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The U.S. Marines Pioneer Air Support in Nicaragua

Centennial of Naval Aviation

What does Nicaragua mean to a Marine?

Plenty. Here, in 1928 and again in 1932, the most famous Marine of all, Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, won two of his five awards of the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor.

Nicaragua became a training ground for warfare in dense tropical jungle under primitive conditions, trying to “make do” with the tools available; as such, it was a prelude to Guadalcanal.

Above all, in foreboding Central American climate and terrain, where the fighting was expeditionary in nature, support from back home deteriorated over time, and improvisation was the order of the day, Nicaragua offered a look at the future, and was the place where Marine close air support began. Today’s company commander on the ground and today’s pilot in the ejection seat of an AV-8B Harrier II or F/A-18D Hornet owe their doctrine, strategy and tactics to what “Devil Dogs” achieved with fabric-covered biplanes in Nicaragua in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The Marine Corps was early to recognize the advantages the airplane offered in modern warfare. While most of the military was catching its breath after World War I, leathernecks introduced biplanes to the Dominican Republic and seaplanes to Haiti in 1919, battling indigenous insurgents in both countries with the benefits offered by aviation but without carefully thought out doctrine, strategy and tactics. To take the next step and create a tradition of using aircraft in direct support of ground-pounding “Devil Dogs” fighting on the ground, the Marines would need to go to Nicaragua.

Discovered by Columbus in 1502, bordered by Honduras and Costa Rica, wedge-shaped Nicaragua was explored, colonized, and independent before waging its own internal wars. Americans saw it as occupying a strategic position because of its proximity to the Panama Canal and the Atlantic and Pacific. One of Nicaragua’s early explorers was Blieveldt, a Dutch corsair. In the 16th century, that term referred to the owner of a ship commissioned by a government to wage war. In the 20th century, Marines returned to Nicaragua with an aircraft named the Corsair.

Not that the Corps didn’t already have a small cadre of experienced men who knew Nicaragua well long before the first aviators appeared: A small contingent of Marines began serving there in 1912.

 

Before Nicaragua

Between the world wars, leatherneck aviators served in as many as three Latin American countries – although it was only in the third, Nicaragua, that they began defining air-to-ground close support tactics.

The era of Marine intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean right after the Great War is sometimes called the “banana war” period. To most, the term was merely a descriptor of the tropical setting in which American leathernecks mounted a show of force. But just as some accuse U.S. forces of fighting today to protect oil interests, critics called the Marines imperialists, protecting the investments of companies like the United Fruit Company, which had holdings throughout the region.

In 1919, the Marine Corps began employing aircraft against insurgents in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Like the better-coordinated effort in Nicaragua to follow, these expeditions included aircraft, beginning with half a dozen JN-4B Jenny biplanes under Capt. Walter McCaughtry that supported leathernecks on the ground in the Dominican Republic. Capt. Harvey Mims commanded a further six Jenny biplanes, JN-4HG models this time, plus six Curtiss HS-2L flying boats that also appeared in Haiti in 1919. By now, the value of aviation to the Marine Corps had been proven, but the aircraft were used mostly for miscellaneous utility duties.

Nor were flying conditions anything near ideal. Even while training in the United States, Mims, whose wife feared for his safety while flying, wrote that he and his fellow Marines were “living in tents, housing the [aircraft] in canvas hangars which are about to fall down, using a landing field so soft that no grass can grow on it…” Then, as now, Marines were being asked to do more with less.

Eventually, Marine aviators in the Dominican Republic and Haiti used bombs and machine guns to support leathernecks who were combating indigenous insurgents. It was mostly ad hoc, without a real plan, and with little coordination. Only after being on the scene for a couple of years did Marine aircraft begin coordinating with ground troops, making use of early air-to-ground radios when flying observation, mapping, and medical evacuation missions. For the first real use of coordinated close air support, historians must turn to another Latin nation where Marines returned following earlier presences that dated to 1852.

A 1916 treaty forced upon Nicaragua by its giant neighbor to the north essentially made the country a protectorate of the United States. The Marines remained in Nicaragua into the 1920s, staying longer than planned in order to create and train the Guardia Nacional (National Guard). The Marines left in 1925, but returned the next year after political turmoil raised the prospect of a leftist political victory and possible threats to U.S. property.

The 2nd Marine Brigade rooted itself in Nicaragua when internal strife came to a boiling point between 1926 and 1932. Brig. Gen. Logan Feland, a hero of the Belleau Wood fighting in World War I and a ground-pounder who recognized the importance of aviation, commanded the brigade between April 1927 and March 1929. Although not a colonial power and not seeking to annex territory, the United States was eager to dominate the region and to project power.

 

Bandit Leader

In May 1927, Augusto C. Sandino – hero to some, bandit to the Americans – rebelled against Nicaragua’s Chamorro government. His troops heisted government rifles and ammunition and linked up with other rebel forces.

A Marine patrol, led by Capt. Gilbert D. Hatfield, scoured the Neuva Segovia looking for Sandino. Hatfield had a form of backup not previously available to leathernecks: Observation Squadron One, or VO-1M, deployed from San Diego, Calif., consisting of eight officers and 81 enlisted men and equipped with De Havilland DH-4 biplanes.

