The Attack on El Bosque
The last Small Unit Tactical Training (SUTT) conducted by a Special Forces MTT (mobile training team) in El Salvador was done by ODA-7, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, TDY (temporary duty) from Panama. The training was provided to 3rd Brigade elements at San Miguel, El Salvador, from January to April 1984. The SUTT mission was well underway when Colonel Joseph S. Stringham III, the second U.S. Military Group (USMILGP) commander with considerable SF combat experience, expanded OPATT (Operational Planning and Assistance Training Team) coverage to meet guidance from Ambassador Thomas Pickering for the 1984 Salvadoran presidential election “watch.”
1 Colonel John D. Waghelstein, “El Salvador: Observations and Experiences in Counterinsurgency,” paper for U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA, 1985, Annex F, F-1, F-2. Colonel Joseph Stringham, the former 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger commander, served two years in Vietnam with Special Forces from 1963–1965 [XO ODA 725, Montagnard CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), Detachment Commander, ODA 301, and III Corps Mike Force] before serving a third tour with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade (Separate).
The purpose of this article is to explain the most significant single combat action involving American Special Forces during the thirteen-year counterinsurgency war in El Salvador. It is presented not to justify awards or highlight individual performances, rather to provide details of the defensive actions taken by members of ODA-7, when the 3rd Brigade cuartel at San Miguel was attacked by a 700-man guerrilla force the night following the 25 March presidential primary election in 1984. It is relevant because it serves to remind Special Forces soldiers tasked to train foreign militaries overseas that they are ultimately responsible for their own safety and survival. Self-protection measures should never be disregarded. For these reasons, it merits presentation apart from the trilogy of Veritas articles that summarize the Salvadoran COIN (counterinsurgency) war begun in a previous issue (Vol. 3, No. 1).
3 David E. Spencer, From Vietnam to El Salvador: The Saga of the FMLN Sappers and Other Guerrilla Special Forces in Latin America (Westport, CN: Praeger Publishers, 1996), 88–90. Spencer’s account, based on Greg Walker, “Sapper Attack!” Behind the Lines, July/August 1993, and Greg Walker, “Blue Badges of Honor,” Soldier of Fortune, February 1992, is quite inaccurate. His date of 6 May 1984 is totally incorrect. The USAF aircraft overhead on 25–26 March 1984 was an AC-130, not an EC-130. ODA-7 did not have “some M-60 machine guns and M-16/M203 grenade launchers.” And, the SF soldiers did not urinate on their guns “to cool them down.” Author, based on numerous interviews with ODA-7 team members.
ODA-7 (ODA 781 in today’s numbering system), B Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group (SFG), Fort Gulick, Panama was a team that had a good mix of Vietnam combat veterans, experienced and new SF soldiers with better than average language skills, and they had been training Latin Americans. ODA-7 had supported ODA-9 in the training of Salvadorans, Hondurans, Colombians, and Panamanians at the neighboring U.S. Army School of the Americas for a year when the team was alerted in the late fall of 1983 for a SUTT mission in El Salvador. In that year of training, ODA-7 conducted a RECONDO course for elements of BIRI (Batallón de Infantería de Reacción Inmediata) Atlacatl as well as a platoon of the newly created Salvadoran Air Force ground reconnaissance company, PRAL (Patrulla de Reconacimiento de Alance Largo). Small unit infantry patrolling, ambushes, and raids were taught at Fort Sherman and in the triple-canopy jungle along the Chagres River. In addition, ODA-7 assisted with the training of the BIRI Arce in Panama covering topics that ranged from individual soldier skills to advanced collective infantry tactics in the field.
4 Sergeant Major (Retired) Peter J. Moosey, telephone interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 3 April 2007, Colorado Springs, CO, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Captain Rodger Kenneth Garrett (formerly Sergeant Kenneth Rodger Beko), interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 19 May 2007, Tierra Verde, FL, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. To avoid confusion, Kenneth Garrett is referred to as Sergeant Kenneth Beko in the article, his name at the time of the action.
“Preparing lesson plans and training aids, rehearsals, presenting classes, critiquing the field performances, tailoring remedial training, and just chatting with Salvadorans raised the language proficiency of the DLI-trained [Defense Language Institute] SF soldiers to a much higher level. It also introduced our native speakers to Salvadoran Spanish idioms and cultural nuances. We couldn’t have had a better mission prep,” said former Sergeant Ken Beko, the ODA-7 medic (18D) cross-trained as an infantryman. Having worked together in the field for more than a year, this strongly-bonded ODA underwent some organizational changes shortly before deployment.
