[ THREE ]
Stanleyville, Republic of the Congo
0600 25 November 1964
As a tradition, the men of the First Battalion, the Paracommando Regiment, Royal Belgian Army continued to use the English language jump commands the battalion had learned in England in World War II.
“Outboard sticks, stand UP!” the jumpmaster ordered.
The two outside files of men inside the USAF C-130 called Chalk One in the OPPLAN stood up, and folded their nylon and aluminum pole seats back against the fuselage wall.
“Inboard sticks, stand UP!”
The two inside files rose to their feet and folded their seats.
Everybody fastened the hook at the end of their static line to a steel cable. “Check static lines! Check equipment!” Everybody tugged at his own static line, to make sure it was securely hooked to the cable, and then they checked the harness and other equipment of the man standing in front of them, that is to say, in the lines which now faced rear, and led to the exit doors on either side of the aircraft.
Now the jumpmaster switched to French: “Une minute!” and then back to English: “Stand in the door!”
Chalk One was down to seven hundred feet or so, and all dirtied up, flaps down, throttles retarded, close, at one hundred twenty-five mph, to stall speed.
Sergeant Jack Portet, wearing the uniform of a Belgian paratrooper, was the sixth man in the port side stick. The Belgians had been sympathetic to someone who wanted to jump on Stanleyville because his mother and sister were there.
And if he got into trouble with the U.S. Army, c’est la vie.
Jack felt the slight tug of the static line almost immediately after exiting the aircraft, and a moment later, felt his main chute slithering out of the case. And then the canopy filled, and he had a sensation of being jerked upward.
There was not enough time to orient himself beyond seeing the airfield beneath and slightly to the left of him, and to pick out the twelve-story, white Immoquateur apartment building downtown before the ground seemed to suddenly rush up at him.
He knew where he was now. He landed on the tee of the third hole of the Stanleyville Golf Course. He landed on his feet, but when he started to pull on the lines, to dump a little air from the nearly emptied canopy, there was a sudden gust of air and the canopy filled, and pulled him off his feet.
He hit the quick release and was out of the harness a moment later. He rolled over and saw that the sky was full of chutes from Chalk Two and Chalk Three.
And then there were peculiar whistling noises, and peculiar cracking noises, and after a moment Jack realized that he was under fire.
And there didn’t seem to be anybody to shoot back at.
And then, all of a sudden, there was: There were Simbas firing from, of all places, the Control Tower.
He dropped to the ground, worked the action of the FN assault rifle, and took aim at the tower. As he lined his sights up, the tower disappeared in a cloud of dust. In a moment, he had the explanation for that. Two paratroopers had gotten their machine guns in action.
Jack got to his feet and ran toward a trio of Belgian officers. When
there was transportation, either something captured here or the jeeps
or the odd looking three wheelers on the C-130s which were supposed
to land, the officers would get first crack at it. And he wanted to
be there when it arrived. He had to get to the Immoquateur, and he
needed wheels to do that.
A sergeant drove up in a white pickup with a Mobil Oil Pegasus painted on its doors.
One of the Belgian officers looked around and then pointed to Jack.
“That one, L’Americaine, knows the town. Put half a dozen men in the back, and make a reconnaissance by fire.”
And then he made his little joke.
“You better hope you get killed,” he said to Jack. “When
Le Grand Noir (‘The Big Black,’ by which he meant, of course,
Lieutenant Foster) was looking for you and couldn’t find you
he said if you jumped with us, he was going to pull your legs and arms
off, one by one.”
Jack smiled, and got on the running board of the Mobil Oil pickup, holding the FN in one hand.
But he was suddenly very frightened. Not of fighting, or even of dying, but of what he was liable to find when he got to the Immoquateur.
They first encountered resistance three hundred yards down the road, just past the Sabena Guest House. A Simba wrapped in an animal skin, with a pistol in one hand and a sword in the other, charged at them down the middle of the road. Behind him came three others armed with FN assault rifles, firing them on full automatic.
The pickup truck screeched to a halt. Jack went onto his belly, his rifle to his shoulder. As he found a target, baffled to see that the Simba’s weapon was firing straight up into the air, there was a short burst of 7-mm fire over his head. The Simba with the sword stopped in mid-stride and then crumpled to his knees. Before he fell over, a torrent of blood gushed from his mouth.
The Simbas with him stopped and looked at the fallen man in absolute surprise. Then they stopped shooting and started to back up. There was another burst of fire from the pickup, this time from several weapons. Two of the three Simbas fell, one of them backward. The remaining Simba, the one in Jack’s sights, dropped his rifle and ran away, with great loping strides. There was another burst of fire from the truck, no more than four rounds from a paratrooper’s assault rifle. The Simba took two more steps, and then fell on his face to the left.
Jack scrambled to his knees and turned to look for the truck. It was already moving. He jumped onto the running board as it came past, almost losing his balance as the driver swerved, unsuccessfully, to avoid running over the Simba who had led the charge with a sword.
There was a furious horn bleating behind them, and the pickup pulled off the shoulder of the road. A jeep raced past them, the gunner of the pedestal-mounted .30 caliber Browning machine gun firing it, in short bursts, at targets Jack could not see.
The pickup swerved back onto the paved surface, almost throwing Jack off.
There was the sound of a great many weapons being fired, but none of the fire seemed directed at them. They reached the first houses. There were more Simbas in sight now, but none of them were attacking. They were in the alleys between the houses, and in the streets behind them.
The jeep that had raced past them was no longer in sight, but Jack could still hear the peculiar sound of the Browning firing in short bursts.
