"Prisoner of the ELF" by Ron Dolecki

I went to Ethiopia in 1964 with the US Army’s 64th Engineer Battalion in support of Army Map Service (Special Foreign Activity). My overall unit was simply called “Ethiopia-US Mapping Mission.” It was headquartered in Addis Ababa. We covered the territories to be mapped as much as possible in 4 x 4 army trucks, then flew into the more inaccessible areas aboard UH-1B helicopters. We frequently navigated using aerial photographs because most of the available maps were outdated, incomplete, or grossly inaccurate. Exploring Ethiopia led me to develop a sense of awe and respect for that land of contrasts. Lush, cool highlands of incredible beauty could suddenly give way to baking deserts, where nothing seemed to live. Escarpments with sheer drops of two thousand feet and mazes of canyons were plentiful. I really enjoyed the “sightseeing”…that is until July 12th, 1965. That was a day I’ll never forget.

On that fateful day, I was part of a three-man helicopter crew that was captured by guerillas, later taken to Sudan, and given up for dead. The pilot was Chief Warrant Officer Jack Kalmbach from Tacoma, Washington; I was an SP/4 field classification specialist from Oil City, Pennsylvania; and the remaining crewman was an Ethiopian hired as an interpreter. His name was Habte Mesmer, but everyone just called him “Sam.” None of us knew that an armed rebellion was underway in northern Ethiopia when we began a routine mapping project there. When we landed to collect mapping data north of a town called Keren, we were ambushed by 30 heavily armed guerillas. At first, I didn’t even realize we were being ambushed. The eruption of gunfire made me scan the surrounding hills thinking that a local firefight had broken out between feuding clans. I heard about such fighting in other parts of Ethiopia, so I thought it happened here too. Then terror struck as I saw machine gun bullets churning the ground progressively closer to me. Before I could take cover, I spotted a rifleman near the tail boom of the helicopter carefully aiming his weapon at me. My entire body stiffened in anticipation of the bullet that was sure to come. But the rifleman held his fire. Quickly, more shooters emerged from the brush, and one of them knocked my interpreter to the ground. Another guerilla raised his rifle overhead to bash the interpreter’s skull, but the deadly blow was stopped in mid-motion by two more riflemen, who may have realized that their group could not talk to us without the interpreter. I had not seen the helicopter pilot during the whole ambush episode, so I thought he was dead. However, he was soon escorted to my side of the helicopter, alive and well. The three of us were then ordered, through my stunned interpreter, to undress so the guerillas could search for hidden weapons. Our captors held bayonets to our throats as we complied.

By this time, all of the guerillas were in the open and began to loot and destroy the helicopter. Some were smashing windows and clubbing the fuselage with their rifle butts; others were cutting out the cloth interior with bayonets. All the while they were hooting and hollering like a mob of rampaging lunatics. Then they set the helicopter on fire and the fuel tanks quickly exploded. I could not imagine what they were going to do to us while they were in such a crazed, destructive frenzy. I was so frightened my knees started knocking. Oddly, I remembered only seeing knees knocking in cartoons on TV and always thought that’s because such extreme expressions of fear only occurred in the world of make-believe. But this was real life. To my astonishment, the guerillas magically composed themselves, told us to get dressed, and reminded us to obey their commands without hesitation. They identified themselves as the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and told us we were being held as spies. The spy charges seemed preposterous, but we did have a stack of aerial photographs of their territory, many with observational notes on them. To make matters worse, each photograph had a bold title block reading “Ethiopia-US Mapping Mission,” thus proving to our captors which “side” we were on. The guerillas now threatened to shoot us if we became troublesome. Then we began a 12-day, 150-mile forced march to the neighboring country of Sudan.

Our daily food ration consisted of foul-smelling water and some type of sweetened broth, but no solid food. We usually traveled at night to avoid the 110-degree daytime heat and possible detection by searchers. During the first ten days of captivity, we walked across the northern tip of Ethiopia, where we frequently heard and observed search planes. However, the planes could not spot us because we were always forced at gunpoint to take cover. Eventually, the search planes stopped coming and American newspapers reported that we were probably dead. The ELF took us to many small villages whose inhabitants seemed cooperative but anxious for us to move on. A few potentially disastrous encounters with large roving units of the Ethiopian army were avoided, and we eventually crossed the border into Sudan, where the ELF enjoyed sanctuary.

