Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Escape from the Congo


evac congo UN refugeesDuring the Congo Crisis (1960-1966), which began after the colony was granted independence from Belgium, the province of Katanga declared itself a sovereign state. The situation in the Congo became so grave that in November 1961, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 169 to remove foreign military and other personnel not under the U.N. Command, “including the use of the requisite measure of force, if necessary.” In response, the Katangan gendarmerie planned an offensive against the UN peacekeepers and set up roadblocks to isolate UN units from one another. This prompted another major UN military operation, launched on December 5 to take control of strategic positions around Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), which resulted in heavy fighting and casualties. Amidst all of this, Terry McNamara had to evacuate all Americans from Elisabethville at the end of 1961. Most of the evacuees were missionaries, who managed to test his patience and diplomatic skill with their vacillating and even ingratitude.

For other riveting accounts by McNamara, who was later named Ambassador to Gabon in 1981, read about his evacuation from Vietnam, his earlier experiences with housing in Elisabethville and the birth of his twins. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in March 1993.

“You’ve got to get us out of here!”

evac Congo_1961_map_enMcNAMARA:  During the fighting, things got really nasty as far as Americans were concerned. The Katangans started threatening Americans. They hadn’t threatened Americans before. The American missionaries in general were sympathetic towards the Katangans. The Katangans sensed this and were using this sympathy to try to gain a more widespread sympathy in the United States…. Then, when the fighting started in the second round, they turned against the missionaries and started threatening them, as Americans, because of the American support for the UN forces.

American Air Force airplanes at this point were coming into Elisabethville, bringing in supplies and troops to strengthen the…American troops, but they were bringing in supplies and non-American troops for the UN. In other words, these were American Air Force planes. No longer were they just hired airplanes that were being contracted for by the UN, and maybe paid for with American money, but these were actual USAF airplanes.

The American support for the whole operation was therefore much more obvious to the average Katangan. It was also equally obvious that America was certainly not taking any sort of neutral role, that we were one of the essential elements in this whole thing.

So, naturally, the average Katangan started to be alienated from and angry with America and threatening Americans there, even Americans who were sympathetic towards them. It didn’t really make much difference. The Katangans, however, controlled most of the African suburbs of Elisabethville, as well as much of the remaining territory of the province.

We decided that we had to evacuate the American citizens in Elisabethville because it was getting too dangerous.

evac congo Seventh_Day_Adventist_logoAt this time, the Seventh Day Adventists had decided to have their regional convention at their headquarters in Elisabethville. They brought people from the United States and from other parts of eastern Africa to Elisabethville. Their headquarters was across the street from the UN headquarters, which was a special target of the Katangans. When fighting started, the Adventists found themselves in the crossfire between the two sides. The poor Adventists were really under the gun.

With the help of a journalist who had good contacts with the Katangans, we arranged a cease-fire, from twelve to one o’clock, to get them out of their precarious position. I went from our consulate to get them out. I crawled down a long drainage ditch to the back door of the mission building. The cease-fire took place on time. No more shooting. We had an hour to get out. Both sides had agreed to this. So I told the missionaries, “You’ve got to leave now.”

Over the phone they had earlier accepted that they would leave, as soon as a cease-fire could be arranged. When the shooting stopped, however, they changed their minds. Some decided, no, they wouldn’t leave. So all refused to leave. I said, “Look, you’ve got to go. The shooting is going to start in another hour. We’ve got one hour to get you out of here. If you don’t leave, you’re again going to be in exactly the same situation.”

“Oh, no, no, no. It’s okay now. We can’t leave our homes. We can’t leave our buildings, all of our work,” and so on.

After much fruitless urging I had to leave without them. I was sure that as soon as one o’clock came, the shooting was going to start again and I would receive another frantic telephone appeal, “Please get us out of here.” Predictably, the shooting started at one o’clock, the war began again, and they were on the phone two or three minutes later, saying, “Oh, you’ve got to get us out of here!”

With some difficulty, we again arranged another cease-fire. This time, they left without serious resistance. That evening, we gathered all of the missionaries, not just the Seventh Day Adventists, but the other groups that were in town. The biggest was Southern Baptist.

Moving Mothers and Children through the Crossfire

I organized a convoy into the UN headquarters, and then, from the UN headquarters, at night, out to the airport, with protection from UN forces. I got protection from the Swedes in armored personnel carriers [APC] and from the Gurkhas.

evac Congo UN-swedish-carrierAs a prelude and a test run to the biggest evacuation, I took the families from the consulate out to the airport first. We had three or four families, women and children. I took them out earlier to see how it would all go. We put them in the back of an open Swedish APC and drove out to the airport. There were bullets bouncing off the sides and the Swedes fired machine guns in reply. I recall the spent shell casings flipping into the back of the APC; some fell on my sleeping children.

It was very interesting, the differing reactions of the several families. I was the only male parent present. Otherwise, we had the three mothers with their children. Where the mother was calm, the children remained calm. Where the mother was agitated, nervous and frightened, the children reacted in the same way.

For instance, my ex-wife, who is very tough, was calm, joked with the soldiers and reassured our kids. My children stayed calm and relaxed with the youngest sleeping soundly.

The youngest one fell asleep on the way out, even though the machine guns were blasting away. She hadn’t had much sleep the night before. She and my wife had been in our friend Colonel Mitra’s house. When the fighting started, and the bullets began bouncing off the outside walls, the colonel put my daughter in the bathtub with a mattress in front of the tub to protect against bullets or shrapnel. She played quietly there for most of the day.

