CAPTURED BY THE ERITREAN LIBERATION FRONT
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 We frequently navigated using aerial photographs because most of the available maps were outdated, incomplete, or grossly inaccurate.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 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.
Retyped copy of article:
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.
THE CRAZY WAY I GOT TO ETHIOPIA
I enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school in 1963 because I wanted to learn a trade while fulfilling my military obligation (young men were drafted in those days). The Army recruiter guaranteed that I would be trained as a “Construction Draftsman” in the Army Engineer School at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. But first I had to go to basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.
I arrived at the Ft. Jackson Reception Center on a bus in the middle of the night and immediately got KP (Kitchen Police). I thought I would get the following morning off to sleep, but that notion was just a fantasy. I was told to fall out in front of my assigned barracks for roll call (they had several per day) and wait for my name to be called so I could dutifully yell “Here Sergeant!” But there was a sea of unfamiliar faces in the reception center, where hundreds of recruits from all over the country could be thrown together overnight. So when the sergeant called for a response to the name “Delsinki,” how could I know he meant me? I’m Dolecki (pronounced Dole-eh-key). After he got no response, the sergeant became visibly annoyed and hollered “Where’s Delsinki, serial number RA 13-801-718?” Now that serial number was something I could recognize, so I shouted “Here Sergeant!” He got in my face and yelled “Don’t you know your own name, son?” I tried to defend myself by enunciating my name slowly and correctly, but the sergeant warned me not to “talk back.”
The reception center was in a constant state of flux; recruits arrived and departed daily. So if you were there for two or three days you were already an “old timer.” I fell out for another roll call, and a different sergeant yelled “Dolacheck,” a name remotely similar to mine. This time I bellowed “Here Sergeant” because my new mind-set prompted a response to any possible variation of my name. The only problem was that there was a new arrival actually named Dolacheck, and he also responded “Here Sergeant!” So again, I got a face-to-face cajoling from a roll call sergeant because “I didn’t know my own name.” Sometimes, you just can’t win.
Basic training itself wasn’t as difficult as the war stories I had heard. The main challenge was dealing with the lack of sleep…and the KP. I was always getting KP. But most average people could endure basic training without a heroic effort. Incidentally, my platoon sergeant in basic training called me “Dokely” for the duration. Afterwards, I headed to Ft Belvoir for my "career" training.
I arrived at Ft. Belvoir on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1963, and again was immediately assigned KP. The following Monday, I reported to my school company NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge), and he angrily asked, “How the hell did you get into Map Compiling School wearing glasses? You’re supposed to have 20/20 uncorrected vision for this curriculum!” Momentarily surprised, I responded “There must be some mistake. I was promised Construction Drafting by my recruiter.” But the sergeant snickered like he was in on a private joke and told me to go to Map Compiling School. I felt confused and manipulated, but I had to obey orders. So I attended Map Compiling School, which was boring, tedious, and quite complicated. In addition, there were some memorable glitches. For example, I got KP during a one-day block of instruction on “Field Classification Surveys,” so I had to miss that day of school. When I returned the following day, my instructor said I would have to take an exam on the block of instruction I had just missed. I asked how I could pass an exam on material I never had. He simply said that the other students took the exam, so I had to, too. Having little choice, I stayed after school to take the exam and handed in a blank answer sheet with my name on it. The instructor said that was OK, at least he had given me the exam. That missed block of instruction would become a matter of irony later in my enlistment because that's the exact job I'd end up doing.
Part way through Map Compiling School, each student was given an extraneous test for an advanced course called “Multiplex Map Compiling.” None of the students knew exactly what that was, and none seemed to care because we were told that our class was going to Germany or Japan after graduation. I was glad because either country seemed like a good assignment for me. However, upon graduation I learned that I was among a handful of students being held back for the advanced map compiling course. The others went to Germany and Japan as advertised. I was livid. I complained that I didn’t want an advanced map compiling course. I didn’t even want the basic map compiling course. Besides, I wore glasses, remember? Nevertheless, I had to attend the advanced, multiplex map compiling course.
