By John Coleman
From the May 1987 issue of SOF
We hear about plots here at SOF. Lots of them. Usually they come in the form of drunk sailors in Cape Town, or out-of-work oil pipeline guards from’ ‘somewhere in the Middle East, babbling their sure-fire plan to topple someone or some place over telephone relay satellites monitored by everyone except the Jamaican coast guard.
Occasionally though, 24-carat gems surface through the morass. Real-life private operations that actually have funding and troops to carry them out. Such was the case with the now-infamous Ghana coup attempt that ended in a stink hole of a Brazilian prison.
In late 1985 we heard that an op was underway. We knew the source and trusted him, and we knew some of the mercs recruited for the job. I became the SOF case officer, tasked with following the op’s progress and, if possible, putting myself in a position where I could cover it firsthand.
In hindsight it’s easy to fault-check a plan, but I could see problems arising from the very beginning. Too many people knew that something was up; the international phone lines were going into meltdown with people talking about ” The Job. “Details weren’t known, but there sure were a lot of fairly accurate guesses as to what was coming off.
In a CYA move, the plotters put out the word that the job was cancelled, then on again, then off again. General interest died, but I kept my eye on it. A short while later, in early February 1986, eight of the nine mercs who were finally recruited flew out of Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to set the plan into motion.
By that stage I knew the target was Ghana, and I had a general idea of the time frame involved. After some oil burning sessions with the senior SOF staff, I convinced a reluctant Bob Brown that I should fly to Accra, the capital of Ghana, to record the coup firsthand. We worked out a plausible cover story and I got my passport, shots, travel arrangements and other particulars in order. It was a dicey job, but exactly the sort of work -and story -that SOF does best.
Then came the delays. Not from our end, but from the mercs’. Some equipment problems, we heard. Finally, word came in the fmt week of March that the troops were enroute to their target. I altered my travel plans for the tenth time and got ready to move.
Then the shit hit the fan. Before it made headlines around the world, I got a phone call.
“They’ve been arrested in Rio de Janeiro, ” my source said.
“Rio. In Brazil, you know?”
“I know where the fuck Rio is. How in the hell did they get there?”
“I dunno. But they’re in jail for illegally entering the country. No visas. Sounds like a real cock-up. “
And so it was.
Long-time merc Pierre Duvall, who organized the initial plan, gave us his story on how he put the operation into motion-and was eventually cut out of it.
Now we’ll take a look at the actual operation itself. It won’t be easy to pinpoint exactly what went wrong; there were just too many miscues, and too many seasoned soldiers who should have known betterbut didn’t. For our own reasons, we’ve left most of their names out of this story. We figure they’ve been through enough.
If you’re looking for the Dogs of War, they-read-Jane’s Infantry Weapons-by night textbook example of how to pull off a coup d’etat, stop right here. This is the Merc’s Manual -Murphy’s Law style.
The Eastern Airlines pilot fingering the controls of Flight 27, winging its way from Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 12 February 1986, might have considered an early retirement if he had known the background -and mission -of eight of his passengers. Between them, they had multiple Vietnam combat tours (three having served with Special Forces), bush hardened service with the Rhodesian Army (Selous Scouts, Rhodesian Light Infantry and Grey’s Scouts), stints with the South African paras, Middle Eastern military advisory contracts, recent Central American work as military trainers to the Salvadoran forces, and a variety of law enforcement, bodyguard and private security jobs. They weren’t your average tourists.
Instead, the eight were on their way to Argentina to pick up weapons, hop a boat and overthrow a country. The strange part is that only two or three of the quiet gentlemen enjoying in-flight service actually knew what they were flying halfway around the world to do. The others, for the price of a round-trip ticket, a bit of spending money and some vague descriptions of “easy security work” -and the promise of an adventure -simply chucked it all, flew to Miami and strapped themselves in on the over-nighter to Buenos Aires.
For those men the job had sounded simple enough: The government of Ghana, a tiny, rabidly Marxist country on the west coast of Africa, had bought a shipment of arms and ammunition from the government of Argentina.
The Ghanaians wanted to make sure it all arrived safely. Through various intermediaries, could some qualified guards be found to babysit the gear during its voyage from Buenos Aires to Accra? No sweat. The men jumped at the chance for a couple weeks of easy work and easier money. Everything was on the hush-hush, but they were told that the job had the sanction of the U.S. government, thus calming any fears about working for a foreign government -especially one led by a devout Marxist with strong ties to Libya. (Two of the mercs, both Army SF retirees, only took the job on that condition. They had pensions to worry about.)
