Fernando “X” — Cuban Hero, American Spy

Bayard & Holmes

~ Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Nine years ago, Bayard & Holmes designated October 31 as Love-A-Spook* Day—a day when we honor the men and women of the Intelligence Community who dedicate and sometimes sacrifice their lives to keep the fight from our shores. On this 9thAnnual Love-A-Spook Day, we make our most personal dedication to date to honor a Cuban we will call “Fernando X,” who devoted his life to saving his people from the Castro regime.

If you are a Castro-apologist this article will surely confuse and stress you. For the rest of you, if you ever visit Key West, Florida, stroll to the south end of the island. You will find there a monument heralding the southernmost point in the contiguous forty-eight states. The monument will tell you that Cuba is ninety miles to the south. The monument is mistaken. Cuba is ninety-five miles south. It could be corrected, but we hope it remains inaccurate. In its current condition it serves, albeit accidentally, as a monument to the many popular misconceptions that Western journalists and politicians harbor about the reality of Cuba.

Rather than focus on the many grim aspects of life in Cuba, we prefer to remember the brave Cubans that have risked their lives in the hope of bringing freedom and justice to the island of Cuba. At this point, most of them would settle for just the freedom.

Holmes will tell you about one of them in particular that he was honored to know and call friend—Fernando “X.”

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The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Revolutionaries

~ Jay Holmes

Fernando was older than I am. The last time I saw him, he told me he would not live to see Cuba free. He said in Spanish, “The son of a bitch assassin Fidel will outlive me. Well, that’s life. I have done the best I could, brother.” I knew he was right.

Fernando was in poor health and didn’t look like he had much left in him. I know the look. I was not ready to admit it. I lied to him. I told him with a few of my favorite Spanish curses that Satan couldn’t keep Fidel out of Hell forever, and that he would die soon. We laughed. Fernando looked at me, and he knew that I knew. He said, “It’s OK, hermanito. I can’t stay forever. Take good care of your children. Give them the love that I won’t be here to give them. I would have liked to. It was my one way of thanking you.” I wanted to cry, but I knew I owed him something better than that, so I just smiled and assured him that I would, and that they would not forget him. They haven’t, and they won’t. Neither will the people of Cuba.

Six and a half decades earlier, on an afternoon in October of 1958, Fernando’s life was about to get more exciting.

The teenage revolutionary wanted a rifle and grenades and some excitement on one of the many raids that were being conducted against the incompetent dictator Fulgencio Bautista’s clownocracy. Instead, Fernando was equipped with soap and sponges in his personal battle against the dirty pots and pans in his camp’s kitchen. He was not enjoying the revolution much. He wondered if he shouldn’t have listened to his mother and stayed home to tend the pigs and chickens. He was starting to miss his boring, more pleasant home life.

For reasons unknown, the group’s comandante decided to bring “El Niño,” the boy, along on the day’s raid.

Fernando remembered being excited. He intended to make a name for himself. He had insisted to his cohorts that his nickname was “El Tigre,” the tiger. His cohorts were even more insistent that his nickname would remain El Niño. Before the day ended, they were calling Fernando “El Tigre Con Cojones Imensos,” the tiger with immense balls.

Fernando was given a captured American made M-1 Garand. He was small and the rifle was heavy. Too heavy. The group decided he should carry a much lighter captured American made M-1 carbine. The fact that they had no ammo for it was a disappointment for Fernando. His cohorts assured him that they were just going to occupy a recently-abandoned police station, and that there would be plenty of ammo there for everyone. Fernando should just stay behind everyone else until they secured the building.

The five revolutionaries climbed into a Chevrolet sedan and drove to the supposedly abandoned police station, but the best-laid plans of mice and revolutionaries . . .

They arrived at the plaza where the police station was located and jumped out of the Chevrolet with much bravado. Oddly, none of the locals came out to cheer or jeer. The revolutionaries walked toward the front door of the station, and a shot rang out. The round kicked up dirt near them.

