It’s early January, 1955. People all over the world welcome a new year. Another year of peace since the end of World War Two, nearly a decade earlier. The most costly and destructive war in lives and infrastructure the world has ever seen.
Across Asia and Europe there are still many communities in ruin and millions of broken lives which must be rebuilt. Funded entirely by the new economic might of the U.S.A., the reconstruction and direct investment policies of the Marshall Plan, implemented by former President Harry S. Truman and now being continued by current President Dwight D. Eisenhower, those ravaged communities and the spirits of those who survived the carnage are slowly rising from the ashes. With the recovery comes, for the first time in years, an optimistic feeling that the future could be bright and full of hope.
The scourge of fascism had been met, challenged and destroyed. Now it was the cause of freedom that was on the march and with it democracy was spreading around the globe.
In Canada and the United States, two of World War Two’s victorious nations, an economic boom is underway like no other in history. Both the U.S. and her northern neighbor have the lucky distinction of being the only participating countries in the war whose homelands had come through the conflict virtually unscathed.
January of 1955 also marks nearly ten years of the biggest boom in birthrates the world has ever known; hence the nickname, “baby boomers”, this generation will be tagged with. That explosion in birthrates brings about shiny new public schools which begin popping-up like wild flowers in May.
Communism is now the number one threat to prosperity and world peace. Only months before a cease-fire had been negotiated on the Korean peninsula, bringing an end to four years of fierce fighting between United Nations Forces led by the U.S and South Korea, against communist invaders from the northern end of the peninsula, and their soviet and chinese enablers.
That conflict, the first of many to come, in what the press dubs the “Cold War” ended in a stalemate. Not the decisive unconditional victory that had been achieved over the Axis powers- Germany, Japan and Italy. Still communist aggression had been met and checked.
Prisoner exchanges between U.N. and communist forces are going well and tens of thousands of young men and women in uniform are home for the holidays. It was time to party down.
Actors Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis are the biggest box office attractions in movie theatres around the globe. At the top of Billboards’ charts in 1955 Bill Haley and His Comets hit tune, “Rock Around the Clock” ignites a new popular music craze raging around the world. Dubbed “rock and roll” by a Cleveland based disc jockey, dance show host and concert promoter named Alan Freid. In less than a year a shy kid, with dyed black hair (styled to look like Tony Curtis), from Mississippi named Elvis Presley will become the undisputed King of this new music genre. With that title he will skyrocket to fame as the most followed sex symbol on earth by teenage bobbysoxers everywhere.
Another new phenomenon “suburbia” is spreading outward from the inner cities. It is spurred by the fact that most U.S. families now own an automobile. No longer is a car only the luxury of the rich. Along with low interest, long term home loans available to veterans through the G.I. bill, seemingly overnight quaint cookie cutter communities of quaint cookie cutter homes begin to spring up from coast to coast.
Gasoline is only pennies a gallon. Automobiles which had not been produced during the entirety of World War Two, are now chrome plated land barges with fat bullet bumpers and theatrically massive metallic tail fins. For the first time teenagers have access to the family vehicle and so they spend Saturday nights at sock hops, hamburger stands, drive- in movie theatres, or just “cruising” main street with all their friends the AM radio blasting rock and roll music at full volume from the open windows.
The good times are not limited to North America. International playboy rich kids and trust fund babies, Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara are gleefully blowing their daddies money in the smoke filled cafes and nite clubs of Mexico City. There they plie cheap tequila and marxist rhetoric to the ever present gringa and european tourist chicks along with anyone else who will listen.
In just a few months Fidel will lead his entourage of aventureros and political misfits on a field trip to Veracruz. There he will spend more of his father’s money on a leaky old sportfishing boat. This will facilitate the invasion and “liberation” of his homeland, Cuba. The effort will culminate in the complete destruction of the most dynamic economy in the Caribbean, along with the enslavement of the entire island.
Meanwhile way down South….
Meanwhile way down south in the sleepy little Republic of Costa Rica, los Ticos like their gringo cousins up north are enjoying and thriving in a historic period of peace and prosperity.
Costa Rica as well is healing the scars of a war which had ended seven years prior. In that conflict the then sitting leader of Costa Rica, Rafael Angel Calderon, intellectual and non-apologetic marxist- socialist was dethroned through armed rebellion led by democratic reformist Jose “Pepe” Figueres; a statistician by trade.
Ousted from power and on the run, Calderon along with many of his supporters, called “mariachis” disparagingly by the figueristas for Calderon’s family ties to Mexico’s elite, quickly flee to that northern land of big hats and agave plants.
The previous year, 1954, a nationwide referendum was offered-up to the public as to the legitimacy of the Figueres presidency. The vote turned-out a landslide in favor of Don Pepe Figueres. The people of Costa Rica had spoken and the message was clear. Los ticos by a large margin flatly rejected the socialist big government policies of Calderon.
In January of 1955 Costa Rica is a country of some one million souls. Roughly 20% of today’s population. It is a nation of farmers, ranchers and small business owners. Costa Rica’s coffee is considered amongst the highest quality in the world. Bananas are also a chief export.
Costa Rica is a gold rich country. From central Guanacaste to the Central Valley and the Osa Peninsula prospecters and novice adventurers from every corner of the planet descend on Costa Rica to strike out in the hopes of making a quick fortune.
