Mario E. Overall
According to the Military Dictionary of the United States Department of Defense, the term close air support or CAS refers to offensive air operations by helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft against enemy armor located in the proximity of friendly ground troops, and which require a careful integration with the movements and actions of those troops.
Proof of the effectiveness and refinement that has come about in close air support was seen many times during the Vietnam War in the middle of the previous century or, more recently, during the 2 gulf wars. However, it would probably come as a surprise to most readers to discover that this particular method of air combat was born in Central America in the middle of the 1920’s.
In May, 1926, a new revolution was established in Nicaragua. The Liberals, led by General Jose Moncada ‘liberated’ a large region of the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast and established a provisional government in Puerto Cabezas. In turn, President Emiliano Chamorro of the Conservative party sent troops of the Nicaraguan Constabulary to confront the threat.
The skirmishes between the government troops and the Liberals continued while the US State Department fruitlessly mediated the situation. While this was going on, the government of Mexico, looking to become a major influence in the region, initiated a covert supply of arms and munitions to the rebels. Somewhat later, in August of that year, military actions increased, forcing the landing of a contingent of US Marines at the port of Corinto.
With this delicate political and military situation came the birth of Nicaraguan Constabulary Air Force. Initially equipped with 2 Hisso Swallow biplanes, which had originally been acquired by the businessman Humberto Pasos Diaz in order to establish a small transport company. However, given the state of war in which the country found itself, the Chamorro government seized the aircraft and forced the rank of Major on the 2 pilots who had brought them to the country. Both pilots, William Brooks and Lee Mason, were Americans. In addition, Pasos Diaz was named technical consultant, while yet another American, a naval pilot called Irvine Rutledge, was named to head the Incipient air arm.
The first combat for the Swallows occurred on August 17, 1926. On this occasion, the 2 aircraft attacked the Mexican flag ship Concon with rifle fire and dynamite, while it was unloading arms and munitions for the rebels, on the beaches around Corinto. The scene was repeated the following day by a single aircraft, which suffered mild damage from machine guns fired by the Mexican boat, as it fled for international waters.
In the following weeks, the 2 biplanes were involved in armed reconnaissance missions in co-operation with the Conservative troops under Gen. Roberto Hurtado over regions of the Cosiguina in which columns of the Liberal guerrillas were operating. At the same time, the guerrillas initiated a systematic disruption of the telegraph lines between Managua and Corinto. The aircraft made utility flights, transporting documents and communications to the government troops operating in the zone. However, the major baptism of fire was still to come.
In November 1926, Chamorro had been replaced by Adolfo Diaz, who immediately requested the intervention of the US Government in apprehending the Liberals that were now operating in groups dispersed throughout almost the entire country. However, it wasn’t until the rebels began to pose a threat to US citizens that President Calvin Coolidge agreed to send a second contingent of Marines to Nicaragua, arriving at the beginning of January 1927, the Marines landed in Blue Fields, Prinzapolka, and Corinto. While this was taking place, the US Government authorized the shipment of large quantity of arms for the Nicaraguans, including a third Hisso Swallow, purchased directly from the factory.
In the middle of January, 1927, a large Liberal force, under the command of General Francisco Parajón, initiated three bloody battles with the constabulary troops of General Alfredo Noguera Gómez in the regions of Leon and Chinandega in a clear attempt to break up and confuse the major concentration of government troops in the western part of the country. A little later, in a successful deployment exercise, the Liberals took the town of Maniadero, and compromised the government positions in the city of Chinandega.
Finally, on the 6th of February, the rebels formed a circle around the city, with the objective of laying siege to it. During this maneuver, the government troops stationed in the towns of Santa Ana and El Calvario were involved in bloody combat. A little later, the Liberals tightened the circle around Chinandega, breaching its defenses and seizing it, but not without vicious house to house fighting, leaving innumerable dead and wounded on both sides. That same day, the Nicaraguan President authorized US Major James J. Meade, with his Marines, to relieve the Constabulary Troops in the defense of Managua, since with the fall of Chinandega, the capitol was now seriously threatened.
The Constabulary aircraft were quickly sent to attack the Liberals in Chinandega. The two pilots, Mason and Brooks, made several flights during which they dropped dynamite bombs and fired their rifles at rebel positions. With regard to these air operations, we are told in a New York Times article written by that same William Brooks in March 1927, that:
"The aerial operations in connection with the battle of Chinandega began on the morning of Sunday, February 6th. Major Lee Mason, Chief of the Air Service, had a car waiting at the entrance to my patio at 8:30 in the morning, with instructions to come at once to the flying field and prepare for a raid. The Liberals, I learned when I met him, had taken possession of Chinandega, the important city in the Western range of Nicaragua, and President Diaz had resolved to use the Air Force against it.
About noon, we took off, Major Mason in the new Swallow plane, with a new Hispano-Suiza engine, carrying a Lewis gun and a camera; I used the older Swallow with the OXX motor, which limited the horsepower to 100HP at full throttle. Being underpowered, I could only take nothing but a camera, my automatic pistol and a rifle with some rounds of ammunition.
We climbed out of the valley in which Managua lies, then high above the mountains to get enough altitude to cross them safely. As we approached Chinandega I looked closely for Diaz and Sacasa armies, which were reported to be operating around the city, but we could not see a moving thing anywhere on the landscape.
