Central and Latin America Database
El Salvador came into existence as a Spanish colony, in the 16th Century, when Spaniards conquered the area, enslaved local Indian population and developed plantations of cotton, balsam and indigo. The European elite, consisting of 14 families, controlled almost all the land, and this remained very much so after the country was released into independence, in 1821, along with many other Latin American countries. El Salvador is a small country with a large and rapidly growing population and a severely limited amount of available land.
The heavy population pressure, which grows more serious yearly, the – meanwhile - one-crop economy (based on coffee, which was suffering – and still suffers – from low world prices), little arable land and uneven distribution of income set the stage for great discontent and unrest which different parties have been successful in exploiting. Correspondingly, the history of El Salvador in the 19th and 20th Centuries has been characterised by violence, chaos, and military interventions: in 1932, there was a great revolt of peasants and Indians, put down in cold blood by the Salvadorian Army. The situation did not improve after the WWII either: eight of the ten governments that ruled El Salvador between 1945 and 1970, have been led by military personnel. Despite considerable economical improvement of the 1960s, over 85% of Salvadorians were suffering from poverty, unemployment, overpopulation and lack of land. Without surprise, thousands of Salvadorians emigrated into the neighbouring Honduras.
Honduras gained independence from Spain simultaneously with El Salvador, but subsequently developed independently. After being briefly annexed to the Mexican Empire, in 1823, Honduras joined the newly-formed United Provinces of Central America. Ever since, this mountainous country developed very slowly: while up to 50% of Honduran territory remains unexplored, Honduras is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. Industrial development has been limited at best, and the economy has always been dependent on exports of coffee and bananas. Over 80% of the population (some 4 million in the late 1960s), is living under very poor condition.
The general strike of banana workers, in October 1955, resulted in a coup d’etat by young officers and installation of a provisional junta that paved the way for constituent assembly elections, in 1957. The later appointed Dr. Ramon Villeda Morales as President and transformed itself into a national legislature with a six-year term. Simultaneously, the military became a professional institution, independent of leadership from any specific political party. The newly-created military academy graduated its first class in 1960.
According to contemporary constitution, the President was Commander in Chief of the armed forces, which were administered by the Department of the Armed Forces. Every citizen was liable for 18 months service between ages 18 and 55, but the Army – counting some 3.500 organized as two infantry battalions and about 20 infantry companies in the late 1960s - was always adequately filled with volunteers.
After the period of few peaceful years, in October 1963, conservative military officers pre-empted constitutional elections and deposed Villeda in a bloody coup. General Lopez Arellano became the leader of the new junta, soon facing massive popular discontent.
Indeed, already by 1969, Arellano was in deep trouble. The poor economic situation resulted in political unrest and labour conflicts. Municipal elections, held in March 1968, were accompanied with violence and charges of open fraud, fuelling public discontent and raising the concern inside and outside the country. A general strike held later in the year was put down by government action, but unrest continued and in the spring of 1969, teachers and other groups protested as well.
The Honduran regime – but also some private groups – eventually found a solution for the situation in blaming approximately 300.000 illegal Salvadoran immigrants: accusations began flying, that the presence of Salvadoran immigrants was equal to land invasion. True enough, the majority of Salvadorans in Honduras were poor peasants, whose sole claim to the land they worked was their physical presence. This was not the issue for – much less numerous - Hondurans, actually, but they felt pushed and enveloped by the Salvadorans: the growth of Salvadoran shoe stores on streets of Honduran cities and towns, for example, underscored the relative economic disparity between the two countries. Correspondingly, the issue of Salvadoran squatters became a nationalistic sore point for Honduras: in January 1969, the Honduran government refused to renew the bilateral treaty on immigration from 1967, designed to regulate the flow of individuals crossing the common border. In April 1969, Tegucigalpa announced it would begin expelling all persons who acquired property without fulfilling legal requirements.
The media contributed massively to the situation, developing a climate of near-hysteria, blaming the impact of Salvadoran immigrant labour on wages and unemployment rates in Honduras. By late May 1969, dozens of Salvadorans were killed or brutalized, and tens of thousands began streaming back over the border – into an already overpopulated El Salvador. The Salvadoran reaction was reciprocal, with El Salvador claiming as own all the lands occupied by immigrant peasants in Honduras: it did not take long until maps showing the country almost one and a half times larger than it was in reality began to circulate.
The organisation of Salvadoran military was relatively simple: the President was Commander in Chief of the armed forces, but with control exercised through the Minister of Defence, who was a soldier. Men between 18 and 30 were eligible for service, but were actually called for 12-month service on a selective basis. The National Assembly annually set the strength of the Army, which used to have some 4.500 men, in 1969, and was organized in three infantry battalions, one cavalry squadron and one artillery battalion. All these units were expendable to regimental size in the case of emergency, and could take up also the Territorial Service – counting some 30.000 men in 12 infantry units – upon mobilization.
