Cold War along the 'Cactus Curtain'

By Kolb, Richard K. | VFW Magazine, January 1999 | Go to article overview
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Cold War along the 'Cactus Curtain'

Kolb, Richard K., VFW Magazine

From 1954 through 1973, Latin America was a prime theater of the Cold War. Conflicts were waged from Guatemala in Central America, on Caribbean islands, to the tip of South America in Chile. These behind-the-scenes battles cost the lives of some 50 Americans.

They died along what became symbolically known as the "Cactus Curtain."


America's anti-Communist crusade in Latin America actually dates back to the late 1920s in Nicaragua. U.S. intervention there was prompted largely by what the Associated Press called "the spectre of a Mexican-fostered Bolshevistic hegemony intervening between the United States and Panama."

Indeed, Moscow saw Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino as a foot in the door of the Western Hemisphere. Sandino's ideology was a mix of Marxism and syndicalism. But his brand of radicalism was ultimately squashed.

Between 1927 and 1932, in 150 combats, U.S. Marines suffered 47 killed and 66 wounded in action. All told, some 22,000 Americans served there. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson said, "They left behind, in the end, a country peaceful and independent. It was a job well done."

That same job would be required at least eight more times over the next 20 years. But there was a 22-year gap between the campaign in Nicaragua and the next U.S. intervention in 1954.


When a left-wing regime came to power in Guatemala in 1954, the Eisenhower Administration assumed the worst. The President, believing that "agents of international communism in Guatemala" were bent on subversion and making it an "outpost of Communist dictatorship" in the Western Hemisphere, moved forcefully.

In mid-May, a 2,000-ton shipment of Czech arms reached the country. Within a week, a U.S. Navy quarantine was in place. CIAs Operation Success, led on the ground by paramilitary team leader William "Rip" Robertson, orchestrated the government's overthrow by exiles in June. Stationed off Guatemala for good measure was the USS Mellete with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, aboard. Next month, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing was ordered to stand off Central America. But the crisis soon passed.


Trouble in the nation's backyard "pond"-the Caribbean-prompted the next major military action.

In early January 1961, U.S. Navy vessels began taking up station off Cuba. By April 19, the invasion to overthrow Fidel Castro was under way at the Bahia del Cochinas (Bay of Pigs) on the island's southern coast: Cuban exile Brigade 2506 (some 1,300 men) had landed.

On scene for the operation was the carrier Essex escorted by the destroyers Conway, Cony, Eaton, Murray and Wailer, which were designated Task Force Alpha.

The diesel-powered sub USS Cobbler (SS-344), along with another sub of the Atlantic Fleet's Antisubmarine Development Force, were part of Task Force Alpha. So were the destroyer escorts Bache and Beale, according to veterans.

Aboard the Essex was VA-34, a jet fighter squadron called the "Blue Blasters" and 1,200 Marines. All told, some 6,000 U.S. servicemen covered the invasion, but were prohibited from intervening.

In addition, the CIA had recruited U.S. civilian aviators as pilots, navigators, radio operators and flight engineers to train Cuban exiles at Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. They came from the Alabama and Arkansas Air National Guard.

Directly involved was the landing ship dock San Marcos (LSD-25) with a complement of 326 men. "Under the cover of darkness, we picked up a contingent of Cuban freedom fighters and transported them to the Bay of Pigs," recalled David M. Scott, a machinist's mate aboard the San Marcos. "One of the non-U.S. ships was sunk, but our vessel was not hit."

Yet U.S. ships came close to being hit. The Eaton led the invasion flotilla into the Bay of Pigs. It received fire from the beach, and was bracketed by two stray shells from Cuban tanks along the bay.

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