Êíèãè: Episodes of the Revolutionary War, Ernesto Che Guevara
Episodes of the Revolutionary War,
Ernesto Che Guevara
Alegria de Pio
ALEGRIA DE Pio is a place in Oriente province, municipality of Niquero, near Cabo Cruz. At this very spot, on December 5, 1956, Batista's forces discovered our hiding place.
We were exhausted from a long, painful trek; more painful than long, to tell the truth. We had landed on December 2, at a place known as the Playa de las Coloradas. We had lost all our equipment, and had trudged for endless hours through marshlands and swamps. We were all wearing new boots and by now everyone was suffering from blisters and footsores, but new footwear and fungus were by no means our only enemies. We had reached Cuba following a seven-day voyage across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, without food, plagued by seasickness and aboard a far-from-seaworthy vessel. We had left the port of Tuxpan November 25, at a time when a stiff "northerly" was blowing and all small craft had been warned to stay in port. All this had left an indelible mark upon our troop made up of rookies who did not know what the word "combat" meant.
All that was left of our war equipment was our rifles, cartridge belts, and a few wet rounds of ammunition. Our medical supplies had disappeared and most of our knapsacks had been left behind in the swamps. We had spent the previous night in one of the canefields of the Niquero Sugar Mill owned by Julio Lobo at the time. We had managed to mitigate our hunger and thirst by eating sugar cane but due to our lack of experience we had left a trail of cane peelings and bagasse all over the place. Not that the guards looking for us needed any trail to follow our steps, for it had been our guide —as we found out later— who had betrayed us. We had let him go the night before— an error we were to repeat several times during our long struggle until we learned that civilians whose personal records were unknown to us were not to be trusted while in dangerous areas. It was a serious blunder to release that man.
By daybreak of the 5th we could barely walk. On the verge of collapse, we would walk a short distance and then beg for a long rest period. Orders were given to halt at the edge of a canefield, in a thicket close to the dense woods. Most of us slept throughout the morning hours.
At noon we began to notice unusual signs of activity. Air Force "Piper" planes as well as other type small planes together with small private aircraft began to circle our hiding place. Most of our men went on cutting and eating sugar cane without realizing that they were perfectly visible to those flying the planes which were now circling at slow speed and low altitude. I was the troop physician and it was my duty to treat the blistered feet. I recall my last patient that morning: his name was Hubert Lame and that was to be his last day on earth. I still remember how tired and worn out he looked as he walked from my improvised first aid station to his post, still carrying his shoes in one hand.
Comrade Montane and I were leaning against a tree, eating our meager rations —half a sausage and two crackers— when a rifle shot broke the stillness. Immediately, a hail of bullets— at least this is the way it looked to us, this being our baptism of fire— descended upon our eighty-two-man troop. My rifle was not one of the best; I had deliberately asked for it because I was in very poor physical condition due to an attack of asthma that had bothered me throughout our ocean voyage and I did not want to be held responsible for the loss of a good weapon. I can hardly remember what followed the initial burst of gunfire. Almeida approached us requesting orders but there was nobody there to issue orders. Later, I was told that Fidel had tried vainly to get everybody together into the adjoining cane-field which could be reached by simply crossing a path. The surprise attack plus the heavy gunfire had been too much for us. Almeida ran back to take charge of his group. A comrade dropped a box of ammunition at my feet and when I reprimanded him for his action he looked at me with an expression of anguish and muttered something like "this is no time to brother with ammunition boxes." He continued on his way toward the canefield and disappeared from view. He was murdered by Batista’s henchmen some time later. Perhaps this was the first time I was faced with the dilemma of choosing between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. There, at my feet, were a knapsack full of medicine and a box of ammunition. I couldn't possibly carry both of them; they were too heavy. I picked up the box of ammunition, leaving the medicine, and started to cross the clearing, heading for the canefield. I remember Faustino Perez, kneeling and firing his machinegun-pistol. Near me, a comrade named Arbentosa was walking toward the canefield. A burst of gunfire hit us both. I felt a sharp blow on my chest and a wound on my neck, and I thought for certain I was dead. Arbentosa, vomiting blood, and bleeding profusely from a deep hole made by a 4 5 -caliber bullet, yelled: "they have killed me!" and began to fire his rifle at no one in particular. Flat on the ground, I turned to Faustino, saying: "I've been hit!" —what I really said is unprintable— and Faustino, still firing away, looked at me and said: "Oh, it's nothing," but I could see by the look in his eyes that he considered me as good as dead.
Still on the ground, I fired a shot in the direction of the woods, following an impulse similar to that of the other wounded man. Immediately, I began to figure out the best way to die. I recalled a Jack London story where the hero, aware that he is bound to freeze to death in the wastes of Alaska, leans calmly against a tree and prepares to die in a dignified manner. That was the only thing that came to my mind at that moment. Someone on his knees said that we had better surrender and I heard a voice —later I found out it was Camilo's— shouting: "No, nobody surrenders here!" followed by a four-letter word. Ponce came at a run, breathing hard, and showed me a bullet wound (I was sure the bullet must have pierced his lungs), and said "I'm wounded," and I replied coolly "me, too." Then Ponce, and other comrades who were still unhurt, crawled toward the canefield. For a moment I was left alone, just lying there waiting to die. Almeida approached, urging me to go on, and despite the intense pain I dragged myself into the canefield. There I met comrade Raul Suarez whose thumb had been blown away by a rifle bullet, being attended by Faustino Perez who was bandaging his hand. Then everything became a blur of airplanes flying low and strafing the field, adding to the confusion, amid Dantesque as well as grotesque scenes such as the stalk of a comrade of considerable avoirdupois who was desperately trying to hide behind a single s??lk of sugar cane, while in the middle of this turmoil another man kept on yelling: "Silence!" for no apparent reason.
We organized a group headed by Almeida. This group included Lieutenant Ramiro Valdes, now a Major, and comrades Chao and Benitez. With Almeida leading, we crossed the last path among the rows of cane and reached the safety of the woods. The first shouts of "fire!" were heard in the canefield and tongues of flame and columns of smoke began to rise. I cannot remember exactly what happened; I felt the bitterness of defeat and I was sure I was going to die. We walked until the darkness made it impossible to go on, and decided to lie down and go to sleep all huddled together in a heap. We were starving and thirsty and the mosquitoes added to our misery. This was our baptism of fire on December 5, 1956, in the outskirts of Niquero. It was the beginning of what would later become the Rebel Army.