The USA invaded Haiti on 19 September 1994, unopposed by the Haitian military. The operation, named “Uphold Democracy”, was to reverse a 1991 military coup which deposed the freely-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. During the operation, American forces recovered a large amount of WWII weapons which were still in use by the Haitians.
(above: The cover of the September 1994 issue of Time magazine, and a Haitian armorer’s rack of WWII-issue M1 Garand rifles secured by the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division during the 1994 invasion.)
Haiti: WWII and afterwards
Long a source of instability in the Caribbean, Haiti was occupied by the USA between 1919-1934, the longest-ever American occupation of a foreign country. Some firearms (mainly M1903 Springfield rifles) were left behind by the US Marine Corps in 1934 and integrated into the reformed Haitian army. During WWII, Haiti was led by the strongman Elie Lescot. Haiti declared war on the Axis after the Pearl Harbor attack but did not actually contribute anything to the war. The declaration did, however, qualify Haiti for Lend-Lease military aid from the USA.
The US Congress categorized Haiti as one of the miscellaneous “OLARs” (Other Latin American Republics) and specific Lend-Lease shipments are hard to pin down. They are known to include the following:
For the Haitian army: Tanks: ♦Two M3A1 Stuarts Artillery: ♦Six M1916 75mm guns ♦Four M2A1 105mm howitzers Vehicles: ♦Two M3 White staff cars Firearms: ♦Nine each M1 and M2 mortars ♦Two M2 Browning .50cal machine guns ♦Five Tommy guns, ♦Ten M1903 Springfields (rechambered to .22LR for training) ♦One thousand M3 bayonets, to be used both with the Springfields and as general-purpose knives. Miscellaneous: ♦Five thousand uniforms ♦Five W-110 field telephones with a dozen signal wire kits.
For the Haitian air force: ♦Two O-57 Grasshopper scout planes ♦Three BT-13 Valiant trainer planes ♦One C-78 Bobcat transport plane
OLARs were the backwater of the Lend-Lease program and the totals didn’t always match facts on the ground. For example, an extra Valiant was delivered to the air force but not all of the bayonets or uniforms were ever delivered to the army. The miniscule outlay was not by accident, as many Americans in 1941 held a negative opinion about Haiti and it was realized from the start that the country would be a worthless ally. Much of the equipment (especially the M1916 artillery pieces) was obsolete.
Little if any of Haiti’s Lend-Lease gear was returned in 1945; this was probably fine with the US government as there were thousands of tons of superior gear already lined up for scrapping inside the USA.
Elie Lescot’s rule during WWII was abysmal and he was overthrown shortly after WWII ended. In 1946, Dumarsais Estime took over. In 1948, Estime went on a buying spree of WWII-surplus American weapons, now being unloaded at bargain prices. Thousands (the exact number is unknown) of M1 Garand rifles were bought from multiple sources; these WWII weapons became the Haitian army’s standard rifle for the rest of it’s existence.
(Haitian military on parade during the 1980s or 1990s; the muzzle of a M1 Garand can be seen in the lower right corner.)
The Estime regime also bought some BARs, a few M3 37mm anti-tank guns, seven F-51 Mustang fighter planes, some M2 Bofors 40mm AA guns, and two small obsolete warships. But above all, the M1 Garands were the main part of this WWII-surplus buying spree. These weapons were in part financed by a law Estime passed forcing Haitians to “invest” 10% of their wages in military bonds. Other funding came from a crooked national lottery, still more from misusing hurricane relief donations. Needless to say this was unpopular and in 1950, Estime was overthrown by another military coup.
Haiti slid further into chaos and in 1956, the leader of the coup simply left the country, leaving it leaderless. In 1957, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier took over. He established one of the worst dictatorships in the Western Hemisphere’s history. During the Papa Doc era, the army was purged of competent officers who were replaced with regime stooges. Duvalier also transferred many of the M1903 Springfields (which were still in use) and M1 Garands to the Tonton Macoute, a thuggish, paramilitary police that enforced his rule. In 1961, President Kennedy embargoed weapon sales to Haiti, “locking in place” it’s WWII-era obsolescence.
