Two central characters in my new novel, The Chorito Hog Leg, Book One: A Novel of Guam in Time of War, Lucas Opley and Billy Higgins represent "the Old Corps" - pre-WWII professionals - blooded in the banana/sugar wars of Haiti and Nicaragua in 1920's and '30s. Hard men like Opley and Higgins linked the hundreds of thousands of boys, who would join the Marine Corps in America's war with Japan after Pearl Harbor, to the skills, outlooks and traditions of jungle fighters from America's early experiments with colonialism. Their experiences made the Marine Corps of WWII Legend.
10. The Old Corps
1st Battalion, 3rd Marines was commanded by Major Lucas Opley after appointment by General Barrett on New Caledonia in April of 1943. Lucas Opley was given the Battalion after his transfer to the newly formed 3rd Marine Division from the 1st Raider Battalion on the recommendation of Col. Merritt ‘Red Mike’ Edson.
Major Opley had been awarded the Navy Cross along with Gunnery Sergeant William W. Higgins for their two-man counter attack on the left flank of the Japanese at Bloody Ridge. Both armed with B.A.Rs, the then Capt. Opley and Sgt. Higgins swept the left flank of the Japanese attackers and helped save Henderson Field and thus the delicate American hold on Guadalcanal. Lucas Opley 38 years old was featured in photos with Edson in Life Magazine and mentioned in the after action report that passed from General Vandergrift to Admiral Nimitz. This veteran Marine adventurer had the rugged good looks of Saturday Western Serial Star and the polish of a public relations man. Within that wrapping beat the heart of a killer who massacred the extended family of General Sandino in Nicaragua in 1931 on the Coco River Patrol.
Sergeant Lucas Opley and PFC. William Higgins led an eight man patrol west on the Coco river in two shallow draft motor boats after several mines in the Mosquito Coast had been raided by Camacho Ruiz the cousin of General Sandino, the Jeb Stuart of Nicaragua. Ruiz hated the Yanqui mine owners who had come down to exploit the wealth of his country’s natural resources. Ruiz and Sandino had clerked for American Mine Owners in Honduras and in Mexico and knew the patterns of their payroll operations in Latin America. Ruiz robbed the offices of Canfield Zinc Operations in Tecaquita and killed four hired American guards Ruiz and his band of twenty men and four women burned the supply shed, warehouses, and closed the shafts with dynamite – in short Ruiz put Canfield out of business for four months.
In that time, intelligence had it that Camacho and his troop had cut northwest through the jungle and through the hills toward the Sandinista strong hold on the Coco River near Merizo in the North.
Capt. Edson sent a runner for Opley and Higgins in Cabo De Grazias de Diaz on the East Coast. ‘ Sergeant, I want you and Corporal, that’s correct Private, you are now purple. Do not lose the stripes on liberty. Take ten men in two boats with supplies and ammo for three weeks. Take the Coco west to Nell Island off the village of Tuskru Tara about 60 miles west of Cabo. Leave two men with the boats. Leave the newer meat. Cross at the shallows and sandbar here on the southwest of Nell and cut trail to set an ambush for Camacho Ruiz, we figure that he will try to make Buena Vista and you should intercept his column to the east & west flowing creek between Keri, Tore Cinco and Campiamento Omega. He is taking mule and trail up from the Mosquito Coast and you should intercept him - about here.’ Edson pointed to map with his letter opener – mother of pearl handle with photo in-lay cameo – his wife. ‘Gives you about eight square miles of patrol space to set up your ambush.’
‘Do we need to worry about prisoners, Captain? Punitive expedition?’
‘Purely.’ Edson looked at Higgins and understood his eagerness to get started as he loved violence and exercise.
‘Corporal, the United States of America is balancing the effectiveness of the Marine Corps in supporting Democratic Elections and not in creating an international incident. Prudent and effective termination of outlaw activity is paramount to that end. Exercise judgment. Lieutenant Murphy will want a complete report on your activities and you will maintain company records for this expedition as Sgt. Opley will have more than enough to do. I want an exact accounting for each round fired by whom and to what effect.’