5 Garrett interview, 19 May 2007.
Several things happened in quick succession. Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Scruggs assigned Master Sergeant Rodney F. Dutton, a Vietnam veteran and school-trained 18Z (operations and intelligence sergeant) to fill the detachment operations sergeant position (18Z). He then became the new team sergeant. When the request for country clearance of the site survey team was submitted to San Salvador, the detachment commander was denied access by the MILGP commander, Colonel Joseph S. Stringham, based on a serious incident during a previous mission. Because B Company already had an officer, Captain Craig W. Leeker, at San Miguel, keeping him there to command ODA-7 was a natural fit. CPT Leeker accepted the position offered by LTC Scruggs and COL Stringham. Sergeant First Class LeRoy R. Sena, the heavy weapons NCO (non-commissioned officer), a native Spanish speaker from Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Staff Sergeant Peter J. Moosey, the light weapons sergeant and a highly proficient DLI-schooled linguist, replaced two SF soldiers on an MTT at San Miguel, in order to conduct a “working” site survey in mid-November 1983. COL Stringham was not going to exceed the Congressionally-mandated 55-man limit and he was adamant about not granting country access to the detachment commander.
6 “At our first meeting, Ambassador Pickering told me that if I allowed the number of military trainers to exceed the 55-man limit, I would be ‘canned.’ We counted heads every day and I had to make a formal report of compliance to the ambassador or deputy chief of mission every Friday afternoon at 1700,” recalled Stringham. Brigadier General (Retired) Joseph S. Stringham III, notes to Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 21 June 2007, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter cited as Stringham notes, 21 June 2007; Command Sergeant Major (Retired) LeRoy R. Sena, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 27 March 2007, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Moosey interview, 3 April 2007; Command Sergeant Major (Retired) LeRoy R. Sena, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 6 June 2007, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
CPT Craig Leeker was already in charge of a composite SF team (four NCOs from two different ODAs) that had been dispatched to San Miguel by COL Stringham to help the 3rd Brigade organize its defenses after a disastrous FMLN attack in early November 1983. It would be the SF captain’s third of four consecutive TDY assignments (fifteen months) in El Salvador. He had become Stringham’s MTT “fireman,” fixing problems from Sonsonate to San Vicente to La Unión to San Miguel. CPT Leeker, told to “make sure that the 3rd Brigade was not overrun again,” had just gotten all the new conscripts armed after a short period of weapons familiarization and was working with Colonel Jaime Flores on the cuartel defenses when SFC Sena and SSG Moosey arrived from Panama.
7 Stringham notes, 21 June 2007. “My philosophy was that ‘if they’re armed, they could shoot.’ We immediately taught them how to load and fire their weapons so they could defend themselves. I’d worry about aimed fire and marksmanship later. We taught them basic survival skills. Then, I had them dig holes around their perimeter. When their cabo blew his whistle, they knew enough to grab their weapons and get in the holes,” said Leeker. Colonel (Retired) Craig W. Leeker, telephone interview with Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 21 June 2007, Arlington, VA, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
“The assignment of ODA-7 to an MTT mission in El Salvador—instead of the typical composite elements from 3/7th SFG—was an anomaly. It was a welcome change for me. An experienced, well-trained team knew how to work together and this paid big dividends,” said Leeker.
8 Leeker interview, 21 June 2007.
SFC Sena, uncomfortable with the security at San Miguel, took SSG Moosey to walk the camp perimeter the next day. They assessed the security measures and Moosey made a detailed sketch of the defenses. Afterward, the two began setting fire to the high grass and bushes between the cuartel and the billeting area in El Bosque to improve their defensive posture. The primary FMLN avenue of approach for the attack a few weeks earlier had come through the Bosque. The fires angered COL Flores because they had revealed how inadequate the brigade defenses were. They blatantly exposed the holes under the fences and gaps in the wire used by the iguaneros [Salvadoran soldiers who sneaked out to hunt for food (iguanas) or to see their girlfriends in town]. CPT Leeker apologized to mollify COL Flores. The senior Mortar MTT sergeant read “the Riot Act” to the two recent arrivals.
9 Moosey interview, 3 April 2007; Sena interview, 27 March 2007; Moosey e-mail, 25 June 2007.
Since the last Veritas article on El Salvador focused on the central region of the country, a thumbnail area “sketch” of the San Miguel region follows. It describes the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional) focos and the state of the ESAF (El Salvadoran Armed Forces). An explanation of Salvadoran fixed base security completes the description of the environment in which ODA-7 would work during the first four months of 1984.
