23 ON THE HILL AT GUISA
23. ON THE HILL AT GUISA
Includes The Honest Dentist, Lionel’s Trial, Castro In El Corojo, Blowing Things Up In Cuba Guisa 1958, Sequel, Sex, And The Death Erection
It was the in last months, late November early December, of 1958 in Cuba. I was with a group of former escopeteros who as unarmed porters were resting in the Corojo. We, mere low rank rebels, did not care about the calendar, what mattered to us was that we were winning. We had broken out of the Sierra Maestra to the plains of the Cauto.
We had come down from Las Peñas where the old spy and the others that Universo Sánchez had ordered executed were for some months now buried. We rested in a straggle of bohío huts descending the mountain, on the keel of the mountain stirrup. We were a little uphill just south of the old spy’s grave site. The bohíos, although amid tree shaded coffee groves, were exposed to air attack; and yet no planes came.
From a nearby cacao grove that somebody had shown me, nestled in a hollow shaded by spreading rain-trees I picked coco bean pods. At the camp I made a couple of pounds or more of chocolate from coco beans. Strangely I barely recall drying these beans. I must have sun-dried them on a secadero drying apron, and if so we must have stayed several days at Las Peñas.
Separating out, and discarding the white greasy coco fat, I place the almost black coco beans mixed with brown sugar into the deep belly of a great wooden mortar. Using a wooden pole as a pestle I raise it “up easy” with two hands arms extended and then I lower the heavy pole fast and hard. I hit into a hollowed tree trunk that is the mortar which here we always called by its Spanish name of pilón most probably taken from the Latin pila.
Almost every bohío country house here has a pilón to grind coffee beans, but this useful device is so common place it is unnoticed. Pilón is also the name of place near where Castro had first landed in the mountains.
This pilón of undeniable Taíno design, the Taíno name was probably similar to the Loko Arawak hako, or the Caribe tahoúllouca. As I grind the beans, I drive the pestle repeatedly crushing beans inside the mortar, in obvious imitation of prolonged and vigorous coitus. Thus, in Loko Arawak the pestle is called hakorechi, or husband of the hako. Variants of the pilón are common in most forest cultures of indigenous America where it is commonly a center of happy female gossip.
Soon all the coco beans are crushed, mixed with brown sugar, to a smooth dark brown almost black, deliciously smelling paste at the bottom of the pilón.
The remnants of the Taíno culture is all around us, but only those who are alert to this see it. The Güajiros of these parts call themselves Cristianos (Christians)F; they do not know that this is what the acculturated Taínos called themselves in the middle 1500s. Then Taínos who were clothed were protected, those who still went nude were not. Of course this was only necessary when the Spanish were passing through, as soon as the Spanish left, the clothes came off the somber Cristianos they became lustful Taínos again.
I scraped the chocolate mix out of the pilón. The others guerrillas remembering the raw yuca episode, and perhaps the results of my eating watercress at Minas de Frío or even my failed attempt to purify water at El Sordo not trust my taste in food or drink. Thus, when I offer to share, they did not want any. So I put the big round packages of chocolate, wrapped in paper, into my jolongo pack. It is all mine.
We go on, carrying our heavy loads easily since the hills here are gentle and we are going down hill. We walk proud. We are going not through the wet, narrow and stony secret way between the foothills, but walk boldly on a hot dusty broad road cut into the northern edge of the mountains to the Bayamo valley. This way is faster. Somehow, we do not see raiding planes, and better still they do not see us.
We skirt the hills above plains and swamps of Peralejo, where on July 13, 1895 grandfather was in the forces of Antonio Maceo who fought and defeated the Spanish, killing Spanish General Santoclides and forcing the colonial governor of Cuba Martínez Campos to flee to Bayamo. In this next century in a different war we reach the Bayamo River Valley in November of this year of 1958.
We relax in a cocal, a coconut grove glad to be rid of the ammunition from our packs that we had carried it for so many days, across so many miles, over so many mountains and steep hillsides. It is a strange and different feeling; when we were escopeteros that ammunition would have been as precious as gold or even life itself. We then had dreamed, plotted, and killed for such weaponry. Yet now we do not miss the heavy weight of those little heavy boxes of .30 caliber carbine rounds. Things have changed, we have changed.
This cocal was on the western side of the Bayamo River, in the northern part of the straggling hamlet of El Corojo, the part most close to the plains. Here are lush pastures of high guinea grass, and fruit tree groves climbing up the hills to their still forested tops. We are just south of where the Valley of the Bayamo, with widens rapidly to the west and becomes one with the plains of the Cauto.
This cocal was almost right across the Bayamo River from my home at the Casa de Los Generales. It too is gone now lost beneath the waters of la Represa del Corojo, a great river choking dam.
We on eve of battle in 1958 rest and sleep in our hamacas. We eat and find life good. We do not worry about coconuts falling on our heads; we just relax in our hammocks and our strength slowly returns as we recover from that long march with those so heavy loads. There is time now to eat food slowly, to doze and daydream; it is wonderful.
Mind at rest, my eyes wander from one comforting familiar sight to another. Looking up from my hammock, I see the coconut tree trunks in clear detail.
My idle mind gives itself turns to botany, a subject I always have and will always love. I observe the places on the trunk where the coconut tree had grown, and then dropped its great fronds. Each fallen frond has left a lopsidedly circular bump around the trunk of the tree, the abscission scar.
Each scar had become a memorial to a large and fallen leaf now gone. These fronds had grown fast at first, using sunlight to make food for the plant; then old and exhausted, shaded by younger growth, the frond had dropped away to the ground as the tree grew taller.
Between the abscission scars are the internodal intervals, the spaces of smooth trunk between the places were the fronds had grown. Leaves lost, trunk turned tall, tell of time passed.
Looking up I could see the internodes, which although they were about the same distance apart yet appeared foreshortened by the trees height. The nodes seem closer and closer and the internodes smaller and smaller as the tall trees stretched high to the fronds that formed a high roof above us.
Above the fronds is a vast domed roof of blue. This color is not the rich dark blue of Canada or Montana’s northern skies, but the so very clear, light filled blue of a sky of Caribbean dreams, flecked white with fluffy clouds.
I am home; this is the land where I belong. I feel tranquil and happy. The deep shade is good, for the air in this shade is pleasantly warm, none of that dreadful chill of death shade of Minas de Frío. Fallen fronds and coconut husks littered the ground in soft and natural disorder.
