MEMOIRS OF A PEACEKEEPER
A Tour of Duty with 49th Infantry Battalion UNIFIL
Company Sergeant Henry ‘Harry’ Mulhern (Retd) tells his story
Published in Winter 2015
The Irish Defence Forces peacekeeping role in South Lebanon is renowned throughout the world for its professionalism and bravery. At times under harrowing conditions the Irish peacekeepers have helped bring stability to a war-torn region. The first Irish infantry battalion (43rd Infantry Battalion) deployed to South Lebanon serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in May 1978. The following are the personal accounts of Harry Mulhern in South Lebanon in the period March-November 1981 while serving with the 49th Infantry Battalion UNIFIL. They represent a window into the work of Irish peacekeepers working thousands of miles from home in the cause of peace at a time when communication home was no more than newspapers and letters from family. At the time Harry was a Company Sergeant with 2nd Garrison Supply & Transport Company in Mckee Barracks. Aged 35, Harry had previously served twice with the United Nations (UN) in Cyprus.
The Last Day in Before Deployment
On 27 April 1981, at Cathal Brugha Barracks, Rathmines, Dublin, the second contingent of the 49th Infantry Battalion were preparing for departure to South Lebanon. This last day of departure would be the culmination after weeks of preparation and training. It involved bringing together hundreds of soldiers from barracks around the country to form a single unit, all of them volunteers. By the time of departure, the soldiers, who would be working closely together for the duration of the six-month tour were well acquainted, had formed a bond and were ready for the challenges ahead. This last day would be filled with mixed emotions. Some of the personnel were seasoned travellers, having served a number of tours previously in Lebanon and elsewhere.
‘The replacement of a Battalion or Infantry Group overseas is processed in three stages known as Chalks to allow for familiarisation and adaptation. This final day of preparation was a busy one for the administrative and operational supervisory staff. One of their priorities was to ensure that everyone due to leave presented themselves and final preparations were made for transport to Dublin Airport. Those reporting for travel came from every corner of the country having made their farewells to family and friends. Kit and baggage were already at the airport and loaded’.
As the peacekeepers went through their final preparations, reports came in to Army Headquarters of a serious incident in the Irish Area of Operations (AO) in South Lebanon, with casualties involved. It did not take long for this news to filter down to the awaiting peacekeepers in Cathal Brugha.
Later in the evening verification came that the incident in Lebanon earlier in the day involved a shooting and abduction of Irish personnel. ‘The casualty, a young soldier from Chalk One of our battalion was dead. This was shocking information. The young soldier who died was less than two weeks into his tour of duty. All of this information would have been included on evening news bulletins with names withheld. In 1981 there were no mobile phones and anxious families around the country started ringing military barracks asking questions following the public release of the report. A sombre cloud descended over all at Cathal Brugha Barracks’.
A religious service was held in the Barrack Chapel. It was customary and traditional; on this occasion it was attended by the overwhelming majority of those leaving and was particularly poignant. It was later confirmed that Saighdiúr Singil Caomhán Seoighe (Kevin Joyce, 48th Infantry Battalion) and Private Hugh Doherty who had only arrived with Chalk One, had been attacked at their Observation Post (OP) and abducted. Doherty was later confirmed killed. Seogihe was never found.
Despite the bad news the morale among the troops still held well. There was no question of people deciding not to go. That night all of the men enjoyed a final drink and sing along in the various mess bars and a good Irish steak.
‘A separate building in the airport was used in those times for military departures and with only those travelling present it was a quiet farewell to homeland. However, as we walked to the aircraft a group of women shouted and cheered through a side entrance, heart-warming stuff it was. We learned afterwards they were airport staff. We flew throughout the night into the early dawn and were well tended to during the flight by staff of Aer Lingus’.
Lebanon or Israel?
Originally due to land in Beirut, the flight had to be diverted to Tel Aviv, Israel. ‘We landed there safely and disembarked in beautiful sunshine. Officials kept us away from airport buildings while we waited for the transport convoy to Lebanon and the AO for the Irish Battalion. On the airport campus at Tel Aviv everyone was armed, military, civilian police and civilian airport workers. It was noticed that we still wore black berets and these had to be removed quickly as they resembled those worn by elements in the Middle East who were not friendly towards the Israelis’.
In the early evening, the Irish peacekeepers departed for the Israeli/Lebanon border. There were long delays at the Naqoura crossing into Lebanon while diplomatic negotiations took place and the Israelis satisfied themselves that the Irish were indeed who they claimed to be. UNIFIL HQ was situated at Naqoura.
‘In the end they relented and we crossed into Lebanon where a heavily armed escort awaited. The final part of the journey was via a rural climbing landscape toward South Lebanon. Arriving late after dark, we were quietly welcomed by our comrades in position there. The atmosphere was sombre and tense, but by that time we were very tired and ready for sleep’.
This was the beginning of Harry Mulhern’s six-month tour of duty.
