In 1965, U.S. and Dominican Tanks Fought Brief, Violent Skirmishes
Rebel tanks were no match for America’s fighting vehicles
Tanks have rarely been used in battle in the Western Hemisphere — and fights between tanks are even rarer.
But the Dominican Republic in 1965 was one of the exceptions, when Constitutionalist rebels fought the armored vehicles of invading U.S. Marines in the streets of the capital city, Santo Domingo.
Stranger yet, the Dominicans were using Swedish tanks.
What were the Marines — and later the 82nd Airborne Division and the Brazilian army — doing in the Dominican Republic?
Taking sides in a civil war.
The United States had a long history of intervening in the Dominican Republic, even occupying it from 1916 to 1924 and running the customs agency there for its own profit. But after a U.S.-trained National Guardsmen, Trujillo, bullied his way to power with “99 percent of the vote” in the 1930 elections and proceeded to rule as a sociopathic dictator, the United States largely left the nation alone.
Trujillo went on to rename the capital city after himself, established seven mutually hostile spy agencies, murdered nearly 50,000 Dominicans with his secret police and built up the armed forces substantially to the tune of 21 percent of national GDP.
Trujillo spent the money on an air force of 240 planes and a navy with 11 warships—which he intended to menace the Dominican Republic’s traditional rival on the other side of Hispaniola island, Haiti.
He capped it off with an assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela, who had authored a critical human rights report.
Trujillo’s murderous habits ultimately backfired when he was assassinated in 1961 — but what followed was coup after coup, as one military-backed individual was over thrown by another.
The sole exception was Juan Bosch, a center-left intellectual elected in December 1962 with a liberal agenda of promoting political freedom and social reform — and fatally, cutting military spending. The military overthrew Bosch after just seven months in office.
Starting in April 24, 1965 a pro-Bosch coup with support from a faction of younger officers in the army led by one Col. Francisco Caamaño, overthrew the widely unpopular strongman currently in power, Reid Cabral. At first, the old guard of the military, under the leadership of air force general Elias Wessin y Wessin, remained neutral.
Bosch’s supporters, known as the Constitutionalists, included two Communist parties inspired by the revolution in neighboring Cuba, as well as two army battalions and navy frogmen.
They distributed small arms and Molotov cocktails among the revolutionaries and captured Radio Santo Domingo and the presidential palace, forcing Reid to flee. Some of them went on to settle scores with old Trujillo backers.
When the military under Wessin realized the Constitutionalists wanted to bring back Bosch, they launched an attack against the revolutionaries on April 25, 1965. World War II-era F-51 Mustang fighters strafed and rocketed Santo Domingo.
“Thousands” of Dominican citizens reportedly took mirrors out on the street in an effort to reflect light into the eyes of the attacking pilots. More effectively, a machine gun shot one of them down.
Battle for Duarte Bridge
American ambassador William Tapley Bennett was alarmed by the violence and disorder mounting in the streets. The United States began organizing the evacuation of its citizens. One group of rebels broke into the Hotel Embajador where evacuees were gathered and threatened them with bullets shot over their heads.
Bennett argued the United States should intervene against the Constitutionalists, claiming they were infiltrated by Cuban Communists — even though Bosch was a moderate, not a Communist. Bosch himself never returned from exile during the fighting.
Pres. Lyndon Johnson was reluctant — he was hoping the Loyalists would take care of the rebels. Since the Roosevelt administration, the United States had refrained from open military intervention in Latin America — though anti-Communist covert operations using proxies, such as in Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs landing in Cuba, were another thing.
The ambassador held a meeting expected to end of hostilities between the Loyalists and the Constitutionalists on April 27, 1965. But Bennett was reportedly so condescending towards the Constitutionalist leaders that they changed their minds and decided to keep on fighting.
The same day, Wessin’s 1,800 Loyalist troops launched an attack into the heart of Santo Domingo, including the army’s prized tank brigade based near San Isidro air base.