THE BATTLE AS RECORDED BY OTHERS
The time, which seems so long ago now, was between the 20th to the 30th of November 1958. The place where this was fought was mainly on the road that went from El Horno, the “entroque” with the Central Highway where Grandfather once had an old love. This place is on the Cauto Plains north of the jaws of the dire wolf, where the rolling hills north of Guisa surround the highway with a hilly valley that narrows somewhat going south towards the town. El Horno was destroyed using fire by the Batista forces as they retreated.
Batista’s forces in the general area are said to have been about 5,000 at the beginning of action. Castro’s main line forces must have been of the order of 400 or more when the actions ended
According to Castro-sources the order of battle included by Castro sources, of perhaps 2,700 Batista soldiers. On November 20th in the Bayamo area, Batista had 30 companies of infantry, some of them organized in seven battalions, a number of T-37 heavy wheeled armored cars with 37 mm Cannon and at least one .30 caliber machine gun each, plus some M-4 Sherman tanks, and a battery of 75 mm Howitzers. After the 20th four more infantry companies were deployed. In addition, squadron 13 of the Rural Guard and the Batista air force saw action.
At first Castro deployed about 220 well armed main force troops, which were supported by perhaps 1000 less armed escopeteros and unarmed porters and reserves. As arms became available as a result of successful ambushes, Castro’s force grew considerably. Since all losses were replaced and every captured weapon was employed,.
The first day a reconnaissance plane probably a Pa 22 was shot down by rebel ground fire and crashed at El Horno, to the north of the Castro forces. The second day, the 21st of November, the B-26 fighter bombers began to attack the rebels. Later F-47 joined in these attacks. There were at least ten attempts by the Batista forces to break through to support the garrison at Guisa, of those only two got through. All but two came down along the highway to Guisa, one unsuccessful attempt employed Sherman tanks and came out of Bayamo from the west; apparently the commander of this group would not or could not go over the hills west of Guisa to reach the Cuartel. That puzzled most of us rebels, who did not understand that these Sherman tanks could be very vulnerable. Castro may have known different since he had been an associate or Emilio Tro who was a WWII veteran. This action ended after two hours of fighting and the tanks retreated. The Tactical Group A broke in through the hills east of Guisa during the last day or so of action.
Action happened in a series of 18 or so ambushes. . One of these was not detected and the other, on the last action at the site, and which I witnessed was carried out by Batista Agrupación Táctica A. Tactical Team A came west from the direction of Coralillo, a hilly district near and east of Guisa. This Tactical Team using air support, was able to suppress fire from the hills, enter Guisa, relieve and then evacuate the besieged Company M, of about 133 men) and remnants of another battalion lead by Lieutenant Blanco Navarro, supported by three T-17 armored cars which with help of a squadron of Rural Guard, was holding out in the Cuartel. Blanco Navarro was substituting for Capitan Machado (apparently no relation to the Machado in our escopetero group). Castro sources state that Machado, who had been discussing terms with the rebels was absent, Blanco Navarro was approached but did not wish to surrender.
Reports by Batista forces admit the loss of perhaps 30 dead, over a hundred infantry weapons, and two T-17 heavy armored cars. Figures given by the rebel side indicate 200 casualties on the Batista side, and rebels lost eight dead and seven wounded. Castro rebels’ reports also mention the two heavy armored cars, one destroyed, the other captured, used in an assault and then destroyed by a Batista Bazooka shot at the Cuartel. Roughly 100 infantry weapons, three mortars, and one Bazooka, and 14 trucks were captured. A Batista ambulance was destroyed.
Officers killed include rebel captain Braulio Coroneaux (spelling may vary) who died on November 23 as the Sherman M-4 fire supported the armored cars. On the Batista side there are many casualties. Capitan Adriano Coll Cabrera is wounded and first lieutenant Froilan Pérez Medina dies in action on November 26th. Both are from Company 32. A segment of the crucial central highway between Bayamo and
It is late November 1958, to the north and east of us on the hills west of Guisa the rebels are executing a bloody ambush. Braulio Coroneaux and his crew of women machine gunners in their very tight pants, to the drumming beat of a deadly conga rhythm, are tapping out a tattoo.
The poor casquitos are dying, along the road in the valley. The avioneta flies in circles guiding the B26s.
Then something quite frightening happens to us. The Batista troops from their base at the Granja at Bayamo had finally come up with a good idea. Real tanks, Shermans with 75 mm cannon, not armored cars like those on the road north of Guisa, were coming up along the plains at the mouth of the Bayamo Valley. The tanks are west of the hills of Guisa, that is on our side of theses hills then, and some miles north of us.
The fearful noise of the 37 mm had a quite unintended effect, for it helped me and especially my brother Lionel. One of the communist escopetero leaders, I think it was Majin Peña, had been the instigator of Lionel’s problems.
Peña, like most communists had a secret desire, which was the him forbidden, lust to own land. In this case specifically wanting our family’s land, he had accused Lionel of something or other.
For then unknown reasons the Shermans begin firing their cannon south up the Bayamo Valley making really fearsome sounds. The distant sound of the cannon’s firing, the whistle of the shells overhead, and the final tremendous explosions as the tank rounds hit the ground are terrifying.
Our group’s new leader is “Capitan Dentista.” His real name is Alonso Guillen. He is thin, a widow’s peak of thick dark hair combed back and split by receding balding to the sides. A mustache and short trimmed beard held court on his thin long face below a beaked nose.
The Captain looks aloof like a Spanish Grandee, or the traditional portrayal of the Devil, which ever comes to your mind first.
We call him the dentist for the very good reason that he is a dentist. There is a large photograph of the Dentista, on pages 14 and 15 “Life” magazine dated
Capitan Dentista, an honest but somewhat fearful man; he had us draw up in two files facing him and began to speak. His speech is short. “The "Batista troops are coming" he tells us in Spanish. Strange how when they were winning we all them the Batista troops, and when they are losing they are mere casquitos.
Then the Dentist made his point even more clearly: "I am more important than you are" he said. We said nothing. "Thus I will leave", the Dentist said. To make his point even more clear he got into his jeep and headed really fast up the Camino Real to the mountains.
