June 2008, In responce to a disparaging article about mercenaries, that was written against the backdrop of the Simon Mann court case in Malabo, Equatorial New Guinea, that was written by Ben McIntyre and published in the London Times.
Howard Sercombe responded with:
“We call them freebooters, adventurers, privateers or knights errant - in occupied Iraq, they are called “contractors in the peace and security industry” - but no euphemism can disguise that mercenaries are hired killers, and often dangerous fantasists, drunk on their own deluded self-image”
Some of what the article contained, about some mercenaries, may sometimes be true. But not always.
In the 1950s of (the then) Rhodesia I was schooled amongst the less academically inclined. That is the euphemistic way of putting it. We were not an intellectual crowd. After school years, for example, Gavin, one of my class, joined the Regimental Police, but did not cover himself with glory; Michael joined the Post Office Engineering branch, so held a steady, if everyday job. Another in the school, Aidan, was later to spend time in prison, and energy escaping from it. He claimed no jail could hold him. Another was killed whilst on military training. We were an ordinary bunch.
In this mix of mundane men-to-be was Joe Wepener, who was in my class. He came from a rough household, and was not popular among the rest of us because he brought to the school some of that roughness. I saw him in the school grounds knock another fellow down, then kick him whilst lying on the ground. Few either mixed or messed with Joe.
Joe and I were at Llewellyn Barracks, Bulawayo on national service at the same time, but in different Companies. I was in C, and Joe in A. Another chap from school days, Duncan, was in Company B. One weekend I wanted to go out, but had no pass to do so legally. So Duncan offered to smuggle me out in his old 1940s Ford Pilate, huddled down on the floor between the front and rear seats, covered by a tarpaulin, in order to get out past the Gate Guards. Whilst the two of us were debating tactics in the Barrack car park, along comes Joe and wants to get in on this human-smuggling act. Duncan wouldn’t take him: one item of illicit cargo was enough. Joe went off leaving the two of us to complete our plans.
I then told Duncan that it would be better for me to leave Camp in the boot of the car. He didn’t think it large enough for me to get in, until I demonstrated that it was, and he shut the lid. When he drove up to the Guard-house, the Military Police detail immediately opened the rear door and looked between front and back seats, under the tarp. Empty. He walked around to the boot, studied it, and moved on; obviously, nobody could fit in there. So he waved Duncan through. Once well away from the Barracks, I climbed out, drove the rest of the way in comfort, and enjoyed my weekend of illegal freedom.
The point of this is – we were sure the jilted Joe had tried to spoil our weekend by way of revenge for not taking him along. That was the way Joe was. One of the last times I heard of Joe by word of mouth was the time he was stopped for speeding, riding a motor cycle. When the traffic officer went to record the registration number of the machine, he realised Joe was riding a stolen Police bike. That was Joe.
About thirty years went by. A paperback book came into my possession entitled, ‘Daylight must come’ by Alan Burgess. This relates the harrowing account of Christian missionaries serving in the Congo during the Simba uprisings of the 1960s, when young savages went on the rampage, and nobody – black or white - was safe. English medic, Dr Helen Roseveare, along with other missionaries, were taken captive by the Simbas. Dr Helen was among those women who were raped during their captivity. Such captures and treatment was common, and seldom were there survivors.
However, for Helen and her companions, the day came when they heard a commotion break out in the compound outside their hut. Wild shooting and shouting. The door was forced open, and booted feet tramped in. But the legs arising from those boots were white legs. They were Mercenaries who, hearing of their plight, came to rescue them. Their leader was Joe Wepener, described in the book simply as a ‘laconic Rhodesian.’
In 1981 I returned to Rhodesia, and later had the opportunity of going back to my old school. The Head by then was my former Department Head, George Arles, a rugby-playing man’s-man who tried to teach us Geography on top of running his section of the school. Now Head of the school, he seemed pleased to see me. I told him about the book I had read, ‘Daylight must come’, and asked about Joe. George didn’t know about the book but said that after leaving school Joe matured, became more responsible, and had indeed become a Mercenary. So it was confirmed that the Joe of the book, of whom Dr Helen spoke so highly, was one and the same as my former class-mate.
Dr Roseveare’s account of Joe ended by saying that two weeks after rescuing them, and seeing them safely onto a plane out of the country (there is a fuzzy Polaroid photograph of Joe with Helen), Joe was killed. No indication how this happened.
More years passed, and I was living and working in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where in the late 1980s I was involved in running a shelter for men who would otherwise be sleeping rough on the streets. One evening a man arrived for a bed, an Afrikaner by the name of Daniel Jacobs. In conversation he mentioned that he had been a Mercenary in the Congo back in the sixties.
‘Were there any Rhodesians in your unit?’ I asked him.
‘Yes’, he told me.
‘Did you come across one named Wepener?’
‘O yes – Joe Wepener. He was my Commanding Officer.’
Danny had been on that rescue raid. I asked how Joe had died. Danny told me how Joe had dismantled a landmine, removed it from the ground successfully, then stood up. But he didn’t know there was another buried immediately behind him, until he stepped on it.
Some of what Ben wrote, about some mercenaries, sometimes may be true. One Mercenary may not justify the actions of all mercenaries. But in spite of what Joe once had been, I cannot right him off as some would of all Mercenaries. Men make Mercenaries, courageous men.
Howard Sercombe 2008