She lay dead in the crushed guinea grass

By Larry Daley

(Larry Daley is Cuban, American, Jewish, a plant biochemist biophysicist, and a former soldier with Fidel Castro's forces. This story is presented on this site for its unique personal and historical perspective.)

She lay dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seemed so young and unharmed.

It is November or December of 1958. I am with Company Six, Column One, in late 1958. Company Six is led by Orlando Rodriguez Puerta and Column One is Castro's own column. We are winning on the plains of the Cauto, the forces of Cuban Dictator Batista are hiding out in their strong places fearing our attacks.

We are in a large pasture by the Central highway, just west of Contramaestre or is it Jiguani. We are a little west of where an overpass makes a dogleg to the north. The road is about 150 yards away, a two-lane ribbon of black asphalt going east-west. A barbwire cattle fence separates the highway from the field. The low bush and short grass of an overgrazed pasture is spread below, in front of us, between us and the road.

Beyond the road to the north is a mixed savanna of tall trees, swamps and pasture extending further northward to the horizon line. To our right the road curves north, goes over the over pass, over the railroad, and then returns running to the east. The height of the overpass, sitting on skinny concrete pillars, blocks most of our view to the east-northeast.

We are on a slight rise about 150 yards south of the highway. The rise is covered with short bushy, saplings among higher trees. We stop to set up an ambush.

I am terrified because if tanks came down the highway there is nothing we have, no weapon, that can stop them, and there is nowhere to run. So I take up one of the shovels and began to dig a short narrow slot trench.

First the others laugh and make remarks, but I keep on digging. Then the others begin to look around and think. They look and they think. Then one of them says: "It's my turn with the shovel."

I do not get a chance with any of the shovels the rest of that day. After a while the rise is covered with foxholes and short trenches. Still unhappy about security I cut the droopy leafed saplings and place them around my trench. The idea catches on. That is fine that day; it looked green.

Next day the leaves have wilted in the hot sun. I am walking on the road, the Central Highway, walking alone along the empty, empty road, scouting something or other. I am distracted by some vague thought, I do not listen, I daydream. An avioneta, a machine-gun-carrying spotter plane, comes out from behind some trees and flies towards me. I have no where to go. I am in the open.

The avioneta makes one pass. I fire my accurate Springfield 30.06 that I had swapped for my San Christobal after Guisa. If the avioneta gets its machinegun going I am lost, there is no cover. My mind in its panic disassociates fear from fight; a strange focused calm comes over me.

I try to make every one of my rifle's slow fire count. I must make every accurate, powerful round count, every shot absolutely, perfectly, aimed. I fire one plane length ahead. I fire once, twice, perhaps three times. I must have hit something, because the avioneta breaks out from its run and suddenly climbs high. Happy in false triumph, I too am a fool; the spotter plane now knows that we rebels are near.

Time passes. I return to the ambush. A man comes across the field. He looked familiar, but I was not sure. We stop him. He gives a cock and bull story about crossing the field. We do not believe him.

Then somebody else recognizes him, he is Jacinto the barefoot spy who had escaped from Las Peñas. I say nothing, not wanting to see him shot right there. It is too late, somebody else recognizes him; mercifully, Jacinto is not shot there, he is taken to headquarters. His escape from Las Peñas has only given him six more months of life.

There are three gunners, just nondescript short, and brown. Their hair is black and straight, their faces too young, or with too much Taino, to grow a beard. They are just boys, perhaps seventeen, yet they are charged with the machine gun.

They, the machine gunners, sit on the rise south of the central, their red bandanas around their necks, and set up their 30.06 air-cooled, belt-fed, Browning on its tripod. A black metal box, a heavy air cooled barrel, sits on three wide spread low legs; it is set up right in the open.

I ask them about their red bandanas; they say it is to honor the African gods. I am not sure they tell the truth, for their skins are not dark enough for Africa. They are from Manzanillo, the first home of the communists in Cuba. Does red mean red? I do not know.

Much to my horror, Captain Puerta tells a few of us, me included, that we are to give the machine-gunners rifle support. We the supporting rifle men are to share the hostile fire that the machine gunners stupidity and lack of stealth will surely bring. We do not like it, but say nothing, it is an order.

