US maneuvers showcase firepower, tactics. Jets, 'copters, and gunships fight `subversives' in Honduras exercise

William Walker, the American adventurer who twice invaded Nicaragua in the 1850s, would not lie buried and forgotten in this quiet Caribbean port if he had enjoyed the firepower of the United States troops who came ashore here Wednesday. Harrier jump jets screamed out of the clouds, elephantine Chinook helicopters lumbered over the forest, and a flotilla of amphibious assault vehicles churned their way toward the beach, as one of the largest military maneuvers ever held in Honduras got under way.

While 1,500 men from the United States 101st Airborne division mock-fought their way through the hills inland, four companies of US Marines seized and secured a beachhead position from ``subversives.''

Dressed in mix-and-match uniforms to denote their irregular status, the lightly armed ``guerrillas'' (played by 200 US and Honduran soldiers) were no match for the armoured might of the US Army.

The guerrillas were chased off the beach by the superior attacking forces; they were spotted by the OV-10 observation planes circling above the tropical brush; and they were strafed by the shark-like Cobra helicopter gunships, clattering menacingly low over the treetops.

But as ``subversive'' Platoon Commander Lt. William Baxter explained, swatting sandflies from his camouflage-painted face, if he had been a real guerrilla he would not have been there, trying to defend the beach, in the first place.

``I'd probably just melt back into the hills and swamp and try to pick at them there,'' Platoon Commander Baxter said.

Wednesday's amphibious and airborne assaults on Honduras's north coast formed the showpiece of a month-long exercise code named ``Solid Shield '87,'' involving 50,000 US troops.

Offshore, the USS Shreveport and the USS Saipan simulated defense against air attack.

Overhead, the Harriers simulated bombing runs along imaginary beach defenses.

Inland, the army disembarked in force from fleets of helicopters.

The official scenario of the maneuver was of US troops arriving to restore order in a friendly country threatened by a subversive uprising. But in the view of some observers present, the attackers seemed to be coping with an imaginary opposition much stronger than a few columns of guerrillas could hope to put up.

And, according to foreign military experts in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, the maneuver bore remarkable similarities to the likely unfolding of any invasion of Nicaragua.

``A classical war college invasion plan,'' says one of the foreign military experts, would involve ``first air strikes on military targets, then `vertical envelopment' of Managua [through airborne assaults east and west of the capital], and at the same time an amphibious assault'' on Nicaragua's Pacific coast.

These technical details, however, did not interest Trujillo's residents, who appeared almost universally glad to see the maneuvers taking place.

``We are all in agreement with them,'' said acting Mayor Maria Isabel Castillo. ``They mean direct support for us, and they train our Army to fight what we don't like - communism.''

``We are underdeveloped and poor, and we need help,'' Ms. Castillo added. ``The Nicaraguans get help from Russia, so why shouldn't we get help from America?''

Other town inhabitants, who live mainly on fishing and on remittances from fathers and sons working on US merchant ships, were equally positive about the exercises.

But one took a rather more mercenary view of the activities.

``The Honduran government is always bothering the Americans for loans, every time it wants to build a school or a road,'' said Saturnino Cordoba, as he whiled away the evening on a park bench overlooking the bay.

``So it's good that we stay on the right side of the Americans,'' Mr. Cordoba added.

William Walker, unceremoniously shot here by the Hondurans as he launched his third attack on Nicaragua, would have welcomed such a warm reception.

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