 

Marine Air Beginnings

It seems difficult to believe, but when VO-1M reached Central America, Marine aviation was just fifteen years old. Marine Aviation began on May 22, 1912, when 1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham began air duty at the Naval Aviation Camp at Annapolis.

DH-4 Nicaragua

A heavily retouched photo of a Marine Corps de Havilland DH-4 of VO-1M flown in Nicaragua. U.S. Marine Corps photo

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the leathernecks had just five aviators and 30 enlisted men, including Cunningham, who persisted with a successful career even though his wife, much like Mims’ and with some justification, regarded flying as dangerous. At war’s end, Marine aviation totaled 282 officers and 2,180 enlisted men. Two Marine aviators became recipients of the Medal of Honor during World War I.

At the time of the arrival of Marine air in Nicaragua, the principal planes in service were the DH-4 and the Vought O2U Corsair. It is probably fair to say that the Marines were still shaping a concept that would guide them for all time hereafter – the idea that the primary role of their planes and pilots was to support leathernecks fighting on the ground.

The two-seat DH-4 “Liberty Plane,” as Americans referred to the British design, was long in the tooth by the time VO-1M took it to Central America. The Marines apparently had both DH-4B models with fabric-covered wooden fuselages and DH-4M-1 models with steel-tube fuselages. A typical DH-4 was powered by a 400-horsepower Liberty radial engine and was armed with one or two forward-firing .30-caliber machine guns. In addition, the rear-seat gunner had twin flexible .30-caliber guns. A typical DH-4 weighed 4,214 pounds and had a maximum speed of 125 miles per hour.

The commander of VO-1M was Maj. Ross E. “Rusty” Rowell, one of many Marine leaders who’d fought simply to keep their aviation arm alive during the lean years after World War I. Rowell offloaded his DH-4s from the USS Galveston at Corinto, transported them up to Managua via railway flatcar, and told the local commander, Lt. Col. James J. Meade, that he was ready for action.

 

Air-Ground Battle

Before they found themselves caught up in a fight on the ground and in the air respectively, Hatfield and Rowell devised methods of communication between air and ground, including hand signals and colored panels. Perhaps surprisingly, the Marines were not using air-to-ground radios (even though they’d been used in Haiti) but were relying on visual communication. Still, Rowell’s wood-and-fabric DH-4s were ready to give the Marines their first tentative tryout of a technique they’d never had before – close air support.

Maj. Russ E. "Rusty" Rowell

Maj. Russ E. “Rusty” Rowell commanded VO-1M in Nicaragua, and was a pioneer of close air support tactics. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

In the dark, early-morning hours of July 16, Hatfield’s men came under attack by Sandino rebels. After dawn, the rebels demanded the Marines’ surrender. Hatfield elected not to respond and, surprisingly, the expected onslaught didn’t come. There is no reason to believe the rebels knew that aircraft were on the way. Still, they withdrew, leaving snipers to hassle Hatfield’s Devil Dogs. It was only a temporary move: By dawn, Hatfield was being assaulted again.

Two of Rowell’s DH-4s arrived in the morning and circled Hatfield’s encampment. Reading the signals laid out by Hatfield, 1st Lt. Hayne Boyden landed, talked to a local peasant, and understood that the next attack might wipe out Hatfield’s men. After this early version of aerial intelligence collection, Boyden flew to the capital, Managua, to seek help. The other Marine pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Michael Wodarczyk, flew low over the rebels and strafed them with a single machine gun until his ammunition ran out.

By mid-afternoon, Rowell was able to appear over the battle scene leading five DH-4s, each carrying four 25-pound aerial fragmentation bombs.

The rebels were ready for more machine gun fire from the air in support of ground Marines. They knew nothing about bombs. Apparently, they did not initially perceive any danger when Rowell’s DH-4s began a dive a thousand feet above them. When bombs began detonating in their midst, some panicked, some fled, and some kept up the fight from behind a stone wall where Hatfield’s leathernecks, fighting in coordinating with the unfolding air attack, dislodged and overwhelmed them.

When the battle was over, Hatfield had lost one Marine killed and a few wounded. The Sandino forces had suffered 56 deaths. Marine aviation had demonstrated that it could get combatants on the ground out of a tight spot.

 

Marine Air Advances

With a second Marine air squadron, VO-7M, on board in Nicaragua, in 1928 the United States undertook to supervise an election in the Central American nation. That meant having Marines guarding the polling places. About 900 Marines and sailors kept order and sought to prevent flagrant corruption. A U.S. military officer, usually but not always a Marine, was nominally in charge of each of Nicaragua’s 13 departments, but in most instances only an enlisted man ran each of the 432 places where ballots were cast. In effect, their job was to reduce influence by Sandino supporters. About 133,000 votes were cast in the Nov. 4, 1928, national vote and pro-U.S. liberal candidates won. The “bandits” – Sandino and other rebels – were weakened but vowed to keep fighting.

