TRUJILLO, Honduras — American troops stormed a beachhead and remote airstrip in northern Honduras on Wednesday in one of the largest U.S. military exercises carried out here in the last five years.
The war games with the Honduran military are designed to train U.S. soldiers in tropical warfare, improve Honduras' strategic military capability and provide a show of force to the leftist Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua.
"We want to demonstrate to Nicaragua that we have a commitment to Honduras and in that way to act as a deterrent to Nicaragua," a U.S. military officer said. "We're sending a message to Nicaragua."
Honduras has received $341.5 million in U.S. military aid in the last five years, and on Tuesday the Reagan Administration notified Congress that it will sell the Hondurans 12 F-5 jet fighters to replace part of their aging air force.
Wednesday's maneuvers, dubbed Solid Shield '87, were the latest in a series of joint exercises that began in 1983 and have been nearly continuous here this year. The war games have left an infrastructure of roads, airstrips and military bases and have resulted in a constant U.S. military presence in Honduras.
Several of the facilities have been used by the contras, the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan guerrillas, who have maintained bases here for the last five years.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega charged in Managua last week that the maneuvers were part of the Reagan Administration's "policy of pressure and threats against Nicaragua to make us see that they . . . have not discounted an invasion."
The exercises coincide with reports of fierce fighting in northern Nicaragua, with the Sandinistas claiming to have overrun a contra base near the Honduran border.
6,900 Troops Involved
Trujillo, about 150 miles northeast of Tegucigalpa, is a sleepy fishing town that acquired its place in history when it became the death and burial site of William Walker, an American adventurer who aided a guerrilla faction in 19th-Century Nicaragua and had himself declared president.
About 6,900 American troops are participating in the three-day land, air and sea maneuvers that began here Wednesday, but 3,300 of them are on ships offshore, U.S. military officials said.
The maneuvers in Honduras, conducted by the U.S. Atlantic Command, are the second phase of Solid Shield '87, which began in Camp Lejeune, N.C., on April 25. A total of 40,000 U.S. troops are participating in the two phases.
The early morning exercises began when 10 amphibious assault vehicles plowed out of the Caribbean onto the white beaches near Puerto Castilla. Harrier jets roared overhead as if strafing the beach, and Black Hawk helicopters moved in under them carrying troops.
About 100 men from the 22nd Marine Amphibious unit, based at Camp Lejeune, scrambled out of the assault vehicles to hunt down a mock enemy army of Honduran and American soldiers posing as Sandinistas.
The fake Sandinista force, wearing unmatched uniforms and in some cases red armbands, waited for the Marines in the tangled swampland behind the beach. They were armed with automatic weapons that fired blanks.
"Today we're wearing this and we're Sandinistas," said Army Sgt. Roger Llorin of Long Beach, Calif. "We're going to kill the Marines."
The Marines combed the flea-infested reeds and bushes for the "Sandinistas," and the sound of popping blanks filled the air.
Hundreds of troops from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) from Fort Campbell, Ky., helicoptered into another area about 10 miles south of Trujillo.
"The Marines hit the beach, and the 101st drop in behind enemy lines, then they work toward each other and hook up," Army Capt. Tony Ronquillo said before the exercise.
The Marines also occupied the area around nearby Puerto Castilla, a paved airstrip at Trujillo and an abandoned grass airfield between the two where they set up a helicopter refueling area.
In other maneuvers in Honduras, U.S. soldiers have built or improved nine airfields throughout the country, several of which have been used by the contras. During an exercise in January, U.S. soldiers upgraded an airstrip at Jamastran, 17 miles from the Nicaraguan border and about 70 miles east of the capital.
Used to Attack Sandinistas
The airstrip was used last December as a forward staging area for 700 Honduran troops who were ferried in by U.S.-piloted helicopters after Sandinista troops launched an attack on contras inside Honduras.
Trujillo is a poor town of about 10,000 residents with no industry and little work, and it is headquarters for a Honduran battalion. There are few telephones and no paved roads connecting Trujillo to the rest of Honduras through jungled mountains. But the skies over the quiet town bustled Wednesday with Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters ferrying troops, jeeps and artillery.
Rather than being frightened by the commotion, the residents welcomed the maneuvers.
"If the Americans weren't here, the Nicaraguans would invade," said Jorge Alberto Flores, who imports cars one at a time from the United States.
"Some people do not agree with the maneuvers because there is a new (immigration) law in the United States where they are kicking out all of the people, and some people are indignant about that," Flores said.
"We've seen all this in the movies but not in real life," said Alvin Steveson, who made his way to the Trujillo airstrip.
"It's good we've got somebody to protect us. It's possible there could be a war with Nicaragua because the Sandinistas are not happy we're helping the contras," Steveson said.
Amid the bustle of the maneuvers, Julio Garcia, 12, said he wants to grow up to join the U.S. Army.
Indeed, said a Honduran Roman Catholic priest, the military has broad appeal for the children in Trujillo.
"They see in the military a way to have money," he commented.