WARNER ROBINS -- Two elderly men walking with canes stood in the dark cargo hold of a C-130 at the Museum of Aviation Friday and described what it looked like the last time they were on the plane 48 years ago.
It was crowded, said Al Larson. Wounded folks were on stretchers, and we sat along the side.
Larson, 83, and five other people visiting the plane were passengers when it flew out of a small airport in the Congo in 1964, after a dramatic mission to rescue them from a brutal rebel force.
They heard about the aircraft after reading a Telegraph story about the pilot who flew it that day. The pilot, Mack Secord, visited the plane at the museum in May. The former hostages came from across the country to see the aircraft and got to thank Secord. He lives in Atlanta and came down to meet the people he saved. He never actually saw any of them during the rescue.
Im sorry I wasnt able to welcome you onto the plane that day, he said after getting warm embraces and expressions of thanks from his former passengers. I was a little busy.
The passengers said it was the same plane that rescued them because of details Secord provided in his visit last year about the flight, which was the first in a series to fly out with hostages. A key facet is that as the plane took off, rebels shot at it and ruptured the fuel tank in the wing, causing fuel to stream out.
Larson and Bob McAllister, 87, clearly remember seeing the fuel coming out of the wing. It was the only rescue flight on which that had happened, so they said it had to be the plane they were on.
They had gone to the Congo to serve as missionaries.
The rescue mission was dubbed Operation Red Dragon. About 2,000 hostages, mostly missionaries, were held for three months, and many were killed. Others were tortured and starved. A combined rescue effort was organized between the U.S., which flew the hostages out, and Belgian paratroopers, who did the actual rescue.
Marilyn Wendler, 59, organized Fridays visit. She said there were 67 missionaries among the group to which she and her parents belonged. Of those, 19 were killed. Her parents both survived.
Most among Wendlers group were held under house arrest at their compound, away from where the main group of hostages were being held in Stanleyville. At one time they were all lined up to be executed, but for reasons unknown the rebels backed off, although they did kill one man.
McAllisters daughter, Ruth, was 4 years old at the time. Some of her memories of the rescue are vague, but others are clear. She remembers being lined up to be executed, when the rebels first faced them wielding machetes, which they were known to use to hack people to death. Then they picked up guns.
My mother said, Thank God, at least its going to be quick, she said.
She isnt sure why the rebels didnt go through with the execution, but she remembers a boy among her group singing a hymn that morning that some of the rebels knew.
I think they may have remembered that song from experiences with missionaries, and they just couldnt bring themselves to kill us, she said.
They learned only recently that their group was rescued by CIA-trained Cuban exiles, not the Belgians. Ruth McAllister remembers riding to the airport in an open vehicle with one of the Cubans holding her in his lap as he fired at rebels with a machine gun, then he put his coat over her because the shell casings were hitting her in the face. Her 10-year-old brother fed the Cuban ammunition.
Many of the missionaries, including the McAllisters, Wendler and her parents, returned to the Congo not long after the rescue to continue their work. Wendler said the brutality of the rebels is not a reflection of most of the people she knew.
The Congolese people were wonderful people, and a lot of them suffered more than we did, she said. We got out of the country. They had to stay.
When she heard about the museum having the plane, she knew she wanted to come see it, and she contacted Secord, so they could meet the man who flew them to safety.
Its just a reminder of the amazing way God took care of us, she said. We are proud to belong to a country that would come get us. We are just really thankful.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.