United States Air Force
(As related by his widow Marge Peake)
“I just happened to be there. It was an accident.” These simple words of explanation were characteristic of Kenneth Stickevers, a Long Island, New York native who, in August 1960, along with seven Air Force crew mates became the victims of civil unrest in the Congo. They experienced firsthand the uncertainties and dangers of the United Nations operation referred to as the Congo Airlift and known officially as Operation New Tape.
In June, 1960, the Congo had been granted independence from Belgium. On July 14, the United Nations Security Council authorized the Secretary General to send a military force to restore order following the eruption of riots and insurrection by militant groups fighting for control of the country. Responsibility to provide the major air transport fell on the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Thus began Operation New Tape, which became the largest airlift since the Berlin blockade.
It was around this time, halfway around the world, in Dover, Delaware, that a tall, slim but solidly built, Air Force officer informed his girlfriend, Margaret (Marge) Connor that he was being transferred to Spangdahlem, Germany. Ken Stickevers and Marge met on St. Patrick’s Day at the Officer’s Club bar at Dover Air Force Base (DAFB).
Marge, a native of Philadelphia and a civilian nurse, had recently moved to Dover to live with her sister Cathy, an Air Force nurse at DAFB. The sisters decided to celebrate Cathy’s recent promotion to First Lieutenant by going to the bar. Ken, a C-124 pilot, struck up a conversation with Marge and before long the two were dating. Marge initially rebuffed Ken’s marriage proposal. It took several weeks of coaxing before Marge accepted the proposal admitting that she could not live without him. Marge described Ken as having liquid crystal brown eyes. He masked his shyness with “a caustic humor, a New Yorker’s sophistication, and alcoholic fortification.”
During a 10-day leave, the couple traveled to New York to meet Ken’s parents, Harry and Roberta, and to buy an engagement ring. Two weeks later, while doing his duty during one of the United States Air Force’s greatest peacetime accomplishments, Ken became entangled in a bloody civil war.
On August 23, 1960, Ken and seven crewmembers, under the command of Captain Elbert L. Mott, flew out of Dover Air Force Base aboard their Globemaster II C-124 affectionately referred to by airmen as “Old Shakey”. They headed to Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland. From there they flew to Ireland to pick up Irish United Nations Rangers. They spent two days in Chateauxroux, France. Then it was off to Wheelus Air Base in Libya where they unloaded the Irish troops. Finally, they arrived in Kano, Nigeria to load a large communications van plus two Canadian Security Police. The crew was instructed to proceed to Stanleyville, Congo rather than their original destination of Elizabethville.
The topography of Africa is a mix of physical contrasts. The airlift route system of Operation New Tape stretched from Wheelus Air Base in Libya in the north, to Dakar, Senegal in the west and to Dar Es Salaam, Taganyika in the east. The realities of this terrain presented numerous challenges to the Air Force. The most serious of which was a lack of accurate navigational aids, including maps which showed mountains that did not exist and marked others in wrong locations. Air crews often had to operate with the assistance of radio beacons that were frequently off the air. Air to ground radio service was generally substandard, and poor linguistic communications plagued the operation. When Ken’s plane approached Stanleyville tower communications were out.
The plane landed without incident at about 11:30 a.m. local time on August 27. When the plane was on the ground, tower communications were reestablished. The crew was informed that huge crowds, approaching 10,000 people, had gathered at the airport in anticipation of the arrival of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The crew simply went about the business of unloading their cargo.
Ken was standing near the plane when a few Congolese soldiers came up to him and asked if they could look inside. After only a few minutes in the plane, they brandished their weapons and ordered the airmen and the two Canadians to get off. Prime Minister Lumumba was nearly three hours late. The nervous crowds began converging on the C-124 and the unarmed and unsuspecting crew.
Ken was walking behind one of the soldiers, heading toward a hangar, when the soldier suddenly turned around and punched him in the mouth. It was at this point that the crowd went wild and descended upon the air men, kicking and punching them. Soldiers beat the airmen with the butts of their rifles. According to newspaper accounts, the mob “worked itself into a frenzy, danced madly and roughed each other to get at the Americans.” During the attack, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s plane landed. The rioters held up the broken body of one of the crewmen as a tribute when the premier emerged from his plane to make a speech. The crowd was in a blood-thirsty state chanting loudly, “Kill! Kill!” At one point, the mob tried to force Ken to put his head on a block so they could decapitate him. Ken deflected the blows to his face with his hands, sustaining broken bones. Each time he was knocked down by blows rained down on him, he picked himself up. He later said he imagined a cross above the hangar and struggled to reach it. Against a sea of hostile rioters, Ken nearly made it to the hangar. Two Ethiopian soldiers grabbed him, threw him in a jeep, and drove him to safety. The melee lasted about 15 minutes. Eventually all the crew members were rescued. They suffered broken legs, fractured ribs with collapsed lungs, and numerous lacerations.
The crewman were treated at a local hospital and then transported to a Weisbaden, Germany hospital for additional treatment. Ken and six of his fellow crew members (Captain Mott had to stay in Germany for extended treatment) arrived at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on September 7. They received a hero’s welcome. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time, “Three of the injured crewmen were still on stretchers. One had both of his hands wrapped in bandages. White bandages on the heads and limbs of the others attested to the violence of the attack.”
Ken, his right hand in a metal splint and his left hand bandaged, stood at attention as Major General William Fisher pinned on the bronze pendant and Blue and Gold Air Force Commendation medals. His fellow crew members, including the two Canadian technicians were also so decorated. The citation accompanying the medals said:
“The crewmembers found themselves bearing the brunt of the continuing political turmoil and upheaval in the Congo.
“With no provocation of any kind they were attacked and brutally beaten without warning by armed men as they were unloading their aircraft.”
As a result of this incident involving Ken Stickevers and his crew, American flags were painted on military supply planes.
Ken and the others made a number of public appearances and gave several interviews about their ordeal. They were guests of Today Show host Dave Garroway. The lasting impression of the character of these men is summed up succinctly by Ken himself. When asked by a newspaper at the time why the crew might want to return to the Congo, Ken replied, “We do this for a living. We’ll go anywhere, anytime.”
Ken and Marge were married October 22, 1960. The bandages were removed from Ken’s hands just the day before. Because of a lasting injury to one of his fingers, his flying status was in doubt. When the doctor was reluctant about signing off on Ken’s ability to fly again, Ken suggested the doctor amputate the finger. The doctor demurred at such a suggestion, but finally acquiesced to sign the necessary papers so Ken could continue his lifelong passion for flying.
By the time Lt. Colonel Stickevers retired in 1973 he had served in different theaters around the world, including a tour in Vietnam in 1970-71. He and Marge raised three children, Kenneth, Jr., Mark and Nanci. Ken died March 28, 1998 of acute leukemia, suspected to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange while he served in Vietnam.
In 1999, Marge wrote a book about Ken entitled, “Final Flight, A Toast to Ken.” In the prologue she wrote, “Thus it is important that I record these events for our family and others who recall an era when men wore integrity like their uniforms.” Ken Stickevers loved his family and served his country honorably.
~ CHIP BERTINO