Nie vergete

9 November 2008

Wees gewaarsku! Hierdie is een van daai postings wat baie sal verveel.  Dis ook nie iets wat jy moet lees as jy haastig is nie.  Kom eerder terug en lees in vrede as jy tyd het!

Oor die naweek het Beeld ‘n storie gehad van vier soldate wie se oorskot nog in Angola begrawe lê.  Die storie het my so aangegryp dat ek my manlief gevra het of ons nie daarheen kan gaan nie.  (Omdat hy sy SA vakansie gemis het, gaan hy nou ‘n week verlof in Angola neem.)  Ek is maar ‘n baie sentimentele en emosionele soort mens, en dit voel net vir my ‘reg’ om ‘n eerbetoon-besoek af te lê.  In my Google-soektog na ‘n kaart van Angola om te sien presies wààr Ebo is, kom ek toe op ‘n briljante blog af.  The Flat White Snot Blog.

In Julie vanjaar was daar ‘n inskrywing oor hierdie 4 manne wat meer as dertig jaar later nog in Angola is.  Wat my sommer laat ween het, is die ‘inside info’:  hoe die families dit hanteer het; ‘n pa wat op sy sterfbed nog gevra het dat sy seun moet terugkom ‘huistoe’.  Ook hoe die Angolese hulle ‘n Katolieke begrafnis gegee het.   Maar lees self:

On November 25 1975 a light unarmed Cessna 180D aircraft of the South African Air Force took off from an airstrip near a Catholic missionary station by the name of Cela in the heart of central Angola and only about 250 kilometers from Luanda. On board was an Infantry officer, a Captain JD (Tallies) Taljaard and two Air Force pilots, both young and newly qualified but excellent pilots. They were 2nd Lieutenant Keith Williamson and 2nd Lieutenant Eric Thompson.
They were on an authorized reconnaissance mission with very open-ended instructions. Captain Taljaard, who was one of the Brigade’s Operational Staff Officers, was “to conduct a visual air reconnaissance of the brigade’s operational area” while the pilot, Lieutenant Williamson had “to assist him on this reconnaissance, but if the weather tuned bad, he was to return.” Due to the fact that Lieutenant Williamson was unfamiliar with one of the areas they would be flying over, he requested that his friend, Lieutenant Thompson accompany them. The air liaison officer acceded to this request.

They took off two days after one of, if the, fiercest battles of definitely Operation Savannah, (October 1975 to March 1976) but possibly throughout the 16 year Angolan campaign. During this battle, the South African and allied soldiers received a very bloody nose: a number of the South African armoured cars were disabled and many Unita and Fapla infantry soldiers who were fighting at the side of the South African armour were killed. The reason why so little has ever been said or written about this battle is obvious. We were not victorious.

The three men were taken to the airfield at Cela constructed by the now departed Portuguese where the plane was refueled, taking on board a full load of fuel which, depending on how and at what height they were to fly at, would give the plane a flying time of four and a half to maximum of six hours flying time. They took of at 11:05. Due to the flight being “a mission” no flight plan was lodged and neither was radio communications established and maintained between the plane and the Headquarters at Cela. Therefore throughout the day, no one at the Headquarters had any knowledge of where the reconnaissance plane was at any given time.

It was only when the fuel time became critical that the liaison officer became worried and tried to establish communications. When this failed, he requested the ground forces to report if anyone had seen the plane during the day and to ask amongst the local inhabitants if they knew or had heard anything of the plane.

Eventually, late afternoon, almost evening, the liaison officer notified the senior air force unit, 1 Air Component, at Rundu that the Cessna had not returned after a reconnaissance mission. Too late to do anything that evening, so it was only the following morning that a search was put into action using what planes were available: two Dakota and two Cessna aircraft and a helicopter. (All unarmed aircraft). They arrived at Cela from Rundu and other airfields during mid-morning on the 26th and after a briefing at the Brigade Headquarters, took off to conduct the search. They were however forced to return later that afternoon due to the usual afternoon tropical rainstorm. The search continued on Thursday 27th again being cut short due to the weather.
On November 27th The SA Defence Force’ intelligence, monitoring all enemy radio frequencies, intercepted a message from the Cuban Brigade Headquarters at Quibala to the Supreme Headquarters of the Cuban Military Mission in Angola, situated in Luanda, that Cuban anti-aircraft guns had shot down a light aircraft over the Ebo district, killing the three occupants. The following day, 28th, on the Angolan Radio News, Angop it announced: “The Angolan Forces’ anti-aircraft gunners had shot down an enemy warplane over the Ebo district of Central Angola killing three men on board.”