Perhaps the Dentist rode away in Uncle Marcos Jeep for that vehicle, was one of few around, perhaps the only one in that valley. Castro has made the jeep part of an exhibit now, he will not let Uncle Marcos son Calixto get it back, and also refuses, forty years later to pay more than a pittance for it.
What nobody seemed to know or care about then is that dentists are medical officers. Medical officers can only fight in defense of wounded. However, 1958 was not a time of niceties.
At first we are terrified. Then we decided we are comfortable here and no Batista soldier can catch ridge runners like us. So we settle down to rest and to eat. We wait.
The Batista soldiers do not come, but much later a very bedraggled and ashamed Dentist does. His jeep, Uncle Marco’s jeep, had broken down. The dentist unused to walking has to walk all the way back. He tells us what happened. We are impressed by his honesty and understand his fear from our own experiences. We rebels accepted him as our leader once more.
Soon we move forward. We are armed and readied to be sent to the front.
All the bigwigs Castro, Sorí Marin, the rebel capitanes and comandantes, even Pardo Llada who was always trying to convince everybody he was important, are a little way off, doing whatever bigwigs do.
Whatever the bigwigs are doing involves much conversation. They are far enough away and busy enough that they had nothing for us to do, thank G-d. We did not have weapons, so they could not make us fight until we had some.
I rest in the cocal, very much the elder brother, sure that my younger brother Lionel is safe. It had been so stressful for it was a matter of family survival, now if something happens to me there will be another male to protect our mother and sisters.
I had gone to see my brother, riding a borrowed black mule, from the Batey of the Viuda de Agüero. This compound a group of scattered wooden houses was across the river from home at “La Casa de los Generales.” The name Agüero originally meant augury, prognostication, and omen; but that was merely the name of her dead husband. They knew me there; these people the Agüeros. They, somehow also my relatives, trusted me; they gave their best mule to ride. They also loaned me a fine Texas saddle. I do not recall if the insane one was still locked behind bars in the middle of this batey.
He is not a pack animal. He is a big American-sized riding mule, jet black and many hands high at the shoulder. Most Cuban mules are much smaller. Yet what ever its size it is still a mule, and as such full of tricks. I neglect to remember that detail.
I arrive at the foot of the mountains of Los Números. There pushed by my urgent mission and relying on the strength of this fine animal I choose the steepest fastest route. The mule looks up, in dismay at that great steep slope.
The mule starts to limp, so I get off to check the animal’s hoofs. The mule hop-hobbles a little away, like a fool I let it go there, and it cannily limps a little further away. I get suspicious as the mule suddenly seemed not be limping any more. I move towards it as I am too far away to grab the reins, then the mule spins round and runs. That mule, smarter than I, has tricked me, and now it is running back to its home.
Feeling really stupid, I walk up that steep mountain to Lionel's house. And as I go up worry about the saddle, nobody will steal a mule, but a saddle now that is different that is a gift from the gods never to be refused. The walk is easier than it ever was for me before.
I get to Lionel’s house, and tell him what he already knew: he is charged with some idiocy that he had not done. I eat and then immediately after we leave for El Corojo. I walk down with Lionel riding, to be with him at his trial.
Today I remember little of the charges, except that Lionel was falsely accused of murder. The penalty for murder was death. We are most perturbed.
We walk toward down from Los Números past the old remembered places, to Guamá, over the Barrenos to El Corojo. After reaching El Corojo we walk north, along the Royal Road. The Royal Road, here goes between the fences of exposed flat open pastures; it goes to Santa Barbara; it goes to Lionel’s trial.
This is Lionel’s second trial. His first trial had been in Lot Number 9, Aunt Rosita’s Land. It was held at the store that once had been Merengue’s. By then Merengue was dead, killed by the rebels. At this first trial, Facundo previously one of the families mayorals and a Batista-Castro double agent, had been one of the presiding judges.
There had been two other accused. Facundo secured Lionel’s release, another prisoner was also released. The third prisoner is unfortunate or guilty, I do not know which, and he is executed.
I am very apprehensive. My thoughts are confused. Was Lionel to be shot this time? He is my brother! Have I brought just him in for that? I resolve if he were to die I would demand to be shot with him, for I could not live with aiding in his death.
When we were passing the fine guinea grass trees of the land of the Echevarria we heard the drone of a light plane. It was the machine gun carrying avioneta. Lionel still tells the story and laughs as he tells it.
One moment I am walking alongside his horse, suddenly I am gone. He looks around there I am standing up pressed against the fence trying to mime a fence post. Lionel, even then still in the daze of his worries, finds this most amusing.
We arrive at Santa Barbara, where I was to testify before some revolutionary judges, Pardo Llada among them. Pardo Llada comes out to greet us. The Judges are supposed to try Lionel for some inane accusation that Majin Peña, a cowardly escopetero of the extreme rear guard and the highest most sheltered ridge, had made up.
The lack of evidence for the charges becomes especially clear to the judges when they find themselves under artillery fire. Probably they were some 75 mm shells from the Batista M-4 Sherman tanks coming along the Corojo Road (El Camino Real) trying to approach Guisa from the west above the judges’ heads. The shells land and explode to the west across the Bayamo River.
In addition, the judges can hear the Batista planes bombing these low hills. Pardo Llada and the others very rapidly decide the whole thing is stupid. Court is dismissed and after taking cover; all except us leave in un-seemly haste.
We say our goodbyes and Lionel heads south on the Camino Real.
Lionel goes home to Los Números, lot Number Seven, and his family, to Ana Elsa his beloved daughter. Pardo Llada joins the bigwigs in the safety of headquarters. I am sent away further east towards Castro headquarters, which is still at the house of Senator Mon Corona. Castro has not yet moved his headquarters to the safer Caves of Santa Barbara.
The mule is safe back in the Batey of La Viuda. I apologized for letting it run away; and I go back to my unit in El Corojo.
CASTRO IN THE COROJO
Now I felt different and more confident. The soldiers have not come up here. We realize they are now very afraid of us. Lionel acquitted of his false accusations and is again safe high in mountains of Los Números with his infant daughter Ana Elsa, that worry is gone.
The Batista Casquitos have been dying on the road north of Guisa for some days now; we are winning. Elation fills all of us.
This is when for first time I saw Fidel Castro here in the Corojo. Castro is stays apart from his troops. A local Güajiro I knew, a laborer by trade but a poet by avocation, I think his name was Ángel comes to see me.
