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Nightmare of Congo massacre plagued survivor Tom Kenny for the rest of his life

The former trooper,  who died on October 30, was haunted by accounts of the ambush in Niemba 

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Survivors of the Niemba Ambush, Pte Tom Kenny (left) and Pte Joe Fitzpatrick at the Commemoration Mass at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, in November 1978. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

Survivors of the Niemba Ambush, Pte Tom Kenny (left) and Pte Joe Fitzpatrick at the Commemoration Mass at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, in November 1978. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

The funeral of Trooper Anthony Browne after his remains were found two years after his death in 1960.

The funeral of Trooper Anthony Browne after his remains were found two years after his death in 1960.

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Survivors of the Niemba Ambush, Pte Tom Kenny (left) and Pte Joe Fitzpatrick at the Commemoration Mass at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Dublin, in November 1978. (Part of the Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection)

When Tom Kenny first told me about the dreadful events that happened during and after the Niemba ambush, it was obvious every detail of the nightmare was deeply etched in his mind.

I spent two days interviewing him, checking and rechecking every aspect of the massacre. I could see he was taking great solace from the support he was receiving from his wife and the presence of his young children. However, it was a nightmare that was to stay with him for the rest of his life.

It’s hard to imagine the sun was shining and birds were singing on that fateful day in 1960 as two vehicles left the UN post deep in the Congo bush and headed down the dusty road. No such thing as armoured cars for the small garrison, just a Land Rover and a Volkswagen pick-up.

Nine of the 11 soldiers were in particularly good spirits. For cook Gerry Killeen and medical orderly Matty Farrell it was a welcome break from their demanding duties at the post. The other seven were seeing the countryside for the first time as they had only arrived the previous day. Someone had thrown a faded green and yellow deckchair into the pick-up, thinking perhaps there might be an opportunity to sun himself.

Shortly after their arrival at the post, Tom, then 24, had met a friend for a beer and a chat to celebrate his first wedding anniversary. Another, 20-year-old Private Joseph Fitzpatrick, who had a talent for sketching, saw an abundance of exotic things he might draw. But as they pulled away, neither could have imagined the calamity that was about to befall them.

They crossed five trenches dug on the road by laying planks across four and filling in another, but Baluba warriors who were watching from the bush had taken exception to what they were doing. They had dug the trenches to keep out the Belgian-led gendarmerie who had attacked their villagers and killed many of their people. Now the Irish-UN soldiers were making the roads passable again. They would have to die.

When the patrol, led by Lieutenant Kevin Gleeson, reached a small river about 14 miles south of Niemba, the warriors struck. In a running battle, eight of the soldiers, including Gleeson, were beaten to death. Three survived — Tom Kenny, Joe Fitzpatrick and Trooper Anthony Browne. However, Browne was later killed.

In a subsequent statement, Tom described how he had been hit by two arrows, then taken refuge in a swamp with Browne. As he stumbled and fell, he could hear the Baluba cheering as they closed in.

Browne, standing to one side, fired at their pursuers, then moved off. Tom felt the sting of a third arrow in the back of the neck. This was then wrenched out and the warriors began beating him on the back of the head with clubs. He prayed that God would be good to his wife and child, for he thought he was never to see them again.

Suddenly, there was a burst of shots and he knew it was Browne on his right with his Gustaf. The warriors backed away from him and charged toward the sound of the shots.

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While Tom took no issue with this account of Browne’s actions during his interviews with me, he was to strongly disagree with it in later years. When I talked to him it was less than four years after the ambush and it seemed to me the beating he got and the nightmare that followed were uppermost in his thoughts.

Hearing a bird chirping above him in the swamp, he realised the battle was over and he was still alive. For two days and two nights he wandered aimlessly through the bush and head-high elephant grass.

“The two arrows were sticking in me and causing me great pain,” he recalled. “My head was numb and the back of it was bleeding badly. There was blood in my eyes and I couldn’t see very well. My hands and arms were swollen and very painful.”

As I also recorded in my book, The Peacemakers of Niemba, he was often delirious during his wanderings and experienced a nightmarish mixture of fact and fantasy. But when Irish searchers came upon him, he somehow managed to summon the strength to salute the officer and utter his famous words: “Fifty-seven Kenny, sir, reporting.”

As the arrows were cut from him in emergency roadside surgery, Tom was told another member of the patrol had also survived — Private Joe Fitzpatrick. Their nightmare was over, but it would haunt them for many years — and for Tom, another issue would torment him.

The searchers had failed to find the body of Trooper Browne, but as one officer reported, even wounded warriors had spoken of his bravery. Less than a year later he was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry.

The citation read: “Trooper Browne endeavoured to create an opportunity to allow an injured comrade to escape by firing his Gustaf sub-machine gun, thereby drawing attention to his own position, which he must have been aware would endanger his life. He had a reasonable opportunity of escaping because he was not wounded, but he chose to remain with an injured comrade.”

However, a problem arose when Browne’s remains were found two years later — two-and-a-half miles from the scene of the ambush. As Tom rightly pointed out, that meant Browne did not die saving his life, and so began his campaign to get the authorities to put the record right.

Eventually, an officer was appointed to review the matter. Reporting his finding in 2006, then minister for defence Willie O’Dea told the Dáil the probability was Browne had escaped his pursuers, only to be killed by hostile Balubas two days later. The report also concluded that before his escape from the ambush site: “Trooper Browne fired his weapon at the Balubas who were intent on beating Pte Kenny to death, thereby distracting them and saving his life.”

Tom did not accept that either, but it is worth recalling what he told me during those interviews in 1964. He said he thought Browne drew the warriors off him while getting away himself, adding: “I don’t think he purposely saved my life, although he probably did in saving his own.” There I will let it rest, and may he rest in peace.

 

Tom McCaughren’s book, ‘The Peacemakers of Niemba’, is published by Somerville Press


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