2. Alegria de Pio
3. Battle of La Plata
4. Battle of Arroyo del Infierno
5. Air Attack
6. Surprise Attack at Altos de Espinosa
7. End of a Traitor
8. Bitter Days
10. Forging the Temper
11. A Famous Interview
12. On the March
13. The Arms Arrive
14. Battle of El Uvero
15. Nursing the Wounded
16. The Return
17. Treason in the Making
18. Attack on Bueycito
19. Battle of El Hombrito
20. "El Patojo"
For some time we had contemplated writing an account of the Cuban Revolution that would include all its aspects and phases. Many of our Revolution's leaders have also expressed this intention -either privately or publicly- but our tasks are many, the years pass, and the memory of the insurrectional struggle grows dim, making it difficult to pinpoint events that already are part of America's history.
We present here a series of personal memories of attacks, skirmishes and battles in which we participated. It is not our intention that this fragmentary story, based on recollection and a few hastily-written notes, should be considered a full account of the Revolution. On the contrary, we hope the subject may be elaborated by many of the men who played a role in the struggle.
Our participation in the war was limited to specific areas of Cuba. Therefore we could not possibly describe events and battles that occurred elsewhere. To help our comrades to add their accounts in chronological order, we begin with our first battle; the only one with Fidel taking I part in which our forces were not victorious: the surprise attack at" Alegria del Pio."
There are many survivors of these actions and each is invited to contribute his personal recollections of these events to the written records of our history. We ask only that the narrator be truthful and that, in an attempt to clarify his position, he does not unjustifiably enlarge on his true role or pretend to have been where he was not. We would ask that after writing a few pages to the best of his ability he make a critical examination of his efforts and eliminate every doubful fact that does not contribute to the authenticity of his account. In this spirit we begin our memoirs.
ERNESTO CHE GUEVARA
Alegria de Pio
ALEGRIA DE Pio is a place in Oriente province, municipality of Niquero, near Cabo Cruz. At this very spot, on December 5, 1956, Batista's forces discovered our hiding place.
We were exhausted from a long, painful trek; more painful than long, to tell the truth. We had landed on December 2, at a place known as the Playa de las Coloradas. We had lost all our equipment, and had trudged for endless hours through marshlands and swamps. We were all wearing new boots and by now everyone was suffering from blisters and footsores, but new footwear and fungus were by no means our only enemies. We had reached Cuba following a seven-day voyage across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, without food, plagued by seasickness and aboard a far-from-seaworthy vessel. We had left the port of Tuxpan November 25, at a time when a stiff "northerly" was blowing and all small craft had been warned to stay in port. All this had left an indelible mark upon our troop made up of rookies who did not know what the word "combat" meant.
All that was left of our war equipment was our rifles, cartridge belts, and a few wet rounds of ammunition. Our medical supplies had disappeared and most of our knapsacks had been left behind in the swamps. We had spent the previous night in one of the canefields of the Niquero Sugar Mill owned by Julio Lobo at the time. We had managed to mitigate our hunger and thirst by eating sugar cane but due to our lack of experience we had left a trail of cane peelings and bagasse all over the place. Not that the guards looking for us needed any trail to follow our steps, for it had been our guide —as we found out later— who had betrayed us. We had let him go the night before— an error we were to repeat several times during our long struggle until we learned that civilians whose personal records were unknown to us were not to be trusted while in dangerous areas. It was a serious blunder to release that man.
By daybreak of the 5th we could barely walk. On the verge of collapse, we would walk a short distance and then beg for a long rest period. Orders were given to halt at the edge of a canefield, in a thicket close to the dense woods. Most of us slept throughout the morning hours.
At noon we began to notice unusual signs of activity. Air Force "Piper" planes as well as other type small planes together with small private aircraft began to circle our hiding place. Most of our men went on cutting and eating sugar cane without realizing that they were perfectly visible to those flying the planes which were now circling at slow speed and low altitude. I was the troop physician and it was my duty to treat the blistered feet. I recall my last patient that morning: his name was Hubert Lame and that was to be his last day on earth. I still remember how tired and worn out he looked as he walked from my improvised first aid station to his post, still carrying his shoes in one hand.
Comrade Montane and I were leaning against a tree, eating our meager rations —half a sausage and two crackers— when a rifle shot broke the stillness. Immediately, a hail of bullets— at least this is the way it looked to us, this being our baptism of fire— descended upon our eighty-two-man troop. My rifle was not one of the best; I had deliberately asked for it because I was in very poor physical condition due to an attack of asthma that had bothered me throughout our ocean voyage and I did not want to be held responsible for the loss of a good weapon. I can hardly remember what followed the initial burst of gunfire. Almeida approached us requesting orders but there was nobody there to issue orders. Later, I was told that Fidel had tried vainly to get everybody together into the adjoining cane-field which could be reached by simply crossing a path. The surprise attack plus the heavy gunfire had been too much for us. Almeida ran back to take charge of his group. A comrade dropped a box of ammunition at my feet and when I reprimanded him for his action he looked at me with an expression of anguish and muttered something like "this is no time to brother with ammunition boxes." He continued on his way toward the canefield and disappeared from view. He was murdered by Batista’s henchmen some time later. Perhaps this was the first time I was faced with the dilemma of choosing between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. There, at my feet, were a knapsack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. I couldn't possibly carry both of them; they were too heavy. I picked up the box of ammunition, leaving the medicine, and started to cross the clearing, heading for the canefield. I remember Faustino Perez, kneeling and firing his machinegun-pistol. Near me, a comrade named Arbentosa was walking toward the canefield. A burst of gunfire hit us both. I felt a sharp blow on my chest and a wound on my neck, and I thought for certain I was dead. Arbentosa, vomiting blood, and bleeding profusely from a deep hole made by a 4 5 -caliber bullet, yelled: "they have killed me!" and began to fire his rifle at no one in particular. Flat on the ground, I turned to Faustino, saying: "I've been hit!" —what I really said is unprintable— and Faustino, still firing away, looked at me and said: "Oh, it's nothing," but I could see by the look in his eyes that he considered me as good as dead.
Still on the ground, I fired a shot in the direction of the woods, following an impulse similar to that of the other wounded man. Immediately, I began to figure out the best way to die. I recalled a Jack London story where the hero, aware that he is bound to freeze to death in the wastes of Alaska, leans calmly against a tree and prepares to die in a dignified manner. That was the only thing that came to my mind at that moment. Someone on his knees said that we had better surrender and I heard a voice —later I found out it was Camilo's— shouting: "No, nobody surrenders here!" followed by a four-letter word. Ponce came at a run, breathing hard, and showed me a bullet wound (I was sure the bullet must have pierced his lungs), and said "I'm wounded," and I replied coolly "me, too." Then Ponce, and other comrades who were still unhurt, crawled toward the canefield. For a moment I was left alone, just lying there waiting to die. Almeida approached, urging me to go on, and despite the intense pain I dragged myself into the canefield. There I met comrade Raul Suarez whose thumb had been blown away by a rifle bullet, being attended by Faustino Perez who was bandaging his hand. Then everything became a blur of airplanes flying low and strafing the field, adding to the confusion, amid Dantesque as well as grotesque scenes such as the stalk of a comrade of considerable avoirdupois who was desperately trying to hide behind a single s??lk of sugar cane, while in the middle of this turmoil another man kept on yelling: "Silence!" for no apparent reason.
We organized a group headed by Almeida. This group included Lieutenant Ramiro Valdes, now a Major, and comrades Chao and Benitez. With Almeida leading, we crossed the last path among the rows of cane and reached the safety of the woods. The first shouts of "fire!" were heard in the canefield and tongues of flame and columns of smoke began to rise. I cannot remember exactly what happened; I felt the bitterness of defeat and I was sure I was going to die. We walked until the darkness made it impossible to go on, and decided to lie down and go to sleep all huddled together in a heap. We were starving and thirsty and the mosquitoes added to our misery. This was our baptism of fire on December 5, 1956, in the outskirts of Niquero. It was the beginning of what would later become the Rebel Army.
Battle of La Plata
our first victory was the result of an attack upon a small army garrison at the mouth of La Plata river. The effect of our victory was electrifying. It was like a clarion call, proving that the Rebel Army really existed and was ready to fight. For us, it was the reaffirmation of our chances for total victory.
On January 14, 1957, shortly after the surprise attack of Alegria del Pio, we came to a halt by the Magdalena river. A piece of firm land originating at the Sierra, juts out between the Magdalena and La Plata; Fidel gave orders for target practice as an initial attempt at some sort of training for our troop. Some of the men were using a weapon for the first time in their lives. We had not washed for many days and we seized upon the opportunity to go swimming. Those who were able to do so changed into clean clothes. At that time we had seven weapons in operating condition: nine rifles, equipped with telescopic sights, five semiautomatic rifles, four bolt rifles, two Thompson sub-machineguns and a 16-gauge shotgun. That afternoon we climbed the last hill before reaching the outskirts of La Plata. We were following a trail marked specially for us by a peasant named Melquiades Elias. This man had been recommended by our guide Eutimio. Our guide was essential to us and he seemed to be the prototype of the rebel farmer, but later he was apprehended by Casillas who, instead of killing him, bribed him with an offer of $10,000 and the rank of Lieutenant if he managed to kill Fidel. Eutimio came close to fulfilling his bargain but he lacked the courage to do so. However, he was very useful to the enemy because he informed on the location of several of our camps.
At the time, Eutimio was serving us loyally. He was one of the many peasants fighting for their lands in the struggle against the landowners, and anyone fighting them was also fighting against the guards at the landowners' service.
That day we captured two peasants who turned out to be our guide's cousins. One of them was realeased but we kept the other one as a precautionary measure. The next day, January 15, we saw the La Plata army barracks, under construction, with a zinc roof. A group of half-naked men were moving about but we could tell they were soldiers. Just before sundown about 6 P.M.., a boat came in, some guards landed and others got aboard. We did not quite make out the maneuver so we postponed the attack to the following day.
At dawn of the 16th we began watching the army post. The boat had disappeared during the night and no soldiers could be seen anywhere. At 3 P.M. we decided to approach the road leading to the barracks and take a look; by nightfall we crossed the shallow La Plata river and took our positions on the road. Five minutes later we took two farmers into custody One of them had a record as an informer. When we told them who we were and reassured them that no harm would befall them they gave us some valuable information: the barracks held about fifteen soldiers. Also, that Chicho Osorio, one of the region's most notorious foremen, was to go by at any moment. These foremen worked for the Laviti family latifundium. The Lavitis had established an enormous feud, holding on to it by means of a regime of terror with the help of characters such as Chicho Osorio. Shortly afterwards, Chicho showed up, astride a mule, with a little Negro boy riding "double". Chicho was drunk. Universo Sanchez gave him the order to halt in the name of the Rural Guards and immediately Chicho replied: "Mosquito". It was the password.
We must have looked like a bunch of pirates, but Chicho was so drunk we were able to fool him. Fidel stepped forward and, looking very indignant, said he was an army colonel who had come to find out why the rebels had not yet been liquidated. He bragged about going into the woods, which accounted for his beard. He added that the army was "botching things up", etc. In one word, he cut the army efficiency to pieces. Sheepishly, Osorio admitted that the guards spent all their time inside the barracks, eating and doing nothing but occasional useless rounds. He emphasized that die rebels must be wiped out. We interrogated discreetly about friendly and unfriendly people living in the area and we kept tab on his replies, backwards: when Osorio called somebody a bad man we knew he was one of our friends, and so on. We had about twenty-four names by now and Osorio was still jabbering away. He told us how two men had been killed, adding: "but my General Batista, set me free at once." He spoke of having slapped two peasants who "had gotten a little out of hand" adding that the guards would not do such a thing; on the contrary, they let the peasants talk without punishing them. Fidel asked Osorio what he would do if he ever caught Fidel Castro and Osorio, with a very expressive gesture, replied: "we'll have to cut his— off." He said the same thing about Crescendo. "Look" he said, showing us his shoes (they were the kind of Mexican-made shoes our men wore), "these shoes belonged to one of those sons of bitches we killed." Without realizing if, Osorio had signed his own sentence. At Fidel's suggestion, he agreed to accompany us to the barracks in order to come upon the soldiers unexpectedly and prove to them they were badly prepared and not fit for their duties.
As we neared the barracks, with Osorio in the lead, I still did not feel so sure that he had not become wise to our tricks. However, he kept going on, in complete ignorance, for he was so drunk he could not think straight. When he crossed the river to get near the barracks Fidel told. Osorio that military rules called for. the prisoner to be tied up. The man did not resist and he went on, this time as a prisoner, although he ignored this fact. He explained to us that the only guards were set up at the entrance of the barracks under construction and at the house of a foreman named Honorio. Osorio guided us to a place near the barracks, near the road to Macio. Luis Crespo, now a Major, went on to scout around and returned saying that the foreman's report was correct. Crespo had seen the barracks and the pinpoints of light made by the guards' cigarettes.
We were just about ready to approach the barracks when we had to pull back into the woods to let three guards on horseback go by. The men were urging a man whom they had taken prisoner to walk faster as they followed him on horseback, hurling all sorts of insults at him. They passed very close to me and I remember the peasant saying: "I'm just like one of you fellows" and the answer by one of the men whom we later identified as corporal Basol: "Shut up and keep going or I'll use the whip on you!" We all thought the peasant was out of danger by remaining out of the barracks at the moment of our attack. However, the following day when the guards heard of the attack they murdered him at El Macio.
We had twenty-two weapons ready for the attack. It was a crucial moment because we were short of ammunition. The army post had to be taken for a failure would have meant spending all our ammunition, leaving us practically defenseless. Lieutenant Julio Diaz —later killed at the battle of El Uvero— Camilo Cienfuegos, Benitez and Calixto Morales, armed with semi-automatic rifles, were to surround the palm-thatched house on the right side'. Fidel, Universo Sanchez, Luis Crespo, Calixto Garcia, Fajardo —brother of our physician, Piti Fajardo, killed at the Escambray— and myself, would attack the center. Raul and his squad and Almeida with his, would attack the barracks on the right side.
We approached to within forty meters of the barracks. By the light of a full moon, Fidel opened the hostilities with two bursts of machinegun fire and all available rifles joined in. Immediately, we demanded the enemy's surrender but we got no results. Murderer-Informer Osorio was executed as soon as the battle broke out.
The attack had begun at 2:40 a.m. and the guards put up a much stiffer resistance than we had expected. A sergeant, armed with an M-1 opened up with a burst every time we asked them to surrender. We were given orders to use our old, Brazilian-type hand grenades. Luis Crespo and I threw ours but they did not go off; Raul Castro threw a stick of dynamite with the same negative result. It became necessary to get close to the houses and set them on fire even at the risk of our own lives. Universo Sanchez made a futile attempt and Cienfuegos also failed, Finally, Luis Crespo and I got close to one of the ranches and net it on fire. The glare gave us an opportunity to see that it was a place for storing coconuts but the overall effect intimidated the soldiers and they gave up the fight. One of them, trying to escape, ran smack into Luis Crespo's rifle; Crespo shot him in the chest, took the man's rifle and continued firing toward the house. Camilo Cienfuegos, entrenched behind a tree, fired upon the fleeing sergeant and ran out of ammunition.
The soldiers, almost defenseless, were being wiped out by our bullets. Camilo Cienfuegos was first into the house, where shouts of surrender were being heard. Quickly, we took stock of our booty: 8 Springfields, 1 Thompson machine-gun and about 1,000 rounds; we had fired approximately $00 rounds. In addition, we now had cartridge belts, fuel, knives, clothing, and some food. Casualties: two soldiers dead, five wounded. We took three prisoners.
Our men had not suffered a single scratch. We set fire to the soldiers' quarters and after taking care of the wounded —three of them were seriously wounded and we were told later that they had died —we withdrew. One of the soldiers later joined the forces under Major Raul Castro's command, was promoted to lieutenant, and died in an airplane accident following the war.
Our attitude toward the wounded was in open contrast to that of the tyranny's army. Not only did they kill our wounded men; they abandoned their own. This difference made a great impact upon the enemy and it was instrumental in our victory. Fidel gave orders that the prisoners be given all the medicines to take care of the wounded. I was appalled at this decision because, as a physician, I felt the need of saving all available medicine and drugs for our own men. We freed all civilians and at 4:30 of the 17th we started for Palma Mocha, arriving there at dawn and continuing on the most inaccessible zones of the Sierra Maestra.
A most depressing scene awaited us: the day before, an army corporal and one of the foremen had warned all the families living in the area that the Air Force was to bomb the entire zone, and the exodus toward the coast had begun. No one knew of our presence in the area, so it was evidently a maneuver on the part of the foreman and the rural guards to take the land away from the peasants. Unfortunately, their stories had coincided with our attack, making the lie appear as the truth. Terror was rampant among the peasants and it was impossible for us to stop their flight.
This was the first victorious battle of the rebel armies. It was only in this battle and the one following that we had more weapons than men. Peasants were not yet ready to join in the struggle, and communication with the city bases was practically non-existent.
Battle of Arroyo del Infierno
ARROYO DEL INFIERNO is a little stream running into the Palma Mocha river. Walking alongside the stream, skirting the surrounding hills, in a direction away from the river, we came upon a small gorge where two small palm-thatched huts were located. We set up camp, but as usual, we kept away from the huts.
Fidel expected the army to come looking for us and be more or less successful in finding us, so he decided to set up an ambush to capture a few soldiers. To this aim, men were conveniently set up at various points. Fidel kept a constant check-up on our lines and defenses. On January 19, we were reviewing the troops and an accident occurred that could have had grave consequences. I used to wear a corporal's helmet a trophy of the La Plata battle. I wore the helmet with great pride as I reviewed the troops, but since the review was held in the middle of the woods, the advance guard heard us coming and all they could distinguish was a group led by a man wearing a helmet. Fortunately, it was weapon-cleaning time and Camilo's rifle was the only one in condition to fire. Camilo opened fire on us and immediately realized his mistake; the first shot missed the mark and then his automatic rifle Jammed. This proves how tense we all were, waiting for the fight as a sort of relief from this tension. These are the times when even the coolest men feel a slight tremor in their legs and everyone is anxiously awaiting that great moment of war: combat. However, we were far from yearning for a fight. We fought because we had to.
