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SOF Interview With Cold War Navy SEAL: My Story of Che Guevara, War in Congo….

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Jim Hawes Cold War Navy SEAL

On October 9th, 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was put to death by Bolivian soldiers, trained, equipped and guided by U.S. Green Beret and CIA operatives. His execution remains a historic and controversial event; and thirty years later, the circumstances of his guerrilla foray into Bolivia, his capture, killing, and burial are still the subject of intense public interest and discussion around the world.

As part of the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Che Guevara, the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project is posting a selection of key CIA, State Department, and Pentagon documentation relating to Guevara and his death. This electronic documents book is compiled from declassified records obtained by the National Security Archive, and by authors of two new books on Guevara: Jorge Castañeda’s Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Knopf), and Henry Butterfield Ryan’s The Fall of Che Guevara (Oxford University Press). The selected documents, presented in order of the events they depict, provide only a partial picture of U.S. intelligence and military assessments, reports and extensive operations to track and “destroy” Che Guevara’s guerrillas in Bolivia; thousands of CIA and military records on Guevara remain classified. But they do offer significant and valuable information on the high-level U.S. interest in tracking his revolutionary activities, and U.S. and Bolivian actions leading up to his death. NSA

When Che Guevara was executed in La Higuera, one CIA official was present–a Cuban-American operative named Félix Rodríguez. Rodríguez, who used the codename “Félix Ramos” in Bolivia and posed as a Bolivian military officer, was secretly debriefed on his role by the CIA’s office of the Inspector General in June, 1975. (At the time the CIA was the focus of a major Congressional investigation into its assassination operations against foreign leaders.) In this debriefing–discovered in a declassified file marked ‘Félix Rodríguez’ by journalist David Corn–Rodríguez recounts the details of his mission to Bolivia where the CIA sent him, and another Cuban-American agent, Gustavo Villoldo, to assist the capture of Guevara and destruction of his guerrilla band. Rodríguez and Villoldo became part of a CIA task force in Bolivia that included the case officer for the operation, “Jim”, another Cuban American, Mario Osiris Riveron, and two agents in charge of communications in Santa Clara. Rodríguez emerged as the most important member of the group; after a lengthy interrogation of one captured guerrilla, he was instrumental in focusing the efforts to the 2nd Ranger Battalion focus on the Villagrande region where he believed Guevara’s rebels were operating. Although he apparently was under CIA instructions to “do everything possible to keep him alive,” Rodríguez transmitted the order to execute Guevara from the Bolivian High Command to the soldiers at La Higueras–he also directed them not to shoot Guevara in the face so that his wounds would appear to be combat-related–and personally informed Che that he would be killed. After the execution, Rodríguez took Che’s Rolex watch, often proudly showing it to reporters during the ensuing years.

Ten days after his capture, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Douglas Henderson, transmitted confirmation of Guevara’s death to Washington. The evidence included autopsy reports, and fingerprint analysis conducted by Argentine police officials on Che’s amputated hands. (Che’s hands were cut off to provide proof that he was actually dead; under the supervision of CIA agent Gustavo Villoldo, his body was then secretly buried by at a desolate airstrip at Villagrande where it was only discovered in June 1997.) The various death documents, notes Ambassador Henderson, leave “unsaid the time of death”–“an attempt to bridge the difference between a series of earlier divergent statements from Armed Forces sources, ranging from assertions that he died during or shortly after battle to those suggesting he survived at least twenty-four hours.”

Re: “Cold War Navy SEAL:  My Story of Che Guevara, War in the Congo, and the Communist Threat in Africa.

