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The SOF Wild Bunch and the Contras

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The SOF Wild Bunch and the Contras

From I Am Soldier of Fortune by Robert K Brown and Vann Spencer, Chapter 24

In 1985, my old friend and mentor, Major General Jack Singlaub, USA (Ret.), called my office.

“Brown, I want you to recruit a small team of Vietnam veterans to go down and train and assist the Contras. Congress has cut off aid to them. They need you to take over where the CIA left off when they were abruptly withdrawn. I’m told that the CIA agents didn’t even teach the Contras how to operate the CIA-supplied communications vans which left them without commo.” 

First I called Harry Claflin, who was still advising and training in El Salvador. I contacted other SOF’ers who I had worked with in numerous dark, nasty, places where we often encountered hot lead and cold steel.

“Harry can you handle commo and small units tactics with the Contras in Nicaragua, right next door to your stomping grounds?” I asked him. In his no bull manner, he said, “I’m in.” 

In addition to Harry, I recruited Lieutenant ColonelJohn Boykin, USA (Ret.), a strapping, tall Dennis Weaver look-alike, who could well have made some NFL team as a tight end

“How would you like to be the SOF A-Team leader?” I gave Boykin an offer he could not resist. He had been the Deputy Commander of the El Salvador MilGroup, had made his bones in Special Forces in Nam and was a Commanding Officer in Ranger School. 

Next, I called Phil Gonzalez, swarthy and movie-star handsome, a superb SF Medic whom I had met in Nam

“I want you to conduct medical training and patch up any of us who happen to run into some errant lead.” I gave him his marching orders without doubting that Gonzalez would take them. He was a dedicated professional medic, who always jumped at an opportunity for action and treating the wounded, be they the SOF team or the locals.

Jack Thompson, blue-eyed and muscular with a sturdy build and thinning hair, was a Marine embassy guard in Nam, Selous Scout Sergeant Major in Rhodesia and “small arms and sniper consultant” in Central America.

“I need you to handle the weapons instruction,” I told him. 

To round off the team, I still needed a demo expert. 

“Can you go to Honduras and handle instruction in boom-boom?” I asked the soft-spoken, affable John “I.W.” Harper, a slim man with jovial blue eyes who was a legendary, retired CIA demo expert. After he retired from the Agency, he got a contract with a rogue CIA agent, Ed Wilson, who was working for Qaddafi. Harper thought it was an off-the-books Agency operation, which was not the case. During his tour in Libya, a Russian helicopter blew up in the air, killing several Russian officers. Being the premier demo man, he was suspected of blowing the chopper up and was thrown in a quite unpleasant dungeon. The story goes that Harper, who had run an agent net in Libya when King Idress was in power, somehow reactivated his net and with its help escaped from the dungeon and the country. He will not confirm or deny this but it makes for a good tale.

The members of the heavy hitting team all said, “Count me in!” I flew them into Denver and put them up at the posh Brown Palace Hotel.

“Lay low,” I told them.

Fat chance. The daunting group of tall, muscular, mean-looking, scruffy bearded guys with marauder eyes didn’t have much chance of blending in with the dull, fatcat, suited-types booked into the prestigious hotel. I met them at the Brown Palace Hotel bar.

“General Singlaub is going to interview you for a special mission in Nicaragua. Not a word to anyone,” I told them.

I arranged transport up to Singlaub’s house in Fraser, Colorado, just to humor him, knowing good and well that he would accept my private little army at no cost to him.

“He brought us in one at a time up to his office, which was outfitted like a war room. Maps covered the walls. He grilled me about Force Recon, Spec Ops, how long I had been in El Salvador. We were interviewed and accepted and then found out what the big picture was,” Harry recalled.

“Gentlemen,” Singlaub growled, “you will leave here and travel to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with your equipment and link up with members of the Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense [FDN]. You will then be taken to Camp Las Vegas, the main Contra base on the Nicaraguan border. There you will train their elite commando unit for deep penetration operations into Nicaragua.” Singlaub, upon retiring, had become one of the most effective, active civilian sector operators to oppose the communist menace worldwide. 

“The length of training for the mission will be 90 days, starting from the time you get to Camp Las Vegas. Training sites have already been selected and the Contra units will be waiting for you. Each of you is an expert in your field, so you need not be told what to do. Thank you, and good luck,” he said.


