Dominican Civil War (1965)
|Dominican Civil War|
|Commanders and leaders|
Elías Wessin y Wessin
Lyndon B. Johnson
André Rivière †
Junta: 17,000 (peak)|
United States: 20,463
|Casualties and losses|
Junta: 825 dead|
United States: 44 dead
|IAPF was designed as a peacekeeping force and thus is not considered a war participant.|
The Dominican Civil War of 1965 took place between April 24, 1965, and September 6, 1965, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It started when Dominican army troops attempted to overthrow the ruling civilian triumvirate. This resulted in an armed struggle for control of the government between dissident troops (rebels), who were joined by civilians, and loyalist military forces seeking to establish a military junta. The ensuing anarchy in the city of Santo Domingo led to intervention by U.S. military forces.
On May 6 the OAS approved dispatch of an Inter-American military force. On the following day, the United States recognized the Government of National Reconstruction (GNR) headed by General Antonio Imbert, who also took command of the Loyalist, now GNR, forces. The GNR used the U.S. presence to deploy its forces and attack Constitutionalists. As a result, GNR forces destroyed most Constitutionalist bases and effectively ended the war.
The causes of the Dominican Civil War of 1965 can be traced to the period of Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship. Thirty years under the rule of Trujillo had left the Dominican Republic without qualified political and social leaders.
In September 1963, a group of military officers led by General Elías Wessin y Wessin ousted Juan Bosch, the first constitutional president of the post-Trujillo era, forcing him into exile. Bosch, an ineffective leader, had not only alienated the upper classes of the country but also quarreled with senior army officers over corruption within the military. Furthermore, he had been labeled pro-communist. Bosch's inability to cope efficiently with the nation's problems led to his overthrow and the establishment of a civilian triumvirate backed by the military. The triumvirate eventually became a two-man regime dominated by the former foreign minister, Donald Reid Cabral, a moderate.
Unrest in the country continued under Reid's regime. He made himself unpopular with military leaders by reducing the military budget and shutting off lucrative smuggling activities by senior officers. Junior officers disapproved of the slow pace of Reid's reforms, especially in retiring high-ranking officers left over from the Trujillo regime. Many of the younger officers and enlisted men favored the progressive policies and social welfare programs that had been advocated by Bosch and disapproved of the return of the military-backed Reid government to the constitution of 1962. They wanted reinstitution of the liberal Bosch constitution of 1963. This split in the military was the immediate cause of the 1965 revolt, but other groups (farmers, laborers, merchants, and small businessmen) also opposed Reid because of his harsh economic measures.
The Dominican Revolt
On 24 April 1965, a group of young officers and leaders of Bosch's revolutionary party initiated a coup d'état that toppled the Reid government and led to an armed uprising, Pro-Bosch forces intended Molina Ureña, the highest-ranking member of the 1963 Bosch government then on Dominican soil, to be sworn in as provisional constitutional president pending the return of Bosch. However, General Wessin y Wessin, commander of the Armed Forces Training Center, who had led the anti-Bosch coup in 1963, decided to fight the movement to restore Bosch to power.
The following day, in an effort to prevent Molina Ureña from being sworn in, the presidential palace was strafed by the Dominican air force and shelled by naval vessels. By Monday morning, 26 April, mobs and agitators ran riot in the city. Trained teams, many led by communists, organized commando and paramilitary groups. Armed civilians outnumbered the rebel soldiers. On Tuesday, a sizeable loyalist force of tanks, artillery, and infantry under the command of Wessin y Wessin began to rumble across Duarte Bridge under covering fire from 12.7 mm machine guns on the eastern bank. The rebels left two large truck trailers used to haul sugar cane blocking the path, but as the tanks pushed their way through these obstacles, one of the two pre–World War I 75 mm cannon on the rebel side got off one shot and destroyed the first tank. Soon a hail of machine gun fire silenced the 75 mm cannons and the rest of the tanks proceeded into the city.