After a few weeks in that course, however, a remarkable transformation occurred: I really began to like it. Besides, I was told that there were only three places on earth that had multiplex map compiling equipment: Germany, Japan, and Ft. Belvoir. So I figured I would finally get a desirable assignment to one of those places. Instead, I got orders for Iran. I bolted for my sergeant’s office and grumbled, “I don’t get it. I had to take all this training I didn’t want, and now I’m being assigned to a place where I can’t use it.” The sergeant reminded me that “your ways are not the Army ways.” He advised me to “ride with the tide, go with the flow, put your time in, and then get out.” That was sound advice.
In early 1964, I boarded a military chartered plane in Charleston, South Carolina, and headed for Iran. The plane had to stop temporarily at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya, to disembark some troops, refuel, and deliver mail. I remember looking out the window as the plane descended toward Wheelus and thinking what a God-forsaken place that was. The pilot announced that those of us going to Iran should stay aboard, because we wouldn’t be at Wheelus very long. But shortly after landing, a military courier boarded the plane and gave me revised orders essentially saying, “You’re stationed here.” I wondered why an army private was being assigned to an Air Force Base that wouldn’t have any use for his military occupational skills. I was driven to a small army garrison at a remote corner of the base and assigned to a barracks filled with troops who had no set jobs. Many were playing cards in the middle of the day, some were still in bed, and others were lounging on a beach at the nearby Mediterranean Sea. I soon learned this was the home of the Army’s 64th Engineer Battalion, Special Foreign Activity – the unit I would belong to for the rest of my enlistment.
I was put on a roster of troops whose only task was to move a water sprinkler around an area in front of the headquarters building to make grass grow. There were so many troops on the roster that I think I had to move the sprinkler once during the entire three months I was there. Of course, I still got KP. This time, however, I worked in a bakery rather than a mess hall. You don’t know what real heat is like until you’ve worked in a bakery in the already baking heat of Libya.
I knew I couldn’t last much longer in a situation like that, so I asked the company clerk (a Radar O’Reilly-type) if I could transfer anywhere else. He assured me that he could arrange a quick transfer to Ethiopia, Iran, or distant sections of Libya, as requests for replacements came in from those areas. He explained that the troops in the barracks were a pool of bodies reserved for those assignments. So I asked him to get me transferred to Ethiopia (I read that the overall climate there was best), and he agreed. Within about one week (no kidding), I got orders for Ethiopia. When the First Sergeant gave me my new orders at morning roll call, he asked, “How in the blazes did you get out of here so fast? There are plenty of guys who have been here longer than you!” I said, “I don’t know; you signed the orders.” I would have winked at the company clerk if he were present. Then I went to Ethiopia.
STORIES AND MEMORIES
"BUG MAN" MILLER
I met "Bug Man" Miller for the first time in early 1964, while serving with the US Army at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, Libya. He was a 19 year-old private first class, and so was I. No one seemed to know what his real first name was, but everyone knew he had no fear of animals whatsoever. If you ran away from an animal because you were scared, he ran toward it to catch it. My initial contact with him was in a barracks where I heard him talking one evening about his collection of live scorpions. Someone asked to see the scorpions, and he released two or three on the floor. The scorpions scurried through the barracks like cockroaches, which sent everyone scrambling for their beds, foot lockers, or anyplace else they could find to get off the floor; some troops were wearing shower clogs. "Bug Man" Miller just stood there laughing, and eventually guided the scorpions into their matchbox homes with his bare fingers. The next morning, he put one of the scorpions on the ground outside the front door of the barracks so I could photograph it. He was really proud of his collection.
We were both transferred to Ethiopia and assigned to separate field camps, so I didn't see "Bug Man" Miller for the next few months. However, we happened to meet again while assigned to temporary duty at our unit headquarters in Addis Ababa. "Bug Man" entered the headquarters building, where I was talking to 1st Sergeant Farrell, and "Bug Man" asked Sergeant Farrell for permission to start a zoo. Sergeant Farrell thundered, "What the hell are you talking about? Where would you get the animals?" "Bug Man" boasted, "I already have a poisonous snake in a box at the barracks that I could use for starters." Sergeant Farrell, who already heard stories about "Bug Man" Miller, immediately demanded to see the snake. So the three of us walked to the barracks, and "Bug Man" directed our attention to a simple cardboard box just outside the front door of the building. He opened the lid and I could see a coiled snake inside. "Bug Man" grabbed the snake with his bare hands, identified it as a baby black mamba, and proceeded to expose the fangs with a pencil he inserted across the snake's mouth. I personally don't know if that snake was a black mamba or not, but it certainly had fangs so it must have been poisonous.
Sergeant Farrell became very upset by "Bug Man" Miller's behavior. First of all, "Bug Man" left a poisonous snake in a box outside the front door of the barracks unattended while he sought permission to start a zoo. Any curious soldier could have looked in that box and been bitten by who knows what. Second, "Bug Man" was handling a poisonous snake with his bare hands, which was extremely dangerous for an amateur. Sergeant Farrell ordered him to kill the snake immediately and drop any notion of starting a zoo. So "Bug Man" reluctantly killed the snake and buried it in front of the barracks. He said he would let it decay and retrieve the skeleton for his collection. I asked, "What collection?" He escorted me to his area in the barracks, and showed me several large jars of formaldehyde he was keeping in his wall locker (I think he was storing most of his wardrobe in the garrison warehouse while keeping a few essentials in his foot locker). He said if he couldn't start a zoo, he was ready to start collecting dead specimens of wildlife that he found interesting.
A few days later, I saw him in the motor pool while I was performing maintenance on my truck. He caught a large lizard (about a foot long) under a warehouse, and he wanted me to see it. The lizard kept trying to bite him, which he thoroughly enjoyed because he got to see the lizard's teeth. I don't know if "Bug Man" even knew what kind of lizard he caught, but it didn't seem to matter as long as he could look at it up close and personal. Afterwards, "Bug Man' released the critter back to its home under the warehouse. To his credit, "Bug Man" usually released the harmless wildlife he caught.
I never saw "Bug Man" Miller again in Ethiopia, but I did see some of the fruits of his labor when I was processing out of the army in May 1966. At that time, I had to get a physical examination from an army physician named Dr. Holstad in the garrison headquarters before departing to the United States. While I was in the doctor's office, I noticed several jars of formaldehyde in a glass cabinet . Upon closer inspection, I also noticed that the jars contained the severed heads of many snakes, some with their jaws open and fangs extended in an attack mode. I asked Dr. Holstad where he got them, and he replied, "Bug Man" Miller sent them from the field (Dr. Holstad was also interested in snakes). Some of the labels on the jars identified the contents as Egyptian Cobras, Black Mambas, and I think Puff Adders. If "Bug Man" Miller was in fact catching all these dangerous snakes, I don't know how he managed to stay alive during the process or why the army didn't reign him in before he got hurt. But as far as I know, he was never harmed by his wild friends.
Postscript: In April 2007, I met "Bug Man" Miller in Las Vegas, and he was still a big fan of mother nature. He didn't collect snakes and scorpions anymore, but he could identify just about any plant that grew in the Nevada desert; he was eager to explain the development of unusual rock formations in the area; and he relished the thought of exploring remote canyons and hiking trails. "Bug Man" Miller remained an extremely curious guy with a deep appreciation for the natural world. If you stop to think about it, we really need more people like him.
Later, one of the Mapping Mission sergeants said that if a successful coup brought to power a new government hostile to the U.S., we would be issued rifles and carbines to protect Lidetta airfield so U.S. citizens could be evacuated from there. I remember thinking, "This is great; I only have another week here and some crazy Ethiopians are plotting to overthrow the government. If we have to defend the airfield with rifles against those tanks, we're all going to die!" (short-timers often get caught up in hyperbole when facing any delay in returning home).
I also wondered about the logistics of a possible evacuation from Lidetta. Could the airfield handle cargo aircraft such as C-130's, which I assumed would be used for an evacuation? Or would helicopters do the job? I also wondered how the Ethiopian government learned about a possible plot to topple their government. And who would be foolish enough to challenge the government in the face of all the firepower I saw? None of this really mattered anyway because the purported coup attempt never materialized and I was left with more questions than answers.
My interpreter began to explain what this was all about. Evidently, the inhabitants of this area had a peculiar system of justice whereby certain lawbreakers were “sentenced” to time on the highway. If they were run over, that was their fate; if they survived, they could rejoin their tribe. My interpreter surmised that this woman committed adultery or some other sexual offense because she was being subjected to humiliation (her nakedness) plus time on the highway. I wondered how long her “sentence” was because she would be extremely difficult to spot at night (a black woman on black asphalt during a black night), and could easily be killed by large trucks that sometimes lumbered down these roads, unable to stop with scant warning. Also, groups of hyenas came out at night searching for food, and she would be a tempting meal in her motionless, prone position. Nevertheless, my interpreter advised us to leave the area because he was sure we were being watched. I wondered how that could be; I didn’t see any good hiding places over a long distance. But he assured me that the woman had to be under surveillance so her tribe could be certain she served her “sentence.” I knew that nobody would believe this story without proof, so I snapped a picture, and we left the scene.
About a quarter mile down this road, I saw a large truck in the oncoming lane, and it was moving along briskly. I stopped to watch it in my rear view mirror, and it veered suddenly near the place where the woman lay, narrowly avoiding her body. The truck continued on its way without further ado, as if the driver had dealt with situations like this before. Again I wondered if the woman would survive much longer on the road. Apparently, she did because she was gone the next day on my return trip. I saw no blood stains or other evidence of her death. Every day in Ethiopia was an adventure
I returned to Fiche to retrieve my gear, but had little hope that it would still be there. The native people were so destitute I didn’t think they could restrain themselves from stealing the “valuables” I left with them. But all of my gear was still under the watchful eyes of the policeman, who was gushy in thanking me for my help because the local people had no vehicles. The policeman added that the man who killed this woman was trapped in the nearby hills and would be captured soon. The policeman invited me to the man’s execution as a guest of honor with a front row seat. The Ethiopians planned to behead the culprit in the town square.
I declined the invitation and began to load my gear back in the truck. That’s when I noticed a bloody, meat-like substance where the dead woman’s head had been. Upon closer examination, I realized I was looking at brain matter that apparently oozed out of the corpse during the bumpy trip to the village. The policeman could see that I was disturbed by this sight, and he was gracious enough to clean the area for me. Then I left the town to continue my work, which suddenly seemed trivial compared to what had just happened.
The Danakil tribe of eastern Ethiopia had the fiercest reputation of any tribe in the country. They collected human testicles as battle trophies and as symbols of a right-of-passage into manhood, just as American Indians were said to collect human scalps. The Danakils also lived in the most hellish desert I’ve ever been to, where all intruders were viewed as competitors for the water supply.
The Danakil men were hunters and warriors who shunned domestic work. Household chores were the exclusive responsibility of their women, who were jealously protected. The Danakilmindset also glorified the ambush technique for killing or maiming other men (attacking females was unmanly). They reasoned that ambushes worked best when hunting animals, so why not use the same technique against humans? As a result, several unsuspecting outsiders and even a few Ethiopian government officials were reportedly castrated and/or killed by the Danakils. The signature weapon of the Danakil warrior was a large, curved sword with a broad blade ideal for hacking and slicing. These swords were kept razor sharp.
I was thoroughly briefed on the Danakils and their behavior by US officials in mid 1965, when I was assigned to an army field camp making maps at the edge of Danakil territory. The camp was near a village called Tendaho, and the temperature was 120 degrees every day I was there. The troops in the camp were excused from duty between 3:00 pm and 5:00 pm because of the scorching heat, so I used that time to visit the Awash River, a few miles away, to photograph crocodiles.
I sat motionless on the river bank, partially hidden in the brush, waiting to see crocodiles. About 20 minutes later, a young woman approached the river to get water in a jug she carried on her head. She didn’t know I was about 50 feet away. At first, I was upset that she would spook any crocodiles in the area, then thought I’d photograph her while I had the opportunity. However, I hesitated when her husband (or companion) walked into the scene, also not realizing I was in the vicinity. I could see that he was a Danakil warrior because he had the characteristic sword. He was startled when he suddenly spotted me, and approached with his hands on his sword. He struck a threatening pose, and I quickly snapped a picture, then walked briskly to my truck and drove back to camp. I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that the situation could have gotten ugly.
Surprisingly, the picture of the Danakil warrior turned out well and many people commented on how menacing he appeared to be. When I recollect that incident, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the Danakil warrior saw me before I saw him. Incidentally, I eventually did photograph a large crocodile at that river.
