Congo Crisis: Operation Dragon Rouge

6/12/2006 • John F Kennedy, Military History

At exactly 0600 hours on the morning of November 24, 1964, as the sun was breaking over the former Belgian colony of Congo, five four-engine turboprop Lockheed C-130 Hercules transports appeared only 700 feet above the Sabena airport on the outskirts of the city of Stanleyville. As the first Hercules, with ‘U.S. Air Force’ stenciled in large block letters along the fuselage, approached a narrow swath of grass alongside the airport’s main runway, navigator First Lieutenant John Coble called out ‘Green Light’ over the aircraft’s intercom. Immediately, the co-pilot, Captain Robert Kitchen, reached down to the panel by his right armrest and flipped the paratrooper jump lights from red to green. As the lights in the cargo compartment changed from the red ‘Prepare to jump’ signal to green for ‘Go,’ Colonel Charles Laurent, commander of Belgium’s crack Régiment Para-Commando, leaped out into the cool, moist dawn air, followed by 64 other troopers into the African skies. Dragon Rouge, the most ambitious peacetime military operation ever performed by the government of the United States up to that time, was on.

Events of Thanksgiving week of 1964 in Africa were the direct results of years of political unrest in the Congo, which began within days of Belgium’s declaration of Congolese independence in 1960. An outbreak of fighting in the newly independent country led to United Nations intervention as USAF transports under the control of the 322nd Air Division, U.S. Air Force Europe (USAFE), airlifted a peacekeeping team made up of military personnel from several nations to Leopoldville. For three years, the UN peacekeeping force remained in the Congo, supported by American C-130 and Fairchild C-124 cargo planes.

Within weeks of the withdrawal of the UN force in the summer of 1964, fighting again broke out in the Congo. Christophe Gbenye, a Marxist who declared himself ‘President of the Congo,’ led a rebellion of fierce tribesmen calling themselves Simbas-‘lions’ in Swahili. The rebels soon captured large sections of the northern half of the country, leading foreign governments, including those of the United States and Belgium, to urge their citizens to flee the threatened areas.

To combat the rebellion, Congolese President Moise Tshombe recruited a fiery South African soldier, Major Michael Hoare, and gave him authority to raise a mercenary army of white Africans to assist the black Congolese army. Hoare would become a legend in the world of the professional soldier; during World War II he had fought in Burma with Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate, then became a professional soldier after that conflict. With his reputation already made from leading an earlier band during the Katangan secessionist revolt-in which Tshombe had been a participant-Hoare had no trouble training a 300-man unit of mostly South African ‘mercs’ that he dubbed 5 Commando. Hoare, often called ‘Mad Mike’ by those who knew him, enforced only two rules among his men-that they shaved and refrained from drinking before battle. Aside from that, he ‘cared not a whit’ what they did.

Tshombe also turned to the United States for assistance. Lessons from World War II, Korea and the French Indochina War indicated that air support and air transportation were crucial for combating a large rebel force. President Lyndon Johnson responded to Tshombe’s request for aid by sending Joint Task Force (JTF) Leo, a United States Strike Command task force consisting primarily of three Tactical Air Command C-130s and support personnel, to Leopoldville. The transports were from the 464th Troop Carrier Wing, based at tiny Pope Air Force Base (AFB), adjacent to Fort Bragg, N.C. A platoon of paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division provided protection for the C-130s while they were on the ground at remote African airstrips. A fourth C-130 was part of Leo, a ‘Talking Bird’ communications package that allowed long-range radio communications between the task force and Strike Command headquarters at McDill AFB. Fla., as well as the Pentagon, the State Department and the White House.

Another aspect of U.S. aid was a mercenary air force made up of North American T-28 Trojans and Douglas B-26 Intruders flown by Cuban expatriate pilots in the employ of a civilian corporation under contract to the Central Intelligence Agency. The Congolese air force consisted primarily of World War II-vintage North American T-6 trainers, which like the Cuban-flown T-28s, had been converted into attack planes.

