Saturday, July 01, 2006



The air is cool; it is early morning in late December, 1958. We come here fresh from the action on the Central Highway. We are on an open bed truck; this is the first time I have traveled that way as a rebel. It is clear we now control the roads.

We stop a little off the road near the bottom of a small abrupt rise covered with corn and the dark shade of trees. We jump out of the truck. We run to the other side of the road, holding our weapons extended forward at thigh level in our right hands.

We cross a small open field, jump a low spot in marshy ditch, and run into the corn. First we climb up hill, digging the toes of our boots into the ground. Then we move smoothly and evenly as the field levels out.

The corn is taller than most of our heads. Since we had all grown up in the country, we walk between the rows respecting the crop.

We, are part of the Castro led rebels of column 1 fighting Batista forces in Oriente Province. We now control a few towns such as Guisa and Bueycito, and most of the countryside. Here, in this the most eastern and rebellious province in Cuba, we still do not control the larger cities like Bayamo and Holguin.

We are winning. The good weapons we have now make us confident, perhaps too confident.

The surviving veteran member of the machine gun crew proudly carries the heavy and imposing 30.06 belt fed air-cooled machine gun. He is leader of the crew served weapon now; his new subordinates carry the machine gun’s ammunition and its tripod.

Our leader Captain Orlando Rodríguez Puerta gives us our orders. We are to go into, the sugar factory town "Central America."

This action seems not to offer much danger. It seems a mere and harmless romp. Captain Puerta has said enter, not take the town.

We are near Palma Soriano in an old battleground of the Wars of Independence. Great grandfather had made war around here sixty years before.

I have my 30.06 Springfield 1903; the others have semiautomatic 30.06 Garand rifles and automatic San Cristóbals. The precision of the Springfield and the accurate fire of the Garand are well known, but the San Cristóbal is different. The San Cristóbal is seemingly merely a heavier version of the Italian 9 mm Beretta double trigger submachine gun. However, it is better described as an assault rifle.

The weapon was made in the City of San Cristóbal Dominican Republic by Trujillo supporters. It shoots the .30 caliber carbine round. This round is the same caliber as the 30.06 but with a smaller “un-necked shorter” shell-casing, less powder; it is somewhat less powerful and has less range.

When the front trigger is pulled, the San Cristóbal fires single shots much like the standard US carbine. However, pulling the back trigger releases a torrent of very rapid fire. Now we recognize awesome roar of massed San Cristóbals firing on full automatic. We have lots of these weapons, many captured at the ambush in the valley north of Guisa.

Suddenly without warning engine noise, a spotter plane, a belt fed machine gun armed avioneta, flies over the cornfield right over our heads. The plane turns towards us, we know that pilot can see us and his gunner is preparing to fire his machine gun.

We open fire in a torrent of bullets, the sound is deafening, the boom of the Springfield and the Garands, vrooming swoosh of the San Cristobals, and the steady rapid beat of our machine gun fill the world with noise.

I am aiming one to one and half lengths ahead of the plane but most of us are firing directly at it, these badly aimed bullets are falling behind the plane. The pilot and his plane flee banking steeply upward and to one side. We are amused at his desperate haste, but our amusement lasts only a moment.

Then as our ears began to recover, we realized what has happened. We have lost the critical militarily element of surprise, and realizing this we begin to desperately to run forward.

We are no longer careful of the corn. We run it over and crush under our boots as we run towards the little town. We run faster, we must get there before the Batista soldiers, the Casquitos in the town react. We run until we reach a simple tidy five-strand barbwire fence and begin to go through its lower strands.

The fence seems to mark a time space discontinuity, a time warp. In the cornfield, we are in rural Cuba a land we know so well. Beyond the fence, it is another country, a country strange to us. The town is laid out in a grid from the cornfield to the sugar mill. The main streets, there are about three run, towards the mill. Cross streets occur at standard intervals. The roads are paved.

On the other side is a paved street lined one each side with neat and comfortable wooden houses, a piece of small town USA transplanted to Cuba. With thick-trunks, wide and shady canopies some unknown trees, perhaps sweet gums, line the apparently bucolic street. Suddenly we could be in Maryland or Alabama on a quiet autumn day.

Yet, nobody moves on the street, no children play, no old folks rock on the porches, no wives gossip, over the empty verandas. No men rest from their work shifts. The second story bedrooms are empty, no secret lovers meet behind pulled curtains with pillow muffled cries of passion, making illicit joy while husbands work and children are at school. There are no cars parked here, no dogs bark, no cats scatter out of the way.

The streets and houses are deserted and quiet. Nobody walks the street. Nobody is in the houses. The town people, we realize to our horror, knew we rebels are coming. They have fled.

The street leads after a few blocks to the Central the immense complex of large, high, corrugated sided and roofed, dull colored, unreflective yet not rusty, metal buildings of the sugar factory. The giant grinding mills, immense steel maws, which swallow whole railroad carloads of sugar cane in one single gulp, are silent.

The fence has slowed us down; those through first run far ahead. The rest of us trail behind. As I go though below the lowest strands for a moment, my new uniform shirt catches on a barb. I unhook rather than try to rip the heavy cloth, which if it did not rip would trap me on the fence. Then I was through the fence, but at the tail end of our group.

Shots sound, the pop and snap of carbine bullets is not very impressive. Then a storm of fire in which our machine gun can be heard clearly making its powerful statement and then the firing slacks. We have been stopped halfway to the Central, to the metal buildings of the sugar mill, and anybody who goes further dies. .

The opposing fire is not heavy; it does not need to be. The Casquitos have a marksman. It must be an officer for we hear the sound, the deceptively unimpressive pop, of a .30 M1 carbine or of a San Cristóbal firing single well spaced shots.

We keep behind trees and wait in the protected side streets. Our machine gunner, crouched behind sand bags and the concrete steps of a house, his bullet creased "boina" beret pressed flat on his head, holds the street with periodic bursts. Ahead of us, our dead wait and our wounded call for treatment.

This was not the way it is supposed to be. In our world we do the ambushes and the casquitos do the dying. We wonder what to do. Puerta tells us to hold our positions and we wait.

The marksman fires, his carbine pops and the bullets dance on the road and on the hard ground between the trees. I waited behind a tree on the other street, the street not held by the marksman. The marksman is firing from high up in the corrugated metal bulk of the sugar factory building about six blocks away.

We cannot see exactly where. I began to fire as precisely as I can just below the left side of each window. I am betting my life that the marksman is not left-handed.

My Springfield's bullets make a very satisfactory noise as they cut through the corrugated metal walls. Then my bullets whine down the isles of machinery in the long lengths of the dark vaults of the factory.

However, I am not hitting or even discouraging the marksman. He, is high up and switches his aim to cover the street I am firing from. His bullets now whiz past the tree I am hiding behind, to dance on the hard dirt beneath the grass right behind me on that trimmed lawn beneath the trees.

Puerta called from the side street:

“You idiot stop firing! He is only going to kill you!”

I hide behind the tree knowing that Puerta is right.

Then I run to join a group in the side street between the two streets we wait and rest. Puerta leaves his position and goes to check on the others.

We try again to move. We suddenly run across the first street, the one we first ran along, and the marksman's bullets whine, pop and bounce on the blacktop behind the last of us. The marksman's reaction time was not good enough to get us, since he could only see us for a fraction of a second.

Intoxicated with adrenaline and the madness of war, we play with the marksman running back and forth across the street. We laugh when he fires late. Puerta yells at us, and we stop and try something else.

We hoped the sniper thinks that there are hundreds of us. I tried to lure him to revealing more clearly new position with the old a hat on a broom trick. Somewhere I find a broom. I poke the hat topped broom out above a hedge at the edge of one of the houses to see if the marksman can be coaxed to fire at the hat.

We position ourselves, so we can get him on a massive return volley. Silence answers my attempt at trickery. It is clear that either the sniper cannot not see the hat, or more likely he is too smart, the marksman killer just waits holding his fire.

Night comes and Puerta has two of us cut the power cable with axes and this costs us two more dead by electrocution; but the streetlights are out, and we can adjust and improve our positions by moving forward. We rest and spent a fitful night sleeping on the grass of the side street.

Next morning the casquito soldiers are still around, but they are ready to escape. They know in another night we will be right on to them.

We lined up in ranks in the side street and Puerta distraught counts our losses. Our crazy mood is gone; we are now sad and angry. We setup ambush positions for next morning at the other end of town. We see the soldiers crawling away under cover.

