True Story: The Congo Op


In the middle to late 1960’s the Soviet Union was trying hard to gain a foothold in various sectors of the less-developed world. The drive for independence among former colonial countries in Africa had been very attractive for Russian interests. The transfer of power from Belgian to now African-controlled Congo had become a natural field of political battle.

The initial victory over leftist leaders in most of the Congo deteriorated into open conflict in the eastern portion of the country. Not wanting to commit regular military forces into the field, a movement began in Allied countries to support anti-communist forces loyal to the ex-colonial Belgium.

Mercenaries from Europe were recruited to apply military pressure and secure the valuable copper-producing areas to the East. Cold economic strategic interests were clearly paramount. Aside from the larger issues involved, the recruitment of paid volunteers from various European countries attracted a mixed group of adventurers. 

The son of the chairman of the South African Stock Exchange had left his post as an officer in the elite British cavalry regiment, “The Blues,” to join the mercenaries battling against the Soviet-backed African rebels in the eastern Congo. Technically, Gary Wilton had not resigned his commission in one of the two regiments that comprise the Queen’s Household Cavalry but nonetheless had taken an “extended leave” without authorization. To make this long story shorter let’s just say this action had created possible international implications as well as considerable family distress.

Enter an experienced former U.S. Army intelligence officer who had “worked” Africa quietly for some years and recently had moved on to become a much better paid civilian contractor for the Pentagon. He was thought to be able to handle this diplomatically embarrassing affair because of his previously proven ability to avoid press coverage of his operations. At the very least, he should be able to get the young British officer, Lt. Wilton the hell out of wherever he was in the Congo (Zaire), the former Belgian colony. 

The South Africans did not want to get directly involved. Wilton, after all, was a British officer, though South African born. The Brits had their hands full with evolving their relationship with their own former colonies in East Africa and didn’t need to have to deal with some stupid adventurous lieutenant from the Blues. From the start, there were complications due to the supposed non-involvement of the U.S. Government. The British Embassy had to be informed because they represented South African interests in the Congo. Unfortunately, the American Embassy was kept officially in the dark for reasons that are unknown even today. Unofficially, the Chief of Station (COS) was personally briefed. The American ambassador was kept in the dark to preserve deniability. At least that was how the escapade was to be explained if the complicated affair was “blown.”

To add to this purposeful complication, Lt. Wilton’s father arrived in the Congo capital via London carrying a letter from his son’s frantic mother and a box of cookies she had baked. How sweet! Meanwhile, with some clever questioning of journalists who actually had seen the British officer a few weeks before, it was determined that young Wilton had been located near Kamina airbase. Furthermore, he was recovering from being shot in the hand – by whom, no one knew. At any rate, it was a place to start. Leaving the elder Mr. Wilton to fend for himself with the aid of the British diplomats, our American hopped a flight on Air Congo to Kamina carrying the cookies and the letter with him.

Air Congo hadn’t changed its name after independence and had a highly flexible schedule, but the plane took off nearly on time and landed reasonably well at the large airfield at Kamina. The ‘American’ had no clue where to go after landing. Luckily, a Belgian aid worker solved his problem by telling him there was some sort of encampment up a road leading out of the base. After slogging determinedly for several kilometers, the American came upon a Congolese soldier armed with an FN rifle and a bottle of beer. Enjoying his status as the only guard on duty, the soldier demanded the identity papers of the new arrival. Unfortunately, the soldier only spoke what sounded like Lingala, the lingua franca of the region. The American replied in bad French that he was an American general. The soldier understood enough to cause him to snap to attention nearly dropping his rifle while attempting to hold on to the beer bottle and salute. Sometimes it’s just hard to get priorities straight.

Eventually, using a combination of his bad French and something approximating even worse made-up Lingala along with a great deal of gesticulation, the American set forth up the road in the direction the soldier indicated. A few kilometers down the road was a sign that said, “5th Commando.” This was the unit to which Wilton purportedly was assigned. The very first European mercenary that crossed his path confirmed in English that Lt. Wilton was over at the mess hall, the largest building in the compound. ‘Elation’ may be too strong a word, but the American certainly was relieved to have finally found his target. The meeting with Wilton was sort of anticlimax. The young lieutenant was easily convinced by the letter and cookies that the American really was a “friend of the family.” The fact was that all his comrades were happy just to meet someone who had just come from civilization (their word).

Getting Wilton to leave wasn’t difficult. According to him, he had accidentally shot himself in the hand while cleaning his revolver. No one seemed to question his explanation. The impression that the American had was that several of his compatriots wished they had thought of the shooting accident device earlier by themselves. This was clearly not a collection of “happy troopers” but none could figure a way out. The commanding officer, Captain Siegfried Mueller, was a hard case who proudly wore a German Iron Cross that, as Mueller said, came from his excellence during the battle for Smolensk against the Russians twenty-plus years before during WW2. The timing seemed to be right, even if the heroic story that accompanied it did not.