El Salvador is the smallest and most populated of the Central American countries. The eastern of its three regions (west and central are the other two) consists of four departments: Morazán to the north borders Honduras, Usulután in the west is situated on the Pacific Ocean, La Unión to the east on Gulf of Fonseca and the Pacific borders Honduras and Nicaragua, and San Miguel in the center stretches from the Pacific Ocean north to the Honduran border. This eastern region, the most thinly populated in the country, contained three cities with more than 25,000 people in the 1980s: San Miguel, La Unión—the country’s second most important seaport, and Usulatán. San Miguel, second largest city in the nation, contained more than 100,000 inhabitants. The 1968 population densities of the four eastern departments—Morazán, Usulatán, La Unión, and San Miguel—were 285, 332, 209, and 365 persons per square mile respectively.
10 Howard I. Blutstein, Elinor C. Betters, John Cobb Jr., Jonathan A. Leonard, and Charles M. Townsend, El Salvador: A Country Study, Department of Army Pamphlet 550-150, Washington, DC: The American University, 1979, 28, 38, 51, hereafter cited as Blutstein et al, El Salvador.
The eastern region, predominantly agricultural, produced 12 percent of the country’s coffee and most of its cotton. Its industrial output accounted for only 16 percent of the gross national product. Two distinct and fairly well-defined seasons—the dry summer season and the wet winter season are normal. The rainy season usually lasts from May to October, but sometimes extends into early December. Afternoon showers are typical and on average produce ten inches a month. There are two main east–west highways that traverse the country. The Inter-American Highway, part of the Pan American Highway, crosses the central plateau from the Guatemalan border to La Unión and on to the eastern frontier with Honduras. The second major artery, the Coastal Highway, follows the Pacific coastal plain from the western frontier to the eastern border, ending at La Unión. It parallels a major railway. The country’s fourth north–south highway splits away from the Inter-American Highway at San Miguel, goes northeast to Santa Rosa de Lima, and then rejoins the main highway east into Honduras. These lines of communication intersect in and around San Miguel, the largest city.
11 Blutstein et al, El Salvador, 28, 38.
12 Blutstein et al, El Salvador, 29.
13 Blutstein et al, El Salvador, 36.
Though San Miguel was founded in 1530, cotton cultivation after World War II prompted its most rapid growth. Situated on the railroad and the cross-country highway to La Unión, it is an important distribution center for eastern cotton as well as coffee, agave fiber, and dairy products. The city is located at the foot of two inactive volcanoes and has a pleasant semitropical climate. It was situated between two of the largest FMLN focos in the country.
14 Blutstein et al, El Salvador, 39.
In El Salvador, cuartel means a garrison. The DM cuarteles look like 19th century thickwalled fortresses while a brigade cuartel looks like a base camp with permanent structures.
15 Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey U. Cole, e-mail to Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 28 June 2007, subject: San Miguel, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
During the thirteen-year COIN war, the disputed, demilitarized areas along the southern border of Honduras, the bolsones (pockets) housed numerous refugee camps that dated to the 1969 war. These bolsones became focos for guerrilla training and cross-border supply distribution centers. Two of the largest bolsones were in northern Chalatenango department in the central region and Morazán department in the east. Usulatán and San Miguel departments had major sections dominated by the guerrillas (see map highlighting areas dominated by the rebels in 1981). However, national defense was conventional war based. It centered on “nineteenth century fortress-like,” thick-walled cuarteles (quar-tell-lays) dating to the early 1900s, in each military district, destacemento militar (DM) and six brigade cuarteles.
The brigade cuarteles were fortified camps ringed with barbed-wire fencing that enclosed perimeter bunkers and some cinder block guard towers. Neither had been constructed to be defended like the firebases were in Vietnam. The tactical security measures were more akin to industrial sites—fences to limit access through guarded entry gates.
*Note: At the San Miguel cuartel only the upper, central part was completely fenced. Internal access to cuartel central was controlled by a guardpost and gate. Only guard posts at the entry points had communications with the command post. Security patrol sweeps outside the perimeter were rarely conducted.
16 Master Sergeant (Retired) Allen B. Hazlewood, telephone interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 20 March 2007, Miami, FL, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Captain Rodger Kenneth Garrett, e-mail to Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 19 June 2007, subject: San Miguel 1984, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
With a conventional war mentality (defense against Honduran land and air attacks in retaliation for its incursion in 1969), the Salvadoran Estado Mayor (General Staff) positioned the 4th Brigade cuartel at El Paraiso to reinforce the DM-1 cuartel located in Chalatenango. The 3rd Brigade cuartel at San Miguel backstopped the DM-4 cuartel at San Francisco de Gotera near the Honduran border blocking another invasion corridor. This conveniently placed the 3rd Brigade cuartel between two major guerrilla focos to the north and south.