At dawn of the 22nd we heard a few shots near the Palma Mocha area. This made us renew our efforts to strengthen our lines and take good care of ourselves while waiting for the enemy troops.
Expecting the soldiers to be nearby, we skipped breakfast and lunch. Crespo and a few other men had discovered a hen's nest and we used to steal the eggs, always leaving one so as not to discourage the hen in her task. That morning Crespo decided that as long as we had heard shots nearby, we might as well eat the last egg. At noon we saw someone in one of the huts, and at first we thought it was one of our comrades who had disobeyed the orders to stay away. It turned out that the man exploring the hut was a soldier. Later on the number of soldiers increased to six. Finally, some of them left and three men remained. We could see the man on guard taking a good look all around. Then he picked up a few leaves, placed them behind his ears in a sorry attempt at camouflage and sat in the shade with a placid look in his face that was clearly distinguishable through the telescopic sight. Fidel opened fire, hitting the man who fell crying out something that sounded like "Oh, mother!", and lay still. Shooting became general and two other soldiers fell. Then I saw another soldier trying to hide near the other hut. From an elevated point, all I could see was his legs because the overhanging roof covered the rest of him. My first shot missed but the second one hit him. As he fell, his rifle hit the ground bayonet-first and remained stuck there. Covered by Crespo I reached the house and I could see the man was dead. I took his ammunition, rifle and other belongings. He must have died instantly because rigor mortis was setting in quickly, probably due to his exhaustion following his last journey through the woods.
It was a fast and furious battle and soon we were on our way into hiding, having fulfilled our plans.
When we took inventory it turned out that we had spent about 900 rounds and taken in 70 from a cartridge belt and one rifle, this rifle was a Garand that went to Efigenio Ameijeiras, now a Major, who used it for the major part of the war. We counted four enemy dead but months later we found out through an informer that there had been five. It was not a complete victory but neither was it a Pyrrhic one. We had exchanged blows with the enemy under difficult circumstances and we had passed the test.
This raised our spirits and allowed us to keep on climbing toward the most inaccessible places in order to escape larger groups of enemy soldiers. We crossed the mountains and now we were traveling parallel to the Batista soldiers who had also run away crossing the same mountain tops to get to the other side. For two days, our troops and theirs marched almost side by side without being aware of it. Once they spent the night in a hut separated from the hut we were in by only a narrow river and a couple of road bends. The soldiers were led by a lieutenant by the name of Mosquera. His name and his fierce reputation were well known all over the Sierra. It is worth mentioning that the shots we had heard prior to the battle had killed a man of Haitian descent who had refused to guide the soldiers to our hiding place. If the soldiers had not murdered this man they would have found us less prepared for the battle.
Once again we were overloaded; most of us were carrying two rifles each. This did not make our traveling easy, but our morale was quite different from that following the Alegria de Pio disaster. Only a few days before we had defeated a smaller number of men entrenched in an army post; now we had defeated a column on the march, of greater strength than ours, and we were able to verify how important it is, in this type of war, to eliminate the advance guard, because an army cannot move without an advance guard.
following our victorious battle against Sanchez Mosquera's men we traveled along the banks of the La Plata river. Then we crossed the Magdalena and returned to a zone familiar to us: Caracas. But conditions there were much different to those existing when we had first hid in that very same hill. At that time, everyone in the area supported our struggle; now Casillas' troops had passed by, leaving a trail of terror. The peasants had disappeared and all that remained was their huts and a few animals which we had to kill in order to get some food. Experience had shown us that it was not safe to stay in the houses, so after we spent one night in one of these lonely huts we returned to the woods and set up camp near a waterfall, almost at the top of Caracas hill.
There I received a note from Manuel Fajardo, asking me if it was possible that we might lose the war. Our reply, independent of the state of euphoria following some victory, was always the same: the war would be won. Fajardo explained that he asked the question because "Gallego" Moran had told him it was impossible to win the war; that our cause was lost. Moran had ended by inviting Fajardo to give up the struggle. I reported to Fidel, but I found out that Moran had taken care of telling Fidel that he was going to lay out a few "feelers" to test the troops' morale. Fidel and I agreed that this was not the most adequate system and Fidel addressed the troops urging a more strict discipline and explaining the perils involved if discipline was not observed. He also announced that the crimes of insubordination, desertion, and defeatism were to be punished by death.
The situation was not a happy one. Our column lacked cohesion. It had neither and ideological awareness nor the esprit de corps that can only be attained through hard, bitter struggle. Day after day, more comrades would ask to be released and to be assigned to missions in the cities —although this involved even greater dangers— but it was evident that they simply could not stand the rough going. Nevertheless, we maintained our day by day routine. Morin went here and there, trying to locate some food and making contacts with neighboring peasants.
This was the general state of affairs on the morning of January 30. Eutimio Guerra, the traitor, had asked Fidel's permission to go visit his sick mother; Fidel had agreed, and had even given him some money for the trip which Eutimio had said would take several weeks. We were still unaware of many strange things which later became quite clear due to Eutimio's behaviour following his return. He said he had been near Palma Mocha when he found out that the army was hard on our trail, and had tried to warn us but all he found was the bodies of dead soldiers in the house of Delfin, a peasant who lived near Arroyo del Infierno, where the battle had taken place; he had followed our vague trail until he found our camp. What actually happened was that Eutimio had been captured by the army and now he was working as an enemy agent. He had been promised a large sum of money and a military ranking as a reward for murdering Fidel.
As part of his plan, Eutimio had left the camp on the night of the 29th. In the early hours of January 30 we heard the sound of airplane engines. Our field kitchen was set up 200 yards downhill, near a brook. Suddenly. we heard a plane diving and the rattle of machineguns, followed by the bombs falling. We still lacked experience and it seemed ñî us that the gunfire came from every side. Fifty-caliber shells explode on contact with the ground, and we received the impression that they came from the woods, in addition to the air strafing. We thought we were surrounded by the enemy.
I was assigned the mission to wait for the members of the advance guard and pick up a few utensils we had abandoned following the attack. Meeting point was La Cueva del Humo. Accompanied by Chao, a Spanish War veteran, I waited for our men but they did not show up. Carrying a heavy load, we followed a trail and finally sat down to rest. Then we heard sounds and saw Guillermo Garcia —now a Major— and Sergio Acuna coming from the same trail we had followed. They were members of the advance guard. After a brief consultation, Garcia and I returned to the camp to be met by a scene of desolation. Everything was silent now, and the planes were gone. In a unique display of marksmanship, never again repeated throughout the entire war, the Air Force had hit our field kitchen smack on the nose. The stove was cut in half. A bomb had hit our advance post but luckily, the men had already abandoned it. Moran, who had gone scouting with another man, returned alone, saying that he had seen the planes —five of them— and that there were no soldiers in the vicinity. All five of us started out, carrying our heavy loads. Suddenly, we came upon a scene of horror: our peasant friend's house had burned to the ground. All that was left was a cat, meowing sadly, and a pig that took off into the woods as soon as he saw us. We had heard about Cueva del Humo but were not sure about its location. We spent a sleepless night, waiting for our comrades and fearing an encounter with the enemy.
On January 31, we camped atop a hill overlooking some orchards. We explored an area we believed to be Cueva del Humo but found nothing. Sergio thought he had seen some men wearing baseball caps, but he was late reporting to us and we could not see anyone. We went with Guillermo to explore the bottom of the valley near the Aji. A friend of Guillermo's gave us some food, but everybody in the area was scared to death. This man said that Ciro Frias' merchandise had been seized and burned by the guards, his mules had been impounded and the muleteer had been killed. The soldiers, who had arrived that morning, were under the command of Major Casillas who had spent the night near the house.
On February 1, we were still in our camp, in the open air. At 11 a.m. we heard shots followed by the sound of someone calling for help. This was too much for Sergio Acuna, who silently dropped his rifle and cartridge belt and disappeared into the woods, deserting his post. Taking our campaign diary, we entered a list of items he had taken with him: a can of condensed milk and 3 sausages. We were very sorry about the milk and sausages. A few hours later, we heard noises and not knowing whether Sergio had betrayed us, we prepared to defend ourselves. It turned out to be Crescendo, leading a large group including some of our men plus a group from Manzanillo led by Roberto Pesant. Missing from our group were:
Acuna, the deserter; Calixto Morales; Calixto Garcia;
Manuel Acuna; and a new recruit who apparently got lost during the shooting.
Once again we started toward the valley and on the way down we distributed the items the men from Manzanillo had brought. This included a surgery kit for me and a change of clothes for every man. We were moved by the sight of initials that the girls from Manzanillo had embroidered on our uniforms.
The following day, February 2, two months after the "Granma" landing, we were a homogeneous group: we had ten more men from Manzanillo and we felt stronger and more confident than ever before. We held long discussions on the subject of the surprise air attack and we all agreed that the smoke from the open field-kitchen had served as a beacon for the planes. For many months —perhaps for the duration of the war— the memory of that surprise attack remained with us and no open-air cooking was ever again done for fear of unpleasant consequences.
At that time, we would have found it impossible to believe that Eutimio Guerra, the traitor, had been a passenger in the observation plane carrying Casillas, and had pointed out our hiding place. His story about his mother's illness had been a pretext to go out and locate Casillas and tell him about our location.
For a long time Eutimio Guerra played an important negative role in the development of our war of liberation.
Surprise Attack at Altos de Espinosa
following THE surprise attack mentioned in the prior chapter, we left Caracas hill, in search of more familiar areas where we could establish direct contact with Manzanillo, receive additional aid, and get some information on the situation in the rest of the country.
Therefore, we returned to the Aji, traveling through familiar territory, until we reached old Mendoza's house. On the hillsides we had to cut our way through the brush using our machetes, and we made little progress. We spent the night in one of the hills, with practically nothing to eat. I still remember what I consider one of the greatest banquets I ever attended: Crespo showed up holding a can containing 4 sausages, the results of his "savings" for his friends. Crespo, Fidel and I, together with some other man, ate the meager ration with great joy. Our journey continued until we reached the house "to the right of Caracas hill", where old Mendoza was to give us some food. In spite of his fright, this loyal peasant would welcome us every time we passed by, urged by Crescencio or some other friendly peasants who were now part of our troop.
It was a painful journey for me. I was suffering from an attack of malaria and both Crespo and the unforgettable Julio Zenon Acosta nursed me throughout the entire trip. It was not our habit to spend the night indoors, but my condition and that of Moran, who was always finding an excuse to get sick, made it necessary for us to sleep in one of the houses, while the rest of the men kept watch outside. The only time they used the house was when they had to eat.
It was necessary to "clean up" our group. We had a few men of very low morale and others who were seriously hurt, among them Ramiro Valdes, now Minister of the Interior, and Ignacio Perez, one of Crescendo's sons later killed in action bearing the rank of captain. Ramiro had received a blow on one knee already weakened by wounds received in the "Moncada" attack, so we had to leave him. Several other men left but we considered their defection very advantageous to our troop. I remember one of them who was overcome by an attack of nerves and suddenly, in the stillness of the woods, began to shout that he had been sent to a camp where there was plenty of food and water and an anti-aircraft defense, and now he was being chased by planes and there was no place to hide, no food, and no water. This was the impression most men received during the first few days of war. Later on, those who stayed and passed the first tests would become accustomed to the filth, the lack of water and food and the lack of safety, placing all their trust in their rifles as well as in the cohesion and resistance of the small guerrilla group.
Ciro Frias, accompanied by a few new men, arrived. He told us a series of stories that caused quite a lot of confusion. Today, we smile when we think of it, but at that time it was no joke: He had been told that Diaz Tamayo was about to make an about-face and was "dealing" with the revolutionary forces; that Faustino had been able to collect thousands of dollars; in one word, that sabotage was rampant and the end of the government was drawing near. There was also a sad note, but one that served as a warning: Sergio Acuna, the deserter, had gone to some relative's house; there he began to brag about his heroic deeds in the Sierra and was heard by a man named Pedro Herrera who informed the police. The notorious corporal Rosello —later executed by the people— arrested Acuna, tortured him, fired four shots into him and hung him. It was a great lesson for our troop; it showed the value of cohesion and the futility of trying to escape from a danger that threatened every one of us. It also made it imperative for us to move to another location; presumably, the boy might have talked before he was murdered, and he knew Florentino's house, where we were at the moment. A curious incident occurred which we did not quite understand until some time later: Eutimio Guerra had said that he had dreamed about Acuna's death. He even added that corporal Rosello had been the killer. This led to a long philosophical discussion on whether or not it was possible to predict any event by means of dreams. Part of my daily routine was to lecture the men on some cultural or political subject and I explained that such a thing was not possible; chat it was due to an extraordinary coincidence; that we all expected Acuna to end that way, and that we all knew that Rosello was running wild all over that zone, etc. Universo Sanchez settled the whole affair by saying that Eutimio had the habit of telling tall stories and that someone had probably told him the whole story; we must remember that Eutimio had left the day before and had returned with fifty cans of milk and a flashlight. One of the most staunch supporters of the theory of "illumination" was the 45-years-old peasant Julio Zenon Acosta. He was my first pupil in the Sierra. I was doing my best to teach him to read and write and where-ever we stopped we'd take up the lessons. We had reached the stage of distinguishing A from Î, Å from I, and so on. Julio Zenon, not thinking of the years gone by but rather of the years to come, had put his heart into the task of learning how to read and write. Perhaps he could be a very good example to other peasants who were his comrades at that time, or to others who have heard about him. Julio Zenon Acosta gave us great aid in those difficult times. He never tired, he knew the zone well, and he was the first to run to the aid of a comrade in trouble, or help a city man who was still unfamiliar with his surroundings. He would bring water from a distant stream, start the fire and find the right kind of kindling to get the fire going on a rainy day. He was our all-around man.
One night, only a short time before we discovered he was a traitor, Eutimio complained that he had no blanket and asked Fidel to lend him one. It was a cold February night, up in the hills. Fide] replied that if he gave Eutimio his blanket they would both be cold; that it was better to share the blanket, topped by two of Fidel's coats. That night, Eutimio Guerra, armed with a 45 caliber pistol that Casillas had given him to use against Fidel, and two hand grenades that were to be used to cover his getaway once the crime was committed, slept side by side with our leader. Universo Sanchez and I had made it a point to stay close to Fidel and that night Eutimio had said to us:
"I am very interested in this business of the watch. We must be on guard all the time." We explained that three men were on guard nearby. We, the Granma veterans, and a few of Fidel's trusted men always took turns protecting him. Thus, Eutimio spent an entire night lying side by side with the Leader of the Revolution, waiting for his chance to murder him, but he never gathered enough courage to do it. Throughout the night, a great part of the Revolution depended on the thoughts of courage, fear, scruples, ambition, power, and money, running through the mind of a traitor. Fortunately for us, the sum total of inhibitory factors emerged triumphant and the night passed without any incident.
We had left Florentino's house and were now settled in a ravine. Ciro Frias had gone home and returned with a few hens and some other food. Hot soup and other viands were our reward for a long, rainy night in the open. Somebody said Eutimio had been around there too. Eutimio used to go in and out at will; we trusted him and we had accepted his explanation of his trip to see his sick mother, the story about the Caracas hill battle, etc. He said his mother had recovered from her illness. The man was extremely audacious. We were in a place called Altos de Espinosa, near a chain of hills such as El Lomon, Loma del Burro, Caracas, and others, that were under constant aerial attack. Eutimio would say: "I told you they'd strafe Loma del Burro today". The planes would come and strafe the hill and Eutimio would jump to his feet, bragging about his accurate forecasting.
On February 9, 1957, Ciro Frias and Luis Crespo went foraging for food as usual. Everything was quiet, and about 10 a.m. a young peasant named Labrada, who had recently joined our group, captured a man nearby. It turned out to be one of Crescendo's relatives, a salesclerk in Celestino's grocery store where Casilla's soldiers were stationed. The boy reported that there were close to 145 soldiers in the house. We checked, and we saw a few of them, far away on a barren spot. Our prisoner told us that he had spoken to Eutimio who had told him that the zone was to be bombed the next day. Casilla's men moved about but we could not determine which way. Fidel became suspicious; Eutimio's strange behaviour was beginning to dawn upon us and we began to comment on it. At 1:30 p.m. Fidel gave orders to leave and we went to the top of the hill to wait for the comrades who had gone scouting. Ciro Frias and Luis Crespo returned, saying that everything was normal. Suddenly, Frias requested silence saying that he had seen someone moving around. He cocked his rifle and at that moment we heard a shot, followed by a volley. There was the sound of volleys and explosions coming from the place we had previously occupied and which was now being torn apart by the concentrated fire. We left our position at full speed and some time later we found out that Julio Zenon Acosta had been killed atop the hill. The uneducated peasant, who had been able to comprehend the enormous tasks that the Revolution was to face following its triumph; the man who was getting ready to lend a hand in these tasks, was dead. Our group had become dispersed. My knapsack —my pride and joy— full of medicines, reserve food, a few books and blankets, was left behind. I managed to pull out a blanket that had belonged to Batista's army, a trophy of the La Plata battle, and started to run.
