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Captured by the Eritrean Liberation Front

Madote History
Source
Written by Ron Dolecki


                                                                        
I went to Ethiopia in 1964 with the US Army's 64th Engineer Battalion in support of Army Map Service (Special Foreign Activity). My overall unit was simply called "Ethiopia-US Mapping Mission."  It was headquartered in Addis Ababa.  My specific job title was "field classification specialist," which meant that I was tasked with collecting a variety of mapping data, such as place names, provincial boundaries, river/stream status (perennial or intermittent), bridge dimensions, road types, locations of landmark features (churches, mosques, grain mills, water wells, etc.), and other significant items.

Field classifiers covered the territories to be mapped as much as possible in 4 x 4 army trucks, then flew into the more inaccessible areas aboard UH-1B helicopters.  We frequently navigated using aerial photographs because most of the available maps were outdated, incomplete, or grossly inaccurate.  Much of our navigational expertise resulted from on-the-job training.  For example, I was driven to an airfield where a helicopter was warming up, ordered to get on board, and told to navigate over a designated strip of land shown on aerial photographs handed to me a few hours earlier.  I wondered how a 19-year-old kid getting on a helicopter for the first time in his life with no training whatsoever as a navigator was going to tell an experienced pilot where to fly without getting lost.  That was the sink or swim method taken to the extreme.  But somehow I did it - for several months.  I got us lost a few times, but not hopelessly.

On the brighter side, exploring Ethiopia (now Eritrea) led me to develop a sense of awe and respect for that land of remarkable contrasts.  Lush, cool highlands of incredible beauty could suddenly give way to scorching deserts, where nothing seemed to live.  Escarpments with sheer drops of two thousand feet and mazes of canyons were plentiful.  I really enjoyed the "sightseeing"…that is until July 12th, 1965.  That was a day I'll never forget.

On that fateful day, I was part of a three-man helicopter crew that was captured by guerillas, later taken to Sudan, and given up for dead.  The pilot was Chief Warrant Officer Jack Kalmbach from Tacoma, Washington; I was an SP/4 (E-4) from Oil City, Pennsylvania; and the remaining crewman was a native Ethiopian hired as an interpreter.  His name was Habte Mesmer, but everyone just called him “Sam.”  Neither the pilot nor I knew that an armed rebellion was under way in certain parts of Eritrea (part of Ethiopia at that time, but now an independent country) when we began a routine mapping project there.  Ironically, Sam knew more than we did about the dangers in the particular area we were going to, just north of a town called Keren.  I was conversing with him in the helicopter before take-off on the morning of our capture, and he was visibly upset about the prospect of flying there.  He was especially forceful in warning me that “We shouldn't be going to that area; it's too dangerous!”  I responded to his apprehension in a half-mocking and half-joking fashion when I quipped, “What’s wrong, Sam, aren’t you ready to die?”  I frivolously dismissed Sam’s warnings because I had flown to many wild and remote areas before in complete safety, so I didn't think this flight would be any different.  Besides, our own army hadn't told us that area was especially dangerous, and no precautionary measures were provided or even recommended.  When I later recalled that conversation with Sam, I was intrigued by his prophetic warning and my flippant, ignorant response.

So, we flew to an area north of Keren and after our second landing to collect mapping data, we were ambushed by thirty heavily armed guerillas. At first, I didn’t even realize we were being ambushed.  The eruption of gunfire made me scan the surrounding hills thinking that a local firefight had broken out between feuding clans.  I had heard about such fighting in other parts of Ethiopia, so I thought it happened here too.  Then terror struck as I saw machine gun bullets churning the ground progressively closer to me.  Before I could take cover, I spotted a rifleman near the tail boom of the helicopter carefully aiming his weapon at me.  My entire body stiffened in anticipation of the bullet that was sure to come.  But the rifleman held his fire.  Quickly, more shooters emerged from the brush, and one of them knocked the interpreter to the ground.  Another guerilla raised his rifle overhead to bash the interpreter’s skull, but the deadly blow was stopped in mid-motion by two more riflemen, who may have realized that their group could not talk to us without the interpreter.  I had not seen the helicopter pilot during the whole ambush episode, so I thought he was dead.  However, he was soon escorted to my side of the helicopter, alive and well.  The three of us were then ordered, through the dazed interpreter, to undress so the guerillas could search for hidden weapons.  Our captors held bayonets to our throats as we complied.


By this time, all of the guerillas were in the open and began to loot and destroy the helicopter.   Some were smashing windows and clubbing the fuselage with their rifle butts; others were cutting out the cloth interior with their bayonets.  All the while they were hooting and hollering like a mob of rampaging lunatics. I could not imagine what they were going to do to us while they were in such a crazed, destructive frenzy.  I was so frightened my knees started knocking.  Oddly, I remembered only seeing knees knocking in cartoons on TV and had always thought that was because such extreme expressions of fear only occurred in the world of make-believe.  But this was real life.