The Fuerza Aérea Salvadoreña draws its traditions from the Military Aviation Service, formed already in 1922. Following the signature of the Rio Treaty, of 1947, which provided for mutual defence among American states (including the USA), El Salvador began benefiting from the presence of a US Air Mission and increased transfers of aircraft under the Mutual defence Assistance Program. The Military Aviation Service was, in 1954, reorganized into Fuerza Aérea de El Salvador (Salvadoran Air Force, FAS) with US assistance.
Having learned about preparations for a war against Honduras, in late spring 1969, the Commander-in-Chief FAS, Major Henriquez, sent a number of agents into the USA in frantic search for additional fighters, regardless the cost: these were especially to look for privately owned F-51 Mustangs, in order to evade the US embargo on arms exports imposed on El Salvador and Honduras following extended tensions. Eventually, they were successful in obtaining a number of Mustangs, often by extremely complicated means, usually flying them via Haiti, Dominican Republic and some other Caribbean Islands. Simultaneously, the P-51D-25-NA privately owned by the Salvadoran citizen Archie Baldocchi, was taken up by the FAS as well, and armed, becoming the new “FAS402”. Its owner became an “extraordinary assistant” to the FAS Commander.
Through such means, the FAS – then under command of Major Salvador Adalberto Henriquez – was able to gather the following fleet of combat aircraft by late June 1969:
- FG-1D: FAS-201 (grey overall, giant title “FAS” in black on rear fuselage and yellow band around engine cowling: it is unclear if this aircraft ever even entered service with FAS: it was damaged during the ferry flight while still in Texas, USA)
- FG-1D: FAS-201/67087 (not operational in 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-202/? (camouflage unknown; shot down by FAH F4U-5 “605”, on 17 July 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-203/67070 (crashed on 19 May 1958)
- FG-1D: FAS-204 (camouflage unknown; shot down by FAH F4U-4 “605”, on 17 July 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-205/? (not operational in 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-207/92460 (decoy, not operational in 1969; reportedly put together from four derelict FG-1Ds, not certain if became operational during the war; fuselage apparently in mid-nite blue, with engine cowling in COIN-grey and part of anti-glare panel; unknown insignia on the fuselage behind the engine, and rest of USN insignia behind the cockpit; cockpit framing also in grey; title “FAS” was apparently applied over the USN insignia on the rear fuselage)
- FG-1D: FAS-208/92489 (not operational in 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-210/? (not operational in 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-213/? (crashed in June 1964)
- FG-1D: FAS-215/92629 (camouflage similar to FAS-219, yellow bands around engine cowling and rear fuselage)
- FG-1D: FAS-219/? (sand and light green over dark green or mid-nite blue over, grey undersurfaces and yellow band around engine cowling; shot down by Honduran AAA, on 17 July 1969)
- FG-1D: FAS-220/92697
- TF-51: FAS400
- F-51 Mk.II: FAS-401 (no details known)
- F-51D (P-51D-25-NA): 44-73273/YS-210P/FAS-402 (originally painted grey overall and registered YS-210P; wore no fuselage roundel; black strip on the fin, outlined in yellow – came from the civilian scheme; the aircraft was later camouflaged, and re-camouflaged again when the original colours faded before being sold to the USA, in 1974)
- F-51 Mk.II: FAS-403 (SEA camouflage, white serial, yellow band on the rear fuselage and white skull with wings bellow the engine cowling)
- F-51 Mk.II: FAS-404
- F-51 Mk.II: FAS-405 (SEA camouflage, white serial)
- Cavalier Mustang 750: FAS406 (arrived only on 15 July and did not take part in fighting as it first had to be armed)
- F-51D: FAS-407 (version of SEA camouflage, reportedly shot down on 18 July 1969)
- SNJ-5: 76 (camouflage in dark olive green and grey, serial applied in white on the fin)
- SNJ-5: 78 (camouflage and markings as above)
- C-47: FAS-101 (damaged by FAH F4U on 15 July 1967)
Notes about camouflage and markings of FAS aircraft
- In general, the FAS aircraft wore national markings on wings only, plus a small flag and the serial on the fin; yellow bands were applied at the end of the war, and fuselage roundels should have been applied only after the end of hostilities;
- The first batch of FG-1Ds supplied to El Salvador was painted in gull grey over and white bellow; the second batch in mid-nite blue overall. When the war with Honduras began, the surviving five aircraft were camouflaged with locally-mixed paints in shades of green, sand and brown, of very poor quality. The Corsairs still left in original colours – especially those with large “FAS” title on the rear fuselage – were parked as decoys at Ilopango and other airfields.
- The Cavalier-rebuilt Mustangs wore the USAF-style SEA-camouflage, applied already at the Cavalier factory at Sarasota, Florida.