Valley of Total and the Transport Element
At that time, the main Irish base was at Camp Shamrock on the outskirts of the village of Tibnin. The Irish Battalion was structured into HQ Company, three infantry companies (A, B and C), and an armoured Force Mobile Reserve (FMR). Peacekeepers rotated from this camp to outlying OPs. Camp Shamrock was well laid out with modern dining facilities, sleeping quarters, and showers. The area of Tibnin had its beauty and charm and the local people were warm toward anything Irish. The Irish peacekeepers were well respected as they watched over areas which were volatile and liable to flare up at any moment; the local and background knowledge they possessed; and the ability to communicate anticipated trouble all helped to prevent incursions into the area by armed factions.
Harry was based at the Valley of Total, the base of the Transport Element of the Irish Battalion and the Fuel Supply Depot for the entire UN force in Lebanon. The Valley at Total was situated about one kilometre from Camp Shamrock and the village of Tibnin. There was a petrol station with one resident family. The garage attached to the petrol station was used as workshops and technical stores by the transport element of the battalion. It was side-of-the- road operations with little facilities.
‘We had a fleet of very old American M50 and M35 Trucks, three Cherokee Jeeps, three water tankers, a couple of run arounds and a recovery vehicle. All of the vehicles (with the exception of the Cherokees) were old and in need of replacement. Conditions for the mechanics were very basic with major repairs and parts replacements taking place at the side-of-the-road and under very hot or very cold conditions depending on the time of year’.
The best-known vehicle and one of the most important for the Irish battalion logistically, was the MAM Diesel – a heavy duty tractor unit with two refrigerated containers. The MAM travelled daily to the Israeli border collecting supplies for the battalion. With a heavily armed escort it would travel daily out of the Battalion AO to Naqoura on the Israeli Border. This journey involved passing through territory, towns and villages under the control of the various armed elements including the Peoples Liberation Organization and Phalangists (members of the Kataeb party originally a Maronite paramilitary youth organisation). The Transport Element also operated a fuel supply service for all of UNIFIL.
‘Overseas the role of senior NCO has more responsibilities for example: maintaining the discipline and morale in far more difficult conditions than at home, keeping close contact with all of the men and dealing with any issues they might have in a supportive way. We lived in three prefab buildings; a primitive shower had been built and a television had been bought. There was nowhere to go in a mission area such as this apart from the danger of leaving the camp area, so you had to make your own entertainment. Weapons were always near at hand. Drivers carried loaded weapons at all times’.
The Dangers of the Job
Mid-summer, high in the mountains of South Lebanon, brought with it very high temperatures. The evenings though because of the altitude brought cooler conditions. In the Valley of Total those cool summer evenings brought welcome relief. ‘In the course of one of those evenings I was alerted by screams and shouting coming from the vicinity of the fuel supply area’. The Irish Transport Group held bulk stocks of petrol and diesel fuel and were the supply source for the various contingents of troops serving there at the time. Two underground tanks held in the vicinity of 9,000 litres of fuel. On this evening a Dutch military fuel tanker was loading fuel. It was pumped through an extending arm from source by an electrical pump. ‘
‘This pump had to be primed before use and was poor side-of-the-road technology. The Dutch driver was having trouble with the pump. It had stopped halfway through the fill. Trying to restart it he was joined by the Irish Petrol, Oil and Lubricants Sergeant, Paddy Denton, who was returning with a supply convoy from Naqoura. Paddy, familiar with the apparatus, set about re-priming the pump when it suddenly exploded covering him and the Dutch driver with burning fuel. A building which served as an office for the fuel Supply Staff quickly also caught fire’.
The bulk of the Irish transport personnel who were within shouting distance in the nearby football field heard the commotion and came running. At this time, the pump was ablaze and also part of the feed pipe to the tanker. It was a potentially serious and dangerous situation.
‘I had summoned help through the Battalion Operations Room (Sergeant Dave Abbott) who acted immediately. With the exception of three NCOs and myself all of the personnel were sent out of the danger area. Two of these NCOs, Sergeant Tom Flynn and Corporal Pat Looney ran towards the fire. While Sergeant Flynn mounted the vehicle, Corporal Looney ran to the end of the feed pipe (which was at this time on fire) and with heroic courage disconnected it from the tanker. Not having a normal ignition and start control Sergeant Flynn had some difficulty starting the vehicle. But in due course he succeeded and managed to move the vehicle out of the danger area. A third NCO, Sergeant Jim Burns stopped a passing armoured vehicle and loaded the injured aboard. By coincidence this vehicle was also Dutch’.
The injured were brought to the Irish Medical Facility at Tibnin. Sergeant Denton had serious burn injuries to his upper body while the Dutch driver had significant but less serious injuries. A nearby Norwegian camp had a Fire Engine which was dispatched to the scene. It brought the fire under control before it could endanger the main fuel storage site. If the peacekeepers had lost control of the fire the outcome for the valley and the nearby village would have been grave.