17 When the 3rd Brigade was installed in San Miguel, the DM-4 in San Francisco de Gotera was organizationally subordinated to the brigade. However, it continued to be the center of military authority in the department. This complicated operational coordination in the region. Colonel (Retired) Cecil E. Bailey, e-mail to Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 19 June 2007, subject: San Miguel 1984, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
From 1981 to 1984, the El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF) were struggling to survive, to expand, and slowly trying to gain the initiative against the loosely aligned groups of the FMLN. By early 1984, ESAF combat effectiveness and morale had improved—the result of new brigade commanders, a major staff shuffle in the Estado Mayor, better trained battalions, a central basic training facility, and joint coordination. By the end of 1984, the ESAF had 42,000 troops in uniform, more than three times the highest estimate for guerrillas.
18 Robert D. Ramsey III, Advising Indigenous Forces: American Advisors in Korea, Vietnam, and El Salvador (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2006), 86.
As the focus began to shift from expansion and training of new ESAF units to more small-unit COIN operations and to pacification and civic action, the MILGP wanted to have more continuity in its training and advisory role at the brigades. The three-officer OPATT program, developed by Colonel John D. Waghelstein to satisfy that need, dovetailed neatly with the shakeup of the Salvadoran senior officer corps in late 1983. The expansion of the OPATT program to all brigades and to all Estado Mayor staff sections by COL Stringham overlapped with the last SUTT mission performed by a Special Forces MTT from Panama.
19 Brigadier General (Retired) Joseph S. Stringham, telephone interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 29 May 2007, Woodville, AL, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Cecil E. Bailey, “OPATT: The U.S. Army SF Advisers in El Salvador,” Special Warfare (December 2004), 18–19; Waghelstein, “El Salvador: Observations and Experiences in Counterinsurgency,” F-1, F-2.
The mission to train the 350-man Cazador (Hunter) battalions of the 3rd Brigade in San Miguel had been assigned to ODA-7, 3rd Battalion, 7th SFG in the fall of 1983. The original ESAF Cazador battalions (three) had been organized and trained by a Venezuelan Army MTT using a compressed six-week program in late 1982. These Cazadores were lightly armed and equipped mobile battalions that could deploy with little notice. The Cazadores were assigned to brigades whereas the immediate action, heavily armed 600-man BIRI battalions—like Atlacatl, Atonal, Arce, Belloso, and Bracamonte—that received six months of training, were controlled by the Estado Mayor.
20 The Venezuelan Army MTT was withdrawn abruptly after a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense let it slip that the South Americans had been asked to help the ESAF and that this did not violate the Congressionally-mandated 55-man force cap. The resultant adverse international press caused the Venezuelan government to withdraw the MTT. Colonel (Retired) John D. Waghelstein, e-mail to Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 20 June 2007, subject: San Miguel 1984, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
21 Colonel Joseph S. Stringham, interview by Colonel Charles A. Carlton, 29 May 1985, Carlisle Barracks, PA, U.S. Army War College/U.S. Army Military History Institute Oral History Program, Carlisle Barracks, PA, transcription, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Colonel (Retired) John D. Waghelstein, telephone interview by Colonel (Retired) Cecil E. Bailey, Annapolis, MD, 23 October 2003, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. The Venezuelan Army trained three Cazador battalions in the western departments of Santa Ana and Ahuachapan. The Venezuelans were pleased to help the Salvadorans, at U.S. urging, as a gesture of thanks for assistance provided to them during their fight against a Cuban-supported insurgency in the 1960s. It was the 8th Special Forces Group in Panama that provided the training. They organized and trained a conscript-filled force. Sergeant First Class (Retired) Jerald L. Peterson, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 6 April 2007, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
Regardless of organization, the ESAF units from company to battalion were reconstituted almost annually with conscripts based on national service laws. Infantry tactical training was a constant, although regularly interrupted by operational requirements. Thus, a brigade’s fighting strength fluctuated very dramatically according to its conscription fill cycles; three battalions would in actuality equate to one reinforced battalion. These two very important realities were consistently overlooked by analysts counting units to compare with guerrilla elements. And, since U.S. military aid was tied to achieving certain force levels by deadlines (national elections), ESAF labeled units as battalions, i.e., the brigade security battalions, when they were actually reinforced companies at best. Brigade commanders preferred the smaller Cazador battalions since they could be trained faster. SFC Sena and SSG Moosey discovered that these ESAF-wide practices indeed existed at the 3rd Brigade in San Miguel during their “working” site survey. They brought these insights back to Panama where ODA-7 was finalizing preparations for its upcoming mission.
