The UN experiences of a colour-blind seaman
Anders Tholle, UNOG
The Editor of the AFICS Bulletin is full of good ideas for our publication, and many readers have complimented us for the contents of the regular Bulletin as well as for the occasional supplement containing special information. One of her recent suggestions was that our members should write articles about their work and share with us episodes which may have occurred during their years in international civil service.
I thought that this was an excellent idea and I encouraged her to get on with it. I was less enthusiastic when she suggested that I should write the first such memoirs but she insisted, and I gave in.
Getting into the UN
I must start by explaining how I got into the UN, for it is relevant to my experiences, and it was not through a regular process.
I was born in Copenhagen of parents who had both come from a small island in the Danish end of the Baltic Sea. During my holidays on this island I developed a strong attraction to the sea. There was a tradition in my mothers family for the men to go to sea. Her father, who died long before I was born, had owned and skippered his own ship, a small coaster carrying freight between Scandinavian and German ports. So, when the time came for me to decide what to do with my life, I chose to go to sea.
I started as a messboy, at 17 years of age, on a Danish freighter which had a regular route between Denmark and the Eastern Mediterranean. My ambition was to become a ships mate and, ultimately, a captain in the merchant marine. However, it was discovered that I am colourblind, and this prevented me from becoming a navigator. My colourblindness affects green and red, precisely the colours used by ships lanterns to show starboard and port. As I could not become a navigator; I chose to become a ships radio operator, a merchant marine officer function which does not require any navigation skills.
Following studies at the Copenhagen Navigation Academy, I went to sea as a 1st Class Radio Operator and spent some five years in the Danish merchant marine sailing the high seas. I also did a year of obligatory military service, in the course of which I volunteered for a posting to Greenland working as a radio operator with a rank of corporal in the Danish Navy; during some of this period I was attached to the Danish Liaison Office at a large American air base. The base was so big that I had to learn to drive a jeep in order to get around.
After the military service I returned to the merchant marine. I got married in 1955 and my employers agreed to my wife joining me onboard the ship on which I was working. We enjoyed a wonderful five-month honeymoon-at-work cruise around the world.
It was around this time that I heard that the United Nations required civilian radio operators for their peacekeeping missions in Greece, Kashmir and the Middle East. Early in 1956, I sent an application to the Personnel Office at the UN Office in Geneva, and received a letter of acknowledgement, signed by the Chief of Recruitment, one Albert Marx. This was followed by many months of silence.
At this time I had joined a Danish sea salvage company, and the plans were that I would be part of the crew of a salvage vessel which the company was planning to station in a port in Northwestern Spain. This would permit me to rent an apartment ashore, where I could stay with my wife, when I was not away at sea on salvage missions.
But certain historical events changed all that. Towards the end of 1956 the Suez war broke out. After a ceasefire had been agreed, the UN Security Council authorized the then Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to set up the first UN army, in the form of The United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in Egypt. Subsequently, the UN was also mandated to coordinate the removal of sunken merchant marine ships which had been blown up during the hostilities in the Suez Canal. My Danish salvage company was given a contract for this job, together with a Dutch firm. So, instead of taking up watch in a port in Spain, the salvage vessel, on which I was serving, set course for Egypt. My salvage vessel arrived at Port Said in December 1956. The city and neighbouring Port Fouad were still under British and French occupation respectively. We were put under UN command and my ship was used as the temporary Headquarters of a UN Suez Canal Mission headed by a retired US Army General Wheeler, who as a commander of an Engineering Corps had been responsible for the management of the Panama Canal.
UNEF, its soldiers wearing for the first time the now well-known blue helmets, was gradually taking over from the British and French forces. General Wheeler offered me a trip in a motor launch, from which we witnessed the departure of the British and French fleets from Port Said; it was impressive to see so many warships leaving Egyptian waters, and interesting to find myself onboard a boat with high officials who were saluted by each of the passing warships. On the way back into Port Said, our motor launch passed close to the shore and we saw an excited Egyptian crowd pulling down a huge statue of Fernand de Lesseps, the French engineer who had built the Suez Canal. He fell, head down, into a barge in the harbour.