The Panamerican Highway is still under construction. Outside of San Jose paved roads are virtually non-existant. Few apart from rich city dwellers have a telephone in their home. Ox teams line the roads hauling goods and materials in ornately painted carts, and horses are the most common mode of transportation used across the country. There is the famously slow, small gauge “jungle train” transporting goods and passengers between San Jose and Puerto Limon, but it would be another thirty- one years before the highway linking those two critical cities is completed. In short, in early january of 1955 Costa Rica is a small, idylic, agricultural country of humble, hard working, freedom loving people at peace with the world; looking forward to the future.
STORM CLOUDS GATHER TO THE NORTH
President Jose “Pepe” Figueres democratically elected leader of Costa Rica could not allow himself the luxury of letting his guard down. In 1955 free and open democracies are more of an oddity in Latin America than a jamaican rodeo in South Boston. On St. Patty’s Day.
Since Don Pepe’s reaffirmation vote the year before, rumors have been trickling in from all over the Caribbean and Central America about a force of exiled calderonistas forming- up in Nicaragua. In addition there is evidence that no less than five neighboring countries, their leaders allies of Calderon, have tossed their hats into the ring and are lining-up against Don Pepe as well. These countries consist of Guatemala, Honduras, The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and of course Nicaragua under the strong arm dictator and Don Pepe’s greatest foe, Anastasio Somoza. These men, brutal dictators one-in- all fear Don Pepe’s democratic reforms might prove contagious.
When the Venezuela government begins sending military aircraft to Nicaragua, the Soviet Union and the United States, now the world’s two undisputed competing super powers take notice. Fearing the possibility of a larger regional conflict which might threaten the Panama Canal, President Eisenhower orders the deployment of six F-86 Sabre fighter jets to the canal zone. Declassified U.S. State Department briefs from the period show that the Eisenhower administration, through back channels assured President Figueres that he could depend on help from the U.S in the event that his country is invaded.
In Moscow soviet leader Guiorgui Malenkov orders a soviet navy submarine be dispatched to patrol off Costa Rica’s Limon coast. Though newspapers of the period report the rooskies (soviets) strongly denying the “ vicious rumor” out of hand. Malenkov’s sympathies are with the forces lining-up against Costa Rica’s new leader, but he hesitates in showing open support for fear of drawing in the americanskis. That will prove to be his downfall.
CRY HAVOC AND LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR
Tuesday 11 Jan, 1955 OH-dark Thirty:
Without any warning or prior declaration of war, a company sized element of roughly one hundred airborne commandos cross the Nicaragua- Costa Rica border heading south in three Venezuelan Airforce transport aircraft. Their objective: the small airfield at Villa Quesada (today known as Ciudad Quesada), a rural farming town in Costa Rica’s north central region of San Carlos. These commandos are to link-up with another company sized group made up of Calderon sympathizers. They would have covertly rolled-out of San Jose traveling overland enroute to Villa Quesada, hours before the three venezuelan transports lifted off from their clandestine staging area in south- western Nicaragua.
This two company element is tasked with taking the town and holding the airstrip until an entire battalion (aprox 500 men) of reinforcements and supplies can be flown in taking Villa Quesada is critical to the invader’s plan if they are to seize San Jose quickly. It would be at least a full day for the full compliment of reinforcements to arrive. What with travel time of the aircraft which had just deposited them, to return to Nicaragua, refuel and load up, then return. Using three DC-3 cargo aircraft it will take no less than five trips.
In addition to the assault on Villa Quesada, enemy combatants also breach the border in a half dozen locations utilizing mechanized ground troops some 1,000 strong. With more reserve forces at staging areas across southern Nicaragua. In the east the invaders penetrate as far south as Sarapiqui. In the center of the northern border region, enemy troops overrun the meager, lightly armed border guard garrison at Los Chiles and seize the town. Out west in Guanacaste aggressor forces quickly take several villages from Bahia Salinas to Santa Rosa. The enemy also pushes forward toward Liberia with a sizable group of infantry supported by several armored vehicles in addition to artillery and heavy mortars.
In the early dawn light of that same day three Venezuelan AT-6 and a Venezuelan P-47 combat aircraft, appear in the tranquil cloudless sky above San Jose. The enemy fighter- bombers begin diving and strafing civilian targets with machine gun and cannon fire. Tico’s being a resourceful lot and a people who absolutely live to give any would be authority figure-foreign or domestic, the middle finger in defiance, they merely hunker down and wait for the sound of the marauding aircraft to fade away as they head back to their base in Nicaragua. That is when the ticos come charging out of their houses to collect all the brass shell casings the attacking aircraft’s guns have spit out during the assault. “Treasure from heaven!” They cry out, laughing mockingly at the enemy pilots as they retrieve burlap coffee sacks full of the valuable metal.
By late afternoon a reaction force has been organized of some 200 civilian volunteers, most veterans of ’48. They move out in two columns marching north from San Jose and Alajuela at full speed to relieve the beleaguered police station at Villa Quesada. Against all odds and out numbered nearly ten-to-one, the small Fuerza Publica contingent have managed to hold the town center and have the enemy pinned down on the airfield.
These Costa Rica forces pushing on to rescue Villa Quesada are under the command of two legendary heroes from the civil war of 1948, die-hard figueristas both: Colonels Domingo Garcia and Frank Marshall.
Frank Marshall’s story is worth noting. Known to friends and enemies alike as “El Diablo Rubio” (Blond Devil in english), Frank was born in Costa Rica to a gringo father and a costarican mother. The colonel’s father was murdered in Nicaragua by sandinista guerrillas at the mining operation his father ran there. Frank had been a young child when it happened. His mother remarried shortly there after to a german national living in Costa Rica. In 1940 then President Calderon had Frank’s stepfather arrested along with all german, japanese, and italian nationals living in Costa Rica. They were sent to a concentration camp erected in San Jose. All of those arrested were stripped of bank accounts, properties and personal possessions. To say that Colonel Frank Marshall, the Blond Devil, felt disdain for socialists of every stripe would be the understatement of the century. For that reason the enemy he now faced would not receive much in the way of mercy. Not this time.