They jumped for cover—all of them except El Tigre. The fifteen-year-old Fernando stood his ground with his empty rifle.

The somewhat loyalist police retreated to the roof top. They had ammo in their weapons. Fernando wasn’t sure how many police there were, nor what they had to fight with, but he stood his ground without flinching. He stared up at the policeman that stared down from the parapet of the roof. The policeman said they didn’t want to kill anyone, and that the revolutionaries should all just get in their car, leave, and not return. Four of the five revolutionaries thought it sounded like a great deal and jumped in the car. They yelled to El Tigre to get the hell back in the car. El Tigre didn’t budge.

The policeman vanished from the parapet for a moment. A few seconds later, one of the police returned to the edge of the roof and yelled down, “Let us leave and you can have the station. Just let us leave without any shooting.” The cops were either impressed by the kid’s courage, or they just didn’t want to shoot a child on behalf of a government that they never much liked. The revolutionary comandante got out of the car and yelled up his agreement. No shots were fired that day, but a hero of the revolution was born.

Fernando was something of a celebrity—a teenage superhero.

A few months later, Cuban dictator Bautista realized that neither his fellow Latin-American despots nor the United States was going to back him up. He hit the road. Fernando and his friends celebrated. They were free. They could build a free and just society.

In the following months, as Fidel Castro consolidated his grip on power, inconvenient dissenters died publicly or vanished.

Then, as Fernando grew into adulthood, like many of his revolutionary cohorts, he grew disillusioned with the new regime. All he could see in Cuba was less freedom, more misery, and a vanishing hope for his people and country. The new bastard-in-chief Castro somehow managed to be even worse at governing than the previous bastard-in-chief Bautista had been.

With all the standard Soviet-style rhetoric and Soviet specialists assisting, Fidel and his elite friends assured the public that once they overcame the mostly-imaginary aggression of the evil American imperialists, they would all build their great socialist paradise. The new president of the American imperialists, John F. Kennedy, radically trimmed back the planned support of exiled Cubans for an impending invasion of Cuba. Worse still, the operation had been penetrated by the Cuban government. Eventually, against the advice of the US military, a half-hearted invasion occurred at the wrong location, the Bay of Pigs.

The previous president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was an “invade Normandy with everything we can send” sort of man. He had been successful using that strategy when invading Normandy. However, the new president was a “do way more with way less” PT boat veteran. He had been somewhat successful with that strategy in the wildly dangerous waters of the Solomon Islands. In Cuba, the “way less” was way too little. The invasion failed. Fidel celebrated his “grand victory” over the feeble attempt.

Eventually, Fernando, whose first priority was always the Cuban people, decided it was time to resist against the new despots. He did. He helped the United States try to help Cuba.

As a revolutionary celebrity, Fernando had status and access to many top members of Fidel’s regime. This gave Fernando a great deal of valuable information about the regime’s intentions. Through a like-minded ex-revolutionary cohort, Fernando was able to make contact with the US Intelligence Community, and for several years, he risked his life by sharing valuable information with the United States. I will not elaborate on the nature or extent of that information. Suffice to say that, thanks to Fernando’s efforts, numerous Cuban dissidents were able to escape from Cuba and move to the United States or Spain. Many of these people would have been tortured and even executed if not for Fernando’s quiet help. He saved many lives and asked for nothing in return.

 It couldn’t last forever. Fernando was betrayed.

He ran for his life and hid, but he was eventually captured. To Fidel and his monsters, Fernando was a traitor. To us, he was a hero. Fernando expected to be shot. Instead, he was sent to the infamous political prison on Isla de Juventud to rot in grim conditions for a few decades. Day after day, year after year, he wondered if he would live to feel the sun on his skin before he died. He survived the torture and abuse, though many did not.

One day the prison authorities caught Fernando writing in a hidden journal. They broke several bones in each of his hands. He received no medical attention. For the rest of his life, his hands caused him great pain.

Nearly twenty years ago, by methods that I will not elaborate on or ever admit to, Fernando was able to leave the prison on Isla de Juventud and come to the United States.