Soon I met a small group of men: Almeida, Julito Diaz, Universo Sanchez, Camilo Cienfuegos, Guillermo Garcia, Ciro Frias, Motola, Pesant, Emilio Labrada, and Yayo. We took off in an oblique direction, trying to avoid the shots. We did not know where our other comrades were or what had happened to them. We could hear shots at our rear, and we knew our trail was an easy one to follow because we were moving fast and did not have time to erase our tracks. At 5:15 p.m. we reached a craggy spot, where the woods ended. We made up our minds to wait there until darkness set in because if we tried to cross the open space by daylight, the enemy would see us. If they followed us to our present location, we could still defend ourselves, protected by the rugged terrain. However, the enemy did not show up and we went on, guided by Ciro Frias who was slightly familiar with the area. It had been suggested that the group be broken into two patrols allowing for faster moving and a less conspicuous trail but Almeida and I voted against the idea. We wanted to keep the group intact. We reconnoitered the area, called Limones, and held a meeting because some of the men wanted to get away from there. Almeida, head of the group, based on his rank of Captain, gave orders to continue to El Lomon, where Fidel had called for a meeting. Some of the men argued that the place was familiar to Eutimio and we would find the soldiers there. We had no doubts about Eutimio being a traitor, but it was Almeida's decision to obey Fidel's orders.
We met Fidel on February 12, near El Lomon, in a place called "Derecha de la Caridad". Then we heard the whole story about Eutimio. It began with his arrest by Casillas following the La Plata encounter. Instead of killing Eutimio, Casillas had bribed him to kill Fidel. Eutimio had given away our position in Caracas; he had given the order to bomb Loma del Burro because it was in our itinerary —we had changed it at the last moment— and had organized the concentrated attack on the spot of Canon del Arroyo where we withdrew with only one casualty thanks to Fidel's quick thinking. We verified the death of Julio Acosta and it was said that some guards had been killed and others wounded. I must confess that neither the dead nor the wounded was any of my own doing; at the time, I had executed a "strategic retreat" at full speed. Now we were all together, excepting one comrade lost the day before. Raul, Ameijeiras, Ciro Redondo, Manuel Fajardo, Echeverria, Moran, and Fidel; in all, 18 of us. This was the "Re-unified Revolutionary Army" on February 12, 1957. A few comrades had already given up and a few rookies gave up their guerrilla war right then and there. A Granma veteran was also missing. His name" was Armando Rodriguez and he carried a Thompson machinegun. For the last few days he had looked so alarmed and frightened every time we heard shots around us, particularly if the shots came from all sides, that we began to describe his expression as a "surrounding maneuver look." Every time a man's face showed the look of a trapped animal we expected something unpleasant to happen. That type of look was incompatible with guerrilla warfare. Our friend with the "surrounding maneuver look" got into high gear, as we used to say in guerrilla jargon, and took off. Some time later, we found his machine gun abandoned in a peasant's hut, a great distance away. Undoubtedly, the man was gifted with a good pair of legs!
End of a Traitor
Once our little army was organized, we decided to abandon the El Lomon region. On the way, we made contacts with peasants and established bases necessary for our survival. We kept going away from the Sierra Maestra, toward the plains where we could get in touch with the comrades operating in the cities.
We passed by a hamlet called "La Monteria" and camped in a thicket of woods near a stream, in a plantation owned by Epifanio Diaz, whose sons had joined the Revolution.
We wanted closer contact with the 26th of July Movement. Our nomad existence made it practically impossible to contact its members.
Actually, we were two distinct groups, of different tactics and strategy. The great split that months later was to place the Movement's unity in danger had not yet materialized but one could feel chat the concepts were different.
It was on this farm that we met the outstanding figures of the Movement in the city, among them three women, well known to all of Cuba today: Vilma Espin, now President of the Federation of Cuban Women and Raul Castro's wife, Haydee Santamaria, now President of the Casa de las Americas and Armando Hart's wife, and Celia Sanchez, our beloved comrade in every moment of the struggle, who was soon to join our group for the duration of the war. There was also Faustino Perez, an old friend and Granma comrade, who had come to report to us on his mission to the city and rush back once again. Shortly afterwards he was taken prisoner.
We met Armando Hart, and I then had my only opportunity to spend some time with the great leader from Santiago, Frank Pais.
Frank was one of those men who make a lasting Impact at first sight. His present photos are quite accurate but it was his eyes that impressed me most. It is very difficult to write about a comrade now dead, whom I only saw once and whose life is well known to everyone. All I could see in his eyes was the fire of a man possessed by a cause, with faith in it. It was evident that he was an extraordinary person. Today he is called "the unforgettable Frank Pais," and that is the way I feel about it, although I only saw him once. Frank is another comrade whose life would be now devoted to the common task of the Socialist Revolution; he is part of the enormous price that our people had to pay for their freedom.
He gave us a si1ent lesson in order . and discipline, cleaning our dirty rifles, taking stock of the ammunition and keeping every round in place'. Since that first day, I made a pledge to take care of my weapon. I kept my pledge, too, although I must say I was never too meticulous.
The little thicket of woods was the scene of other interesting events. For the first time, we were to be interviewed by a reporter, and a foreign reporter at that. This man was Matthews, who brought with him a small box-type camera with which he took the pictures that were so widely disseminated and later disputed in the stupid statements of one of Batista's ministers. The interpreter was Javier Pazos. who later joined the guerrillas where he remained for a long time.
I was not present at the interview. Fidel told me later that Matthews had asked concrete questions. He had asked no "loaded" questions and seemed to sympathize with the Revolution. I remember Fidel's comments about how he had given an affirmative reply to Matthews' question as to whether Fidel was an anti-imperialist. Fidel had objected against the delivery of armament to Batiste and had told Matthews that the arms were not for intercontinental defense but rather to be used against the people.
Matthews' visit was a short one. Once he left, we got ready to leave. We were warned to keep our eyes open because Eutimio was somewhere nearby. Almeida was ordered to go and capture him. Accompanying him were Julito Diaz, Ciro Frias, Camilo Cienfuegos and Efigenio Ameijeiras. Ciro Frias overpowered Eutimio – not a difficult task – and brought him to us. He was carrying a 45 caliber pistol, 3 hand grenades and a pass signed by Casillas. By then Eutimio was convinced that he was to be executed. He fell to his knees at Fidel's feet and simply asked to be shot, saying that he deserved to die. He seemed to have aged all of a sudden; his temples were gray, something I had never noticed before. There was a tense moment. Fidel began to berate Eutimio, and Eutimio kept asking to be shot. We will never forget the moment when Ciro Frias, who was a close friend of Eutimio's, began to talk to him. He spoke of all the favors he had done for him, of how he and his brother had always helped Eutimio's family. Then he confronted him with his crime: first, Eutimio had informed on Ciro's brother and the boy had been murdered, next, Eutimio had tried to have our entire group exterminated. It was a long, pathetic statement that Eutimio heard without uttering a word. He was asked if he had something to say and he said he wanted the Revolution, that is, us, to take care of his children .
The Revolution kept its promise. Eutimio Guerra is simply a name that comes to mind when writing these notes but otherwise it has been forgotten, perhaps even by his own children. Under a different name, they are now attending school, receiving the same treatment as all other sons of the people, preparing themselves fox a better life, but some day they will have to be told that the peasant who let himself be tempted by power and money, in addition to recognizing his crime, never asked for clemency – which he knew he did not deserve – but instead, asked our leader to be kind and benevolent to his children.
At that moment, a tremendous storm broke out and it got very dark: amidst a veritable deluge interrupted by lightning bolts and thunder, the life of Eutimio Guerre was snuffed out. No one heard the shot that killed him.
We buried him the following day. A little incident occurred when Manuel Fajardo tried to place a cross over the grave, I objected, saying that it would involve great danger for the owner of the farm. Then Fajardo carved a cross on a nearby tree. That is the only sign showing the resting place of a traitor.
Moran quit at that time. He knew we did not care for him and that we all thought of him as a potential deserter. He had previously disappeared for some days with the excuse that he had been trailing Eutimio and had become lost in the woods.
Just when we were ready to depart, we heard a shot and found Moran with a bullet in his leg. Comrades who happened to be near him held long arguments among themselves. Some of them said the shot was an accident, while others claimed that Moran had done it on purpose so as not to stay with our group.
Moran's later behaviour, his act of treason and his death at the hands of the Guantanamo revolutionaries, make it quite evident that he shot himself intentionally.
We final1y left the farm. Prank Pais had promised to send us a group of men around the beginning of March; the rendezvous was to be at Epifanio Diaz's house, near El Jibaro.
THE DAYS FOLLOWING our departure from Epifanio's farm were, at least for me, the most painful of the war. These notes are an attempt to describe the effect upon our men of the initial stage of the revolutionary struggle. If this passage, more than the others, contains more references to myself, it is only because it is related to the other episodes and to leave them out would mean a loss of continuity.
Our revolutionary group was made up of 17 men of the original group and 3 new recruits: Gil, Sotolongo, and Raul Diaz. These men had arrived in the Granma, had hidden away somewhere near Manzanillo, and when they heard of our whereabouts they made up their minds to join
us, and share our fate. It was very difficult for us, at the time, to increase our army. Some men came, but others would leave. The struggle demanded a tough physical condition and a high standard of morale, and we lived under the threat of continuous attack.
We traveled, without any fixed distribution, hiding in small wooded areas in a zone where cattle had cleared most of the vegetation. One night we heard, on Fidel's little radio, that one of the men who had left with Crescencio had been captured. Eutimio had already told us that the man had been arrested but we had never found out officially. Now at least we knew he was alive. It was not always that a man survived one of the Batista army's "interrogations." Frequently we heard rifle and machinegun fire directed toward the wooded areas. The soldiers spent a lot of ammunition but never dared to enter the woods.
On February 22 I wrote in my diary that I was beginning to fee} the symptoms of an attack of asthma; I did not have any anti-asthmatic medicine left. The date for the new rendezvous was set for March S, so we still had to wait several days.
During that period we just moved about aimlessly, killing time and waiting for Frank Pais' men who were to bring additional weapons. It had been decided that our group was to be strengthened in firepower rather than in number, and that every available weapon in Santiago was to be brought to the Sierra Maestra,
Once we spent a very uneasy day by a stream near La Majagua where there was practically no vegetation. This was in a valley named Las Mercedes. It is very hard to remember exact names now. At dusk, we reached the house of a peasant called Emiliano. He was another one of those peasants who became frightened every time they met us and yet they risked their lives for us and contributed to the development of our Revolution. It was the rainy season in the Sierra and night after night we mould get soaked to the bone, so we now headed for the peasants' huts despite the danger of meeting the soldiers who were everywhere.
My asthma was so bad I could hardly walk, and we spent another night near a house, among a thicket of coffee trees. It was February 27 or 28. Censorship had been discontinued and the radio was pouring out news about everything that had occurred during the last few months.
There was talk about terrorist attacks and Matthews' interview with Fidel. That was the moment when the Minister of Defense made his famous statement that Matthews' interview was a lie,- and demanded that the photographs be published. Hermes was the son of old Emiliano and at the rime he was the one who would look for food and show us the way. On the morning of the 28th he did not make his usual rounds and Fidel issued immediate orders to move to another place overlooking the roads. About 4 p.m., Universo Sanchez and Luis Crespo were watching the road, and saw a large troop coming from the direction of Las Vegas. We had to move fast to reach the hillside and cross to the other side before the troops cut us off. It was not difficult because we had seen them in time. Mortar and machinegun fire broke out, headed in our direction, which proved that Batista's men knew that we were somewhere in the vicinity. Everybody made it to the top, but for me it was a terrible experience. I was practically choking by the time I reached the top of the hill. I remember Crespo's efforts to make me walk. Every time I said I could not go on and asked to be left behind, Crespo would revert to our jargon and snap at me: “You, son-of-a-bitch from Argentina, either you walk or I'll hit you with my rifle butt!” Then he would pick up his load, and practically carry me and my heavy knapsack to the top. All this under a heavy downpour.
We reached a small hut at a place called Purgatorio. Fidel put on a great performance, impersonating a "Major Gonzalez" of Batista's army, in search of rebels. The host was both courteous and cool, but another man, a neighbour, was a real toady. I was too ill to enjoy fully the dialogues ' between Fidel, in his role as Major Gonzalez, and the man, who insisted on giving advice to Fidel and kept saying that he could not understand why this boy Castro was out there in the woods, fighting.
Something had to be done about me; I simply could not go on any longer. When the chatty neighbour left, Fidel told the host who he really was and the man threw his arms around him, saying that he belonged to the Orthodox party, that he was a follower of Chibas, and that he was ready to help out in every way. It was necessary for the peasant to go to Manzanillo and establish some contact or, at least, buy some medicine. Even the man's wife was not supposed to know that I would be near the house. Our latest recruit, a man of doubtful reputation, was assigned as my guard. In a generous gesture, Fidel gave me a Johnson rifle, a real jewel. Then we all made a big show of leaving together and, a few yards away my companion – whom we called "the teacher" – and I went into the woods to hide and wait. The latest news was that Matthews had made a telephone call, saying that the photographs were to be published while Diaz Tamayo insisted that the whole thing was a lie; that nobody could get past the troops surrounding the rebels. Armando Hart was in prison, charged with being the second leader of the Movement. The date was February 28.
Our man had fulfilled his mission and I got my adrenaline. The next ten days were the most bitter days of the struggle in the Sierra: I was dragging myself from tree to tree, using my rifle as a crutch, accompanied by a thoroughly frightened man who went practically out of his mind every time I coughed – he was so afraid someone would hear me – but we finally made it back to Epifanio's house. It had taken us ten days to cover a distance easily covered in one day's march. We did not make it in time for the rendezvous scheduled for March S. Our slow movements and the circle of soldiers surrounding the zone kept us from reaching the house until March 11.
Several things had happened, already known to the members of the household: in a place called Altos de Merino, Fidel's group had become separated under the mistaken impression that they were soon to be attacked. Twelve men had followed Fidel and six had gone with Ciro Fracas. Ciro's group fell' into an ambush but, luckily, they all escaped. Now they were all back, and only one of them, Yayo, who came back minus his rifle, had stopped by Epifanio’s house on his way to Manzanillo, and to1d the whole story. Frank Pais' troop was ready, although Frank had been arrested. We spoke with the leader of the troop, a man called Jorge Sotus, bearing the rank of captain. He told us it was impossible to make the rendezvous by March 5 because the news about their coming had leaked out and the roads were infested with soldiers. We took every measure to insure the arrival of the troop, estimated to be close to fifty men.
ON MARCH 13, whi1e we waited for the reinforcements, we heard the news of the attempt to kill Batista. We heard the names of some of the dead First, Jose Antonio Echeverria, student leader, then the others, among them Menelao Mora. Innocent persons were killed, too: the following day we heard that Pelayo Cuervo, an Orthodox Party leader who had always maintained a firm position against Batista, had been murdered. His body appeared in some desolate spot of the aristocratic residential section of the Country Club known as “the little lake.” A strange paradox: Pelayo Cuervo's sons and their father's murderers participated in the thwarted invasion of Playa Giron. They had come to “liberate Cuba from Communist oppression.”
A few details escaped through the curtain of censorship surrounding the frustrated attack on the Presidential Pa1ace. I had never met the student leader, Echeverria, but I had met a few of the others in Mexico during a 26th of July Movement-Students' Directorate meeting aimed at taking steps toward common action. These men were: Faure Chomon, who became Cuban Ambassador to the USSR, Fructuoso Rodriguez, and Joe Westbrook. All three of them had participated in the attack.
As everyone remembers, the attack was thwarted before the men could reach the third floor of the Palace, where Batista was. What could have been a victorious coup had turned into a massacre. Only a handful of the attackers had managed to escape from the Presidential Palace.
Our reinforcements were scheduled to arrive on the 15 We waited for hours but no one came. They arrived the following day, exhausted, saying that unexpected events had delayed their departure. They came in trucks owned by a rice planter who later became so frightened about being implicated in the affair that he took refuge in an embassy, later departed for Costa Rica, and returned to Cuba as a hero, aboard a plane carrying some arms. His name: Hubert Matos,
Only thirty of the fifty-man troop were armed; they had two machinegun rifles, a Madzen and a Johnson, The few months spent in the Sierra had turned us into full-fledged veterans, and the new troop looked, to us, as full of defects as our original Granma troop: no discipline, lack of decision, and inability to adapt to the new surroundings. The group, led by Sotus, captain, was divided into five squads, each composed of ten men led by a lieutenant. This rank had been conferred by the organization in the city, pending ratification. Squad leaders were: a comrade named Dominguez, later killed at Pino del Agua; Rene Latour, guerrilla organizer in the plains, killed close to the end of the war; "Pedrin" Soto, our old Granma comrade who had joined us at fast, later killed in combat and awarded the rank of Major, posthumously, ac the Frank Pais Second Front; Pena, a student from Santiago, who reached the rank of Major – he committed suicide some time after the triumph of the Revolution – and lieutenant Hermo, the only group leader who survived the two-year war
Our greatest problem was our inability to walk. Jorge Sotus, the chief, was the worst offender: he was always at the rear, setting a horrible example. I had been ordered to take command but when I told Sotus he said that he had orders to turn the troop over to Fidel and no one else; that he was still my commander, etc., etc. I still had a little complex about being a foreigner and did not wish to resort to extreme measures, although it was easy to see that the men were not at ease. Following a few short marches, which seemed terribly long due to the men's lack of training, we came to the place where we were to have our rendezvous with Fidel Castro There we met the men who had become separated from Fidel: Manuel Fajardo, Guillermo Garcia, Juventino, Pesant, the three Sotomayor brothers and Ciro Frias.
The contrast between the two groups was tremendous. Ours was well disciplined, compact, and hardened. Theirs, was suffering from the usual ills; they were not accustomed to eating only one meal a day; if they Sound the meal unpalatable, they refused to eat. Their knapsacks were loaded with useless items, and in order to make them lighter, they would rather get rid of a can of condensed milk than a towel – this is practically high treason in guerrilla warfare! – so we made it a point to follow their trail and pick up any food they discarded. Once we settled in our camp there was a tense period brought about by constant friction between Sotus, – who was quite an authoritarian but lacked the gift of getting along with others – and the troop. We were forced to take special measures, and Rene Ramos, whose nom de guerre was Daniel, took charge of the machinegun squad at the exit of our hideout, in order to avoid any trouble.