However, Captain Mueller was the key and the American knew it. He would have to have the German’s agreement before snatching Wilton away either back to the Blues or Mom’s South African cooking. It really didn’t matter which. That would be up to Wilton. In any case, a deal would have to be made with Herr Captain Mueller. And then the way opened up.

Wilton told the American that his commander might let him go if the other wounded went with him. That was tricky because the captain might have his own plans for using the wounded as an excuse for avoiding further combat. The American learned that Mueller had a footlocker full of Congolese francs that he thought could be exchanged openly if he could just get to East Africa. He couldn’t leave the unit behind and he couldn’t take them with him. The pile of Congolese money had come from a raid they had made in Albertville in which they just happened to inherit the money deposited in the bank in that city

The understanding of Mueller’s own desires was gained from talks with Lt. Pat Cullen, formerly of the Rhodesian Rifles and a friend of Gary Wilton. Cullen also needed medical help for damage to his eyes caused by a nearby shotgun blast in a fracas just after Albertville. All in all, there were about six other relatively lightly wounded mercenaries that could be transported out if Mueller gave his okay and transportation could be found. First was the job of convincing the German captain.

Siegfried Mueller was less of a problem than originally thought. When it was explained by the American that the Captain’s movements were being held back by his wounded soldiers – and that it was important that he (Mueller) exfiltrate to East Africa to seek more recruits, intelligence, supplies, whatever, the Captain was very willing to turn over his wounded to the considerate American. In truth, Wilton and Cullen were his two principal junior officers. With them out of the way, the Captain was relatively free of any educated encumbrances. Of course, there was no mention of the fact that the trunk full of the Bank of Albertville proceeds would go along on the proposed trek east.

The next thing on the American’s “to do” list was the matter of transportation of his soon-to-be charges, obviously including his principal target, Lt. Wilton. With the assistance of one of the unit’s truck drivers, the American headed back to Kamina Airbase at which he originally had landed. There he located a C-47 that the U.S Air Force had succeeded in flying in presumably delivering supplies to friendly Congolese government units. After searching around for about fifteen minutes, the American was able to find one of the C-47 pilots. The latter was surprised to find another countryman in what appeared to be khaki civilian garb wearing jump boots. However, the pilot was less than cooperative when asked if he was returning to Kinshasa and would he mind taking a few passengers. At first, he was adamantly negative. Then the American pulled out his old dog tags from around his neck. “You will take me and my men back to Kinshasa,” said the American in a ‘command’ voice that could not be mistaken for anything other than considerably superior rank. The ploy doesn’t always work, but it did this time. The pilot, a 1st Lieutenant, said he might be able to accomplish this modest task involving “only a few wounded.”

Organizing himself and the eight wounded mercenaries, the American set forth thirty minutes later from the 5th Commando Headquarters. after a brief final “consultation” with a very happy Captain Mueller. The group arrived back at the airbase only to find they absolutely could not bring any firearms or any type of explosives with them. After much grumbling, the mercenaries unpacked their duffel bags. The result was a pile of numerous weapons, ammo, and grenades they had planned to take with them. The plane was already revving up when they all piled in. As the C-47 slowly taxied into take-off position, the American looked around and was unable to find Gary Wilton. “Where the hell is Wilton?” he shouted over the engine noise. “He went back to get the photos those Paris Match people took of him,” was the answering chorus.

There it was. The whole damn operation down the drain because Wilton wanted his photos. Quickly the American struggled up to the front of the plane hopeful of getting the pilots to delay their takeoff. A firm negative was all that produced. They had had enough of these mercenaries and the mysterious American with dog tags. Then out of the blue came a shout, “He’s coming!” The American, aided by Lt. Pat Cullen, was able to open the door of the moving aircraft and drag in Gary Wilton grasping his precious photos as the truck that brought him pulled away from the moving C-47. Wilton was laughing and all smiles, although he complained about how they had hurt his wounded hand as he was dragged aboard. The American could barely speak in his complete fury as the plane soon became airborne – heading back to Kinshasa – with its highly questionable cargo. Mission accomplished, Sonofabitch!

This story ends with Lt. Gary Wilton reunited with his father. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy carefully ignored everything, and the British First Secretary awarded a medal made out of the bottom of a beer can to the American for bringing back the long-lost Household Cavalry officer. What happened after that has been lost to history, though it was rumored that Lt. Gary Wilton was formally discharged from The Blues and ended up recklessly driving race cars in Johannesburg. The American returned to the States and his next assignment.

(As noted in the title, this story is true. The names have been changed to protect the so-called innocent. One wonders about Siegfried Mueller’s reaction when he found out the Congolese francs in his footlocker were worthless. Apparently, it did not stop him from writing a book.)