BY ROGELIO ACEVEDO
Pathfinder Press has recently released a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58.
To promote this book the Militant is running "Pages from Cuba's Revolutionary History." This series features articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.- backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
This week's installment - the eighth - focuses on the "Suicide Squad" of Column no. 8 of the Rebel Army, commanded by Che Guevara, and on the unit's leader Roberto Rodríguez, also known by his nickname "Vaquerito."
The squad was made up of volunteers who took on the most dangerous assignments in the order of battle. As Guevara explains in Episodes, "The Suicide Squad was an example of revolutionary morale, and only selected volunteers joined it. But whenever a man died - and that happened in every battle - when the new candidate was named, those not chosen would be grief-stricken and even cry. How curious to see those seasoned and noble warriors showing their youth by their tears of despair, because they did not have the honor of being in the front line of combat and death."
Vaquerito, the platoon's leader, was killed during the battle of Santa Clara on Dec. 30, 1958, two days before the triumph of the revolution.
Below are excerpts from articles by three members of Guevara's column published in Verde Olivo, the magazine of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Cuba.
Rogelio Acevedo joined the Rebel Army in July 1957 at age 15 and is currently a division general in the FAR. In an article published Dec. 10, 1981, he relates events from the battle of La Federal on Sept. 9, 1958.
Jesús Parra, a founding member of Column no. 8, which carried out the Rebel Army campaign from the Sierra Maestra to Las Villas province in central Cuba, discusses events following the battle of Guinía de Miranda, which took place Oct. 26-27, 1958. His article was published Oct. 29, 1987.
The third excerpt is by Leonardo Tamayo, a peasant from the Sierra Maestra who joined the Rebel Army in 1957, and later became second in command of the Suicide Squad. In 1966 he accompanied Guevara to Bolivia, under the nom-de-guerre "Urbano," and was one of the three Cuban survivors of the guerrilla unit. He later served on internationalist missions in Nicaragua and Angola, and is currently a retired colonel in Cuba's Ministry of the Interior. His article was published Jan. 5, 1964.
Translation and subheadings are by the Militant.
BY ROGELIO ACEVEDO
Translation and subheadings are by the Militant.
Three comrades, Capt. Angel Frías, Lt. Roberto Rodríguez, and combatant Enrique Acevedo decided to take the house by assault, arriving at its door after a dangerous sprint.
Enrique surrounded the mansion from the back, and got inside to open the main door for Vaquerito and Angel Frías, who went inside and searched the basement without finding anything. Later they decided to go up to the top floor, where two bedrooms were located: one was to the right of the stairs, with its door closed; the other at the end of a wide hallway without railings.
Vaquerito remained in the hallway, while Angel Frías and Enrique penetrated into the bedroom at the extreme left, killing the corporal of the tyranny's army after a quick exchange of shots. At the same instant, Vaquerito tried to enter the second bedroom, and was greeted by a hail of fire from the dictatorship's soldiers. He was saved thanks to his small size and his agility.
Together with his other comrades, in the hallway now, Roberto Rodríguez was able to shoot his way inside the bedroom occupied by the enemy. In the course of the exchange of fire, Angel Frías fell from the second floor, breaking an ankle.
Enrique, who had also run through the hallway toward Vaquerito's position, assisted him in firing at the guards. Vaquerito's shouts of "Surrender, or come out and fight!" in addition to the rain of fire from his rifle, shattered the morale of the tyranny's soldiers.
At that precise moment, a bullet wounded Enrique in both arms, while Vaquerito continued firing his Garand until a bullet got lodged in the rifle butt, putting it out of action.
Without losing his composure, Vaquerito picked up Enrique's weapon and continued firing at the guards, at the same time calling on them to surrender, although at that moment the enemy's superiority was evident.
Realizing the serious condition of his wounded comrade, Roberto Rodríguez stationed himself in the center of the doorway, five meters from the guards, and continued firing away, enabling the wounded comrade to withdraw; and not giving a thought to the fact that he remained there fighting all alone.
Moments later, the three enemy survivors surrendered. Three soldiers of the tyranny had been killed in the action.
As always, in this action at La Federal, Vaquerito demonstrated his stature as a revolutionary and a hero, fulfilling the assigned mission by any means possible, despite having to confront all alone an enemy superior in number.
This was one of the numerous heroic acts that earned Roberto Rodríguez - "Vaquerito" - his reputation as one of the most valiant combatants of the Rebel Army.
BY JESU'S PARRA After the battle, the attackers proceeded to bury their dead.
Later one part headed to Sopimpa and the other to Gavilanes. At the latter place there was discussion on why the bazooka had not worked. Lieutenant Roberto Rodríguez, "Vaquerito," and José Figueredo, among others, raised with Che the idea of creating a squad armed with automatic weapons that would guarantee the taking of enemy positions.
The guerrilla leader liked the idea and asked for volunteers who wished to be part of it.
A squad was created consisting at first of six invasion veterans and five combatants from the remaining forces, but very soon the number rose to 35. The unit received the name "Suicide Squad." It was headed by Vaquerito, and its second in command was Leonardo Tamayo. Its missions included entering garrisons by surprise, once they were surrounded, and achieving their surrender.