During the march to Villa Quesada Costa Rica troops are under constant assault by enemy aircraft dead set on stopping them from reaching Villa Quesada. With grit and determination the relief force is able to reach the besieged hamlet at around midnight, and without even stopping to rest, they go straight into the attack.
After an intense firefight that goes on way past sunrise, the enemy is forced to abandon the town and it’s airstrip, retreating back north in the direction of Los Chiles. In their flight the invaders leave behind weapons, ammo and provisions. Colonel Marshall’s message to President Figueres is short and sweet:
At approximately 0100 hours 12 January engaged enemy. By 0800 enemy in full retreat. Objective secured. Enemy KIA (killed in action) high. We are pursuing. URGENT-MUST HAVE AIR SUPPORT-REPEAT-URGENT.
Colonel F.Marshall commanding.
TEXAS COWBOYS AND FOUR WILD MUSTANGS
President Figueres may have felt that he and his country were standing alone against this onslaught, but Costa Rica was anything, but alone. For months as tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica rose to a boil, United States senator Paul Douglas (Democrat from Illinois), a staunch anticommunist, had taken up Costa Rica’s cause and the cause of freedom for all of Central America. Sen.Douglas pleaded and cojoled his colleagues in U.S. Congress to authorize direct military aid to the tiny nation.
Sadly after two world wars and the Korean conflict to boot, none of Sen. Douglas’s colleagues seemed very interested in yet another foreign adventure. Their constituents simply would not have it.
By U.S. law military equipment could only be sold to an allied nation. Check. Costa Rica is and was an ally of the United States. The problem is that the law also dictates that any equipment sold must be compensated for said equipments true value. No gifts.
What Costa Rica desperately needed were combat aircraft. Jet fighters were still in their infancy. They were way too expensive for Costa Rica and at the time there were no military jet qualified pilots outside of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, anyway. No. What the ticos needed were propeller driven tactical aircraft, and the best all around prop’driven fighter plane in the world in 1955 is indisputably the P-51D mustang.
A P-51D cost U.S. taxpayers $52,000 a piece in 1945, when they were new. Ten years later real value for a fully armed and operable mustang is still in the ballpark of $20,000 to $30,000. A price still out of range for the poor central american country’s treasury. However Senator Paul Douglas was not one to throw-in the towel after just one rough round.
The good senator manages to convince The U.S. Department of Defense that the P-51D is not worth anywhere near $20,000 or $1,000 for that matter. He reasons that in the dawn of the jet age a propeller driven aircraft is practically worthless in a dogfight, when you’re up against a soviet mig fighter. The senator argues that in accordance the mustang should be valued for it’s weight as scrap metal. And from that evaluation the cost of housing and maintaining the outdated aircraft, to the american tax payer must be considered.
The mustangs in the U.S. arsenal started out under the ownership of the U.S. Army Air Corp. At the end of World War Two the Army Air Corp was separated from the Army Department and reborn as an all new branch of the U.S. military,redubbed: The United States Air Force. The mustangs were phased-out, or “mothballed” in militaryeez, and replaced with the new jet powered rocket firing F-86 Sabre and Super Sabre. All mustangs still in service in the U.S. (apart from rich collectors and Hollywood prop companies) are under control of individual State Air Guard units. These Air Guard units, just like their Army National Guard counter parts are under the direct command of the governors of those individual states. Senator Douglas knows exactly which governor he needs to talk to.
The Honorable Allan Shivers of the great state of Texas is as fervant an anticommunist as Douglas. Being the governor of a southern border state he knows that what was at stake is greater than just the sovereignty of Costa Rica. If communism were allowed to achieve a beach head in Central America it would be a simple matter of time before the “red menace” was on the doorstep of the United States.
So an old fashioned horse trade was struck. If he, Sen.Douglas, could come-up with two shiny new jet fighters for the gov’s Texas Air Guard would he, Governor Shivers be willing to part with four old, outdated mustangs from same? The result was that Don Pepe Figueres and the freedom loving people of Costa Rica would receive four fully functioning, armed-to-the-teeth P-51D mustangs. Plus flight and maintainance instructors, ammunition, spare parts, oxygen masks, helmets and flight suits. Not a minute too soon for los ticos. Price for the whole deal? Four crisp one dollar bills. That’s not a typo. The deal stands to this very day as the cheapest price ever paid for an operable mustang fighter plane $1 USD.
Monday 17 JAN 1955 14:30 hours
El Coco International Airport (today Juan Santamaria) Day 6 of the Invasion
In the shade of the wooden control tower stand a group of young men anxiously scanning the skies to the northeast. Each one of them silently hoping to be the first to spot them. To stand-out and hopefully impress Piyique. Their leader, Piyique Guerra was the only one standing on the tarmac who had thought to bring along a pair of binoculars. Nervously he scans the skies, then lowers his field glasses to glance up at the tower and the radio operator who simply shakes his head. Damn, Piyique thought. Where in hell are they?
Piyique as well as the other young men gathered around him is a professional airline pilot. They are all employed by Costa Rica’s national airline, LACSA. Captain Piyique Guerra will choose from these eager young men his mustang drivers. Piyique at twenty- three is already a combat veteran. At just sixteen years of age he fought beside Don Pepe in the war of ’48.