Sometime later, Sotus was sent to Miami on a special mission. There he betrayed the Revolution when he met Felipe Pazos, whose boundless ambition for power made him forfeit his commitments and appoint himself interim president, in a shoddy maneuver in which the U.S. State Department played a major role.
As time went by captain Sotus showed signs of rehabilitation and Raul Castro offered him his chance; the Revolution has always given everyone a chance. However, he began to plot against the Revolutionary Government. He was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, and aided by one of the prison guards, he escaped to the counterrevolutionaries' lair: the U.S.A.
But let us get back to our story: we tried to help Sotus, easing the tension between him and the men, and explaining the need of discipline, Guillermo Garcia went to Caracas zone, looking for Fidel, and I made a little tour to pick up Ramiro Valdes, whose leg had partially healed. Fidel arrived on the night of March 24. He and his twelve stalwart comrades were an impressive sight. What a contrast between these men, with their long beards and their makeshift packs, and the new arrivals wearing clean uniforms, carrying well-made packs, and all clean shaven! I made a full report of our problems and we held council to decide on future action. Members of the council were: Fidel, Raul, Almeida, Jorge Sotus, Ciro Frias, Guillermo Garcia, Camilo Cienfuegos, Manuel Fajardo and I. Fidel criticized my behaviour for not exerting my authority, leaving it in the hands of Sotus, a newcomer – although there was no feeling of animosity toward him – whose attitude, in Fidel's judgment, should never have been condoned. New platoons were organized, comprising the entire troop, to form three groups commanded by captains Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, and Jorge Sotus. Camilo Cienfuegos led the – vanguard and Efigenio Ameijeiras the rear guard. My position: Staff Physician. Universo Sanchez was appointed Staff. squad leader.
The new arrivals added to our troop's efficiency. In addition, we had two machinegun rifles, even though they were old and badly worn. Nevertheless we now constituted a considerable force. We studied our next step and my opinion was to attack the nearest post we could find. That would be a good test for the new men. Fidel and the other members of the council were of the opinion that the men should march for long periods, to become accustomed to the rigors of jungle and mountain life as well as the long treks over rugged hills. We held a short, elementary, guerrilla training practice, and departed due East. Our plan was to cover long distances, looking for some group of soldiers to pounce upon.
Full of enthusiasm, we marched on to carry out our plan. The climax was to come at the battle of El Uvero.
Forging the Temper
THE MONTHS of March and April 1957 were devoted to the reorganization and training of the rebel troops. Our army was made up of 80 men, distributed in the following manner:
The four-man vanguard, 1ed by Camilo; Raul Castro led one platoon of three lieutenants who in turn led one squad, respectively. These were Julio Diaz, Ramiro Valdes, and Nano Diaz. The two comrades named Diaz were not related. They were both killed in the battle of El Uvero. Nano was from Santiago, and today the Diaz brothers' refinery in Santiago bears his name and the name of his brother who was murdered in Santiago de Cuba. Julito was from Artemisa, a veteran of the Granma and the Moncada. Jorge Sotus lieutenants were: Ciro Frias, killed at the Frank Pais Front; Guillermo Garcia, now Chief of the Army of the Western Sector,. and Rene Ramos Latour, killed while bearing the rank of Major. Then came the Staff, or General Command, led by Fidel, Commander-in-Chief,. Ciro Redondo; Manuel . Fajardo, now a Major; Crespo, Major; Universo Sanchez, now a Commander; and myself as physician.
The platoon that usually followed the column was led by Almeida, captain, and lieutenants Hermo, Guillermo Dominguez, killed at Pino del Agua, and Pena. The rear guard was led by Efigenio Ameijeiras, lieutenant, and three other men.
We learned to cook by squads. Our group was so large that the squad system allowed for a better distribution of food, medicine and ammunition. There was a veteran in most squads, teaching the new men the art of cooking and how to get the best nourishment out of our foodstuffs. They also trained the men in packing their knapsacks and the correct way of walking through the Sierras.
It would take an automobile only a few hours to cover the distance between the right hill of El Lomon and Uvero. To us, it meant weeks of slow walking, taking every precaution, carrying out our program of training the men for the coming battles as well as for a new life. We came to Altos de Espinosa and we, the veterans, kept a guard of honor by the grave of Julio Zenon. I found a piece of the blanket I had left behind during my "strategic retreat" and shoved it into my pack, swearing that I would never again lose any equipment that way.
Paulino was my new assistant. He helped me in the transportation of medicines and this way I could devote a few minutes every day to the attention of the men. We passed by Caracas hill, recalling our encounter with the enemy air force, thanks to Eutimio's treachery, and found a rifle which one of our men must have left there the day of the attack. We no longer had a surplus of rifles; on the contrary, we needed more. We had entered a new stage. A qualitative change had taken place: Throughout a wide zone, the enemy was careful not to come: face to face with us; of course, we were not too crazy about meeting them, either. The political situation showed evident signs of opportunism. Pardo Llada, Conte Aguero and other characters of similar type, made long-winded speeches, reeking with demagoguery, calling for harmony and peace and timidly criticizing the government. The peace government had spoken; the new Prime Minister, Rivero Aguero, had made a pledge to go to the Sierra if necessary, in order to bring peace to the country. However, a few days later, Batista declared that there was no need to speak with Fidel or 'the rebels; that Fidel was not in the Sierra, and therefore there was no point in talking with "a bunch of bandits."
Thus, Batista showed his determination to carry on the fight - the only point on which we wholeheartedly agreed - at any cost. Colonel Barreras was then named Chief of Operations. Barreras was famous for embezzling the funds for the soldiers' rations. Later on, he was appointed military attaché to Venezuela, and when the Batista regime came to an end, he was still sitting comfortably in his office in Caracas.
Among us, there were at the time three pleasant characters who served to furnish our movement with a little advertising service, specially in the U.S. Two of them gave us a little trouble, too. They were three Yankee boys who lived in the Guantanamo Naval Base and had left their homes to join our struggle. Two of them never heard a shot at the Sierra; worn out by the climate and the privations, they asked newspaperman Bob Taber to take them back. The other one fought in the battle of El Uvero and later retired, quite ill, but at least he did participate in a battle. The boys were not ideologically prepared for a revolution; all they did was to give vent to their spirit of adventure while in our company. We felt a sort of affection for them, but we were glad to see them go. I was specially glad, because as physician, I was constantly busy with their various maladies. They simply could not stand the rigours of our campaign.
It was during those days that the government took a group of newspapermen for an airplane ride over the Sierra Maestra, to prove that there was nobody down there. It was a bizarre operation and it convinced no ore. This was another demonstration of the methods used by Batista's government to deceive public opinion, together with the aid of all the Conte Agueros disguised as revolutionaries, who made daily speeches in a vain effort to fool the people. I must mention here that, at last, I was going to get a canvas hammock. This was a royal gift, which I had not yet been awarded, in keeping with the guerrilla law: a canvas hammock went to those who had already made their own out of burlap sacks. Anyone could make himself a burlap hammock; this made him a candidate for the next canvas hammock; but the lint made my asthma worse, and I was forced to sleep on the ground. Not having a burlap hammock I was not entitled to a canvas hammock. A real vicious circle: one of the daily events that are part of each man's individual tragedy.
Fidel realized my plight and broke all the rules, awarding me the precious hammock. I will always remember this happened by the banks of the La Plata river, the day we ate horse meat for the first time.
The horse meat was not only a luxurious piece de resistance; it was the acid test of the capacity of adaptation. Peasant members of our guerrilla force became quite indignant and refused to eat their portion of horse meat. Some of them looked upon Manuel Fajardo as a murderer. He had worked in a slaughterhouse, and a great event such as the slaughtering of a horse called for the hand of a professional. The horse belonged to a peasant named Popa, who lived across the river. I feel confident that following the anti-illiteracy campaign, Popa must be able to read and write by now. If he ever lays his hands on the magazine Verde Olivo - where these notes were originally published - he will undoubtedly recall the night when three murderous-looking guerrilla fighters knocked at his door, mistook him for an informer, and added insult to injury by taking his old, moth-eaten horse, which a few hours later was to become a meal of exquisite taste for some of us and a test for the prejudiced bellies of the peasants, who felt that they were committing an act of cannibalism by chewing on their old friend.
A Famous Interview
BY THE MIDDLE of April 1957 we returned to the area of Palma Mocha, near Turquino Peak. Our most valuable men for that type of mountain warfare were those of peasant extraction.
Guillermo Garcia and Ciro Frias, leading groups of peasants, went back and forth, scouting, foraging for food, and catching up on the latest news; they were the real mobile vanguard. When we reached Arroyo del Infierno, all the peasants came out to welcome us and tell us about the attack: who had guided the soldiers to our hid-out, number of casualties, etc, They were experts at relaying information.
Fidel did not have a radio then and he asked a peasant to lend him his. This way we could hear the news direct from Havana. The so-called guarantees had been re-established and the newscasts were a little more informative.
Guillermo Garcia, wearing the uniform of a corporal of the Batista forces, and accompanied by two peasants, went out to look for the informer. They got their man and told him that "the Colonel wanted to see him." When he saw us, he realized that everything was lost. Cynically, he told us about his liaison with the army, and how he had told "that s.o.b. Casillas" that he would guide the soldiers, because he knew where we were hiding, but that no one had paid any attention to him.
A few days later, the informer was executed. We received a message from Celia telling us that two U.S. reporters were on their way to interview Fidel under the pretext of the young "gringos" who had been with us. She also sent some money given by sympathizers of the Movement.
We decided that Sardinas, who knew the Estrada Palma zone well, would be the guide of the newspapermen. We had been devoting all our time to making contacts with peasants, thus creating contact centers and permanent camps, and increasing our zone of operations. We already had several spots where we could store our provisions; they were also used as relay points for messenger work all over the Sierra.
People of the Sierra have an extraordinary capacity for covering long distances in the shortest possible time. We were always fooled by their version of "a half hour's walk," or "just over the hill." This type of information is always exact,- for a peasant - although their concept of time, and the meaning of an hour, are completely different from that of the city folk.
Three days later we received the news that six people were climbing toward the zone of Santo Domingo: two women, two "gringos", and two others. However, there were some contradictory stories; it was said that the guards had been informed and they were surrounding the house where the new arrivals were. News travels fast in the Sierras but it also becomes distorted. Camilo went out, leading a platoon, ready to liberate the two U.S. newspapermen as well as Celia, whom we knew to be part of the group. They brought them to us safely. The false information had been caused by the movement of soldiers following a tip given by some backward peasants.
On April 23, Bob Taber and a cameraman arrived. They were accompanied by Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria. There were also representatives of the Movement in the plains: "Marcos" (or "Nicaragua"), Major Iglesias, now Governor of Las Villas, who was then in charge of activities in Santiago, and Marcelo Fernindez, coordinator of the Movement, later vice-president of the National Bank. The latter spoke English and was appointed interpreter.
We spent a few days engaged in diplomatic sparring, showing the U.S. men our strong force and evading any indiscreet questions. The interviews went on pleasantly. They, in turn, answered our questions with a full understanding of our primitive way of life, although they never became accustomed to it. Neither did they have anything in common with us.
Our group was increased by the arrival of "El Vaquerito" - the cowboy - one of the most beloved figures of our revolutionary war. He told us that he had been looking for us for over a month. He said he was a native of Camaguey, and we proceeded to interrogate him. A rudimentary course of political orientation came next; this was frequently my task. Vaquerito did not have any political ideas. He seemed to be a wholesome, happy boy, who looked upon the whole thing as a great adventure. He was barefoot, and Celia gave him a pair of Mexican style shoes, with lots of engravings. With the new shoes and a big straw hat he look d like a Mexican cowboy, so he was stuck with the nickname.
Vaquerito, never saw the end of the revolutionary struggle. He was killed the day before we took Santa Clara. He was the leader of the suicide platoon of Column 8. We all remember his extraordinary good humor, and his bizarre, devil-may-care attitude in the face of danger. He was an inveterate liar; his stories were always an intricate network of truth and fiction, and at the end the listener was completely unable to discern where truth ended and fiction began. But when it came to his activities in the war he was truly amazing: beginning as a messenger, he graduated first to soldier, then to leader of a suicide platoon. The same fantastic, incredible deeds he was so fond of talking about, he repeated in the battle field. By the time he met his death his bravery had become legendary.
Once I asked Vaquerito to tell us about his life. He began his story and, secretly, we kept track of the dates. When he finished his long, amusing story, we asked him how old he was. He must have been about 20, but once we tallied up on the various dates and countless adventures, it turned out that Vaquerito must have been hard at work five years before he was born."
Comrade "Nicaragua" brought then news that there were still several weapons in Santiago; these were leftovers from the frustrated attack on the Palace. They included 10 machineguns, 11 Johnson rifles and 6 "muskets," as he called them. There was more armament but the Movement was contemplating the establishment of another front in the zone of Miranda sugar mill. Fidel opposed the plan, giving them permission to take only a few of these weapons, ordering that as many as possible be sent to us in order to reinforce our equipment. We were ready to leave, to avoid coming face to face with some soldiers in the vicinity, when we decided to go climb Turquino Peak. This was a symbolic gesture; to climb our highest mountain. We were now on the crest of the Sierra, very close to Turquino.
Taber's interview ended at Turquino. Moving pictures were taken which were later' shown on TV in the U.S., at a time when no one took us too seriously, for example: A peasant joined us and told us that Casillas had offered him $300.00, a cow and a calf as reward for killing Fidel: the U.S, were not the only ones who made mistakes on the price of our maximum leader.
Our altimeter showed that Turquino was located 1,850 meters above sea level. We had never tested the device but it seemed to work well at sea level. Curiously, this height was quite different from the one appearing on official records.
An army company was following our steps and Guillermo and a group of men went out to harass them. I was still fighting my asthma and was bringing up the rear, as usual in that Case. As long as I could not go into battle, I had to surrender my Thompson sub-machinegun. It took me three days to get it back and it was very unpleasant for me to go about unarmed, expecting an attack at any time.
Bob Taber and two newspapermen left our column and arrived safely at Guantanamo. We went on along the Sierra and the foothills, exploring new areas, making contacts, fanning the flame of the Revolution, and increasing the legend of "the bearded ones." A new spirit permeated the Sierra. Peasants would come and greet us, no longer fearful. We, in turn, had more confidence in them. Our relative strength had increased and we felt safe against any surprise attack; we also felt that a closer bond existed between us and the peasants.
On the March
THOUGHOUT THE FIRST TWO WEEKS of April we marched toward our objective. Beginning near Turquino, we crossed zones that later became the scene of many battles: Santa Ana, El Hombrito, Pico Verde. We found Escuedro's house and went on to Loma del Burro. Our trip toward the East was intended to pick up some weapons sent from Santiago and hide them in the Loma del Burro zone, close to Oro de Guisa. One night I got lost in the woods and remained lost for three days until I met some , people in a place called El Hombrito.
It dawned upon me at that moment that we were equipped with everything necessary for survival: oil, salt, canned food and milk, a kit for starting a fire, and a compass. Up to that time, I had placed great trust in that device.
Realizing I was lost, I had used my compass without any results. I had finally come to a peasant's house where they gave me the right directions. We all found out later that in rugged places like the Sierra Maestra a compass will indicate only a general direction, but never a definite course. The only way to set a course is by being thoroughly familiar with the area or by the use of experienced guides. This was to be my personal experience, one I began to operate precisely at the zone of El Hombrito.
My return to the column was an exciting affair. I was received with great demonstrations of affection and was told that I had just missed attending the trial of three informers, one of whom, named Napoles, had been sentenced to death. Camilo had presided over the tribunal.
I was carrying on my duties as a physician, and every time we arrived at some village or hamlet the people would come to me, looking for relief. My task was a monotonous one: I did not have too many medicines to choose from, and most cases were quite similar, typical of life in the Sierra: toothless women, who had aged prematurely, children with tremendously swollen bellies, parasitism, rickets, and avitaminosis. Of course, some cases still remain, but the sons of poor women are now studying at the Camilo Cienfuegos School City; they have grown; they are healthy. Quite a contrast with the first under nourished, puny-looking contingent that arrived at our original school city.
I remember a small girl who kept watching me as I listened to the women who came to me, with an almost religious attitude, in an effort to find out the reason for their various illnesses. As the girl's mother approached my "office" - a corner of an old palm-thatched hut - the little girl said to her: "Mamma, this doctor tells every one of them the same story."
The little girl was right. My experience as a doctor was limited; moreover, every one of them had told me, unwittingly, the same horrible story. What would have happened if the doctor had come to, the conclusion that a young mother of several children complained of fatigue following her daily task of carrying a bucket of water from the stream to. her house simply because she did not have enough to eat? It is useless to try to explain the- reason for that fatigue to a woman of the Sierra. She will argue that she has done that, kind of work "all her life" and it is only now that she gets this sudden feeling of tiredness. There is the' whole sad story: People in the Sierra grow like wild flowers, unattended. Then they fade away constantly busy at a thankless task. It is due to our daily contact with these people and their problems that we became firmly convinced of the need for a definite change in the life of our people. The idea of an agrarian reform became crystal-clear, and communion with the people ceased to be a mere theory, to become an integral part of ourselves.
Guerrillas and peasants began to merge into a solid mass. No one can say exactly when, in this long process, the ideas became reality and we became a part of the peasantry. As far as I am concerned, the contact with my patients at the Sierra turned a spontaneous and some- what lyrical decision into a more serene force; one of an entirely different value. Those poor, suffering, loyal in habitants of the Sierra cannot even imagine what a great contribution they made to the forging of our revolutionary ideology.