- Other FAS Mustangs – especially those acquired during the war clandestinely from the USA – were painted with colours mixed locally, and of poor quality. These colours changed greatly after exposure to elements.
Except Mustangs and Corsairs, the FAS also operated four Douglas C-47 Dakota and one Douglas C-54 transport, five Cessna U-17As and two 180s, two North American SNJs (US Navy version of T-6G Texan).
Contrary to the Salvadoran Army, which enjoyed a relative degree of regional supremacy, the FAS was thus a small force, not as well developed. By 1969, it boasted only 1.000 men, organized as follows:
* Nominally, all aircraft were formed into the Grupo de Combate, which consisted of three flying squadrons and several support groups:
- Fighter-Bomber Squadron, operating Mustangs and Corsairs
- Transport Squadron, with C-47s, U-17As and Cessna 180s
- Reconnaissance Squadron, equipped with SNJs and T-34 trainers
- Maintenance Squadron, based in Ilopango and responsible for servicing
- Communications Squadron, deployed at Ilopango and several neuralgic positions
- Parachute Unit
- Medical Group
- Support Services Battalion
- Base Security Group
Despite sufficient time for preparations, the better part of the FAS was not completely mobilized: out of only 34 qualified pilots at hand, seven were assigned to the national airline, two to crop-dusting duties (for which the FAS collected), and two others flew the sole FAS Douglas DC-4M-1 on regular lobster-transportation flights to Miami, USA. Salvadoran technicians were well-trained, mainly in Guatemala, but there were not enough of them and they lacked spares as well as support equipment for their aircraft. The condition of most aircraft was therefore poor – even if the mission capability rates early during the war were near 100%: the fleet of Goodyear FG-1D Corsairs was theoretically sizeable, but actually most of airframes were cannibalized for spares to keep some six examples in operational condition. The condition of Corsairs resulted in acquisition of a Cavalier TF-51D Mustang and Cavalier Mustang 750, as well as five North American F-51D Mustangs, remanufactured by Trans Florida Aircraft. One of the F-51Ds, however, was lost in a take-off crash at Ilopango, already on 8 October 1968.
Besides, as of 1969, the FAS had only one air base, at Ilopango, even if there were several airstrips throughout the country, including Madresal Island, San Miguel, Santa Ana, San Andres and Usultan.
Honduras has been involved in a number of boundary disputes with its neighbours, foremost Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. While its army was small, and less-well equipped than Salvadoran, its air force was in a better shape, because the national defence strategy was based on air power, the Army being kept at minimal level during the peace-time. The Fuerza Aérea Hondureña (Honduran Air Force – FAH) therefore operated more fighter-bombers (and had a sufficient number of qualified pilots for them) than the FAS. Perhaps as important was also the fact that the FAH was to fight the following war over its own soil - which was exactly the purpose of its existence.
As of 1969, the FAH boasted strength of some 1.200 men organized in two fighter-bomber squadrons, equipped with between 12 and 14 Vought F4U Corsairs (at least ten of which were intact), as well as one transport and one training unit, equipped with six Douglas C-47 transports, three helicopters and 27 other aircraft. Known details about these aircraft are as follows:
- F4U-5N: 601/124724 (mid-nite overall; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N: 602/124560 (mid-nite overall; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N: 603/124447 (damaged in rough landing on 13 February 1968, used as decoy at Tegucigalpa during the war)
- F4U-5N/P: 604/123168 (mid-nite overall, with anti-glare panel in dark green; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N/P: 605/122184 (mid-nite overall, with anti-glare panel in dark green; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N: 606/124486 “El Guajiro” (mid-nite overall; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N: 607/124692 (mid-nite overall; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N: 608/124493 (mid-nite overall; operational in 1969)
- F4U-5N: 609/124715 (mid-nite blue overall, with anti-glare panel in dark green)
- F4U-4: 610/93788 (operational in 1969)
- F4U-4: 611/93782 (operational in 1969; crashed in 1974)
- F4U-4: 612/92688 (operational in 1969)
- F4U-4: 614/96995 (non-standard camouflage in - what was apparently – mid-grey overall, with black anti-glare panel and standard national markings)
- F4U-4: 615/97280 (seen at Toncontin in 1969, mid-nite blue overall, with white checkerboard over the engine cowling; damaged the FAS C-47 “FAS-101”, on 15 July)
- F4U-4: 616/97320 (under repair during the war, used as decoy at San Pedro Saula)
- F4U-4: 617/97059 (look unknown, but known to have been active during the war: interned in Guatemala after running out of fuel during combat sortie over El Salvador, on 15 July 1969; crashed in 1977)
- F4U-4: 618/96885 (operational in 1969)
- SNJ-4: FAH-202
- SNJ-4: FAH-205
- T-6G: FAH-206
- T-6G: FAH-208
- T-6G: FAH-211
- T-28A: (5)0-272/FAH-212 (COIN-grey overall, engine cowling in yellow)
- T-28A: (5)0-267/FAH-213 (COIN-grey overall)
- T-28A: (5)0-293(?)/FAH-214 (COIN-grey overall)
- T-28A: (5)0-234/FAH-215
- T-28A: (5)0-???/FAH-216
- C-47: FAH-301
- C-47: FAH-302
- C-47: FAH-304
- C-47: FAH-305
- C-47: FAH-306
- C-47: FAH-307
The main FAH bases of the time were Toncontin, near Tegucigalpa, and La Mesa, near San Pedro Sula.