Once we crossed the border, our captors became noticeably relieved. They stopped posting sentries when resting or eating. Better yet, they stopped watching us closely. They probably concluded that we would never try to escape in such a vast, inhospitable wilderness. However, the pilot, myself, and my interpreter decided that this was our best opportunity for an escape.

We also realized that all three of us could not disappear at once. That would be too obvious. So we decided that one of us might be able to slip away undetected for quite a while if the other two remained in camp in plain sight. I was selected to escape because I was the youngest and strongest. I had just turned 20. The pilot was 37 and had been feverishly ill for a day or two. My interpreter was about 21 and reluctant to escape by himself.

I raised the possibility that my two colleagues could be shot if I successfully escaped, but they insisted that I not dwell on such a notion. They were convinced that somebody had to get away to report our border crossing. For what it’s worth, the army code of conduct that was pounded into each soldier during basic training also mandated that prisoners attempt escapes. We agreed that we had to make something happen, and that I could best help by telling searchers where to search. So the next day, while our captors were preoccupied with cooking and other chores, I sneaked behind some bushes thinking that if I were spotted, I’d just claim I needed to urinate. If I weren’t spotted, I’d literally run like my life depended on it. I escaped unnoticed, and later learned that I wasn’t missed for about an hour and no one tried to find me. My fellow crewmen were beaten as a result of my escape, but not seriously injured.

I headed east towards Ethiopia, where I thought my only chance of rescue would be. But I didn’t know where the border was because such a desolate area had no markers. Anyway, I moved on rocky ground as much as possible so I wouldn’t leave a trail. After a few hours of fast-paced travel, I stumbled onto another ELF guerilla camp and hid behind some vegetation to assess the situation. Fortunately, those people knew nothing of my presence and had no guards posted that I could see. Their relaxed demeanor suggested that I was still in Sudan. I quietly walked a wide loop around their camp and continued east.

Eventually the sun set and I had to contend with the darkest night I had ever seen. There was no ambient light from any city and no starlight from a nearly overcast sky. I was truly immersed in a disorienting darkness that grew blacker by the hour. That’s when a pack of prowling hyenas appeared. Their eyes reflected light from some unknown source, revealing the high degree of danger building around me. They completely surrounded me and yelped excitedly as if to sense that a meal was at hand. If I sat down to rest, the hyenas closed in. If I stood, they stopped in their tracks. If I walked, they followed at a greater distance, but then I couldn’t see where I was stepping or determine my direction of travel. I was afraid I might step off a cliff, or walk deeper into Sudan. These were really frightening possibilities, but the stalking hyenas left no alternative because I knew that once they attacked, they would swarm over me with jaws that can easily crush a man’s bones. So I kept walking over unseen ground to some random destination in a desperate attempt to stay alive. I tripped a few times, and that emboldened the hyenas to move closer. I really didn’t know why they hesitated to attack because all the odds were in their favor. Maybe they were just being overly cautious because man is not their natural prey. Nevertheless, I was coming to believe that I would not live through that night.

As I continued to walk, I bumped into a wall of prickly thorn bushes. A man, probably awakened by the raucous hyenas, pulled me behind the wall, which was actually part of a circular barrier around his hut, where he and his cattle were bedded for the night. He lit a small flickering fire, and I tried to explain with hand gestures what happened to me. He let me sleep by the fire. However, at dawn, he vehemently gestured for me to leave (the ELF probably would beat or kill him if they caught him helping me). When I looked around to get my bearings in the morning light, my heart nearly stopped. This was the only native hut for miles around. If I had walked 50 feet to the right or left during my trek in the dark, I would have missed this refuge in the hinterland, and surely would have perished in the jaws of hyenas.