Again he looks up at the radio operator. Nope. Still no contact. Had the gringos changed their minds? Had they been grounded due to weather? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky here. Dear God had they been intercepted and shot down en route?! Heaven help us if they were, he thought. Time seems to creep by. Finally a whoop goes out from the control tower. The radio operator comes rushing out onto the open observation platform, his earphones down around his neck.
“They’re here! They’re here!”, he shouts excitedly. Only a few moments later four small dots and one larger dot appear in the sky to the northeast. The powerful rays of a tropical sun sparkle like glass off the polished aluminum fuselage and wing tips of the approaching mustangs. All at once a loud protracted cheer rises-up from the group of pilot candidates along with many bear hugs and backslapping. Their emotions are heartfelt and completely understandable under the circumstances. In the week following the start of the war things are not going well for the brave costaricans opposing the invasion; inspite of the important victory at Villa Quesada.
The five aircraft flight touch down in text book form, starting with the large twin engine transport carrying the gringo ground crew as well as tools, spare parts and other necessary equipment to train the ticos and keep them flying. Following the transport two of the P-51’s land wing tip to wing tip. The flight leader and his wing man had separated from the flight, as the transport began its descent, and they’d pulled up at nearly a ninety degree angle shooting skyward to 20,000 feet, in what seemed like seconds to the awestruck men gathered on the tarmac below. The two high flying mustangs take- up a protective orbit around the airport to provide security to their squadron mates as they land. They weren’t back at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. They knew there were enemy planes prowling Costa Rica airspace, and the Texans weren’t about to get caught with their britches down.
The arriving airplanes taxi over to the apron beside a large hangar, it’s enormous bay doors open on both ends. The ticos gathered around the shiny mustangs watch like starstruck teenagers standing outside Real Madrid’s locker room, as the flight suit clad Texans climb down from their aircraft.
From the open cargo door of the big american transport appears a barrel chested buzz cut Air Guard From the open cargo door of the big american transport appears a barrel chested buzz cut Air Guard Chief Master Sergeant who begins shouting orders to the ground crew personnel, both his and Capt. Piyique’s as well.
“Lieutenant Colonel Tony Campbell, Texas Air Guard reporting with four thirsty P-51D mustangs, sir…” With a smile as big as Texas the tall gringo flight leader reaches-out his big right hand and shakes Piyique’s. As the young costarican captain is wearing civilian clothing with nothing displaying indication of rank, there is no saluting.
Introductions are made all around. After a quick supper of leftover new year’s tamales, eaten by all in the hangar bay (being Texans they knew better than to eat the banana leaf), they get straight to business. Col. Campbell is absolutely floored when Piyique explains that they have exactly twenty-four hours for the good colonel and his men to get Piyique and his men qualified to ride those mustangs into battle and “drive those revolutionary bastardos back to hell”, Piyique explained- perhaps a bit too melodramatically.
Meanwhile The Chief took all the enlisted tico ground crew guys under his wing without fanfare. Colonel Tony was still wearing the same, now sweat soaked, flight suit he’d been wearing when they left Texas the prior afternoon. He paced back and forth before a chaulkboard, a piece of chaulk and the erasure in hand. He does his best to cram all he’s learned of tactics and techniques in aerial combat over his twenty year career, into a two hour lecture. They do, thankfully, enjoy an endless supply of strong black costarican coffee.
The chief stands at the eye of a hurricane of activity. At one end of the brightly lit hangar the Texans have the cowling off one of the birds, exposing her spotless Packard V1650 engine capable of producing 1,490 HP at 3,000 RPM, to the mustangs future caregivers. The future fighter plane mechanics stand in a semicircle staring upward at the massive power plant, their jaws literally hanging open. This was no cropduster, or flying school bus. This was a lethal work of art.
At the other end of the hangar bay teams of men are busy stripping the old U.S. insignia from the wings, tail and fuselage of the new war birds. Another team concentrates on painting the Costa Rica tricolor flag in their place. On the tail of each mustang they paint a number: one through four.
Back in the improvised classroom the tall, lanky colonel from Texas explains to his students, in a pre-game pep talk kind of way, how the future “mustang drivers” should feel total confidence when engaging the enemy for the first time. That compared to the puny 600 HP Pratt and Whitney radial engine of the AT-6’s they would be facing, the Mustang’s 1,500 HP engine would out climb and out maneuver the “bad guys like a rabid pitbull on a buddhist sloth”. If that weren’t enough he adds that the Mustang’s six wing mounted Browning M2.50 calibre heavy machine guns can punch holes the size of Rocky Marciano’s fist through solid concrete at 1,000 yards. “Anything under heaven that ends up on the business end of a P-51 will not live long enough to regret it, gentlemen”. The colonel finishes in a sober, stern voice.
Being trained commercial pilots Piyique Guerra and his “Flying Tigres”- as they will come to be known, can speak passable english and have atleast learned the theory and physics of flight. Between them they have thousands of hours of flying time. For that reason all the gringos really have to do is focus on giving their instructees some time in the air so as to get the feel of the aircraft. Going from flying a C-47 or a DC-3 passenger liner to flying a P-51 mustang is like going from driving an oxcart to driving a Ferrari. Still the principles remain the same. Of course they’d need atleast some familiarization time on the mustang’s weapons systems. “ And for God’s sake”, Col. Tony presches with genuine conviction, “ don’t go shooting each other down by mistake!”