“We were going to train the Contra’s elite commando unit,” Harry remembered, “like we had trained the GOE [Groupos Operationes Especiales] in El Salvador. Singlaub implied that President Reagan was behind this. Don’t forget that Singlaub had worked with CIA Director William Casey during World War II in the OSS, so we assumed that Casey had signed off on this,” Harry said. 

Singlaub had met Bill Casey while acting as an OSS member during World War II. He was involved in the formation of the CIA, had spook assignments in Manchuria during the Korean War, and was commander of SOG, the secret, highly successful snoop-and-poop Special Forces operation which sent teams into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail and gather intelligence. He served as Chief of Staff of the United Nations and U.S. Army Forces in South Korea in 1977. He retired that year after he publicly criticized President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea, but he made the peanut farmer back down.

At the time, Singlaub was a freedom loving, anti-communist zealot and a prominent member of the World Anti-Communist League. He was going to fight the leftist Sandinistas that had taken over Nicaragua any way he could, and along with CIA head William Casey, Major General Richard Secord and Lt. Colonel Oliver North, was later charged with involvement in the conspiracy to provide arms to the Contras. 

We were being asked to circumvent the U.S. Congress as he and Oliver North and others in the Reagan administration did in defiance of left-wingers who had cut off aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. To some degree, we were to fill in for our CIA predecessors. 

By 1985, the Contras, composed of mostly former national guardsmen from the Somoza regime and poor peasant farmers from the highlands, were engaged in a life and death struggle with communist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. They violently rejected the communist practices of suppressing their religion and confiscating their land. 

For years, beginning during the Carter Administration, the U.S. had armed and supported the Contras to such an extent that the Nicaraguan military considered them an American proxy fighting force. The Reagan administration ordered the CIA to support the Contras, but the Democrats cut funding.

Senator John Kerry had  met with Sandinista Commandante Daniel Ortega. Even though the Sandinistas were known for their human rights violations, political oppression and support of the Salvadorian guerrillas, Kerry came back from Managua and pushed for ending U.S. support for the Contras. I would be lying if I said there were not abuses on both sides, including Contra atrocities, but the story was a self-serving, one-sided, pro-commie rant . The day after the House voted down a miserly $14 million aid package, Ortega boogied to Moscow and got $200 million in aid from the Soviets. 


The SOF team packed up gear and equipment and flew to Tegucigalpa with two tons of equipment and gear donated by anti-communist SOF advertisers. There they were to be met by a Contra reception party. Shortly after they arrived, I got a phone call from a very angry Harry.

“Nobody was here to meet us. Singlaub must think he is still a general in the U.S. Army and that everyone would jump to his command. Not so with the Contras,” he fumed. 

“The customs people were looking at us funny. We were there with illegal military supplies and bomb-making material.”

Harry went back to the group who brainstormed, “Now what?” 

Then Boykin contacted Mike Lima, a prominent Contra combat leader, who had lost a hand in a mortar accident. 

“He welcomed us, ‘Nice to see you. What are you doing here?’” Boykin made the intro. 

“We have some gear here” the team said.

“We’ll bring some trucks over,” Lima replied.

“He brought one little Toyota pickup, which wouldn’t put a dent in the load of medical supplies, training gear, uniforms and a mess of other equipment,” Harry said.

“They go back and get more trucks and take us over to a ‘safe’ house which has no furniture in it. ‘I.W.’ and I bunk up together; Boykin is in the room with Gonzalez. We stay there for about a week twiddling our thumbs with nothing to eat but our C-rations, while the Contras are doing who knows what,” Harry yelled in my ear. 

Harry called me again a week later in Boulder. 

“Brown, these Calero brothers, Mario, the logistics guy, and Adolpho, supposedly leader of the Contras who we had linked up with in Florida on our way down were supposed to coordinate our mission in Honduras. They never showed up to meet us!” Harry was hot.

I’d had it. I got down to Honduras in a few days and moved the team to a hotel. Enraged, I called Singlaub, who called Mario Calero the affable brother of the Contra political leader, Adolfo Calero and apparently chewed some ass as Calero sent someone to get us to Camp Las Vegas on the Nicaraguan border. It had been hacked out of the jungle and the last 100 miles of road was nothing but a bulldozed trail.

