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CIA’s Rent-a-Rebel Flying Circus of a PBY Catalina, A-26 Invaders, and P-51 Mustangs.

Intro

The photos in this chapter are low-res, but the story is a truly fascinating report, full of suspense, tragedy, and hilarious tales about a wild bunch of CIA-paid American pilots who in 1958 ruled the Northern Indonesian airspace for weeks, shooting up whatever they found with their WWII surplus aircraft.

With 15 A-26 Invaders, 4 P-51D Mustangs, and one PBY Catalina, they bombed harbors and even attacked in Borneo the Shell-owned refineries and Tankers. But that was one step too far. The Complaints Box was full now; Big Oil was ‘not amused.’The CIA paid the price for their flagrant miscalculation to topple President Sukarno with only a bunch of Flying Cowboys!

If you think this is a TV-episode of the Hollywood A-team, you are wrong. It was a pure reality way back in 1958, with a bombing and strafing assault on the Balikpapan harbor, a year after I left that city with my Mom and Dad.

But read how this ended with the capture of Captain Allen Pope. The CIA learned from this, a smarter makeover was needed, with no more Flying Circus. So, finally, was there a Happy Ending?

ALAN SEIGRIST”s CONTRIBUTION

The son of one of the pilots (his name is Alan Seigrist) sent me photos of the Catalinas his father Connie flew during his covert missions in Indonesia. Among them, his first Catalina flight during the ‘Freedom’ War, from 1945-1949 against the Dutch Colonial Rulers. In service of the Indonesian Freedom Fighters, he flew weapons to many Islands of the Archipelago.

Years later, in 1958, Connie flew again in this CIA mission but now against the Indonesian State. Old friends had become the enemy, or better, a mercenary goes where the money flows.

The Rent-a Rebel services from Civil Air Transport (aka Air America)

You will find here the story of an almost forgotten episode in the long and fascinating history of the Civil Air Transport Corp (CAT), in 1959 converted to AIR AMERICA.  A misleading name might give you the impression that this CAT Corp. was a decent airline operator, where you could book a flight for yourself or cargo hauling.

That was correct at the company’s front door operation, but there was also a hidden back door, where you would be very unwelcome for whatever sort of reservation.  Allegedly, CAT was the covert air support operations agency of the CIA and hence involved in all of the more or less stealthy revolts, guerillas support, uproars, and other activities directed against the advancing communist influence in SE Asia in the 1940s-1950s.

The CAT Corp. soon had a somewhat dubious reputation: where their aircraft arrived in ‘sterile’ or misleading markings, things went awry, turmoil and insurgent uprisings were imminent!

American Volunteer Group (AVG)

CAT was created in 1946 by the legendary Major General Claire Chennault and used mainly WWII surplus aircraft such as the Douglas C-47 and the Curtiss C-46 Commando for supplying foods and medicaments into war-ravaged China. CAT soon turned into an American support/ supply machine for Chiang Kai-Shek, who fought a civil war against the Communists under Mao Zedong right after WWII.

Aircraft crews were selected primarily from the AVG (American Volunteer Group) veterans of Chennault’s legendary combat group, also known as The Flying Tigers. They flew themselves into the Hall of Eternal Fame even before the USA entered the war against the Japanese forces in China with their P-40’s Warhawks, decorated with that iconic Shark Mouth nose art.

a-26-aurev-ps-ii

The photo above: Sorry, not a High-Quality photo, but a sporadic one, with our CIA pilot Allen Pope in front of a B-25 Mitchell  Bomber/ Attack Plane with its impressive Machine Guns packed Killernose. The central player of this story, Allen Pope, is standing here with the Indonesian Colonels who had started a revolt in Indonesia against President Sukarno with a combined uprising on Sumatra and Sulawesi (Celebes).

China’s aspirations to dominate SE Asia

By 1950, Mao had conquered China’s Mainland with his communist Army, and CAT followed Chiang’s forces to withdraw to the island of Taiwan. Arriving in relatively safe heaven, it virtually meant the end of business for CAT, but the CIA stepped in by creating a subsidiary under the same name, now with a distinctly different mission.