Ángel asks me take him to see Castro. He wants to recite to Castro a poem, an ode in the Güajiro tradition, in his praise. We go. We find Castro, by a small, low, not too mired and not too smelly, pig corral. The corral is was fenced in with wooden stringers and posts, under the shade of coconut palms. The pigs were not there and had probably been eaten already.
Castro is in a hurry and completely drenched in sweat. The sweat is black against his olive green shirt. I asked Castro’s staff if he has time to hear a poem. To our surprise the answer is yes; so the Güajiro poet recites proudly.
The words it seems were in the traditional décima form; what they said does not come to memory now, except they praised Castro.
Castro listens without a word standing by the pig corral. Slit shadows move across his face from the palm fronds high above us go swaying with wind.
Under his wide forehead, Castro’s eyes covered by heavy rimmed dark glasses almost a mask ride above a big nose. His tufted beard hides expression. His face shows no visible emotion. We are in awe of the leader. All the rest of the world is held in abeyance.
The gunfire in the far distance does not intrude, until Ángel, the poet, is finished. Castro says some words, and leaves in a flurry of long strides. The tall man is followed by a horde of headquarter staff personnel clad in olive green. This is the official color the revolution, evoking Robin Hood. The hidden red is not displayed publicly.
In what seems to be an excessively severe exercise of literary criticism, Castro would, within a year or two, have the poet jailed. Surely Ángel’s ode to Castro was not that bad.
We porters are deemed ready to fight, and sent north. We walk north, along the Camino Real. On this road we cross the lowest ford of the Bayamo River.
The low northern end of the forested and manganese rich Los Llanos plateau is at our right. The karst rocks of the plateau shine in the sun, fools’ gold flecked on brilliant white showing between the deep greens of forest color. The sun is bright, the sky blue; the Bayamo River runs fast and clear. The lino water weed streams in the water’s current.
We walk on the wet pebbles of the road. A field of speckled boulders brackets the road here. Then we walk between lines of barb wire fences on either side of wide road between Echavaria’s pastures. The long bladed guinea grass is yellow-green of and the sporadic copses of guásima trees that shade the cattle are a far darker green.
We are almost in the open with few trees at roadside. We watched for spotter planes, but these avionetas are far too busy trying unsuccessfully to spot for the B-26 and F-47 fighter bombers supporting the losing Batista forces trapped along the road north of Guisa and in the Cuartel itself.
The tup tup tup beat of machine guns is still distant. Braulio Coroneau was still playing his last signature, tapping out machinegun rhythms to impress his women gunners. Coroneau, his victory almost won will die soon. Most of his woman gunners, his ready lovers, who fight steadfast at his side, will survive.
We turn northeast and cross the darkly shaded ford of the Guisa River by the little wooden houses of the Santa Barbara hamlet. It seemed so long ago since this place was a checkpoint held by Batista soldiers in shallow sandy rifle pits at the edge of the river.
Here the Guisa River is small, much of its water lost underground; it runs slowly through deep pools surrounded by gallery forest. This river runs west of the hills to the north of the town. The paved road, from the town to the Central Highway on which most of the fighting is occurring, goes north in a far drier valley behind these hills at our east. The town cannot be seen, these hills some miles away from us, screen the place from our view.
We come out of the shade of the riverine gallery forest into the harsh sun going east on the road to the town of Guisa. To our right is the top of the cave ridden lowest canyon of the Guisa River.
We cannot see the canyon for it drops off to be hidden beyond a field of white rocks. The rocks’ blinding reflections spread all around onto forested karst hills to south, onto small saplings in the field and on the squinting eyes of us rebels walking that rocky road to war.
Although we could not see them this is where one of the largest cave networks of Cuba. The miles long “Cuevas of Santa Barbara” riddle their Swiss cheese like holes into the steep white karst limestone canyon walls. This extensive cave network was a refuge of Mambí in the wars of Independence.
We go east along that road, entering a dry narrow valley between steep low hills. We come to the grand house of Mon (short for Ramon) Corona, once Senator and Governor for this great, unruly, province of Oriente. The house is standing a little distance away on the side of a hill, at the end of a rising curving long driveway to the left and north side of the road.
I remember little of Mon Coronas’ house. It was big, it was low, it is roofed in red Spanish tile. It must have been painted in a tasteful pastel color.
What is important to us are two things: there is food being cooked in the kitchen, and the house, as most of that style and time, is made of bullet-proof thick concrete.
Now that we are much closer to the front, we hear much louder the sounds of battle. We hear; but ignore the noise, and we eat. As I eat, I suddenly jump. A spent bullet has come in through an east window. The bullet, coming from the hills, goes past the great aluminum cooking pots on a stove. The bullet does a little jig on the floor and becomes still.
With caution I looked through that east window. I see the west hills of that valley north of Guisa now, as is traditional, a battle ground.
Great-grandfather, his men, and his rifled artillery and dynamite cannon had taken these hills then fortified by the Spanish. The town fell, just over 60 years before this war. Then, my granduncle, “Tío Carlos,” against his father’s orders had burned the town of Guisa, church and all.
It was apparent that for some unknown reason we 1958 rebels did not complete, or lost control a strategic hill just to the west of the Guisa. This hill, it was most probably the one called la Loma de la Torre, perhaps because in the War of 1895-1898 it was probably the site of the Spanish Armies heliograph. The heliograph had relayed orders with flashes of reflected sun light to and from Bayamo until the Great Grandfather’s dynamite cannon blew it apart with six and a half pounds of nitro-gelatin.
This hill in 1958 is still a strong point, since it rises to the west above the fort like cuartel where the besieged Batista garrison hold out. Obviously, something is happening on that hill, and what ever it was it was not good for our side. Castro and his headquarters staff hurriedly evacuate to the Caves of Santa Barbara. We, very much more expendable, are armed and sent to the battlefront.
BLOWING THINGS UP IN CUBA GUISA 1958
In late fall early winter 1958, anti-armor mines won this current battle at Guisa. Aunt Manuela told me once that she thought I had blown up the armored cars (they were heavy armored T-17 cars not the Sherman tanks that were often mentioned). My Aunt said that the Rebel "Teniente" in Guisa had told her I had done.
Aunt Manuela had heard this when she and her late husband Uncle Norman and their son Alexis were trying to get justice from the rebel leadership a little after the battle.