In 1964, Papa Doc declared himself Le Souverain, a sort of mix of dictator and king. He died in 1971, being succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Baby Doc took over where Papa Doc left off, continuing the harsh dictatorship. He further allowed the Haitian military to rot away. In 1985, there was a failed rebellion and in 1986 President Reagan arranged for Baby Doc to go into exile, an an attempt to bring some kind of order to Haiti.
(Haitian troops in the 1980s or 1990s; they are wearing WWII M1 pot helmets and WWII-issue cartridge belts, and carrying WWII M1 Garand rifles. The white building in the background is the presidential palace which was famously destroyed in the January 2010 earthquake.)
From 1986-1990, Haiti had a total of six presidents in four years, with army interference throughout. During this time Haiti effectively lost control of it’s own crumbling military, for example in 1988 the air force leadership sold off most of the country’s warplanes for “fun money” for themselves. On 7 February 1991, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was sworn in, having fairly won a free election. However seven months later, he was overthrown by yet another military coup, led by Haiti’s final general, Raoul Cedras. Ironically, Cedras had been nominated by France as a “fair protector” of the 1991 election which he then overthrew. A former colonel, Cedras “promoted” himself to general and took on the trappings of a WWII-style generalissimo.
Operation Uphold Democracy 1994
President Clinton was incensed at the coup and set about trying to reverse it through diplomacy. Cedras strung Clinton along with endless negotiations but had no desire to leave power. Finally in September 1994, Clinton sent former President Carter and General Colin Powell to negotiate with Cedras. They told him upfront that President Clinton was going to invade Haiti to reinstall the fairly-elected Aristide, and that it was his choice to leave office either peacefully in comfortable exile, or, by less pleasant methods. At the last minute, when the operation was already beginning, Cedras agreed to step down. American troops began landing unopposed on 19 September.
Below is a picture of what the US Army expected the Haitian army to be equipped with: The modern West German-made H&K G3 assault rifle and the Israeli-made Uzi; both of which had been bought in the 1970s with American-made weapons embargoed.
As it turned out, the quantities of these two weapons was much smaller than had been thought, and instead, a glut of WWII-vintage weaponry was encountered instead.
(A Port-au-Prince policeman during the 1994 American invasion. He appears to be brandishing a Smith & Wesson M1917 revolver. This six-shooter was used during WWII as a cheap, easy-to-build substitute backing up the M1911 semi-auto. It fired the same .45 ACP cartridge as the M1911.)
M1 Garands were everywhere. Almost all of the M1s bought over the years appeared to still be in use, in ready storage, or looted by civilians.
There were other old guns recovered by American troops, including at least one tommy gun and several of the now-antique M1903 Springfields. Many of these dated back to the 1948 buys or even to WWII Lend-Lease.
(An armorer’s rack at a Haitian army base captured by US troops in 1994; it holds some commercial pump-action shotguns, an unidentified assault rifle-type weapon, a M1928 Thompson, and four M1903 Springfields.)
All of the Haitian army’s heavy equipment was secured in the operation’s opening stages. Most of it had been stored (apparently for a long time) at the Camp D’Application facility.
Some of the M1916 75mm guns were recovered, as well as some M3 anti-tank guns, WWII-era mortars, and Bofors AA guns. All had been stored at Camp D’Application and were in terrible condition, not having been fired in many years. Also recovered was some dangerously-old French-made ammunition for the M1916s. These items were transported to the International Pier at Port-au-Prince harbor and shipped abroad for scrapping.
One of the more surprising finds was WWII-era Belgian-made FN M24(H) rifles. These guns were purchased in the 1930s and 1940s. They used a mauser-style bolt action but were chambered for the American .30-06 Springfield cartridge. These guns offered no appreciable advantage vs the M1903 and it’s unknown why Haiti bought them. Some were apparently still in reserve inventory in 1994.
