By Larry Daley
lay dead in the crushed guinea grass
Daley is Cuban, American, Jewish, a plant biochemist biophysicist,
and a former soldier with Fidel Castro's forces. This story
is presented on this site for its unique personal and historical
dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seemed so young and
It is November
or December of 1958. I am with Company Six, Column One, in late
1958. Company Six is led by Orlando Rodriguez Puerta and Column
One is Castro's own column. We are winning on the plains of the
Cauto, the forces of Cuban Dictator Batista are hiding out in
their strong places fearing our attacks.
We are in
a large pasture by the Central highway, just west of Contramaestre
or is it Jiguani. We are a little west of where an overpass makes
a dogleg to the north. The road is about 150 yards away, a two-lane
ribbon of black asphalt going east-west. A barbwire cattle fence
separates the highway from the field. The low bush and short grass
of an overgrazed pasture is spread below, in front of us, between
us and the road.
road to the north is a mixed savanna of tall trees, swamps and
pasture extending further northward to the horizon line. To our
right the road curves north, goes over the over pass, over the
railroad, and then returns running to the east. The height of
the overpass, sitting on skinny concrete pillars, blocks most
of our view to the east-northeast.
We are on
a slight rise about 150 yards south of the highway. The rise is
covered with short bushy, saplings among higher trees. We stop
to set up an ambush.
I am terrified
because if tanks came down the highway there is nothing we have,
no weapon, that can stop them, and there is nowhere to run. So
I take up one of the shovels and began to dig a short narrow slot
others laugh and make remarks, but I keep on digging. Then the
others begin to look around and think. They look and they think.
Then one of them says: "It's my turn with the shovel."
I do not
get a chance with any of the shovels the rest of that day. After
a while the rise is covered with foxholes and short trenches.
Still unhappy about security I cut the droopy leafed saplings
and place them around my trench. The idea catches on. That is
fine that day; it looked green.
the leaves have wilted in the hot sun. I am walking on the road,
the Central Highway, walking alone along the empty, empty road,
scouting something or other. I am distracted by some vague thought,
I do not listen, I daydream. An avioneta, a machine-gun-carrying
spotter plane, comes out from behind some trees and flies towards
me. I have no where to go. I am in the open.
makes one pass. I fire my accurate Springfield 30.06 that I had
swapped for my San Christobal after Guisa. If the avioneta gets
its machinegun going I am lost, there is no cover. My mind in
its panic disassociates fear from fight; a strange focused calm
comes over me.
I try to
make every one of my rifle's slow fire count. I must make every
accurate, powerful round count, every shot absolutely, perfectly,
aimed. I fire one plane length ahead. I fire once, twice, perhaps
three times. I must have hit something, because the avioneta breaks
out from its run and suddenly climbs high. Happy in false triumph,
I too am a fool; the spotter plane now knows that we rebels are
I return to the ambush. A man comes across the field. He looked
familiar, but I was not sure. We stop him. He gives a cock and
bull story about crossing the field. We do not believe him.
else recognizes him, he is Jacinto the barefoot spy who had escaped
from Las Peñas. I say nothing, not wanting to see him shot
right there. It is too late, somebody else recognizes him; mercifully,
Jacinto is not shot there, he is taken to headquarters. His escape
from Las Peñas has only given him six more months of life.
three gunners, just nondescript short, and brown. Their hair is
black and straight, their faces too young, or with too much Taino,
to grow a beard. They are just boys, perhaps seventeen, yet they
are charged with the machine gun.
machine gunners, sit on the rise south of the central, their red
bandanas around their necks, and set up their 30.06 air-cooled,
belt-fed, Browning on its tripod. A black metal box, a heavy air
cooled barrel, sits on three wide spread low legs; it is set up
right in the open.
I ask them
about their red bandanas; they say it is to honor the African
gods. I am not sure they tell the truth, for their skins are not
dark enough for Africa. They are from Manzanillo, the first home
of the communists in Cuba. Does red mean red? I do not know.
my horror, Captain Puerta tells a few of us, me included, that
we are to give the machine-gunners rifle support. We the supporting
rifle men are to share the hostile fire that the machine gunners
stupidity and lack of stealth will surely bring. We do not like
it, but say nothing, it is an order.