To my astonishment, the guerillas magically composed themselves, told us to get dressed, and reminded us to obey their commands without hesitation.  They identified themselves as the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and told us we were being held as spies.  The spy charges seemed preposterous, but we did have a stack of aerial photographs of their territory, many with observational notes on them.  To make matters worse, each photograph had a bold title block reading “Ethiopia-US Mapping Mission,” thus proving to our captors which “side” we were on.  The guerillas now threatened to shoot us if we became troublesome and they escorted us away from the ambush site.  As we left the area, I could see smoke rising a short distance behind us, indicating that our helicopter was being burned.  We then began a 12-day, 150-mile forced march to the neighboring country of Sudan.


Once we settled into a routine with our captors, I began to watch them closely.  They were short, lean men with chiseled features, probably spanning the ages of 17 to 50.  They were well disciplined, wore no symbols of rank, and gave few indications of who was in charge.  Their numbers sometimes swelled noticeably as they rendezvoused with other insurgents, who quietly slipped away after a day or two.  The largest number of guerillas I counted in one place at any time was 75.  They carried an assortment of small arms, such as American-made M-1 Garands and M-1 carbines, most likely taken from Ethiopian soldiers killed in battle; communist-made CZ-52 and Moisin-Nagant M44 rifles, probably smuggled from Sudan; a belt-fed light machine gun; and a few British-made Lanchester sub-machine guns.  I only saw them display a flag once.  It was Somali.  Eritrea didn’t have its own flag yet.


Our daily food ration consisted of foul-smelling water and some type of sweetened tea, but no solid food.  We usually traveled at night to avoid the oppressive daytime heat (US Army search parties recorded temperatures in excess of 120 degrees) and possible detection by searchers.  During the first 10 days of captivity, we walked across the northern tip of Ethiopia, where we frequently heard and observed search planes.  However, the planes could not spot us because we were always forced at gunpoint to take cover.  On one occasion, though, an Ethiopian fighter plane caught all of us in the open but flew by too fast to see us  (this episode is described in more detail later).  Eventually, the search planes stopped coming and American newspapers reported that we were probably dead.  The ELF took us to many small villages whose inhabitants seemed cooperative but anxious for us to move on.  We managed to avoid a few potentially disastrous encounters with large roving units of the Ethiopian army and eventually crossed the border into Sudan, where the ELF enjoyed sanctuary.


Once we crossed the border into Sudan, our captors became visibly relieved.  They stopped posting sentries when resting or eating.  Better yet, they stopped watching us closely.  They probably thought that we would never try to escape in such a vast, inhospitable wilderness.  However, the pilot, interpreter, and I decided that this was our best opportunity for an escape.  We also realized that all three of us could not disappear at once.  That would be too obvious.  So we decided that one of us might be able to slip away undetected for quite a while if the other two remained in camp in plain sight.


I was selected to escape because I was the youngest and strongest.  I had just turned 20.  The pilot was 37 and had been feverishly ill for a day or two.  The interpreter was 21 and reluctant to escape by himself.  I raised the possibility that my colleagues could be shot if I successfully escaped, but they insisted that I not dwell on such a notion.  They were convinced that somebody had to get away to report our border crossing.  For what it’s worth, the Army Code of Conduct pounded into each soldier during basic training also mandated that prisoners attempt escapes.  We agreed that we had to make something happen, and that I could best help by telling searchers where to look.  So the next day, while our captors were preoccupied with cooking and other chores, I sneaked behind some bushes thinking that if I were spotted, I’d just claim I needed to urinate.  If I were not spotted, I would literally run like my life depended on it.  I escaped unnoticed and later learned that I wasn’t missed for about an hour.  When the ELF realized that I was gone, they became frantic.  They huddled my fellow crewmen on the ground, and put them under guard.  They started a search for me, and fired several shots (which I'm glad I didn't hear because I would have assumed my crewmates were the targets) before giving up.  They told the pilot that they found and killed me, but the pilot suspected this was a trick to scare him.  The pilot and interpreter were then beaten as a result of my escape, but not seriously injured.


My freedom as an escapee was instantly exhilarating.  But I knew that this freedom would be fleeting if I couldn’t evade the ELF on their own turf.  I headed east toward Ethiopia, where I thought my only chance of rescue would be.  However, I didn’t know where the border was because such a desolate area had no markers.  I moved on rocky ground as much as possible so I wouldn’t leave a trail.  After a few hours of fast-paced travel, I stumbled onto another ELF guerilla camp and hid behind some vegetation to assess the situation.  Fortunately, those people knew nothing of my presence and had no guards posted that I could see.  Their relaxed demeanor suggested that I was still in Sudan.  I quietly walked a wide loop around their camp and continued east.