In August, the Simbas captured the city of Stanleyville with its large concentration of Europeans and Americans. For a time the whites were treated relatively well. But later, with additional American-supplied firepower and airlift support, the Congolese army made steady gains against the rebel forces. As the Simbas saw the tide begin to turn against them, their radio station in Stanleyville began denouncing the United States, accusing it of sending combat troops to aid the government forces. Rebel hostility caused fear for the safety of whites in rebel-held territory, especially after news of atrocities performed by the revels against their own people reached the outside world.

While the whites were under a semblance of protection by the rebels, Stanleyville’s black residents were not, and a reign of terror began as the Simbas systematically tortured and killed prominent Congolese. Then, evidently realizing that the whites in their territory could serve as bargaining chips, the rebels began taking hostages. On September 5, U.S. Consul Michael Hoyt was taken into custody, along with other members of the consulate staff, and thrown into the city’s Central Prison. Other whites were seized. Some were thrown into the prison with the Americans, while others were held in the Victoria Hotel. Over the next two months, the Simbas arrested foreigners from as many as 20 countries, placing them under custody in hotels, prisons and military bases. The rebels began making threats that the hostages would be killed if the United States did not withdraw its support for the Congolese government.

In late October the rebels accused an American medical missionary, Dr. Paul Carlson, of being a U.S. Army major on assignment for the CIA. Carlson, with the Protestant Relief Agency, was a medical doctor who first went to the Congo on a special six-month mission, then returned in 1963 with his family. Less than a year later, after having sent his wife and four children to safety in the Central African Republic, Carlson was seized by the Simbas because (1) he owned a radio, (2) he was an American and (3) the rebels wanted hostages. Over the next few weeks, Dr. Paul Carlson’s name would be featured in the world’s headlines.

With the fate of the white hostages in doubt, the United States and Belgium tried to negotiate with the rebels. At the same time, they began planning various means of military intervention, even as the Congolese government forces launched a major offensive toward Stanleyville. Several possible schemes were put forth, including a large paratrooper assault by members of the 82nd Airborne Division, supported by heavy tactical air strikes. While military forces in the united States worked on the larger plan, the U.S. military command in Europe came up with a less involved one, calling for the use of a small force of paratroopers begin airlifted to Africa for the rescue. That plan, formulated jointly by the United States and Belgium, was given the French code name Dragon Rouge (‘red dragon’).

On November 15, Brig. Gen. Robert D. Forman, commander of the 322nd Air Division, was given word to begin preparations to airlift a force of Belgium paratroopers to the Congo for a possible rescue attempt. Forman’s command had supported the UN peacekeeping forces in the Congo from 1960 until early 1964. During those years, however, the 322nd had undergone some changes. Previously, the division had been directly under the commander of USAFE, but a reorganization of American forces in Europe led to the transfer of the division’s transfer to Military Air Transport Service a few months earlier.

Permanently assigned C-130s had been replaced by temporary duty aircraft and crews from Tactical Air Command units in the United States. In 1964, two TAC wings were supporting rotational squadrons at Evreux Fauville Airbase, France, the 317th and 464th Troop Carrier wings from Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, and Pope AFB, N.C. Rotational Squadron A, or ‘Rote Alpha,’ was made up of Pope personnel who flew the newest version of the already proven Hercules, the C-130E, while Rote Bravo was manned by Lockbourne crews and equipped with the older C-130A.

General Forman called Colonel Burgess Gradwell to Chteauroux to brief him on the upcoming mission. Gradwell, commander of Detachment One, 332nd Air Division at Evreux, would have command. Dragon Rouge, as the Americans would come to know the mission, would involve a 14-plane airlift of 600 Belgian paratroopers to Africa. Since the E-model of the Hercules featured special long-range fuel tanks, Rote Alpha would provide the planes and crews. When Gradwell got back to Evreux that night, he called in Rote Alpha commander Lt. Col. Robert A. Lindsay and the TAC liaison officer with the division, Colonel Gene Adams. Wheels were set in motion for the mission.