Forty or so years later I said told her it probably was not me. I said probably because sometimes one forgets very frightening things in war. It most probably was Miguel Angel Calvo, “The Gallego” who did it.
Still reading a Batista Army communications “The bombing began to soften the positions at Santa Barbara and Guisa at 6 am November 29 1958. At midday column 91 was attacked by the enemy near Monjará; the attack was repelled strongly and the bandits fled, leaving ammunition and a (Land) MINE (my uppercase), etc. ” See Batista Forces Communication G-3 No, 5-S-from 58 Pto. Mando Ops. Bayamo found on pp. 244 of Vásquez 1970.) It may well be that I was there lost in the mental confusion of the “fog of war.”
Miguel Angel Calvo lived until almost the end of the 1958 revolution in his lumber and machine shop among the shady trees and the cave ridden limestone karst hills of El Sordo. El Sordo “the place of the deaf man” was or is a crossroad where two wide dirt tracks met, south of Guisa. This place, was by the little tree shaded stream, with a wobbly plank bridging across it. El Sordo had been in the escopetero territory of our guerrilla band “La gente de (the people of) Mojena.”
Miguel Angel Calvo house was near or attached to his unpainted wooden machine-shop. Sawmill machinery, the six wheel army surplus truck, the tangles of steel cable, and the great logs of precious tropical wood were all around outside. Inside the shop were clutters of tools, parts, scraps of metal everywhere. A thin smattering of sawdust covered an uneven dirt floor.
Miguel Angel Calvo had a room where his woman, a grey figure I do not recall well, lived. The room had dusty glass windows, perhaps with calico curtains.
I do not remember any children. Miguel Angel Calvo was thin, gray like his wife, and tall. Calvo spoke with a Spanish accent. He probably had fought in the Spanish Civil war, and must have fled that country then. Calvo was a gifted machinist, who repaired our weapons and helped make bombs and other devices.
This conversation with Aunt Manuela, triggered a memory of being asked to blow the armored cars. Who asked me to do it, I do not recall, for the whole memory is hazy, like a dream, tinged with fear, and seemingly suppressed.
I do dimly recall, that we, it must have been Captain Victor Mora and several other rebels, and I, went near the north south road to Guisa a place between the central highway and town. The palms there were the
Some of us must have been carrying shovels to dig with. I do not remember us carrying the mine, but know it was made from TNT recovered from unexploded bombs, in a gray steel 15 or so gallon milk churn. Perhaps the mine was already in place.
We went east from the rebel held hills west of the Guisa road, or was it from the estate of Mon Corona, west of the hills on the east west road from Santa Barbara to Guisa. I saw the place, west of the road from El Horno to Guisa, where we were to set the mine, and I was horrified.
My memory is of a field of poor wiry grass. There are no large bushes between us and the road. My back is to the west hills too far away to reach easily. This particular area is very flat. To the west are and east the hills are far. From here they look insignificant, these low semi-arid hills rise, as if a wall, in a series of overlapping lumps covered with a scattering of small trees and more abundant bushes.
It is hot, very hot even though it is late in the year, for Oriente province is the most tropical in Cuba.
There are barbwire fences with skinny posts on either side of the asphalt road. More wiry low grass and more fan yarey, probably Copernicia baileyana León, palms groves extend into the distance the north and east towards another series of low hills to the east.
No longer was there lowland forest that could hide entire armies, and in this particular area, apparently in a “rain shadow” the rainfall was low, so there was little bush.
Although we can see the Guisa Highway, we cannot see the Central Highway from here. This highway is to the north of us, but we know it is there. It was built in the 1930s by President, and then Dictator, Machado, both for general public transport and to help move his armies and thus defeat his enemies. The Central Highway is a barrier that slows the movements of rebels like ourselves, but helps our enemies forces move faster to attack us.
To the far south the high, wall of the Sierra Maestra looks blue. This is because the air is tinged by light- scattering floating dust, and filled with plant terpenoids and other isoprenes from the forbs and trees on the Cauto plain and the foothills that add flavors to the scented heated air.
All the area is open to the sky. There is no cover to hide us from the Batista airplanes. The scene fills us with fear.
If this memory is true, Mora wanted me to trigger the mine by hand using a car battery and long wires. The land mines use TNT taken from bombs that the Batista Airforce had dropped on the rainforest and had not detonated, The detonators we use are skinny short pencils of dully shining soft metal, was undoubtedly stolen from the rich Charco Redondo manganese mines.
Charco Redondo is lost among rising hill to the southeast. These manganese mines and their steel hardening ore were so important during WWII, that endless maps and charts of them are found today in old
In my dream like memories, all is alive and filled with scattered wandering thoughts. The pencil-like detonators imbued with fascinating and dangerous evil, are latent but “living.”
These detonators have a closed blunt end and partially filled with mercury fulminate. The other end was open to accommodate a length of ignition cord or in this case, an electric wire.
Professor Ledón of the University of Havana had taught me to think chemistry in high school. Here thinking too much is not good for in war, thinking can lead to fear; and fear can be paralyzing.
As soon as the battery fuse connection was closed, electrons running down wires would trigger violent bond rupturing motion among in the valence electron clouds of the unstable mercury fulminate of the primer. Now I know far smaller than microscopic, electrons move in the strange time and space defying quantum ways and made real tangible things happen.
When the primer’s mercury fulminate blows, that triggers the TNT explosion. In quantum theory electron actions are reversible, but in this macro world of biology death is irreversible; humans killed by explosions stay dead.
To trigger the mine was easy. All I would have to do was close the circuit by twisting the two bare ends of the wire together just as the armored car passed the tree that marked where the mine was. It was where all this had to be done that bothered me.
To do this I would have to sit by that heavy car battery, holding one end of bare wire in each hand. Good military tactics have infantry accompanying the tanks. If the enemy infantry see the wires leading from me to the mine, they would know where I was hiding near road. Then they would simply shoot me. This is war, not chemistry, and, I repeat, in war thinking too much is not good.
If I were to accept Mora’s suggestion, it was far too dangerous to be an order. I would be in an open field on the far side, the east side, of the highway. I would sit there alone, cut off from the other rebels by the highway with little chance of escape in that empty field.
The thought of sitting among the low sun-bleached dry grass with the wires in my hand waiting to close the connection as the first armored car crossed the mine buried in a milk churn in a drainage pipe under the road was terrifying. I knew, were I to agree to do it, bad things would happen.