ON THE ROAD
I was driving an army truck in Ethiopia on a sunny day in 1964, as part of my job with Army Map Service. I was evaluating the road network between Addis Ababa and Debre Zeit, assisted by an Ethiopian interpreter (I wouldn’t leave home without one) in case I ran into trouble. I was making good progress because I was on one of the few paved roads in the country. However, I always tempered my speed with a heightened readiness to stop on short notice because more pedestrians with cattle used the roads than motorists. You could be rounding a curve, then suddenly confront a herd of cattle so thick and deep that you had to slam on the brakes and hope to God you didn’t kill anything in your way.
EXPECTED COUP ATTEMPT
In late April or early May 1966, the Ethiopian government expected a coup attempt. At least that's what I was told by Mapping Mission's personnel in Addis Ababa. I had come to Addis from my field camp in preparation for returning to the States and eventual discharge from the army. So when I drove to the motor pool to turn in my truck, I couldn't help noticing 30 to 40 Ethiopian army tanks lined up side-by-side along the edge of Lidetta airfield. Evidently, the Ethiopian army was determined to prevent any possible coup attempt from unfolding. If one did, the tanks would be within easy travel distance to most sections of the city. The tanks were U.S.-made M-41 Walker Bulldog light tanks of the 1950's era (they were gas guzzlers and noisy; the U.S. never used them in combat). I knew this because I had built a model of that tank as a youngster. The Ethiopian army pitched a few tents near the tanks, raised a flag pole, and established a small campsite. I watched this activity from the Mapping Mission motor pool and snapped a few pictures. I was frustrated, though, because I couldn't fit all of the tanks on one photo from my particular vantage point.
I approached a long, straight stretch of highway and thought the road was clear, so I accelerated and let my attention drift to the scenery. Moments later, I spotted something on the road; from afar, I guessed it was a dead animal or a large bump. Instead, it was a naked woman…that’s something you don’t see every day! She was lying face down across one lane with her arms extended like a swimmer preparing to dive. She was probably in her 20’s, nicely proportioned, and absolutely still. I got out of the truck to see if she was okay. I didn’t see any wounds, bruises, or obvious signs of injury, and she was breathing normally. I was confused. What was I supposed to do?
MY DISCHARGE FROM THE ARMY
I was discharged from the U.S. Army in May 1966 at Ft. Hamilton in New York City. This may be difficult for others to understand, but my separation from the Army and transition back to civilian life was much more difficult than the reverse. When I left the service, I left behind an exciting job with lots of travel and adventure, a good salary as an SP/5 on flight status, and loads of responsibility. But when I entered the civilian job market, I got a minimum-wage job in a glass bottle factory where my primary companion was a broom. That job was mind numbing, the type of work you could train a chimpanzee to do if you had enough bananas. In addition, the civilians my age seemed profoundly immature. Their only goals in life appeared to be drinking and fornicating…on or off the job.
Moreover, I had lost touch with developments in the “civilized” world. When my parents talked about go-go dancers, I thought they were complaining about some new kind of seedy sexual entertainment. When I listened to “golden oldies” on the radio, I heard many of those tunes for the first time. So I knew I had emerged from a time warp, because I had no regular access to radio or TV in Ethiopia. I also didn’t understand how my folks could tolerate all the mindless commercials on television. I found the commercials so repulsive, repetitive, and irritating that I just couldn’t watch TV anymore. The only way I could cope was to mingle with veterans in my hometown. Eventually, I re-adjusted to the point where I could watch TV again without becoming disturbed, I could tolerate the superficiality of “civilized” society and could finally go to college to get the training I really wanted…guaranteed! So in 1970, I graduated from Clarion State College in Clarion, Pennsylvania, with a B.A. degree in Earth and Space Science.
After graduating from college, I couldn't find a meaningful job anywhere in the region. However, I did manage to land a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (Penndot) working as a laborer, fixing potholes in highways. My friends told me I was fortunate to get that job. So I worked on a road maintenance crew for about a year while sending my resume to every employer I could find an address for. Surprisingly, the Federal Government was very interested in my experience as a field classifier in Ethiopia because I was trained to work with overhead photography. So they gave me several tests to see if I qualified for an available job as a photo interpreter, and I passed. Then I moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C. in 1971 to begin my career. Later, I married my girlfriend, Linda, and we were blessed with four children.