With these two reports and the dangerousness of flying a search pattern over unknown territory where a possibility existed of enemy anti-aircraft guns or missiles, the search was terminated before it resumed on the morning of Friday November 28th.No further attempt was made to ascertain the correctness of the reports, to locate any survivors or to locate the crash site and retrieve the bodies of the three soldiers. The local inhabitants of the area being mainly Roman Catholic found the bodies lying near to the plane and buried them next to the plane giving them an “African orientated Catholic Burial.”

Back to the Friday November 28th, the notification of the incident was received by the South African Defence Force Headquarters in Pretoria and they in turn notified the military unit closest to the residential addresses of the next of kin instructing the officers commanding to convey the tiding “Your son is missing, presumed dead and that any further information will be given forthwith.”

Captain Taljaard’s father was informed at his workplace in Pretoria, he went home to break the news to the rest of his family. In Edenvale, a black official car pulled up outside the home of the Thompsons where two Defence Force officers informed them: “Your son is missing, presumed dead and that any further information will be given forthwith.” The only other information they could give was that the plane their son was in had gone missing in the “operational area.” In Bloemfontein, a real tragedy was about to play itself out: the Williamson family, to get away from a previous family tragedy had sold their home and were, that day, November 28th, moving into a new home they had bought in Fichardt Park.

An official looking black car pulled up in front of the new house, two officers got out, pulled their caps firmly on their heads and began to open the gate, Mrs Williamson, looking through the window that at that stage did not even have a curtain hanging, immediately knew that here were bearers of bad tidings. She had been unpacking a box in the living room. She watched in horror as the two officers advanced towards her front door. She dropped whatever she had in her hands and ran screaming for the bedroom. There she locked the door and refused to open it. Mr Williamson, hearing his wife’s screams came forward and greeted the officers. When they said that they were the bearers of bad tidings, Mr Williamson simply collapsed onto a packing case and stared at a crucifix that he had just hung on the wall. This was the third such tiding the Williamsons had had to receive within the past eleven months: In December of the previous year, their eldest son was killed in a horrific motor accident outside Lainsburg in the Karoo. In May, their only daughter was killed in a similar motor accident in the Orange Free State, and now, now……

The two officers were at a wits end, they had come to bring bad tiding to the family but did not expect to be received by a hysterical wife who had locked herself in the bedroom and refused to open the door, while the husband, obviously in an advanced state of shock was also unable to receive the message from the Defence Force. They could not get their bad tidings across and they could not leave a family in that state. Luckily there was a message from, what was obviously a good family friend, a Mrs Joan Hosken. Looking in the family phone diary, they found her number and on explaining the situation, she volunteered to come to the house immediately. Even she could not get Mrs Williamson to open her door. The more they tried the worse the screams and wailing became. At least the officers managed to tell Mr Williamson but if he really understood or not, they had no idea. Mrs Hosken volunteered to stay at the house and help. The officers left.

Not only these officers, but also the officers in the other two cases, had done what they had been instructed to by the Higher Command, they had informed the parents and they had conveyed the message that the SADF would let them know if any news became available concerning the sons. Unfortunately the parents never received any further contact with the authorities unless they initiated it and then the answers were vague and evasive.

Over the weekend, the official communiqué of the SADF was published: “The South African Defence Force announced today that three soldiers are missing in the operational area and are believed dead. They are Captain Daniël Jacob Taljaard of Voortrekkerhoogte, 2nd Lieutenant Keith Arthur Williamson of Bloemfontein and 2nd Lieutenant Eric Bryan Thompson of Edenvale” There were also news clippings that told the public that two were pilots and that the third was an infantry officer. The clipping also made mention that they were on a reconnaissance mission when they went missing.

A shyster, a Mr Pieter van Niewenhuisen who claimed to be the director of the “Supreme Investigation Bureau,” used the announcement and clippings to find the families, He made contact firstly with the Williamson family and telephonically he told them that his bureau had strong information that their son Keith was not dead but was being held as a “prisoner of war” in a jail in Luanda. He would like to meet Mr and Mrs Williamson that night to discuss the possible release of Keith. The couple jumped at this piece of “good news” and an arrangement was made to meet at a local hotel. At the hotel, Mr van Niewenhuisen told them that his firm had a branch in Luanda and that his associate there had conclusive proof that two South African pilots were being held, and being brutally interrogated, in the jail.

Mr van Niewenhuisen said that for a specific sum he could arrange, through his associate, to get the two boys out of the jail and returned to South Africa. The fee Mr van Niewenhuisen was asking would only be a few thousand rand if each family agreed. Mr Williamson explained that with burying two children and buying a new house, all in the space of one year, he did not have the required amount. Mr van Niewenhuisen said that they should try and borrow the amount as he would meet the family again the following evening and, if they had the money he would carry on with freeing the boys but if they did not have the money, he would have to leave things as they were. He would however be back in Bloemfontein in five or six weeks time when, if they had the money by then, he would get the boys released. He was just worried that the boys would no longer be alive by then.