Puerta tells us that another rebel group has set up and ambush and we are to hold our fire as the soldiers crawl along behind a row of bushes. My glasses corrected my miopic, my short sighted, vision to better than 20 20. My red green color blindness, the mark of a predator, allows me to see the enemy against the bushes leaves as clear as day. I lay on the ground steady and locked in a cold rage and I know if I shoot I will not miss. Yet, we have orders not to fire. That is the job of others, others in another rebel ambush.

Bypassing the other ambush, the casquitos escape to Contramaestre. Today in forty years later, I am glad I did not kill them; then my blood was up and I was full of rage and disappointment.

Puerta calls two of us, one is me, and we move between the factory buildings. We pass one of our dead; he lays there on the side of the street close to corrugated metal wall touching his right forefinger to the hole in his forehead.

All my life I will remember, that town called Central America and that look of wonder on the dead face of one of our own. He has been shot with what was probably that .30 caliber carbine.

He has died as though in thought, his finger touching, feeling, testing that hole beneath his straight black hair on his wide, light-brown, forehead. There is little blood around the hole. He has a look of puzzlement on his face and seems to be wondering how we had gotten ourselves ambushed; it was supposed to be the other way round.

I freeze at the macabre spectacle, and I hear, but do not react, when Captain Puerta yells at me to take the dead man’s ammunition belt. The belt is full of pouched Garand clips; inside below the coarse canvas of the each pouch has a single loading clip pointed down, black metal holding eight long, brass rounds with pointed bullets at the tip. Puerta, comes over, he is far taller than I, takes the belt himself, and wraps the heavy ammunition belt over his own around his waist.

Then angrily and loud Puerta orders me to “cover” him, which the other rebel and I did, pointing our guns, finger on trigger ready to shoot. We point our weapons, in smooth sweeping movements; covering each suspected window in turn but not firing.

Then the other rebel crosses, and I cover him while Puerta looks forward. Puerta and the other rebel are now safely on the other side of the street. They would have kept on going expecting me to cross unprotected, but I yell at them to cover me and reluctantly they do.

We search the metal buildings. No casquitos are dead, all have left. No weapons are there; no ammunition is found except a single .45 caliber round. I found the round, it is commonly called a bullet but the bullet is really only the projectile, after lifting out sparse folded clothing from the top drawer of a wooden dresser in a second floor bedroom.

The round is fat, cylindrical and short, like a tiny smooth penis of fearful, and not well endowed, man. The round rolls around on the bottom in the now empty drawer, its brass metal casing glinting dully, bullet at the tip, glans-like and darker than the cartridge case.

I gloomily I hand it to Puerta almost as a rebuke. None of us is happy, that day we had taken a Central, we had taken a huge sugar mill, but we had lost perhaps six friends and especially some of our confidence.

The Central America is now called Central America Libre and is located in the old municipality of Palma Soriano but now in the new municipality of Contramaestre. The Central Oriente also called Altagracia has not existed in quite some time; it was also located in Palma Soriano/Contramaestre, in the old barrio of Juan Baron.

Some of the action especially around Maffo but not all by any means can be found in the following books. It would seem from other reading that Universo Sánchez was not there and is getting much of the “credit” from Orlando Rodriguez Puerta. The action at Central America is mentioned in these references, but and the authors keep mentioning a cuartel and cylinders of gas, there while all I remember were some rooms in the heights of the sugar factory.

As to the guardias we were supposed to let by Universo states that they were rural guards; and perhaps that is why the shot so well. Universo’s ambush goes awry; rebel Lieutenant Ornis is wounded, and Universo states he grabbed the Browning (BAR) off Ornis and fires two bursts. Universo believes he hit the Guardia Rural who was wearing a helmet; however, knowing Universo’s shooting ability I am not so sure. The Guardia disappear over a slight ridge on the golf course.

Universo mentions actor Errol Flynn, being in the American Clubhouse on the Golf course.

Reading the histories from the Island one notes their partiality to the regime and the self-promotion of senior officers. Defectors are tagged in the text with “(traidor).”

Thus it is also obvious that much of such as Huber Matos contributions have been erased from official Cuban history, although Dickie Chapelle (see following chapters) mention him. I still can find no trace of Teniente Cipriano, who is seen firing in a Chapelle photo.

It would seem that there is confusion about Castro/Cantillo meeting at Central Oriente, but it was there I know first hand for I saw the helicopter land. However, it seemed that Castro following his usual custom was wandering around and may have visited Central America which could not have been too far away. However, these events are described in a following account.

Larry S. Daley, copyright@1996, revised 1997 and 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006


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