The Mobil Oil pickup truck came to an intersection and stopped. Jack looked at the driver.
“You’re supposed to be the fucking expert,” the driver said to him. “Where do we go?”
“Turn right,” Jack ordered without really thinking about it. The Immoquateur was to the right.
The pickup jerked into motion.
Fifty yards down the road they came across the first Europeans. Three of them, mother, father, and a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy sprawled dead in pools of blood in the road, obviously shot as they had tried to run.
Jack felt nausea rise in his throat but managed to hold it down.
Ahead, over the roofs of the pleasant, pastel-painted villas, he saw the white bulk of the Immoquateur.
Then there was fire directed at them.
The pickup screeched to a stop in the middle of the street. Jack felt himself going, tried valiantly to stop himself, and then, bouncing off the fender, fell onto the pavement, on his face.
He felt his eyes water, and then they lost focus.
Jesus Christ! I’ve been shot!
He shook his head, and then put his hand to his face. There was something warm on it.
Blood! I’ve been shot in the face!
He sat up. Someone rushed up to him. Indistinctly, he made out one of the paratroopers leaning over him, felt his fingers on his face.
And then the sonofabitch laughed.
“You’re all right,” he said. “All you’ve got is a bloody nose.”
He slapped Jack on the back and ran ahead of him.
Jack’s eyes came back in focus. He looked at his lap, and saw blood dripping into it.
He looked around, and saw his assault rifle on the street, six feet from where he was sitting. He scurried on his knees to it, picked it up, fired a burst in the air to make sure it was still functioning, and then looked around again, this time at the Immoquateur. There were bodies on the lawn between the street and the shops on the ground floor. Simba and European. He got to his feet and ran toward the Immoquateur.
Jack recognized one of the more than a dozen bodies on the lawn before the Immoquateur. It was the Stanleyville station manager of the Congo River Steamship Company. He had met him when they had shipped in a truck. He had been shot in the neck, probably, from the size of the wound, with a shotgun. The stout, gray-haired woman lying beside him, an inch-wide hole in her forehead, was almost certainly his wife.
Jack ran into the building itself. There were two dead Simbas in the narrow elevator corridor. One of them had most of his head blown away. The other, shot as he came out of the elevator, had taken a burst in the chest. It had literally blown a hole through his body. Parts of his ribs, or his spine, some kind of bone, were sticking at awkward angles out his back.
He was lying in the open elevator door. The door of the elevator tried to close on his body, encountered it, reopened, and then tried to close again.
Jack laid his FN assault rifle against the wall, put his hands on the dead man’s neck, and dragged him free. The elevator door closed, a melodious chime bonged, and the elevator started up.
Jack went to the call button for the other elevator and pushed it. It did not illuminate. He ran farther down the corridor and pushed the service elevator call button. It lit up, but there was no sound of elevator machinery. He went back to wait for the first elevator.
One of the Belgian paratroopers from the pickup truck came into the corridor, in a crouch, his rifle ready.
“The sergeant said you are to come back to the truck,” he said.
“Fuck him,” Jack said. “My mother’s upstairs.”
The Belgian paratrooper ran back out of the building. The elevator indicator showed that it was on the ninth floor. Then it started to come down.
The Belgian paratrooper came running back into the building. Jack wondered if he was going to give him any trouble.
“I got a radio,” the Belgian said. “They are leaving us.”
Jack felt something warm on his hand, looked down and saw blood.
The elevator mechanism chimed pleasantly and the door opened. Jack stepped over the dead Simba. The Belgian paratrooper followed him inside and crossed himself as Jack pushed the floor button.
The door closed and the elevator started to rise.
It stopped at the fourth floor.
A Simba wearing parts of a Belgian officer’s uniform did not
have time to raise his pistol before a burst from Jack’s assault rifle
smashed into his mid-section.
The noise in the closed confines of the elevator was painful and dazzling. Jack’s ears rang to the point where he knew he would not be able to hear anything but the loudest of sounds for a long time. The paratrooper with Jack jumped, in a crouch, into the corridor and let loose a burst down the corridor. It was empty.
The Simba he had shot had backed into the corridor wall and then slid to the floor, leaving a foot wide track of blood down the wall. Jack thought he saw life leave the Simba’s eyes.
He took the Simba’s pistol, a World War II era German Luger, from his hand, stuffed it in the chest pocket of his tunic, and then backed into the elevator. The paratrooper backed into it after him. The chime sounded melodiously again, the doors closed, and the elevator started up again.
When the door opened they were on the tenth floor. There was no one there.
Neither Jack nor the paratrooper moved. The chime sounded again and the door closed. Jack reached out with the muzzle of his FN and rapped the rubber edge of the door. The door started to open again.
Jack, copying what the paratrooper had done on the fourth floor, jumped in a crouch into the corridor. But the corridor was empty.
Jack ran to the door of the Air Simba apartment. It was battered, as if someone had tried to batter his way in, and there were bullet holes in it. He put his hand on the door knob. It was locked.
He banged on it with his fist.
“Hanni!” he shouted. “Hanni, c’est moi! C’est Jacques!”
There was no answer.
He raised the butt of the FN and smashed at the door, in the area of the knob. The butt snapped off behind the trigger assembly.
He felt tears well up in his eyes. He pulled the trigger to see if it would still work, and there was another painful roar of sound, and a cloud of cement dust as the bullets struck the ceiling.
He raised his boot and kicked at the door beside the knob with all his might. There was a splintering sound, and the lock mechanism tore free.
Jack kicked it again, and it flew open. The Belgian paratrooper, in his now familiar crouching stance, rushed into the apartment.