Guillermo Garcia was promoted to captain, taking command of all new peasants joining the columns. Per haps comrade Guillermo has forgotten the date of his promotion, but it is right here in my notebook: May 6, 1957,
Haydee Santamaria left the following day. Fidel had given her instructions to establish all the necessary contacts. Then we received the news that Major Iglesias ("Nicaragua") had been arrested. He was supposed to bring the weapons and now we were at a complete loss, not knowing what to do. Still, we continued on our way.
We, came to a little depression near Pino del Agua, at the very edge of the Sierra; where there were two abandoned huts. One of our patrols captured an army corporal. He was known for his many crimes dating back to Machado's regime, and a few of us suggested that he be executed, but Fidel refused. We simply left him in the custody of the new recruits, who did not even have rifles, warning him that any attempt to escape would mean death.
Most of us went ahead to see if the weapons had arrived. It was a long walk, even though we did not carry ,packs; we had left them at the camp. We did not find the weapons and of course we put the blame on Nicaragua's arrest. We were able to purchase some food and return with our load. Not the load the men had been expecting, but a welcome load just the same.
We returned slowly, bordering the crests and being very careful. on the open spaces. We heard shots ahead of us and became alarmed because one of our men had gone ahead in order to reach the camp as soon as possible. He was Guillermo Dominguez, a lieutenant, recently arrived with the men from Santiago. We prepared for a fight and sent out a scouting group. The group came back with Fiallo, a comrade from Crescencio's group. He came from our base camp and said that he had seen a dead man n the road; he added that there had been an en counter with some guards who had withdrawn toward Pino del Agua where there was a large detachment of troops. We moved forward and came upon the body of dead man.
It was Guillermo Dominguez. His body was naked from the waist up, showing a bullet wound in the left elbow and a bayonet wound in the chest. A shotgun blast had literally blown his head apart. Apparently, he had been killed with his own gun. Several buckshot pellets were clearly visible around his head.
It seems that the guards were looking for their comrade, our prisoner, and heard Dominguez coming. He must have been quite confident because he had made the same tour the day before. He was captured by the soldiers at the time that Crescencio's men were on their way to us. Crescencio's group came upon the soldiers from the rear, and began firing. Then the soldiers killed Dominguez, and escaped.
Pino del Agua is a sawmill camp up in the Sierra, and the road taken by the soldiers was an old lumber trail that we had to follow for 100 yards and then "take up our narrow trail. Our comrade had not taken the necessary precautions and it was his luck to meet the soldiers at the lumber trail. This served as a lesson to all of us.
The Arms Arrive
NEAR PINO DEL AGUA sawmill we killed the horse that had belonged to our prisoner, the corporal. It was a magnificent animal, but certainly of no use to us in the jungle, and we were short on food. There is a touch of irony in this story: the corporal had insistently repeated t hat t he horse belonged to a friend of his'. Now, sitting on the ground and drinking horse soup he still kept repeating his friend's name and address in case we ever had an opportunity to return the horse.
We heard over the radio that our Granma comrades had been sentenced; also that one of the judges had voted against the verdict. The man was Urrutia, whose honest gesture was rewarded by his appointment to interim president of the Republic. The gesture, per se, had no other significance than that of being a gesture of dignity. Undoubtedly, it was, at the moment. But the aftermath was the establishment of a bad president, incapable of understanding the political process that was to follow, in capable of understanding the depth of a revolution not made to fit his reactionary mentality. His character, and his reluctance to take a determined stand, caused plenty of trouble. The climax came when - faced by the people's unanimous hostility - he presented his resignation as president of the Republic. It happened at the time when the people of Cuba were getting ready to hold their first 26th of July celebration.
One day, a contact man from Santiago, named Andres, arrived with the welcome news that the arms would be delivered within a few days'. A sawmill on the coast was set for the rendezvous. The Babun brothers, who owned the sawmill, were handling the operation. They expected a great profit from their participation in the Revolution. Further events made them drift apart, and three of the sons of one of the members of the Babun firm attained the dubious privilege of being part of the counter-revolutionary element captured at Playa Giron.
It is a curious thing to observe how at that time many people had the idea of profiting by the Revolution. They did little favors here and there, everyone of them expecting great rewards from the new State. In the Babun case, the reward was to be concessions for commercial exploitation of forests, which would include the eviction of peasants, thus increasing the latifundia of the Babun house hold. We now had a new addition to our group: a U.S. newspaperman, Hungarian by birth, named Andrew Saint George. He belonged in the same class with the Babuns.
He was careful to show his less dangerous side, appearing as a mere newspaperman, but he was an agent for the F.B.I. I was appointed to take care of him because I was the only one who spoke French, and none of us spoke English. In all sincerity I must say that he did not look like a dangerous character, but after our second inter view he had no qualms about being taken for an agent. We went on, skirting Pino del Agua, to the source of the ' Peladero river, marching through rugged areas and always carrying a heavy load. We continued to a stream named Del Indio, where we spent two days. Passing through small villages, we established a sort of non-legalized Revolutionary State. Sympathizers were told to report every thing that went on including, of course, any move made by the enemy. Always, we stuck to the woods. On some rare occasions we would sleep in some hut close to the woods. Daytime was spent under the protection of the tall trees, under a canopy of leaves, and always on guard.
Our worst enemy at that time of the year was the "macaguera," a species of gadfly so called because it lays its eggs on the Macagua tree. The macagueras would bite every unprotected part of our bodies, our skin was far from clean, and the constant scratching caused abscesses. Our legs, wrists and necks always bore the marks of the macagura.
On May 18 we heard about the arms and what they consisted of. Everyone got very excited, because we all wanted to improve our individual armament. We all hoped to get something; either a new weapon or a used one that might have belonged to one of the veterans who would be issued a new weapon. We also heard that the moving pictures that Bob Taber had shot at the Sierra Maestra had been very successful in the U.S. Everyone was happy, with the exception of Andrew Saint George. After all, in addition to being an F.B.I. agent he was also a newspaperman, and he felt that he had been "scooped." The following day he left the Babun zone, aboard a yacht bound for Santiago de Cuba.
A man had escaped, and we became very alarmed because everybody knew about the new weapons. We sent patrols after him and they returned after several days with the news that the man had taken a boat for Santiago. We suspected he had gone to inform the authorities but we found out later that his desertion was due to lack of physical and moral capacity to face the hardships of our life. In any event we had to take extreme precautions. Our fight against the lack of physical, ideological and moral preparation of the combatants went on relentlessly, but the results were not always successful. Men would find the flimsiest excuses to justify their demand to be released and if the answer was in the negative, desertion would follow. We must remember that desertion meant death; the execution was to be carried out at the spot where the deserter was apprehended.
That night the arms came, and it was the most beautiful sight in the world. There they were, the instruments of death, on exhibit before the hungry eyes of every fighter: 3 machineguns, with their tripods, 3 Madzen machinegun rifles, 9 M-1 carbines, 10 Johnson automatic rifles, and 6,000 rounds of ammunition. Although the M-1's were allotted 45 rounds apiece, they were distributed according to each man's merits and time spent in the Sierra. One of them went to Ramiro Valdes, now a Major, and two others were given to Camilo's advance guard. The other four were to cover the tripod machineguns. One machinegun rifle went to captain Jorge Sotus' platoon, one to Almeida's and another to the Staff; that was my weapon. The tripod machineguns were distributed as follows: one for Raul, one for Guillermo Garcia, one for Crescencio Perez. Such was my initiation as a direct combatant. I had participated in combat but my steady position was that of physician. For me, it was the beginning of a new stage.
I will always remember the moment when the old rifle, one of inferior workmanship, was given to me. At that moment it was a precious gift. Four men had been appointed to operate the weapon. These men were to follow opposite paths: the Beat6n brothers, Pupo and Manolo, were executed by the Revolution for the murder of Major Cristino Naranjo and their subsequent escape to the Sierras de Oriente, where they were captured by a peasant; the other one was a 15-year-old child who always carried the enormous weight of the gun's magazines., The boy, named Joel Iglesias, is now President of Rebel Youth, and a Major in the Rebel Army. The fourth man, now a lieutenant, was named Onate, but we nicknamed him "Cantinflas," Our struggle to increase the ideological and combative strength of our troop did not end with the arrival of the arms. On May 23, Fidel ordered the release of more men, among them a complete squad, This reduced our forces to 127 men, most of them armed, including 80 equipped with very good weapons.
Of the entire squad released, including its leader, only one man remained. He was Crucito, who later became one of our most beloved combatants. He was a natural poet, or balladeer, and he would hold long contests with the city poet Calixto Morales, one of the Granma men,
who called himself "the country nightingale." Crucito would always end his songs with a scornful refrain that went something like "you old Sierra buzzard."
Crucito had written songs about the Revolution, beginning with the departure of the Granma from Mexico. He would sit, smoking his pipe, and compose lyrics. There was a shortage of paper in the Sierra, so Crucito learned the words by heart. Not a single line of verse remained when he was killed in the battle of Pino del Agua.
In the sawmill zone we had the invaluable aid of Enrique Lopez, an old childhood friend of the Castros. He worked for the Babuns and was our contact man for supplies and safe travel throughout the zone. The area was crisscrossed by narrow roads that were used by the army trucks, and we had set up several ambushes but never succeeded in capturing a truck. Perhaps this contributed to the success of the coming operation, one that had the greatest psychological impact in the entire history of the war: the battle of El Uvero.
On May 25 we heard that an expeditionary group, led by Calixto Sanchez, had arrived aboard the launch "Corintia" and landed near Mayari. A few days later we heard about the disastrous outcome of that expedition. Prio Socarras had the habit of sending his men to die, but he never bothered to accompany chem. The news of the landing and its aftermath made us realize that it was imperative that we begin diverting maneuvers against the enemy to give the survivors a chance to reach some place where they could reorganize themselves and go into action. We did this out of sheer solidarity with the men, although we did not know their social makeup nor the real purpose of the landing.
On the occasion, we held an interesting debate, with Fidel and I the leading characters. I argued that we should not waste the opportunity to seize one of the army trucks; that we should devote ourselves, specifically, to catch one of them as it went carelessly by. On the other hand, Fidel had the operation of El Uvero in mind and he maintained that the decision was a just one; it would have been of very cessful to capture the army post at El Uvero. The psychological, impact would be tremendous and the event would be known throughout the country; something that would never happen if we seized a truck. Such an incident could easily be reported as a simple accident, with s few casualties, in that case, even though some people might suspect the truth, nobody would know about our effective existence as a fighting force in the Sierra. This did not mean discarding the idea of seizing a truck, but this was not to be the focal point of our activities.
Now, several years after chat debate where Fide! had the last word but did not convince me, I must recognize that the decision was a just one; it would have been of very little advantage to us to carry out some action against a patrol traveling by truck. Of course, our desire to fight made us adopt drastic positions, lacking the patience, and perhaps even the vision, to see faraway objectives. Anyway, we had come to the final preparations for the Et Uvero action.
Battle of El Uvero
ONCE WE HAD SETTLED on our objective, the next step was to plan the attack. We, had to find out about the number of soldiers, sentry post's, type of communications, access roads, civilian population and its distribution, etc. Comrade Caldero, now a Major in the Rebel Army, did a wonderful job in this department. Caldero, I seem to remember, was the sawmill manager's son-in-law.
We presumed that the army had more or less precise information about our presence in the zone, because we had captured two informers who confessed that Casillas had sent them to find out about the Rebel Army's whereabouts and its meeting points. The sight of the two informers, pleading for their life, was disgusting as well as moving, but the laws of war could not be disregarded in those difficult moments, and both men were executed,
That same day, the Staff and all the officers held a meeting, and Fidel announced that we would go into action within the next 48 hours; he told us to remain fully dressed and equipped, ready to leave. No instructions were given at the time.
Caldero was to be the guide, He knew the post at El Uvero, every way in and out, and every access road. We started an our way at night. It was a long march - about 16 kilometers - but luckily, all downhill, along the roads built by the Babuns, Yet, it took us about eight hours to cover the distance, because of the extreme precautions taken as we neared the danger zone, Finally, the orders came, and they were very simple: take the sentry posts and riddle the wooden structure holding the garrison,
We knew that the post had no major defenses except a few logs distributed around the building; the strong points were the sentry posts, of four soldiers each, placed strategically outside the building. Our Staff, was to be established atop a hill overlooking the post, a good vantage point from which to direct the action. It was easy to approach within close range of the post by crawling . through the dense woods. We had strict orders not to shoot toward the civilian area where women and children lived. The manager's wife, who knew of our plan, also lived there, but she had refused to leave in order not to arouse suspicion. The civilians were uppermost in our minds as we took our positions to begin the attack.
El Uvero post was located at the very edge of the water so we had to attack only three sides.
Platoons led by Jorge Sotus and Guillermo Garcia were sent to the spot overlooking the road running alongside the coast. It was Almeida's job to liquidate the sentry post facing the mountain more or less to the North; Fidel was to be at the hill overlooking the post, and Raul was to make a frontal attack. I was assigned an intermediate post with my machinegun rifle and my aides. Camilo and Ameijeiras were to attack from the front, between 'my position and Raul's, but they lost their way in the dark and began the attack at my left. Crescencio Perez' platoon was to advance along the road leading to Chivirico and stop any reinforcements coming that way.
We expected the attack to be of short duration, due to the element of surprise, but minutes went by and we still could not place our men in the ideal positions. Our guides, Caldero and one of the zone's guides, named Eligio Mendoza, went back and forth with reports. Soon it would be daybreak and the planned surprise attack was doomed to fail. Jorge Sotus sent word that he was having trouble pinpointing his target, but it was too late to figure out new maneuvers. When Fidel opened fire with his rifle we were able to locate the post by the flashes of the soldiers' fire. I 'was up on an elevated area and was able to see the post, but- the distance was too great and we moved in, looking for' a better position.
Everybody was advancing:, Almeida was headed for the sentry post covering the entrance, and on my left I could see Camilo's cap, with a piece of cloth sticking from the back, Foreign-Legion style, but bearing the insignia of the Movement. We went on advancing, amidst heavy gunfire, taking all the necessary precautions.
We began to receive reinforcements: men who had become separated from their units. A comrade nicknamed "Bomba," Mario Leal, and Acuna, joined our small group. The soldiers were putting up a stiff resistance and now we had reached the flat, open spaces where we had to be very careful of the soldiers' accurate fire. I was about 50 or 60 meters from the enemy's advance guard and saw two soldiers come out of a trench. I fired, but they took refuge in one of the houses. Firing toward the houses was out of the question, so we kept pressing forward across open ground and the bullets kept whizzing by. I heard someone moaning and I though perhaps he had a wound in his head. I made a quick. inspection of the wound: the bullet had hit him on the temple. Leal was fainting and his side was paralyzed; I can't recall whether it was his left or right side. The only bandage I could lay my hands on was a piece of paper, so I placed it on the wound. Joel Iglesias came to help Leal, while we continued the attack, A few seconds later, Acuna fell. We could no longer advance, and we kept firing to- ward a trench and getting plenty of return fire. We were gathering our courage to go for a final attack as the only means to finish the enemy's resistance, and at that very moment, the post surrendered.
It takes only a few minutes to describe the battle, but the actual time was two hours and forty-five minutes, counting from the opening shot to the time we entered the post. On my right - I believe it was Victor Mora - and other comrades had captured several soldiers who had put up a last struggle; a soldier came out of the trench in front of us, holding out his weapon in a gesture of surrender; we could hear cries of surrender coming from all sides. We ran toward the building and there was a burst of machine- gun fire. It was that last burst that killed lieutenant Nano Diaz.
Reaching the civilian area, we captured the two soldiers that had escaped my fire, and also the post physician and his assistant. A curious incident occurred, involving the physician, a calm, gray-haired man whom I never saw again. I do not know if he is now part of our Revolution. I was never too much of a physician and the number of wounded men being carried in was on the increase. Moreover, I was not too inclined to Medicine at the moment. When I went to turn the wounded over to the army physician he asked me how old I was and the date of my graduation. I told him I had several years experience and he said: "Look, you take care of this; I have just graduated and I have very little experience." His lack of experience and his fear at finding himself a prisoner had made him forget whatever he knew about his profession. From that moment on, I had to exchange my soldier's uniform for a physician's robe; actually, all I did was wash my hands.
Following the combat, one of the bloodiest we ever had, we began to gather data and now' I am able to present a more general picture; up to now the story was based on my personal experience. What happened was more or less as follows. When Fidel opened fire, giving the signal to begin, everybody began to attack the pre-determined objectives, and the army returned the fire, especially toward the hill where Fidel was. Julito Diaz was killed while standing next to Fidel. The soldiers' resistance was increasing and it was practically impossible to press on toward our goal. The most important task had been given to Almeida, at the center. He was to liquidate the sentry post to open way for his men and Raul's. We were told how Eligio Mendoza, the guide, had grabbed a rifle and joined the attack, He was a very superstitious man, and when he was warned to take care of himself he scornfully replied that his "saint" would take care of that. A few seconds later, he was practically cut in two by a burst of machinegun fire. The enemy's fire was heavy and we lost a few men. We were finding it very difficult to gain any distance through the center. Jorge Sotus, on the road to Peladero, tried a flank maneuver, accompanied by his assistant, nicknamed "The Policeman" but the latter was killed almost immediately and Sotus had to dive into the sea to escape. Others in his platoon made an effort to advance but were repelled. A peasant named Vega was killed, Manals was hit in the lungs, Quike Escalona was hit in the arm, hand and buttocks. Hiding behind the log barricade, the soldiers were cutting our small troop to pieces. Almeida called for z final attack to take the enemy position. Cilleros, Maceo, Hermes, Leyva, and Pena were wounded, and Almeida himself was hit in the left leg and shoulder. Moll was killed. However, this last rush overtook the sentry post and opened our way to the fort. On the other side, Guillermo Garcia's accurate machinegun fire had killed three soldiers; another one tried to escape and was also killed. Raul, his platoon divided into two groups, began a rapid advance toward the post. It was the attack carried out by Guillermo Garcia and Almeida that turned the tide; they had liquidated their respective enemy posts allowing for the final attack, A praiseworthy performance was that of Luis Crespo, who left the Staff to join the fight. As we reached the building, where somebody was waving a white handkerchief, someone in our troop must have fired and the enemy replied with a burst that killed Nano Diaz, who had been using his machinegun very effectively against the soldiers. Crescencio's platoon was practically out of action due to a jammed machinegun, so they had continued covering the road from Chivirico, and had captured two soldiers who had tried to escape along that road. The battle had lasted two hours and forty-five minutes and no civilians were hurt, despite the intense fire.
