The circumstances seem all too familiar — political turmoil leads to angry mobs storming the U.S. compound in Benghazi. Except this incident took place in June 1967. John Kormann fought in World War II as a paratrooper and went behind enemy lines to apprehend Nazi war criminals and uncover a mass grave. As an Army Counter Intelligence Corps field office commander in Berlin from 1945 to 47, he helped search for Martin Bormann. He joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and describes his experience as officer-in-charge at Embassy Benghazi, when it was attacked and burned in June 1967. He is also author of his memoirs, Echoes of a Distant Clarion. You can read about the 2012 attack on Benghazi.
“The mob battered its way in”
The most harrowing experience of my Foreign Service career occurred in Benghazi at the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Convinced by propaganda broadcasts that U.S. Navy planes were attacking Cairo, Libyan mobs, spurred on by 2000 Egyptian workers building a pan- Arab Olympic stadium in Benghazi, attacked the Embassy. The streets were being repaired and there were piles of rocks everywhere, which the mob put to use. A detachment of soldiers provided by the Libyan Government to protect us was overwhelmed. The embassy file room was full of highly classified material, which we desperately tried to burn. The embassy had been a former bank building, with a heavy safe-type front door and barred windows. The mob finally battered its way in. They pushed themselves in through broken windows and came at us cut and bleeding.
We were well armed, but I gave orders that there be no shooting, so we met them with axe handles and rifle butts. Dropping tear gas grenades, we fought our way up the stairs and locked ourselves in the second floor communications vault. We were able to continue burning files in 50-gallon drums on an inner courtyard balcony using Thermite grenades. There were 10 of us in the vault, including two women. The mobs set fire to the building. The heat, smoke and tear gas were intense, which while terrible for us, blessedly forced the mob from the building. We only had five gas masks for 10 people and shared them while we worked. We came out of the vault several times during the day to use fire extinguishers to control blazes and spray down walls.
Our own destruction of files using Thermite sent up huge clouds of black smoke from the center of the building, probably adding to the impression that those of us inside were dying. With no power, we managed to send sporadic messages throughout the day using an emergency generator. Efforts by British troops to come to our aid were called off several times. A British armored car was destroyed by the mob in the vicinity of the Embassy by pouring gasoline down the hatch and setting it afire with an officer and four soldiers inside. The British Embassy and British Council offices had been attacked and set afire, as were the USIS [U.S. Information Service] center and my former residence.
I might mention something here because many people asked me about it afterward. At one point the mob used a ladder to drop from an adjoining building on to our roof, catching us trying to burn files there. After a struggle they drove us back into the Embassy. They cut the ropes on the tall roof flag pole, leaving the flag itself hanging down the front of the building. An Army MAAG [Military Assistance Advisory Group] captain who was with us requested permission to go up on the roof and raise the flag. I dismissed his request, saying it would be counterproductive. Later when things looked very bleak and our spirits were waning, he came to me again in front of the others. I told him I would think about it. I had been a combat paratrooper in WW II and had seen what defiance and a bit of bravura could do for soldiers under mortal stress.
Afterward I said, “Go ahead, raise the flag!” He did so with considerable daring, the mob going crazy below and the rocks flying. The reaction among my people was profound. I could see it in their eyes, as they worked on with grim determination under those conditions to burn files and render cryptographic equipment inoperable.
The British Come to the Rescue
When late in the day (remember the attack began in the morning), we received word that a British rescue attempt had again been postponed for fear that lives might be lost, I took a photograph of President and Mrs. Johnson off the wall, broke it out of the frame and wrote a message on the back to the President saying something to the effect that we have tried our best to do our duty. Everyone signed it. When an inspector subsequently asked me about that, I could tell him that people will respond to the call of duty given the chance.
We sent our last message at about 6:00 p.m. I learned later from a friend who was in the Operations Center in Washington that it came in garbled, leading to the impression that we were burning alive. At that Secretary Rusk called the British Foreign Secretary with a further plea to get us out. At 8:00 p.m. a British armored column arrived and took us by truck to D’Aosta Barracks, their base on the outskirts of town. Libya had been a British protectorate after WW II and they still maintained a small military contingent outside of Benghazi under an agreement with King Idriss. The British were magnificent, rescuing us and then helping us bring hundreds of Americans to their camp, where they fed us and gave us shelter.
The night of our escape from the vault, I asked for a volunteer to go with me into the center of Benghazi at 2:00 a.m. to bring out Americans most in danger. The city was in flames, Jewish and foreign shops and properties having been set to the torch. Driving through the city, we were repeatedly stopped by roadblocks manned by nervous, trigger-happy Libyan soldiers. The streets were full of debris.
I remember pulling up to an apartment house lit only by fires from nearby burning shops. Going up the darkened stairs, knocking on doors, I asked for an American family. On the fourth floor, I heard a small voice say, “Who’s there?” In English, I answered, “It’s the American Consul.” An American woman cautiously opened the door. She must have known me, because she called me by name and said, “We knew you’d come, we are all packed.” What a wonderful tribute, I thought, to our Foreign Service. During that night and the next day we brought out other Americans under very trying circumstances.
We had problems in evacuating Americans from Benghazi. Arrangements were made for U.S. Air Force planes to pick up about 250 of them at the airport. At the last moment I received word that Russian-built Algerian troop transports with paratroopers and Egyptian MiG fighters had landed at the airport. I didn’t want our planes shot at. I didn’t want a serious incident. Calling Tripoli, I talked with Ambassador Newsom. After listening to me, he said, “Well, John, you’re the man on the spot. This is your decision to make.” I made the decision to bring the planes in all right, but I must say really I wished that I hadn’t had to, for I was truly worried. My wife and children were going to be aboard those planes, as well as a lot of other Americans, who could pay with their lives should my decision be a bad one.
The British provided trucks and a bus for the evacuees. They were taken on to the airport through an opening away from the terminal and driven right past the parked MiGs and Algerian transports. With the connivance of an English civilian air controller in the tower, contact was made with the incoming Air Force planes using a British Army field radio. They were instructed to land on the grass along the fence at the most distant part of the field away from the terminal. Three planes, two C-130’s and a C-124, came in and made a fast turnaround. They were loaded and back in the air in minutes. The operation was carried out with such speed and audacity that there was no reaction from anyone until much later. All of us will be forever grateful to Colonel Alistair Martin and his British troops for their role in all of these actions; without them none of that would have been possible.