I hear this story just from some guy sitting at the Bar on the Plaza de las Arimas in Vera Cruz. This is not some hidden spot but a major Mexican port, very public, if you see what I mean. He's an old guy but not ancient, 65 say, a little overweight and gray but still the ladies' man. He sits at the table next to me at this Bar Chicote which is a racy joint by night but a pleasant outdoor locale by day. First thing he does is get up again and ask a young lady passing by to tie his shoelaces as he can't do it. He groans just sitting back down and thanks her profusely. "I love you, sweetheart." She smiles, charmed and waves as she walks on.
Around the second bottle of Superior beer we get around to talking. He sees my Mexico News, the only English language paper in the country and that is enough for him. Not that this is unusual, Vera Cruz is a babble of language and to speak your native tongue as pleasurable as any of the other joys of the town. Like any port, it is full of scams and crazies to complement the stream of sailors and La Bamba aficionados. This I bear in mind as the day winds out with this tale from a stranger named Bob.
"So, what do you do?" he asks as he moves his chair to my table. Now I know he is a genuine Norte Americano. That is the first question on any true American's lips. After a few more cervezas, he'll want to know how much money I make!
"I'm a writer," I say. This is a great response for such guys as it means you are eccentric and weird, a good fact to establish early on in this burg.
Unshaken, Bob holds up two fingers for two more Superiors as the waiter passes. "Good," he says, "Have I got a story for you. I shouldn't even be in Mexico, much less Vera Cruz, but I'm dying, see, and I wanted to see the place once more."
Well, this interests me so I put the paper aside hardly thinking it will be this good a story. But here it is, take it or leave it. The dates check out, that much I can assure you.
"Actually," Bob starts, "I was approached by a journalist to write the Vera Cruz story once before on the roof garden at the Caravelle Hotel Saigon. He had Erroll Flynn's son Shawn with him, who later disappeared into Cambodia, don't know what he was doing but he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. If you can call a man beautiful, I couldn't do it then. I was still active and would have been court-martialled but I thought of that reporter later when I needed money."
He has my interest but in the interest of knowing what the hell we're talking about, I interrupt.
"What service were you in?"
"Sorry," he says, "Air Force from the end of World War II, Army before. My whole life in. September 1, I939 is my favorite date in history, when Hitler marched into Poland and liberated me from a farm in Lexington, Kentucky. But this was much later, my first actual mission, here in Vera Cruz in February of 1954. They asked me if I would be willing to mount an operation. We were bringing 17 airplanes to Mexico, leaving 12 and bringing back 5 of them F47 Republics. Jugs, we called them, Pratt Whitney R2800's, very hot airplanes at that time. I was the only one that knew we would eventually use 5 armed airplanes against Guatemala. We were to stop four divisions from the country from reinforcing the garrison in Guatemala City."
I'm sipping my beer, the day is heating up when I find I have questions, lots. Like who are they that sent this guy, but it would be like stopping a moonshot to ask how the motor works. He isn't really talking to me at all, you see, just talking, running on and on. Bob stops and stares out at the plaza, the traffic picks up on Avenida Independencia but he is in another Vera Cruz.
Turning back to me from one such lapse, he takes it up again. "It was my operation. The other four guys were innocents. We came down in 30 days temporary duty assignment. But it just didn't happen, we ended up flying all over Mexico for four, four and a half months. We were national heroes and they treated us fantastic. Maybe I should try to look up Mary Arcos." He brightens at this thought, laughs winningly and calls for another round. Me, I'm beginning to like the guy, very infectious in his moods.
"Who's Mary?" I ask.
"Oh, her family ran a travel agency back then. One of my guys, Dave was a real lover. He screwed half the girls in Vera Cruz, which was unusual back then when girls didn't screw. He flew top cover on this one. The guys, you can't live without talking about it so they knew about it after a month. Ed was West Point; Jerry, a 1st Lieutenant and then there was Jack, West Point, too, but a small blond kid, played classical guitar real well. We were all charmers."
