The CIA’s Air War During a 1954 Guatemalan Coup Was Nearly a Fiasco
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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
The CIA-backed coup which toppled Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 is one of Latin America’s more tragic episodes. Concerned about the growing influence of communists within Guatemala’s liberal government, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration approved a secret plan to arm, train and fund a rebellion.
This piece was originally published in 2016.
Operation PBSUCCESS, as the CIA codenamed the mission, succeeded. But the coup doomed Guatemalan democracy, creating the conditions for a brutal civil war to erupt and persist for more than 36 years.
Less known is one of the agency’s most important contributions — creating a small air force of World War II-era planes to support the rebellious troops, led by ex-colonel Carlos Castillos Armas. He became the country’s dictator after the coup, and was assassinated in 1957.
Now there’s a detailed look at the air war in Mario Overall and Dan Hagedorn’s new book PB Success: The CIA’s Covert Operation to Overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, the first in Helion & Company’s Latin America at War series.
Not only did CIA aircraft — stripped of their markings — move supplies for the rebellion, without which it would have likely failed, the agency provided combat power. The small fleet included a handful of F-47N Thunderbolts, a P-38L Lightning, a Cessna 180 and two C-47 transports.
The first mission was a success, although it didn’t seem like it. As the U.S.-backed rebels invaded from across the Honduran border, two Thunderbolts flown by agency pilots took off from an airfield in Nicaragua — which also supported the coup — and headed toward Guatemala City.
“The Thunderbolts arrived over the Capital near 4:00 PM, making a long low pass over downtown during which the pilots, with their canopies rolled back, tried to drop a handful of leaflets they were carrying in the cockpit. This proved to be impossible, however, since the pamphlets were sucked back in as soon as they were thrown out! (Featuring that the M105 leaflet dispensers could be mistaken for large bombs, [CIA deputy director Frank] Wisner hadn’t approved their use.) In the end, the pilots decided to skip that part of the mission, focusing then on putting up the ‘air show.’”
Instead, the Thunderbolts roared over a pro-government gathering, firing their machine guns into the air and raining the spent cartridges down onto the crowd, terrifying and demoralizing the population.
The public even termed the planes sulfatos after a “powerful laxative — because whenever they appeared over the Capital, the Communists got so scared that they had to change their pants.”
The use of airplanes to intimidate made the attacking forces seem bigger and more powerful than they were in reality — an important propaganda tactic. The government’s difficulties getting its own soldiers to fight had a decisive effect on the outcome of the coup.
However, the rebellious military officers leading the troops from Honduras were not impressed, and demanded the CIA escalate. The agency compromised by authorizing close-air support missions to support soldiers crossing the border.
Elsewhere, the CIA improvised with limited means. The Cessna 180 flown by World War II veteran Carlos Cheesman raided government supply dumps as his bombardier dropped blocks of TNT — not bombs — from the plane. But these bundles of explosives were, in some cases, more effective than bombs, which were old and sometimes failed to explode.
Landing was perhaps the most dangerous mission of all. During one flight over the town of Zacapa, a loyalist .50-caliber machine gun dug-in on a nearby hill opened fire, striking both planes. The pilots limped back to Managua, and one crash landed on the runway. He lived, but to complicate the situation, a Nicaraguan crew dragged the plane off the runway with a tractor, wrecking the plane for the rest of the war.
To compound the mishaps, the CIA’s P-38L sank the British transport ship M.S. Springfjord, mistakenly believing Nicaraguan intelligence reports that the vessel was transporting Spitfire fighter planes to the Guatemalan air force. (The ship carried coffee.)
Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia demanded the agency bomb the ship, and phoned CIA field commander William Robertson.
“When the field commander told him that The Group hadn’t authorized the attack, the President yelled: ‘If you use my airfield, then you do as I say! Bomb the damn ship! and hung up,” Overall and Hagedorn wrote.
The agents based at the airfield in Nicaragua carried out the mission, but without authorization of the CIA’s command post in Opa-locka, Florida.
“Due to the circumstances, they would ‘shoot first and give explanations later,’” Richardson said, according to the book.