Eventually the sun set, and I had to contend with the darkest night I had ever seen.  There was no ambient light from any city and no starlight from a nearly overcast sky.  I was truly immersed in a disorienting darkness that grew blacker by the hour.  That’s when a pack of prowling hyenas appeared.  Their eyes reflected light from some unknown source, revealing the high degree of danger building around me.  They completely surrounded me and yelped excitedly as if they sensed that a meal was at hand.  If I sat down to rest, the hyenas closed in.  If I stood, they stopped in their tracks.  If I walked, they followed at a greater distance, but then I couldn’t see where I was stepping or determine my direction of travel.  I was afraid I might step off a cliff, or walk deeper into Sudan.  These were really frightening possibilities, but the stalking hyenas left no alternative because I knew that once they attacked, they would swarm over me with jaws that can easily crush a man’s bones.   So I kept walking over unseen ground toward some random destination in a desperate attempt to stay alive.   That’s when I began to second-guess the decision to escape; if I had just stayed with my colleagues, I wouldn’t be in such dire straits.  I tripped a few times, and consequently emboldened the hyenas to move closer.  I really didn’t know why they hesitated to attack, because all the odds were in their favor.  Maybe they were just being overly cautious because man is not their natural prey.  Nevertheless, I was beginning to believe that I would not live through that night.


As I continued to walk, I bumped into a wall of prickly thorn bushes.  A man, probably awakened by the raucous hyenas, pulled me behind the bushes, which were actually part of a circular barrier around his hut, where he and his cattle were bedded for the night.  He lit a small flickering fire, and I tried to explain with hand gestures what happened to me.  He let me sleep by the fire.  However, at dawn, he vehemently gestured for me to leave (the ELF probably would beat or kill him if they caught him helping me).  When I looked around to get my bearings in the morning light, my heart nearly stopped.  This was the only native hut for miles around.  If I had walked 50 feet to the right or left during my trek in the dark, I would have missed this refuge in the hinterland and surely would have perished in the jaws of hyenas.


The sun had risen over a distant mountain peak, giving me a perfect landmark for traveling east.  In addition, I thought I could spend the next night in the rocky foothills of that mountain, where I’d be safe from marauding animals.  Later I spotted a break in the mountain chain, so I also had a potential path through that natural barrier if needed.  What I didn’t realize, though, was the true distance to the mountain; it was far beyond a one-day hike, especially in my fatigued condition.  Nevertheless, I trudged eastward for several hours in the stifling, strength-sapping heat.  My clothes became drenched with sweat, clinging to my body like a second skin.  My saliva dried to the consistency of paste, which I had to skim off the roof of my mouth periodically to make breathing easier.  I cursed the sun and the hellish condition it created in that torrid land.  Then I began to stagger when I realized I would not reach my mountain goal that day.













Jack Kalmbach reunites with  Dick Birk, Phil Pitts, "Pat" Patterson and Habte"Sam" Mesmer.



Just then, I chanced upon a well with a pool of water at ground level.  I never saw a well anywhere in Africa with such easy access to its water.  Africans typically needed various types of retrieval systems to lift water out of deep wells.  I buried my face in the water and drank with reckless abandon.  I didn’t care what kind of disease I might contract later from possible bacterial pollutants; I would live a while longer.  I drank all I could, then splashed my body to cool it down.  I looked around, coming to the conclusion that I never would have seen this well if I had been 50 feet to the right or left of it -- just like the chance-encounter with the native hut the previous night.  God must have been with me.


I knew I couldn’t remain at the well much longer because it had to be an important rest stop for the ELF in such a forbidding environment.  I resumed walking in a dangerously weakened condition and fell unconscious by late afternoon from exhaustion and the relentless heat.  I may have been hallucinating or just groggy when I eventually opened my eyes and saw the blurry figure of a goat herder (complete with goats) standing over me, mumbling something incomprehensible.  We locked eyes for a few moments, then he moved on.  After I became fully alert, I looked around but saw no one.  Somehow I gathered the strength to resume walking and at dusk approached a small village, but I was convinced that, like the goat herder I thought I saw earlier, none of these people were going to help me.  I was wrong.  The villagers summoned me to their huts, gave me water, and helped me to the ground as I collapsed.   Later, I successfully explained my situation to them in charade-like fashion.  They let me sleep on a mat beside an overnight fire while they continuously jabbered, probably wondering what to do with me.  They must have discussed the possibility of retribution by the ELF against their village if they were caught assisting me.  Nevertheless, the next morning a young man from the village led me to a remote border post where a group of Sudanese police seemed to know who I was.  They drove me to a walled compound in the town of Kassala, where other police questioned me for hours while supplying copious amounts of clean, cold water.  I remember being mesmerized by the clarity of that water.  I could see the bottom of the cup it was in.