CAT maintained a civilian appearance by flying scheduled passenger flights (and still is in operation under that name) while simultaneously using other aircraft in its fleet to fly covert missions. All of them were ex-WWII planes which were abundantly available from surplus USAF stocks in Taiwan and the Philippines.

From the early 1950s, CAT pilots were involved in shadowy missions in North Korea, China, and Indo-China. They flew the C-47 and Curtiss Commando C-46  as the mainstay of their fleet but also C-119 Flying Boxcars as used during the siege of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam, in May 1954.

That epic battle was lost by the French, heralding the end of French Colonial Rule in SE Asia and it would ultimately lead to the intervention of the US Military in the Vietnam War that lasted from 1960-1975 (See my chapter ‘Last flight out of Hell, Vietnam’)

MY OWN MEMORIES FROM MY BORNEO YOUTH

The loss of control over Northern Vietnam had a wider psychological effect. I vividly remember the events as it surely triggered serious worries in my family. As a young boy, I lived with my Mom and Dad in the Borneo Jungle in Indonesia, where the Indonesian President Sukarno faced and embraced a growing role of the PKI, Indonesia’s Communist Party, no doubt sponsored by their ‘Comrades’ from China.

The Free Western World was in shock about the French Colonial defeat in Vietnam. Most western governments were convinced that China had adopted the Domino Strategy to conquer all SE Asian nations by settling their Communist Domination.

Applying multiple scenarios to impose their ruling: either by a staged participation/acceptance of a ‘guided’ democracy (Indonesia), or a (Military) “Coup d’etat” or a Guerilla-war (North Vietnam, Malaysia), or an outright massive Military invasion (Korea).

But whatever option they used, the outcome had to be Chinese Domination via a local Communist Party as the exclusive Ruler. Their participation in a Democratic system was at best only a temporary acceptance of opposite opinions or parties.

Indonesia, the next victim of Communism?

Their anti-imperialistic ideology would soon hop over to Sukarno and resulted in a de-facto confiscation of all foreign properties (Shell and Esso Oil explorations/refineries) and the expulsion all Dutch employees and their families.

The outlook of a Commie-ruled Indonesia became a nightmare scenario for the USA. Also for my Dad, he imagined that he and his family could become trapped on a remote island in an isolated Jungle station in case of a local uprise against Shell or the “Belandas’ (Dutch people). From that jungle post, on the river, we could only escape with a Shell-owned PBY Catalina, or a DC-3 if we could make it to an airstrip (in Balikpapan).

But would such a plane be able to arrive on time? It seemed a doom scenario, was this a paranoid fantasy? The Indonesian Independence war against the Dutch Colonial rule between 1945-1949 had cost thousands their lives in the ensuing turmoil. A year later, from 1950, we were living there, in the newly emerged State (with latent anti-Dutch sentiments).

The Indonesian Army had not yet established full military control and peace over the archipelago’s vast expanse, with 10.000 islands covering a distance that equals a travel from London to Baghdad!

My Dad’s worries remained throughout 1954 but eventually faded as the relations with the local Indonesian Army Commander were excellent. He was a Christian, and they met every Sunday in the church. It surely must have given some feelings of relief that we knew the Colonel.

1100px-catalina-air-america

The photo above depicts the PBY-5A Catalina, owned by Civil Air Transport (CAT).  It was flown by Captain Connie Seigrist for the PERMESTA rebels against Sukarno on Sulawesi, Indonesia, as part of the AUREV (Revolutionary Air Force). On May 13, 1958, this Catalina was destroyed by Indonesian Air Force B-25s and P-51s as they finally made an air raid that started from Halmahera Island to the Rebel AF Base Mapanget near Manado in Northern Celebes. This photo was most probably taken on Clark AF Base Philippines. Note the aircraft in the background, another PBY-5A Catalina at left, a Curtiss Commando C-46 right behind the dark Cat, and a Douglas C-47 at right.

a-26-ps

The photo above: The 1956-1957 edition of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft lists the CAT fleet:  2 Douglas DC-4, 22 Curtiss Commando C-46, 2 Douglas DC-3, 3 Douglas C-47, and 2 Convair Catalinas. Soon, another hefty fleet extension would arrive in the shape of 15x Douglas A-26 Invaders (see photo), heavily armed with the legendary Killer Nose with 8 machine guns, bombs, external fuel tanks, and underwing bomb/ rocket racks. Not much to do with scheduled passenger flights, so they probably never appeared on Jane’s list under the CAT name.

In 1958, the CIA under President Eisenhower had its own way of dealing with the Communist Threat that had taken China, the northern part of Korea, and Vietnam. On top, the Commies were involved in Guerrilla wars in Malaysia and Laos and slowly penetrated deeper into the Indonesian Government via a growing political power of the Communist Party.

In the US Government’s vision, the Free World’s existence was at stake in SE Asia, and all means to stop that fateful development were allowed.

Toppling President Sukarno became the CIA’s covert mission.

The US Government was maybe not the initiator but surely a promotor for the staging and financing of counter actions in cooperation with Rebel Colonels and insurgent populations, even against a ‘friendly’ nation.

In Indonesia, with thousands of Islands, a mixed population of almost 80 million people with a dozen languages, cultures, religions and dominated by the Javanese elite, there was always a tribe, region, or island to find that had a minor or major problem with the Status Quo of the Java/Jakarta-based Domination.

Evidently, that domination defended the interests of the existing Upper Class in the Government and, last but not least, the Army Elite. Oddly enough, back in 1955, the US Government grumbled at the way the Dutch “Colonial Ruler” had stubbornly rejected to hand over Western Papua/ Dutch New Guinea (now Irian Jaja) to Indonesia’s then”beloved” President Sukarno.

But only 3 years later, in February 1958, that same US Government felt the urge to support an insurgent movement against that same Sukarno! He went from ‘Hero’ to ‘Zero’ in only three years!

But it is correct to say that the Geo-Political situation in SE Asia had changed dramatically. China’s influence was growing at an alarming pace. (Some pessimists might notice a parallel with the current situation).

The photo above depicts the Catalina, owned by Connie Seigrist that was found flying weapons for the Indonesian rebel Forces in 1948. The Cat was confiscated by the Dutch Military rulers and never returned. His son Alan wrote to me: “In 1948, my dad was arrested flying guns to British farmers around Malaya and Indonesia. He had an airline in the Philippines consisting of a half dozen PBYs called Inaco (Insular Airways)”.

Connie got locked up for a year and finally went back to Manilla and started flying for CAT in a PBY  that got engaged in the 1958 uprise. Alan: “My Dad was rolling 500lb bombs out the blisters of the Catalina, he said the bombs were spinning off the bomb ramp and thus corkscrewed down to the target and never detonated because they didn’t have the airflow to arm. They brought in A-26s and shot the place up. Capt. Allen Pope was my Dad’s wingman in that operation when he got shot down.” (Photo A. Seigrist)

The Air Fleet of surplus WWII aircraft

In early 1958, CAT supplied 20 Aircraft (a PBY Catalina, 15 Douglas A-26 Invaders, and 4 P-51 Mustangs) to a totally unknown insurgent movement PRRI/ Permesta in Northern Indonesia, led by a group of Army Officers who revolted against the Central Government in Jakarta.

They had managed to conquer Mapanget AF Base near Manado on the Indonesian Air Force (AURA). That was on the northernmost peninsula of Sulawesi (aka Celebes, see map below), and they were soon the CIA’s favorite party to help wipe out Sukarno from Power. How naive that decision actually was would soon turn out.

The Indonesian Air Force (AURI) was not in shambles, rather a slow but still threatening factor to handle, be it without Fighter Jets until mid-1958. Worse, not all island populations were against the Central Government, so the promised massive uprise against Jakarta was not imminent.

Sure, it was promised in the Permesta Rebel Force Promotion folder, written with tons of wishful thinking, as a lure to drag the US into this adventure.

Following the same old song: “Please give us aircraft and pilots, let them do some air raids, and that will simply do the trick for the Armed Forces to surrender against the ensuing revolts.” Amazingly, the CIA was so eager to topple Sukarno that they believed all those partly idealistic and partly false promises, a flagrant miscalculation.

 The Flying Circus in action!

The Rent-a-Rebel (CI)A-Team was surely successful in later Hollywood film scripts and TV-series. Still, in the harsh SE Asian reality of the 1950s, it never worked like that, not in Cuba (Bay of Pigs), and not in Central/ South America (Guatemala and many other countries). But yes, once in Africa, they were successful (see my Chapter “JFK’s DC-3 present to Mobutu”).

With the advantage of hindsight, one could say that, at best, the CIA’s intentions to save the Western World were good. Admittedly, the influence of the PKI (Communist Party) on Sukarno went awry with the nationalization of Western Company’s properties, and a total Communist takeover/revolution seemed imminent indeed.

But the CIA’s preparations, execution, and choice of ‘partners’ were often simply too sloppy. Simultaneously, efficient and unbiased local socio-political assessment and feel for the real “Situational Awareness” was non-existent. Curious to know how it ended up here? Well, just read on, you will be amazed by the outcome of the story!

1100px-pope-p-51-d-mustang-aurev

The photo above depicts a rare view on a PERMESTA Rebel Air Force P-51D Mustang (AUREV). Stationed at Manado, 20 aircraft donated by the CIA came with pilots, mechanics, tons of ammo, av-gas, tooling, rigs, and spare parts to keep that fighting fleet operational.  That must have been quite an operation! The majority had come from Taiwan by ship via the Philippines waters to the Northern part of Sulawesi. This same airfield depicted came finally under the attack of the Indonesian AF (AURI), and they managed to damage this Mustang and destroy the Rebel’s PBY Catalina, maybe the pillar of smoke in the backdrop?

Enter two legendary Rogue pilots, the American citizens William H. Beale Jr. and Allen L. Pope. Both ‘mercenaries’ had a long career with CAT, engaged in covert operations in Vietnam and other hot spots in Asia. In April 1958, a group of CAT pilots and mechanics arrived from Clark AFB in the nearby Philippines, to fly the 20 donated aircraft for the PERMESTA Revolutionary group with their Air Force” AUREV in Manado/ Sulawesi.

Raider pilots out of control? 

In that same month, especially Pope was the most active raider. On April 27, he attacked in his A-26 Invader, the Island of Morotai. A few hours before this took place, the island was conquered by a Permesta amphibious force,  a very bold assault, targeting the “Ambon” Islands of Halmahera and Morotai.

Well-chosen, as on those islands, the revolutionary support against Jakarta was strongest. Ambonese people have traditionally had an awkward relationship with the Javanese Rulers, so here they found fertile grounds for the start of their planned North-Eastern Indonesian Revolution.

But soon, Pope took his activities in a new direction. Merchant shipping on Sulawesi and Borneo (now Kalimantan) came under attack of his A-26 Machine Guns.  Captain Pope attacked and sank three ships in one single day, no bad result, but with a little snag: The boats were Italian (SS Aquila), Greek (SS Armonia), and Panamese (SS Flying Lark).

Had he gone bananas, by sinking “US-friendly” ships? Well, bananas galore in Indonesia: Pope had found his Star-role here in this Mickey Mouse War Theater. He attacked the City of Palu, shot 20 trucks to pieces on Ambon Island, bombed the AFB at Kendari, strafed Navy Patrol/ Gun Boats, shot bridges and Military depots: that all in a matter of days!

It was a Shooting Fest with surplus WWII veteran aircraft, and would not be the last of such ‘Old School’ Aerial Wars. The very last one would take place in 1969, see my Chapter, “The last Aerial Battle of the Piston-Prop fighters.”

1100px-auri-mustangs-ii-ps

The photo above shows a row of Indonesian Air Force AURI P-51D Mustangs by the mid-1950s. Mechanics galore and time left for painting a Shark Mouth Nose Art. But with their lack of spare parts, enforced by the CIA, the Fighters’ serviceability had become a nightmare. While Pope popped up as a Mary Poppins in the sky almost every day, it took the Indonesian AF weeks before they were able to intercept that Sting Bee, who had challenged and damaged the defensive capacity of the Indonesian Air Force so hard.

THE BALIKPAPAN ATTACK

On April 28, Pope’s friend Beale made a very remarkable attack on ‘my’ old hometown Balikpapan in Eastern Kalimantan (aka Borneo), where I had lived with my family until the end of 1957. (My Dad was employed by Shell that owned the largest Oil refinery in Indonesia). Beale flew in his A-26 over the Bay and bombed the Royal Dutch Shell refineries and terminal, sinking the British tanker MV San Flaviano.