One member of VO-7M was a corpulent young, mustachioed 1st Lt. Christian F. Schilt, who would later fight in the Pacific and Korea and reach four-star rank. Schilt’s aircraft was the fabric-winged but steel-fuselage Vought O2U Corsair biplane (an O2U-1 model, bureau number 7529). In fact, Schilt’s was only the second O2U to arrive in Latin America

1st Lt. Christian F. Schilt

1st Lt. Christian F. Schilt in Nicaragua, 1928. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

Schilt’s plane was rightfully considered a generation ahead of the DH-4 of the same era, but belonged to a genre of aircraft that were not around very long: His O2U was powered by a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1340-88 Wasp radial engine, had a forward-firing .30-caliber machinegun and was capable of carrying a gunner behind the pilot with one or two additional, flexible .30-caliber guns. With a gross weight of 3,635 pounds, the O2U was credited with a maximum speed of 167 miles per hour. Marines considered it tough and sturdy, and thus well suited for operations in difficult climes. In terms of the mission it carried out in the Central American tropics, the Corsair was less a predecessor of future planes with the same name than a progenitor of helicopters that flew missions like Schilt’s most famous sortie in later wars.

The Sandino guerrillas had remained very active. On Dec. 30, 1927, they ambushed two columns of Marines as the leathernecks moved into the village of Quilali. The leathernecks fought back in a furious battle but sustained numerous wounded. To save the lives of the wounded, there appeared no solution except to use aircraft – something that had never been done before.

 

Battle at Quilali

Rowell used his DH-4s to drop engineering tools from the sky, right into the midst of the embattled leathernecks. This enabled them, even while under fire, to burn and level part of the town and expand Quilali’s main street to 100 by 500 feet, possibly enough space for a plane to land with great difficulty, but with very little maneuver room for an O2U with its 33-foot wing span.

As if oblivious to the cramped space he was entering, between Jan. 6 and 8, 1928, Schilt took his Corsair on 10 trips into embattled Quilali, hauling in 1,400 pounds of medical supplies and evacuating 18 Marines who had been founded in fighting with rebels. Since Schilt’s O2U had no brakes, leathernecks on the ground had to stop it by grabbing the wings when as it touched down.

Hostile fire on landings and take-offs, plus low-hanging clouds, mountains, and tricky air currents, added to the difficulty of the flights, which the citation for Schilt’s Medal of Honor describes as feats of “almost superhuman skill combined with personal courage of highest order.”

The Marines were nearing the end of their use of Nicaragua as a laboratory for maneuver warfare, for close air support, and for aerial evacuation. At

this juncture, they introduced a newly developing role for aviation – logistics. On Jan. 10, 1928, three Fokker Trimotor transports hauled 9,564 pounds of military cargo in a single day. Soon afterward, Marine transports carried 68,000 pounds of cargo in a one-week period.

On June 19,1930, 1st Lt., Vernon E. Megee earned the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for commendatory achievement while flying as an observer and machine gunner in an attack on rebels in Nicaragua. Megee later became one of the best-known of Marines andattained four-star rank.

 

Winding Down

Support on the U.S. home front for the fighting in Nicaragua was never strong, and was declining by 1933 when President Herbert Hoover (just as he was leaving office) and the Congress agreed to end the long presence in that country by the Marines. By then, strongman Anastasio Somoza – the older of consecutive, father-son leaders by that name – was running Nicaragua. The bandit/rebel Sandino outlasted the Marine presence, but in 1934, Somoza captured Sandino and had him killed. The country’s most powerful force, now, was the Nicaraguan National Guard, which had grown with help from the Marines.

Fokker Tri-motors

Marine Corps Fokker tri-motors unload supplies in Nicaragua. U.S. Marine Corps photo.

Nicaragua was a proving ground for every weapon, from the Hotchkiss/Springfield Benet-Mercie light machine gun to the O2U-1 Corsair, but more importantly it tested men and concepts. For leathernecks who fought on the ground, like Puller, Evans F. Carlson, and Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, Nicaragua provided tropical fighting experience that would turn the tide at Guadalcanal, Makin and Peleliu. For aviators like Schilt, Megee, and others, Nicaragua was the true start of the air-ground doctrine the Marine Corps still uses today.

To celebrate the 2011 centennial of naval aviation, we will be posting a series of stories from our archives that celebrate the history, distinguished achievements and future of naval aviation. This story first appeared in 2007 as “Pioneering Close Air Support in Central America” in our publication United States Marine Corps: Creating Stability in an Unstable World.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-6699">
    2ndLt Katherine Gordon

    Hi there. My name is Katherine Gordon. I am a 2ndLt in the Marine Corps. I am working with the Marine Corps University, History Division on a Marine Corps aviation centennial and was wondering how I could get permissions to use pictures from your article. The picture I am really interested in is the one of Rowell in front of his plane. Please let me know. My email is KCG3140@aol.com

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-6723">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Thanks for your interest Lt. Gordon, and check your email.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-37860">
    Retired Surface Warfare Officer

    Great article on the evolution of Close Air Support. The misison is as relevant today in the age of Digitally-Aided Close Support as when it was first experimented with in Nicaragua.