One of the pilots, now retired Air Force Lt. Col. Mac Secord, shared his story with the Rotary Club of Griffin last Thursday as the guest of local pilot Phillip Smith.
After joking about being an Alabama graduate and past Kiwanis Club of Atlanta president speaking to a Rotary club just days before the Georgia-Alabama game, Secord asked how many remembered what they were doing 48 years ago.
“It was one of the few times in my life when people were shooting at me,” Secord said, “so it stands out.”
He explained the Congo, “by most accounts is the richest country in natural resources — gold, silver, platinum, diamonds, precious metals, worth about $25 trillion. The same thing that precipitated this mission is now happening again over there.”
The Congo is a former Belgian colony, and “the Belgians were run out in 1960,” Secord said, “with nobody left trained in government administration.” In November 1964, a group of rebels, the Simbas, took over the city of Stanleyville, the head of navigation for the Congo River.
“For some reason they didn’t like white folks and rounded them up in a hotel where they were starved, beaten, and the Simbas cut off various body parts,” Secord said. “They shot and killed a medical missionary who had been there for years.”
Belgium hired 500 commandos and arranged with the U.S. and other countries for an airlift to rescue the hostages, who were mostly religious and medical missionaries as well as business people in the mining industry.
Secord was a C-130 pilot stationed in France at the time.
“All the planes across Europe were recalled,” he said. “We were told to go on crew rest at 10 a.m., and alerted at 4:30 p.m., to man our planes and fly to Belgium.”
The 12 planes loaded up the 500 commandos and supplies and headed out, stopping to refuel in Moron, Spain. Secord said “only the navigators were allowed to get off the planes and could only tell us the destination oncce we reached 10,000 feet.”
He said they flew around Africa to Ascension Island, which he said was a British possession about seven miles across, half of it runway. After three days, he said they flew into Kamina in the Congo, then into Stanleyville to rescue the missionaries.
He explained the plan was for the commandos to parachute in off the first six planes, secure the airfield and head into town to get the hostages and march them back. He said “somebody told the Simbas, they put down 55 gallon drums and junk cars. Job one was to clear the runway so the others could land with supplies and equipment.”
Secord said “they told us 45 minutes to an hour, but nobody took into account the Simbas all along the route. They had to do a fire fight, so it took two and half to three hours.”
Secord said he was was the last one in due to mechanical problems, so I was the first to leave. He said the commandos retured and loaded hostages onto the waiting planes, and “we flew out with about 125 people on board — the plane is rated for 97.”
He said the rebels shot up at the plane, into the wings, where all the fuel is stored.
“There was an awful lot of fuel pouring out near engine three, so we shut it off. We made our way 900 miles to Leopoldville, the capital, where we were met by the U.S. ambassador.”
He said the whole unit was honored by the king and queen of Belgium, and “there was a victory parade in Brussels, the largest since World War II.” The unit was awarded the 1964 McKay Trophy, the award for the most meritorious flight of the year by U.S. Air Force planes.
He also had two “the rest of the story” additions to the story. He said the C-130 he flew on that mission is now on display at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins.
And he said, about five years ago a Presbyterian missionary from the Congo was speaking at his church.
“My wife asked her if she had heard about the rescue mission,” he said.
The woman told her she said she was 5 years old at the time and her family was among those rescued.