A friend of mine told me that he was attending school as an 8-year old boy while the attack took place in the nearby harbor. He said:  “Surely it did bring great panic in the town, there were rumors of an imminent amphibian attack by Permesta troops to conquer the oil-installations of Balikpapan.

They had done such an amphibian landing a week earlier on Morotai Island, and the occupation of the oil-wells would have created a great source of income for the Rebels”.

IN CHAOS, ALL DUTCH FAMILIES EVACUATED

On the same beaches where in July 1945, the Australian troops had landed with the help of the USAAF to wipe the Japanese out from their oil-supply stations, there now appeared 13 years later, armed security troops, watching the sea in day and night-time for the much-feared Rebel invasion fleet.

All Dutch women, children, were evacuated overnight and shipped to Java, from fear of an all-out war. It gives some idea of how a single aircraft can terrorize a community. At the same time, the Indonesian Military must have believed that the Rebel Forces were much larger and more powerful with the capacity of staging such a complex invasion.

The Flying Circus was overactive and created sheer overestimation of its real size. But it was clear for all Military and Political spectators that in those daring and spectacular air raids, the CIA was at work. Who else could have staged such long-distance attacks with well-supported American surplus WWII Aircraft in peacetime?

Ship Owners, Shell, and the UK were not amused, and the US Ambassador in London had the embarrassing task to apologize for this Crazy Cowboy assault.  He must have asked himself, “Who the Hell is behind this Wild Bunch?”

Even the US Embassy in Jakarta secretly sent out a message of protest to the US State Department with a single question: “Could you please call your Mad Dogs back?”. Well, they could but did nothing!

In May, Beale withdrew from the operation, by which time a third CAT pilot, Connie W Seigrist, had joined their forces, flying a CIA PBY-5A Catalina. Later, it turned out the CIA ordered them to target Indonesian armed forces and unarmed foreign merchant ships so frighten overseas trade away from Indonesian waters.

But the intended weakening of the Indonesian economy and undermining of Sukarno’s position would never lead to a massive popular uprise against his regime!

 First counter-attacks of the Indonesian Air Force, tables turning now?

Actually, the Flying Rebel Circus manned by the Mad Dogs felt free as birds in the sky. With no predators around, they must have loved their job. On May 1, 1958, while attacking the Maluku Islands, Pope’s A-26 starboard engine suffered an explosion during a strafing run.

He aborted the assault, and with all of his luck, he managed to limp his aircraft home on one engine. On May 7, he strafed a Douglas C-47 and a P-51 Mustang, and while returning one day later, he destroyed an Indonesian AF PBY Catalina and the runway of Liang AFB.

On May 15, the pro-active raider was back in business and attacked merchant ships and harbor installations, but when he returned, he found his Home/ Rebel Air Base (Mapanget near Manado in Northern Celebes) being attacked while he was out.

The Rebel’s only Catalina was smoldering in ashes, and their P-51 Mustang was badly damaged. Pope’s luck was about to run out, while the Indonesian Air Force showed first signs of resurrection after a long period of “Dolce Far Niente” (Sweetly doing nothing).

1100px-british-ss-san-flavio-sank-in-balikpapan-port-by-b-26

Photo above. In Balikpapan, Eastern Kalimantan (aka Borneo) was the largest oil refinery of Indonesia, owned by Shell/ BPM.   On April 28, 1958, the Douglas A-26 flown by Beale made a surprise attack on the Harbor facilities of the Refinery. The British Tanker San Flaviano was hit and sunk. That was not a very smart idea, and the Big Machine of political pressure on the CIA for stopping the Revolutionary “Wrecking Team” was about to be fired up.

1100px-auri-mustangs-ps

The photo above shows the typical show of Third World Armies in their first years of Independence.  The Jeep with the whitewall tires is most likely about the only machine serviceable in this photo! The P-51 Mustangs depicted on the ground are believed to be ‘temporarily out of service’, due to lack of spares. Some were capable of flying for the yearly “Low fly-past Parade.” 

On May 18, 1958, Pope went out to attack the Ambon harbor again with his A-26, and he spotted an enemy fleet of Transport ships with troops on board. He started a bombing run but was not aware that the Indonesian AF had finally managed to scramble their (single?) operational P-51D Mustang against him.