With those orders, Lucas Opley and the skilled Corporal led the ten men into the boats – Opley and Higgins in the lead boat and PFC. Gunty with three men – the 60mm mortar and the Lewis Gun ands supplies. Two of the three would stay on at Nell Island to watch the boats and man the Lewis. Opley laid out the plan.
‘Privates Sater and Dupuis, you will be charged with protecting the boats and ammo stockpile until the patrol returns. Gunty you will have charge of the .60 -mm. bring twenty rounds and take ten rounds on the trail and leave the rest with Sater and Dupuis. Pick your mortar team.’
Gunty pointed –‘Essenhouse and Krieg. Draw shotguns and pistols. Geisser, Loew - Thompsons, Durkin, Flatt, and Pall take ‘03s and draw pistols all of you. Cpl. Higgins will take the Browning and Flatt –you will assist him. Each man will carry ten grenades and a hundred rounds. No mules so it will be all ‘cut trail’ about fifteen miles south of the Coco but all down hill. The bandits are coming to us. Each morning, Higgins or I will take one man with light pack and pistols for a look see. I expect to do three miles a day and no more. We want to stay fresh and sharp. When we spot the bandits we will have already staked out a solid ambush point and fleshed out any escape paths. We will not talk to natives on this one. We want to appear to be a standard patrol on the river. Equipment check in three hours – Corporal Higgins get the gear.’
Fourteen days later, after cutting trail and scouting the slopes south of the Coco, Sgt. Opley spotted the line of march of Ruiz and his Sandinistas. Half of the twenty four rode and the half guided the mules and traded every four hours. It was an arduous task moving the men and supplies up and out of contact with the Coalition Police patrols that only half-heartedly wanted to catch Ruiz. The Yanquis were another story, because they wanted to stay close to the cantinas y putas in Cabo.
How wrong they were. Opley set his ambush about sixteen miles south of the Coco River – midway between the towns of Torre Cinco to the east and Campamiento Omega to the west. Jungle country just west of the Wawa River where a shallow creek running southwest from the Coco curved away from the flow of the Wawa and the tired and confident Camacho column waded against its gently running waters between two sets of hills. No sounds but what God had placed there to give voice and echo – but that whistle?
Gunty’s five nicely patterned .60 mm. mortar rounds wildly drove Camacho’s column to meet the enfilading fire from Thompsons and Springfields and into the teeth of the powerful Browning automatic rifle in the hands of Billy Wheat Higgins. Every man and woman in the column was knocked hors de combat by the Yanqui lead and tried to fire back in panic and futility. Half of Ruiz’s column was killed outright by mortar and the cross-fire. Camacho himself lay face up in mid- stream coughing up bits of lung and pints of blood while gulping in fresh cool water from the Coco River tributaries – purified through its course and now toxic with Nicaraguan blood.
Opley and Higgins emerged from their cover and signaled the other Marines to do likewise. They fired into the bodies of wounded and dead. One woman with her right knee shattered by a round from a Thompson found the strength to fire her revolver at Pvt. Flatt and hitting him square between the eyes before having her body shredded by Higgins. Billy picked up the woman’s revolver - it was an Army Colt .45 but now useless as one of the rounds from the BAR had impacted on its cylinder. Billy tossed the gun. ‘Meskita snatch out of business! Flatt‘s seen the end of days, Sergeant. ‘Hollowed out the back of his melon for fair. The rest of you pollywogs make some holes in these greasers before one of ‘em sends you on to the beyond.’
The firing continued tightly and efficiently. When every soul had been set free, Lucas Opley took a Kodak Rainbow Hawk-Eye No. 2A, Model C camera from his haversack and photographed every body where it lay including Private Lester Flatt, USMC age 17. He then took a picture of the seven survivors and Billy Higgins and then posed with Billy and handed the camera off to Gunty for his turn. The photographs would be developed and sent by Major Utley in Cabo to Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino through his channels in Honduras. Copies of the photos would stay with the American charge d’affaires in Cabo. Opley kept duplicates for himself and his liberty mate Billy.