At around three in the morning class was dismissed. The pilots- instructors and students alike, collapse wherever they can for a good two hour power nap. They will be up again just before sunrise to begin actual flight time in the birds. The ground crew keeps rocking-on, prepping the aircraft for that days upcoming training flights.
It was easy to tell who was who stepping over the prone bodies littering the hangar floor. The instructors snoozed peacefully, while the students lay on their backs, hands clasped behind their heads, eye wide open staring intently at the aircraft hangar’s exposed steel rafters.
LOS FLYING TIGRES GO ON THE HUNT
Wednesday 19 Jan, 1955 0530hrs El Coco AB
El Coco International Airport has technically become El Coco Air Base. On the flight line sit four P-51D mustangs side-by-side, engines rumbling, props’ turning. They are fully armed and look menacing in the early morning dusk. For the first time they are manned exclusively by ticos. Gathered along the grassy edge of the tarmac the combined US-CR ground crew stand shoulder-to-shoulder, grease and paint covered hands on hips, fingers crossed. Even the exhausted ground crew personnel who’d been cut loose to go catch some sleep hang around to witness this historic moment. On the control tower observation platform the gringo flight instructors stand, watch and wait for the four warbirds to line-up for take off, a cigarette and big steaming hot cup of coffee in each hand.
One-by-one the sleek mustangs gracefully lift off into the rising sun. They quickly climb to patrol altitude. No hitches. So far so good. Though no one was uncrossing their fingers until all the mustangs, #1 through #4, and their pilots, were safely back in their stables.
The first two mustangs climb effortlessly to 20,000 feet and take up a defensive CAP (combat air patrol) over San Jose and Los Tigres new home base at El Coco, as they had been taught. Any enemy aircraft that decided to visit the Central Valley today would be in for a big surprise. With the extended capacity fuel tanks that the Texans had used for the flight down from San Antonio, the P-51 could stay in the air for hours.
While the two leading mustangs climb to take-up their CAP over San Jose, the other two fighters in the flight take-up a heading leading them to the northwest. These two birds of prey are not on a defensive mission.
Colonel Campbell suggested to the mini squadron’s new commanding officer, Piyique Guerra that the day’s first combat mission should launch at first light. The objective had been selected by a rating of urgency. As Santa Rosa was considered by Higher Ups’ to be the most tactically important- not to mention most historically sacred, area under siege by advancing invader forces at the time, Santa Rosa, Guanacaste it was.
Attacking early in the day, coming from the east, would give the two avenging mustangs the element of surprise on their first attack run atleast . The sun being in the eyes of their prey. “The second battle of Santa Rosa”, considered the fiercest and most crucial battle of the Invasion of ’55 (as the conflict will later be called) was on the morning of wednesday 19 January, 1955 a site of much kinetic activity and flat-out mayhem. Mortar fire, artillery fire and the constant chattering of automatic weapons, as well as the clanking and belching of tracked and other mechanized vehicles it is an ear shattering symphony of chaos. This too will prove to be a great advantage in concealing the sound of the mustang’s roaring powerplants as well as the scream of their descent; into the attack to save their brothers dying on the ground.
“Remember”, The Texas colonel had said at the pre-flight mission briefing that morning, “…Stay high ‘till you spot your target. ALWAYS CONFIRM FRIEND OR FOE FIRST!” He was especially adamant about that, “and remember to keep your spacing wide when you dive into your attack. If they (the enemy) believe your lead aircraft is alone they will scramble out from cover, after he makes his first gun run, to shoot at him as he goes into his climb. Leaving their commie asses hangin’ out in the wind for the second plane to roll in and cut them to pieces.” He’d punched his open left hand for emphasis.
Just a stone’s throw from the old ranch house where national hero Juan Santamaria gave his life for Costa Rica, against a different invader one hundred years before (the first battle of Santa Rosa), twenty-two year old Captain Abel Pacheco sits intently focused on the action going on around him. From the turret of the light battle tank he commands he does his best not to “sweep” his own guys with the tank’s multiple machine guns, all the while concentrating fire from the tanks main gun at the target to his front.
Pacheco is a law student when he isn’t commanding a tank roaming the Guanacaste country-side blowing things up. A native born costarican, Pachecho is a die- hard socialist and big supporter of Calderon. To illustrate just how deeply divided, politically, Costa Rica is in 1955: young Captain Pacheco is a first cousin of Capt. Piyique Guerra . The very same guy who commands those two mustangs now en route to grind Capt. Pacheco and his buddies into hamburger. One can only imagine family reunions at their house. If the young tank commander/law student had not received a family newsletter regarding cousin Piyique’s cool new job flying mustangs, he’d soon get the message by other means.
About 200 meters to Capt. Pacheco’s front are a squad of a dozen or so haggard Costa Rica government troops, who’ve found themselves cut off from the main force of General Daniel Oduber’s fighting guanacastecos; loyal figueristas to their very core. Indeed it was Daniel Oduber who had co-founded the political party Partido Liberación Nacional along with Pepe Figueres back in the ‘40s.
These loyal Costa Rica troopers are all wounded and low on water and ammunition.With their old crank-up G.I. issue radio destroyed by a mortar round, these beat-up civilian soldiers found themselves some cover in a mango orchard. The trees provide some protection. However they are now surrounded by invader forces. To their front they are receiving direct fire from Pacheco’s tank, plus another thirty or forty enemy infantry which have out-flanked them. In addition they find themselves receiving indirect fire from a heavy mortar crew which is enthusiastically lobbing football sized, shrapnel packed bombs on them from a cow pasture 300 meters to their right. That was when the most astonishing and wonderful thing happened. Atleast in the eyes of those poor guys trapped in the mango orchard. A gift from heaven you might say; a divine intervention.
The primary objective for this day’s first mission is the enemy airfield at the northwestern Costa Rica border town of La Cruz. Now well within enemy territory, the airbase at La Cruz is where the enemy fighters and gunships are launching from for attacks on loyal tico forces desperately fighting at Santa Rosa and on the outskirts of Liberia. Taking-out-enemy air power is critical to winning this war. With that said, seeing such juicy targets as an enemy tank and infantry in the open, the two eager beaver young fighter pilots decide to make a little detour and dive down to say hello.
Captain Pacheco has no idea what is happening when he sees his comrades abandon the assault on the Costa Rica troopers trapped in the orchard and instead begin running willy-nilly in every direction “as if their hair were on fire”, the young tanker would later say. Then Capt. Pacheco sees hundreds of what look like geysers of dirt and debris exploding meters into the air all around him. Looking up through the open hatch of his tank, young Pacheco quickly understands. First one then a second P-51 mustang comes roaring over head at tree-top level. Their twelve combined machine guns churn-up the landscape and Pacheco’s comrades before them. Suddenly there is a horrendous explosion, punctuated by what feels like an earthquake tremor, and the enemy mortar crew which had been pounding the trapped ticos in the mango orchard ceases to exist. Out of fuel and ammo and with his tank badly damaged, Capt. Pacheco will be captured the following day by forces under the command of Col. Domingo Garcia.
Pacheco would never forget the sphincter tightening feeling that he was about to be vaporized by a 500 pound bomb. Lucky for Capt. Pacheco and the crew of his tank, not so much for the mortar crew, the two mustang flight which had just ruined Pacheco’s lovely morning, needed to save the bulk of their ordenance for the enemy airfield at La Cruz.
As for Gen. Oduber’s troopers trapped in the mango orchard? According to the son of one of those troopers there in the orchard that day, “If there had been an atheist among them when they fled into that orchard, there weren’t any when they came walking back out”. That would do it. During the short flight to their primary target at La Cruz the two mustang drivers, high on adrenaline and hungry for more action, manage to come upon an enemy DC-3 transport plane turned gunship. It is flying low and slow below them at the mustang flight’s two-o’clock position. No doubt heading to La Cruz as well, to refuel and re-arm after expending all their bullets and bombs on tico forces savagely fighting to slow the invader’s advance. Two quick squeezes on the “pickle” button with their thumbs and the mustang flight, with two short bursts of red hot thousand grain.50 calibre chunks of fully jacketed lead, sends the enemy gunship spiralling toward earth in flames. Upon impacting a stretch of the Panamerican Highway the DC-3 is engulfed by a massive fire ball.
At the enemy airfield in La Cruz it is a gorgeous, cloudless morning. Cool for Guanacaste at the start of the dry season. Chilly even. No radio distress signal was received from the now burning wreck of the DC-3. Nor had a distress signal been sent. It is quite probable the crew of the downed enemy gunship never knew what hit them. Under the shade of a palm frond Rancho the pilots and aircrew members of the AT-6 fighter and twin engine gunship, both venezuelan, parked at the end of the grass airstrip- being fueled by a tanker truck, enjoy a breakfast of pinto and coffee.
The invasion’s architects had made the cardinal mistake of over confident war planners since the dawn of man. They planned for the most probable scenario. When they should have planned for the most potentially disastrous scenario. They gave no thought to the possibility that Costa Rica might have or find the means of acquiring an airforce. All the pre-invasion intelligence they had gathered said that Costa Rica had no tactical aircraft. So as the two mustangs climb to attack altitude in preparation for their screaming dive at the enemy airfield below, there is no anti-aircraft fire coming up to meet them. Even if anyone down below had even noticed the presence of Piyique’s two fighter planes rushing down on them in the first place. This will mark the third time today Los Flying Tigres have caught the enemy by surprise to devastating effect. A hat trick.
The lead mustang misses entirely with her guns, creating a harmless though terrifying wave of exploding turf that instantly transforms the enemy ground crew members fueling the two parked aircraft into olympic sprinters. He’d come down too low to release his second and last bomb. He’d get them on his next pass if his wingman following behind managed to miss. He doesn’t. Letting both his 500 pounders go at once, before banking hard left then gunning his engine for all she had, to get all the altitude he could get as fast as it could get got, mustang #2 leaves one massive, orange and black mushroom cloud of burning petrol behind him. The AT-6, the gunship, the fuel truck and every standing structure or tree for a 500 yard radius is obliterated. Secondary explosions continue as fuel and ammunition stored nearby under camouflage netting (the two mustang drivers never saw them before the attack) begin cooking- off. Winchester on ammo and bingo on fuel, the pair of merry mayhem making mustangs make a wide, high loop and head for home. Not before enjoying a few last glimpses of the fireworks show they’ve left behind. Between them they still have one 500 pound bomb left. So they make a pass over Liberia on route to El Coco, and discover a convoy of enemy vehicles about one kilometer east of town. Happily, for the invaders in that convoy, the bomb fails to detonate; falling harmlessly into a sugar cane field beside the road.
Piyique and his flying Tigres are overnite sensations. Not just in Costa Rica, but around the world. Life magazine, New York Times as well as magazines and newspapers big and small send correspondants to Costa Rica to cover this David and Goliath contest. Hundreds of ticos, men, women and children, line the fence outside El Coco AB hoping for a chance to see the shiny, powerful mustangs and their heroic pilots.
Over the next three days the Flying Tigres succeed in clearing the Costa Rica skies of enemy aircraft. They now concentrate on pressing the counter attack by providing close air support (CAS) to tico forces on the ground. Now the enemy gets a taste of his own medicine. Now in full retreat and totally demoralized- their invasion a clear catastrophe, those enemy units still intact fall back, re-group and dig-in around the village of El Amo. They are now only a few miles from the Nicaraguan border.
Known for his hell-bent-for-leather style, famous for his belief that “offense is the best defense”, Colonel Frank Marshall- The Blond Devil, will lead his troops in the final push at this northwestern pocket of enemy troops, to clear the invaders from costarican soil once and for all. Backed-up, of course, with CAS provided by Los Flying Tigres.
From El Amo on, any enemy combatant left in Costa Rica who is still breathing, now has his back to the fast advancing ticos and is running like hell for the border. According to one veteran of the fight, a member of the Blond Devil’s command, who goes by the moniker, Commanchee, “it was easy to track them down (the fleeing invaders)”… The eighty-three year old rancher from San Carlos says through tobacco stained teeth; his skin brown and wrinkly like a well worn catchers mitt, “all we had to do was follow the trail of abandoned weapons and equipment los hijos de puta left for us as they ran for their lives”.
Sometime around noon Friday 22 January, a group of Costa Rica infantry come upon and surprise a group of some forty enemy fighters hold-up at Rosa Alan’s farm outside Peñas Blancas. These invader troops are stragglers from different now decimated enemy units.
They are not hold-up at señora Alan’s place because they still have some fight left in them. They had held-up in her old barn because they were too worn-out to continue running for the sanctuary of Nicaragua. EPILOGUE
“The angry can be made happy again, but the dead can not be brought back to life”.
-Sun Zu author of the Art of War.
“Al enemigo que huye, puente de plata”.
-Lt.Oscar Saborio Alvarado, who served under Col. Frank Marshall during the Invasion of ’55.
Even wars eventually end. The leaders of the invasion made many mistakes. Top of the list was underestimating the tenacity and patriotic ferver of the ticos in combat.
Other than Calderon’s ego, there was no reason to believe that average ticos would rise up and join the invaders in ousting Figueres, the “dictator”. The uprising that the enemy had counted on in order that the invasion be a success, never materialized. In fact quite the opposite occurred.
At the outset of the invasion enemy forces numbered less than 2,500 men, including reserve troops, which were never committed to the fight and stayed in Nicaragua the entire campaign. Over 10,000 loyal figueristas, including many former calderonistas- vets from the losing side in ’48 who were against this invasion, rallied around the tricolor flag and their freely elected president, Don Pepe Figueres.
It is probable that the ticos would eventually have won the war without the assistance of the four mustangs. Though there can be no doubt that the fighter planes were THE decisive factor in the swift victory Costa Rica enjoyed against the over confident invaders. As anyone who has witnessed war first hand will tell you, the only humane war is the shortest of wars.
Miraculously none of the Flying Tigres were killed in action, or even shot down by enemy fire, for that matter. Sadly there was one pilot lost among
“squadron”. On Sunday 23 January, 1955 on what would be the last day of combat operations against the last pocket of invaders up north, mustang driver and Flying Tigre, Amado Conejo was lost when his mustang #3 crashed due to mechanical issues during a recon’ patrol. Capt. Conejo bravely chose not to bail-out, but rather stayed with the crippled aircraft in a futile attempt to save the strategically important fighter plane as well as innocent civilians below- which was and is a very densely populated area of Alajuela. He nearly succeeded, crashing just short of the runway at El Coco AB. Capt. Conejo was lost and the strategically important aircraft destroyed beyond repair, despite the efforts of it’s valiant pilot.
As the mustang was destroyed beyond any future use, it is a fitting tribute to Capt. Conejo that the aluminum skin of his plane was cut-up for patching material on the roof of the cathedral in the center of Moravia. That roof is still there keeping it’s parishioners heads dry in the rainy season to this very day.
Of the four mustangs three would crash within months of their arrival to Costa Rica. Only Amado Conejo’s mustang #3 was too damaged to be rebuilt. The other three P-51D’s are being flown by collectors still. With a current value of $1.8 million USD, that one US dollar price paid by the costarican government back in 1955 looks pretty damn sweet.
Mustang #2 was purchased by David Gilmore, vocalist/ guitarist for the legendary rock band, Pink Floyd in 1997. It was later renamed “Comfortably Numb”.
Of all the crazy rumors I heard and wild goose chases I went on, during my research for this story- trying to locate the whereabouts of the four mustangs, the story of what happened to mustangs #1 and #4 is the most tantalizing of all.
According to legend some time in 1989, not long to be deposed, arrested and extradited dictator of Panama General Manuel Noriega purchased the two mustangs from the costarican government during the first presidential administration of Oscar Arias. As the story goes, Noriega bought the two fighter planes as a birthday present for infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. His buddy Pablo had declared war on a Colombian paramilitary group after said group kidnapped the niece of one of Escobar’s partners. Pablo had decided to pay the kidnapper’s ransom with lead. As of press time I could not confirm, nor debunk the story.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
First the winners: Don Pepe Figueres, President of the Republic of Costa Rica and founding father of that country’s second republic tops the list. Along with the people of Costa Rica. He would serve three terms between 1948 and 1974, for a total of ten years as Costa Rica’s chief executive. Don Pepe’s democratic reforms include the abolition of a standing professional army, the restoration of private property rights and the end of forced racial segregation to name a few. Since Don Pepe Figueres took power in 1948 Costa Rica has enjoyed a peaceful transition of power in every presidential election to date. He remained a staunch defender of freedom and a respected statesman within the Organization of American States (OAS) during the entirety of the Cold War. He passed away on the night of 8 July, 1990. Your humble writer remembers well the incredible outpouring of genuine grief displayed by ticos across the country. I especially remember how San Jose came to a screeching halt. Outside Don Pepe’s hospital room, in the middle of the street, hundreds gathered and just stood silently staring up at the president’s window. Ironically Don Pepe died in the very same hospital named for his arch rival, Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia.