One hundred yards away from the camp was bad guy country so we were on alert for ambush on the brain-jarring ride. It took us 14 hours, bumping along in Toyota pickup trucks, to get to the base. It was 100 miles of nightmarish, rocky, miserable hell and endless checkpoints that took hours to clear.

We could see Sandinista bunkers on the hillsides maybe 300 meters away. We didn’t have a good feeling when we arrived at the Contra camp. We crashed in a bamboo  hut with a mud floor and awoke to the crowing of a damn rooster. Nobody offered us breakfast so we ate C-rations. 

The commander of the Contra army, Colonel Enrique Bermudas, codenamed “Commander 380,” came down to see us the next day. 

“Hey how you doing? Good to see you. So why are you here?” he queried, without a clue as to what was going on. I shook my head in despair, again. The Contra logistical incompetence was overwhelming. How they did as well as they did against the Sandinistas still puzzles me.

“We’re here to train your commando unit which was  to make raids deep into Nicaragua,” I told him since he was acting as if we were aliens. But 380 (we still don’t know why he picked up the designation “380” as a nom de guerre) had never been advised we were coming! The Contra commando unit was already doing dirty deeds deep inside of Nicaragua.

We moved from the leaky bamboo huts to another area and put our tents up by ourselves on a hill. We probably had 200 supply kits. We thought, “Hell, we’re here, so we’ll train somebody. We’ll start putting together some basic programs of instruction.” And we did just that.  

During the first weekend, on a bright clear Saturday afternoon, 380 came by and took us in his pickup down to a little country store 500 yards from the Nicaraguan border for a few hours of R&R. Cobbled together from bamboo and a roof of thatch, it had a dirt floor. Farm implements, cooking utensils and whatever one needed for subsistence farming were hanging from the walls and the ceiling. It also had beer, of questionable origin, for sale.

As we were unacquainted with Col. Bermudas, it took a few cervezas before things started to loosen up. Someone asked him, “Commandante, what’s your plan?” 

“PLON, PLON? We don’t have no PLON,” Bermudas said. We sat there in shock. It was like “Badges, badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges,” from the Humphrey Bogart movie, Sierra Maestra.

There he was, possibly in the midst of some Sandinista spies, and he was sitting there saying, “The Sandinistas are always sending in spies to find out my PLONS. I have no PLONS.” 

I almost choked. We all got a pretty good buzz on to numb the anger, then piled back into the truck. Pointing down a dirt road, 380 said, “By the way, there’s Nicaragua over there and we have no guns with us.” Not reassuring. However, he was the local so we hoped he knew what he was talking about. 

They had assigned us an interpreter, who we all felt was also our “minder” with the mission of keeping 380 informed of what the crazy gringos were up to. With the nom de guerre of “Pecos Bill,” he showed up on a mule, wearing a mixture of cowboy and combat gear and sunglasses. Inebriated to the brim, he stepped outside the tent and ripped off a 30-round magazine. Boykin did the same thing. Why? Only the Contras knew. Or did they? We went to sleep. The training with 380 and his team, the “Tigers,” started the next day. 

For the next four weeks we trained them in weapons maintenance, marksmanship, and basic small unit tactics. These people had no military training at all. Who knows what the CIA had been doing before we got there. Basic weapons training took up a lot of time. Until we got there, marksmanship consisted of spraying and praying. Aimed fire was a new concept for them. It was fortunate that the Sandinistas were no better marksman than they were.

Gonzalez spent the whole time teaching basic life-saving techniques to a number of the brighter ones: starting IVs, treating sucking chest wounds, keeping wounds clean and setting broken bones. He also had an unexpected problem to take care of as it turned out that about 95 percent of these young farmer-fighters from the mountains had some kind of VD. When discussing the training Harry recalled:

“I was up to my neck in rusted-out MGs, which consisted mainly of M60s and Russian RPDs. The M60s had frozen gas pistons. The overall condition of the guns was rubbish. The Tigers had not a clue about how to disassemble their weapons, let alone how to maintain them. We took care of that,” he said.

“Rusty FN\FALs, Spanish CETMEs, AKs of all types and M-14s were in no better shape.” 

We were implementing our training program of small unit tactics and were finally accomplishing something, though not the mission we were initially tapped for. Until the Sandinista rocket attack slammed into our camp that is.