This included 12 French AMX-13 light tanks — fast moving, with decent firepower but thin armor — as well as 24 Stridsvagn L-60 light tanks, and 13 Landsverk Lynx armored cars — both vehicles types made in Sweden.
Before they became famous for do-it-yourself furniture, the peaceful Swedes were major weapons-manufacturers. The early Stridsvagn L-60 tanks were considered excellent designs for their advanced suspension systems — in the 1930s. The L-60’s 24 millimeters of armor and small 37-millimeter cannon were both obsolete by the middle of World War II.
A Dominican L-60 tank. Photo via Wikipedia
The Hungarians used their own version of the L-60, the Toldi tank, in World War II. It performed well as long as it didn’t run into enemy tanks or anti-tank weapons — which were everywhere on the Eastern Front.
But the Dominican tanks were intended to fight Haiti, not the Soviet army.
As the Loyalist armor seized a bridgehead on the western side of the Duarte Bridge, they outran their supporting infantry. Constitutionalist supporters, realizing they could approach the unescorted tanks without being spotted, began tossing Molotov cocktails into the armored columns and unleashed a hail of fire from rifles, machine guns and mortars they had looted.
The Loyalist attack stalled and then began to route. Several L-60 and AMX-13 tanks were abandoned and put into use by the Constitutionalists.
On April 28, 1965, Pres. Johnson deployed a battalion from the 6th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, embarked at sea, to safeguard the evacuation of U.S. citizens. The Marines landed by helicopter and soon established a perimeter around the embassy. U.S. Navy ships then brought in LVT amphibious personal carriers, Ontos anti-tank vehicles, and heavy M-48 Patton tanks.
A sniper killed a Marine near the U.S. embassy, and in the ensuing crossfire a grenade mortally wounded a Dominican girl. The U.S. citizen evacuation wrapped up without further loss of life.
Meanwhile Santo Domingo had descended into violence, anarchy and looting. Rogue rebel groups captured the Villa Consuelo police headquarters and executed the survivors. Someone freed 700 prisoners from the Fortress Ozama prison. The Red Cross estimated there were already 1,500 to 2,000 dead.
U.S. soldiers push a child underneath a Jeep to protect him during a firefight in Santo Domingo on May 5, 1965. Photo via Wikipedia
The American intervention
By April 29, 1965, the Loyalists forces were close to crumbling. Ambassador Bennett urged Pres. Johnson to intervene unilaterally in the civil war, arguing that a liberal regime under Bosch would likely give way to “Castroism” if events were allowed to run their course.
Johnson agreed, and initiated Operation Power Pack. The next day, the 82nd Airborne Division began airlifting into San Isidro Airbase, along with the remaining two battalions of the 6th Marine Brigade. At its peak, this would bring U.S. forces in the Dominican Republic up to 21,900 men.
Farcically, the United States was ostensibly to remain neutral and impose a ceasefire, which it was to accomplish by advancing its forces into Constitutionalist territory in Santo Domingo in order to secure the Loyalist lines.
Marines and paratroopers exchanged fire with the Constitutionalists in intense house-to-house fighting. One Marine unit was pinned down and received permission to use support weapons, They pounded the rebel positions with more than 30 rockets from their M20 Super Bazookas.
Both the Marines and paratroopers successfully advanced to their designated objectives — only to discover that the Loyalist units they were meant to support had pulled out, leaving a gap between their lines. Another costly battle closed the gap between the two forces.
During these pitched engagements, Marine armor engaged captured tanks several times.
The most-thinly documented incident is a reported exchange of fire between a massively outgunned L-60 and a Marine Patton tank. The eight-ton L-60, armed with a 37-millimeter gun, could hardly have dented the armor of the 50-ton Patton. The same cannot be said for the Patton’s 90-millimeter cannon, which “disintegrated” the smaller vehicle.