Before Dragon Rouge could be launched, the aircraft and crews had to be recalled from their normal missions throughout Europe. By the evening of November 16, all 15 Hercules were back at Evreux and the crews were on ‘crew rest’ for an ‘important’ mission. At 1740 Greenwich Mean Time-‘Zulu time-on November 17, the first C-130 took off from Evreux, bound for Klinebrogel, Belgium. Aboard the first plane were Colonel Gradwell, Captain Donald R. Strobaugh, commander of the 5th Aerial Port Squadron (APRON) combat control team, and sergeant Robert J. Dias, a radio repairman with the 5th APRON. Like the C-130 crews, Strobaugh had been called back to Evreux from duties elsewhere in Europe. Other than certain key officers, no one aboard the airplanes knew where they were going until after they were airborne with no problems requiring them to turn back. Each navigator had been given a sealed envelope, with instructions not to open it until the airplane’s altitude exceeded 2,000 feet.

At Klinebrogel, elements of the Belgian 1st Para-Commando Regiment, including the 1st Para-Commando Battalion, a company from the 2nd Battalion and a detachment from the 3rd, were loaded aboard the C-130s, along with their equipment. At 2240Z, the first Hercules departed Klinebrogel for a fuel stop at Morn Air Base on the southern coast of Spain, then on to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. The first airplane arrived at Ascension at 1310Z on November 18.At Ascension, Captain Strobaugh instructed the Belgians on the use of the PRC-41 and PRC-47 radio sets he had brought for Evreux for communication between the men on the ground and the planes overhead. He also instructed 21 Belgian jumpmasters on C-130 jump techniques-few of the Belgian paras had ever jumped from the Hercules-then supervised as they trained the remainder of the force.

For the next three days, the joint rescue force waited while communications were passed back and force between there and Washington by a TAC C-130 ‘Talking Bird’ that joined the mission at Ascension. On November 20, a special briefing of the various commanders was held to determine exactly how the assault was to be performed. Once it was firmed, Captain Strobaugh transmitted the plan to Washington. At 1800Z, the force was put on alert; 30 minutes later, the launch order came over the teletype. Ad hour later, at 1935Z, Chalk One (tactical airlift missions are designated by ‘chalk’ numbers, after the practice of numbering loads with chalk) departed Ascension bound for Kamina, an airfield in the southern Congo, with the other 13 C-130s right behind.

At daybreak, the first Hercules arrived at Kamina after a nine-hour flight across part of the Atlantic and halfway across Africa. The field was obscured by fog, but English-speaking air traffic controllers directed each plane to the airport in turn. Once the force was on the ground more briefings were held, including an update on the mission’s status by Colonel Clayton Issacson, commander of JTF Leo and now in overall command of Dragon Rouge and other activities in the Congo. Then the Dragon Rouge force went into another waiting period while Belgium and the United States continued their efforts to win the hostages’ freedom through negotiations.

On Monday evening, November 23, the rescue force relaxed at Kamina while watching what one critic in the crowd described as a ‘terrible movie’ in one of the hangars. At 2230Z (2030 local time), the teletype machines in the ‘Talking Bird’ began clattering as messages came in from Washington and Brussels. Dragon Rouge was on, with takeoff scheduled for 0045Z, so as to arrive over the Stanleyville airport at dawn. The first C-130, flown by Captain Huey Long’s Standardizations/Evacuation crew from the 777th Troop Carrier Squadron, lifted off form Kamina’s long runway right on time, followed at 20-second intervals by the other 11 planes of the assault force. The sixth airplane in the formation, piloted by Captain William ‘Mack’ Secord, lost a 20-man life raft from a wing storage compartment after takeoff. Secord left the formation and went back to Kamina for a spare airplane. The rest of the Dragon Rouge formation proceeded northbound at high altitude, following the Congo River, descending to treetop altitudes as the planes neared revel territory.

