Lifestyle

Saturday 23 August 2014

Our teen peacekeeper who never came back from the Congo

Ralph Riegel remembers Irish UN trooper Pat Mullins, who is still 'Missing in Action' 50 years after trying to save his dying colleague

In 50 years of Irish peacekeeping operations with the UN, just two soldiers remain posted as 'Missing in Action'. The first is Trooper Pat Mullins from Kilbehenny on the Cork-Limerick border, who was killed on September 14/15, 1961, when his patrol was ambushed in the city of Elisabethville in the Congo's breakaway Katanga province.

Tpr Mullins was just 18 years old and would be killed after a gun battle in which he heroically tried to protect a dying colleague.

He faced overwhelming odds -- but courageously refused to leave his wounded comrade's side.

Yet, despite his bravery, remarkably few outside the Irish military are even aware of Tpr Mullins' heroism.

The battles that erupted on September 14 would rage on in Katanga for weeks to come and would eventually become part of Irish military lore.

Yet, just over a year earlier, there had been a mood of national exhilaration as Irish troops headed to Africa to wear the blue beret.

It was the countrys first major military deployment since independence and many regarded the UN mission to the Congo as heralding the dawn of a new, modern Ireland.

But the mood of exhilaration quickly turned to tragedy after the Niemba ambush on November 8, 1960.

A total of nine Irish soldiers had died in that engagement -- and it suddenly dawned on a somewhat naïve nation that peacekeeping missions weren't just parade-ground drills.

The Congo was proving a steep learning curve both for Ireland and her soldiers.

They had first arrived in the newly independent African country with weapons that were more suited to conflicts from the 1920s and 30s.

Wool uniforms and home-built Ford armoured cars would, within the space of just five years, give way to modern equipment and state-of-the-art weaponry.

But, unlike other UN nations, Ireland had significant advantages with its deployment. Ireland brought no colonial baggage to the Congo -- and, over time, Irish troops grew to be hugely respected.

The Niemba ambush had been caused by Baluba tribesmen who presumed that, because the Irish troops were white, they posed the same threat to them as the mercenaries now backing the breakaway Katangan regime.

Yet, within months, Irish troops were helping provide armed protection in refugee camps for these self-same Baluba tribes.

Initially, it had been hoped that the UN troop deployment would prove short-lived. The UN believed that, once UN troops were deployed, the breakaway province of Katanga and its leader, Moise Tschombe, could be persuaded to re-integrate into the Congo.

But the Congo itself was, by now, a mess. Tribal tensions, old grudges and greed combined to threaten to tear the Congo -- one of Africa's biggest and potentially wealthiest states -- apart.

The Congolese national army was, in numerous areas, in widespread revolt; isolated white families, many working in mines or plantations, were targeted for robbery, murder and rape.

Katanga felt it had good reason not to be part of the Congo. Just the previous month, Irish, Swedish and Indian troops had delivered what they had thought was a major blow against the secessionist Katangan forces with a series of operations whose aim was to deprive the those forces of their mercenary officers -- a move endorsed by the then-UN special representative to Katanga, Conor Cruise O'Brien.

The re-integration talks would then proceed apace.

But, instead of handling the deportation of these hired soldiers themselves, the UN had then acquiesced to requests to allow the Belgians and Katangans deal with the matter.

The net result was that the Katangans fought back -- and the Irish patrol of September 14 drove right into a carefully planned trap by Katangan mercenaries.

The ambush took place outside a communications complex and resulted in the entire patrol being captured.

Sgt Tim Carey -- who was travelling in the same armoured car as Tpr Mullins -- suffered an horrific gunshot injury. But he still heroically managed to drag his badly concussed commanding officer, Cmdt Cahalane, to safety.

He was eventually brought back to UN lines by a Belgian doctor and nurse who were convinced that if he was caught by the Katangan forces, he risked being shot out of hand.

In the armoured car, Tpr Mullins and his friend, Cplr Michael Nolan, were knocked unconscious by the initial Katangan anti-tank rocket.

Cplr Nolan suffered serious shrapnel injuries -- and, when Tpr Mullins regained consciousness over an hour later, it is believed he managed to re-start the armoured car and drive it off in a desperate bid to get his friend medical attention.

Tragically, he never made it to Irish lines. He died following a gun battle in which he single-handedly held off an entire Katangan platoon in a bid to protect his friend before being shot and killed. There is a strong possibility that he was killed after running out of ammunition.

Cpl Nolan's body was later recovered from a graveyard outside Elisabethville following an extraordinary and determined search operation led by Captain (later Cmdt) Art Magennis.

But, despite a search campaign that lasted right up until Irish troops finally withdrew from the Congo in June 1964, no trace of Pat Mullins' body was ever found.

Together with Private Kevin Joyce from Galway, who was kidnapped and killed in the Lebanon in 1981, they are the only Irish soldiers to remain Missing in Action from Ireland's UN missions.

John O'Mahony, a Trooper in Ireland's 35th Battalion in the Congo in 1961 and one of Pat Mullins' best friends, paid tribute to his fallen comrade.

"Pat was only 18 when he went to Congo and yet his actions were in keeping with the highest standards of loyalty, bravery and heroism. He refused to leave a fallen friend behind," he added.

Missing In Action by Ralph Riegel and John O'Mahony is published by Mercier Press on August 31, €14.99.

Irish Independent

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