Along with several others of my favorite Cuban exiles, we became close friends. In poor health, Fernando lived a sparse life here. My friends and I helped him a bit. He more than deserved it. He was poor in American terms, but in terms of spirit, he was a rich man with much to offer the world. I knew I was blessed to have him as my friend.

One Christmas I was home for the holidays, and I brought Fernando to our house to join my family and many of our mutual Cuban friends.

He had saved a few dollars from his tight budget to buy my children gifts. They were poorly wrapped by his tortured hands, but I thought they were the most beautiful gifts my kids had ever received. They loved Fernando and understood. They were touched by the gifts. My wife had knitted him a nice sweater and scarf. My father gave him a gift certificate for groceries. He was thrilled. I gave him a case of decent rum. He used a couple of shots before bedtime to deaden the pain in his hands enough to sleep for a while.

One of the party attendees, my dear friend, the brilliant Doctor Jesus Jose Acea Rodriguez, was also in attendance that evening. He, too, had taken risks to try to help Cuba. Jesus asked Fernando to recount his well-known heroic events for the benefit of Jesus’s teenage son.

Fernando described in brilliant detail the events of that day when he earned the name El Tigre. I could smell the salt air of the Cuban coast and feel the Cuban earth beneath my feet as I imagined the cop firing that shot. Then Fernando told us a previously unshared detail of that battle. He had not budged when the police fired because he was scared stiff and couldn’t move.

The police apparently misjudged the situation. Fortunately, everyone else except for Fernando misunderstood, as well. El Tigre was forever a hero because he was frozen in fear. We laughed a long time. Fernando comically pantomimed his famous stand-off as my son rolled on the floor laughing. We loved him. Everyone did. . . . Everyone except Fidel Castro and his regime.

Before driving Fernando home the next morning, I took my Garand rifle out of my gun safe and slipped it into my car. When we arrived at his apartment, I told him he had waited a long time for the rifle he wanted. I gave the M-1 to him. He laughed. He was thrilled. We hugged.

I am sitting here at the same antique table that we sat at that beautiful Christmas night. I miss him. The brilliant Jesus is gone now, too. I miss those two the most of the many Cubans that now reside in my past. They and many others stood up for freedom at a great cost.

Fernando once told me to never give up hope for Cuba, and to teach my children to understand that in the end, evil will always fail because freedom and justice are natural and right. He believed that. I do, too.

The Caribbean Sea holds the blood of many brave Cubans. Most of the many Cuban people that have secretly risked their lives in the hope of bringing Cuba a better future will never be known. Many did not live to see Cuba free. I might not live that long, either. But for all my days, I will hold onto my hope and remember my many beautiful Cuban cohorts. I hope that you will, as well.

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In honor of our 9th Annual Love-A-Spook Day, the Kindle and Nook versions of SPYCRAFT: Essentials and The Spy Bride are on sale now through November 3, 2018 for only $0.99 at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Click on these links . . .

SPYCRAFT: ESSENTIALS on Kindle

SPYCRAFT: ESSENTIALS on Nook

THE SPY BRIDE on Kindle

THE SPY BRIDE  on Nook

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*The slang term “spook” has been used for centuries in the Intelligence Community to refer to intelligence personnel. It derives from “a ghost that haunts and is undesirable.” Intelligence personnel of all races are commonly called “spooks.” Bigots have enough words. They can’t have this one.

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Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She is also a belly dancer and a former hospice volunteer. She has been working daily with her good friend Jay Holmes for the past decade, learning about foreign affairs, espionage history, and field techniques for the purpose of writing fiction and nonfiction. She currently pens espionage nonfiction and international spy thrillers with Jay Holmes, as well as post-apocalyptic fiction of her own.

Jay Holmes is a forty-something-year veteran of field espionage operations and a senior member of the Intelligence Community with experience spanning from the Cold War fight against the Soviets, the East Germans, and the various terrorist organizations they sponsored to the present Global War on Terror. He is unwilling to admit to much more than that. Piper is the public face of their partnership.