For the others, specifically John Early, officer commanding merc force, and Bob Foti, recruiter and organizer (Foti remained in the States, ostensibly to work out further funding, and joined the others eight days later in Buenos Aires), the job wasn’t as cut-and-dried. For months they had planned, plotted and schemed with Godfrey Osei, the dissident exile who would replace Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings as head of the Ghanaian government; Ted Bishop, a nefarious arms middleman and intelligence agency cutout; and a mysterious New York commodities broker called Solomon, who organized the arms buy in Argentina and acted as the operation’s chief controller and intelligence agency liaison, to get the overthrow in motion . [SOF sources state that Solomon was Solomon Schwartz, then an agent of the Bophuthatswana Trading Corporation on Madison Avenue in New York. Schwartz was indicted a few years ago for allegedly attempting to transport some 500 Ruger Mini M l4s to Poland through New York’s JFK Airport. According to an SOF source close to the government -and as we go to press -Schwartz has been indicted for his part in organizing the arms buy in Argentina. Surprisingly, Ted Bishop, who approached Schwartz initially to set up the buy, has not been indicted.]
It was on Bishop’s advice that the rest of the force were not told of the actual operation until they were out of the United States. The reason? They were worried about breaking U.S. laws covering neutrality, specifically the one that says, in effect: If you conspire to overthrow a country with which the United States is not at war, then go straight to jail. They would wait until the mercs were safely ensconced in Buenos Aires before springing the good news.
As the Eastern flight made its approach into Ezeiza Airport the next day around 0900, the eight men tensed. This would be the first real test of whether or not the operation was indeed ” sanctioned” -at least by someone if not Uncle Sam. Back in Miami, their passports had been gathered up and quickly whisked to the Argentine consulate for visas. Without photos, paperwork or even signatures, the passports were duly returned with the appropriate stamp. That eased some worries, but now they had to traverse Argentine customs and immigration.
None of the men were carrying any embarrassing contraband such as M60 machine guns or concealed .45s , but neither did they want to answer any awkward questions.
They needn’t have worried. Waiting patiently were Ted Bishop and an Argentine called Garcia. Garcia flashed his credentials and the troops were walked through customs and immigration without a second glance.
From that point, any doubts about official sanction -by someone -of whatever the mission was to be vanished. And it was also the beginning of the end of pure and simple military common sense.
After a cramped ride inside a bread truck, the eight troops, Bishop and Garcia offloaded outside the Hotel Republica, their home for the next few weeks. Rooms had been organized by Argentine intelligence (and probably bugged), and the troops were paired off by Early. Few knew each other, and everyone was reticent about discussing what they knew about the mission. Later that evening, Early and Bishop called a meeting in Early’s room. Those who didn’t know about the plot to topple Ghana were let into the secret.
Reaction was subdued. Mercs who already knew the plan sat quietly and made no comment. Those who hadn’t known also sat quietly and made no comment. From Early’s pep talk, the plan -and additional money promised -made it all seem like a cake walk. Overthrowing a country? No problem, senor. Early made it very clear, however, that anyone who wanted to back out could. They all had prepaid return airline tickets back to the States; no hard feelings against anyone who wanted to jump ship and leave his comrades to carry out the op -short one critical man.
They all looked at each other. No one moved. One of the mercs said later, “If just one guy had got up and said, ‘This is a bunch of bullshit. I’m leaving,’ then the rest of us probably would have got up and left too. But I wasn’t going to be the first.” Apparently, they all felt the same way.
The meeting adjourned on a quiet note. Everyone went back to their rooms to think it out, but the die had been cast. No one would make the first move to back out, either then or further down the line when it became all too clear that the op had turned into a Class A abortion.
After a quick, and subdued, breakfast in the Republica’s two-star restaurant the next morning, the mercs trundled down to what was to become their operational headquarters during their stay in Argentina. It was a commodities broker’s office, Cohuay S. A., on Esmeralda; not surprising since Bishop had used Solomon, who worked out of the BTC office in New York, to set up the arms buy in Argentina.
After sprawling in chairs and over desks, the meres were finally introduced to their boss, “the next president of Ghana, Godfrey Osei.” Osei, who had been arrested by Rawlings in 1983 and later escaped, was a man driven by visions of a free Ghana -led by himself. Little nitty-gritty details, like how to actually accomplish that goal, didn’t seem to worry him. His stock answer to all questions usually ran, “Don’t worry. It’s all taken care of.”
As he began to brief the eight mercs on what he wanted done when they hit the Accra beaches, one of the men noticed that his tan beret, squashed down on his head giving him the appearance of an acorn, sported something similar to a Nazi death’s head badge. It was food for thought.