I imagined the scene, I would hear the rumble of trucks and armor, and hear the buzz of the spotter planes before I saw them. The belt fed machine gun mounted spotter planes would lead the way for the armored cars, the heavy trucks, the officers’ jeeps and the hundreds of Batista infantry.
The enemy would come and appearing first small, then and larger and larger, coming down the road towards me. All this power, all this terror, would be moving down the road getting closer and closer. Towards me and me alone!!!!
I told Mora, that I would not do it. Then young, I was ashamed at my lack of courage. Yet now older, I think when your leadership is unreliable, one has to make these choices.
Apparently my caution was shared. There was no one else either brave enough or foolish enough to trigger the mine from this vulnerable place.
This was apparently the last attempt to set mines in this action. Previously better sites were selected such as at a small bridge closer to Guisa, with more trees to provide cover from the enemy’s planes. a small rounded hill with larger trees on the other, the east side to the woods and the hills.
At this bridge, it really was a mere embankment pierced by large circular concrete conduits, to carry the waters in the floods of the wet season. The bridge goes over a small, steep sided, deep gully that now holds a mere trickle. The water runs from north-east to south-west. I don’t know where the other armor car was destroyed, but it must have been near by.
Here on this little bridge is where this armored car is blown up. It is a T17 Staghound armored car. It lands upside down on the hill, its many heavy wheels, up like the legs of a dead roach. Still I do not know who did it here; it could have been Miguel Angel Calvo.
There was no mine planted at that arid place further north, apparently we were chased away by a Batista advance. It does no good to plant a mine when the enemy knows where it is.
I was a main-force soldier now. Calvo was not with our company while he was at Guisa, nor the subsequent actions. However, Calvo must have been near by. I do vaguely remember talking with him at least once, perhaps at the fall of Guisa, before Batista fell. He also told me things afterwards in Havana, in 1961 while I was on the run from Castro during the Playa Giron, the Bay of Pigs disaster when everybody who the government thought could pose a threat was being arrested. Perhaps Calvo informed on me then, perhaps he did not for although he knew I was in Havana apparently the police did not.
Miguel Angel Calvo told me that he took the 37 mm gun off one of the wrecked armored cars, mounted it on wheels with a protective shield. He also had told me that the weapon only had armor piercing shells. This artillery piece was used in the siege of the fortified factory at Maffo. I think Calvo was the gunner of the weapon. However, “that is another story.”
THE HILL AT GUISA
It must have been November 20th, 1958. Our guide and military superior, he was one of the Mora brothers, and three of us escopetero-retreads started to walk up the hill's western side. This hill is most probably the one called la Loma de la Torre; then I did not know its name.
The hills around Guisa all have names and have all been blooded in Cuba’s wars. These hills must be taken before the town can be successfully assaulted.
This and other nearby hills had been taken by my other maternal Great Grandfather’s forces both in the Ten Year war and in November of 1897 during the last war of the Cuban Independence struggle.
Near here, during the 1868-1878 Ten Year War, one of my great-grandfathers Don Benjamin Ramirez was wounded seven times. Just north of here in 1878, Don Benjamin surrendered with the members of this family who had remained free and alive to the forces of the then Spanish Governor of Cuba Martinez Campos. Martinez Campos would go on to be defeated at Peralejo in 1895 a place which, as mentioned, before is just over the horizon, west of here across the Bayamo and Guisa Rivers.
Guisa has been a critical military target for many years. Here the hills come north out of the Sierra Maestra; and he who holds Guisa holds the Cauto Plains and the old city of Bayamo. This was true for the Cuban rebels of November 1897 as it was in 1958.
In that November of 1897, my other maternal Great-grandfather Calixto García Iñiguez quietly and carefully placed his cannon on some of these hills. At the break of action, one shot from the dynamite cannon, a shell with about six pounds of nitro-gelatin sailed high through the air to destroy the Spanish heliograph communication device. The hill I am on may have been the same one.
Then under General García’s skilled direction the Spanish forts one by one were shelled by cannon and then taken by assaulted. Each successful assault further weakened the interlocking Spanish defenses until at the last strong points, those within the town itself, fell.
The Spanish Bayamo garrison across the plains to west cowered in their forts. The dark thorny dry land forests, the high grass of the pastures, and thick canebrakes of swamps that then existed on the plains between Bayamo and Guisa offered many ambush sites. The Spanish forces ignored the distance dulled cannon fire. No help came from Bayamo.
Once Guisa fell, the Spanish evacuated Bayamo.
In 1958, the dark, thick plains and hill forests were gone, but the west slope of this hillside was bushy. We could not see where we were going. Still we had just being San Cristobal assault rifles and were much more confident.
We hold clunky San Cristobal Model 2 automatic long range carbines in our hands. The, for us unusual abundance of extra ammunition, is in six long clips. Each clip is held vertically in canvas pockets of the ammunition holders flopping awkwardly on our left hips.
The gun was an automatic rifle (or carbine) which used the US .30 caliber carbine round in the traditional "Beretta" two trigger (auto and single-fire) design made in the city of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. The designer was Pal Kiraly the Hungarian master gunsmith, and those guns were manufactured in the 1940s-1960s time of the Dictator Trujillo. Trujillo shipped at least five thousand of these weapons to Batista in 1958, it is also rumored that he supplied them to Castro as well.
It was more an assault rifle than a submachine gun. The weapon shot fairly accurately at moderate range, 300 to 600 hundred yards or so, on full automatic (almost 10 rounds per second) and could empty our clips in one quick, less than four second, brrouump. Some sources state the clips were of 30 rounds each and illustrate with a curved clip. I clearly recall that the clips were straight; 1957 photographs of US Ambassador Farland firing the weapon support this. My memory suggests that these straight clips held forty rounds.
Confidence came with all this fire-power. Yet we knew that excess faith in a San Cristobal is a dangerous thing. This excess confidence had cost the life of the then Captain of the advanced rebel headquarters at las Peñas, overlooking the Casquito controlled plains. He, one of the many nameless, ghosts who haunt my memory, had taken charge after Universo Sánchez returned to the safety of the high ridges of around the Turquino Peak.