Following the end of the occupation of Port Said, General Wheeler and his staff left our salvage vessel and established their Headquarters in an office building ashore. As there was no work for a radio operator on the vessel during the months-long salvaging and refloating operations of sunken ships, the General borrowed my services for his office, to serve as a liaison officer with the salvage operators. This put me in touch with civilian staff from the UN Emergency Force, and also with some visiting VIPs from New York. I lost no time in telling these officials of my application to work for the UN, which was gathering dust in an office in Geneva. So within a few weeks, I received an offer to become a Field Service Radio Operator with the Emergency Force in Egypt. There was one condition: I had to pass a local driving test. The Personnel Office in Geneva, which had examined my application, had not been sure if a military driving license, which I had been given during my service on an American base in Greenland, was good enough. As a matter of fact they had mailed a negative response to the application to my home in Denmark, at the very same time as I was signing my contract with the UN in Egypt. I passed an Egyptian driving test with the kind help of a Port Said taxi driver and a Police Officer, both of whom were rewarded with some baksheesh.
Serving with UNEF in Egypt and Gaza
I reported for duty with UNEF, which had its temporary Headquarters in an abandoned British army camp about midways down along the western banks of the Suez Canal. The Force itself was deployed in the Sinai, where it followed the gradual withdrawal of Israeli forces to the old international border between Egypt and the former British Palestine Protectorate as well as into the Gaza Strip. We moved into Gaza when the Israeli withdrawal had been completed. UNEFs Headquarters was then established in the old Gaza Central Police Station. The compound also included another building containing our radio station, where I worked, as well as some VIP offices and a staff cafeteria. It was here that I shared a lunch table one day in 1957 with UN Under-Secretary General Ralph Bunche, his senior assistant Brian Urquhart and the Force Commander General Burns, of Canada. Ralph Bunche had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize some years earlier for his services as a mediator between Israel and the Arab Countries during 1948-1949. He was a very kind man, asking me how long I had been with the UN (just 3 months, Sir) and about my home country Denmark.
Dag Hammarskjoeld made it a point to travel out to Gaza every Christmas, to spend time with the men of the Swedish contingent. He also made sure that the Scandinavian civilian staff would be invited to the Swedish Christmas celebrations. I joined the Swedes one year for a Christmas singsong evening in the company of the Secretary- General.
I was posted to the UN mission in the Congo in 1962-1963. The missions name is made up of its French acronym ONUC. Its Headquarters was located in Leopoldville, known today as Kinshasha. Dag Hammarskjoeld had been killed on 18 September 1961 in an air accident while on a peace mission near the Congo. He had been succeded by a new Secretary-General U Thant from Burma. One of my tasks was to handle coded messages between the Head of Mission, Robert Gardiner from Ghana, and the Secretary-Generals Office in New York. I had been given special training for this; the code machines were of the old kind, operated manually and I needed to pull a handle for each letter to be printed out. Long messages could take many hours. I was outposted for short periods to Cocquiliatville and Luluaborg.
My family was with me during this assignment, which was not without its dangers. Robberies were frequent and we were not spared. One night, while I was doing a nightshift at the missions headquarters, thieves made their way into our bungalow where my wife and our two sons were sleeping. A recently acquired Alsatian dog, still a puppy, slept soundly through the event. My wife was woken up by having a flashlight put into her face. She thought that it was our older son who had been to the toilet and she told him in stern Danish that he should stop playing with daddys flashlight and go to bed. Following which she heard some heavy barefooted running out of our house. She went after the noise and saw thieves disappearing into a car, their arms full of clothes and electronic equipment. Fortunately she came to no harm, contrary to a friend of ours who was shot dead by robbers while driving to the airport one night.
We also had some good times in the Congo. Our daughter was born in Leopoldville.
The Six-Day War
In 1967, eleven years after the first Suez War, a second war broke out, between Israel and three of its neighbours, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. At the time I was serving with the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which has had its Headquarters in Jerusalem since 1948. The mission headquarters is located on a hilltop from where one has a complete view of both the Israeli and Arab sectors of Jerusalem, including the Old City. The grounds had two gates to the outside world, one called the East Gate gave us access to Jordan. The other, known as Main Gate connected us with the Israeli sectors of Jerusalem. The buildings are known as Government House, for this was the seat of the British Governor during the Palestine Mandate period. The hill on which Government House is located is known as Jebel al-Mukhabeer; which means the Hill of Evil Counsel.