Our casualties were: Moll, Nano Diaz, Vega "The Policeman," Julito Diaz, and Eligio Mendoza, dead; Leal and Cilleros, badly wounded. Others, more or less seriously wounded, were Maceo, hit on the shoulder; Hermes Leyva, surface wound in the chest; Quike Escalona, right arm and hand; Pena, shot in the knee, Manuel Acuna, right arm, and Manals shot in the lungs, no other symptoms. A total of 15 comrades out of action. The enemy had 19 wounded, 14 dead,. 14 had been captured and 6 had escaped. A total of 53 men, they were commanded by a second lieutenant who had raised the white flag after he was wounded.
We had 80 m n, and the enemy 53,. a total of 133, with 38 - over one-fourth - out of action in less than two and a half hours' fighting. It had been a reckless, wide-open attack upon an enemy that was badly protected, and we , must admit that both sides showed tremendous courage. For us, it was a victory that meant that our guerrillas had reached full maturity. From that moment on, our morale increased enormously, our determination and hope for victory also increased, and although the months that followed were a hard test, we now had the key to the secret of how to beat the enemy. This battle sealed the fate of every garrison located far from larger concentrations of troops and every small army post was soon dismantled.
One of the very first shots fired in the combat had cut off telephone communication with Santiago, and the enemy recognizance planes arrived hours later, when we had already reached the mountain. The following will give an idea of the concentrated fire we had poured into the army post: in addition to the 14 dead soldiers there were 3 dead parakeets - the guards had five of these as pets - and it must have taken a veritable deluge of bullets to hit such small animals.
My return to the medical profession had its sad moments. My first patient was Cilleros. A bullet had broken his right arm, had gone through his lungs and imbedded itself in his spine, paralyzing his' legs. His condition was very serious, and all I could do was give him some drugs and bandage his chest tightly so that he could breathe a little more comfortably. We tried to save his life by doing the only thing we could do at the time: take the fourteen prisoners with us and leave our two wounded men, Leal and Cilleros, with the enemy, under the guarantee of the doctor's word of honor. When I told Cilleros about our decision, adding a few words of comfort, he looked at me with a sad smile on his lips 'that was more eloquent than any word. He knew this was the end. We knew it too, and I was tempted to kiss him on the forehead but I realized that it would mean signing his death sentence. It was my duty riot to make his last moments any worse by doing something that would only confirm what he already suspected. I said a fond goodbye to my two comrades. They insisted on staying with us even if it meant death for them, but it was our duty to fight for their lives to the last minute. We left them there, fraternizing with the wounded soldiers, who had also been taken care of to the best of our ability.
Our comrades were treated very decently by the enemy soldiers but one of them, Cilleros, never reached Santiago. The other one survived, and was sent to the Isle of Pines prison. He still bears the marks of that important episode of our revolutionary war.
We loaded one of the Babuns' trucks with every sort of item, principally medicines, and went on to our hideout in the mountain where we arrived in time to attend the wounded and pay our last respects to the dead. We expected that the army would be in hot pursuit and we decided that every man who was able to walk was to go as far as possible from the place. The wounded were 'to remain with me and Enrique Lopez was to find transportation, a hide- out, a few helpers to carry, the wounded, and contact-men to bring medicines.
Throughout the night me kept discussing the battle. No one slept, and they all had something to say about what they 'had seen or done. Out of curiosity, I kept a record of the enemy dead and wounded - according to the story- tellers - and they seemed to surpass the actual number of enemy soldiers. Each man's story reached the realm of fantasy. This and other similar experiences taught us that all data should be checked and re-checked by several per- sons. In our exaggeration, we went so far as to demand physical proof, such as items taken from enemy soldiers, before we accepted it as an enemy loss. Our main concern was to broadcast the truth. This was the central theme of any information given by the Rebel Army and we made every effort to make our comrades realize how important it was to have respect for truth, and to realize that truth was to be placed above transitory victory.
At dawn, we bid farewell to the victorious troop. I remained with Joel Iglesias and Onate, a guide named Sinecio Torres, and Vilo Acuna - now a Major in the Rebel Army - who remained to take care of his uncle.
Nursing the Wounded
THE DAY FOLLOWING The Uvero battle we could see enemy planes circling by. They had been at it since dawn. Once we said good-bye to the comrades we began to erase every sign of our entrance into the woods. We were only 100 yards away from a road and were waiting for Enrique Lopez to begin the transfer of our wounded men.
Almeida, Pena, Escalona and Manais were unable to walk. Manuel Acuna, Hermes Leyva and Maceo could move about with difficulty. Vilo Acuna, Sinecio Torres, the guide, Joel Iglesias, Alejandro Onate and I were to protect them, transport them and nurse them. Hours later, a man came to tell us that Enrique Lopez could not help us; his daughter was ill and he had to leave for Santiago. He was to send us some volunteers but they never showed up.
It was a serious situation; Escalona's wound was infected and we could not tell how badly Manals was hurt. We scouted the nearby roads and found no soldiers, so we decided to take them to an abandoned hut located three or four kilometers away where there were plenty of chickens.
Two of the sawmill's workers helped us to carry the wounded, who had been placed on hammocks. The following day, after a good chicken dinner, we left the spot. We had remained practically in the same place, too near to the roads that could be used by enemy soldiers. We started our journey - a short one, but a very difficult one - to- ward a ravine called Del Indio; we crossed it and then climbed to a hut owned by a peasant named Israel, who lived with his wife and a brother in law. It was a rough trip but we finally made it. Those wonderful people even offered us the couple's bed so that our wounded men could get some sleep.
We had left some weapons at our former camp, most of them in bad condition. There were other implements, too: things that we had to abandon as the weight of the wounded men made our traveling increasingly difficult. It seemed that we always left something behind us in some hut or camp, and we wanted to get back this time and erase all signs that might lead to us. Our lives depended on it. At the same time, Sinecio, the guide, went to get some friends of his who lived in the zone of Peladero.
Acuna and Joel said that they had heard strange voices on the other side of the mountain. We thought the time had come to put up a fight, since our duty was to defend our precious load of wounded comrades: we kept going ahead wanting the encounter to take place as far as possible from the hut. We found prints of bare feet on the same trail we had used before. Then we heard the voices of men apparently engaged in careless conversation. I had my machinegun ready, and flanked by Vilo and Joel, I came upon the group of men. They were the prisoners that Fidel had set free at El Uvero and they were looking for a way out of the woods. Most of them were barefoot, and an old corporal, practically exhausted, expressed his admiration for us and for our experience in moving about the woods. They had no guide; all they had was a pass, signed by Fidel. Taking advantage of the great impression we had made upon them, we warned them not to enter the woods again.
We spent the night in the hut. At dawn we returned to the woods and sent the peasant to go catch some chickens for the wounded men. We spent the entire day waiting for him and his wife but they never returned. Some time later, we heard that they had been arrested and the soldiers had forced them to guide them to our former camp. Fortunately, we had moved out one day before.
We kept a strict vigilance and would never have been taken by surprise but we could not predict the outcome of a battle under such unfavorable conditions. Sinecio returned that night with three volunteers: an old man named Feliciano and two others who later became members of the Rebel Army. They were Banderas, who was killed in the battle of Jigue, bearing the rank of lieutenant, and Israel Pardo, the oldest member of a large family of fighters; he is now a captain. These men helped us transfer the wounded to another hut while Sinecio awaited the peasants who were to bring our food. Of course, we did not know that they had been arrested. We suspected a trap, and made up our minds to leave our new hideout. We ate a frugal meal consisting of some vegetables dug from around the hut. The following day, six months after the Granma landing, we were on our way. Each stage of our march was short, and incredibly tiring for anyone accustomed to mountain traveling. We could only carry one hammock which had to be tied to a strong branch that could be carried on the shoulders of two or four men. The branch would literally tear the bearer's shoulders to pieces, so every ten minutes or so we had to change bearers. Six or eight men are needed to carry a wounded person in this manner, Almeida half-walked, half-dragged himself along from tree to tree until Israel made a short cut through the woods and we met the bearers.
We arrived at the Pardo's at dusk, following a tremendous rainstorm. It had taken us twelve hours to cover a distance of four kilometers.
Sinecio was our salvation. He knew every road and every person in the zone. It was he who managed to get Manals out and send him to Santiago, and we were getting ready to send Escalona too, as his wounds were still badly infected. We heard all sorts of contradictory news: Celia Sanchez had been arrested; Celia Sanchez had been killed, etc. It was said that an army patrol had captured Hermes Caldero. We did not know what to believe, and some of the reports were really frightening, since Celia, for example, was our only safe, confidential contact. Her arrest would mean isolation for all of us. Fortunately, the news about Celia turned out to be false. Hermes, however, was arrested and managed to survive a long jail sentence. A man named David, a foreman for one of the land- owners, was very helpful. He had slaughtered a cow for us, near the coast and we had to go and bring in the pieces. This had to be done at night and I sent a group of men led by Israel Pardo, and a second group led by Banderas. Banderas was quite undisciplined and he made the men carry the entire load. It took them all night to bring the meat. A small troop was being organized, which I was to lead since Almeida was hurt. Aware of my responsibility, I told Banderas he was no longer a combatant; that unless he improved his behaviour, he was to remain as a sympathizer. He did improve, although he was no model of discipline, but he was an alert man, of great ingenuity, and he had come face to face with reality through the medium of the Revolution. He had been working a small parcel of land wrested from the woods, and lived in a small hut with two small pigs and a dog. One day he showed me his sons' photograph; they lived with his ex-wife in Santiago. Banderas said he hoped that once the Revolution had succeeded, he could go somewhere to work a piece of good land, not this inhospitable scrap of land practically hanging from the Sierra. The man had a passion for agriculture.
I told him about the cooperative, but he was unable to understand. He wanted to work the land by himself and for himself. Gradually, he began to understand the ad- vantage of collective work, the use of farm machinery, etc. Banderas would have been a vanguard fighter in agricultural production. At the Sierra, he improved his reading and writing and he was really preparing for the future. He was a wide-awake peasant who knew the value of self- sacrifice when it comes to writing a new page in history.
I held a long interview with David, the foreman. Re was on his way to Santiago and he wanted a list of the things we were in need of, so that he could get them for us. He was the typical foreman, faithful to his boss, with a great scorn for peasants, and a racist to boot. However, when the army arrested him and tortured him, his main concern when he saw us again, was to explain that he had refused to talk. I do not know if David is still in Cuba; perhaps he followed his bosses, whose possessions have already been confiscated by the Revolution. I must say he was a man who, at that moment, felt the need of a change; he felt that a change was forthcoming, although he never imagined the change might reach him and his world. The structure of the Revolution is based upon many sincere efforts made by humble men; our mission is to bring out the best in everyone and turn everyone into a revolutionary. The Revolution is made up of Davids who did not understand too well, of Banderas who did not live to see the dawn, of blind sacrifices, of unrewarded sacrifices.
We who are able to witness the Revolution's accomplishments must remember those who fell by the roadside, and do our utmost to decrease the number of laggards.
WE SPENT THE ENTIRE MONTH of June 1957 nursing the wounded of the Uvero battle and organizing the small group that was to join Fidel's column.
David was our contact man with the outside. His timely advice, in addition to the food he always managed to find, made our situation quite bearable. We did not know Pancho Tamayo then. Old Pancho, a peasant, was another contact man and his cooperation will always be remembered. Pancho was killed by the Beatons, following the triumph of the Revolution.
Sinecio began to show a lack of revolutionary morals. He used the Movement's funds to get drunk, he would not obey orders, and once, following one of his escapades, he brought back eleven unarmed men. We tried to avoid any enlistment of unarmed men, but the peasant; kept bringing more and more young men who were anxious to join us. Our column was visited by more than 40 people, but on the other hand, desertions continued, with or without our permission, so our effective troop never amounted to more than thirty men.
My asthma became worse and I was reduced to an immobility similar to that of. the wounded men. I used to relieve my condition by smoking the dry leaf of the "clarin" - that is the Sierra's remedy - until we received the medicines and I was able to recuperate, but our departure was still postponed. W organized a group to recover all the weapons rendered useless following the Uvero attack; we could still repair them and use them once again.
In our position, all those old rifles, more or less serviceable, including a 30-caliber machinegun, became a potential treasure, and we spent a whole night looking for them. Finally our departure was set for June 24. This was our army: 5 men, still recovering from their wounds, 5 assistants, 10 new men from Bayamo, 2 that had recently joined us just because they "felt like it," and 4 other from that zone, total:26. We started out with Vilo Acuna in the advance guard, followed by the Commanding Staff which I led because Almeida could hardly walk, and two other squads led by Maceo and Pena. Pena was a lieutenant. Maceo and Vilo were soldiers and the highest rank was held by Almeida, who was a captain. We did not leave on the 24 because of several incidents: a guide was coming with another man, or perhaps it was a new shipment of medicine and food. Old Tamayo went back and forth bringing news, canned food, and clothing. We had to find a cave to store some food. Our contacts in Santiago had materialized and David had brought back such a load that nobody could carry it; at least not our troop made up of convalescents and raw recruits.
On June 26 I made my debut as dentist, although at the Sierra I was known by the modest title of "tooth-puller." My first victim was Israel Pardo, now a Captain in the army, who did not fare too badly. The second one was Joel Iglesias and I thought that if I ever wanted to extract his ailing canine tooth I would have to use a stick of dynamite. I must confess that I failed, and Joel finished the war with his tooth "ill in his mouth. My lack of experience and the lack of anesthetic forced me to resort to "psychological" anesthesia, which in plain language means insulting the patients whenever they complained about the pain.
Whenever we announced our departure someone would leave, only to be replaced by newcomers. Tamayo brought 4 men, among them Felix Mendoza, who carried a rifle. He told us that the army had caught them off guard and his comrade had escaped while he, in turn, had jumped off a cliff. Later, we found out that the "army" was a patrol led by Lalo Sardinas. They had found our man's friend and he was now a member of Fidel's troop. Evelio Saborit, now a Major in the Rebel Army, also joined us.
With the addition of Felix Mendoza and his group, we increased our number to 36 but the next day three men left us, to be replaced by others and we went back to 35. However, as soon as we started out, the number of men decreased. We were now on the foothills of Peladero, climbing a very short distance at each stage.
The news over the radio described a picture of violence all over the island. On July 1 we heard about the death of Josue Pais, Frank Pais' brother, and others, in Santiago. The city was the scene of continuous struggle. Despite our short journeys some of the new recruits began to feel depressed and asked to be sent to the city "where they could be more useful." On' the way down we passed Benito Mora, at the hill known as The Bottle. He played the gracious host in his little hut perched at the edge of the Sierra. Shortly before our arrival at Benito's, I had spoken to the men telling them that we were about to face difficult, dangerous days, that the enemy was near-by and that we might have to go on for several days, always on the move, with very little food. Some of them were decent enough to express their fear and leave immediately, but a man named Chicho spoke on behalf of his group, saying that they were ready to "go on to their death" if necessary. Soon after our visit to Benito we camped near a stream and received a great surprise when the same group approached us and told us that they would like to leave the guerrillas. We agreed to their demands and jokingly nicknamed the stream "Death's Stream. After all, this was where Chicho and his confreres had ended their activities as guerrillas.
Now we were only 28, but the following day two new men, ex-army men, came to the Sierra to the fight for freedom. They were Gilberto Capote and Nicolas. They were guided by Aristides Guerra, another contact man who became of inestimable value to our column. We used to call him "The Food King." The "King" helped us at all times, carrying on missions much more dangerous than just fighting. Several times he drove caravans of mules from Bayamo to our zone of operations.
As we continued our short journeys we tried to have our men familiarize themselves with the use of firearms. We appointed the two army men as instructors in dismantling and putting together the weapons, dry-run firing, etc. Unfortunately, no sooner had the lessons begun when an instructor's gun went off, accidentally. The man was demoted, and we began to look upon him with a certain degree of suspicion, although his look of genuine consternation made it very difficult for us not to believe he was truly sorry about the whole thing. Neither he or the other man could stand the constant moving, and they left with Aristides. Alberto Capote did return some time later. He died a hero's death at Pino del Agua, bearing the rank of lieutenant.
We left the house of Polo Torres at La Mesa, which later became one of our centers of operations, and went on, guided by a peasant named Tuto Almeida. We had to reach La Nevada and join Fidel, crossing the North lope of the Turquino. On our way we saw two persons who ran away when they saw us and we had to chase them for quite a distance before we caught them. They were two Negro girls, Adventists, and absolutely against any sort of violence. However, they gave us their full support at that moment and continued doing so for the duration of the war.
We ate a hearty meal and rested. Then, as we neared Malverde which we had to cross in order to get to La Nevada we were told that there were soldiers all over the zone. Following a short meeting between our so-called Staff and the guides, we turned back and headed for the Turquino; a much rougher road, but less dangerous under the circumstances.