The sun had risen over a distant mountain peak, giving me a perfect landmark for traveling east. In addition, I thought I could spend the next night in the rocky foothills of that mountain, where I’d be safe from marauding animals. Later I spotted a break in the mountain chain, so I also had a potential path through that natural barrier if needed. What I didn’t realize, though, was the true distance to the mountain; it was far beyond a one-day-hike, especially in my fatigued condition. Nevertheless, I trudged eastward for several hours in the stifling, strength-sapping heat. My clothes became drenched with sweat, clinging to my body like a second skin. My saliva dried to the consistency of paste, which I had to skim off the roof of my mouth periodically to make breathing easier. I cursed the sun and the hellish condition it created in that torrid land. I began to stagger when I realized I would not reach my mountain goal that day.

Just then, I chanced upon a well with a pool of water at ground level. I never saw a well anywhere in Africa with such easy access to its water. Africans typically needed various types of retrieval systems to lift water out of deep wells. I buried my face in the water and drank with reckless abandon. I didn’t care what kind of disease I might contract later from possible bacterial pollutants; I would live a while longer. I drank all I could, then splashed my body to cool it down. I looked around, coming to the conclusion that I never would have seen this well if I had been 50 feet to the right or left of it - just like the chance encounter with the native hut the previous night. God must have been with me.

I knew I couldn’t remain at this well much longer because it had to be an important rest stop for the ELF in such a forbidding environment. I resumed walking in a dangerously weakened condition and fell unconscious by late afternoon from exhaustion and the relentless heat. I may have been hallucinating or just groggy when I eventually opened my eyes and saw the blurry figure of a goat herder (complete with goats) standing over me, mumbling something incomprehensible. We locked eyes for a few moments, then he moved on. After I became fully alert, I looked around but saw no one. Somehow I resumed walking and at dusk approached a small village, but I was convinced that like the goat herder I thought I saw earlier, none of these people was going to help me. I was wrong. The villagers summoned me to their huts, gave me water, and helped me to the ground as I collapsed. Later, I successfully explained my situation to them in charade-like fashion. They let me sleep on a mat beside an overnight fire while they continuously jabbered, probably wondering what to do with me. They must have discussed the possibility of retribution by the ELF against their village if caught assisting me. Nevertheless, the next morning a young man from the village led me to a remote border post where a group of Sudanese police seemed to know who I was. They drove me to a walled compound in the town of Kassala, where other police questioned me for hours while supplying copious amounts of clean, cold water. I remember being mesmerized by the clarity of that water. I could see the bottom of the cup it was in.

Eventually, I was flown to a hospital at Kagnew Station in Asmara, Ethiopia, for medical care and rest. I was debriefed in the hospital by a U.S. Army General who wanted to know how the ELF operated and where they took us. I described what happened and tried my best to plot our travel route on a map. Following that, hospital technicians tested me for malaria, schistosomiasis, and whatever else they thought I could have contracted. I lost 15 pounds and was dehydrated, but I didn’t catch any exotic diseases. They asked if I had bouts of diarrhea while in captivity, and I replied that I did not urinate or defecate the entire two weeks I was out there. This amazed everyone because my body must have been so desperate for nourishment that no waste was created from anything I ingested. The next day, I learned from the hospital staff that the other two helicopter crewmen were unexpectedly released by the ELF near some obscure Sudanese village. I don’t know if my escape had anything to do with their release; I’ve heard conflicting theories about that. It’s academic anyway. The three of us were just glad to be free.

It’s no wonder many veterans regard their military service as one of the most important benchmarks in their lives. I think this is because many young men leave home for the first time, learn to fend for themselves, and bond with others in pursuit of some common goal that can have a life-or-death outcome. In addition, a lifetime of exciting adventures is often compressed into a few years of military service. That’s the way it was for me, and that’s why I will always cherish the memories.

Ron has also supplied some pictures to supplement his story.

"Spectacular Waterfall Over an Escarpment Leading to the Mugher River Valley. Scenery Like this is Common in the Ethiopian Highlands."

"Remnants of Our UH-1B Helicopter, Which Was Burned by Guerillas From the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) After Ambushing Us on 12 July 1965. A Search Party Looks Through the Debris for Clues to What Happened."

"Search Operations Were Conducted from Makeshift Airfields in the Desert. Refueling had to be Done the Hard Way."


All materials, pictures, whatever, except where noted.
©Copyright Rick Fortney 2000 All Rights Reserved