The sun was setting slowly on a dusty dry afternoon in Owamboland, late in 1979 . The military base at Enhana had been a buzz of activity for almost a week since a few 32 Battalion Companies had been deployed as guests of 54 Battalion regular troops. Every day since their arrival the battle hardy 32 Battalion Companies had been flying in and out of Angola engaging the enemy in “fire force” operations. They had been charged by the S.A Defence generals to take control of the areas just North of the Angolan border, where enemy units had been building up their forces for some time, creating a threat to the regular units of the defence force deployed in Owamboland. The spectacular successes of 32 Bn under the command of Commandant “Falcon” Ferreira had by now become legendary, even in the international press. 32 Bn had become the undisputed prime fighting unit in the South African defence force. Their camouflaged uniforms, eastern block weaponry and superior tactics had made them a breed apart.
As the day was cooling down fast, an air of expectancy was hanging over the base. The last of the Puma Helicopters had not come in and it was getting late. The few hundred regular troops of 54 Bn had by now become accustomed to taking up positions on top of the protective sand walls, around the Helicopter landing pad, to have an birds eye view of the Helicopters bringing the 32 Bn troops in from the battle field in the afternoons. The spectacle of seeing the offloading of the dead and wounded and actually witnessing 32 Bn in action had become the highlight of many of their military careers. As the minutes ticked by the rumour circulated that it was in fact the helicopter of Lieutenant Seamus O' Reilly that may have been lost. They were over due and the sunlight was fading. The un thinkable had now become a possibility. Losing Seamus O’Reilly and some of his men would be a tragedy of note, for 32 Bn. To many of us, who knew him well, he was” bullet proof “, he had seen and lived through it all. He had become an icon in 32 Bn. His calm demeanour and powerful leadership had made him a soldier to be reckoned with. His troops swore by their leader as the only man in the world to lead them on the battle field. We waited.
A sudden hum of excitement stirred the crowd. Some started shuffling to get a better position on the narrow walls as others were pointing to a small black spec on the Western horizon. It was a Puma. The hum now turned into a noisy chatter as the Helicopter approached. In a cloud of dust it touched down on the dry runway, running nose down towards the chopper pad. After what felt like an eternity it came to a gentle halt in front of the Hospital tent. The turbines stopped screaming and its rotor slowed down to a whining chuck-chuck. This was the moment of truth. Parking alongside the Hospital meant only one thing – corpses and the wounded. Hundreds of eyes were focused on the main door of the Helicopter as the rotor come to a lazy halt. A deathly silence settled in the air. The Helicopter crew were visible in the cockpit, scuffling around removing their helmets and un-doing their safety belts.
The main door slid open very slowly revealing only the black inner hull of the Puma. As if from no were, a folded umbrella appeared through the door, in a horizontal position. Perplexed by this outlandish, un-camouflaged, flimsy civilian instrument of protection, all and sundry grunted in disbelief. A hand slid up the shaft and then it popped open,- revealing a splendidly bright coloured purple umbrella. A long legged soldier stepped out of the Puma holding the umbrella over his head, he paused briefly to confirm his exact position and with a slow athletic gate, that could only belong to one Seamus O’Reilly, he started to stroll across the chopper pad with all his troops tightly filed behind him. Expressionless and heavily laden with the tools of war and not looking left or right, the group glided gracefully in the direction of the other 32 Bn Companies, deployed next to the runway. The absolute silence was shattered when the crowd spontaneously broke into a thunderous applause. Here was one of those rare soldiers who did not loose his sense of humour, even in those dark moments of staring death in the eye daily.
May the soul of this brave man rest in peace in the knowledge that I and hundreds of others, witnessed the moment that he was recognized for the great soldier that he was. For at that historical point in time, 32 Battalion conceived a legend.
Any man or woman of his bloodline has my heartfelt respect.
32 Battalion Veterans Association