When the fighting started, two of my children had been at school. They were enrolled in a local Catholic school called Marie José School, with Belgian and Katangan children. When the fighting started, the wife of the other vice consul, her name is Whipple, went to get the kids. She got her children and mine and took them to her house. That evening we had to get out of the colonel’s house. Mitra told me that UN intelligence had picked up a report that the Katangans would bomb the area of the UN HQ that night. He did not want the kids there. We gathered ourselves together and snuck out in the middle of the night through a little used entrance to the UN perimeter, and went to Whipple’s house. Whipple was not pleased at being awakened. His wife, however, was more gracious, taking us in and bedding down the children.evac congo C-47inside

The next day, I organized the evacuation and took the Whipple, Hoffacker, and McNamara kids, their mothers, and one or two other wives out to the airport in a Swedish APC under enemy fire. Thank God, the Katangans didn’t have heavy weapons.

The Air Attaché’s airplane was in the airport when we arrived. He evacuated our families to Northern Rhodesia in his C-47 without any seats on the floor. They landed at Ndola, which is the major city in the copper belt in what’s now Zambia. Later on, they went to Salisbury, where they stayed for a few months before returning to Elisabethville.

“I came close to punching him in the nose”

The next day, I organized a larger evacuation of all of the American community. Most were missionaries. After we’d had the dry run with our own families to see how it worked, we had a better idea of what we were doing. First, we organized the Americans in a convoy using their own vehicles. There were some 200 of them. I led the convoy into the UN perimeter. Escort was organized from there for the run to the airport at night. There was some shooting, but no serious opposition. We got to the airport without casualties. The Air Attaché was there with two or three airplanes.

evac congo MitraI had my friend Mitra, the Gurkha colonel, with me to serve as convoy commander. He was a marvelous man, full of energy, ideas, and brave as a lion. He came along as a personal favor to me. We had developed a close friendship.

When we got to the airport, the perimeter of which was now held by the UN, a couple of the missionaries, after the UN soldiers had protected them and gotten them out to the airport, where they were safe and preparing to be evacuated, complained bitterly about the UN “intervention.” I got angry with this wanton ingratitude. The UN soldiers had just risked their lives to protect the missionaries and their families. So I told one of the missionaries what I thought of him. I came close to punching him in the nose, but I resisted the temptation.

Afterwards, I got a letter from the Baptist bishop apologizing to me for the intemperate things that his colleague had said to me, and for his nasty accusations of the American government. Above all, the bishop disassociated himself and his church from the defamatory remarks aimed at soldiers who had risked their lives to protect the missionaries. A very nice letter. The bishop did the decent thing.

Anyway, feelings were very high.

After assuring that the missionary families were as comfortable as possible as they waited in one of the airport hangers for the morning evacuation flights in the military attaché’s aircraft, Mitra and I visited the Canadian soldiers who were handling airport communication. By this time, I had become unofficial consul for the Canadians. I took care of them as fellow North Americans. This time, I brought them beer from town. Mitra then said he wanted to get back to Elisabethville. The Swedes were being very slow in organizing a convoy with their APCs. So Mitra said, “Let’s go.” I had a consulate car, so we got into the car, and I drove as fast as I could, in the night, back to Elisabethville. There were a few shots that went over the top of the car, but we made it.

As we were coming into the outskirts of Elisabethville, where the Gurkhas were holding a position at the strategic traffic circle, Mitra leaned out of the car window, on the passenger side screaming “Hail the Gurkhas” in Gurhali, so that they’d know that we were friends coming into their line and they wouldn’t shoot at us.

evac congo the_gurkha_hat_49He had picked up mail for his troops while at the airport. He insisted that we stop to distribute the post and to cheer up his troops. He was a great showman. His troops adored him. We stopped in the middle of the road, and he got out of the car. And he started, very carefully and very slowly, distributing the mail to his soldiers….

The Katangans saw us stop and began to mortar the position. Mitra went on with his mail call, standing in the middle of the road. Each little Johnny Gurkha would come to him, salute, take his mail, and go back to his foxhole.

Honor demanded that I stand next to Mitra. He had the assurance of an Indian astrologer that he would live to an age of 74 years. I had no such assurance. Nonetheless, to keep face, I stood next to him with mortars going off around us. Thank God, the Katangans were lousy marksmen.

Finally, I got back in the car and drove into the UN positions. I dropped him off at his headquarters, then snuck out a back way and went back to the consulate myself.

Two missionaries had been in the back of the car on our way back from the airport. They were supposed to stay with us to watch after the missions’ property and interests. Our return from the airport without protection had unsettled them. Mitra’s impromptu mail call had completely unnerved these men of God. When we stopped to distribute mail they slithered out of the back seat into a ditch. They seemed more preoccupied with their asses than with face.

After leaving the UN compound by a back route I took my two ecclesiastical friends to the house of the other vice consul, Whipple, where we were to sleep. The house was empty when we arrived. Tired after a full and exciting day, I went to bed. The missionaries were to sleep in another room. The next morning, I woke up and felt something peculiar on the bed covers. I looked down and there was a note pinned to the blanket under my chin. The note was addressed to me. It informed me that my two companions had decided that the mission property really wasn’t in great danger. Therefore, they had decided to leave the country to American vice consuls or mad Gurkha colonels.

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Escape from the Congo

by Chris Sibilla time to read: 9 min
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