Filling in Early’s briefing from the previous night, he told them their priorities were to take out Jerry Rawlings and free political prisoners from jail, including two CIA operatives still being held as the result of an earlier U.S. intelligence disaster in Ghana, and take over the broadcasting station.
To do this they would sail to the neighboring Ivory Coast, pick up and arm 100 Ghanaian exiles and lead them in the attack against Accra. Army units inside the country were on his side, he told them, and the people would welcome them with open arms. Any questions? Mute faces stared back. Godfrey smiled and left.
Bishop took over the briefing. He and Osei had been there for two weeks prior to the mercs’ arrival and Bishop, as mission logistics officer, had, along with Argentine intelligence lliaison officer Louis Kabut, organized the boat, arms and equipment necessary to run the op. As he drawled on in pure Texan, it became painfully obvious that he didn’t have a clue as to what the fuck was going on as far as military matters went.
What kind of weapons had been organized, he was asked. Oh, machine guns and that kind of thing. Is there any armor in the city? Don’t worry, the police have been briefed to leave the keys in the ignitions of the armored vehicles. (Keys? Ignitions? The meres with experience in armor had never heard of personnel carriers cranking up like Honda Civics. Most have push button or toggle switch starters.) Well, just in case, do we have weapons to knock them out? Oh sure. Rifle grenades. What kind? Antipersonnel or shaped charge armor piereing? Bishop looked blank. Don’t worry. They’ll knock out anything. How about communications? Huh? What do you need that for?
Things were going downhill fast. Scattered around the room were piles of equipment Bishop had purchased, at great expense, with Osei’s money. According to what some of the mercs found out later, Bishop was double billing on equipment purchases. He and Argie intel man Kabut were splitting the overage, hoping to add as much of Godfrey’s $500,000 operational fund to their own bank accounts as possible.
A quick check of the gear heightened the mercs’ “Oh shit” factor. Web belts were made of plastic, and the ammo pouches didn’t fit on them anyway; canteens had no covers, just one hook to attach them to the belt; rucksacks were cheap, locally made civilian models; and the team’s two medics, both Special Forces trained, cringed in horror when they saw that their supplies consisted of Band-Aids, hydrogen peroxide and World War II-vintage sulfa powder. Bishop had deemed this gear more than ample for an attack force of over a hundred. His rationale? ” Sheeit, boys. This op’s only gonna take you a couple ofhours to pull off. Anyway, those Africans will run lak hell when the shootin’ starts.” Just dandy.
Bishop and Kabut could read the disgust in the mercs’ eyes. It was time for some serious placating. They were led upstairs into what was a private bank, Marbiel, run by Francisco Samarro. Payday. Merc leader Early received $12,000, and the rest got from $5,000 to $7,000. Disregarding Argentina’s currency regulations, the troops wired various amounts of cash back home via the Banker’s Trust in New York, Godfrey’s bank in the States. Things looked a little better.
Regrouping back at the Republica, the mercs took stock of the situation. Obviously, they couldn’t knock over a Pup ‘n’ Taco with the kind of shit Bishop was providing. Their concerns turned to the weapons the Texan had organized -at this stage no one was clear on just what he’d bought from the Argentines -and the ocean-going transport and beach landing craft they’d use on the op. Over beers, they decided to split into teams the next day. Some would check on the boat and anns arranged by Kabut and Bishop, while others would forage through Buenos Aires shops for decent webbing, medical and other critical supplies.
Again, team leader Early asked if anyone wanted to back out. Each man looked at the others, most still ready to take him up on his offer. Already the pros could see the mission turning into a goatfuck, but there was a chance that it could be salvaged. After all, Godfrey still had loads of money to spend to square away the equipment side, and they’d yet to hear John Early’s plan for taking Accra. Early, after all, was a Vietnam Special Forces vet, had served in the Rhodesian Army -the latter part of his time with the Selous Scouts -and had spent time in Central America and other hot spots. [Early had also been Mr. Hollywood for a brief period, acting as technical adviser for the movie Red Dawn and during the shooting of one of the Rambo flicks.] There was just no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’d get this gang bang organized.
Perhaps most important, though, was the bond already forming between the meres, the most common thing in the world when military men get together to pull an op. One just doesn’t desert the team. And , they’d been paid.
No one took Early up on his offer.
That night, Godfrey had them all for dinner in a private room upstairs in the Republica. Beer, wine and liquor flowed, although most of the mercs took it easy. A few of them, in fact, didn’t drink at all, even though everything went on the Ghanaian’s tab. Bishop and Godfrey took up the slack, and pretty soon their jaws were wagging nonstop.