UNTSOs mandate is to supervise and monitor the observation of ceasefires between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states. The monitoring is carried out by Military Observers; their administrative and logistical support is provided by civilian UN Field Service officers and local staff. The mission has a network of observation groups and observation posts on the ground, as well as liaison offices in cities of the different countries. After having worked for some time in Jerusalem, I was transferred in 1966 to a UN office in Amman, Jordan, which had two functions, one was to serve as an UNTSO Liaison Office, and the other was to be the seat of a small, political mission known as the the UN Mission in Amman (UNMIA). The latter mission had been established some years earlier during a serious political crisis between, on the one hand, Jordan and, on the other hand, Egypt and Syria (which were, at the time, federated in the United Arab Republic), following accusations of attempts on the life of King Hussein by the latter countries.
The Head of this mission was Ambassador Spinelli who was also the Director General of the UN Office in Geneva. I was given my first UN promotion and a change of title from Radio Operator to Field Service Assistant following this transfer. I was Officer-in-Charge supported by two local clerk-drivers. Mr. Spinelli would come over from time to time to visit the mission which was located in a small villa in Amman. He would assess the situation and report on it to the Secretary-General. My link with Mr. Spinelli was through André Courtois, who had selected me for this assignment and supervised me from the UN Office at Geneva.
This was an interesting assignment for me and a pleasant experience for my family. One would come near to King Hussein in different places, at car rallies, diplomatic receptions or at his favourite sea resort in Aqaba where he could be seen waterskiing from the beach. We enjoyed this posting, socializing with international and local friends, our children went to good schools and the weather was almost always good, even if we got snowed in at an Aqaba hotel one cold Easter.
In the early summer of 1967 it became clear that there would be another war between Israel and the Arab countries. UNEF was being withdrawn from Sinai and Gaza at President Nassers insistence. The Egyptian navy was stopping ships bound for Israel at the entrance to the Bay of Aqaba, so that Israels Red Sea port of Eilat was effectively blockaded. Jordan was massing troops along its ceasefire lines with Israel in the West Bank. Foreign embassies in Amman were evacuating their staffs dependents, and the international school which our children were frequenting, was emptying. When the UN authorized evacuation, I sent my family away to Denmark. One week later, the airport from which my wife and children had departed was bombarded. Israel had started the Six-Day-War with surprise attacks on Egypt and Jordan.
As the only UN official in Amman with radio contact with the rest of the world, my position suddenly became a crucial one. On 7 June I received a desparate radio call from the Chief Operations Officer of UNTSO in Jerusalem, who informed me that the Jordanian army, also known as the Arab Legion, had forced their way through East Gate into the grounds of Government House and installed artillery, with which they were shelling Israeli positions in the valleys below the Government House hill. He asked me to telephone to King Hussein and ask His Majesty to have his troops removed, not only because this was neutral UN territory, but also because many dependants who had not yet been evacuated, had been relocated to Government House, as a safe area. I did my best to call the Palace and to ask whomsoever would speak with me, to try and get the Jordanian troops out. I never got through to the King.
And later that day I lost my contact with UNTSO Headquarters, at the same time as the BBC was reporting that the Israeli army had moved in and eliminated the Jordanian incursion. The Israelis shot their way into the building by launching an artillery rocket through the main entrance door. Fortunately, none of the many people who had sought refuge in the building were hurt. The Israeli Army moved UN staff and dependants from Government House to a hotel. They kept the building for some time after the six-day war, before handing it back to the UN.
The bulk of UN staff in Amman had been evacuated to Teheran shortly before hostilities broke out, and we were three young men left behind to look after our respective missions, one was Per Sjogren, who later became Director of the UNs Field Operations Service in New York, as well as Director of Administration of UNOG. The other was John Clarke of FAO. They would be bringing food to the office, where I felt duty bound to remain because of the radio station. We met there every evening during the six days the war lasted.
The following days the Jordanian resistance began to collapse and Palestinian refugees who had been living in camps on the West Bank since 1948, started walking across the Jordan River towards Amman. Long rows of cars, carriages and people came walking into town, fleeing the fighting on the West Bank.
And, once again, I was asked to stop the fighting! This time it was the Jordanian Foreign Minister who rang at the door to our mission. He explained that he would like me to use the UNs radio network to inform the Secretary-General of the UN that Jordan wanted to cease fire immediately. I had to tell him that, following the unfortunate events at Government House in Jerusalem the previous day, I had lost my only reliable radio link with the UN, and therefore I was unable to send any radio messages out of Amman. He insisted that I should try, so I opened the radio station and tried to contact other UNTSO stations in Tiberias (Israel), Gaza and Damascus, but the UN network was completely dead. I recommended my visitor to try and call at the embassy of the United States of America. The results of this war were disastrous for Jordan, with the loss of all of the West Bank, including what was the Arab sector of Jerusalem.