The first Katushka whizzed in on a Saturday morning, around 0900 hours. We had just sat down to our daily “feast” of rice and beans when suddenly the sound of Katushka rockets ripping the air apart hit about 200 yards from our tent . The next thing we knew, there were nine more missiles pounding down on us. The others dove into a deep ditch behind our tent before the next salvo landed. I sat on my cot in my underwear taking pictures of the rockets coming in. 

“Get your ass down here,” Harry yelled.

“Get lost,” I told him.

We spent the night in the ditch. By this time we had replaced our rusty, worn out Swedish K submachine guns with brand spanking new Uzis. We were tempted to put them to use when six armed individuals shuffled by us at 0300 hours. Fortunately, we held our fire as we figured they might be Contras coming back from patrol, and they were. If we had lit them up, it would have been mucho embarrassing.

Harper, Gonzalez, Harry and I decided it was time to get off the bullseye to get a view of the action. There was a tall mountain at least one klick high to the west of us. Getting to the top was damn near as bad as when I climbed to our SOF Liberty City base in Laos  in l981.

The Contras had a relay station up on top and antiaircraft gunners. We thought, “If we are going to get attacked, let’s go to top of hill so we can see it coming”. 

It took us until dark to get on top. We could see the war going on between the Contras and the Sandinistas from our panoramic view of the river, green tracers going one way and red tracers going another. Next morning we came back to camp. Nobody had told 380 where we had gone and he was in a tizzy because he thought that we were MIA. Around 450 rockets had hit in the base camp area.

He relocated us to a hospital area, such as it was, where all the commandos’ wives came to have their babies. There’s nothing like being billeted in a jungle maternity ward. We spend another week there thumb twiddling, and the biggest entertainment I had was spitting a stream of Skoal at roosters that were waking us up every stinkin’ morning before sunup.

The next day, 380 told us we had best return to Tegucigalpa until a new training site could be located out of range of the rockets after a week we never found out why. There had been some KIAs at Camp Las Vegas and it was a bit difficult to conduct training in the midst of incoming rockets. No site was forthcoming so we packed our gear and headed home. 

John Boykin and Harry went to El Salvador to pick up some mortar sights for the Contra mortars (and why hadn’t the CIA provided them?) and to get M-60 links and to bring back Jack Thompson, the team weapons specialist. Speaking of Thompson, while we were cooling our heels in Tegucigalpa, one afternoon he went into the hotel restaurant. He decided to sample something he was unfamiliar with, steak tartare, figuring it was some type of fancy Honduran hamburger. After the waiter had completed his elaborate preparations of mixing the raw meat, eggs and spices, Thompson told him to take it back to the kitchen and cook it. It was probably the best hamburger ever cooked in that country.

Thompson, a rugged, good looking Viking type with a thick, light beard and steely sky blue eyes, had been operating as a security consultant for several years in Guatemala until we brought him first to El Salvador. In Guatemala, he trained bodyguards and security units for large ranches, and gave shooting classes to those who could afford it. He also did some ops for the Guatemalan Army. 

He recounted one incident: “I was doing some sniping . . . nothing really long range . . . maybe three or four hundred yards. I came up with a plan where I would locate a trail known to be traveled by guerrillas and then place a note, which said in Spanish, ‘Take this to your leader.’ The guerrilla point man, at the head of the column, would pick up the note and take it back to the leader at which time I would light him up. I did this a few times and the word got out because one time, the point man picked up the note, turned and walked back to give it to the leader who vigorously shook his head and thrust his palms of his hands toward the puzzled point man as he knew what was coming. And I chuckled as I whacked him too.”

Our mission could hardly be called a resounding success. On the other hand, the four weeks of basic training we provided was better than the CIA bozos had given them, and we got one hell of a lot of the Contras’ small arms up and running. 

“I.W.” Harper gave a week-long basic course in espionage trade craft to a handful of Contras who would be spies. After “graduation” they returned to Managua. However, the “students” were quickly compromised and executed when they returned home. They had not been assigned “war names,” therefore they knew each other. Once one was compromised, he was interrogated and exposed the others. Their security mindset was non-existent. 

Sometime later, Singlaub had “I.W.” conduct another similar class in Tegucigalpa, using former Marine and longtime Miami soldier of fortune Marty Casey as translator. What happened to the second batch of would-be agents is unknown.

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