Congolese Mercy Airlift

by Daniel L. Haulman

Operation Name: Congolese Mercy Airlift
Location: Republic of the Congo
Date: July 15–October 3, 1960
Emergency: When civil war threatened to destroy the newly independent Republic of the Congo, the leaders of the country appealed to the UN for troops. Food shortages and the need to evacuate refugees required humanitarian airlift missions.
Organizations: 322d Air Division, MATS Air Transport Wing (Provisional) (Europe), and 1602d Air Transport Wing
Airlifted: 1,074 tons of food and 2,540 refugees.
Aircraft Used: C–130 and C–124 (numbers unknown)

Almost immediately after Belgium granted independence to the Republic of the Congo at the end of June 1960, tribal warfare, provincial secession movements, mutinies among Congolese military units, power struggles among political leaders, and racial violence tore the new nation apart. Belgium sent troops in an attempt to restore order. The prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, and the country’s president, Joseph Kasavubu, feared reimposition of the colonial regime and appealed to the UN for troops to replace the Belgians. While the United States sent no ground troops, it did join other nations in providing airlift for UN forces.

Lasting from July 1960 through June 30, 1964, Operation New Tape was the largest Air Force airlift since the Berlin blockade of 1948–1949. United States Air Forces in Europe C–130 Hercules and MATS C–124 Globemaster aircraft carried 16,000 of the 20,000 UN troops airlifted, from 16 of the 23 nations that sent troops. The 322d Air Division initially directed the U.S. airlift under the command of Col. Tarleton H. Watkins. The Military Air Transport Service supported the airlift, first with a provisional air transport wing and then with the 1602d Air Transport Wing, which operated C–124s out of Chateauroux AS, France. In October 1961, MATS took over responsibility for the Congolese operation.

Most of the New Tape flights involved moving combat troops and thus were not strictly humanitarian. Some missions, however, transported refugees and food for civilians. The first set of those missions is included in this airlift.

Initial humanitarian airlift operations in the Congo began in July 1960 after Clare Timberlake, U.S. ambassador at the Congolese capital of Leopoldville, notified the State Department about food shortages in the city. The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, on behalf of the Eisenhower administration, promised food deliveries.

Between July 15 and August 10, the 322d Air Division flew 79 C–130 and C–124 sorties to airlift more than 1,000 tons of food to the Republic of the Congo. During this period, 43 C–124 and 29 C–130 sorties delivered 974 tons of food from Chateauroux and Bordeaux, France, and Rhein-Main AB, West Germany, to Leopoldville. On July 17 and 18, seven C–130 sorties airlifted 100 tons of food from Lomé, Togo, to Leopoldville.

The struggle between Congolese and Belgian troops during the crisis led to attacks on whites in the Congo and many sought evacuation. More than 2,500 refugees, including at least 300 U.S. citizens, flew out of the Congo on Air Force C–130s and C–124s between July 15 and October 3. They landed at Brussels, Belgium; U.S. air bases in France and West Germany; and four UN “safe haven” stations in Libya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. The New Tape operation continued into 1964.

2 Comments

  • William Stepansky

    Went to Kano Nigeria in Old Shakey in 1960 to provide flight line maintenance during the extraction of Belgium troops from the Congo. Flies were in everything including in your mouth as you walked on the flight line.

  • My father was a USAF C130 pilot involved in the UN Congo airlift. He was stationed at Evreux-Fauville Airbase and flew all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East during the early 1960s. I am grateful for this article which sheds some light on his experiences.

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