  • Why did you wait so long to write this book ?(a)  I honored the SEAL Ethos of the quiet professional – “I do not advertise the nature of my work or seek recognition for my actions”;  (b) after fifty years all relevant government documents were declassified so the operation could be told in its entirety without reservations or obfuscations; (c)  the Cubans critical contributions were never recognized by our government. Their bravery, loyalty, and success deserve recording for posterity and for their families; (d) I am the only living person who can tell this story accurately.  Any historian will be required to deal with a first-hand account regardless of his/her political slant or prejudice; and it was a Cold War success conceived and executed by men trying to do the right things for the right reasons.
  • How did you meet your co-author ?I contacted Rick Kaiser, Executive Director of the UDT-SEAL Museum, Fort Pierce, Fl, told him that all materials had been de-classified, that I wanted to write the story, but felt that I needed a professional ensure a quality product.  He replied that he recommended Mary Ann Koenig who had done quality work for the Museum, and was easy to work with.  I owe Rick, because his introduction of Mary Ann was a Godsend.
  • How many Americans were involved in your operation ? In Congo, I was the Lone Ranger for most of the time except for a period when Rene Gough (“Gooch”), an old Frog, came out of retirement to join me.  He was as fine a man as God ever made and was enormously valuable until he was killed. Of course, I had backup support in the Embassy in Kinshasa, about 1,800 miles of jungle to the west, and back at Headquarters in Washington, DC; all willing, but far away.
  • What is the back story of the “Congo Cubans” ? These men were fervent anti-Communists, Veterans of the Bay of Pigs and subsequent anti-Castro operations.  They were committed to fighting Communism anywhere it could be confronted and had proven their courage, dedication and loyalty in many operations against Castro.  Their professionalism, pride in performance, behavior, devoted friendship, and loyalty to the US Government cannot be exaggerated.   They had had a prior trust relationship with the man who was Deputy Chief of the Maritime Branch in the Special Operations Division.  That trust was so strong that it was conveyed to me without any reservations from the Cubans.
  • What experience and training prepared you for this mission ? Primarily, it was my SEAL training.  Prior to this mission I had been the first SEAL Team-2 officer to be permanently ordered to Vietnam, specifically, MACV/SOG to be one of the original officers to stand up the Naval Advisory Detachment (“NAD”) as part of the transfer of SOG (known prior to the DOD takeover as Studies and Observations Group) from CIA to DOD, and assume OpPlan-34A, the operations into North Vietnam.  This was the most politically sensitive operation in Vietnam at the time.  I was the Training Officer and the Assistant Operations Officer for the boat and commando operations into the North.  This put me in position of being one of two officers with Swift Boat experience (we had the first three Swifts in Vietnam, taken over from CIA, as part of the turnover). That Swift boat experience was critical for selection for the Congo mission.
  • How did the Congo opportunity with the agency come to you ? The Chief of the Maritime Branch was a former commander of the East Coast Underwater Demolition Teams, so it was easy for him to validate me in the smallSEAL community.   I was recommended to him by the only other SEAL with Swift Boat experience. Everything I had done in Vietnam was applicable in some way for the Congo mission.  And I was keen to do it.
  • What was the biggest obstacle you faced in building the Congo Navy? I was not in the mercenary’s chain of command and I did not pay them.  But it was essential that I train them to be sailors, operate our boats and ensure that my operations be executed according to my orders. Making that happen was a matter of trusting my instincts on how to deal with the mercenaries, having the benefit superb SEAL training, and being lucky.  But mostly, it could not have happened without the Cubans as a training cadre.
  • How did you plan the missions?There were regular ops meetings with LCol Mad Mike Hoare, the 5thCommando mercenary commander, the Belgian liaison with the Congolese Army, Col Hardenne, and others as appropriate, to discuss areas of activity requiring the attention of our interdiction vessels.  Also, I had befriended the Greek owner of the only fishing fleet on Lake Tanganyika, who’s vessels serviced every port on the Lake. That meant that we had access to information concerning possible Rebel traffic on the Lake  from every Lake port that we could intercept.  Mission planning required a large amount of flexibility, depending upon last minute intelligence concerning Rebel Lake traffic.
  • How were you supervised?No supervision.  My in-country boss was 1,800 miles across the jungle at the Embassy in Kinshasa.  No voice communication to Kinshasa.  Critcal messages were sent via telegraph encrypted from one-time pads. Approximately every other day a supply plane would arrive, so that written messages could be delivered and carried back.
  • How were you, your personnel, and your boats armed ? the Swifts had .50’s bow, stern, port, and starboard; a .57 mm recoilless rifle tub, and .60 mm mortar off of sandbags plus a board on the fantail for illumination.The PT’s had a .30 cal machine gun forward and shoulder-fired 3.5 inch rocket launchers aft.  The Ermans was armed with captured Russian machine guns and a .75 mm recoilless rifle on the fantail.  I carried a Walther PPK and n AR-15.  The mercenaries had Belgian FN’s.
  1. What was it like for you in the early days, after the formation of the SEAL Teams?SEAL Teams 1 & 2, respectively, were formed 1 January 1962.  I completed training in July, 1963.  There were ten officers and fifty enlisted on each SEAL Team, all from the Underwater Demolition Teams, as the basic training was identical.  Essentially, the secondary missions of the UDT’s became the primary missions of the SEAL’s.  Eventually, all the UDT’s became SEALs.  The Teams were the neglected stepchildren of the navy in those days, kept alive by dedicated Frogcommanders who cared more about the Teams than promotions, and a few far-sighted Admirals. Today’s preparation for missions is much more professional with the very best training possible.  In the early days operational requirements and only a relative handful of SEALS dictated that our training was “on the job”.
  1. Describe your Vietnam experience which made you qualified for selection for the Congo mission ?

(a) OpPlan-34A was a clandestine maritime operation with plausible deniability, both descriptive of the Congo operation; (b) more experience in training and operating boats, including Swift Boats; (c) experience in mission planning and preparation; (d) experience training and operating with third/host-country personnel; (e) experience working alone, as when following the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”, we anticipated retaliation against our boats at our base below Monkey Mountain, in Danang Harbor.  Some believe these attacks on Hon Nieu and Hon Mat in the path to Haiphong Harbor were the final provocation for the NVN attacks on the US Desoto Patrol destroyers. As the lone American officer, I lead the Nasties (our Norwegian-built fast boats) that had conducted the raids, and the Vietnamese crews, from Danang, south to Cam Ranh Bay, to hide from both the NVN and the International Control Commission.  I had a satchel full of Vietnamese currency and a 1903 French Chart of Can Ranh Bay for navigation, since no one had any idea what we might need or confront on arrival into Can Ranh Bay; (f) diplomacy and sensitivity on how to engage with and motivate those of other cultures and languages.

To purchase the book, click on dust jacket below.

Jim Hawes Cold War Navy SEAL

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