The developments that directly led to hostilities between El Salvador and Honduras lied in the activity of armed Honduran groups – tacitly supported by the government – against Salvadoran peasants, which occurred just as the first massive expulsions of the later began. As the two armies were now gathering along the mutual border it did not take long until several incidents occurred: Salvadoran troops marched into Honduras and were arrested; in retaliation Salvadoran authorities jailed a relative of the Honduran president.
In the middle of rising tensions, in June 1969, the soccer teams of the two nations engaged in a three-game elimination match as a preliminary to the World Cup. There was unrest already during the first game, in Tegucigalpa, but the situation almost went out of control during the second match, on 27 June, in San Salvador – eventually causing uninformed observers to conclude that the following war was caused by resentments over soccer, and correspondingly calling it a “Soccer (or Football)War”. An attempt by the Honduran government to disarm own population swiftly degenerated into hunt for Salvadorans in the border areas.
On 24 June, the Salvadoran government mobilized the military, and two days later declared the state of emergency. In reaction, on 27 June 1969, Honduras broke diplomatic relations with El Salvador.
The two air forces were active – and became involved – as well. On 3 July, a Servicio Aéreo de Honduras DC-3 was attacked by AAA-fire after taking off from Nueva Ocotepeque. The crew reported the incident and two FAH T-28s were scrambled to inspect. Few hours later, a Piper PA-28 Cherokee (registration YS-234P), was detected while underway over Gualcince and Candelaria, near the Salvadoran border and intercepted by two FAH T-28s: despite an order to land the Salvadoran pilot escaped over the border safely. The single Cherokee was actually a part of FAS effort to reconnoitre the possible lines of advance into Honduras, in which also a Cessna 310 of the Instituto de Cartografia Nacional (National Mapping Institute) was involved, and which was going on already since late June. Understanding the importance of this operation and airspace violations, Honduras repeated accusations for violations of its airspace by FAS aircraft in the following days. During the next few days, Honduras repeatedly accused El Salvador of violating air space; the FAH was meanwhile mobilized and, on 12 July, began the Operation “Base Nueva”, deploying all of its aircraft to La Mesa AB, in San Pedro Sula, where the Northern Command was established that was put in charge of all the operations during the following conflict.
The FAS was mobilized as well, and deployed its assets on different airfields, including Madresal Island, San Miguel, Santa Ana, San Andres and Usultan, while requesting a number of civilian pilots to volunteer for service. For example, all Mustangs were concentrated at Madre Sal Island, a secret base established shortly before the hostilities. The later was well-concealed, but also very problematic to reach for anything but aircraft.
At the start of the war, the FAS Mustangs and Corsairs were 100% operational and in action, supporting ground forces. Their pilots encountered several problems, however: the wing-tip mounted fuel tanks on Mustang Cavaliers were found to have negative effects on the manoeuvrability of the aircraft, and had to be removed. Mr. Baldocchi designed fillets to be installed on their place, simultaneously providing better control and stability. Installed radios were also unsatisfactory and Baldocchi therefore installed Army radios, taken from several commando-jeeps. Finally, the aircraft lacked reflective gun-sights and these had to be replaced, and the enterprising Salvadoran Mustang-owner was eventually to design also fibre-glass made drop tanks in order to increase the range without seriously increasing the weight of the aircraft.
Meanwhile, most of the Salvadoran Army was deployed along the border near the Gulf of Fonseca and northern El Salvador, setting the stage for attack into Honduras. The Salvadoran Gen. Gerardo Barrios developed a plan according to which the FAS was first to bomb the Toncontin airfield, near Tegucigalpa, in attempt to destroy the FAH on the ground. Additional air strikes were to be flown against a number of other Honduran cities. Simultaneously, five infantry battalions and nine National Guard companies would be deployed on four theatres of operation and quickly capture the main Honduran towns along the border, preferably before the Organisation of American States (OAS) could react with any kind of sanctions. By mid-July 1969, the Salvadorans were ready – and the war was now unavoidable.