As we flew over the city, we realized that two blocks of the business section were burning, and the smoke was rising to an altitude of 5,000 feet. I took some pictures and then we proceeded to Corinto to study and learn the disposition of the troops.
At 5:00 PM I took off again for Chinandega and Managua and found conservative troops entrenched along the railroad leading to the hamlet of Philadelphia, which is about three miles from Chinandega. A good deal of firing appeared to be taking place and the blaze in the city had spread until nine square blocks were burning in a solid mass.
No one seemed to notice my ship as I glided down with the motor throttled back until I was at 500 feet above the city. Then machine-guns opened fire on me from three different places. I kicked the rudder violently for a few minutes and then thought of a trick to frighten my 'admirers'.
Taking the empty case in which I had carried extra films for my camera, I filled it with some cartridges to make it fall straight and threw it overboard. Those three machine-guns shut up immediately. Even after enough time had elapsed for the gunners to discover that the 'bomb' was not going off, they stayed under cover. When darkness came I proceeded to Managua. The next morning I discovered that the Nicaraguans had put ten holes in my wings and fuselage while I was flying seventy miles an hour and kicking the rudder as hard as I could. Major Mason on his part came back with eleven bullet holes in his ship and all were very near the pilot's seat."
The following day, the government troops prepared to launch an assault on Chinandega from the surrounding mountains. One of the Swallows, flown by Mason, was sent to throw messages with instructions to the commanders in charge of the operation, which it did early in the morning. Around noon, Brooks left for Philadelphia, with the mission of attacking Liberal positions in that city. Here is a description of that event in Brooks’ own words:
"About noon I got over Chinandega at an altitude of 2,000 feet. There was a great white patch in the green of the city. The ashes of the fire for which Major Mason and I were later blamed formed this splotch. There was no one visible in the city and I went on to my objective.
Although I could not see a soul, soon I noticed that a patch of linen on the right wing had been ripped loose. A moment later, a trickle of gasoline came down from the emergency tank in the upper centre section, and then I knew the sharpshooters in the jungle were working on me. Just as I got over Philadelphia, a ball came through the floor of the fuselage, passed between my legs and punctured the linen on the trailing edge of the upper wing. I had about decided to be nice to the village and keep my bombs for a better day, but this made me angry, it wouldn't do any harm to let them have one, I thought, and so I pulled the trip rod. That home-made bomb made more dust than a 100-pound missile would in a wetter country. The whole landscape seemed to rise.
When the dust settled, I saw Liberal troopers running in every direction. They took refuge now and then in clumps of shrubbery and then darted away to another retreat. Some waved their hats in the air, and I guess they wanted to surrender. But when I dived on them, they ran and clung to trees.
By this time I had circled back over Chinandega, only three miles away, and the sharpshooters started to work again. A bullet passed through the leading edge of the lower wing, just back of the propeller, and I began to think it would be wise to do my job and get out of there. After I had figured out where the sharpshooters were hidden, I heaved a bomb at them.
The traffic jam that followed that explosion was probably the worst ever known in Chinandega. Some one must have told those people that the place to meet bombs was on the street. Men, women and children dashed up and down the streets, through the squares and back again. They seemed to be crazy, they ran so fast and aimlessly.
But the sharpshooters had not been scared this time and kept on puncturing my wings. There is no armor under the seats of these planes, and as I saw a hole appear in the aluminum seat of the front cockpit, I got to feeling very self-conscious. The main gas tank was leaking by this time and I had good reasons to head for Corinto. So, I found a vacant spot and let my last bomb go. That explosion started the running all over again. The people were still running and the marksmen still shooting at me when I left. The Mechanics at Corinto counted fourteen holes in the plane when I landed.
Major Mason came in from his mission at 4:15 and he said that I ought to go back and help with the attack. When I got back there, the defenders waved a white sheet to me and I flew down the railway to the place where our own troops were deployed. First I dropped a message telling them the city was ready to surrender. Nothing happened. Then I looped and flew back and forth, throttled the motor and yelled to them to go and take possession of the city. But they stayed right where they were.
I tarried until it got dark and had to leave without obliging the Chinandegans by arranging surrender for them. Next morning they had changed their minds and put up a battle when the Army advanced."
No exact account of how many missions Mason and Brooks flew, exists. However, in the journalistic reports that Brooks sent to the New York Times we can see the first methods of close support implemented by these 2 pilots, as well as the type of armament they used on their missions.
It is important to note that all of this occurred days before the Marines took over the war in Nicaragua, including the combat air missions in the process. In fact, many of the accomplishments of the Constabulary pilots were later applied by American Naval pilots, who, when all was said and done, were the responsible for refining and perfecting the concepts of close air support, particularly during the 2nd World War, and that are applicable even to this day.
With regard to Chinandega, the city was retaken by the Constabularies after several days of heavy fighting and the destruction of almost the entire city, a deliberate act by the Liberals before surrendering. On February 19, a company of Marines occupied the city, bringing with them huge quantities of food and medicines for the Chinandegans.
Perhaps most interesting of all is a fact that aviation history seems to have forgotten -that the basis of close air support can be found in 2 skillful and resourceful pilots in their mysterious Swallow aircraft during the so-called Constitutional War of Nicaragua. (Translation by Doug MacPhail – LAAHS Canada)
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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