We first heard frightening rumors of M-14s coming in. The M-14s did not show up. Instead this strange new weapon, smooth wood and metal had appeared in the hands of our enemies. I do not know how one of the first San Cristóbals was captured. What ever happened, this unnamed captain took it as his own weapon. Impressed by its fire power and he, almost alone, tried to shoot up La Granja, a main Batista garrison on the flat grass lands near Bayamo. By his death, the Captain showed us that the gun’s firepower alone was an insufficient talisman to ward off death and to ensure victory.
We were given little training to shoot the San Cristóbal. In those days with ammunition very scarce, we were only expected to shoot during combat. We were warned about two things: not to hold the gun by the clip, because held this way could jam; and that San Cristóbal were not designed to be fired on full automatic for more than one clip. We were given no further training. And we, always short of ammunition, did not test fire it.
It was probably the 29th of November, three of us, I was to be in charge, were to reach the hill top. It is late in the day. Our guide and leader started to lead us three up the west side of the hill. It is the evening, the bushes taller than our heads are open underneath, leaving spaces for grass and forbs and little cattle trails.
Suddenly we heard a sound, a zing. We are being shot at. We lie down and take cover without firing, trying to find out from where the shots were coming from. We cannot tell where are enemy is. We slowly withdraw, and then stop lower down. Our guns are ready, but we do not fire.
I question our group leader. “Do our order say, take the hill? Or do they say go up the hill?” He replies we were merely told to go up the hill, and when we got there, to fire every half-hour at the fort. So we simply sit down, in a protected place under the bushes, and wait. Our group leader leaves.
We wait until it is near dawn, and start up the hill again. It is not a bad climb, even in the dark for it is a small hill. The ground is dry and not slippery; the spaces between the bushes easily let us through. Best of all, nobody is shooting at us now.
We arrive on top, and we find and examine three slit trenches, just beyond the lip of the hill. The position and construction of the trenches shows that they are clearly intended for use against the Cuartel below. These are trenches prepared by our side.
However, the fact that the trenches are abandoned is not a good omen. Empty trenches clearly tell us a story. The rebel tenants of these trenches had either died here while trying to hold this position; or they had been driven off. This is discomforted; this is not good. We worry and look around in the first light of dawn. We find comfort in the fact that we find no bodies or graves near by.
The trenches, faced east towards the cuartel, the fort, are just long enough to lie down in; they look deep in the still dim light.
We settled in.
As the sun rises, light began to leak in through the front of the trenches. We see to our horror, the front of the trenches is not solid. It is built up of mere small softball sized soft calcareous white rocks, piled up on each other a single layer thick. The trenches are not deep enough, and those little rocks are not going to stop bullets.
I take the center trench. I speak to the others, communicating my fears; “We had better dig. If we fire every hour, instead of every half hour, and spend the rest of the time digging in we should be OK.”
And then I begin to dig, using Uncle Marcos's heavy moderately wide bladed, bowie knife. I take a firm grip on the handle. The knife’s hilt is made of leather cut disks, liked piled washers, ended in on top with a metal boss. It feels comfortable and I dig easily prying between, and lifting out the small rocks in the soil at the bottom of the trench. These rocks add to the others out side
I had carried Uncle Marcos's knife in a sheath on my left hip. It replaced my revolver. The knife did not feel heavy. It simply was there for that knife was, as were all of my war weapons, part of my body.
This long barreled Police Special 0.38 caliber revolver was that Auntie Rosie had hidden before she left the farm. The same one that Nicia had found for me when I joined the rebels. The same revolver that, when after the Batista Army raid on the camp at Arroyón and in the middle of an attack of complete exhaustion, I had given to Mojena.
Mojena had never returned it to me, that was fortunate since a revolver is no use when one is trying to dig a trench. Dig we must because we cannot hold this position without more protection. With great care, working steadily, I dig the stones out of the bottom of the trench, and pile them in front of me. The bowie knife is far more useful now, than it ever was before.
At first while we were dig, we do not want to agitate the already to excited Casquitos, so we do not stop our digging to fire. After some more digging, we feel a little safer and have time for guilt. So we fired our assigned shots at the fort.
Our shots of course could not reach the fort down beyond the foot of the hill. From our point of vantage, the cuartel, its little second story, tower, court-yard and walls look like a toy building.
I think the concrete walls of the fort were painted yellow green,
After we fire, we wait, but nothing happens. Relieved at the lack of immediate response, we dig again with all the energy we have.
It is getting hot and it is dry above that hard scrabble valley. Below there I see no luxurious royal palms markers of good soil and plenty of rain. This south eastern side of the hill is an arid place, for it clearly is in the rain shadow of these hills. The lower part of this slope is treeless; even the more hardy fan palms do not grow here. These palms can only be seen far in the distance towards the north east. The only trees seem to be the one’s that shelter us here at the top of the hill.
After about an hour of this, we stop digging to fire at the cuartel fort again. We do this in several cycles of digging and shooting. The interval between shooting gets longer as we dig, fire, duck down, and then carefully raise our heads to look down towards the fort. The sparse shade of small, scraggly, nondescript trees is giving us some shade, but it is hot here.
Since the bottom dry south eastern slope of the hill is free of tall cover, and we are above looking down, we can see everything. We look and we look again exploring the approaches to “our hill.” We worry constantly about an attack.
Then we see a Casquito, Lieutenant Blanco alone, coming towards us; how we knew he is a lieutenant I don't remember. Now I know his name was Blanco Navarro, perhaps the same Manuel Blanco Navarro who was hit in Desiderio Alarcón’s ambush at the Jigüe ford, and the one who would die at the “Bay of Pigs.” He looks perhaps about an inch and half tall at that distance. We watched him in disbelief, looking away and then looking at him again.
Now, not only is he still there, but he is walking up the lower side of the hill completely in the open, walking on the dry grass. He keeps walking towards us, and still we hold our fire.
“Is he crazy or something, he knows we are here!” we wonder. The lieutenant keeps coming. Then he stops. Seemingly without a care in the world, he turns round and begins to walk back to the fort.
Then we did unknowingly, what the lieutenant mean for us to do. We opened fire with everything we had. Slipping our index fingers from the front trigger, we pull on the back triggers, putting out the hail of rapid automatic fire volume of the San Cristóbals. We hope to hit him with a random shot. We tilt our weapons up to get as much range as we can and try to “hose down” our target.
It does not help. He does not stumble; he is not hit.
The canny Batista lieutenant knows what he is doing. He has found out exactly where we are. He knows he is out of effective range, with only the smallest chance that we could hit him.