We dig in
even further; the machine gunners do not. I suggested as tactfully
as I could that they should perhaps dig in. One of them replies
"When you are going to die you are going to die," something that
even then I recognize as a sophism of the worst sort. They, just
boys, are obviously marked for death.
the machine-gunners a while. In the heat of plains of the Cauto
the midday waves of shimmering heated air ripple above the black
perforate cooling jacket of the machine gun barrel. The metal
of the machine gun is almost too hot to touch. The rippling air
floats over the machine gunners heads, above their red bandanas.
The hot air ripples are as if specters, as if ghosts, laughing
at a coming foolish death, are laughing at fools ready to join
hope they will dig in; the machine gunners do not. So then, to
protect our lives, we the rifle men discretely and quietly move
our positions as far away from them as possible and dig in even
violent death. We have been escopeteros. We know from Braulio
Coroneau's death at Guisa that the machine gunners will be a magnet
for enemy fire. If the enemy tries to force its way west on the
Central highway we will fail, because the machine gunners are
not dug in.
have plenty of fire power, most have San Christobal automatic
long range carbines, and many more machine guns of their own.
Soon after first contact, our machine gunners will be dead and
with their deaths, we will lose the support of the machine gun.
fates measure the end of the machine gunners lives. Atropos the
mother of atropine will soon widen their eyes, she the giver of
death prepares to snip the thread of their lives.
gunners lives are not only their business. The gunners stupidity
affects us all. We know then that outflanked we will have to retreat
across open country taking losses. Those idiots are going to kill
to break the mental bonds that hold us together, we hate those
stupid machine gunners. That hate feels good; if we hate them
their deaths will bother us less.
firing to the east-north-east. We cannot see anything. The overpass
blocks the view. A runner comes up breathless giving orders to
bring up the machine gun to the point of contact.
the contagion of the self-doomed machine gunners, I ask if that
is an order for general support or just for the machine gun. The
runner, to my great relief, says just the machine gun.
the helmeted ones, the Batista soldiers, our enemies, make their
move out of Jiguani or Contramaestre. They are trying to cross
the plain beyond the swamp to the north of the Central trying
to reach Bayamo.
are moving west in the opposite direction on a similar route to
that successfully taken by Spanish General Escario in 1898. In
that ancient year, my ancestors hurt the Spanish but did not stop
them. The Spanish took losses, were delayed for a few critical
days, but kept on going east to try to relieve Santiago.
are ancient history, our war is now. The firing to the east-northeast
is intense. We can hear the individual rifle shots, and the deadly
rhumpty rhumpty rhumpty rhythm of the fast automatic fire from
the San Christobals.
gunners follow the runner and are soon out of sight. Firing becames
more, and more intense, the San Christobal fire bursts grow together
with the MI rifle fire and the heavy beat of the machine guns.
All that sound rises even louder and faster mixing the individual
weapons sound to a now indistinguishable sustained deafening roar.
Then the individual bursts are heard again, they slackened and
find out that the self-doomed machine gunners had placed their
weapon too close to the small, white, concrete block structure,
perhaps an irrigation pump house where the Casquitos were anchoring
their positions. The machine gunners had not pulled back to find
a position from which they could sustain killing fire. Instead
the poor doomed boys, unwise to the end, lay firing in the open
field and very soon two of them are dead, belly wounded somehow
by ground grazing bullets. The third gunner pulls a John Wayne
and runs firing the machine gun, burning his hands on the overheated
gun barrel, but surviving.
of the machine gunners gives the Casquitos a chance. The Casquitos
take it and run. They are in trucks; we are on foot; they get
away. They are going west north of our ambush site. They are moving
fast on the firm soil of the pastures north of the swamp. We cannot
stop them. The Casquitos, now free from accurate fire from the
machine gun, continued to the west over plains towards Bayamo.
The self-doomed machine gunners die for nothing.
We all rise
and go north across the highway in lost pursuit, in failed attempt
to cut off the Casquitos. We hear the exchange of fire of the
pursued and the pursuers. The Casquitos, having killed our machine
gunners, are now moving fast further to the north of us. Then
we hear the gunfire change direction as they try to escape to
the north west. We, are further west, and must try to cut the
Batista forces off by crossing the Central, and going due north.
the Batista planes did well was to make us take cover. The first
low whine of the armed spotter planes or the much heavier drone
of the B-26s makes us seek shelter to hide; and thus the noise
the planes passing over was sufficient to immobilize us.
terror is to be caught in the middle of a great pasture far from
trees or bushes. There, caught the feared open country, our only
recourse is to stand straight up. So very straight up, by the
fences pretending to be a fence post, or worse far from the fence
to roll up in a ball and pretend to be a boulder. Here we, we
are lucky, we have the great trees of the plains of Cuba to hide
move forward when the planes begin firing. The best we can do
is take shelter. We are so lucky to be by large trees. We walk
around to the bullet shade--the otherside- of the great tree trunks--
as the planes circles and shoots at us.
