STORIES and MEMORIES
I was assigned to the Ethiopia-US Mapping Mission after beating the draft. I beat the draft by enlisting to be a Surveyor. Being young and immature I didn’t know that the US Army had several very different types of surveyors, including Artillery Surveying and Topographic Surveying. I learned that new, young Artillery Surveyors were being sent to Vietnam as forward observers. Forward observers operate ahead of the combat lines and sometimes call artillery strikes directly onto there own positions. I worked real hard trying to get that corrected- I didn’t want to be an Artillery Surveyor and especially not a forward observer. I finally got my Military Occupation Specialty corrected to Construction Surveying and was assigned to a construction battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington. I was enjoying my life as a Construction Surveyor in the beautiful pacific-northwest when I learned that I was going to be sent Ethiopia as a Topographic Surveyor. I went to the post library and found only two books on Ethiopia and neither book was overly optimistic or spoke very highly about Ethiopia.
I departed the USA from Kennedy Airport and flew all night to Rome for a fuel stop. During this flight I read a book, watched a movie and took a nap. This was the first time I had flown and I was headed, by myself, to Africa. The next day we flew on to Athens, Greece for a 24-hour layover. Then, finally, after almost two full days of traveling I got to Addis Ababa. I was picked up by a Land Rover driven by another GI from the Mapping Mission. Before we got to the headquarters compound we had an accident. It was minor fender bender and there was a lot of yelling in a language that I didn’t know. We got to the Mapping Mission compound and I was finally signing in to the place that would be my home for the next year.
I had been to basic training and had absorbed all of the training. That included the fact that officers were very near to the Almighty and on a plane just below God, Himself. A lowly Private was not to speak to them and if they did they were to stand at attention and throw in a lot of “Sir’s” and related honorarium. This all occurred in the early afternoon! As I awaited the disposition of my paperwork and where and who I would be assigned to, I was approached by a guy wearing a sports shirt, dress slacks and penny loafers. He stuck out his hand to me and introduced himself to me- “Hello, my name is MAJ John McMullen, I’m the commander of the Mapping Mission.” At this point my military training took over, well part of it took over! Every muscle in me tensed up. I was confused! I was unsure if I should snap to attention and salute or just take his hand. After trying to do all three (come to attention, salute and take his hand) he smiled and informed me that this was a “different kind of an Army unit” and that I should stand easy. Afterwards I talked to an NCO (they were more approachable) about my meeting with the CO. He also smiled in a benevolent way and also said “this ain’t the regular Army”.
I spent several days in garrison getting processed and acclimatized to the country and the Mapping Mission processes. My NCO informed me that I was going to go to a surveying party in the south of the country- Denver Party. I was told to wear jeans, combat boots and a sweat shirt for the flight to the survey party. We departed Addis Ababa in the morning and we flew for several hours in a DC-3, or ‘Gooney Bird”. We flew high enough to experience the cold of the high altitude. I was glad that I wore the sweatshirt and Levi’s! One of flight crew told me that we were about ready to start descending to our destination. This was a resupply flight and there were only about 3-4 passengers. I looked out of the plane’s window and saw nothing but light brown desert with an occasional dark spot (trees and brush), but nothing else to distinguish the place. I did see a square outline with lots of ‘things’ around it. That was the campsite (a square stone wall) and the ‘things’ were tents and truck of the survey party. I was told that that was my new home- El Behid Wells. Another thing that I didn’t see, that concerned me was that there was no runway for us to land. I was told not to worry we would land on the dry lakebed next to the “Wells”. We circled and came in for our landing. The landing was actually pretty smooth. I was glad of this since this was my first flight in a plane (DC-3) that was designed and built some 10 years before I was born.
We taxied to a spot and I was ready to get started on my adventure in Ethiopia. The plane was till cool inside, but that was to change real quick. The double loading doors opened and I was hit squarely by the high temperature and blinding sunlight. Later I learned that the average daily temperature was between 120 and 130 degrees. It was some consolation that the heat was dry and there was no humidity. My first sight of one of my GI surveyors was a guy wearing cutoff white Levi’s. They had been white but were so dirty and stained that they looked more like brown cutoff Levi’s. My new ‘friend’ was shirtless; he was tanned to a very dark hue. He also had a beard that went almost to his bare chest. He wore dark sunglasses and had an Ozark hillbilly hat on. I’m from the Midwest and I know what a Hillbilly hat looks like! On the hat was some writing. The hat had a name printed on it- “RHATTE PHINQUE” and from the day on I called the wearer just “RF” (‘PH’ is pronounced as an ‘F”). I do not remember his real name! That was my first indoctrination to the next 12 months that I would spend as a Topographic Surveyor in the field. I spent almost the entire 12 months that I was ‘in country’ in the south part of Ethiopia in very primitive conditions. That area includes the Ogaden Desert, the Great Rift Valley and the Omo River Valley. All of these areas were close to the Somalia border, which was contested, and near the border with Kenya. These places were not and are not known by the vast majority of earth’s citizens, but they were my home for the next 12 months.