The Salvadoran attack began on the late afternoon of 14 July, with concerted movement of two columns, together more than 12.000 troops, against three border posts near the cities of Nueva Ocotepeque, Gracias a Dios, and Santa Rosa de Copan. These were swiftly captured and the Salvadoran troops then advanced along the main road connecting the two nations. Simultaneously, the FAS launched an “all-out” attack, deploying all available aircraft to attack Honduran airfields and troop concentrations along the border, as well as targets on the Honduran islands in the Fonseca Gulf. Around 18:10hrs, Salvadoran C-47 flown by Majors Jorge Domínguez and Fidel Fernandez, arrived over Tegucigalpa, their crew rolling 45kg bombs out of the cargo doors on Toncontin airfield. This attack was to be supported by two Cavalier Mustangs, but these never reached their target, while the other C-47 sent to attack Toncontin bombed Catacamas instead. Meanwhile, other FAS aircraft – including 14 planes taken from civilian operators – hit their targets, all except one returning safely to different dispersal airfields, instead to Ilopango. The missing plane was the TF-51D, flown by Capt. Benjamin Trabanino: this landed at La Aurora IAP, in Guatemala, apparently in emergency. It was interned and remained there until the end of the war.
The FAH was caught completely by surprise: almost 50% of its aircraft were parked in Tegucigalpa (the other half in La Mesa, which was not attacked by FAS), and pilots released to go home that evening. The Hondurans were more than lucky that none of their aircraft was damaged. Four Corsairs were scrambled in attempt to catch the C-47 that attacked Toncontin, but they could not make any contact due to nightfall. Salvadoran C-47-attacks were not very precise or effective, but had considerable effects on Honduran morale.
Worst yet, most of the following night, the FAH high commanders had to argue with the military leaders of the country – most of which were infantry officers – that the air force had to strike back, deep into El Salvador, preferably destroying enemy’s fuel reserves in order to prevent Salvadoran Army from advancing deep into Honduras. Indeed, on the ground the better equipped Salvadoran Army made good and rapid progress, pushing the sole Honduran battalion that defended the border over eight kilometres towards the department capital of Nueva Ocotepeque.
Despite flying vintage, WWII-era-aircraft, the FAH still operated according to standard modern doctrine, seeing its first task in neutralisation of enemy air force and destruction of installations supporting the Salvadoran strategic ability to wage a war. Correspondingly, barely few hours after the midnight, the first FAH C-47s took off to attack targets deep inside El Salvador.
The first FAH counter air mission, a single C-47 launched around 01:40hrs on the morning of 15 July, was aborted when aircraft suffered technical malfunctions. The second, however, resulted in 18 bombs being dropped at what the Dakota-pilot – Capt. Rodolfo Figueroa – believed was Ilopango airport, at 04:18hrs. No damage was caused at all: in fact, no Salvadoran reports about any kind of explosions near that airfield are known. The next FAH formation followed shortly after. At 04:22hrs, three F4U-5Ns and a single F4U-4, led by Maj. Oscar Colindres, approached Ilopango. Releasing their bombs from over 3.000m in order to avoid the worst effects of Salvadoran AAA-fire, the Honduran pilots were quite precise: the runway was cratered in one place, and Maj. Colindres’ bomb hit a hangar, causing damage not only to that building, but also to a FAS Cavalier Mustang (probably the wreckage of the example that crashed in 1968) parked within, as well as to other installations nearby. Several minutes later, the FAH Corsairs dove upon the Port of Cutuco and unleashed their rockets, causing extensive damage to the fuel farm of the La Union oil refinery, belonging to Standard Oil.
Meanwhile, four other FAH Corsairs attacked the fuel tanks at Acajutla. Once again, there was no opposition from the FAS: most of Salvadoran fighter-bombers were busy attacking targets in Honduras and El Salvador had no radar coverage at all. Consequently, the attack came as a complete surprise and caused much damage – even if the local butane gas supplies were not hit. El Salvador lost up to 20% of its strategic reserves in this raid alone. In return, the F4U-5N flown by Capt. Lopez was damaged by AAA-fire, forcing the pilot to divert to El Pilar ranch, near Morales, in Guatemala. The pilot and his aircraft were interned and returned only after the war.
In the meantime, a FAS Cavalier Mustang and a single Corsair attacked Toncontin, evading the single-ship T-28A-CAP over Tegucigalpa by approaching at a very low level. Passing by a FAH Corsair flown by Lt.Col. Jose Serra, who was on take off, each fighter dropped two bombs and then strafed different objects, but no significant damage was caused. As the Salvadoran attack was developing, the FAH T-28-pilot, Lt. Roberto Mendoza Garay, was alerted and promptly vectored to intercept. Serra already tried to attack the Cavalier Mustang, but his guns jammed. His attempt was still sufficient to cause the FAS pilot to break and disengage. Meanwhile, Mendoza attacked the FG-1D and scored some hits, causing the FAS Corsair to exit the area leaving a thick trace of smoke: Capt. Reynaldo Cortéz was lucky enough to return his damaged plane back to Ilopango.
