Monday, October 09, 2017

Fifty-One Years Later

On October 8, 1967, two companies of Bolivian Rangers engaged in a firefight with a small contingent of Communist guerrillas and found that they had captured the famed Che Guevara.  As Time magazine reports.
The Quebrada del Yuro, deep in the stifling Bolivian jungle 75 miles north of Camiri, is a steep and narrow ravine that is covered with dense foliage. There, early last week, two companies of Bolivian Rangers totaling more than 180 men split into two columns and quietly stalked a handful of guerrillas. Shortly after noon, the troops spotted their men, and both sides opened up with their rifles and automatic weapons at a withering, point-blank range of 150 feet. After a lengthy fight, four Rangers and three guerrillas lay dead, and four other guerrillas had been captured.
One of the prisoners was no ordinary guerrilla. He was Ernesto (" Che ") Guevara, 39, the elusive Marxist firebrand, guerrilla expert and former second in command to Fidel Castro whose name had be come a legend after his disappearance from Cuba 2 1/2 years ago. Since that time, much of the world had thought Che dead (perhaps even at Castro's hands) until his presence in Bolivia was dramatically confirmed a short time ago...
Dressed in a dusty fatigue shirt, faded green trousers and lightweight, high-top sandals, Che caught a bullet in his left thigh as he advanced toward the government troops; another bullet knocked his M-l semiautomatic carbine right out of his hands. In Che 's rucksack, the Rangers found a book entitled Essays on Contemporary Capitalism, several codes, two war diaries, some messages of support from "Ariel"—apparently Castro—and a personal notebook. "It seems," read one recent notebook entry in Che 's tight, crisp handwriting, "that this is reaching the end."
Which reminds me of a story.  Along about the fall of 1975 I had been commissioned, but had not yet entered active duty.  I was given an opportunity to go on a canoeing trip in northwest Arkansas with a group of soldiers, the cadre of the ROTC detachment that had commissioned me.  These were battle-hardened men, each with at least two tours in Vietnam, and they took the responsibility of training soldiers very seriously.

One of these guys was a slight, wizened, NCO named.... well, let's call him Bill. (I would never have dared to use his first name, even if Bill were it, but that will do for our purposes.)  Bill was a very senior E-8, a Master Sergeant in Army parlance, and while he had done several tours in the 'Nam, his first love was South America.

Bill was a Special Forces NCO, a Green Beret, and while he came from the Midwest, he spoke fluent Spanish, smoked Marlboro cigarettes, and had a legendary affection for El Producto cigars and Falstaff beer.  When drunk, Bill would lapse into Spanish.  He hinted often of clandestine operations in South American countries and professed a love for the country and the people.  He professed that the jungles of Vietnam had nothing on the jungles of Bolivia.

We were on that trip, and setting over the campfire as men are apt to do, and some of the old warriors started telling war stories.  During a lull in the conversation, Bill took a long pull on a Falstaff and said to no one in particular. "Don't believe anything you read about the death of Che."

We all looked at Bill like he had sprouted wings.  This was going to be a great story.

He went on to tell us that his Special Forces team had been tracking Che for several weeks, and pretty much had him pinned down.  Bill described Che as a "murderous little bastard" who thought that he was the savior of Bolivia, but that he was easy to follow, just follow the trail of bodies.

On that afternoon, they had a pretty good idea of where Che was holed-up, but they sent out patrols to try to pin down the exact location.  As it turned out, Che was moving his camp that day and the two parties of moving men stumbled into one another near a heavily tangled ravine in the Bolivian jungle.  A firefight ensued and Che was wounded in the fight.

Bill told us that the official reports said that Che was killed later by Bolivian forces, but that it didn't happen quite that way.  But, the CIA was in charge of the operation, so they got to write the reports.  

It was a long time ago.

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