His first plan of action, Godfrey told them, would be to completely disband the military, as he didn’t trust any of them. A few of the mercs looked at each other with raised eyebrows. The would-be king, now on the wrong side of tipsy, had just told them that day that there were units friendly to him which would help carry out the coup. Oh well. Next, his men (waving his arm expansively around the table) would become the officers for an elite quick-reaction force under Godfrey’s direct command. They would have aircraft and would be on call to put down any coup attempts. His foreign officers, he promised, would of course be well-paid for their efforts.
Godfrey took a pause for another drink, and the meres started shooting questions at him. What about Rawlings’ air force? Were they on sides? No, but his loyal army units would drive petrol trucks onto Kotoka Airport’s runways and set them afire. How about the navy? Oh, just a few old patrol boats that were with us; they wouldn’t get in the way. What will the military do when we hit the beaches? Don’t worry. Rawlings disarmed most of them a little while ago. He’s afraid of a coup. (Giggles from the top end of the table, wan smiles from the meres.) Anyway, I know my people. They’ll run. Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.
Godfrey had said his piece and would say no more. Attention turned to the diminutive Texan, Ted Bishop. What kind of current military intelligence do we have out of Accra? Well, the Israelis are handling all that. We’ll get the word when we hit the Ivory Coast. (Just bitchin’.) What about our boat? It’s a work boat that we’ll pass off as an oil rigger. Lots of them around there. (Jeez. Something that finally makes sense.) And finally the big one. Is this fucking operation sanctioned by Uncle Sam or not?
Bishop didn’t hesitate. From the beginning he had claimed to work for the “Company,” and now he told them he reported directly to the National Security Council and had walk-in access. The op was covered and cleared, he told them. [According to a well-placed SOF source, Bishop did make personal contact with an NSC official who was a Special Assistant to the President for Latin American Affairs and now works in Alexandria, Virginia. Bishop outlined the Ghana coup plot and, according to the source, was told in no uncertain terms to move out smartly, the NSC and Uncle Sam weren’t interested.] And, Bishop continued,
Argentine intelligence was cooperating fully during the whole mission. They expected to work out some lucrative arms and mineral deals with the new government once it was in place.
That part of it made sense. During the months it had taken to work up the mission in the States, surely the FBI, CIA, NSC, DIA or some other acronymed intelligence agency would have heard about it. And, if they wanted the mission to overthrow Ghana stopped, they would have stopped it. Moreover, Argentine wheels had certainly been greased or they wouldn’t be sitting like knights of the Round Table getting plonked in a hotel smack dab in the middle of Buenos Aires, plotting the overthrow of another country.
With another drink down his throat, Bishop then dropped a real clanger on the assembled troops. He had heard from Solomon, his New York controller, that while the mercs were hitting the beaches, the Israelis would be hitting two terrorist camps in northern Ghana. Terrorist leader Abu Nidal was mentioned. That was top priority, Bishop slurred at them in Texan, and would also act as a diversion by keeping Rawlings’ own Libyan-trained and -led reaction force, located some 50 kilometers outside Accra, occupied.
That last juicy bit of intel was enough for one night. It was getting late, and even with the offer of free women (“the tab’s on Godfrey, boys”), most of the mercs hi t the rack. They had a lot of work to do if this job was ever going to pan out. Uneasy bodies tossed and turned all night, visions of fanatical Libyans armed to the teeth whirling through their heads.
Buenos Aires’ cosmopolitan seaport delights eluded the eight mercs during the next days as they split into teams tasked with sorting gear already purchased by Bishop, buying what was required to make up the shortfall (which turned out to be most of everything), sorting out commo requirements and checking the boat and weapons. They still hadn’t received any kind of warning or operations order from team leader Early, so they pretty much relied on their own professional military backgrounds to come up with the right stuff.
Along with intel officer Kabut, the weapons team headed to the Fabricaciones Militares warehouse, where the arms and ammo were stored. The buy had been organized by Kabut, weapons selected by Bishop and paid for with Godfrey’s money.
When they arrived, Kabut opened the padlocked door. Inside, neatly stacked, were 150 Argentine-manufactured 7. 62x51mm FN assault rifles, four 7.62x51mm FN MAG 58 general purpose machine guns, three suppressed PA3-DM 9mm, submachine guns, six 9mm FN High Power pistols and three riot-type shotguns. Cased up and already stenciled “GODFREY OSEI, ACCRA, GHANA,” were 400 GME-FMK2-MO hand grenades, 3,000 belted 7.62x51mm rounds per MAG and 1,000 rounds per FN, and 100 FN rifle grenades. No mortars, no armor piercing rocket launchers, no explosives. MAGs would be their antiaircraft guns, rifle grenades their all-purpose anti-everything else. The weapons team wasn’t too thrilled. Kabut told them Bishop hadn’t ordered anything along the line of mortars or rocket launchers.