Together, Bayard & Holmes author non-fiction articles and books on espionage and foreign affairs, as well as fictional international spy thrillers. They are also the bestselling authors of The Spy Bride from the Risky Brides Bestsellers Collection and were featured contributors for Social In Worldwide, Inc.

When they aren’t writing or (in Jay’s case) busy with “other work,” Piper and Jay are enjoying time with their families, hiking, exploring back roads of America, talking foreign affairs, laughing at their own rude jokes until the wee hours, and questing for the perfect chocolate cake recipe. If you think you have that recipe, please share it with them at BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

To keep in touch with Bayard & Holmes and to receive notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.

You can contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard or Bayard & Holmesor at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

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US/Asia-Pacific Alliances — Decision Time in Jakarta

Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

As part of overall US strategy in the Pacific region, the US is attempting to forge a closer economic and military relationship with Indonesia. The Obama administration made improving ties with Indonesia a major priority when President Obama first took office in 2009. The White House and US State Department have maintained that priority during Obama’s seven years in office.

 

Indonesia Pres. Joko Widodo and US Secy. of State John Kerry (center) Image by US State Dept, public domain

Indonesia Pres. Joko Widodo
and US Secy. of State John Kerry (center)
Image by US State Dept, public domain

 

The White House has always been quick in declaring diplomatic victories following overseas trips by the President as well as after meetings with visiting heads of state and their ministers. In reality, the US-Indonesia “new alliance” remains a work in progress.

With the Philippines, Japan, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, we can clearly measure progress in the formation of a transpacific alliance in response to increased aggression from the People’s Republic of China. It is much more difficult gauge Indonesia’s intentions toward the US, its Pacific neighbors, and Communist China.

To interpret the foreign policy news from Indonesia, we need to consider a few critical facts concerning the Indonesian national identity.

First, like the Philippines and Malaysia, and unlike Japan, Indonesia lacks cultural unity.

Indonesia’s 250 million citizens are quite diverse and, in many areas, quite parochial. The official language is Indonesian, but tribal languages still persist in rural regions. When Indonesian President Joko Widodo wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t need to hear a morning report to know what his priority for the day is. That priority has been the same for every Indonesian President since the country achieved its independence in 1945 – to “unite the people.”

Foreign policy is important to Indonesia, but internal issues remain their day-to-day first priority. This does not mean that we cannot build real cooperation with Indonesia. It means we can’t expect it to be represented the same way in the Indonesian media as it would be in other countries in the region.

Second, Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, but it is a secular democratic state.

Over 85% of Indonesians describe themselves as practicing Muslims, but Islam in Indonesia is far less “centralized” and regimented than in Saudi Arabia. The national legal system is secular. Radical Islamic groups do exist, but they lack anything approaching popular support. Indonesia acts independently of their fellow Muslim countries in the Mideast, but the country is never comfortable publicly disregarding “Muslim interests” in favor of US-Indonesia relations. The White House should not expect Indonesia to trumpet US-Indonesian cooperation loudly.

Indonesia is showing clear signs of growing cooperation against China and growing cooperation with its neighbors, but it has to handle the public relations battle in the way that best suits its government and its people. Indonesia’s neighbors seem to understand this better than the US does. While the US and Japan are always concerned with the public message that is delivered to the People’s Republic of China, we cannot expect Indonesia to pursue a similar public relations strategy in the near future. The good news is that it is quietly willing to increase military cooperation with its neighboring states and the US.

A third fundamental fact concerning Indonesian national identity is that Indonesia sees itself as being the leader of the region.

Indonesia was instrumental in founding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The headquarters for ASEAN is in Jakarta, Indonesia. ASEAN remains a major point of pride for the Indonesian government and people. It is something that they accomplished without the US, the UN, or anyone outside of the region. ASEAN is, in a sense, a symbol of Indonesian power and political identity.