Nearing Stanleyville, lead navigator John Coble led the formation south of the city, still at low altitude, so as to approach from the west. As the formation reached the one-minute warning point, two B-26s made a low pass over the airport. Laurent and 299 of his men jumped over Stanleyville airport exactly at dawn.

The jump plane crews were briefed to expect only small-arms fire over the airport. Instead, they were greeted by tracers from Chinese-made 12.7mm antiaircraft machine guns. In spite of the unexpected fire, the American pilots held their course as they dropped their troopers right on the narrow drop zone beside the runway, then came back around for another pass to allow the 20 jumpmasters to exit, along with the bundles of extra equipment. Only the first five airplanes in the formation dropped at that time: Dragons Six and Seven were rigged to either drop or land with equipment (Secord’s Dragon Six had gone back to Kamina and was still en route), while Dragons Eight, Nine and Eleven orbited nearly, their troops at the ready to jump in if needed, or land when the field was secure.

Once on the ground, the Para-Commandos began rushing to secure the field so rescue force aircraft could land. Within 30 minutes the Belgians managed to eliminate all resistance at the airport and within 10 minutes had cleared away about 300 water-filled 55-gallon drums and 11 wheel-less vehicles that had been placed on the runway as obstacles. To Captain Strobaugh, who was serving aboard Dragon Nine as jumpmaster, the Belgians’ efforts were ‘nothing short of miraculous.’ At 0450Z, the first C-130 landed at Stanleyville and discharged a load of equipment and troops, then took off again to fly to Leopoldville-where the drop planes had already gone-for refueling and to await word to return to Stanleyville and evacuate refugees. Dragon One remained overhead, serving as a command ship for Colonel Gradwell. Colonel Issacson also made an appearance over Stanleyville in one of the JTF Leo aircraft, using the call sign ‘Dragon Chief.’

After Dragon Seven landed and took off again, Dragons Eight, Nine, Eleven and Ten followed in that order. Each crew offloaded their troopers and then took off again for Leopoldville; no more than three airplanes were to be on the ground at one time. The last two planes, Six and Twelve, flown respectively by Secord and Captain B.J. Nunnally, were told to remain on the ground to bring out the first hostages when they were brought out of town. Dragon One continued orbiting over the airport at 2,000 feet. Navigator Coble was uncomfortable about being so low over a combat zone; he had served four temporary duty tours in South Vietnam flying C-123s. The rest of the crew laughed, calling him ‘combat happy’-until they suddenly felt and heard the sound of bullets striking the airplane. Seven rounds hit the Hercules, knocking out hydraulics and leaving two large holes in the wing fuel tanks. With Gradwell’s approval, Long headed his C-130 for Leopold for repairs.

Once the airport was secure, the Belgian rescue force headed for downtown Stanleyville, where the hostages were known to be held. The hostages themselves were awakened by the wounds of the battle at the airport and the alarmed Simbas who came after them shouting: ‘Your brothers have come from the sky! Now you will be killed!’ Dressed in manes of monkey fur and feathers, the Simbas bashed down the doors of the Victoria Hotel with spears and gun butts, and then roughly hustled their white hostages out into the streets. For more than an hour, the hostages had been hearing sounds of airplanes engines and gunfire while others not in captivity saw parachutes falling form the sky over the airport. Knowing that the Simbas had threatened to kill everyone under their control in the event of a rescue attempt, they were fearful.

Now the Simbas ordered the 250 whites from the Victoria out into the broad streets of the city and began marching them toward the city park and toward the Patrice Lumumba ‘monument’-a large photograph of the late prime minister-where the rebels had already slain more than 100 Congolese during recent weeks. The hostages still entertained some hope; they were being marched in the direction of the airport, leading some to believe that the rebel commander intended to turn them over to the rescue force unharmed. Then, rebel-operated Radio Stanleyville shrilled out a message: ‘Ciyuga! Ciyuga! Kill! Kill! Kill them all! Have no scruples! Men, women, children-kill them all!’