What about tracers? After all, from what the mercs had heard, this was to be a night attack. Tracers might come in handy. Kabut shook his head. Not ordered, he told them. Order them, he was told. He nodded and made a note.
Further inspection showed that the MAGs were lacking spare barrels and cleaning kits. No cleaning kits, either, for any of the other weapons. Not ordered. Shit.
As far as they could see, the only up side to the weapons they’d be using on the beaches of Accra was the fact that they were all in mint condition. Brand-new stuff from the government factory at Rosario. They could test fire and confirm zeros on the boat trip across to the Ivory Coast. There shouldn’t be any maintenance problems otherwise.
The weapons team stepped outside into the steamy midday heat and waited while Kabut relocked the warehouse door. If the shit hit the fan on Accra’s beaches, or anywhere else for that matter, the measly stockpile of arms sitting in the Fabricaciones Militares warehouse would be inadequate -and deadly so. A talk with John Early, Bishop and Godfrey Osei would, they hoped, rectify the problem.
Across town on the docks, merc leader Early and a few of the others surveyed the ship Bishop and Kabut had organized for their nearly three-week trip to Ghana. It was a fucking shambles, a rusting hulk of a World War II Liberty Ship. Dried bird shit cracked under their boots as they walked across the deck and climbed up to the bridge, brownish-red rust flaking off onto their hands from the guide rails. Though none of the men had much of a seagoing background, it was painfully obvious that the bridge controls and instruments were useless as they stood. Thousands of dollars and hundreds of man hours would be needed to make this wreck seaworthy.
They cautiously made their way below decks into the gloomy sauna of an engine room. One small problem: The engine room didn’t have one. Its power train had been winched out ages ago, leaving rust and crud in its wake. Sweat poured off the mercs as they climbed out onto the deck. They checked again to make sure this was the right ship. It was. Ted Bishop and Louis Kabut had some explaining to do.
And across the rest of the city, medics, comm specialists and others hit dozens of shops and stores, doing their best to put together the ancillary gear for the operation. Even cursory price checks showed that Bishop had been money gouging Godfrey Osei out of his op fund.
Rendezvousing back at Cohuay S.A., their op HQ, later that day, the mercs exchanged information on what they’d found. The main problems were additional heavy weapons and, of course, the sorry excuse for ocean-going transport. But later that night, back in Godfrey’s room at the Republica, Bishop, Godfrey and Early poured oil on the water.
We’re still looking for boats, Bishop told them. For what we’ve got to spend, there just isn’t much around. We’ll find something better, he promised. No, he said, we can’t alter the weapons list. You’ll have to make do. But everything’s just fine, Godfrey assured his disgruntled merc force. Don’t worry. It’s all taken care of. You can still back out if you want, Early snapped.
What the fuck.
A sort of routine developed over the next days. Up for an early breakfast, down to Cohuay S.A. to sort and check gear, spread out around the city to buy what was still needed (and to test their newly purchased radios in a local park, while hiding behind bushes), back to the Republica for a light dinner, pep talks in Godfrey’s room, then out for drinks, chicks and a late supper when it cooled down a bit after midnight.
Problems were manifest. Although they were nearing departure time (if they could ever get a boat), Early still hadn’t given any sort of an operations order for hitting the beaches. He was becoming standoffish toward the rest of the mercs , and responded to most questions by tapping his shoulder (a holdover from his Rhodesia days, when officers wore their rank insignia on epaulets) and saying, ” Let’s pretend I’m in charge.” As far as Bishop was concerned, the mercs had written him off as woefully incompetent. He still had Godfrey’s ear, though, and the Ghanaian wouldn’t listen to words spoken against the Texan.
Intelligence was another critical area: They just didn’t have any. There was no contact with the Ghanaian troops exiled in the Ivory Coast, and absolutely nothing about Rawlings’ force dispositions. Everything had been glossed over and the mercs were kept in the dark.
One of the weapons men, a former federal marshal and private investigator, came up with a plan with which Early -after a few days of hemming and hawing -finally agreed. The PI would fly back to the States and round up what information he could on the target, then move onward to the Ivory Coast and make contact with Godfrey’s people there. He would scout out a mooring site for their incoming ship, somewhere where it would be easy enough to on load the 100 or so black troops who, for an intents and purposes, had never been on the ocean. Further, he would enter Ghana, scout out the area, pass along what information he could, then act as beach officer for the proposed assault boat landing which would begin the attack.
