"The Great African Mail Robbery" by Larry Bucher

This story comes from the August 1961 issue of Our Navy, a long-defunct magazine.

A Navyman's True Adventure--
by Daniel Pettigrew

The cities of Asmara and Massawa in Ethiopia are connected by eighty miles of treacherous, mountainous road, barely wide enough for one way traffic. As first class storekeeper at the communications station in Asmara it was my duty to escort the U.S. mail between those two cities, along that winding road bordered on the one side by sheer drops of over 3000 feet and by the steep rise of the mountain on the other. It is an area of unrelieved wilderness and desolation.

At all times during the mail run, the driver and escort were armed with .45 caliber automatics. The reason for this precaution was two fold. First, we were carrying registered mail and official correspondence. Second, there was the constant menace of the Shifta, a notorious bandit tribe in the neighborhood.

The Shifta are an extremely wild mob inhabiting the hills and preying upon the villages and travelers of the mountains. Their deeds are so violent and infamous that African officials have passed a law automatically carrying the death penalty for any captured Shifta.

On 15 June, 1959, Willis Fox, TE3, and I began our mail run. The first leg of the trip was performed without mishap. At Massawa a Navy doctor requested that I transport two of his patients to the Army hospital at Asmara. While making the necessary arrangements, I happened to encounter Mr. Grimaldi, the fresh milk supplier from Asmara. He had just delivered some milk to the ships in port and was preparing to return home.

We decided to make the return trip together. The two patients would ride in Mr. Grimaldi's more comfortable Volkswagon truck and Fox and I would follow in the jeep. We loaded the mail, placed the patients in the truck and took off.

We were only eight miles from Asmara when the trouble started. I had lost sight of Mr. Grimaldi's truck as he rounded a curve and disappeared in the dark shadows cast upon the road by the steep upward slope of the mountain. My jeep was trailing about 300 feet behind the milk suppliers Volkswagon; a common practice due to dust, twists and gullies.

I automatically slowed down. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I saw the truck. It was stopped. Standing beside it were the two patients and Mr. Grimaldi--all with their hands in the air. The cold hard realization struck me with a sickening blow: Shifta!!

My hands became moist. A peculiar cottenish taste formed in my mouth. My breathing became audible and hard. Four Shifta were in the road and one was standing to the side behind some huge rocks. All had rifles in their hands and ammunition belts entwined about their torsos. Long bushy jet black hair hung over their ugly pock marked faces. Their skinny arms and legs protruding from tattered and filthy clothing gave them a look of dire desperation.

They were all short and thin and jabbering in a dialect similar to the guttural sounds exchanged by unfriendly dogs. Sandals tied to their feet with rags gave them an almost comic appearance. But there was nothing funny about the rifles pointed at us. All the dastardly tales I had heard about the Shifta raced through my mind. A thousand panic-born ideas occurred to me, but not one of them was even feasible.

The road was too narrow to floor the accelerator and dodge the roadblock. The steep mountain on one side and the sharp drop on the other killed any thoughts of turning. The sharp bend I had just negotiated precluded any quick shifting into reverse and backing down. Reaching for my .45 and blasting away from such a distance would make a lot of noise but tactically it would be sure suicide. The rifles leveled on all of us made it tough to think of anything--let alone anything good.

The bandit behind the rocks motioned us forward, indicating that my jeep was to stop about seventy feet from the truck. The other four bandits finished robbing the men ahead and headed for my jeep.

My heart sank. The cotton in my mouth grew thicker. My hands grew sodden with perspiration. Still my mind was entertaining thoughts of taking action--any action--to extricate ourselves from this position.

As the bandits approached, I slipped my right hand down to my .45. There was a round in the chamber and the clip was filled. I eased out the pistol, thumbed off the safety and sat praying. When the first bandit was ten feet from the jeep, I gently raised the .45 and squeezed the trigger. The slug caught him dead center, flipped him backwards and tossed him over the bank. My second shot caught the next bandit chest high, killing him instantly.

At the first sound of shots, the two patients dove for cover behind the truck. The milk supplier grabbed his pistol from beneath the truck's dashboard. Meanwhile Fox had drawn his .45 and was firing at the surprised bandits. Noise, shouting and shots filled the air. It resembled the Fourth of July in the middle of a Mardi Gras. Another bandit was killed in the melee.

After the two remaining bandits fled into the mountains, a profound silence ensued. What had seemed like hours had taken only seconds. It occurred to me that my .45 was empty. I ejected the spent clip, inserted a full one and cocked the pistol so a round was in the chamber--just in case.

A quick check revealed that everyone was alright. I then ordered all the people back into their vehicles. A half mile further on, I left Mr. Grimaldi and Fox in the jeep to prevent other vehicles from entering the area. I drove the two patients to Asmara in the milk truck and after leaving them at the Army hospital told the local police and the Provost Marshal what had happened. Within a few minutes, a delegation of local policemen, MP's and myself were back at the scene.

Upon investigation we discovered that three bandits had been slain and, judging from the blood drops trailing up the mountain slope, one or two others had been wounded. An inspection of the Shifta's rifles disclosed that the poor condition of these ancient weapons had resulted in many misfires, a factor which probably saved our lives. Two of the Shifta were later identified as the most notorious bandits in the area, one ranking on Africa's ten most wanted criminal list.

The official naval message from ComNavSta Asmara to the Chief of Naval Operations describing the hold up read in part . . . "in review of this sailor's action in the face of extreme danger to his life under fire of a proven enemy and efforts to protect lives of his party and the U.S. mail entrusted to his custody, it is recommended that he be granted the Silver Star Medal."

On 20 July 1959, my 28th birthday, the commanding officer informed me that I was to receive the Navy and Marine Corps medal. For diplomatic reasons, the US ambassador to Ethiopia would not permit the medal to be awarded to me in Asmara. To avoid any retaliation by the Shifta, it was decided that I should be transferred to the United States as soon as possible.

Initially, I was rather upset and somewhat bitter at not receiving the medal plus being hustled out of the country on the first available transportation. It seemed to me that I was being punished for having been held up and shot at in addition to acquiring quite a few premature grey hairs. After the freshness of the incident faded a little, however, I was able to appreciate the wisdom of the ambassador's decision.

As I boarded the plane bound for the States, I took a last backward glance at the area I was leaving. The mountains seemed regal in their big, bold vastness, the forest gave the trees and grass a shiny green gloss, the air was clean and clear. Asmara lay sleeping peacefully in the morning sun and as the plane gained altitude, the events of 15 June 1959 seemed to have taken place an eternity ago.

"The article is accompanied by two photos, one of a dead shifta and one of Pettigrew receiving his medal aboard the USS Macon. These events happened when I had been in the country just one month. Pettigrew really did get a shafting from the navy, his reward was sea duty -- they couldn't find *any* shore billet for him! I also knew Willis Fox -- Fox was quite critical of Pettigrew, thought he was nuts to have begun blasting away and was lucky he didn't get both of them killed."
Larry Bucher


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved