SMSgt (Ret) William Peters
(This article is published here courtesy of the Editor, Friends Journal, a publication of the Air Force Museum Foundation. It appeared in Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring 2000, issue.)
I was a C-130 flight engineer assigned to the 41st Troop Carrier Squadron, 317th Troop Carrier Group. The group consisted of the 39th, 40th, and 41st Troop Carrier Squadrons and was based at the Evreux-Fauville Air Base, France. I participated in the Congo airlifts from July 1960 until I was reassigned to the U.S. inJuly 1961.
During rebellion in the Belgian Congo in 1960, I participated in "Operation Safari" in which C-130s carried United Nations' troops to the Congo and evacuated Belgian citizens. Our flights went to Tunis, Tunisia, from Evreux where we picked up Tunisian troops and flew them into Leoplodsville. Then we brought Belgian refugees to Brussels.
Our flights all originated at the Evreux Air Base. In the first phase of operations, our missions involved flying to a European or African country where we picked up United Nations peace-keeping troops and flew them to Leopoldville with refueling stops, if necessary, at Wheelus Air Base, Libya and Kano Airport, Nigeria. The second phase consisted of humanitarian foodlifts while the third phase involved returning UN troops to their home countries when their tours were over and sometimes bringing replacement troops.
My first mission took place on the evening of July 15th, 1960. We flew to Tunis where we picked up over 90 Tunisian troops. That many passengers required four rows of seats with individuals sitting knee to knee, leaving very little space to move about. I don't recall refueling at Wheelus AB, but I'm certain we did refuel at Kano. We then arrived in the Congo about noon on July 16th. The pilots requested a vector to the Leopoldville airport, but the controller mistakenly gave us a heading 180 degrees off. Before the error was discovered, we had flown for several minutes at low level in the turbulent air above the jungle, resulting in over 90 airsick passengers. It was a great relief for everyone to finally land at Leopoldville airport. On the morning of the 17th we flew to Brazzaville, Congo Republic, and picked up a full plane load of Belgian refugees. After takeoff, I briefed the passengers on our flight time to Brussels along with the altitude and other flight data. One of the passengers then became distraught. He was already upset about leaving his home and possessions and/or possibly had not flown very much. Afraid that he might get violent, another passenger suggested that we give him some alcohol to calm him down. None of the crew members had (or would admit to having) any alcohol. Finally, one of the passengers, a priest, produced a flask, gave the man a good drink, and he soon calmed down and slept all the way to Brussels. The total flight time for this mission was 28 hours and 30 minutes.
At the end of July, another mission took us to Ireland where, again, we picked up over 90 troops then flew to Wheelus AB to spend the night. The following day we flew to Leopoldville, then on to Goma, the area assigned to the Irish troops. On our arrival in Goma, we were greeted by a contingent of natives who expected we were bringing relief food supplies but were disappointed to see only troops. Later we heard a rumor that two Irish soldiers had been killed and eaten. I don't know if this was true.
After unloading the troops, we prepared to leave Goma but were unable to start the engines. The high altitude and heat limited the amount of compressed air generated by the APU, and there was no external power source available. We attempted a "buddy start" with another C-130 on the same mission. This emergency procedure called for one plane to taxi up to the disabled plane, run an engine at high speed in full reverse, causing the propeller on the other plane to windmill, hopefully fast enough to get ignition. We made several "buddy start" attempts but were never successful, so we decided to wait until evening and try again when the temperature dropped. In the interim, the loadmaster and I made our way to a small cafe still operated by a Belgian man. There were several cars in front of the cafe, and we asked the man if he would take us on a sight-seeing tour, but he said the Congo soldiers would not allow him to drive. He finally convinced one of the soldiers to take us on a short tour. He showed us some of the homes abandoned by the former Belgian residents then took us up to the top of an extinct volcano where he posed for a picture. By the time we returned to the cafe, it had cooled off, so we met the pilots, started the engines, and flew to our favorite RON (Remain Over Night) spot -the Lake Victoria Hotel in Entebbe, Uganda.
The phase two, relief food airlifts, were interesting but uneventful. In February 1961, we flew to Douala, Cameroons, to pick up 30,000 pounds of peanuts. I marveled at the sight of the native workers carrying heavy bags of peanuts on their heads until the plane was completely loaded. On another foodlift, we flew to Salisbury, in southern Rhodesia, to get 30,000 pounds of ground grain. Again, the workers did the loading, carrying huge bags of grain on their heads.
In March 1961, we loaded approximately 90 Ethiopian soldiers and prepared to return them to their homeland. About halfway through the takeoff roll, the left rear landing gear tire exploded, causing extensive damage to the fuselage and landing gear doors. The passengers were literally crawling the walls, apparently assuming we were being attacked. The pilots were able to abort the takeoff, stopping the plane until a repair team was sent from France. Sabena Airlines had offered to do the repairs, but their offer was considered to be too expensive, so I remained in Leopoldville until the Air Force team arrived and completed the repair, about 30 days after the accident.
I do not remember the reason for our mission to Kamina in Katanga Province, but I know we did not stay at the hotel there but only stopped there long enough to sample the local beer. One of our crew members, a black airman, was a source of curiosity among the natives who refused to believe he was really an American.
Finally, a Sabena Boeing 707 was one of the planes that participated in the evacuation of Belgian refugees. I spoke with one of the pilots who told me that they flew 300 refugees out on their first flight, going so far as to put infants in the overhead baggage racks.
These flights made by U. S. Air Force planes and crew members were historically significant, yet it appears that very little is remembered of them. I found it exciting, being a part of this bit of history, and the memories shall always remain with me.