Colonel Joseph Opepe, who had befriended some of the hostages, tried in vain to stop the Simbas from carrying out the orders screamed over the radios. Many of the Simbas were drunk from a mixture of alcohol and hemp. According to some survivors, the signal to fire came from a deaf-mute ex-boxer known as ‘Major Bubu,’ who served as a personal bodyguard to rebel defense minister Gaston Soumialot. Whoever gave the word, the rebels suddenly started firing into the assembled hostages with rifles and automatic weapons. The firing was not random-the rebels deliberately chose women and children as their first targets. One of those who fell was Dr. Paul Carlson, shot as he tried to run to safety.

After an initial volley, the rebels temporarily ceased firing. Marcel Debuisson, a Belgian engineer, heard them say, ‘Now we’ll turn them over and finish off the ones left alive.’ Debuisson prayed for a miracle and his prayers were answered. ‘To my amazement,’ he told news reporters afterward, ‘It happened. Round the corner of the square walked a single Belgian paratrooper, submachine gun on his hip.’ The rebels saw the Belgian red beret as well; immediately they turned and fled.What the Belgians found in Sergeant Kitele Avenue was not a pretty sight. About 30 whites had been killed, while dozens of others were wounded. Two Americans were among the slain: Dr. Carlson and Phyliss Rine, a missionary from Ohio. The sight of the bloodshed left the Belgians angered, as would be the white mercenaries who came into the city a few hours later, spearheading a ground assault from the east. For the remainder of the afternoon, it was open season on Simbas in Stanleyville as the rebels paid in blood for their folly.

Back at the airport, the situation was still far from calm. More than 300 rebels occupied positions near the runway. As many hostages were freed, they were returned to the airport for evacuation. The first group arrived at the airport around 0945 and was loaded aboard the two waiting C-130s. The most badly wounded were loaded on Dragon Twelve, the hospital plane. Many of the hostages were wounded, while all were terrified and in a state of shock. Captain Mack Secord took off first with what he reckoned as ‘around a hundred’ hostages aboard. As he taxied for takeoff, the plane passed by a clump of elephant grass. Three Simbas leaped from the grass and ran alongside the plane, trying to force their way inside, although nobody aboard it was aware of it at the time. One of the rebels fired a burst from his submachine gun straight up into the wing. Secord took off with fuel streaming from the wing and headed for Leopoldville, where he landed with no flaps, no prop-reverse and on only three engines.

Although the Belgians spoke English, they were not used to speaking with rapid-talking Americans, many of whom were Southerners with distinct accents. To eliminate possible confusion, Colonel Laurent asked Captain Strobaugh and Sergeant Dias to take charge of communications with the American aircrewmen and radio operators.

With the airport secure and the freed hostages beginning to make their way there, Strobaugh requested an airlift to take them out, along with air support for the strike forces. In addition to the American C-130s, Belgian Douglas DC-6s joined the airlift. Several airplanes landed with bullet holes received while on landing approach. Periodically throughout the day, Strobaugh had to direct aircraft to orbit nearby while the Belgians repulsed attacks on the airport. As the last C-130 of the day landed at 1545Z, impacting mortar rounds signaled the start of a 150-man rebel assault on the west end of the airport. The Belgians repulsed five separate attacks as the airplane landed on the east end of the runway. Thirty minutes later, a Belgian DC-6 came in with a damaged engine that forced it to remain on the ground overnight.