Our little transistor radio kept us well informed, although the news was quite alarming: heavy fighting in the Estrada Palma zone, Raul badly wounded, etc. Now I cannot remember whether the news came through our radio or by the Sierra grapevine. We did not dare believe information that had been proven false on other occasions but we did our best to rush toward Fidel's location. Marching through the Sierra at night, we came to the house of a peasant known as El Vizcaino - the Basque - who lived in the foothills of Turquino. He lived alone in his little hut and his only friends were some books on Marxism which he kept carefully hidden away under a rock, far from the hut. He was proud of his Marxist militancy, which no one in that zone suspected. He showed us the way and we continued our slow march. Sinecio was now getting further away from his base of operations and for a peasant like him, who was now practically an outlaw, the situation was alarming. One day, carrying a rifle, he joined another man named Cuervo, who was doing sentry duty with a Remington rifle. A half hour later I went to see what was going on; I did not trust Sinecio any longer and the rifles were a treasure to be well guarded. When I got to the sentry post they were both gone. Banderas and Israel Pardo went after them despite the fact that they were carrying revolvers and the two-escapees had rifles. The men had disappeared.
It is hard to maintain a high morale among a troop with practically no armament, without direct contact with the Head of the Revolution, stumbling through the darkness, lacking experience, surrounded by enemies, who appeared as giants if one was to listen to the peasants' tales. Men from the plains, not used to the rough going over mountains, added to the crisis. There was an attempt at escape, led by a man called The Mexican who once readied the rank of captain but is now living in Miami; another traitor to the Revolution.
I heard about the escape through Hermes Leyva, Joel's cousin, and called for a confrontation in order to solve the problem. The Mexican swore by all his ancestors that he had no intention of leaving us; that all h wanted was to have his own guerrilla group to kill informers, because there was no action in our group. Actually, his plan was to kill informers and rob them. A typical bandit's behaviour. Later, at the battle of El Hombrito, we lost only one man: Hermes Leyva. All suspicion fell upon the Mexican, but we. could never prove that he had murdered Leyva.
The Mexican remained, swearing on his honor as a revolutionary, etc., that he would never try to escape or encourage anyone to do so. Following a few short, tiring marches we reached the zone of Palms Mocha, in the western slope of Turquino, where we received a great welcome from the peasants and established direct contact due to my new profession as "tooth puller," which I practiced with great enthusiasm.
Once again we had a good meal and rested up for a fast move toward our old friendly zones of Palma Mocha and El Infierno, where we arrived June 15. Emilio Cabrera, a peasant living in the area, reported that Lalo Sardinas had set up an ambush nearby, involving great peril to his house in the event a fight began.
On June 16 our column met a platoon belonging to Fidel's column, led by Lalo Sardinas. Sardinas told us he had been forced to join the Revolution, he was a store owner who used to bring us food when we were in the plains. One day he was taken by surprise and he had to kill a man. Then he took the way to the Sierra. Now he had instructions to lie in wait for Sanchez Mosquera's columns. Once again Sanchez Mosquera, an obstinate man, had come to Palma Mocha and had found himself practically surrounded by Fidel's column. He evaded the trap and went full speed to the other side of Turquino.
We had heard about the presence of troops nearby and had seen the trenches. What we did not know was that what we considered a sign of a sustained offensive against us was really a sign of an enemy retreat, signifying a complete qualitative change in the character of the operations in the Sierra. We were now strong enough to encircle the enemy and force it to flee under the threat of complete annihilation.
The enemy learned its lesson well. The soldiers made only sporadic raids on the Sierra, but one of the most tenacious, aggressive and bloody officers of the enemy army was Sanchez Mosquera. In 1957 he was only a lieutenant; following the last battles of the general offensive on the part of the army, which ended in defeat, he was promoted to Colonel. He had a meteoric career as regards promotions. He was also extremely successful in robbing the peasants of everything they owned every time he set foot on the labyrinths of the Sierra Maestra.
Treason in the Making
IT WAS A PLEASURE to look at our troop. Close to 200 men, well disciplined, with increased morale, and armed with good weapons, some of them new. The qualitative change I mentioned before was now quite evident in the Sierra. There was a true free territory, safety measures not so necessary, and there was a little freedom to carry on conversations at night while resting in our hammocks. We were allowed to visit the nearby villages and establish closer ties with the peasants. We were moved by the hearty welcome given by our comrades.
Felipe Pazos and Raul Chibas were the "prima donnas" of the moment, although they were complete opposites. Raul Chibas lived under the shadow of his brother's reputation - for Eddie Chibas was the symbol of an era - but he had none of his brother's virtues. He was neither expressive nor intelligent. Only his absolute mediocrity allowed him to be the principal figure of the Orthodox Party. He spoke very little and he wanted to leave the Sierra at once.
Felipe Pazos had a certain personality. He was rated as a great economist and had a reputation for being an honest person. His reputation for honesty was due to t e fact that he did not steal from the public funds during his period as President of the National Bank, under Prio Socarras' regime; a regime marked by extreme larceny a great achievement: to remain pure throughout a regime of debauchery and thievery. He deserved credit, yes, but only as an official who followed his administrative career, turning a deaf ear to the country's great problems. However, can anyone imagine a revolutionary who will not e k up against the inconceivable excess and abuse rampant at the time? Felipe Pazos managed to keep his mouth shut, and left the post of President of the National Bank - following Batista's coup - surrounded by an aura of virtue: honesty, intelligence, and a great experience as an economist. Petulantly, he expected to come to the Sierra and take over. This pint-sized Machiavelli thought he was destined to control the country's future.
It is very possible that he was already planning on betraying the Revolution; perhaps this came later. Yet, his position was never clearly defined.
Protected by the joint declaration which we will analyze later on, he appointed himself delegate of the July 26th Movement in Miami and he was on the verge of being appointed Interim President of the Republic. Through this maneuver, Prio made sure that he had a faithful man within the provisional government.
We did not have much time to talk, but Fidel told me about his efforts to turn out a really militant document that would set the basis for a declaration of principles. This was a difficult task when faced by these two "stone age" brains inmune to the call of the people's struggle.
Fundamentally, the manifesto reiterated "the establishment of a great civic Revolutionary front comprising all opposition parties, all civic institutions and all revolutionary forces."
Several proposals were submitted: "the establishment of a civic revolutionary front in a common front of struggle"; the appointment of "a figure designated to preside over the provisional government"; the document stated that the front did neither request nor accept intervention by any other country in the internal affairs of Cuba; it "did not accept any military junta as a provisional government of the Republic"; the determination to separate the army from politics and insure the safety of the armed forces against political intrigue and influence; elections to be held within one year's time.
The program to be observed by the provisional government included the freedom of all political prisoners, civilian and military; absolute guarantee of freedom of the press and radio, and all rights, individual or political, to be guaranteed by the Constitution; appointment of interim mayors in all municipalities, following consultation with the district's civic institutions; suppression of embezzlement in all forms, and establishment of measures aimed at increasing efficiency of all State organizations; establishment of the administrative career; democratization of trade union politics, promoting free elections in all trade unions and industrial workers' federations; beginning of an intense anti-illiteracy campaign, and public education on civic affairs, pointing put the citizens' rights and duties to society and the country: "to establish the bases for an Agrarian Reform aimed at distribution of untilled lands, giving ownership to all sharecroppers, tenants and squatters having small lots of land, either private or State-owned, provided the farmer owners are compensated;" establishment of a foreign policy safeguarding our currency's stability and aimed at investing the country s credit in productive works; to expedite the process of industrialization and create additional employment opportunities.
In addition, there were two points of special emphasis: "First: The need to appoint, from this moment, the person who will preside over the Provisional Government of the Republic, to prove to the entire world that Cubans can become united under a slogan of freedom; to support the person who, for his impartiality, capabilities, and honesty, can personify such a slogan. "There are many able men in Cuba who can Preside over the Republic." Felipe Pazos, one of the co-signers, felt quite confident that there was only one man for the presidency: himself.
"Second: that this person be appointed by an ensemble of civic non-political institutions, whose support would safeguard the president from any political commitments, thus insuring clean, impartial elections. The document also stated "it is not necessary to come to the Sierra for any discussions. We can have representatives in Havana, Mexico or wherever it becomes necessary."
Fidel had pressed for more explicit statements regarding the Agrarian Reform, but it was very difficult to crash through the wall of the two "stone age" characters; "to establish the bases for an Agrarian Reform aimed at the distribution of untilled lands," was the kind of policy that the newspaper "Diario de la Marina" might agree with. To make it worse, there was the part reading: "provided the farmer owners are compensated."
The Revolution did not comply with some of the commitments, as originally stated. We must emphasize that the enemy broke the pact expressed in the manifesto when they refused to acknowledge the authority of the Sierra and made an attempt to shackle the future revolutionary government.
We were not satisfied with the commitment, hut it was necessary; at the time, it was progressive. It could never last beyond any moment that would represent an obstacle for the development of the revolutionary movement. In this matter, the enemy helped us to break the uncomfortable bonds and gave us the opportunity to show the people what their real intentions were.
We were aware that this was a minimal program, limiting our own efforts, but we had to recognize that it was impossible to impose our will from the Sierra Maestra; for a long period of time, we would have to depend upon a whole series of "friends" who were trying to use our military strength and the people's great trust in Fidel for the Machiavellian maneuvers, and above all, to maintain imperialist domination of Cuba, through the importing bourgeoisie, closely linked with the U.S. owners.
The manifesto had its positive sides: it mentioned the Sierra Maestra and it clearly stated: "Let no one be deceived by Government propaganda about the situation in the Sierra Maestra. The Sierra Maestra is an indestructible bulwark of freedom. It is part of the hearts of our people and it is here that we will know how to do justice to the faith and the confidence of our people." The words "we will know how" meant that Fidel and only Fidel knew how. The other two were incapable of following the development of the struggle in the Sierra; not even as spectators. They left the Sierra immediately. Chibas was arrested and beaten by the police. Both men managed to get to the United States.
It was a well planned coup: a group of representatives of the most distinguished Cuban oligarchy arrived at the Sierra "in defense of freedom," signed a joint declaration with the guerrilla chief isolated in the wilds of the Sierra, and returned with full freedom to play their trump card in Miami. But they overlooked one most important point. Political coups always depend on the opponents' strength, . in this case, the weapons in the hands of the people. Quick action by our Chief, who had full confidence in the Guerrilla Army, averted the development of the treacherous move. Months later, when the outcome of the Miami pact became known, Fidel's fiery reply paralyzed the enemy. We were accused of being "divisionists" trying to impose our will from the remote regions of the Sierra, but the enemy had to change its strategy and look for a new trap: the Caracas pact.
Our manifesto, dated July 12, 1957, was published in the newspapers. To us, the declaration was simply a short rest period on our march forward. Our main task - to defeat the enemy army in the battle field - must go on. A new column was being organized, with me as captain, and there were other promotions. Ramiro Valdes was promoted to captain and his platoon joined my column. Ciro Redondo, too, was promoted to captain, and was to lead a platoon. The column included three platoons; the first platoon, the advance guard, was led by Lalo Sardinas, who was also the detachment's Second-in-Command. Ramiro Valdes and Ciro led the other two. The column was made up by close to 75 men, heterogeneously dressed and heterogeneously armed; however, I was very proud of them. A few nights later, I was to feel prouder, closer to the Revolution, anxious to prove that my officers' insignia were well deserved.
We wrote a letter of greetings and appreciation to "Carlos" - Frank Pais' underground name - which was signed by all the officers of the Guerrilla Army who were able to write. Many of the Sierra peasants did not know how to read or write but they were an important part of our column. The signatures appeared on one column and next to it there was another column showing the signer's rank. When my turn came, Fidel simply said: "make it Major." Thus, in a most informal manner, I was promoted to Major of the Second Column of the Guerrilla Army, later known as Column # 4.
The letter, written while resting in a peasant's house, was the guerrilla fighters' warm message to their brother in the city, thanking him for his endless struggle to obtain supplies for us and lessen the enemy's pressure upon us.
There is a tinge of vanity hiding somewhere within every one of us, and I was no exception. I was the proudest man in the world when I was promoted to Major. My insignia, a small star, was given to me by Celia. The award was accompanied by a gift: a wristwatch purchased in Santiago. My first mission was to set a trap for Sanchez Mosquera, but he was the smartest of all the Batista henchmen and had left the zone.
Something had to be done to justify the semi-independent life we were to lead in what was to be our new zone, so we began to plan a series of great deeds.
It was imperative that we celebrate the glorious date of July 26 and Fidel gave me free rein to do whatever I could, provided I took the necessary precautions. We had a new doctor with us: Sergio del Valle, now a Major in our Revolutionary Army. He, too, practised his profession within the limitations of the Sierra.
We had to prove that we were alive because we had received a few setbacks on the plains. Weapons that were to be used to open another front at Miranda sugar mill had been seized by the police, and several valuable leaders, among them Faustino Perez, had been arrested. Fidel had opposed the division of forces but had given in to the insistence of the plains. The results were clear evidence of the correctness of his thinking and from then on we devoted ourselves to strengthening the Sierra Maestra as the first step toward the extension of the Guerrilla Army.
Attack on Bueycito
SEVERAL PROBLEMS AROSE due to our independent life. Now it was necessary to establish a rigid discipline, organize the command and set up some sort of Staff in order to insure the success of future combats. It was not an easy task due to the lack of discipline among the new men.
No sooner was the detachment organized when a dear comrade, lieutenant Maceo, left on a mission to Santiago. We never saw him again. He was killed in the city.
William Rodriguez, Raul and Casero Mercader were promoted to lieutenant, in an effort to consolidate a small guerrilla force. One morning, we heard the unpleasant news that a man called Wong "the Chinaman", had deserted, carrying with him his 22 caliber rifle, a most valuable weapon under the circumstances. It was presumed he had returned to his neighborhood in the foothills of the
Sierra. Two men were sent to chase him but we lost all hope when Israel Pardo and Banderas returned following a fruitless search for other deserters. Taking into account Israel's strong physical condition and experience with the surrounding area, he was ordered to join my group, for special missions.
We began to work out a very ambitious plan: to attack Estrada Palma first, at night, then continue on to the nearby towns of Yara and Veguitas, seize the small army posts, and return to the mountains. This would mean taking three enemy positions in one single attack, depending on the factor of surprise. We did some target practice, using ammunition sparingly, and found every weapon in good shape, with the exception of the Madzen machinegun rifle that was old and dirty. We wrote to Fidel asking whether or not he approved our plan. We received no answer from Fidel but on July 27 we heard the news on the radio: Raul Castro, leading 200 men, had attacked Estrada Palma.
The magazine "Bohemia," in the only non-censored issue of that time, published a special article showing the damage our troops had inflicted on Estrada Palma, where the army headquarters had been destroyed. The article mentioned Fidel Castro, Celia Sanchez, and a myriad of revolutionaries who had come from the mountains. It was a mixture of truth and myth, as usual, and the reporters could never figure out what had happened. The attack had been carried out by a small group of men led by captain Guillermo Garcia. Actually, there was no battle because Barreras had expected the 26 of July to be the date for strong attacks and had withdrawn his forces, not trusting his position. What came to Estrada Palma was something like an expedition. The next day, the army began the pursuit of our guerrillas and one of our men was caught asleep near San Lorenzo.
When we heard the news we made up our minds to move on and attack some other post on a date as close as possible to July 26 in order to maintain a state of affairs favorable to the insurrection.
On our way to La Maestra, near a place called La Jeringa we were met by one of the men who had gone in search of the deserter. He said his comrade had told him that he was a close friend of Wong's and could not betray him. Then he invited him to desert, saying that he was not returning to the guerrillas. Our comrade had warned him to stop, and when the man kept going away, he shot him. I gathered my troop on a hill nearby and told them that they were going to witness the outcome of an attempt at desertion. I explained why the crime of desertion was punishable by death, the only sentence that could be applied to anyone betraying the Revolution. We marched by the body of the dead man, single file. Many of our new comrades where shaken by the sight of death, by the sight of a man who had attempted to leave his post. Per haps many of them were moved more by a certain affection toward the man, together with a political weakness - understandable at that time - than by a feeling of disloyalty to the Revolution. These were hard times, and the shooting of the man was considered as exemplary. It would be meaningless to mention the names of the protagonists in this drama. Let us simply say that the deserter was a young man, a humble peasant of that very same zone.
We were now traveling through familiar zones. On July 30, Lalo Sardinas contacted an old friend, one of the zone's merchants named Armando Oliver. We set a rendezvous in a house on California zone and there we met the merchant and Jorge Abich. We told Abich of our intention to attack Minas and Bueycito. We were risking a great deal by confiding in these people but Lalo had full confidence in them.
Armando reported that Casillas visited these zones on Sundays. Following the inveterate habits of all army officers, he had a girl friend there. However, we were more inclined to carry on a quick attack, based on surprise, instead of trusting to luck and try to capture this notorious officer. The night of July 31 was set for the attack. Armando Oliver was to get trucks, guides, and a sapper whose job was to blow up three bridges between the Bueycito road and that of Manzanillo-Bayamo. The following day at 2 p.m. we started our march toward the Maestra. It took us two hours and once there we hid our knapsacks and went on. It was a long walk and on the way we passed a few houses. There was a party going on in one of the houses and we stopped and gave the people a lecture, and holding them responsible for any leaks about our whereabouts. Then we continued on at full speed. Of course, in this case there was no great danger involved; there was no telephone or any other means of communication in the Sierra. An informer would have to run fast to get ahead of us.
A comrade named Santiesteban had a truck ready for us, together with two others that Oliver had sent, Sardinas climbed aboard the first truck, Ramiro and I got on the second one, Ciro and his group boarded the third, an we began the three-hour trip to the town of Las Minas. Practically all the army vigilance was focused upon as Minas, so it was our job to keep anyone from going to Bueycito. We left a rear guard, headed by Vilo Acuna, and went on to the outskirts of Bueycito.
At the entrance to town we stopped a coal truck and sent it ahead with one of our men to check up on the sentries. We knew that sometimes the army would set up a post and search everybody going in or out. This time there was no sentry. Every soldier was peacefully asleep.