A few years into my career, I worked in an office beside a fellow who prominently displayed in his cubicle a picture of a CH/HH-3 rescue helicopter, affectionately called “Jolly Green Giant” by aviators. His name was John Tonkin, and we talked several times about work-related issues, but never had in-depth conversations about our backgrounds. He kept that picture on his cubicle wall the whole time we were officemates (about five years) and one day my curiosity finally piqued. So I asked John “What’s the significance of that helicopter picture?” He said he was a helicopter pilot who flew rescue missions in Vietnam and other countries. He added that he even flew a mission in Ethiopia during the mid-60s looking for some “Bozo” lost in the desert. I said, “I’m that Bozo.” We laughed awhile and marveled at the small world we live in. We then freely discussed our military exploits. Shortly afterwards, John and I were transferred to distant buildings and I never saw him again. Such is life.
I retired in January 2004, after 35 years of government service, and within two weeks got my current job with a consulting firm called Booz-Allen-Hamilton. I don't know yet how long I will work for them until I retire for real and probably move back to rural Pennsylvania.
Now my military service is just a distant memory. However, the bungled pronunciation of my name by various Army sergeants seems to be a legacy still dogging me as a civilian. For example, I frequently get mail addressed to Roland or Donald Doleski, and telephone solicitors comically struggle with the pronunciation of my name, rarely getting it right. I was even called Ronald Luck in a short description of my brush with ELF guerillas in a book called “Africa at War” written by Al J.Venter (page 132). I guess some things never change.
Ron Dolecki and Jack Kalmbach (Photo provided by Mrs. Linda Dolecki)
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.
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.
Ron Dolecki's photo collection can be viewed by clicking the PHOTOS-8MM FILMS-PRESENTATIONS tab.
All stories, photographs and film footage on this page are property of Ron Dolecki © 2009
Used with permission of the author.
One day, the baboon broke loose and went on a rampage through the tents in our field camp. It created an unbelievable mess in everyone’s area but mine. I suspected that the baboon was simply reacting to the scent of all those who mistreated it (what goes around comes around). Afterwards, the baboon climbed to the top of a quonset hut in our field camp, and stayed there probably because it felt safe from retribution and had few other places to go. Eventually, we were able to tie it back to the baobab tree and clean our disheveled camp. After we moved the camp to another area of the country, I came out of my tent one morning to find that someone hanged the baboon from a tree. I wondered what kind of person would do such a thing to this human-like creature, which was removed from its natural surroundings and used for the sick entertainment of people who had no regard for its status as a desperate outcast. I wondered who was the real baboon.
When I related this story to other people, many refused to believe that a baboon would run roughshod through people’s belongings as if motivated by revenge. I argued that a conditioned reaction to the scent of particular people is what triggered that baboon’s destructive behavior on that unforgettable day. All I know is what I saw.
THE PET BABOON
I was in an army field camp in Ethiopia in 1966, when one of our soldiers bought a baboon from a local native. You could buy all sorts of wild animals from rural peasants, who were always eager to sell you anything. The baboon (never given a name) was a young female essentially doomed to a life in captivity. The natives explained that once a wild baboon got human scent on it, it could never return to the bush because the other baboons would kill it. We tied the baboon to a giant baobab tree that shaded our camp. The rope had enough slack to allow the baboon to sleep high in the tree, where it would be safe from marauders, such as hyenas. But most of the stress on the baboon came from the guys in the camp itself; they blatantly mistreated this animal (I often wondered why it was obtained as a pet in the first place). The guys taunted it, threw water on it (which made it shriek with anger), or otherwise ignored it at feeding time.
I was really drawn to this baboon because it was a gentle creature, which liked to groom me as it would another baboon (maybe there’s a message here). It would pick through my scalp or the hair on my legs looking for who knows what. Sometimes, it would find something imperceptible to me, and delicately place the unseen object in its mouth with its thumb and forefinger. I frequently helped it drink Coca-Cola directly out of a can (I think the baboon also had a sweet tooth). Sometimes on very cold nights, I would let the animal stay in my sleeping bag with me. I was amused by its tendency to cling to my ankles for warmth. The guys who saw this made several crude and suggestive comments, but mainly in jest (I think). One time the baboon had a bathroom accident in the bottom of the sleeping bag, and I had a difficult time cleaning and drying the stain. But fortunately, the sleeping bag wasn’t mine. It belonged to the army.