He then showed them a newspaper article wherein a Norwegian who was recently released from the prison in Angola told of two young men in the cell next to his who were, obviously to him, South Africans, because he recognized their accent and also obviously pilots because the interrogation had gone about a plane and flying. These two youngsters were being very badly interrogated and tortured. You can imagine what the Williamsons were feeling hearing this and believing that one of these youngsters was their son: Keith. The following day, Mr Williamson went to the bank and loaned what he could from the bank. They were still short and Mrs Williamson went to a pawnshop and pawned all her jewelry. They were still short and to get the shortfall, Mr Williamson sold the powerful motorboat and engines that he had bought for the children, (All three of them had been top class water skiers.) to get the last R250.00. That night they handed the money to Mr van Niewenhuisen.

Two days later he contacted the Thompson family with the same story and also managed to get a similar sum of money out of them. Mr Thompson however, contacted the police to verify the credentials of this Mr van Niewenhuisen. The police were onto him and when he made contact with the Taljaard family, they set a trap but Mr van Niewenhuisen must have realised something was about to happen and managed to escape the police, luckily without the Taljaard’s money. He has still not been found as far as I can ascertain.

The parents were devastated. Here the South African Defence Force were saying that their sons were “ missing, presumed dead” but could produce no bodies, could not or would not even tell them where their sons had crashed and could or would not tell them how their sons had gone missing or had been killed. For all they knew, the South African Defence Force was hiding the facts from them while here on the other side was this “nice” Mr van Niewenhuisen telling them he had emphatic proof from his associate in Luanda that the boys were alive and prisoners of war.

With the South African Authorities emphatically denying in the South African press and on National television “any involvement in the Angolan civil war and emphatically denying that South African troops were in any way involved in Angolan territory, yet the international media and television that were covering the Angolan civil war were emphatic and showed footage of South African soldiers in South African armoured vehicles in the Angolan bush, how could any family believe this story of being “missing presumed dead:”

Hope caused them not to believe the South African Defence Force when they were emphatic that the boys were not in a jail but “missing, presumed dead.” Yet they could not or would not produce any evidence to substantiate their claims. Letters, pleas and requests from the parents to the South African Defence Force, and the South African Government for information or interviews were politely rejected or ignored.

Mr Taljaard not only approached the South African Defence Force but also the Department of Foreign Affairs, The International Red Cross, the South African Red Cross as well as neighbouring countries that had diplomatic ties with Angola asking for help in finding out where his son was and was he, as the authorities claimed, “believed dead.

When Thompson read in the papers that the leader of Unita movement, Jonas Savimbe was attending a function in Durban where Natal’s top industrialists were going to be present, he wrangled his way into the function and approached Mr Savimbe personally with a plea that Mr Savimbe to assist in finding out what happened to his son. Mr Savimbe promised to see what he could find out but like the South African Authorities no answer was ever forthcoming. Mrs Thompson wrote countless letters to the Minister of Defence, the Chief of the South African Defence Force, Cabinet Ministers and Parliamentarians but other than getting condolences received no information.

The Williamsons were so devastated that they did nothing. In fact they never even applied to have Keith’s status of death changed from “missing, presumed dead” to “killed in action.” What happened was that Keith and Eric being involved in the same incident, and in both cases, as far as the South African Defence Force was concerned, no further information of the two boys were received during the previous five years Keith’s name was put onto the same roll as Eric and the Supreme Court declared both “Dead, killed in Action” in the same court order. This was in 1980, five years after they went missing.

Two years after the incident Captain Taljaard’s heartbroken father realised that there was not much hope left and a memorial service was held for Captain Taljaard in Voortrekkerhoogte one year exactly after the plane was reported missing. Thereafter he went to the court to ask if he could have his son declared dead as he wanted to finalize his son’s estate. Not that easy. He had to apply to the Supreme Court and produce proof of how and where his son had been killed. Not having this information, he approached his old commanding officer (Old Mr Taljaard had also been in the Defence Force) and through him, the South African Defence Force collected and forwarded affidavits from the senior officers involved in the incident to the court. In 1977, Captain Taljaard’s official status of “Missing, Presumed Dead” was officially changed to “Killed in Action.”