Col. Frank “El Diablo Rubio” Marshall would remain a legend throughout Ticolandia and Latin America well beyond his passing. A guy who couldn’t pay for a shot in any cantina in Costa Rica. Col. Marshall would serve as a diputado in Costa Rica’s national assembly in the 1970s. He retired to his beach house on Tamarindo Bay, Guanacaste where he enjoyed fishing with his friends and large family until his passing on 2 November, 1994.
Piyique Guerra returned to his day job, flying passenger liners and cargo aircraft. The Flying Tigres squadron leader would go on to create his own airline, though pressure from political rivals and influence from LACSA resulted in his permits being denied. His airline never got off the ground.
Lt. Col. Tony Campbell went back home to Texas along with his squadron mates, shortly after the Flying Tigres went into action. He opened an auto dealership, selling Buicks, along with The Chief- who ran the repair shop, outside of San Angelo. On the Colonel’s desk the cherished and ever present scale model of a P-51D mustang.The number 1 painted on it’s tail, and bearing, the tricolor insignia of the Republic of Costa Rica. A momento sent to him on behalf of the grateful people of Costa Rica and Los Flying Tigres.
Although Abel Pacheco had been on the losing side of the conflict he should be considered a winner, after all he wasn’t vaporized by a 500 pound bomb. He did finish his studies and graduated law school. After some deep self reflection Pacheco decided to make the herculean leap from socialist to “social democrat”. Abel Pacheco’s ambitions didn’t stop there. He served as President of the Republic of Costa Rica from 2002 to 2006.
THE LOSERS: Apart from those who did not survive the Invasion of ’55, it’s a tough call as to who takes top position in this category. Certainly Somoza, and the fuse that lit the whole shabang- Calderon, should take the top two slots.
Anastasio Somoza’s bad fortune did not end with his humiliating defeat in 1955. Shortly there after, internal political conflict in Nicaragua led to an assassination attempt against him in the nicaraguan city of Leon. Somoza survived the attempt, but died later in hospital in Panama. His son would take over only to be driven out of power by Daniel Ortega and his neo-sandinistas, in 1979. Junior was later tracked-down and killed by a car bomb in Paraguay on 17 September, 1980
Although Calderon’s fate was mush less violent it was wrought with personal failure and disappointment. The former dictator was allowed to return to Costa Rica after his exile in Mexico. He does in indeed return in 1958. After failing at a presidential bid in 1962, Calderon returns to academia and continues as a voice for the socialist agenda. He died on 9 June, 1970 after a three year stint as ambassador to Mexico. Both Calderon’s and Figueres’s sons would serve as presidents of Costa Rica in the first half of the 1990s; though without a single shot being fired in anger.
Soviet leader Guiorgui Malenkov was humiliated by Costa Rica’s victory. The perception of weakness on his part as declared by the puppet masters in the Kremlin, brought about his being replaced with the appointment of Nikita Khrushchev as grand poobah of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics just two months later on 27 March, 1955. Hero of Stalingrad and chest thumping future adversary of soon to be President of the United States- John Fitzgerlad Kennedy; over the attempted installation of nuclear tipped missiles by the soviets in Cuba. As they say, little Nicky “blinked”. He will be casualty # 2 as far as soviet leaders being canned due to political and military failures in Latin America during the forty plus years of the Cold War. He won’t be the last. Little Nicky gets his walking papers shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1964 .
Last but not least it is the people of Nicaragua who will lose the most of all. That country will host revolution after revolution as the West’s most active Cold War battlefield. Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties, the poor “ pinoleros” would suffer much poverty and hardship. Ending only with the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As of press time Nicaragua is in it’s second year of violent clashes between impoverished citizens and “President” Ortega’s heavy- handed anti-democratic policies. The death toll is now estimated in the hundreds.
Though few ticos alive today are aware of it, there is a day set aside each year to commemorate the valiant ticos who fought and who died in the civil war of 1948 and the continuation of that war during the Invasion of ’55. Their sacrifices were made so that the Costa Rica they dreamed of would become the Costa Rica we know today. That annual day of remembrance is September 20th.
WHO IS JOHNNY VICTORY?
In researching this piece I came along many amazing and intriguing nuggets of Costa Rica’s history in the 1900’s, most specifically that of The Invasion of’55 and the Flying Tigres. There remains one mystery in particular though. On the roster containing the eight young pilot candidates chosen to be Piyique Guerra’s Flying Tigres, one name stands out: “Johnny Victory”. The name is not costarican. It’s not spanish or Italian. It does sound like a name straight out of a corny old black and white Hollywood action picture. The U.S. Defense Department, State Department as well as official Costa Rica records show no U.S. personnel performing a “combat role” during the Invasion of ’55. Who is Johnny Victory? I can find nothing about the guy other than that he is mentioned in several after action reports as being one of the mustang drivers. Could he have been a gringo in disguise? I won’t rest until I find out. I can promise you that. Stay tuned, history nerds….