Rather than disregard ASEAN, the US can work with ASEAN on the same issues over which the Obama administration has been trying to gain Indonesian cooperation for the last seven years. The US sees itself as being the leader in improving regional security against growing Communist Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia. The US strategy in the Pacific is based on shared concerns, but it relies heavily on US technology, military expertise, and US cash to improve defense capabilities in the region.

 

US & Indonesian Troops in Joint Training Exercise Image by USMC, public domain

US & Indonesian Troops in Joint Training Exercise
Image by USMC, public domain

 

In the case of Indonesia, the US will have to remain patient and allow that country the opportunity to redefine a US-Indonesian relationship that can fit into its national agenda. If that includes Indonesia being less publicly supportive of US-led initiatives in the area, then so be it. The White House must measure Indonesian policy and actions and ignore Indonesian rhetoric. In Indonesia, the rhetoric will never align with real policy quite the same way as it does in the Philippines or Japan.

A fourth major formative issue in Indonesia’s relations with the US is the People’s Republic of China.

China has lots of cash, and Indonesia needs Chinese trade and investment. We are asking Indonesia to abandon investment and trade from China at a time when the US national debt does not present a bright promising picture of economic perfection. This is not 1960, when the US was able to present a breathtakingly brilliant comparison to the dismal economies of the USSR or Communist China. Like any government, Indonesia cannot ignore its own business sector when conducting foreign relations. When it comes to economics, ASEAN can help bring Indonesia and the US closer in economic terms. Healthier regional and transpacific trade will help allow Indonesia to more confidently decrease economic ties with China.

Deciphering US-Indonesian relations takes some work, but one important positive fact gives reason for optimism. Indonesian democracy is stronger and more stable today than it was ten years ago, and the practice of democracy seems to be growing more complete each year. The Indonesian people know that their democracy is not perfect, but for the majority of Indonesians, expectations for democracy appear to be growing. In assessing the current state of US-Indonesian relations, there are reasons to be optimistic.

One of the greatest forces driving a closer US-Indonesia relationship is China itself.

Communist China has consistently shown itself to be unable to resist using intimidation and brute force when dealing with its Pacific neighbors. In theory, China believes in the “carrot and stick” method of diplomacy, but it has shown itself to be unskilled with the carrot and impatient to use the stick. Until very recently, Indonesia was carefully hedging its diplomatic strategies with regard to China. Recent news reports from Indonesia indicate a reluctance to see the US take a leading role in regional security. Indonesian actions tell a different story.

Indonesia recently (again) warned the People’s Republic of China that Chinese fishing boats illegally fishing in Indonesian waters would be detained. When Indonesia recently attempted to seize a Chinese fishing boat that was illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, the Chinese Coast Guard intervened and prevented the seizure. Indonesia was publicly outraged by the incursion and has filed a formal complaint against the People’s Republic of China. China will ignore the complaint, but in exchange for proudly saving one illegal fishing vessel, it has seriously damaged relations with Indonesia.

If the Obama administration has been somewhat clumsy in its attempts to expand the US-Indonesian alliance, it can at least count on its one sure bet – China enjoys flaunting its increased military ability in the Pacific. It plays well in the government-controlled media in China, but it undermines China’s own foreign policy goals.

In my estimation, relations and economic ties between Indonesia and the US will improve and, more importantly, Indonesia will focus on improving relations with its own neighbors in the region.

Next week we will consider US-Australian relations and the part that Australia plays in regional security in the Pacific.

The Smallest Eagle–Remembering Eduardo Peniche on Memorial Day

By Jay Holmes

On this Memorial Day, I offer my humble gratitude to my fellow veterans. To the young men and women who walk the patrols, fight through convoys to distant bases, fly missions, man ships, and actuate our president’s orders in all the myriad ways necessary to effect our nation’s foreign policy and assure our domestic security—I salute every one of you.

On those occasions when I have not been overseas, Memorial Day has always been a time of reflection for me. This Memorial Day, I would like to focus on one particular veteran who has been on my mind lately, Eduardo Peniche.