"As far as I know, the civilians knew nothing but the Mexican militarv armed our planes the night before the time came with M81's, 50 caliber ammunition. We waited all morning but finally left at 3:30. An hour and a half later I got hit with ground fire over Guatemala City but not until I had dropped my load on troop transports coming into Guatemala City. We cleaned it out, which is what we were supposed to do. One road from the South and one from the East. We took out their APC's and troop concentrations coming into the city. They had one Base south of Guatemala City and we totally demolished that. I knew we could do it and we did. We may have taken out 4 to 5,000 troops, killed them all with five planes! We each had four 500 pound bombs, napalm in the Tokyo tanks. We stopped them. They had 20,000 troops but it was a duck shoot. They had four divisions in the South but the city was sealed off.
"I think I was hit with a 37 millimeter. It was pure luck for them. I got two pieces of flak taken out of my spine in Vera Cruz. The other four guys ditched over the ocean, Caribbean, which we were supposed to do. But I didn't know what to do so I flew back to Vera Cruz where I knew some people. The police took me into custody, I was bleeding and couldn't move my legs. It was evening by then, near seven when they drug me out of the airplane. They took me to a private clinic. I could never find it again, there was big courtyard. I wouldn't let them operate or give me a shot until a spook from our Embassy in Mexico City came down and stayed with me day and night in the bed next to me for four days, Melvin Jackson. They brought in a little tank of gas to put me out then took out the fragments. The only doctor I knew was a Colonel from the Military School here. He advised them to get Melvin. Mel became a good friend, very good friend and was killed in Vietnam in '65.
A tear ran down his cheek. I excused myself to the bathroom but when I returned he was still there with his head down. I thought he was napping but up came the head still talking.
"The civilian government didn't want to turn me loose but the military came in after 7 days and took me out with a rifle platoon, brutalized the cops that were guarding me. Not a shot was fired but I signed papers to never come back to Mexico or hold the Mexican Government responsible for anything. It was O.K. to kick the guards, they were assholes but they hurt the nurses and that hurt me. They had been good to me. I got flown in a C54, Air Force plane back to San Antonio, debriefed there. All four of my guys later got killed in Southeast Asia."
Now he's done I told myself, almost relieved. It was afternoon and my stomach growled. "Look, Bob, this has been very interesting. My old lady usually meets me around now for lunch, she's a late sleeper."
"No, don't go. Let's just have one more," he says. "I'll feel like hell this evening but right now this feels good. Hang on, will you?" I couldn't refuse. The weather was not conducive to moving about, anyway. Sweat ran off our bottles, the revolving fans overhead did little to help as the bottle count mounted on the tiny cocktail table. That's how they keep track of the bill here. Nothing on paper, pay up when the table gets too full.
"The cadets at Anton Lizardo that we were teaching to fly the other I2 planes were inexperienced, not enough training for the aircraft. One of them, Jorge, managed to stay alive all these years but nobody ever shot at him flying in Mexico. Not a one of them would have lasted five minutes if an American pilot had been shooting at them. "He laughed, "Maybe I should get a hold of Jorge, say howdy!"
"Maybe you should try calling Mexico City," I mumbled and got a reaction. Leaning over to look me in the eye, old Bob got a wee bit aggressive but it made him groan and sit back exhausted. "If we had had just those five airplanes at the Bay of Pigs we would have won that, too" he snarled. "Air cover with good pilots is an amazing thing. You have no idea what one airplane can do. Except for the phantom, I know of no other airplane that can carry such an amount of ordinance. It's a death machine. But, look here, it's not my nature to be sneaky so it hurt me to deceive so many people but it worked. We took that country with five troops and air power. I don't know how many from the Company, C.I.A. but probably not more that 20 or 30. We installed a government that lasted I5 years, killed the heads of the military and put in our own guy. We won!
"So, how did you get back into Mexico after all those years?" I asked. "What do you do now?"
"They gave me a new name, Bob Armstrong, All-American Boy. Before 1954 I was a different guy and now I'm retired." He shoved back the chair and lifted his bulky frame painfully. We split the beer tab and separated with a handshake. I stayed home a few days. By the time I got back into town, he was gone.
But it got me thinking about a little trip to take a look at a country that we helped build. Could be an eye-opener for a still agile old freebooter and Bonnie, she just loves her pyramids. They should still be standing, at least.