While during 4 weeks, Pope had the Northern Indonesian Airspace as his exclusive Playstation, where he could do bombing and strafing assaults at will, the Indonesian Air Force could not intercept that nasty Cowboy of the Flying Rebel Circus.

But now, finally, they had it all organized, and that iconic WWII fighter must have arrived as a total surprise for Pope and his navigator who were very busy in their cramped cockpit, planning a new bomb run.

Out of the blue, the AURI  P-51D Mustang jumped on their back, and the Navy boats shot at him with their AA guns. Whatever hit him first, the starboard engine of the A-26 exploded, the wing was soon engulfed in flames.

They decided to bale out, but in the process, Pope’s escape was hindered by the vertical dive of his plane in agony. The tail fin had fractured his leg, but he could manage to parachute and land on a nearby small island.

CIA involvement exposed

In the stress of the searching soldiers’ imminent detection, he made a capital blunder and forgot to clear his pockets. They found a flight plan of his last 8 flights, delicate documents, and a CAT ID Card! Pope’s capture with these documents fully exposed the level of CIA support for the Permesta rebellion.

For the Eisenhower Administration, it became a very embarrassing situation, in which there was no more room for denial of engagement from the USA. The CIA had to drop the total plan, and the support to the Rebel Force was skipped overnight.

The Revolutionary Movement Permesta soldiered on until 1961 when their agony came to a bitter end. Pope was brought into a Military Court in 1960 and sentenced to death.

Amazingly, his ordeal was used as a bargaining chip in Indonesian negotiations with the United States for arms supply. In February 1962, under JFK’s Administration, US Attorney General Robert Kennedy paid President Sukarno a goodwill visit and pleaded for Pope’s release.

On July 2, 1962, Pope was discreetly released and brought over to his homeland by a US Government plane.  He seems to be still alive and kicking, but would the CIA have learned from this “mishap”?

A second opportunity for the CIA to topple Sukarno.

Frankly, they did, at least in Indonesia. Seven years later, the CIA was finally able to knock Sukarno out of his throne, while teaming up with a much smarter local partner, this time from within the ruling system, an Army General named Suharto.

But that is another story, in which the Communist Party PKI was wiped out in a very bloody episode, starting in Oct. 1965.  Allegedly, that uprise must have cost over 500.000 people their lives.  General Suharto’s Presidency ran from 1967 until 1998. It stabilized the nation and radically kept out the much-feared Communist influence.

On top, Indonesia had paid Shell 110 million US dollars for the total of their nationalized oil-production properties, so it all seemed to have a Happy Ending. However, one little snag remained: over the next three decades, corruption would make Mr. President and his family filthy rich.

They may have ended in the top of the  ‘Alltime Greatest State Robbers,’ along with the Mobutu family from the Congo, the Saddam Hussein family from Iraq, the Marcos from the Philippines, the Gadaffi’s from Lybia, and a few more. They made the illustrious post-war High Society of some of these newly emerged States, which had Oil, Copper, or Iron galore.

Their place in history could be justified because their regimes brought stabilization but never was a guarantee for enduring prosperity or peace for its entire population. Nevertheless, Indonesia fared pretty well compared to the other states robbed for decades by their Presidents and families.

_allen-pope-cia-pilot

The photo above, Allen L Pope captured and recovering in a hotel. After he escaped from the crippled A-26,  Pope baled out but fractured his right leg, hit by the tail fin. Pope was held not in prison but under house arrest and treated very well as being an American  Citizen/ Prisoner that could be traded against US Goodies. But for raising his price, in April 1960, they first court-martialed him, found him guilty of killing 17 members of Indonesia’s armed forces and six civilians, and sentenced him to death. It was finally Robert Kennedy who, in 1962, bailed him out in exchange for an arms deal with the Indonesians. 

In 1965, the Americans got their bonus for their patience with the Sukarno Administration. Army General Suharto took over control, and in the ensuing revolt, the Communist Party of Indonesia was virtually eradicated.

That was the instant end of the Chinese Influence in Indonesia. With that, the huge Island State (with a population of 270 million) remained a Republic with a democratic constitution and an elected President, not a Communist Puppet.

One day, I hope to revisit my beloved Borneo!

END

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