Eduardo Peniche

Eduardo Peniche

Go Home and Grow

In 1942, a scrawny, 17-year-old Mexican boy showed up at the US Army recruiting station in Paducah, Kentucky and announced that he was there to join the 101st Airborne Division. He explained that he had heard a talk given by members of the division and wanted to become a “Screaming Eagle.” The recruiter suppressed a laugh and explained that he was a bit too young and a bit too small to be a paratrooper.

Disappointed, the boy told the recruiter that he had his heart set on learning to use a bazooka to knock out German tanks. The recruiter measured the boy and said that, indeed, at 5’5″ tall, he was still too small to be a paratrooper, and that he would never be able to heft a bazooka unless he did some more growing. The boy remained polite and insisted that they should take him. A young officer observed the conversation and decided that the boy had “something” about him, and that they should let him try. They repeated the measurements, and the boy had miraculously grown an inch. Little Eduardo Alberto Peniche Y Carvajal of Yucatan, Mexico, a.k.a. “Ed,” was going to get his chance.

Hell’s Highway

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the US 101st Airborne division conducted their famous night assault on Normandy, France in hopes of securing the forward stretch of the allied armies south flank. The transport planes had the standard navigation equipment of the time, and they quickly became lost. Most of the troops were dropped out of sequence and far from their jump zones. In Ed’s case, thanks to the massive confusion in the huge Normandy operation, he did not enter combat until June 9, on the French Carentin Peninsula, three days after most of his fellow Screaming Eagles had begun to engage the German army.

Paratroopers land in Holland image from U.S. Army

Paratroopers land in Holland
image from U.S. Army

In September, 1944, during British General Bernard Montgomery’s ill-conceived Operation Market Garden, American and British paratroopers were dropped across Holland, deep behind German lines. Their mission was to capture key bridges across the rivers and canals of Holland to facilitate an armored assault into Germany before the Germans could place divisions that would stop a run on Berlin.

The idea was every bit as bad as it sounds. British and American paratroopers took the required bridges against heavy resistance, but the Germans failed to panic as Montgomery had predicted they would. Instead, they fought a skillful defensive action all along “Hell’s Highway.” The armored column could not move fast enough to consolidate the bridgeheads, and the operation was a bloody disaster. The Germans had no intention of giving up Holland, and the Screaming Eagles had no intention of giving up. The result was 73 consecutive days of combat in Holland for the 101st Airborne. The Germans left; the Eagles stayed. Too many Eagles stayed forever.

Battle of the Bulge

Ed survived the fighting in Holland, and, in late November, he and the remainder of the division were withdrawn from combat for rest and recuperation. They were to receive replacement paratroopers and new equipment. Allied command expected to have the division ready for combat for the spring offensive against Germany. Spring came early.

On December 16, from well-concealed positions on a quiet sector of Ardougne, the German army launched its last great offensive. It would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. The German goal was to drive a line between the American and British positions and take the port of Antwerp. Without the critical port facilities of Antwerp, the allied offensive would quickly starve.

The road from Trier, Germany to Antwerp runs through a small town that few people had ever heard of, and fewer still had cared to remember. By Christmas, the Allied peoples across the world would know its name. Bastogne. They would come to know the name as not just a town in Belgium, but as a synonym for courage and sacrifice.

The Allies had the 10th Armored Division at the road-junction town of Bastogne. The Germans achieved complete surprise, and the offensive quickly rolled forward. The 10th Armored was ordered to hold Bastogne as long as possible to allow for a retreat to Namur, where the Allies could blow the bridges, and then fight a defensive action across the river.

A glance at a map of Belgium will quickly reveal why the Germans wanted Bastogne, and why the Allies didn’t want them to have it. It’s all about the road junction. There are no easily defensible positions between where the hills end at Bastogne and the city of Namur.

Battle of the Bulge Map from U.S. Military Source

Battle of the Bulge
Map from U.S. Military Source

The fight was on, and things looked pretty good for the Germans that December. In desperation, the Allies scraped together enough trucks to move the 101st to Bastogne. Short of men, equipment, and supplies, they arrived on December 18, sans their commanding general, who was on a trip to Washington, D.C. to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff about air assault operations for the spring.