Our plan was simple, although a little pretentious: Lalo Sardinas was to attack the west side of the post, Ramiro would encircle it, and Ciro was to attack the front, using the Staff's machinegun. Oliver was to arrive in an automobile and turn his headlights on the guards, then Ramiro was to break in and capture everybody. Guards sleeping at home would bc taken by surprise. Lieutenant Noda's squad kept their eyes open for any road traffic prior to the attack, and William was sent to blow up the bridge connecting Bueycito with the Central highway.
The plan never materialized. It was too much for a group of' men unfamiliar with their surroundings and lacking experience. Ramiro lost some of his men in the dark, arrived late, and the automobile never came. There was a tense moment when we were placing our men and the dogs began to bark furiously.
I was walking along the town's main street when a man came out of a house. I gave him the order to halt and the man taking me for a comrade, replied: "Rural Guard." When I pointed my gun at him, he jumped into the house and I could hear furniture and glass flying around inside. He escaped through the back of the house. I suppose it was something of a silent agreement between us: I did not want to raise an alarm by firing, and in turn, he did not warn his friends.
We were still looking for favorable positions when the sentry came out, puzzled by the dogs' barking and perhaps by the noise made by my unexpected meeting with the soldier. I came face to face with the sentry. I was ready with my Thompson and he was carrying a Garand rifle. Israel Pardo was standing next to me. I gave the. man the order to stop and he made a slight move. For me, that was more than enough: I pressed the trigger and nothing happened. Israel tried to fire his 22 caliber rifle and it jammed. I cannot imagine how Israel escaped unhurt. All I remember is running like a madman under the rain of bullets from the soldier's Garand. I turned a corner and stopped to get my gun back into firing condition. The soldier had inadvertenly given the signal to start the attack, since his shots were the first heard that night. When the fire became generalized, the soldier hid behind a column and that is where we found him when the attack ended. It had taken only a few minutes.
While Israel went on to make contact, the shooting ended and we received the surrender. Ramiro's men had attacked the building as soon as they heard the first shots. They had riddled a door leading to the back of the building.
We found twelve soldiers, six of whom were wounded. We had lost one man, Pedro Rivero, a newcomer to our ranks, who was shot in the chest. Three others were slightly wounded. Once we had removed everything that was useful to us, we set the building on fire and boarded the trucks. We had captured the sargeant and an informer named Oran.
It was already daylight and everybody in town was offering us beer and cold drinks. The bridge to the high way had been blown up and we blew up another small bridge over a stream. The sapper came back with Oliver and he remained with us as a full-fledged member. He was a priceless acquisition. His name: Cristino Naranjo, who became a Major and was murdered by counter-revolutionaries following the triumph of the Revolution.
Our group came to Las Minas where we stopped and held a little meeting. Playing his role to the hilt, one of the Abich, a storekeeper, asked us in the name of the people, to release the sergeant and the informer. We replied that we kept them as prisoners to safeguard the lives of the inhabitants, but as long as the people insisted, we would agree. Thus, we settled two things: the prisoners were released and the townspeople were safe. On the way to the Sierra we buried our comrade in the town's cemetery. Very few recognizance planes were flying over us at the time, so we stopped at a grocery store to take care of the wounded. One man had been shot in the shoulder, a surface wound, but it had torn the flesh away, making the treatment a little difficult; the other one was hit in the hand by a small caliber bullet. The third man had a tremendous bump on his head. It seems that the army mules became frightened during the battle and began to kick right and left. One of the kicks landed on the wall and a piece of plaster had landed on our comrade's head.
At Altos de California, we left the trucks and distributed the arms. Although my participation in the battle had been insignificant and none-too-heroic, since I had presented my posterior to the few shots fired in my direction, I took a Browning machinegun rifle, the best one in the post. I threw away the Thompson and its unpredictable ammunition. The best fighters were given the best arms, and those who had performed worst were given leave of absense, these included the "wets" a group of men who had fallen into the river when they had tried to escape at the beginning of the battle. Among the best fighters we can mention captain Ramiro Valdes, who led the attack, and Raul Castro Mercader, who played a decisive role in the short battle.
Back in the hills, we heard about the state of siege and the censorship. We also heard the terrible news of Frank Pais' death. Frank had been murdered in the streets of Santiago, and this represented an enormous loss to the Revolution. It was the end of one of the purest, most brilliant figures of the Cuban Revolution. The people of Santiago and Havana, in fact the entire population of Cuba, went into the spontaneous August strike, the government's partial censorship became complete, and we entered a new stage; one of absolute silence on the part of the pseudo-oppositionists on one hand, and of savage murders committed by Batista's henchmen all over the island, on the other. This time, the people of Cuba were ready for war.
When Frank Pais was murdered, we lost one of our most valuable fighters, but the people's reaction to the crime showed that additional forces were joining the struggle and the people's fighting spirit had increased.
Battle of El Hombrito
THE COLUMN had been organized less than a month before, and already we had begun our sedentary life in the Sierra. We had camped in a valley called El Hombrito - The Little Man - because two superimposed rocks, on the summit of the Sierra, resembled the figure of a small person.
Ours was a troop of new recruits, and the men had to be 'trained before they undertook difficult tasks, and yet, we had to be ready for battle at any moment. It was our duty to attack any enemy units that dared invade what was already "free territory of Cuba" that is, a certain section of the Sierra Maestra.
On the eve of August 29, a peasant reported a large number of soldiers headed for the Sierra through El Hombrito road leading to the valley. We were very skeptical about false reports, so I told the man that he would be subjected to all sorts of punishment if he happened to be lying, but he kept swearing that is was all true; that the soldiers were now at the farm of Julio Zapatero, 2 kilometers from the Sierra.
That night, we got into position. Lalo Sardinas' platoon was hidden among some ferns, and their duty was to hit the enemy as soon as they were stopped. Ramiro Valdes and his men with less firepower, were to begin an "accoustic" attack to start the alarm. Although not power fully armed, they were in a less dangerous position as the enemy had to cross a Jeep ravine to get close to them.
The trail the enemy had to enter was on the edge of the hill where Lalo was ambushed, Ciro was to carry on an oblique attack and I, with the best-armed men, was to open the hostilities. The best squad was Mercader's, so they were positioned as shock-troops to reap the fruits of victory. Our plan was a simple one: When the enemy reached a curve on the trail, making an almost 90º turn around a rock, I was to let 10 or 12 men go by, then fire upon the sharpshooters would take care of the men, Raul Mercader's squad would take the dead soldiers' weapons, and we would all withdraw, covered by the rear guard under lieutenant Vilo Acuna.
At dawn, from Ramiro Valdes', position, we noticed some activity around Zapatero's house. A few men were walking in and out, putting on their helmets. We knew that the peasant had been telling the truth. We were all ready for action.
I took my position as we kept our eyes on the enemy soldiers who were beginning their slow climb. I waited for what seemed an interminable period of time, my finger on the trigger of the Browning rifle, ready for the battle. We could hear their voices and shouts as they went on, not suspecting an ambush. The first man went by, then the second. They were so far apart from each other I began to think there would not be any time to wait for twelve of them to pass. As I counted six, I heard a shout and one of the soldiers raised his head in a gesture of surprise. I opened fire, hitting the sixth man. The fire became generalized, and at the second burst of automatic rifle fire the six men disappeared from the trail. I told Mercader's squad to at tack while a few volunteers joined the attack on the same spot; now we had opened fire from both sides. Lieutenant Orestes and Mercader were on their way in, and other men, protected by a rock, concentrated their fire on the enemy column that was part of a Company commanded by Major Merob Sosa. Rodolfo Vazquez took the weapon away from the man I had wounded. Unfortunately, the man was only a medical corps man whose entire equipment consisted of a 45 caliber revolver and a few shells. The other five men had thrown themselves down a ravine, escaping along the bottom of a dry stream. Soon, we heard the first bazookas fired by the enemy, now recovered from the unexpected attack.
A Maxim machinegun and my rifle were our only heavy-caliber weapons, but the Maxim would not work and Julio Perez could not do anything with it.
On Ramiro's side, Israel and Joel Iglesias, armed with their puny weapons, had advanced toward the enemy. Shotguns went off everywhere, adding to the soldiers' confusion. I ordered the two lateral platoons to retreat, then followed them leaving the rear guard to cover up until Lalo Sardinas' platoon withdrew. We had already planned a second line of resistance.
Vilo Acuna caught up with us and told us of Hermes Leyva's death. We came face to face with a platoon sent by Fidel whom I had warned about the imminent battle with superior forces. Ignacio Perez was at the head of this platoon. Retreating to about 1,000 yards away, we set up our new ambush. The soldiers came to the plateau where the attack had taken place and we watched as they burned the body of Hermes Leyva, in a savage act of revenge. In our impotent fury, all we could do was to fire our rifles while they returned our fire with their bazookas.
I found out that the shout that provoked my hurried shot was a remark made by one of the soldiers. He had shouted something like "this is like a picnic!" probably indicating that he was getting close to the summit. The attack proved our lack of combat training, since we had been unable to fire accurately at an enemy no further than 20 yards away. Even so, it was a big victory for us: we had managed to stop Merob Sosa's column, and they had now withdrawn. We had also obtained one small weapon, but at a very high price: the life of one of our comrades. We had accomplished all this armed with inefficient arms, against a complete company of at least 140 men, well equipped for modern war, who had launched a large amount of bazooka fire - perhaps even mortars - against us, although their attack had been just as haphazard as ours.
Following the battle, a few men were promoted, among them Alfonso Zayas, who was made a lieutenant. Next day, we talked with Fidel and he was very happy with the results of an attack he had launched against the soldiers in Las Cuevas. Some of our comrades had been killed: Juventino Alarcon, of Manzanillo, one of the first to join our guerrillas; Pastor; Yayo; Castillo; and Oliva, a great fighter and a fine boy, whose father was a lieutenant in Batista's army.
Fidel's attack had been quite important since it was not an ambush but an actual attack on a camp which was fairly well defended. The enemy had suffered many losses and had abandoned their position the following day. One of the heroes had been "Pilon, the Negro," a great fighter. They told us Pilon had come to a hut where he saw a series of strange-looking lengths of pipe next to a number of small boxes. They were bazookas, but neither Pilon nor any of us had ever seen one at close range. Pilon was wounded in a leg and had to abandon the hut, and we lost a great opportunity to get our hands on these weapons, so valuable against small fortifications.
Our battle had new repercussions. A few days later, an army dispatch announced five or six dead. In addition to burning our comrade's body, the soldiers had murdered five or six peasants whom Merob Sosa suspected of having reported to us about the army's whereabouts. Those poor peasants were murdered and their houses were set afire. I remember the names of Abigail, Calixto, Pablito Lisbon - of Haitian descent - and Gonzalo Gonzalez, all far removed, or at least partly removed from our struggle. They knew about our cause, they suspected we were in the zone, but they were completely innocent of our ambush. We knew very well the methods used by Batista's officers to obtain information and we kept our moves secret. In case a peasant happened to go by an ambush we kept him with us until the attack was over.
The battle proved that it was easy, under certain circumstances, to attack enemy columns on the march. We realized the advantage of firing upon the head of the column and of trying to kill the leading men, immobilizing the rest of them. We continued this practice until it became an established system, so efficient that the soldiers stopped coming to the Sierra Maestra and even refused to bc part of the advance guard. Of course, it took more than one battle for our system to materialize. At the time, we were satisfied to analyze our small victories together with Fidel. They were indeed victories, these battles between a well equipped army and our poorly prepared soldiers.
This was more or less the moment when the soldiers abandoned the Sierra. The only man who ever carne back, in a show of audacity, was Sanchez Mosquera, the bravest as well as the most notorious murderer and thief among Batista's military officers.
A FEW DAYS AGO, the news from Guatemala included the deaths of several patriots, among them Julio Roberto Caceres Valle.
In our profession as revolutionaries, amidst the class struggle shaking the entire Continent, we find that death is a frequent accident. But the death of a friend, who was our comrade during difficult moments as well as during many moments of hopeful dreaming, is always painful. Julio Roberto was a great friend. He was small and rather weak, physically, so we nicknamed him "El Patojo" which in Guatemalan slang means "little one" or "child."
While in Mexico, El Patojo had witnessed the birth of the idea of a Revolution. He had offered his services as a volunteer, but Fidel did not want to involve any foreigners in this project of national liberation in which I had the honor to participate.
Shortly after the triumph of the Revolution, El Patojo sold his few belongings and came to me. He occupied several positions in public administration and became Chief of Personnel of the Industry Department of INRA - National Institute of Agrarian Reform - but he was never too happy with his jobs He was looking for something different: his country's liberation. Like all of us, he had undergone a deep transformation. He had changed from a bewildered boy who had left his country without fully understanding the reason for defeat, into the fully conscious revolutionary that he now was.
The first time I saw El Patojo was aboard a train. We were running away from Guatemala following Arbenz' overthrow. Our destination was Tapachula; then Mexico City. He was much younger than I, but we soon became close friends. Together, we made the trip from Chiapas to Mexico City, facing the same problems. We were poor and beaten, and we had to make a living amidst indifferent, if not hostile, surroundings.
El Patojo was completely broke and I had only a few pesos. I purchased a camera and we became clandestine photographers, taking pictures of people visiting parks, etc. Our partner was a Mexican who owned the laboratory where we developed and printed our photographs. We be came thoroughly familiar with Mexico City, walking from one end to the other, delivering our miserable photos and struggling with our customers in an effort to convince them that the little child in the print really looked beautiful and that the price of one Mexican peso for such work of art was a tremendous bargain. We practised our profession for several months and managed to eat quite regularly. Gradually, we fared a little better, until the adventures of a revolutionary life separated us. I have already explained why Fidel did not want our small army to be a mosaic of nationalities.
El Patojo continued his life as a newspaperman, studying Physics at the University of Mexico, cutting short, his studies, going back to the University, without getting ahead. He made his living working at various occupations, never asking for anything. To this day, I cannot say whether that sensitive boy was too timid or too proud to recognize his weaknesses and personal problems; to approach some friend and ask for help. El Patojo was an introvert, a man of great intelligence, well educated, and endowed with tremendous sensitivity which, towards the end, he had devoted to serving his people. Already a Party man, he belonged to the Guatemalan Workers' Party, he had acquired great discipline and he was a good prospect as a revolutionary cadre. There was very little left of his former touchiness and proud demeanor. The Revolution cleanses men, improving and developing them, as the farmer corrects the defects on a plant and brings out its best qualities.
In Cuba, El Patojo and I shared the same house, as becomes old friends, but the old mutual confidence no longer existed. On a few occasions, I suspected what El Patojo was after: I had seen him hard at work, studying one of his country's native languages. One day, he came to me and said he was leaving; that the time had come for him to do his duty.
El Patojo had no knowledge of military training. He simply felt that it was his duty to return to his country and fight, weapon in hand, in an attempt to imitate our guerrilla warfare. We held a long conversation, a rare thing at the time. I limited my recommendations to three points: constant mobility, constant mistrust, and constant vigilance. Mobility: never stay in the same place, never stay more than two nights in the same spot, never stop moving from one place to another. Mistrust: At the beginning, do not trust your own shadow, never trust friendly peasants, informers, guides, or contact men. Do not trust anything or anybody until a zone is completely liberated. Vigilance: constant guard and scouting, setting up camp in a safe spot, and above all, never sleep with a roof over your head, never sleep in a house that can be surrounded. It was a synthesis of our guerrilla experience; the only thing I could give my friend. Could I tell him not to do it? On what right? We had tried something when it was considered impossible, and now he was convinced that it was possible.
El Patojo departed, and a short time later we heard about his death. As always in these cases, we hoped that there had been some mistake, perhaps a mix-up on names. Unfortunately, it was true: his own mother had identified the body. Others, too, had been killed: a group of his comrades, perhaps as intelligent and as self-sacrificing as El Patojo, but unknown to us.
Once again there is the bitter taste of defeat. The question left unanswered: Why not profit by the experience of others? Why weren't these simple instructions obeyed? Every effort was made to find out exactly how El Patojo had died. The exact facts are still unknown, but one could say that the zone was badly chosen, the men's physical condition was below par, they were too trusting, and above all, there was not enough vigilance. The repressive army came upon them by surprise, killing a few; the men were dispersed and the soldiers caught up with them once again. Some were captured and others, like El Patojo, were killed in the battle. Once the guerrillas lost cohesion, the rest was probably an open manhunt, similar to what happened to us at Alegria del Pio.
Once again, young blood has been spilled in American soil, in the struggle for liberty. Another battle has been lost. Let us take time off to cry over the fallen comrades while we continue to sharpen our machetes. Based on the unfortunate as well as valuable experience of our beloved dead, let us adopt the firm resolution not to repeat mistakes, and to avenge the death of every one of them by winning battles and attaining liberation.
At the time of his departure, El Patojo made no recommendations; he mentioned no one. He had no personal belongings to be concerned with. However, common friends in Mexico brought me some verses he had written in a plain notebook. They are a revolutionary's last verses. They are also a song of love to the Revolution, to the motherland, and to a woman.
The final recommendation in these verses must have the characteristics of a command directed to the woman whom El Patojo met and loved, here in Cuba.
Take it, it is only a heart
bold it in your hand
and at daybreak,
open your hand
and let the sun's rays warm it...
El Patojo's heart has remained with us, waiting for the lover's hand, and the loving hands of an entire people, t o allow the sun to warm it on the dawn of a new day that will shine for Guatemala and all America. Today, there is a small School of Statistics named "Julio Roberto Cacercs Valle" at the Ministry of Industry, where El Patojo left numerous friends. Later, when freedom comes to Guatemala, his beloved name must appear on a school, a factory or a hospital, anywhere where people struggle and work in the construction of the new society.