A 1909 Argentine Mauser & Troops In Front of the Lincoln MemorialSaturday, June 06, 2020
While in the Argentine Navy, in the mid 60s, I was trained to use a Ballester Molina .45 automatic, an M3 submachine gun and a 1909 Mauser. With the latter I passed with glowing remarks by Cabo Moraña, of the Argentine Marine Corps.
What many who watch war movies or police procedurals on TV don’t understand is that it is impossible to explain the shock one has (that I had) of holding and shooting with that 1909 Mauser. It kicks and it is uncommonly loud. Obviously even in its then obsolescence it was lethal.
On 20 June, 1965 thousands of sailor conscripts (including this one) swore allegiance to our flag and to defend our constitution. We sang our anthem and I had tears in my eyes.
On June 28, 1966, all three military branches of the Argentine Armed Forces surrounded the government palace (la Casa Rosada) and our freely elected and honest President Arturo Illía (a simple country doctor) was given an hour to leave. He left. I know because I was there with my Mauser.
The next day the military junta’s first decree was to state what was the minimum allowable wattage of light to be available at night clubs so Argentine youth could count their money and not have their morals eroded. Other decrees banned political parties and another did the same with the constitution.
A few months after I was on the train to the main train station of Retiro on my way to my desk job as a translator for the Senior US Naval Advisor, Captain, USN Onofrio Salvia. I was standing in the train (so as not to dirty my summer whites) with my sailor cap (looked like one from the WWII German Navy) reading my copy of Time Magazine. A nicely dressed man came up to me and told me to put my cap on. I looked at him and asked, “Why?” He then produced an ID that said he was a general in the SIDE (Servicio de Inteligencia del Estado). He asked for my name and conscript number. Twenty minutes later, when I arrived at the office, Cabo Moraño asked me, “Alex what did you do? There is an order here for your immediate arrest and it looks like you are going to be I the clink for a few days.”
My FBI clearance to translate secret documents all involved how much money the Argentine Navy was spending on obsolete military equipment. Anybody could guess by looking at those numbers to figure out how much the much more important army was spending on materiél.
I remember that in one pre-coup I was sitting in the upper bleachers of the River Plate Futbol Stadium and we could hear tanks rumbling by from the nearby Campo de Mayo. This to me and to us was just normal so we kept watching the match.
While I was in the navy, my, two nephews, Georgito and Ricardo O’Reilly where also doing their military service. The former was in the army and the latter in the police force. Many at the time could enlist in the police, when they were 19, to escape the fate (my fate) of two years in the navy. The police involved one year and minor training. The pay was better than my equivalent of one dollar a month. It seems that the pay scale had not been changed since that Mauser was introduced around 1909.
It was scary for me to go home in a taxi from visiting my girlfriend and late at night and to be stopped at a police checkpoint that involved a policeman who was 19 years old holding an M3 submachine gun.
Almost as scary was to line up outside the main police station in Buenos Aires to apply for a passport.
During my two year stint, we would be troubled every once in a while in having to stay in the barracks because Juan Domingo Perón was planning to return from Spain. It was called “El Retorno”. This he did on June 20th of 1973. He had tried in 1964 but our President Illía asked the Brazilian military dictatorship of the time to not allow him to leave Brazil for Buenos Aires and to send him back to Spain.
My father, as a journalist for the Buenos Aires Herald in the 40s, would disappear. I would ask my mother where he was. Her answer was always the same, “He wrote something Perón did not like so he is serving a few days at the Villa Devoto jail.”
A friend of my father's, writer Julio Cortázar, would visit us. His visits stopped in 1951 when he left for Paris because he did not like Perón. I sometimes wonder if it was a joint dislike for Perón that made my father and Cortázar friends.
There were many rumours in the early 50s of people who would disappear simply because they might have complained about the price of meat at the butcher shop.
On July 9th, Argentines celebrate their constitution. In Perón’s time this involved massive military parades. Perón would make long speeches until he would lose his voice. Then Evita would take over. I remember well because we lived next door to a Peronist-leaning family that played their radio nice and loud.
My grandmother had the talent of seeing when trouble was about to hatch and would then move, with family in tow, to another country. Perón’s followers started burning Roman Catholic churches. He should have known then that the Argentine Navy was the most conservative and most Catholic of the armed forces. We left for Mexico at the end of 1954.
On 16 June 1955, 30 aircraft of the Argentine Navy and Air Force bombed and strafed a Peronist rally in the centre-of-the-city Plaza de Mayo. Many died but only 308 could be identified. Perón got cold feet and promptly left Buenos Aires on a Paraguayan gun boat.
It is at this point where Argentine polarization really became critical. For the Peronists this was a tragedy in which the military deposed an elected president. For those who did not like (abhorred) the man, the deaths were justified. To this day that event is seen in those two ways.
On October 2, 1968, a large peaceful march arrived at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Mexico City for the usual speeches. However, the Díaz Ordáz government had had enough, and troops marched into the plaza and gunmen in surrounding buildings opened fire on the unarmed civilians in what is now known as the Tlatelolco massacre.
I was listening to a local radio station that was in English that had CBS links on the hour and I could listen to international news by the likes of Dan Rather. A radio reporter (I could hear the gunshots) told us that the army was firing on and killing the demonstrators. He said it was mayhem. Suddenly there was a click. After the click I then heard, “The baseball scores in the American League are as follows…”
By 1975 my Rosemary, our two daughters and I moved to Vancouver.
All the above is my insight on what I see happening in the US. What is slightly different is that the US Armed Forces do not believe that the fifth star on a four-star general is that of President of the US. What I find scary is that the President of the United States suddenly wants to be a four-star general.
That photograph of those forces lined up in front of the Lincoln Memorial is troubling to me and I must add it looks awfully familiar.