copyright@1997, revised 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006