We dig in even further; the machine gunners do not. I suggested as tactfully as I could that they should perhaps dig in. One of them replies "When you are going to die you are going to die," something that even then I recognize as a sophism of the worst sort. They, just boys, are obviously marked for death.

We watch the machine-gunners a while. In the heat of plains of the Cauto the midday waves of shimmering heated air ripple above the black perforate cooling jacket of the machine gun barrel. The metal of the machine gun is almost too hot to touch. The rippling air floats over the machine gunners heads, above their red bandanas. The hot air ripples are as if specters, as if ghosts, laughing at a coming foolish death, are laughing at fools ready to join them.

We again hope they will dig in; the machine gunners do not. So then, to protect our lives, we the rifle men discretely and quietly move our positions as far away from them as possible and dig in even deeper.

We know violent death. We have been escopeteros. We know from Braulio Coroneau's death at Guisa that the machine gunners will be a magnet for enemy fire. If the enemy tries to force its way west on the Central highway we will fail, because the machine gunners are not dug in.

The Casquitos have plenty of fire power, most have San Christobal automatic long range carbines, and many more machine guns of their own. Soon after first contact, our machine gunners will be dead and with their deaths, we will lose the support of the machine gun.

The three fates measure the end of the machine gunners lives. Atropos the mother of atropine will soon widen their eyes, she the giver of death prepares to snip the thread of their lives.

The machine gunners lives are not only their business. The gunners stupidity affects us all. We know then that outflanked we will have to retreat across open country taking losses. Those idiots are going to kill us all.

We begin to break the mental bonds that hold us together, we hate those stupid machine gunners. That hate feels good; if we hate them their deaths will bother us less.

We hear firing to the east-north-east. We cannot see anything. The overpass blocks the view. A runner comes up breathless giving orders to bring up the machine gun to the point of contact.

Fearing the contagion of the self-doomed machine gunners, I ask if that is an order for general support or just for the machine gun. The runner, to my great relief, says just the machine gun.

The Casquitos, the helmeted ones, the Batista soldiers, our enemies, make their move out of Jiguani or Contramaestre. They are trying to cross the plain beyond the swamp to the north of the Central trying to reach Bayamo.

The Casquitos are moving west in the opposite direction on a similar route to that successfully taken by Spanish General Escario in 1898. In that ancient year, my ancestors hurt the Spanish but did not stop them. The Spanish took losses, were delayed for a few critical days, but kept on going east to try to relieve Santiago.

The Spanish are ancient history, our war is now. The firing to the east-northeast is intense. We can hear the individual rifle shots, and the deadly rhumpty rhumpty rhumpty rhythm of the fast automatic fire from the San Christobals.

The machine gunners follow the runner and are soon out of sight. Firing becames more, and more intense, the San Christobal fire bursts grow together with the MI rifle fire and the heavy beat of the machine guns. All that sound rises even louder and faster mixing the individual weapons sound to a now indistinguishable sustained deafening roar. Then the individual bursts are heard again, they slackened and become sporadic.

Later we find out that the self-doomed machine gunners had placed their weapon too close to the small, white, concrete block structure, perhaps an irrigation pump house where the Casquitos were anchoring their positions. The machine gunners had not pulled back to find a position from which they could sustain killing fire. Instead the poor doomed boys, unwise to the end, lay firing in the open field and very soon two of them are dead, belly wounded somehow by ground grazing bullets. The third gunner pulls a John Wayne and runs firing the machine gun, burning his hands on the overheated gun barrel, but surviving.

The idiocy of the machine gunners gives the Casquitos a chance. The Casquitos take it and run. They are in trucks; we are on foot; they get away. They are going west north of our ambush site. They are moving fast on the firm soil of the pastures north of the swamp. We cannot stop them. The Casquitos, now free from accurate fire from the machine gun, continued to the west over plains towards Bayamo. The self-doomed machine gunners die for nothing.

We all rise and go north across the highway in lost pursuit, in failed attempt to cut off the Casquitos. We hear the exchange of fire of the pursued and the pursuers. The Casquitos, having killed our machine gunners, are now moving fast further to the north of us. Then we hear the gunfire change direction as they try to escape to the north west. We, are further west, and must try to cut the Batista forces off by crossing the Central, and going due north.

One thing the Batista planes did well was to make us take cover. The first low whine of the armed spotter planes or the much heavier drone of the B-26s makes us seek shelter to hide; and thus the noise the planes passing over was sufficient to immobilize us.