When the tank column passed José Martí Street one block from Duarte Avenue, hidden machine guns opened up on the infantry, and most of the soldiers either fled or were killed. Without infantry cover, the tanks, already in the narrow streets of the neighborhood, were sitting ducks for the shower of Molotov cocktails soon raining down from the surrounding buildings. As the remnants of the loyalist infantry fled back across the Duarte Bridge to the east bank, the first tanks in the column exploded in flames. The raging fires panicked the crews of the remaining tanks and most of them abandoned their vehicles. Only a few tanks escaped and fled back across the Duarte Bridge.
The loyalists formed a three-man military junta led by Col. Pedro Bartolome Benoit of the Dominican air force, to rally anti-Bosch support. This self-proclaimed government represented some semblance of authority and with police support controlled most of the Dominican Republic except for the rebel-held areas in downtown Santo Domingo.
U.S. military intervention
Shoved into this highly sensitive situation were, at the peak of the intervention, 20,463 U.S. troops (12,439 soldiers, 6,924 Marines and 1,100 airmen) with an additional 10,059 sailors offshore. Rebels, a hardcore of between 2,000 and 4,000, were organized into 15 to 20-man commando units. Each unit was responsible for a portion of the city. The commandos ostensibly fought for Col. Francisco Caamaño.
U.S. intervention consisted of four phases: evacuation, stability operations, unilateral peacekeeping and multilateral peacekeeping. Each phase varied in duration and intensity of fighting as well as stated objective. The first was clear-cut: evacuate all U.S. nationals as soon as possible. That was accomplished in two days, April 27-28. Some 536 Marines of BLT 3/6 were landed; two rifle companies went to the coastal city of Haina. Though the evacuation went without a hitch (2,694 U.S. citizens were rescued), the first American KIAs were sustained then. Four blocks from the Hotel Embajador, where many Americans were waiting to be evacuated, a rebel sniper fatally shot a Marine walking behind a tank. Cliff Benware and Russell Rowe were the first to die on April 30. That same day, Navy corpsman Bill Brent aided four wounded Marines during a crossfire in which he was also wounded. He was awarded the Silver Star.
Under “withering fire,” the 508th’s C Company and Troop A, 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry, crossed the bridgehead and established a six-block beachhead on the western bank of the Ozama River. Only five light casualties were incurred. Approximately 1,700 Marines held the area around the U.S. Embassy along with the coastal highway to Haina. The expanded area surrounding the embassy was designated the International Security Zone (ISZ). In preparation for the linkup of U.S. forces, two platoons from C Company reconnoitered the Calle Concepcion, losing two KIA and seven WIA. This maneuver effectively trapped 80% of the rebels south of the line of communication (LOC). That corridor was nicknamed the “All-American Expressway.” It cut the city in half, isolating the majority of rebels in the Ciudad Nuevo and in a small enclave north of the Duarte Bridge on the Ozama River. Combat was far from over, however, and the rebels still had a lot of fighting ahead against the troops of a new military junta.
In order to soften up the rebel positions and to try to silence Radio Santo Domingo TV, the military junta sent its airplanes to bomb and strafe on May 14. The bombing was ineffective, but one of the airplanes missed the rebel radio station and strafed U.S. Marines and junta troops. This convinced the U.S. government to ground the Dominican air force. The military junta, although deprived of air cover for its troops, decided to launch Operation Limpieza (cleanup). On May 15 Operation Limpieza began when four junta tanks led over a thousand soldiers in an attack. The infantry was well equipped with mortars, bazookas, and 37 mm cannons, while the defending civilians were armed with nothing heavier than machine guns. The rebels inflicted heavy losses on the junta troops, and the offensive stalled by midday on May 16.
The arrival of twelve tanks from the Haitian border on May 18 finished turning the tide against the outgunned rebels. Limpieza turned into bitter and savage fighting with wholesale destruction of many city blocks. With victory in the northern sector almost within sight of junta troops, the officers indulged in social and ethnic cleansing in the northern neighborhoods. No prisoners were taken, and suspected rebels were promptly executed, while the number of atrocities committed against civilians multiplied. Many blacks lived in these poor neighborhoods, and junta troops slaughtered many as part of their Limpieza campaign. In the morning of 19 May junta troops finally captured Radio Santo Domingo. By 20 May only pockets of rebel resistance remained north of the corridor, and in the drive to reach the Ozama River junta troops were slaughtering many suspected rebels. A cease-fire was negotiated by May 21, marking the beginning of neutrality for U.S. forces. At this time, 20 Americans had been killed in action and 102 wounded.
Inter-American Peace Force
Under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS), an Inter-American Peace Force (IAPF) was created to maintain order until elections were held. It consisted of 6,243 Americans and 1,763 Latin Americans from six countries. The U.S. element was made up of the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne; 16th General Supply Group; a company of the 7th Special Forces; and selected Air Force elements. The Latin Brigade was divided into the Fraternity Battalion (a Brazilian Marine company and all other Latins) and the Brazilian Battalion (entirely infantry). Brazil contributed 1,130 men, or almost two-thirds of the Latin total. Joint IAPF-U.S. military police patrols of the three-mile long corridor began May 24. Harassing fire was frequently directed against the power plant which was occupied by IAPF troops. Fire came from a tall hospital building, located in the rebel zone, draped in Red Cross flags.
During the summer of 1965, the IAPF maintained 10 security checkpoints to control access and stop the flow of arms and munitions into Ciudad Nuevo. Rebels used every means to smuggle weapons: auto gas tanks, hearses and ambulances and under women’s dresses. The increased pace of smuggling as well as a brief, but violent, exchange of gunfire on June 6 presaged a major rebel offensive. Nine days later, the Constitutionalists launched a second and final attempt to expand the boundaries of their stronghold. Employing the greatest firepower to date, they used tear gas grenades, .50-caliber machine guns, 20 mm guns, mortars, rocket launchers and tank fire. The 1st battalions of the 505th and 508th Infantry quickly went on the offensive.
Amid the clatter of automatic weapons, the sharp rattle of .50-caliber guns and the heavy explosions of bazookas and recoilless rifles, the paratroopers of the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division blasted their way four city blocks into Caamaño's bastion. Heavy fire from U.S. guns across the Ozama River ringed rebel headquarters on El Conde Street, shattered buildings and started huge fires. The American offensive was stopped, but sporadic sniping continued into the next day, June 16. Two days of fighting cost the U.S. five KIA and 31 WIA. The Brazilians, who had orders to remain on the defensive, suffered five wounded. The Constitutionalists claimed 67 dead and 165 injured.
By the last week in June, only 12,400 U.S. troops remained in the country. All Marines had departed by the sixth of the month. Peace talks continued, and on Oct. 15 the IAPF perimeter was eliminated. But Santo Domingo remained tense. On Oct. 25, the 1st Brigade and two battalions of the 2nd Brigade swept the Ciudad Nuevo and sealed it off without serious incident. By the time the 82nd withdrew Nov. 1, the Constitutionalist core had been removed from the city. A company of the 1/504th remained behind to occupy the power plant and Duarte Bridge.
The year 1966 was routine and relatively quiet. By the end of June, the final withdrawal of U.S. troops began. The last major combat unit in the Dominican Republic departed mid-September, well after democratic elections had been held. But rebel terrorists could not resist one last attack. On Sept. 14, two members of a support unit attached to the 82nd were ambushed by civilians riding motorcycles. Both were shot in the back. One GI died immediately; the other died at a hospital. When a complete tally was made, the intervention had cost the U.S. 27 KIA and 172 WIA. Another 20 Americans died from non-hostile causes; 111 were seriously injured. Ten of the KIA were Marines; 13 were from the 82nd Airborne.
- De La Pedraja, René (2013-04-15). Wars of Latin America, 1948-1982: The Rise of the Guerrillas. McFarland. ISBN 9780786470150. Search this book on
- Dixon, Jeffrey S. (2015). A Guide to Intra-state Wars: An Examination of Civil, Regional, and Intercommunal Wars, 1816-2014. CQ Press. ISBN 9781506317984. Search this book on
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