A cover story -a sickness in the family -to cover the merc’s departure was concocted for Bishop’s benefit, as none of the mercs trusted him by now. They did, however, have a lot of faith in the man they were sending back to the States. It was their only bright spot in the op so far.
Shortly thereafter, Bob Foti, the prime recruiter for the mission, flew into Buenos Aires. Ostensibly he had been in Miami, working up further funds for the mission. In a phone call to John Early, he said it was imperative that his bags not be checked when he came through. Early and an Argentine intelligence man met him at the airport, and Foti was walked through customs. Later, the other mercs were told that Foti had brought in plastic tie wraps to secure prisoners.
Hot, frustrating days dragged on. Uncertainty was the by word. Bishop kept claiming that the op was covered by Uncle Sam, specifically the National Security Council. Calls went back and forth between Godfrey, Bishop and their New York controller, Solomon. Everything was fine, the mercs were told. They were all invited to a barbecue at a villa in the Buenos Aires suburb of Del Ray, staffed with dozens of Argentine military intelligence officers (who all claimed to be heroes of the Malvinas War). They were introduced to the general who, they were told, was in charge of the Argentine part of the op. Toasts were made to “friends” in New York (Solomon) and in Washington (the NSC). All troubles in finding a suitable ship for the trip across would be worked out. Manana.
On 23 February some of the mercs, Bishop, Godfrey and a few Argentine spooks took a bus out to a litlle show called Tourist Day. Separate tables were set up for the various nationalities present -Canadians , South Africans and Swedes, as well as Cubans and East Germans -and the announcer proceeded to introduce each group. When he came to the table where the mercs were sitting, he cheerfully introduced ” the Americans and their guest, the next president of Ghana …
As one of the mercs said later, ” It was a bit of an intel blunder. ”
The final break with Ted Bishop came only a day or so later. It had been clear to the mercs that he and Kabut had been fleecing the El Supremo out of his money, but Godfrey had refused to listen. It was only when the Argentine civ~lian who had been handling their communications gear admitted to John Early and a few of the others that the bill for their cheap Motorola walkie-talkies had been doubled per Bishop ‘s instructions -with the extra $6 ,000 kicking back to intel man Kabut -that Godfrey blew up.
Once inside Ghana, Godfrey told the mercs, Bishop would be invited for a little torture and execution session. Bishop did his best to calm Godfrey down, and even pushed him to raise more money -something like $2 million. No dice. Bishop told Godfrey he needed to go back to the States to raise more money . No way. On 26 or 27 February, Bishop vanished.
Godfrey received an overseas call from Bishop a little later, and the Texan said he was still in on the deal. Could Godfrey meet him in London? The Ghanaian slammed down the phone, then put in a call to Solomon in New York . One very upset future president complained about Bishop’s vanishing act, the money rip-offs and the problem with finding a suitable boat for the journey. Solomon assured the agitated Ghanaian that he would take care of Bishop and would sort out the boat problems.
An hour later, Louis Kabut walked into Godfrey’s room. A ship and crew had been found, he said. It was called the Nobistor, and he had a captain and crew lined up. It would’nt take a little work to get it ready, but departure could be only a few days away. The game was on.
Most of the gear had by now been located and purchased. Zodiac boats for the actual beach assault were laid on -at a price some $24,000 cheaper than Early had quoted Godfrey. Money for most of the buys had come out of the mercs ‘ advance payments, with Early promising to reimburse them upon presentation of receipts. He told them to hold off, he would pay them later. A pile of documents and information on Ghana had been received from the merc who had gone back to the States, but aside from one other man, Early refused to let any of the other troops see what the box had contained. Too busy with other things , they were told. And, with departure imminent, Early had still not issued any firm operations orders . The mercs had a general idea of the plan of attack, but there were hundreds of holes any, pro could spot in a second.
But by now, a sort of group hypnosis had taken hold. Everything would work out; they placed their faith in John Early as an experienced military man. He wouldn’t let them down.
Saturday, 1 March, broke clear, hot and hellishly humid. Working from first light, the mercs transported and loaded gear aboard the 120-foot ocean-going tug Nobistor.
It was tied up to the explosives dock in Buenos Aires harbor on the premise there were no other berths. In reality, the Argentines didn’t want too many prying eyes watching the day’s activities. While the men sweated and strained to load equipment into conexes on the deck, Argentine army trucks rolled up to the dock.