The FAH counter-air raids against Ilopango and Salvadoran oil storage depots were successful. Although this is sometimes still disputed, these attacks were eventually to cause considerable problems for El Salvador, then with its fuel depots going up in flames, the Salvadoran Army eventually run out of fuel and had to stop its offensive into Honduras. Nevertheless, under impression from the FAS attack on Toncontin, the Honduran president subsequently forbade his pilots to fly any kind of further sorties over El Salvador. For the rest of the war they were to fly only defensive CAPs or close-air-support missions for the Honduran Army.
Correspondingly, at 08:00hrs two FAH Corsairs attacked Salvadoran troops in the El Amatillo sector – without any useful effects; the FAS remained active, then almost simultaneously a FAS C-47 bombed roads to Nueva Ocotepeque, one FAS FC-1D attacked Honduran positions in Alianza, and two FG-1Ds attacked in Aramecina area. Minutes later, two FAH F4Us that were attacking Salvadoran positions near Citala encountered FAS C-47 “FAS-101”, flown by Maj. Velasco and Capt. Panameno. FAH Col. Rulio Rivera immediately attacked, scoring hits on the fuselage and one of the engines, but the Dakota came away: it made an emergency landing in Ilopango and remained unserviceable until the end of the war.
Shortly after, Rivera detected also a Cavalier Mustang: after a short pursuit, the Honduran pilot fired a burst from his cannons, but scored no hits. With this, the combat activity of two air forces was over – for that day. The FAS transports remained active, then the Salvadoran troops captured an air strip near San Marcos Ocotepeque. This was quickly prepared to receive C-47 and put to good use.
On the morning of 16 July, the Salvadoran Army troops secured Nueva Ocotepeque and continued their advance along the highway to Santa Rosa de Copan, supported by a FAH C-47 and two Mustangs. Two additional Mustangs were to take off from Ilopango, when they collided due to mechanical failure on one of the aircraft. Both suffered heavy damage. With this, the FAS was left without four aircraft within barely two days of operations: with morale plummeting due to the losses and maintenance problems, the Salvadoran air force was effectively grounded for the rest of the day.
The FAH used the opportunity to air-lift a whole Guardia de Honor Battalion from Tegucigalpa to Santa Rosa de Copan. Four C-47s were deployed for this task, and they transported 1.000 soldiers together with their equipment over the day, all the time escorted by Corsairs and T-28s. Meanwhile, five Corsairs, two AT-6s, three T-28As and a single C-47 were used to attack Salvadoran units on the El Amatillo front. Flying 13 sorties during the day, they proved decisive in stopping the offensive. The rest was delivered by the Honduran Army troops: their offensive eventually forced the Salvadorans to dig in.
By the morning of17 July 1969, the Salvadoran and Honduran Army troops became entangled in a meeting engagement between Nueva Ocotopeque and Santa Rosa de Copan. The Salvadorans advanced in good spirits, but Honduran Guardia de Honor Battalion – readily supported by Corsairs from Toncontin and La Mesa – put up spirited resistance.
Heavy fighting was going on at the El Amatillo front as well, and around noon three Corsairs – flown by Majors Fernando Soto Henriquez, Edgardo Acosta, and Francesco Zapeda – were scrambled to attack Salvadoran artillery positions in the area. Finding that this guns jammed, Zapeda aborted the mission, returning alone to Toncontin. While underway, he was intercepted by two FAS Cavalier Mustangs, led by Capt. Douglas Varela. The Salvadorans attacked the – effectively – unarmed Honduran fighter, but Zapeda evaded for long enough for Soto and Acosta to return and help. After a short battle, Varela was shot down by Maj. Fernando Soto, while the other Mustang, flown by Capt. Lobo, evaded by flying at very low level towards the Gulf of Fonseca. It remains unclear if the unlucky Varela parachuted safely and was killed on the ground, or parachuted mortally wounded, or crashed in his plane. The successful air battle fought by FAH Corsairs was crowned by air strikes of Honduran C-47s, AT-6s and T-28s against Salvadoran artillery positions.
Varela’s loss hit the FAS particularly hard. The air force was already short on experienced pilots. Even if a number of experienced reserve fliers was mobilized, there was not enough pilots for all Mustangs and Corsairs, and consequently El Salvador had to hire five mercenaries – including Jerry DeLarm and “Red” Gray. The later were to prove not especially eager to engage Honduran Corsairs in air combat: in fact, according to surviving FAS veterans, both DeLarm and Gray preferred to climb and escape when encountering FAH fighters – often enough leaving behind Salvadoran pilots they should have protected.