The executive officer, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, was in command. McAuliffe made a critical decision. In the face of an enemy with vast local superiority in men, tanks, guns, and material, he decided on a forward defense. He would fight the Battle of Bastogne as far from Bastogne as he could.

Normally, no general would spread his men out so thinly when so vastly outnumbered, but McAuliffe had two extra weapons that day. First, he had the miserable weather. That weather was a godsend to the Germans, because it grounded the superior air forces of the Allies. But there was another side to that particular coin. The blizzard was falling on still unfrozen ground, and if you are an off-road enthusiast or a heavy tank driver, that matters. The massive German assault was “carnavalized.” That means that, because of deep mud, they could not use the open ground, wide sweeping tactics refined on the steppes of Russia by their great armored genius, Hans Guderian. They had to take the roads from the Americans—from the Americans and one Mexican.

On the maps in Berlin, it was clear that German SS General Sepp Dietrich would quickly sweep around the annoying Americans at Bastogne and take Namur. But the battle was not fought on the maps. It was fought on every yard of passable road within ten miles of Bastogne.

McAuliffe’s second extra weapon that day was that he knew his paratroopers could and would fight in isolated positions, far from any support, without panicking. He knew they might die. In fact, he expected that they would, and that he would die with them. He also knew that they would fight to the last with the skill they had acquired through years of hard training and months of hard combat. McAuliffe was buying time for the Allies to build a defensive position at Namur.

There is another reason why McAuliffe was willing to stay and die at Bastogne. German SS troops had made sure that no American would want to surrender. Part of Hitler’s plan for the offensive was to cause as much slaughter of prisoners and civilians as possible. His goal was to make the battle so horrible and bloody that the Allies would be coerced into agreeing to halt their armies at Germany’s border. Hitler expected half a million French and Belgian civilians to be killed.

In the early days of the battle, German SS commandos dressed as Americans infiltrated American positions and murdered wounded soldiers and staff in a field hospital. Two of the wounded Americans managed to escape, and outrage spread throughout the 101st Airborne. After the battle, we learned that German SS units systematically murdered captured Allied prisoners. During the Battle of the Bulge, when the Germans offered McAuliffe the opportunity to surrender, the legend indicates that he sent a one word response, “Nuts.” I have always suspected that it was actually a two-word response, and did not include the word “nuts.” Suffice to say he refused to surrender.

General Bernard Montgomery declined to reinforce Bastogne. He had his hands full further north. General George Patton had his 3rd army poised for an assault on Metz, too far from Bastogne to help. No reasonable man would have attempted to move the US 3rd army sideways, two hundred miles along the German front, in the middle of a blizzard, to try to reach Bastogne. George Patton was a lot of things. “Reasonable” was never one of them. The Germans were shocked when they realized what Patton was attempting. They knew he would fail. He knew he wouldn’t. The race was on.

Surviving One More Day

The blizzard continued, and the Germans kept using their massive firepower to shell Bastogne into submission and to inch their way up the roads with their tanks and armored personnel carriers. On one of those roads, at one of those roadblocks that scrawny Mexican kid had grown sick and hungry. His feet had frozen, and frostbite set in. (His feet would hurt the rest of his life but he would always swear they were fine.) Private Edward Peniche and his small band of paratroopers held their position day after day. At night, they crawled forward and set traps for the tanks with land mines or infiltrated German positions to do what damage they could. But their luck was running out.

Battle of the Bulge image from U.S. Army

Battle of the Bulge
image from U.S. Army

The Germans managed a close hit on Ed’s anti-tank gun position. Some were killed, and the rest were badly wounded.  Bleeding severely, they loaded their last anti-tank gun and hit another German tank, which blocked the road again.

The Germans then managed a direct hit on Ed’s anti-tank gun emplacement, badly wounding Edward and his two remaining comrades. The Germans could not maneuver their heavy Panzer 4 Mk 3 tanks in the snow-covered wheat field to get around their disabled tank. They had to perform the slow process of dragging the crippled tank back up the road it had come down. The three paratroopers kept the German infantry under enough fire to prevent their advance.