At Port-au-Prince IAP, the US Army found two demilitarized WWII-vintage C-46 Commando planes in service with the country’s ragamuffin airline, Air Haiti. Neither was flightworthy and one was traced back to being an ex-US Navy plane sold to the Haitian air force in 1983.
Perhaps the most astonishing find were six WWII Stuart light tanks. There was one M3A1 and five M5A1, all in various states of decay. It was known that two M3A1s had been Lend-Leased during WWII, however when the serial numbers were checked, none of the Haitian tanks matched the two transferred during WWII (it was never learned what became of them). Instead, these six tanks had been bought from an Italian arms broker during the 1950s after being refurbished by the automobile company Ferrari. These obsolete little tanks formed the core of the Haitian army’s mechanized forces into the 1970s.
The M3A1 was found at Camp D’Application and was in the best condition. Other than missing it’s cannon breech and AA machine gun, it was entirely complete and unmodified from the WWII configuration. This tank was viewed as historic and was flown to Anniston Army Depot, AL then moved by the 37th Transportation Battalion to a museum in Baumholder, Germany.
(The Haitians did not take much better care of their modern weapons than their WWII equipment. This is a Cold War-era Cadillac V-150 armored car which was bought in the 1970s to replace the Stuarts. it was barely functional when seized by American troops in 1994.)
Abolition of the Haitian military and fate of the WWII-era guns
After the country had been secured, President Clinton decided to completely disband the Haitian military. The country’s only land border is with the Dominican Republic, a peaceful American ally, and over the decades the corrupt Haitian army had not accomplished anything other than endless coups and corruption inside Haiti. The Haitian army was abolished in December 1994, with about 8,000 men being retained as a new national police. The small Haitian navy was abolished at the same time, with a few small boats being formed into a coast guard. The Haitian air force had already effectively ceased to exist prior to 1994.
(A member of the new national police in the 2000s. It is a very militarized police force, not surprising considering the violence in Haiti. The patrolman is wearing 1980s “Woodland One”-pattern camo BDUs donated by the USA, and a kevlar helmet and body armor paid for by the UN. His rifle is a WWII-era M1 Garand inherited from the disbanded army.)
(A member of the national police during a 2012 gunbattle with street gangs. The sling on his M1 Garand is the strap of a civilian gym bag, with three spare enblocs clipped on……a pretty sorry state for such a legendary rifle. His helmet is of the style that the Haitian army intended to replace the M1 pot with in the 1970s/1980s, however not enough of them were ever bought to fully replace that WWII type before the army was abolished in 1994.)
The decision to abolish the military had mixed results. For certain it safeguarded the restoration of democracy. On the other hand, it put a lot of now-unemployed soldiers into the streets. Many of them had either stolen or “arranged to have stolen” M1 Garands during the three months after the American invasion. These guns now all hit the street, where many remain today.
(A Haitian street gang in 2011. After the 2010 earthquake, some of these gangs began to take on the trappings of military units. Two men are armed with M1 Garands, the third with an AK-47. The man on the far left is wearing a WWII-issue M1 pot helmet. The kevlar helmets on the other two were stolen from the national police. Haiti never used the AK-47 so the weapon pictured was smuggled into the country, probably during the heyday of drug trafficking during the mid-1980s.)
Below is a bizarre find in 2006, a WWII British Sten Mk.II submachine gun. It was turned in to the UN as part of an amnesty deal to street gangs. The Haitian army never used the Sten and it was likely smuggled into the country by drug runners during the 1980s.
After the 2010 earthquake, some Haitians questioned the fact that their country was still banned by the UN from having it’s own army. In 2015, there was a (failed) effort to re-establish an army. Should it happen in the future, it’s quite possible that some of the WWII Garands will re-enter formal military service again.