Ordnance Corps troops swarmed out of the truc1ks and started hoisting boxes of ammo and now-crated weapons directly onto the ship. Some of the ammo boxes had been exchanged for tracer; all were stamped “GODFREY OSEI, ACCRA , GHANA.”
Under the steaming midday sun, cool looking senior Argentine army officers in uniform calmly watched the proceedings. As one merc said later,” Just the commission on mirrored Ray-Ban sunglasses would have matched my pay.”
Godfrey Osei, Louis Kabut and other Argie spooks were also there to see them off. Godfrey, maintaining a safety zone of at least 10 feet from the water, looked a tad green under his tan beret. He would meet them in the Ivory Coast in two weeks’ time, he told them. He also wished, with a forlorn expression, that Bishop would be available in Ghana for his amusement. Grim.
John Early was given what Godfrey said was the last of his money for the mercs’ operations and contingency fund. The first contingency was paying bribes to employees of Temec Company, who would handle customs fees, arrange for harbor pilots and ensure that their passports received the proper exit stamp.
Finally, everything was a go. The twin diesel turbos of the Nobistor were cranked up and mooring lines cast off. With the sun dropping down behind Buenos Aires, the ocean-going tug pointed its bow east out of the harbor. A definite sense of relief washed over the eight mercs on board. They were finally underway and, if all the problems weren’t yet worked out, they would be before they hit the beaches.
The assault force was enroute to its target. In roughly three weeks’ time, they’d be in Ghana.
Perhaps the weather was trying to tell the assault force to back off. Skies darkened , gale force winds kicked up and then rain slammed against the 120-foot tug. Ten-foot waves washed over the deck ; the fantail only normally cleared the water by two feet in order to expedite loading and unloading of oil rigging gear. Dramamine became the order of the day as the eight mercs, more used to fighting wars than seasickness, lay green in their bunks.
For three days the tug fought its way north, battling the weather for every mile gained . They steamed past Uruguay and then into Brazilian territorial waters, where the storm finally blew itself out. Pale and drawn bodies surfaced onto the steaming deck, the equatorial sun burning down through a pale blue, washed-out sky.
The joke of the day was directed at their team leader: ” Next time, Early, we make this an airborne op! ” Early agreed.
Having lost three valuable days to weather, the merc force got down to business. A routine was established that pulled them out of their bunks around 0630 for an hour’s worth of PT led by Bob Foti, followed by a first-class breakfast from Hugo, the ship’s cook. Their next priority was the 10 Zodiac rubber assault boats they’d be using to hit the beach. Weapons firing would have to wait until they’d steamed into international waters.
Opening up one of the three green conex containers secured to the deck, seven red and three black 10-man Zodi acs were hauled out and spread open. All 10 boats, equipped with Mercury or Johnson 35-and 45-horsepower engines, had cost Godfrey in the neighborhood of $32,000.
The boats were inflated and assembled, and they practiced launching and boat handling drills while the ship’s captain kept the Nobistor dead in the water. Most had had military training in rubber boats, but it was quickly obvious that launching an RB in the middle of the night -packed with nine fully armed and probably excruciatingly seasick inland Ghanaians -would be a totally different problem.
The plan, from what little the mercs had been told, consisted of hitting the Accra beaches at 0200 Sunday morning, 23 March. Ghanaian troops were paid on Saturday, and the figuring ran that they’d be too drunk to react effectively. Some hours earlier (exact timings not yet decided by anyone), the Nobistor would anchor a mile or two offshore and the Zodiacs would begin ferrying troops to the beach. No one had quite figured out what to do with the extra two Zodiacs, as there were eight mercs and 10 boats; the feeling was that two of the Ghanaians could be trained as coxswains during the trip from the Ivory Coast to Ghana.
Some IO-plus round-trip ferry runs later -over at least two miles of open ocean, through the surf, at night -the attack force would be in place. The merc who had gone stateside was by this time, they hoped, on his way to Africa to act as their advance party, and would direct the boats to the right landing sites.
From that point the force would split into a number of groups, led by the mercs and tasked with taking out Jerry Rawlings in his “Castle”; James Fort Prison, where the politicos were held; the broadcasting station, located about two miles inland; and an armory across the street at Flagstaff House.
At this point it’s vital to note that the merc force aboard the Nobistor-by now within two weeks of attacking a hostile foreign country -had not received any final operations orders from its leader, John Early. Ops orders, used by nearly every military force around the world in one form or another, dictate exactly what each man’s job will be and how that job will be carried out. Orders cover enemy and friendly forces (in their case, the mercs had no intel on either Rawlings’ forces or the “friendly” military forces Godfrey claimed would assist them); the mission (only vaguely understood); how that mission would be executed, planned down to the finest detail (again, only presented to the men in the vaguest terms); logistical support (rations, water supplies, casualty handling -again, not discussed); and command and signal (alternate comms if the radios fail, chain of command if one or more of the mercs are taken out -none of which was mentioned).