The Thompson family, still holding on to the belief that their son Eric was still alive were still trying to communicate with the Government and the Minister of Defence requesting, and later demanding, that they be informed as to the circumstances of their son’s disappearance and where he or his body was. The Minister of defence as well as the Defence personnel very politely and diplomatically deferred any answers. It was only in 1980, five years after the plane went missing, that the two pilot’s status of death changed to “Killed in Action.”
Other than the aerial search of only two virtually half days of actual flying, there is no evidence of any further attempt being made to locate the plane or the bodies. Even though, now nearly thirty-one years later, after I had recovered their graves, I find that a South African force was within kilometers from the crash site.

Captain Taljaard’s father, on his deathbed, called the younger brother, Christo and asked him never to forget his brother, “Keep looking for him and bring his body back and have him buried in South African soil, Please, don’t leave him in that far away country.” Christo, at first tried to put those painful memories of his elder brother’s death into the deepest corners of his mind. It was only last year that while attending a business work session that the memory of his father’s words surfaced again and this is where I came into the picture. Through a contact Christo got hold of me and I took up the challenge of looking for the information surrounding his brother’s death and the location of his brother’s grave. Much easier said than done but never-the-less, nine months later I was able to give, not only him, but the families of the two pilots and a fourth young National Serviceman, a trooper Niel Lombard of B squadron, 1 SSB who had also simply been left in Angola when our forces withdrew, the location of their grave and a full account of where and what happened to them.

It is now 2006 and what has happened to the families? Both Mr and Mrs Taljaard died heart broken within five weeks of each other never hearing the truth about their son and never knowing where his remains were. Mr Thompson passed away, also never finding our what had happened to Eric. Mrs Thompson is still alive and at least she knows the truth now and where Eric is. Hopefully her remaining sons will be able to accompany me on a pilgrimage to pay homage to their elder brother.

The Williamson family, well, Mr Williamson found solace in the bottle, I don’t mean this in disrespect: he was never drunk and disorderly. In the evenings after work, he would simply sit in his chair and deadened the pain of three children lost within the space of eleven months by sipping a few drinks until the pain was deadened. Mrs Williamson tried to keep the family (or what was left of it) together. Again because the new home they had bought had bad memories, they sold up and moved to the South Coast. A few years later they moved to Parys in the Orange Free State where they both passed away within a short period of time of each other, never knowing that their son had done heroic deeds during the “never disclosed war” or what had happened to him or for that mater where he was buried. The whole Williamson family had now gone. Father, mother, two brothers and the sister. This was the end of that branch of the once fun loving, water-skiing sport mad, happy family.

While searching for the remains of the three boys, I found a report of another “white South African’s grave.” Here too, I took up the challenge and after research, was able to put a name to the body in the grave. He was a young National Serviceman, Trooper Niel Lombard of the South African Armour Corps who was killed during that fierce battle I mentioned in my opening paragraphs, two days prior to the disappearance of the reconnaissance plane His grave is about one and a half kilometers away from the other three. Mrs Lombard is still alive but deep in her eighties and in an Old Age Home, Her children were worried about how she would react to finding out that her eldest son who at that early age was taken from her and that throughout the nearly thirty-one years since his death had never been informed of the circumstances or the whereabouts of where her child was buried.

On being informed of their son’s death, the Lombards made arrangements for a beautiful and fitting funeral for their “hero” son. They acquired the best plot in the local Riebeek West Cemetery and prepared the grave, only to find out, two days later, that no body was going to arrive. Here the Lombard family were, their eldest son killed while serving his Country. An open grave and a community ready to rally round and give comfort to the bereaved family, but no body to bury. The grave was closed and the service was cancelled. The local people of Riebeek West made a collection and a beautiful memorial needle was erected in memory of Niel. Monies that were over, I believe have been put in a trust to assist church members who have financial difficulty with putting their children through school.

What happened to young Niel was that, on the morning of November 23rd 1975 (referred to by the survivors as “Bloody Sunday,”) his armoured car was hit as it came down a slope towards a bridge over the Massaba River, some 70 kilometers north of Cela. Niel (who was the driver,) was killed instantly, but the car continued its forward motion until it hit the side of the bridge and toppled over onto its side into the middle of the river. They troop commander and the gunner managed to escape some eleven hours after the car was hit after being terrorized by the enemy infantry trying to pries the hatches of the car open with their bayonets and later a crowbar. But this story will have to wait, as I am still busy researching thin part of the battle in depth.
I am planning a pilgrimage for the four families so that they can see where their loved ones have laid for the past nearly thirty-one years, where they can pay homage to their sons and brothers. Where they can see the country their loved ones were active in prior to their going “Missing Presumed Dead.” Where they can meet the local people, humble farm people whom, never the less, had Christian beliefs and buried the four young men. Buried them in, as they tell me, a Catholic burial. No priest but what they could remember of a Catholic burial.


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