Our greatest terror is to be caught in the middle of a great pasture far from trees or bushes. There, caught the feared open country, our only recourse is to stand straight up. So very straight up, by the fences pretending to be a fence post, or worse far from the fence to roll up in a ball and pretend to be a boulder. Here we, we are lucky, we have the great trees of the plains of Cuba to hide behind.

We cannot move forward when the planes begin firing. The best we can do is take shelter. We are so lucky to be by large trees. We walk around to the bullet shade--the otherside- of the great tree trunks-- as the planes circles and shoots at us.

It is a matter of honor not to push others out of the way, to avoid the error of making it a kind of potentially lethal game of musical chairs, each vying and pushing to get the most protected spot. Such a game would have soon attracted the lethal attention of those keen-eyed pilots and gunners selected for their excellent vision.

Airplane attacks warn the Casquitos to be ready for us, and in the case of the sugar mill Central America this will allow the Batista soldiers, the "Casquitos," to ambush us and cause us a number of casualties. Here on plains of the Cauto near Santa Rita the two B-26 strafing our group do not allow us to block the escape of a convoy the Casquitos.

The pair of B-26 fighter bombers delay us, their fire is withering, they normally have eight fifty caliber machine guns. Rafaelito my cousin the pilot, says they only had four. We did not count. The bursts of fifty caliber fire boom like thunder. I spend time circling around a giant spreading tree; it was not a raintree, the algarobbo, for it had smooth bark, it must have been some kind of ficus. What ever it was it could stop 0.50 calibre bullets.

We do not panic. We are safe; the planes, having expended their ammunition, leave their job done. We have been kept pinned down for a while. None of us are hit.

As our ears recover we hear the lessening drone of the planes going away returning to base. The sky is now quiet.

We continue north and try to cross a swampy area of head high cortadera, razor edged, saw grass. I and two others are sent ahead, but we cannot locate the heavy incoming fire that is all around us, coming from the north, chopping down the grass.

I and my two friends do not fire; that would give our position away. We cannot stay there in the grass; the bullets will eventually find us. With some speed, we withdraw, report the situation and wait behind cover. There is nothing more we can do.

Later things calmed down, no more shooting, the Casquito's trucks cannot be heard to the west. We follow the tracks of the trucks, south of the endless fence line, gathering whatever ammunition the Casquitos have dropped. We watched the bleeding, wounded, giant, white, Charolais cattle grazing. Thin streams of red blood spurts from their vast white sides, yet they continue to graze, heads bent to the ground.

At the end of some miles I smell fire, not grass or timber burning, but the residue of an oily, smelly, fire. I look on the ground to find truck tire tracks turning a little south. We turn a maybe a hundred yards south, find a broken down flatbed truck, a pile of deliberately burnt, twisted rifles and the woman. I still see her in my dreams, and still don't know who she was, and why the Casquitos left her there.

She lay dead in the crushed guinea grass, but she seems so young and unharmed. She is an ordinary woman not strikingly beautiful, nor ugly, her hair is dark, her face unlined. Her body is slim, her breasts and hips normal, feminine, and ordinary. Her calf length dark dress covering her with modesty is flared out as if she is running. One shoe, a city woman's pump, has fallen off.

Who is she? Who was she? Was she a noncommissioned officer's daughter, a soldier's wife, a generous camp follower enjoying unrestrained the burning passions of ardent young soldiers? Was she an informer who must leave with the Casquitos or face death at the hands of the relatives of the betrayed, or a hard working prostitute servicing tens of soldiers a night? I do not know, it does not matter, she is dead.

I look closer and then see the seemingly insignificant entry wound, a mere red spot, no spilled blood. The bullet had penetrated through her left arm at shoulder level, a place left bare and vulnerable by the straps of her dress. There is no exit wound. The bullet must have spent its energies severing her arteries, ripping inside her chest, killing her. Death must have come fast and merciful.

I look at the wigwam-shaped pile of fire-destroyed, twisted, Springfield 30-06 rifles. Although the rifles are intact, none seemed useful and I think the bolts are gone. The Casquitos must have had time to set them on fire and destroy them. Perhaps our Asturian armorer machinist from "El Sordo" could do something with them.

Larry Daley copyright@1997 and 1998. Permission to copy granted for non-commercial purposes.