It is a
matter of honor not to push others out of the way, to avoid the
error of making it a kind of potentially lethal game of musical
chairs, each vying and pushing to get the most protected spot.
Such a game would have soon attracted the lethal attention of
those keen-eyed pilots and gunners selected for their excellent
attacks warn the Casquitos to be ready for us, and in the case
of the sugar mill Central America this will allow the Batista
soldiers, the "Casquitos," to ambush us and cause us a number
of casualties. Here on plains of the Cauto near Santa Rita the
two B-26 strafing our group do not allow us to block the escape
of a convoy the Casquitos.
of B-26 fighter bombers delay us, their fire is withering, they
normally have eight fifty caliber machine guns. Rafaelito my cousin
the pilot, says they only had four. We did not count. The bursts
of fifty caliber fire boom like thunder. I spend time circling
around a giant spreading tree; it was not a raintree, the algarobbo,
for it had smooth bark, it must have been some kind of ficus.
What ever it was it could stop 0.50 calibre bullets.
We do not
panic. We are safe; the planes, having expended their ammunition,
leave their job done. We have been kept pinned down for a while.
None of us are hit.
As our ears
recover we hear the lessening drone of the planes going away returning
to base. The sky is now quiet.
north and try to cross a swampy area of head high cortadera, razor
edged, saw grass. I and two others are sent ahead, but we cannot
locate the heavy incoming fire that is all around us, coming from
the north, chopping down the grass.
I and my
two friends do not fire; that would give our position away. We
cannot stay there in the grass; the bullets will eventually find
us. With some speed, we withdraw, report the situation and wait
behind cover. There is nothing more we can do.
calmed down, no more shooting, the Casquito's trucks cannot be
heard to the west. We follow the tracks of the trucks, south of
the endless fence line, gathering whatever ammunition the Casquitos
have dropped. We watched the bleeding, wounded, giant, white,
Charolais cattle grazing. Thin streams of red blood spurts from
their vast white sides, yet they continue to graze, heads bent
to the ground.
At the end
of some miles I smell fire, not grass or timber burning, but the
residue of an oily, smelly, fire. I look on the ground to find
truck tire tracks turning a little south. We turn a maybe a hundred
yards south, find a broken down flatbed truck, a pile of deliberately
burnt, twisted rifles and the woman. I still see her in my dreams,
and still don't know who she was, and why the Casquitos left her
dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seems so young and unharmed.
She is an ordinary woman not strikingly beautiful, nor ugly, her
hair is dark, her face unlined. Her body is slim, her breasts
and hips normal, feminine, and ordinary. Her calf length dark
dress covering her with modesty is flared out as if she is running.
One shoe, a city woman's pump, has fallen off.
Who is she?
Who was she? Was she a noncommissioned officer's daughter, a soldier's
wife, a generous camp follower enjoying unrestrained the burning
passions of ardent young soldiers? Was she an informer who must
leave with the Casquitos or face death at the hands of the relatives
of the betrayed, or a hard working prostitute servicing tens of
soldiers a night? I do not know, it does not matter, she is dead.
I look closer
and then see the seemingly insignificant entry wound, a mere red
spot, no spilled blood. The bullet had penetrated through her
left arm at shoulder level, a place left bare and vulnerable by
the straps of her dress. There is no exit wound. The bullet must
have spent its energies severing her arteries, ripping inside
her chest, killing her. Death must have come fast and merciful.
I look at
the wigwam-shaped pile of fire-destroyed, twisted, Springfield
30-06 rifles. Although the rifles are intact, none seemed useful
and I think the bolts are gone. The Casquitos must have had time
to set them on fire and destroy them. Perhaps our Asturian armorer
machinist from "El Sordo" could do something with them.
Larry Daley copyright@1997 and 1998. Permission to copy granted
for non-commercial purposes.