A week after the final ceasefire, our radio contacts had been reestablished and the first message in was one from Ralph Bunche, who thanked me for having stayed put and for my services rendered during the six-day war. Another message was from the UNs insurance service; they asked me to go to Amman airport and see what had become of UNTSOs DC-3 aircraft which had been parked out there because it had been con sidered a safe place. I went there and found the aircraft completely destroyed as a result of the Israeli bombardments.
Apart from the destruction of the airport, Amman had not been directly affected by the hostilities during the Six-day War. Fellow Field Service Officers in other locations went through some dangerous days, as for example, two AAFI-AFICS members, Verner Andersen, who was caught in the fighting in and around Government House in Jerusalem, and Rafael Hidalgo, who was seeking shelter from Israeli bombardments in Gaza.
In January 1968 I transferred from Amman to Geneva, where I took up the functions of Senior Clerk (Commis principal) in the Director-Generals office, continuing to work under Mr. Spinelli and later on with his successor Vittorio Winspeare Guiccardi, also an Italian diplomat. My tasks were to assist the Offices Administrative Assistant Christiane Turrel, and to distribute incoming cables to the different agencies, divisions and services in the Palais des Nations. I am deeply indebted to Christiane, who is a member of AAFI-AFICS and lives in Southern France at the sprite age of 88, for all the time and effort she devoted to improving my knowledge of the French language. When I was preparing myself to pass the official UN French language exams, Christiane worked extra hard, by giving me daily dictation tests in the office. And I passed the UN language test with excellent notes. The supervisor of this exam was none other than our dear AAFI-AFICS member, and former Editor of the Bulletin, Juliette Bérard.
The Director-Generals office at the Palais des Nations is normally taken over by the Secretary-General of the UN whenever he is in Geneva. The Director-General will then relocate into another office on the elegant and silver-doored first floor of the Palais des Nations. This was how I came to get acquainted with U Thant and his entourage from New York. U Thant was fond of Cuban Havana cigars and had a problem with getting them in New York because of the American boycott of Cuba. So during his visits we would arrange for the delivery of fresh Havanas from Davidoffs in Geneva. We also arranged to send a box of Cuban cigars under cover of a personal and confidential letter-parcel from Mr. Winspeare to U Thant in the weekly diplomatic pouch from Geneva to New York.
My skills in operating the UNs code machines, which by now had become electrical, provided me with some occasional diversions from Geneva. When Ambassador Winspeare was asked by the Secretary-General to undertake a mission to Bahrein, in order to sound out the populations wishes with regard to independence from Britain, I was put on the mission team, together with Offices newly arrived Chef de Cabinet Erik Jensen, who despite his Danish name and parentage is a national of Malaysia, and Security Officer Lucien Comensoli. We spent three interesting weeks in Bahrein. And by the way, Erik Jensen has now retired from UN service and he is President of our sister association BAFUNCS, in the United Kingdom. Comensoli has also retired and is a member of AAFI-AFICS.
Another time I was called in to replace U Thants regular code operator, who had fallen ill, on a trip to Europe. I met up with the Secretary-General in Paris and travelled with him and his team to Belgrade. There U Thant held consultations with the Yugoslav Government. Afterwards we visited Skopje where the UN was engaged in assistance in reconstructing the city, which had been devastated by an earthquake. Finally, we were flown to a port on Yugslavias northern coast and from there we sailed on a Yugoslav navy ship to the island of Brioni, President Titos summer residence. The Secretary-General held private meetings with Tito, and after that we all participated in their joint lunch. I found myself sitting next to Mrs. Tito. President Tito and U Thant were sitting just across from me. I did my best to have some small conversation with Mrs. Tito, a lady who fell out of political favour some years later. When Tito asked me some questions about Danish politicians and politics, I had to explain my ignorance after having been away from my home country for many years. U Thants European travel continued to Rome, where he called on the Italian Government. We followed him to different government offices in Rome and I was introduced to and shook hands with Aldo Moro, who was Foreign Minister at the time. Some years later he was kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades.