As how-do-you-dos go, it was strange, but cheery and certainly effective: “Hi, I’m one of the hostages, you saved my life,” said Marilyn Wendler, extending an outstretched hand. “Which one were you?”
“I was the one driving the pickup truck and shooting out the window,” replied Angel Benitez, not even slightly nonplussed. “Nice to meet you!”
So it went Sunday as Cuban-Americans who fought in Africa 50 years ago under CIA command held a reunion with hostages they rescued from Congolese guerrillas.
The hostage rescue was just one chapter, albeit the most dramatic, of a little-known five-year CIA effort to shore up the pro-Western government of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was under attack by guerrilla movements backed by China and the Soviet Union.
About 250 CIA veterans, former hostages and their families flew in from all over the world for the event, which was organized at a Kendall banquet hall after an impromptu and much smaller reunion three years ago.
A surreal blend of chatter running the gamut from “Here’s a picture of my grandchild” to “the .30-caliber machine guns tended to overheat,” punctuated by the occasional burst of tears, provided the soundtrack.
Those mostly came from encounters between missionaries and the men who rescued them, most of whom had never met before. The missionaries were being held by guerrillas known as Simbas (from the Swahili word for lions) who had already killed one of them and wounded several others.
Conducted in a continuous hail of gunfire at a rural compound on the edge of the jungle, it left little time for social amenities.
“We didn’t have time to get acquainted,” said Wendler, a Los Angeles nurse who was just 11 when the rescue took place on Nov. 24, 1964. “We just took orders and stayed quiet. And when it was over, they disappeared.”
Some of them, however, knew one another on sight. Ruth Reynard burst into tears instantly when she saw Juan Tamayo, the burly CIA machine-gunner who cradled her 4-year-old self in one arm and blasted away with his weapon in the other the entire length of the five-mile ride from the missionary compound to the safety of government lines.
“As soon as I looked into his eyes, I was 4 years old again,” said the Nashville college administrator. Tamayo, now a 77-year-old Miami concrete merchant, brooding for five decades that the roar of his machine gun had deafened her, smiled broadly at the news that her ears are good.
“Now I can die in peace,” he said.
Others at the reunion were less tearful than flat-out awed.
“When I hear all these stories, it’s like my uncle and my grandfather were bad-asses,” said 18-year-old Miami Dade College student Juan Jarquin, whose uncle and grandfather were both part of the CIA force that rescued the missionary.
“They’re part of history, and that means that — indirectly and in a small way — so am I.”
About 125 Cubans working for the CIA took part in the Congo wars from 1962 to 1967. They were originally recruited for the agency’s covert war against Fidel Castro, but as it wound down, the CIA put them to work on the other side of the world.
“Besides being well-trained and capable, they were also completely deniable,” said Frank R. Villafaña, author of Cold War in the Congo, virtually the only history of the conflict. “None of them had American citizenship or passports. If they got captured, Washington could just say, ‘Sorry, don’t know anything about this fellow, he’s not one of ours.’”
Coincidentally, the Soviets and Chinese were also importing Cubans into the Congo — troops from Fidel Castro’s armed forces. James Hawes, who commanded the CIA’s tiny two-boat navy that patrolled Lake Tanganyika, disrupting guerrilla supply lines, said his proudest moment was when the 16 Cuban exiles under his command drove a unit commanded by Castro lieutenant Che Guevara back across the lake into Tanganyika.
“Was the war in the Congo worth it?” Hawes said. “Ask Che.”
Or ask Dick Holm, a legendary CIA officer who fought in the Laotian jungles and tracked notorious terrorism Carlos the Jackal, in addition to his service in the Congo. “Apart from one bad day, I wouldn’t change anything in my career,” he said.
His definition of “bad day” is probably a little stronger than yours. Holm was aboard a CIA reconnaissance flight that crashed in the remote Congo jungle, leaving him blind with burns over 35 percent of his body. It took his Cuban-American pilot, Miamian Juan Peron, 10 days to hike through Simba-controlled territory and return with a helicopter — which promptly crashed. It was two years before Holm could go back to work.
With memories of the Congo like those, why would he travel across the country for a reunion?
“Juan Peron phoned me last week and called me a [wimp],” Holm replied. “So I had no choice.”