Nevertheless, the FAS had to keep on fighting. In the afternoon, two FG-1Ds were scrambled from Ilopango for a CAP over El Amatillo. Barely in the area, they clashed with two FAH Corsairs, again led by Maj. Soto Henriquez – who in turn were underway to finish off the local Salvadoran units. Seeing his opponents distancing back towards the border, Maj. Soto decided to disobey his standing orders and follow them over El Salvador: few minutes later, he finally ended behind the FG-1D flown by Capt. Cezena (flying “FAS-204”). Attacking with 20mm cannons, Soto scored hits on fuselage and wings, forcing Cezena to bail out. Then a classic dogfight developed, as – meanwhile – the other Salvadoran pilot, Capt. Cortéz positioned behind Soto and scored several hits as well. Soto evaded and, after some hard manoeuvring, ended behind Cortéz: several bursts from 20mm cannon later the second FAS FG-1D exploded, killing the pilot.
Soto’s wingman, Maj. Acosta, did not participate in this battle. Having suffered problems with his radio, he saw two FAS Cavalier Mustangs high above, apparently waiting for opportunity to attack. Acosta disengaged with a rapid dive and recovered safely to Toncontin. With Maj. Soto Henriquez’s second and third kills, obtained during the same engagement, the FAH effectively established air superiority over Honduras – and thus over the battlefield. This especially as the – already low – morale within the FAS was completely shattered when on the same afternoon another FG-1D and another experienced pilot, Capt. Mario Echeverria, was shot down, this time by Salvadoran AAA, over the Gulf of Fonseca.
The final blow was delivered by combined action of the Honduran Army and the FAH: on the afternoon of 17 July, a column of Salvadoran National Guard was ambushed in the neighbourhood of the San Rafael de Matrás ranch and then attacked by two FAH Corsairs. The Salvadoran unit suffered more than 30 killed and injured.
While the FAS C-in-C, Maj. Henriquez, was scrambling to bring additional F-51 Mustangs – clandestinely obtained in the USA – to operational service, the FAH could continue its operations in support of the Army on the ground without too much disturbance. The F4Us from Toncontin first hit Salvadoran positions near San Marcos Ocotepeque and Llano Largo with napalm, and then at El Ujuste hill, while Corsairs from La Mesa bombed Salvadorans in the Chalatenago area.
By the afternoon, the Honduran troops were on advance in the El Amatillo area and elsewhere – until stopped by an order from the High Command, around 21:30hrs. Namely, early that day, the representatives of the OAS finally intervened in the conflict, ordering both sides a cease-fire, effective from 22:00hrs, as well as withdrawal of Salvadoran troops from occupied Honduran territories. The regime in Tegucigalpa was ready to stop the fighting, but the government of El Salvador refused to comply, instead – in the light of its early success – considering the chances of an advance to Tegucigalpa. Such an operation, however, was outside the abilities of the Salvadoran military, especially considering the fact that by the time the FAH was ruling the skies over all four battlefields of this war. The FAS could also hope to be able to return to the skies as on the morning of 19 July the first of seven Mustangs purchased in the USA began to arrive. Consequently, the fighting went on – even after OAS declared El Salvador for aggressor.
Complying with the ceasefire, the FAH spent the 19 July on the ground. The FAS, however, used the opportunity to fly several C-47-loads of supplies to the airstrip near San Marcos de Ocotepeque and bring urgently-needed ammunition to forward troops. Simultaneously, its technicians worked feverishly on re-arming seven Mustangs that meanwhile arrived from the USA. To bolster their positions, on 27 June, the Honduran troops launched a surprise attack on five Salvadoran border towns. Fighting continued until 29 July, when the OAS imposed economic sanctions upon El Salvador. The FAS supply-missions continued into August, escorted by newly-acquired Mustangs, even if on 5th of the month the regime in San Salvador finally agreed to withdraw its troops.
In conclusion about this conflict, it can be said that air action was actually decisive. The war was fought in mountainous areas, where road communications were poor. Both sides lacked self-propelled artillery, and movement of any kind of units was extremely problematic any way. Under such circumstances the availability of close air support, or interdiction strikes against enemy lines of communications as well as supply depots, was decisive. The slightly larger – in terms of available combat aircraft - FAH not only largely destroyed the FAS, but also severely damaged El Salvador’s oil storage facilities. The first achievement practically paralized the Salvadoran air force, while the later – arguably – forced the Salvadoran Army to stop its advance. The fact that the FAH managed to establish air superiority inside own airspace, at no loss, leaves open the answer to the question what more might have been possible if the Honduran High Command would have permitted the air force to fly additional air strikes against Salvadoran oil storage depots, as demanded by FAH’s leadership. Clearly, the air power could have played an ultimate role in this conflict.