Hyenas only “laugh” when they are fighting. Normally, we heard them around our camps every night. They are nocturnal and regularly prowled around our camps in the night. They normally make a sound that can only be described as a high-pitched “woooop, woooop” sound, but no real “laughing”. The hyena’s “laugh” was seldom heard when we were in camp.
We were camped along a dirt runway about thirty miles east of the Omo River and about 5 mile north of Lake Stephanie (sometimes called Lake Turkana or Lake Rudolf). We were stopped there because our 2-1/2 ton truck needed the engine replaced. The Mapping Mission was going to fly a replacement engine to us along with a mechanic and his tools to replace it. We sat there for close to two weeks waiting for the plan to come to fruition. During this time we had a lot of time to kill. Being in close proximity to the water we were plagued by millions of mosquito’s every night. We were required to be under our mosquito nets before the sun went down and to stay there all night or be eaten alive.
We got into a habit of going to Lake Stephanie to cool off in the afternoon and then shoot a gazelle for supper on the way back. We would shoot a small gazelle every afternoon for supper and then eat the remainder for our breakfast. We had no way of preserving the meat so after breakfast we would discard what was left of the meat from the previous day.
It was hot! During the day the temperature got up to 120+ degrees. It was a dry heat so it was tolerable, but extremely hot. We had two small tents, but they were even hotter after standing in the sun all day. I set up my cot under a tree about 20 feet from the tents. I strung a piece of canvas between the branches and I had a relatively cool place, under cover from the sun, and it had a small breeze on occasion during the day. This was my home and with the sun cover and mosquito netting I was relatively comfortable during the day and I slept well at night.
I had gotten a book called “Uhuru” (that means ‘freedom’ in Swahili). This book was written by Robert Rourke and is the story of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the middle 1950’s. It was made into a movie in the early 60’s. It was also how Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, got his start in politics. He was a member of the Mau Mau’s. The book goes into great detail about the great white hunters of pre-independent Kenya and how they made their living as hunters and guides for visitor and people who went out on safari. It also reiterated the fact that hyena’s “laugh” only when they are fighting.
When we shot a gazelle every afternoon, the meat was used for supper and the remainder was hung on a branch stub that was at the foot of my sleeping area. What was left was used for our breakfast. My area under the tree was a comfortable place. These gazelle hams were hung about three foot from the end of my cot, but I had no apprehension about that fact.
After reading of the adventures of the hunters in Africa I was tuned into the trials and tribulations of life while on safari and in the bush. By this time I had also spent almost half of my time in Ethiopia in the field- I was ‘experienced’. Hyenas were all around us almost every night, but they very rarely ever entered our camps. We normally had a dog in camp as a watcher for intruders.
In the early hours of one night I was awakened by the hideous laughter of two or more hyenas fighting. The noise was so loud that I knew instantly they were extremely close to me. I was inside my mosquito netting and had my M1 Garand rifle close by. There were two or more hyenas fighting for the gazelle hams that were hung within three feet of my cot. The noise awoke the other people in the tents. I was out of my mosquito netting enclosure when I heard people running from the tents and then I heard shots fired into the night. I never even got a shot off! The hyenas were gone and I was still alive. I don’t know if anyone even hit any of the hyenas. If we had shot and killed one of the hyenas the others would have drug the carcass off and eaten it by morning anyway. From then on I insisted that the gazelle hams be hung away from where I was sleeping.
I developed a hatred for these scavengers and shot them whenever I had a chance. While in the field I saw some hyenas that stood almost 4 feet tall at the shoulders. On one occasion at a good distance I mistook a pair of hyenas for two small donkeys.
While I was in the field we didn’t get a lot of fresh foods. Most was canned or frozen. While we were in Denver survey party we had a cook and we ate pretty good, considering where we were and what we were doing. When we went to the smaller survey party that changed. We had to do a lot of fending for ourselves, that means cooking our own meals. I, pretty well, lived off the economy for the last 5 months of my tour.
We left Dire Dawa and went out towards Djibouti working on a survey line. We bought some provisions from a local Italian supply house. We took 50 pounds of pasta and a like amount of rice. They had canned ‘biscuits’ and some other things that I have since forgotten. We also bought a brass kerosene single burner cook stove. The diet got real boring- pasta or rice was in every meal! We supplemented it with fresh meat by shooting an occasional gazelle or wild pig.