Then “Pop! Pop!” the Casquito's mortars in the fort begin to fire. They are firing white phosphorous. The first rounds fall short exploding hard.
G-d must have helped us amateur soldiers. The dry grass on the hill below us catches fire and issues billows of smoke. The wind is from the east. The smoke comes towards us completely covers our position.
We lie on our backs in the depth of our digging our trenches deeper. We are trying to be small and thin. Our guns are at the ready on top of us.
I am hungry. I eat the chocolate that I had made from the cacao pods; I eat it all as there seemed no point in saving it now. It tastes very good.
Then the planes come, shooting through the smoke. The whole front of the hill is burning. Still the planes have a good idea where we are. We know this because twigs and leaves the planes shoot off the trees above us, gently drifting to earth to fall down on top of us.
This went on and on it seemed forever, but the mortar shells keep falling short and the planes keep shooting high. Somehow we live.
The firing stops. We have tremendous headaches. We lay waiting for the assault; it never came.
Eventually a burial crew from our side comes up. We, still lying down in our trenches, point our guns upward at them. The burial crew pointed their weapons downward at us.
Recognizing us as fellow rebels, they ask an obvious question “Are you alive?” We respond amazed at this absurd query: “Yes, can't you see, we are!”
They think us heroes for sticking to our positions under that mortar barrage. We feel like fools, for having been tricked by the Batista Lieutenant into revealing our position.
Batista Forces Captain Adriano Coll Cabrera wounded, shot through a lung, on the 26th of November, dies in Bayamo hospital on the 28th. He had been born in Bejucal Province of Havana on the feast of
SEQUEL, SEX, AND THE DEATH ERECTION
The relief of being alive hits all of us. The Casquitos have run away. Fear flees to be replaced by the incredible joy of surviving death. It is a joy so intense that it is erotic. Then thoughts turn to sexual congress.
I wander around in the daze of victory. My memories of these celebrations are confused and disjointed.
I recall with great sadness the many dead Batista Casquitos ambushed on that well bloodied valley north of Guisa. I recall the cruel laughter of the women of Mariana Grajales machinegun brigade.
The women stand in merry gossip. Their skin-tight pants show almost everything as they stand cocking their hips. They are joking about the death erection of the very tall, very black, Casquito*. Their killing machine guns had left him still standing, but quite dead. He is leaning on the back doors of a destroyed ambulance on that damned road. His death erection is huge and dark. The warrior women, intoxicated with victory’s relief from fear, find this most amusing and liberating.
These rebel women, always lubricious, were driven to greater lust by blood and victory. They, returning the Taíno ritual of the conquering Spanish call la mancebía, abandoned themselves to serial copulations. The Taínas when they had exhausted the available men were known to proclaim “Victory! Victory! Manicato! Manicato!”
I, as always then a puritanical half-Irish Catholic, feel the pull of my young blood.
Thinking me a hero for my stand on that hill in front of the cuartel, a rebel officer comes to talk to me. He is a former Casquito lieutenant. I do not know his name. This lieutenant finding himself alone, and outmatched by about four of the machinegun women invites me to join their hillside meeting among the bushes.
I, abandon my religious scruples, and agreed to go with them. The women walk ahead. I watch the swaying hips of the women, emphasized by the great pockets of their army pants and the assorted instruments of death that hang from their belts. The women know they were being closely watched. They enjoyed the attention. The warrior women go deliberately swaying their waists, and swinging their hips widely side by side ahead of me on the path up the hillside.
A mist of lust clouds my mind, my heart races. This was to be my first time, a time far too late by local standards. Then shots coming from an unknown source at the top of the hill suddenly quenched my burning desires, and revived my Catholic fears of hell. Apparently a Casquito rear guard patrol was passing through. The women laughed at the sparse rain of bullets, a greater thrill to them.
The lieutenant and the women disappear into the bush. I waited in confusion sitting on the ground, in a spot protected from enemy fire. I stare at the dry-land bushes, growing on the stony ground; they have tiny leaves, and many thorns.
Rebel soldiers assembled in Guisa, near the near the park with Great grandfathers bust. The ruined church a stronghold Tio Carlos, against his father’s orders, had destroyed 61 years ago was just a little up hill on the south side of the park. The square was dusty. The buildings looked sad, high concrete porches, hitching posts in front, and thin pillars holding up low metal roofs. All there children, dogs, rebels, Montuno Güajiro country folk, and townsmen were joyous with exultation. These townsmen were celebrating the victory they had helped plan and bring to reality.
The pharmacist Alberto Soler, fat and ugly, of medium height, told me how he had helped plan the battle. The rebel attack on the cuartel fort was done to lure the Batista soldier reinforcements on to the killing zone on that road north of Guisa. While we talked far up on that road, buzzards still flew in landed to gorged on the dead.
There was a call for recruits for Comandante Sorí Marin’s new rebel police. I though about it and, then not wanting to miss the war, declined. El Tuerto Rubio, from our old “Mojena” escopetero squad, but was now well armed and part of Captain Orlando Rodriguez’s Puerta assault group, took the offer. .
The way the future was to be was not yet understood by most of us rebels. Comandante Sorí Marin’s purge and trial was a future inconceivable to us soldiers, and probably to most among Castro’s army leadership. El Rubio’s difficulties with his decision to join this police force were yet to come, and his fortunes fated to decline for in very few years Castro’s would execute Sorí Marin.
Amelio Mojena his name misspelled as Manejas by Castro’s staff, and his bravery at Guisa, were mentioned in the rebel dispatches. I transferred from Mora’s group to be with my old escopeteros friends, who were now part of Company Six, Column One, led by Orlando Rodriguez Puerta.
We knew there would be more blood before we won the revolution. How much more bloodletting, and for how long after we defeated Batista, we never guessed.
After the revolution was won Mora would refuse to execute people, he would be imprisoned for nine years, released but not allowed to leave Cuba. Mora, his hair dyed, and disguised as a “gangster” with broad brimmed hat, left during the Mariel Boatlift to take up exile in the U.S. Castro forgets debts he owes, but never those owed to him; more than anything he trusts no one, especially those who disagree with him. Victor Mora Rogaciano died in Miami and he was not rich, however he died with dignity as a free man. He was a man of honor, but a nephew is a high officer in the Castro Armies.
Larry Daley@copyright 1996, revised 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006.