THE SHANKILAS (see note below)
When I was in Ethiopia in 1965 with the US Army, I heard many frightening stories from missionaries about the Shankila tribes who lived in the remote recesses of the Nile River canyon. One of the most memorable stories involved a group of French explorers trying to ride the Nile River on a raft that broke apart in the rapids, forcing everyone to shore. That’s where the Shankilas supposedly attacked the explorers and killed all of them.
The Shankilas apparently were very wary of outsiders. History shows that they were hunted by superior tribes for countless decades and sold into slavery, so the Shankilas retreated to the mosquito-ridden, remote tributaries of the Nile River, where they could live in peaceful isolation. They were also suspected of being head-hunters with a tendency to treat all intruders as slave traders.
The missionaries described the Shankilas as genetically tall people with blood shot eyes and skin as black as coal. The tribes were said to put red ochre in their hair and cut decorative scars all over their bodies, and the married women reportedly stuck porcupine quills through their upper lip to signify their married status. All of this information fascinated me, but I pushed it to the back of my mind because I never thought I’d meet a Shankila tribesman during my tour of duty. But I was wrong.
I was on a routine mapping mission with two other aviators when we landed our helicopter near a Shankila village without knowing we were in their territory. The Shankilas attacked us, throwing spears in such profusion I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t think there were any places left on earth where such attacks still occurred. This was just like the Saturday morning show “Ramar of the Jungle” that I watched on TV as a kid. Fortunately, though, none of the spears came close to us (we were still out of range), and the Shankila Chief motioned for his villagers to cease the attack. Then the villagers began to approach us slowly, seemingly in awe of our flying machine. Moreover, these villagers had never seen white people before, according to my interpreter. They picked at the hair on our arms in amazement because they had no body hair of their own, except for that on their head. A few of the village women approached us on their knees. My interpreter said these women thought we were gods who fell from the sky. I jokingly suggested to my crew mates that we set up a kingdom here and urge the villagers to deliver all of the virgins immediately. My interpreter didn’t think that was very funny. He quickly pointed out the signature features of these people and informed us that we were surrounded by Shankilas, who could become extremely hostile at any moment. That’s when I recalled the stories of the missionaries, and realized that the physical descriptions I heard about the Shankilas perfectly applied here. I mumbled to the others “Oh, my God. We better get the hell out of here while we still can.” My interpreter thought that was an excellent idea.
We slowly climbed aboard our helicopter and the pilot started the engine. The Shankilas didn’t understand the power of the turning rotor blades, and continued to stand beside them while building speed. The pilot gingerly lifted the chopper straight up for a few feet to get clear of the gathering crowd, then took off at a rapid speed. We marked our maps to identify this area as inhabited by the Shankilas and never returned.
CLICK HERE to view a short 8mm film clip of the Shankila people.
(Film footage taken by Ron Dolecki) __________________________________________________________________________
In 1965, I was driving an army pick-up truck through the town of Fiche, Ethiopia, when I was flagged down by a policeman asking me to transport a corpse. He explained that a woman had just been clubbed to death by her husband, and the corpse had to be taken to family members about 10 miles away. I agreed to help, and a few townspeople prepared to toss her body into the back of my truck like a sack of potatoes. I urged them to wait until I re-arranged the truck for more dignified transport. I removed most of the loose gear, such as shovels, picks, jerry cans, C-rations, pots and pans, wash basins, and other field equipment. Then I laid a piece of plywood on the corrugated steel truck bed for the placement of her body. The townspeople put her in the truck and covered her body with the only available cloth they could find. I could see that her partially exposed head was hideously battered.
I asked the policeman to guard the gear I had unloaded while I drove to the dead woman’s village. Three or four of the townspeople went along to show me the way and escort her corpse. We had to drive cross-country for a few miles so that portion of the trip was especially bumpy. We arrived at her village, and her escorts from town thanked me profusely as they removed her body from the truck. The surprised villagers wept hysterically as the dead woman’s escorts explained what had happened.