Editor’s note: In the last Oro Loma Nomad, the writer, a native of Oro Loma and graduate of Dos Palos High School, told of her Peace Corps assignment to Honduras, along with her husband Bastiaan, and the outbreak of war between Honduras and neighboring El Salvador.
In July 1969, El Salvador attacked neighboring Honduras with aerial bombardments. The Salvadoran army also began a land invasion, crossing the border into a western region of Honduras. The mechanized land assault quickly made progress with the aim of reaching the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
Hondurans living in the western region began to flee from the invading Salvadoran troops, making their way through forested mountains toward cities that might offer them shelter and food while the war continued.
Those towns requested food assistance from the central Honduran government, which in turn requested food aid for the displaced persons from CARE, the American relief organization that had operations in Honduras.
The CARE office called me to ask if I would fly out to some of the western towns to deliver the food aid. I said yes. My boss at the Honduran Ministry of Public Health agreed I should go.
I went to the airport, where airport personnel had removed all the seats from a commercial passenger plane and loaded it with 100-lbs bags of powdered milk and corn-soy blend.
Since there were no seats, I climbed up into the plane and lay down on top of the food cargo. Crawling on my stomach, I made my way toward the pilot and co-pilot. I could see out the windshield of the plane.
The plane landed on meadows near several towns since there were no airstrips. Once the plane had landed, people rushed to meet the plane. I climbed out of the plane to hand over some of the food bags and to explain to the people how to use the powdered milk and corn-soy blend.
At the last stop that we made, I was surprised to see Bastiaan, my husband, waiting for the plane with town officials. Bastiaan was a Peace Corps Volunteer at the Honduran Economic Planning Council, where he worked on regional planning of infrastructure projects.
Since he knew that western region well, his boss had asked him if he would fly out to the region to help local officials organize efforts to receive the incoming people fleeing from the invading Salvadoran army.
Bastiaan was surprised to see me climb out of the plane to hand over the last of the food cargo. I knew he was out in the region somewhere, but there were no phones for him and me to communicate.
Now that the plane was empty, we agreed to take some of the displaced persons who were sick or injured back to Tegucigalpa where they could get medical care.
The men, women and children sat on the floor of the plane, cramped together, and once the plane started to take off, they screamed in fear. Never having flown before, they were not only terrified, but they also began to vomit. There was nothing that could be done to comfort them.
Back in Tegucigalpa, I went to the Peace Corps office. There I learned that another Peace Corps Volunteer, Bob Lilley, who lived in one of the towns in the western region, had been sending telegrams to Honduran officials and other entities asking for arms so that he and the men in his town could defend themselves against the invading Salvadoran troops.
Peace Corps staff were going out to Bob’s town to get him out. The U.S. Embassy did not want an American to be involved in combat during that war.
Bob Lilley was from Louisiana, an affable young man who was assigned to work with the town’s credit cooperative. About once a month, he would come to Tegucigalpa to meet with Honduran officials to advocate for the needs of his town.
Invariably, he would bring a couple of men with him, in order that they could learn how to approach the government and with whom to meet to make their requests. He befriended Honduran newspaper reporters to secure coverage of the news about his town and region. Bob became a leader in his town.
Several days into the war, the Organization of American States (OAS), arranged for a ceasefire. Hearing of this, Bob went to Tegucigalpa and contacted a couple of news reporters that he knew.
The three of them made their way to Nueva Ocotepeque, a town situated some five kilometers north of the border with El Salvador. There, the OAS would supervise the ceasefire agreement between the two countries and of the departure of the Salvadoran troops back to El Salvador.
The press was allowed to be present in Nuevo Ocotepeque. Bob Lilley and his reporter friends put on “press” armbands to witness the ceasefire ceremony.
However, when the Salvadoran army asked the three to show their press credentials, Bob Lilley not having any, was taken prisoner, suspected of being a spy. The Salvadoran army took him to San Salvador where he was imprisoned.
What happened to him as a prisoner of war in El Salvador is the stuff of legends. Tune in to my next column in the Westside Express to learn more about Bob Lilley’s amazing story.