Rebel opposition continued in the vicinity of the Stanleyville airport on November 25 as snipers took potshots at Belgian and Congolese national troops. Early that morning, sniper fire killed one of the Belgian officers from the stranded DC-6. Less than an hour later, a sniper’s bullets hit the control tower. On the 26th, the evacuation of whites and some Congolese from the city resumed. Over the two-day period 41 sorties by the American C-130s and Belgian DC-6s brought out more than 1,800 American and European whites, as well as some 300 Congolese.

Late in the evening, seven C-130s flew into Stanleyville to pick up troops for another rescue mission to the town of Paulis, 225 miles to the northwest. Early on the morning of Thanksgiving Day, the seven-plane flight took off on Operation Dragon Noir, a repeat of Tuesday’s mission. Arriving over Paulis at daybreak, the crews found their objective enshrouded in fog. The Belgians jumped anyway, making their descent into mist that obscured the ground. Every trooper landed on the designated drop zone. As soon as the fog lifted, the C-130s began landing on the dirt runway, their propellers stirring up a thick red cloud of dist as the pilots brought them into reverse after touchdown. The scene was one that would be repeated by many of those some crews in the same planes in Vietnam, where American involvement was starting to escalate. One pilot, Major Joe Hildebrand, reversed his prop while the plane was still airborne; the resulting hard landing flamed out all four engines of his ‘Herky-bird.’

At Paulis, the paratroopers found the condition of the hostages to be as bad as-or worse than-at Stanleyville. An American missionary had been systematically tortured and beaten until death mercifully brought relief. Meanwhile, back at Stanleyville, the Belgians and mercenaries who made their way into the city shortly after the parachute assault found more white victims. A missionary family from New Zealand was brought to the airport. The father had been slain, the mother cut with machetes, while the two young daughters had scalp wounds inflicted by the Simbas. Only the two sons were spared injury.

Such senseless carnage caused the mercenaries and even the well-disciplined Belgian paratroopers to lose their restraint. Most rebels they encountered were slain on the spot. Congolese government soldiers frequently exhibited the same lack of concern for human life as their brothers on the other side, in one case kicking to death a Simba ‘priest’ captured near the airport.

On the evening of the 27th, the last Belgian troopers were withdrawn from Stanleyville and flown to Kamina to begin the first leg of their journey home. Their departure was somewhat premature, largely due to a huge outcry of discontent in the Third World over Belgian and American intervention in Africa, as demonstrators made their feelings known. Sometimes the demonstrations got out of hand, as in Cairo, Egypt, where the new John F. Kennedy library was burned to the ground in protest over the white presence in Africa. A well-organized propaganda effort in Communist and Third World nations placed the blame for the atrocities in Stanleyville on American and Belgian shoulders. Some nations, including China, pledged aid to the Congo rebels.

But even though the fighting in the Congo would continue for several months, with many white still to be slain by the rebels, Operation Dragon Rouge was over. On the morning of November 29, the rescue force departed Africa for Ascension. From there, it flew to the Canary Islands, then on to Melsbroek Airfield, outside of Brussels. There the rescuers were welcomed home by several hundred high-ranking officers, news reporters, television camera crews and relatives. King Baudouin received the Belgian paratroopers and American aircrews at a review on the flight line, and presented Colonels Laurent and Gradwell with the Order of Leopold II. After the ceremony, the Americans were taken on a tour of the city. Later, the American crewmen would all be awarded Air Medals for their role in the mission, while the 1964 McKay Trophy, an annual award for the most meritorious flight of the year by U.S. Air Force planes, would be awarded to the Dragon Rouge force.

For the American and Belgian military personnel involved in Dragon Rouge, the operation was one that all would remember with pride. Even thought the rescue was not without cost to the Belgians, the mission had been an overall success, resulting in the release of hundreds of hostages who doubtless would have been killed had it not occurred.

Kentucky-based contributor Sam McGowan flew C-130s as a loadmaster with the USAF in Vietnam. For further reading, try Save the Hostages! by David Deed; and McGowan’s own book, The C-130 Hercules Tactical Aircraft Missions, 1956-1975.

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