The Congo 50 years on: Our bravest and best
'We were red raw but I'll never regret it until the day I die'
THEY were "red raw" young men who went on the Defence Forces' first-ever overseas peacekeeping mission exactly 50 years ago. They were ill-equipped in bull's wool uniforms for the tropical weather conditions in the Congo -- and 26 of them died in the service of their country.
But the 1,000 Congo veterans who turned up at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, in Dublin, yesterday were told that they had begun a noble peacekeeping tradition which had continued to this day.
Accompanied by a further 1,500 relatives, they commemorated the moment when the first group of 6,100 Irish troops were airlifted from there 50 years ago yesterday using airplanes supplied by the US Air Force.
The cargo listing for the first planeload of troops to the Congo showed they brought along 220,000 Players cigarettes, 156,000 Sweet Afton cigarettes and pounds of Carroll's and Players tobacco. Also on board were 72 bottles of Gold Label whiskey, 72 bottles of gin and 10,000 Blue Gilette razor blades.
Back then, Paddy Cope was an 18-year-old Dubliner who was pictured in the national press saying goodbye to his worried mother. He remembered yesterday that she was telling everybody: "He's me only son". But he and his friend Tony Carroll returned home safely after serving as signalmen -- radio communications operators -- in the Congo.
Another who made it back was James Walsh (now 91) from Midleton, in Cork -- although he had to borrow his wife's wheelchair for the day due to the amount of walking involved. "He was mad to come here," said his daughter Phil, who brought him over to shake hands with Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
Yesterday, the veterans heard Irish Air Corps chaplain Fr Gerry Carroll praise them for the way they had tried to bring peace to the Congo, which had just declared independence under its fiery Prime Minister Joseph Lumumba in 1960.
"Those were high standards you set and to which our present-day soldiers still aim for and adhere to," he said.
The peacekeeping mission was a proud moment for the fledgling Irish State, but its people were deeply shocked to find out that the Congo could be a hostile place. Nine out of 11 soldiers on patrol were killed in the Niemba ambush just three months after the mission began. The name of the tribe responsible -- the Balubas -- later began a term of abuse in Dublin. Tom Kenny, then a 22-year-old in the 33rd battalion, was one of just two men who escaped the ambush. Despite sustaining painful and lasting injuries, the Dubliner insisted he would return to the Congo.
"We were red raw. We weren't tutored enough to say what could or might happen -- unfortunately it did happen," he said.
"But I'll never regret it until the day I die, I would've loved to be able to go back over."
At Casement Aerodrome, Mr Kenny was reunited with old friends for a special commemoration. "It's exactly like yesterday to me, it hasn't changed," he said.
"We shared a cigarette, we shared a pint, we shared joys and we shared sorrows. You can't take that away from anybody."
The early peace-keeping tactics adopted by the Irish troops included having dinner with village chiefs in the Congo and presenting one of them with "eggs and biscuits and a dart board". They themselves had to eat American army rations, which contained biscuits so hard that they had to be soaked in water to make them edible.
"We called them dog's biscuits," said former Sergeant William O'Reilly (now 68), who served there with his younger brother John (now 66).
Mr Cowen said it must never be forgotten that the deployment of the "peace pathfinders" had come at a huge cost.
"It was to see Irish soldiers taking part in very serious fighting, suffering fatalities and injuries," he said.
During his speech, Mr Cowen singled out for praise the 156 troops of A Company who had once been unfairly criticised for surrendering after the Battle of Jadotville in the Congo in 1961. He said they had been attacked by more than 3,000 heavily armed mercenaries and police belonging to the breakaway Katangan province.
"A heroic and remarkable defence saw A Company inflict heavy casualties without suffering a single loss of life. Only severe shortages of ammunition, food and water brought about capture," he said.
Mr Cowen made it clear that a future peacekeeping mission was still possible despite the withdrawal of troops from Chad and the crisis in the public finances.
The remaining 13 Irish troops in Chad are due to return home shortly.