Ammunition was running low. Nobody was well enough to make it back to the command post to bring up a medic and perhaps a few more Eagles. Ed was wounded in his left leg and arm. He suffered from concussion, bleeding from both ears, and was nearly deaf. In spite of all that, he used his good arm to drag himself several hundred yards through the snow to the command post for help, and a medic and another handful of paratroopers went forward to the man the position. A guy who was supposed to be in Mexico, who was too small to be a paratrooper, and too sick and wounded to fight, and his two buddies who were also too sick and too wounded to fight any more, used an anti-tank gun that was too small to stop a heavily armored Panzer 4 Mk 3 tank.

Ed’s friends knew he would not survive another day. They were pretty sure they wouldn’t, either. They knew they would not live to see Christmas. Hitler, on the other hand, thought he might enjoy a Christmas celebration in Antwerp.

On December 23, the skies cleared. The fields were still impassable to heavy armored units, but planes could fly. The Germans attempted to bomb Bastogne off the map, but Allied air forces overwhelmed them and stalled the German offensive along the entire “Bulge” in the Allied lines.

Globetrotting Missions and Education

Eduardo Peniche was right about a lot of things, but he was wrong about living to see Christmas. He saw a lot of them. Ed died of a stroke about seven years ago in Texas. Between Bastogne and his stroke, he returned to Mexico and founded the Mexican paratrooper forces. Then he returned to the USA, became an American citizen, and rejoined the US Army. He spent three years in Vietnam. Ed helped found the School of the Americas, and was well known for his insistence on teaching students the importance of respect for the men under their command, and compassion for the civilians who they were supposed to be protecting. Ed’s role in Central America was more significant than most people realize, and his influence was far-reaching throughout the US intelligence community. Ed was never about the paycheck or the recognition. He was always about helping the mission and the people in a mission in any way that he could.

Between globetrotting assignments, Ed continued his education. He eventually became a highly respected professor of foreign languages. In 1998, a beloved and highly respected man who was too old to teach any more received the Teacher of the Year Award from First Lady Laura Bush. He thanked her, then he went back to his class and kept teaching. Of his days in Bastogne, Ed said that he felt privileged to have served with the greatest Americans and men of such honor.

Bastogne Remembers

About ten years ago, when on a trip to Brussels, I finally took the time to visit Bastogne, Belgium. It was the perfect day for visiting a battlefield. It was cold. The rain and sleet were blowing sideways. When the wind tore our silly umbrellas to shreds, my friend cursed. I was relieved. God must have heard my prayers.

I dispatched my blue-cold friend to the visitor center and walked to the circular wall of honor to be alone with my thoughts. I knew that I owed something greater than I could pay to the men who remained under the ground that I walked across. I could at least pay them my respect.

I was grateful to be alone with them, but I wasn’t quite alone. At the lowered center of the memorial, a middle-aged woman struggled to secure fresh flowers to bronze vases near an eternal flame. Nobody would come there that cold and forbidding day, but she was there with her fresh flowers.

She saw me and timidly greeted me. She recognized my poor French as being American made. She asked if I had lost an ancestor there, or if perhaps my father had fought there. I explained that my father and uncles had all served in the Pacific, but that I did have a friend who had fought there. I told her about the man who was too small to be a paratrooper. She smiled and said “but big enough to stop the Nazis.” Yes, he was big enough to stop the Nazis.

I knew the answer, but I had to ask her. “Why did you bring flowers on a day like this when nobody will come?”

She answered, “You are here, and if you weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. They are here. We remember what they did.” I thanked her. She thanked me.

A toast to The Smallest Eagle. He had the biggest heart.

Bastogne Memorial

Bastogne Memorial

To read Ed’s story in his own words, see White Christmas, Red Snow: A Journal by Prof. Eduardo A. Peniche, Combat Veteran, 101st Abn. Div.