Eventually, I was flown to a hospital at Kagnew Station in Asmara, Ethiopia, for medical care and rest.  I was debriefed in the hospital by a U.S. Army General who wanted to know how the ELF operated and where they took us.  I described what happened and tried my best to plot our travel route on a map.  Following that, hospital technicians did presumptive tests on me for malaria, schistosomiasis, and whatever else they feared I might have contracted.  I had lost 15 pounds and was dehydrated, but I didn’t catch any exotic diseases.  The technicians asked if I had bouts of diarrhea while in captivity, and I replied that I did not urinate or defecate the entire two weeks I was out there.  This amazed everyone because my body must have been so desperate for nourishment that no waste was created from anything I ingested.  The next day, I learned from the hospital staff that my two helicopter crewmates were unexpectedly released by the ELF near an obscure Sudanese border village called Adaida.  I don’t know if my escape had anything to do with their release; I’ve heard conflicting theories about that.  It’s academic anyway.  The three of us were just glad to be free.


On the home front, my parents had received the usual generic government telegrams expressing regret about this unfortunate incident.  But newspaper reports had been spreading detailed, morbid misinformation.  One story suggested that we had been killed by the ELF and eaten by lions and leopards, so no bodies would be recovered.  My anguished parents didn’t know who or what to believe.  When I finally phoned, I assured them that even the hyenas didn’t want me.






The Army sent me home for a few weeks to decompress.  They were worried about my psychological condition because I had become aloof and unable to concentrate at work.  This was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress.  The Army warned me not to discuss my ordeal with the news media because the insurgency in Ethiopia was a source of embarrassment for Emperor Haile Selassie, an important U.S. ally in Africa.  I didn’t care about the news media anyway.  I kept dwelling on the surreal discovery of the native hut in the dark, the unusual water well at ground level, and the friendly natives who defied the ELF by ultimately leading me to rescue.  The randomness of these three critical events held my undivided attention.  My parents called them miracles resulting from all the prayers offered for my safety.  I accepted their explanation because it was the only one that made sense to me.


I returned to my field camp in Ethiopia to complete my tour of duty (another nine months), and was promoted to SP/5 (E-5). I periodically flew again with my former fellow captives on subsequent mapping projects, but only by coincidence.  The makeup of our helicopter crews was based upon many variables.


Near the end of my field duty, an Ethiopian Air Force officer visited the camp in response to an invitation from the US Army.  When the officer learned of my presence in the camp, he requested a meeting.  He told me he was a pilot looking for me during my ordeal, and asked if I had seen any Ethiopian search aircraft.  I told him about the day an Ethiopian fighter plane swooped down on us like a bolt from the blue while we were crossing a large field.  The plane was flying so low I could see the ordnance under the wings.  We weren’t spotted, though, because the aircraft never returned.  The pilot asked why I didn’t signal the aircraft, which could have begun strafing and bombing the whole area.  I was incredulous.  That airplane surprised us; I had no time to signal it.  Besides, how could I signal any airplane under the watchful eyes of 30 heavily armed guerillas?  Did the pilot think the guerillas would say “Go ahead and signal that airplane; we don’t mind getting bombed?”  Also, I wanted to remind the pilot that I was down there too, and would not have appreciated the indiscriminate strafing and bombing, which would have ensued.  But the Ethiopians apparently have less regard for human life than we do.  I think they would gladly kill three friendly personnel if that meant 30 enemy soldiers would also die.  That was an equation I didn’t like.


I had many other adventures in Ethiopia, such as flying into areas so remote that the natives had never seen white people or helicopters.  What a combination of firsts!  Also, I once conversed with members of  a Shankila tribe, who my interpreter warned were headhunters; we left before they overcame their awe of our flying machine.  On another occasion, my helicopter crew was detained at gunpoint (I sighed, “not again!”) by some warring tribesmen who quickly released us after realizing we were not even remotely involved in their local squabble.


It's no surprise that many veterans regard their military service as one of the most important benchmarks in their lives.  I think this is because many young men leave home for the first time, learn to fend for themselves, and bond with others in pursuit of some common goal that can have a life or death outcome.  In addition, a lifetime of exciting adventures is often compressed into a few years of military service.  That's the way it was for me, and that's why I will always cherish the memories.


Ron Dolecki  and Jack Kalmbach.  (Photo provided by Mrs. Linda Dolecki). Sponsored Ads
Captured by the Eritrean Liberation Front Reviewed by Admin on 4:19 PM Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. well,,, intersting! But the ELF had their own flag not a Somali one. It resembles the Somali flag very much.

    ReplyDelete

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