Helion's PB Success

Author/Artists: Mario Overall and Dan Hagedorn


Helion  Publishing


$49.95 MSRP from Casemate


Scott Van Aken

Notes: 128 pages, softcover, over 120 images
ISBN 978-1-910777-89-3

Set your wayback machine to the early 1950s. The biggest 'threat' to the US was the spread of communism. The Soviets were very active in the spread of their ideology and had tried to inculcate revolt wherever they saw an opening. Face it, there are places in the world where the Leninist ideals of equality are very popular, especially if you are among those who have little or nothing. Central America was and to some extent still is, a place where all the power is concentrated in a few. Power frequently depends on how much the leadership can depend on the nation's military for support and how well those in the nation with control are treated.

Anyway, this is the McCarthy era were any place in the western hemisphere was considering communism was a place that there was a threat. Such was the case in Guatemala in 1954. The nation's president, Jacobo Arbenz was one who had strong communist leanings and it was felt by the US State Department and the CIA that the nation was a real danger. That being said, plans were put into gear to put someone who was more favorably seen by the US as anti-communist into power. It also had to be someone who would have the support of most of the people and who would be seen as acceptable to the Guatemalan Army.

Thus was set into motion the CIA's operation to overthrow the then-present government of Guatemala.

It was a typical CIA operation, fraught with screw-ups, planning that went awry, unfulfilled expectations and near disasters. There was a lot of in-fighting within the CIA planners and those who headed the operation. People in the field felt that they were the ones who should be in full control, and it was also necessary to have the cooperation of neighboring countries. In this case it was Hondural, Costa Rica, and most importantly Nicaragua, from which most of the operations would be based.

Getting the full cooperation of Nicaragua's president Somoza was an often dicey affair. Much of PB Success relied on air power and it was vital that aircraft be obtained. A pair of C-47s were leased and all their identifying serials and plates were removed. Fighter aircraft were considered important as well to have a small offensive capability. To this end three Puerto Rico ANG F-47Ns were obtained via a 'request' from Nicaragua and suitably 'cleansed' of any identifying markings or data plates/serials. Into the mix was added a somewhat decrepit P-38L which spent most of the time being brought up to operational conditions and except for one embarrassing incident where it sank a British cargo ship thought to be brining in arms to Guatemala, was rarely used.

Most of the air operations in terms of support were flown out of the Canal Zone with the unmarked C-47s not only doing air drops to troops, but also dropping bombs from time to time. Most of the air operations were performed by the F-47Ns with assistance from a Cessna 180 which acted as a small attack aircraft; the passenger with a machine gun being a lot more effective than one would thing.

Against this the Guatemalan Air Force had little more than a few armed AT-6s and an AT-11 in addition to the usual C-47s and aside from some air patrols over the capital and some strafing missions, were not much of a consideration. Especially as none of the pilots wanted to go up against the Thunderbolts.

The story is quite long and both authors have done an absolutely superlative job of telling a story of intrigue, screw-ups, luck, and combat in the short period of time that this CIA operation was unfolding. It is more than a story of aircraft, though air power played a pivotal part. It is the story of the movement of both 'Liberation' troops as well as the Guatemalan Army, the combat that took place and the ebbs and flows of the political situation during these two months. Even now there are aspects of the operation that are unknown. It is a book that is absolutely fascinating to read and a part of the history of the western hemisphere that, until now, has not been told with this sort of detail. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one and thanks to the great photos sourced from a variety of places as well as some well done maps, it makes a book that enthusiasts of this sort of thing will have to have.

As a bit of interesting information, the P-38L used in this operation is now in the collection of the US Air Force Museum and I doubt if many there know of its history. One of the F-47Ns (which was provided to the new Guatemalan Air Force) is at the Cavanaugh Museum in Texas, the others having crashed during delivery flights from Nicaragua, where they were briefly serving with their air force, to the US in the 1960s.

October 2016

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Review book courtesy of  Casemate Publishing, where you can order your copy at this link.

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