Most importantly, given the acute lack of preparedness, firm escape plans if the mission flopped were generally ignored. There was some talk of busting Kotoka Airport and hijacking a plane, or making their way back to the Zodiacs and then the Nobistor. Both plans left much to be desired.
Thoughts of failure, however, never crossed their minds as the Nobistor chugged through the Atlantic on a general northeasterly heading. Their mission was set and the props were turning. There was no backing out now.
Having reached international waters, weapons were uncrated from the second conex and test fired. One glitch arose. Of the four MAGs purchased -which were to be their heavy weapons -only two made it onboard. Early had them empty the conex, but the weapons were missing. (The mercs later found out that Early’s copy of the manifest only indicated two MAGs). When they test fired the two MAGs, the stock group of one literally fell apart. They were now down to one machine gun for an attack force of over 100.
But their real problems were only beginning. Unknown to the Nobistor’s complement, a clerk in Buenos Aires who worked for the Nobistor’s shipping company had innocently sent a telex message to Accra stating that the weapons the government had ordered were enroute.
Weapons? What weapons? A coup conscious Ghanaian leadership went into a frenzy. Troops were placed on full alert, ostensibly for a training exercise. Suspected dissidents were arrested and jailed. A message went out to neighboring coastal countries to be on the lookout for the Nobistor.
Things weren’t much better onboard. A check of the captain’s coastal navigation books indicated that, at that time of the year, continual stonns and heavy seas could be expected off the Ghanaian coastline. Surf running up to six feet rugh might hammer Accra’s beaches. Even for trained crews, an attempted nighttime landing under those conditions would be suicidal.
The Nobistor’s radio-telephone went into action. Early contacted the merc they’d sent back to the States and made a change of plan . He was to rent a number of trucks when he hit Accra and meet the force some five miles east down the beach; the nav book indicated smoother sailing at that point. Early received a “roger” to his request.
What Early didn’t know then was that the stateside merc’ s request for a visa to visit Ghana -under the cover of an African art export business -had been denied. (It was later approved, but by then it was too late.)
But when poorly made plans begin to crumble, they crumble fast. Eduardo Gilardoni, the Nobistor’s captain, told Early he wouldn’t anchor any closer than five miles offshore. No amount of talking would change his mind. (According to one of the mercs, Early had asked the team back in Buenos Aires if they would be prepared to rujack the ship in the event this sort of situation arose. The answer had been a unifonn “Fuck no!”)
Then the tug stopped dead in the water. The captain wanted another $50,000 deposited in his wife’s New York-based Israeli bank account before going on. RlT traffic hummed between Early, the stateside merc now stationed in New York, and a number of others. Word came back to Early: The money is approved, and up to $100,000 if necessary. He told the captain and other members of the merc force that the captain’s demand for additional funds had been denied.
After months of plotting and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, the plan to overthrow the country of Ghana was aborted. Disappointment etched its way into the mercs’ sunburned faces. They had come this close and now they were turning back. Even Early’s vague talk of storing the weapons and finding another boat to pull the job off later failed to kick their gloom.
They were ready to go home. Early told them he would take care of the weapons; there would be a shipping representative from Argentina to meet the Nobistor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to deal with customs and their passports . Most of the mercs simply wanted to be “put off at the nearest port with an international airport, ” but the captain had set his course for Rio.
And it was there, some seven days later, on 14 March that the great adventure they were all looking for really began.
Could the plan to topple Ghana have worked? We’ve kicked that question around for hours. Some of the meres think they could have pulled it off. We don’t. If the Ghanaians hadn’t been warned of the incoming shipment ofanns, perhaps the element ofsurprise would have held the helterskelter attack plan together. But only perhaps, and then with a big if. You decide.
Was it ever meant to work? That ‘s the question some of the meres are asking today.
Hours of interviews with many of the principals have proved inconclusive. Some say the mission was planned to fail from the start. Why? To embarrass the U.S. government, which firmly denies any involvement in the Ghana coup attempt, for one. Or, on a far dirtier level, that plans were made to rip off Godfrey Osei from the start, by selling the six tons of arms and equipment to members of the ultra-conservative Brazilian Landowners Association once the Nobistor docked in Rio’s harbor. Only those who were involved know the whole truth -and they’re not talking.