While different – foremost Salvadoran – sources insist that the Fuerza Aérea Hondureña suffered up to eight Corsair losses during the war, the fact remains that all FAH Corsairs can be tracked down, and that it is obvious that none was lost in 1969 (on the contrary, all were sold in the USA, in 1974, including the wreckage of two F4Us that were written off in incidents after the 100-Hour War). It is possible that the FAH lost few derelict AT-6s and BT-13s, used as decoys at Toncontin or other airfields. Without surprise – and despite the heavy loss on the ground – this bitter conflict led to a new sense of Honduran nationalism and national pride, with the popular response to the fighting – indirectly – making a strong impression on the rulers and contributing to an increased spending in national development and social welfare. Another result was that the FAH was considerably reinforced in the 1970s, developing into one of best-equipped and most respected Latin American air forces.
On the other side, the FAS not only experienced incredible problems while attempting to support the advancing army or keep its available aircraft operational, but also suffered heavy losses. The Salvadoran opening counter-air strike was a complete failure, and subsequently the FAS succumbed to the weak position of its commander within the military junta: as a major surrounded by infantry generals, Henriquez could simply not obtain sufficient support for his air force. Without this, however, the Salvadoran ground troops advancing into Honduras were on the mercy of the FAH. Consequently, the subsequent FAS operations were too-little and too late, especially when the service began suffering losses. Considering its small size, each of these was a heavy blow, especially because four highly experienced pilots were killed. Equally felt was the loss of aircraft: for an air force that went to a war with 12 piston-engined Mustangs and FG-1Ds, the loss of four Corsairs alone was a catastrophe; when the casualties within the Mustang-community are added, the conclusion is that the FAS almost fought to the literal “last shot”.
It should therefore not be surprising that the Salvadoran Air Force came out of the conflict with bolstered prestige, if for no other reason then for taking part in what was considered a Salvadoran military victory.
In total, however, like so many other conflicts in this part of the world, the 1969 War between Honduras and El Salvador produced foremost immense losses and damage on both sides. Up to 2.000 people – mainly Salvadoran and Honduran civilians – were killed or badly injured, and the economies of both countries suffered terribly, as the trade had been disrupted and the mutual border closed. Depending on sources, between 60.000 and 130.000 Salvadorans should have been forcibly expelled or had fled from Honduras, producing massive economic disruption in both countries.
Both air forces remained on high state of alert well after the end of hostilities. The FAS, meanwhile reinforced to a strength of some eleven Mustangs of different marks (of which ten were operational on average), rotated between two and six fighters to airfields at San Miguel and Santa Ana, every week up to October 1969. The two surviving Corsairs remained based at Ilopango, and flew regular CAPs over the capital; the Madre Sal airfield was not used as much as before, foremost due to problems with keeping it supplied with fuel and spare parts.
The end of the war marked the beginning of an outright arms race between the two countries. At first, the FAS attempted to further increase the number of available Mustangs, but the U.S. government frustrated all such attempts. The search for new fighter-bombers continued for several years, therefore, but its results are a different story.
Meanwhile, in October 1969, the FAS purchased two Douglas B-26B Invaders from the USA. These two had been assigned serials 600 and 601, and painted in a version of the USAF SEA-camouflage. As the FAS lacked qualified pilots, two officers went through a crash-conversion course. Four additional Invaders - three in the USA and one in Guatemala - were acquired in 1970. Most of B-26s were in poor condition and needed major effort on the part of FAS technicians to be brought into anything like "mission capable" condition: in fact, the ex-Guatemalan B-26C was apparently never repaired, but rather used as source of spares, while the bomb-bays of all aircraft were never operational. Nevertheless, five Invaders entered service with the newly-established Escuadron de Bombardero, even if only three were operational on average.
The small Salvadoran Invader-fleet saw only a short service: already in 1972 the decision was taken for them to be sold back to the USA and new - this time jet - fighters to be acquired instead.
Honduras followed the suit, becoming the last Latin American air force to acquire the B-26. A single Invader - the venerable "Bacardi Bomber" (originally built as 44-35918) - was acquired under murky circumstances from Costa Rica. Under great technical difficulties, the aircraft - originally built as B-26B, but meanwhile re-built into a sub-variant of B-26C, and serialled FAH-510 - became operational by late 1970. Already on 16 March 1971, it made an emergency landing at San Pedro Sula airfield, and became a write off. After extensive reconstruction, it was brought back in service, to be retired only in the early 1980, when it was sold to the USA.
This article is based on the feature originally supplied by Mario E. Overall, and also published on the website of the Latin American Aviation History Society (LAAHS.com).
Mr. Overal meanwhile published a much expanded and considerably updated version in the Air Enthusiast magazine, volume July/August 2005, No.118.
- FOREIGN INVADERS; The Douglas Invader in Foreign Military and US Clandestine Service, by D. Hagedorn & L. Hellström, Midland Publishing Ltd., 1994 (ISBN: 1-85780-013-3)
- "Cataracho Corsairs: The F4U in Honduran Air Force Service", by Jorge Gonzales (available on LAAHS.com)
- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989 (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)
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