Another L-60 was knocked out by a Marine M-50 Ontos anti-tank vehicle. These unique vehicles bristled with six heavy 106-millimeter recoilless rifles —each had to be individually reloaded after taking a shot.
The Ontos was definitely a “shoot-and-scoot” vehicle — it was so thinly armored that an L-60 might actually have damaged one. An Ontos is also credited with blowing the turret off a rebel AMX-13.
This was the first combat employment for both the Ontos and M-48 — they went on to see extensive use in Vietnam — and the only time the Ontos was used in the role it was designed for, fighting enemy tanks.
American infantry also turned one of their M40 recoilless rifles on a rebel gunboat that was shelling them, sinking the 350-foot ship. The owner later sued.
A rebel AMX-13 tank. Photo via Wikipedia
Battling the Brazilian army
Once the Army and Marines closed the gap, the Constitutionalist forces were isolated from each other on either side of Santo Domingo — and the U.S. military wouldn’t allow the two warring factions to cross the line.
The Americans therefore were able to impose a ceasefire on the two parties by May 5, 1965 and arrange for a new civil-military junta to rule the country.
Neither faction was happy with the ceasefire and small-scale skirmishes and sniper fire continued. The Loyalists even launched an air attack that hit U.S. troops by accident — the Americans’ return fire shot down another F-51.
But overall, the fighting died down — and the Marines withdrew in early June, while the Army remained behind to perform peacekeeping and stability operations including large-scale food handouts.
The unilateral U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic’s affairs was widely criticized, both in the American press and throughout Latin America. In an effort to garner support, the United States organized an Inter American Peace Force through the Organization of American States to take command of the mission.
It included the 82nd Airborne Division, a battalion of Brazilian troops and a company each from Paraguay, Nicaragua and Honduras. The force came under the command of Brazilian general Hugo Panasco Alvim.
As the Constitutionalist saw their influence sidelined in favor of a new provisional government junta, they launched a coordinated assault on June 15, 1965, hitting the defensive positions of both the Brazilian army and the 82nd Airborne with mortars, machine guns and tanks.
The attack was a disaster for the Constitutionalists, who lost 67 killed. Twenty-four U.S. and five Brazilian soldiers were wounded. The 82nd Airborne counterattacked, capturing 56 street blocks and forcing the rebels back to the negotiating table.
The 82nd is recorded as having knocked out a third L-60 tank with a 106-millimeter M40 recoilless rifle. It seems likely it was during this engagement.
Only one more major clash occurred, involving not tanks but rather a funeral procession led by Col. Caamaño mourning the Constitutionalists dead. While the procession breakfasted at the Hotel Matum in Santiago, 300 Loyalist troops attacked. Fighting raged for five hours, killing 15, until U.S. troops brought in by helicopter negotiated a ceasefire.
Tanks were involved in one more incident at the end of the war. The Loyalist leader Wessin was to be eased out of power to allow the new junta to rule. But on the pretext of giving a farewell speech to his troops, he instead led the armored brigade in a march on Santo Domingo.
A battalion of U.S. vehicles moved to block Wessin on the highway, and he subsequently fled into exile at the Dominican consulate in Florida “at the point of American bayonets.”
As many as 4,000 Dominicans died in the Dominican civil war. Nine U.S. Marines and 18 U.S. Army soldiers also died. The United States withdrew its last troops in 1966.
Constitutionalist leader Col. Caamaño moved to London to serve as a military attaché. He later returned to the Dominican Republican to lead an insurgency. He was captured in battle and summarily executed.
The conservative Joaquin Balaguer was elected president in 1966 — but the Dominican Republic wouldn’t experience its first peaceful transfer of power until 1978. Poverty and corruption would lead many Dominicans to immigrate to the United States, including Nobel-prize winning writer Junot Diaz.
During the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Army refurbished 12 of the Dominican army’s surviving L-60 tanks and put them back into service. The antiquated tanks remained active until 2002.