22 Colonel (Retired) Rudolph M. Jones, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 3 August 2006, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Command Sergeant Major (Retired) Jorge M. Reyes, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 2 May 2007, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. The period of obligatory service was twenty-four months by law. The practice was to keep the conscripted soldier in uniform for only twelve months. Under U.S. pressure, as the war wore on, the period of uniformed service was pushed to twenty-four months. Max G. Manwaring and Courtney Prisk, eds. El Salvador At War: An Oral History of the Conflict from the 1979 Insurrection to the Present (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1988), 295.
23 Sena interview, 27 March 2007; Moosey interview, 3 April 2007; Stringham interview, 29 May 2007.
24 Sena interview, 27 March 2007; Moosey interview, 3 April 2007.
During the last four weeks before Christmas 1983, ODA-7 conducted mission prep. SGT Ken Beko remembered, “Captain Gil Nelson, battalion S-2, provided intelligence briefs to the team and showed an FMLN film in which San Miguel guerrillas were firing an 82mm mortar. After researching tropical diseases and disorders, I had an extensive ‘laundry list’ of medicines and supplies to accumulate and pack. Then, it was off to Empire Range for a week.”
25 Garrett interview, 19 May 2007; Colonel (Retired) Hugh Scruggs, e-mail to Dr. Briscoe, 13 July 2007, subject: San Miguel Article for Veritas, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
“SFC Sena put us through his ‘Gun-a-Rama’—a relentless shooting and firing regimen on everything from small arms [.45 cal automatic pistol, M-16 and M-14 rifles, M-79 grenade launcher, and M-21 sniper system] to crew-served weapons [M-60 and M-2 machineguns, 90mm recoilless rifle, 3.5" rocket launcher, and 60mm and 81mm mortars]. It was designed to provide a functional familiarity and basic competency with each weapon, and insure the accuracy of the team’s shooting. I didn’t think a Special Forces soldier could ever get tired of shooting, but we were at the end of the week. We were ‘smoked.’ But, that refresher ‘got our heads into the game,’” remembered Sergeant Ken Beko. After that training, SFC Sena and SSG Moosey left for El Salvador.
26 “SFC LeRoy Sena conducted his “Gun-a-Rama” every Sunday while ODA-7 was in country. It kept everyone proficient, demonstrated to the ESAF that we could really shoot, and served as a psychological deterrent to the FMLN sympathizers.” Garrett interview, 19 May 2007; Sergeant Major (Retired) Peter J. Moosey and Captain Rodger Kenneth Garrett (formerly Sergeant Kenneth Rodger Beko), interview with Dr. Briscoe, 20 May 2007, Tierra Verde, FL, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
Special Forces MTTs were tailored to provide skills requested by the MILGP based on available personnel in the 3rd Battalion of 7th SFG in Panama. The 55-man “force cap,” strictly managed by the MILGP, governed the team size and mission duration. Shortly before Christmas 1983, SFC Sena and SSG Moosey returned to Fort Gulick, leaving CPT Leeker and Staff Sergeant Charles Studley behind at San Miguel. ODA-7 for the San Miguel SUTT would be all noncommissioned officers (NCOs).
27 Sergeant Major (Retired) Rodney F. Dutton, interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 17 April 2007, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC. This SUTT deployment shows the difficulties associated with supporting MTTs rotating in and out of El Salvador. The 55-man “force cap” governed the size and composition of MTTs. Special Forces composite teams were formed to fit the mission and time frame requested by the MILGP. ODAs were rarely deployed as organic entities, but were composed of soldiers with the military and language skills needed. Lieutenant Colonel Peter Stankovich, who followed Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Scruggs as the 3rd Battalion, 7th SFG commander, only wanted to know who the detachment commander and team sergeant were. They were the constants on composite teams. Colonel (Retired) Craig W. Leeker, interview by Colonel (Retired) Cecil Bailey, 17 July 2003, Arlington, VA, tape recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Colonel (Retired) Craig W. Leeker, telephone interview by Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 19 June 2007, Fort Bragg, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Colonel (Retired) Craig W. Leeker, e-mail to Dr. Charles H. Briscoe, 20 June 2007, subject: San Miguel 1984, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Leeker interview, 21 June 2007.