After going down south towards the Kenya border we regularly shot gazelles for fresh meat. The “hunting” process was crude! There were so many gazelle around that we could stop along side the trail and shoot one for our supper and then eat what was left for breakfast. The gazelle and other wild animals had very little fear of us and sometimes wouldn’t even run after we had shot on of the animals. We would only take the hams and tender loin and leave the rest for the scavengers. By the next morning there would only be the bones left from the dead gazelle. By the next day the only identifying thing left was where the dirt had been tore up by the scavengers during their feeding frenzy. Scavengers included the local carrion eating animals and birds- vultures, marabou storks and hyenas. A marabou stork stands close to 5 feet tall and eats meat. Not a good think to see and, fortunately, afraid of humans- live ones anyway.
In the southern parts of Ethiopia the temperature was always over 100 degrees and routinely got up to 130 degrees in the afternoon. In an attempt to keep cool we always had the windshields raised and locked up on the trucks. This provided a relatively cool breeze when we drove.
Our hunting was rudimentary. We didn’t have to be to good, there was so much wild game around that we just had to select the proper type of gazelle and shoot it. Some of the other animals were not very good to eat. We concentrated on the Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles and an occasional wart hog.
Some people also hunted directly from the trucks. On one occasion a GI went out “hunting” on his own. He was driving one of the military ¾ ton trucks. It was hot and he had the windshields locked up, as usual. The single ‘hunter’ saw some gazelles grazing in the distant and decided that he would shoot one. He rested his M1 rifle on the front window frame (windows was raised) and started to chase the gazelles. He fired twice while driving the truck and having the rifle resting on the lower part of the window frame. He missed the gazelle but shot the truck hood and radiator twice. The copper clad Army issue bullets entered the hood went into and out of the radiator and back out the hood. The Army trucks had a hood that allowed the radiator to stick up and under the top of the curved hood. He shot twice and killed a radiator. I don’t remember if he eventually did get his gazelle or not.
Chasing a gazelle to shoot and eat it was not a good idea. By scaring and then chasing the gazelle he became awfully excited. When ever animal becomes excited they secrete hormones to enhance their strength and speed. Humans do it to- we, all animals, secrete various hormones to make us run faster and give us strength. Once the gazelle pumps those hormones into their body the meat is tough. It doesn’t taste to good and it’s not tender.
Once I saw a couple of young gazelles grazing near an anthill. I crept a little closer, although that wasn’t necessary. I shot! The round hit the dirt about 40 feet in front of the gazelle. The gazelle didn’t know what the noise or dust was from and went back to grazing. I adjusted the sights to raise the bullets trajectory. This time I hit about the same distance behind the gazelle. Again, he looked around, but didn’t associate any danger with the noise and dust. This time I split the difference on the sight and fired. The round hit him in the neck and severed his backbone. He dropped right there! I ran up and cut his throat to bleed him and proceeded to cut off the hams and tenderloins. We were on the way back to camp so it was short drive. We proceeded to fix supper and I cooked some of the gazelle. Since I had not chased it or scared it the meat was almost like very expensive prized beef. It was lean, very tender and tasted good.
We would send in requests to the Operations section for supplies. We ordered supplies one time and didn’t order anything but what would be called condiments. The Operations chief, Mr. Huffine, questioned us about where we were getting the main source of our protein. It was difficult to explain that we were in an area with a multitude of wild animals and we were shooting our supper on a daily basis. Technically, we were violating Ethiopian law by shoot the gazelles, but there were herds of 100’s of gazelle at every turn. There was no Ethiopian gamekeepers or even other local people around. It was desolate and populated only with animals.
We were told that we would have a guest visit our camp in the Omo River valley, actually the grasslands surrounding the Omo River. On the next supply flight a Dentist from Asmara arrived. He brought a fancy hunting rifle case and a .30 caliber rifle with a scope. It put our iron sighted M1’s to shame. He was there on a pretext of checking our teeth, but actually he had come down to have a free African hunting trip. For the next 4-5 days we acted as his hunting guide. There was no really big game in the areas. We did occasionally see cheetahs and crocodile on the Omo River, but nothing really significant. I think our visiting hunter was disappointed, because all we had to shoot was gazelle and some other animals. These other animals didn’t eat meat or growl- not very glamorous.
While out on line surveying I saw a very big wart hog. I shot it several times and wounded it. I also think that I made it really mad! Those copper-coated Army rounds make a hole thought the animal, but they don’t really do much internal damage. I started to trail it through the dense brush, by following the blood trail. I followed it for about 400 feet. I came into small irregular shaped clearing, roughly 75 feet by 40 feet. The wart hog was at the far end and had his head down. He was mad and was going to charge me. I had seen other wart hogs attack the trucks we drove and on one occasion I saw one punch a hole in one of our truck tires with their tusks. At this point in human existence one of two things quickly comes to mind - fight or flight. I shot the wart hog 2 more times in the head. He died and I took the tusks from the wart hog. I kept the tusks for a long time and then had some scrimshaw done on them. It is a scene of a hunter shooting a rifle at a bunch of wart hogs with and African scene (mountain and trees) in the background. I mounted them on a piece of American walnut and still have them.