BY LEONARDO TAMAYO I think we had been in Las Villas for a month. Che sent Emérido Meriño, Vaquerito, and me on a scouting mission. It was at night. We were 30 or 40 meters from the Caracusey garrison, carrying out the mission, when Vaquerito, seeing the tranquil state of the guardposts, said to me, "What would you think about asking Che if he'd let us assault the garrison, once it's surrounded, and take it by surprise?"
Shortly afterward we spoke with Che. "The Argentine" approved the idea and gave us the necessary orders. A few comrades were chosen and he asked them if they wanted to form a new platoon. Che would name it the "Suicide Squad."
The platoon was quickly formed. Its members were Emérido Meriño; Antonio [García], who had been in charge of our bazooka during the invasion; Juanito; Hugo del Río; Orlando; "El Mexicano"; Juan Alberto Castellanos Villamar; Zacarías; Alfredo, who would be killed during the taking of the Cabaiguán garrison; Pancho; and "Patriot." The head of the platoon was, logically enough, Roberto Rodríguez, "Vaquerito." I was second in command.
I had met Vaquerito in Las Vegas de Jibacoa, back in the Sierra Maestra. He was then working with Celia. He was a happy and likable young man, always joking. At first I did not have much dealing with him. Later he came as part of the Invasion Column, as a member of Angelito Frías's platoon. Throughout the entire day, he always kept his cheerful personality, was a good companion, and when necessary he displayed courage. Other comrades had already talked about his conduct at Cuatro Compañeros and La Federal.
First task of `suicide squad'
After the Suicide Squad was formed, its first attack, I recall, was at the garrison at Fomento. There an event occurred that tells us something about Vaquerito. He told me he had a plan. In the event that the garrison did not surrender after gunfire, he wanted to utilize a turbine to siphon gasoline from a tank, carry it in tubes right up to the garrison, and set it ablaze. The plan was not carried out, of course. At the time, I thought it was a good idea. Today I believe, and tell myself, that it was crazy. But that's how Vaquerito was. Those who knew him have no doubt he would have carried it out....
First task of `suicide squad'
Later we attacked the Cabaiguán garrison. The attack began at five in the morning. I was exhausted after so many days of fighting, and was resting in the portal of a house for a few minutes. As I left, I was surprised by an M-1 shot fired at me. I went to look for Vaquerito. He said, "Let's go find some of those soldiers." He positioned some comrades, and then he and I headed out. There were six soldiers and they surrendered without firing another shot. We seized three M-1s, a Thompson, a San Cristóbal, and two Springfields. By now the population of the town was engulfing us, and one of the prisoners escaped. But at that moment, the weapons were more important than the prisoners.
We told Che everything. Later, after we had been fighting for about three hours at the garrison. Vaquerito received orders to go reinforce the comrades who were fighting at the short-wave post. This point was attacked by Silva's platoon. Che had pulled Silva out with half his platoon, and Acevedo remained behind with the other group. We went to reinforce this group. When we arrived there, we found that [Silverio] Blanco had been wounded. This comrade had come with us on the invasion. He died two days later.
Vaquerito despaired whenever any of our comrades were killed or wounded. He told us we would either die or take prisoners. And he decided to shoot out the short-wave post so that the soldiers would have no communication.
He ordered us to concentrate our fire for five or ten minutes. After five minutes we called out to the guards to surrender. A soldier came out and said that one of us should go in and discuss their surrender. Vaquerito shouted back that all of us would go in, and that they should lay down their arms. The guards wanted to discuss this. Vaquerito announced that combat would resume. We advanced, and they all surrendered. I don't recall how many prisoners and how many weapons were captured, but there were quite a few.
We continued fighting in the garrison, which surrendered at dawn after a battle lasting from eight o'clock the night before. I was wounded and was in the Cabaiguán workers' hospital....
Oscar [Fernández Mell] got me from the hospital and brought me to Remedios. There I was reunited with Che. The battle was already in its final moments. I fired only one shot and the garrison surrendered. Later I joked a lot with the comrades, and sometimes I still repeat the joke with them. It was a coincidence that just as I fired one shot, the garrison surrendered.
Last battle in Santa Clara
Our last battle was in Santa Clara. On Cápiro Hill - and this will be told when all the comrades get together and relate the history of this battle - we were fighting against approximately 500 soldiers. At the front was Alfonso Zayas, today a commander.
Last battle in Santa Clara
The Suicide Squad was the first to enter the city. Because of Vaquerito's courage and bravery, the platoon was able to get inside. Later Che gave him the mission of attacking the main police station. We got right up to the house in front of it, moving against the walls of the other houses. Positioned in a flat-roof house were Vaquerito, Hugo del Río, another comrade, and me. Vaquerito was a young man who did not watch out for himself. He never crawled; he always went on two feet. He was never afraid to fulfill any mission he was assigned. Standing up, in the middle of the house, he fired at the police station. I shouted to him: "Hit the ground or they'll kill you!"
A few minutes later I looked at him. He was on the ground. Not realizing the situation, I said, "Why aren't you shooting?" Approaching him, I saw that blood was streaming from his mouth. An M-1 bullet had gone through his head.
We carried him to the command post, where he was attended by doctors De la O and Fernández Mell and another doctor whose name I don't remember. Vaquerito had spoken his last words. Within 30 minutes he was dead.
Che looked at the body, and I'll never forget his words:
"They've just killed a hundred of our men."
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