The events of that evening were one of many life-threatening situations encountered regularly on active duty in South Lebanon. But this critical situation was met with calmness and professionalism and in the case of Sergeant Flynn and Corporal Looney, with great courage and heroism. Commendations for the actions on the night by the NCOs who remained at the scene were received from the Commander of the Dutch Contingent and of course, the Irish Commander who received the personnel and personally congratulated them.
‘For the Irish Commander it was a relief, that rapid and decisive effective actions prevented a more serious outcome. This battalion had already incurred casualties in the course of the tour’.
Incidents an incursions
There were incidents and incursions on a daily basis during that period of UNIFIL. The effects of the 1978 Israeli invasion still lingered and tensions remained high across the border. Lebanon’s Civil War continued. As a result of both UNIFIL personnel regularly got caught in the middle of firefights, shellings, mines, and roadside bombs.
‘There were regular casualties as a result of these incursions. I remember the Fijian Battalion suffering more than most. But the list of Irish casualties is a long one. At night we witnessed Israeli jets attacking targets in surrounding villages. Drones overhead gathering intelligence was a daily occurrence. On the coast Israeli gunboats would appear on the horizon to shell coastal towns and villages. The ancient city of Tyre suffered from these attacks because of its coastal location. I witnessed one of those attacks from the sea myself.
On one occasion three officers returning to the battalion area from Naqoura were attacked while travelling through the village of Qana. They came under fire from militia and two of the officers took cover while the third and most senior, Commandant Tony Egar, approached the militia trying to calm the situation. The armed element had just taken a casualty from another UN contingent and wanted revenge. A rocket was fired in the direction of Commandant Egar. It missed him and demolished a nearby house. The Commandant tried to speak to them in French. The militia beat him with iron clubs. Eventually an older and senior member of the militia group appeared and stopped the attack.
On another occasion two drivers travelling in a water truck were attacked by an armed man who jumped onto the running board of the truck and attempted to fire into the cab. They only escaped by driving through a barrier into the camp of another contingent. When they returned to Total the indents of the bullets fired could be seen in the rear of the truck’.
The battalion suffered one more fatality after a driver from C Company was killed in a road accident.
A visit by Minister James Tully TD
During mid-Autumn the 49th Infantry Battalion received a visit from the Minister for Defence, James Tully TD. He was due to visit both Camp Shamrock and several of the outlining posts including Valley of Total. A major clean-up of the area was initiated and the men prepared their best uniforms, boots and weapons for inspection.
There was already some excitement among the Transport Group as one of their comrades (a young newly married man) had just received a communication that his wife had delivered their first child.
‘The lad was in a very emotional state and arrangements were being put in place for him to speak with his young wife by radio. (No mobile phones or Internet in those days) apart from letters it was total isolation from all matters to do with home for the duration of the tour. Visitors from home were, in those circumstances, very welcome.
There was one local family living at Total, who looked after the small commercial petrol station located there. They were requested to stay away from the inspection area for the duration of the minister’s visit and readily agreed’.
The Minister duly arrived around midday and was invited to inspect the assembled troops and accommodation. ‘As he walked through the troops, he stopped occasionally to speak to one of them. “Is everything going well, can I do anything for you”? The answer invariably was ‘yes Sir everything is fine’. That is until he reached the young man who had just become a father who answered: “My wife and I just had a baby, could you get us a house”. A great silence descended on those assembled as the Minister looked to the senior officer accompanying him who also looked to his junior. However, the surprise only lasted seconds and the Minister smiled at the man saying, “I will see you before I leave the area and we’ll talk.” A sigh of relief all round and the visit proceeded’.
This, however, was not the only surprise as the Minister prepared to leave one of the children of the family living at Total suddenly appeared. Dressed in her Sunday best she presented the visitor with flowers saying “my father and mother have prepared something for you upstairs” Again the Minister smiled and proceeded up the stairs to the balcony of the house. For security reasons these situations are avoided in the AO but in this instance the Minister agreed. Upstairs on the balcony he was presented to the whole and extended family, who were quietly slipped in earlier in the day. A feast of local Lebanese food and drink combined with the warmest of welcomes. It was a great coup for the family and the whole village would be impressed. Of the photographic record of the visit, this reception would add a pleasant memory’.
After the Minister Tully’s visit to Lebanon, he continued to other arranged destinations and cultural visits in the Middle East. In that capacity he travelled to Cairo as Ireland’s representative in Egypt’s annual October 6th military victory parade. While in the reviewing stand, next to President Anwar Sadat, Minister Tully suffered a shrapnel injury to his face after Sadat was assassinated by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who had infiltrated the Egyptian Army.
‘It was and is a very complicated area of conflict. The role of the UN peacekeepers is to keep the peace and maintain as far as possible a tolerable life for the population while politicians and diplomats try to make the permanent peace. The Irish are committed to this role’.
Harry returned home safely at the end of his tour. He retired from the Defence Forces in 1986 after 24 years service. To this day Irish peacekeepers still serve with UNIFIL in South Lebanon. You can read more about 2nd Garrison Company and stories about its members on: www. friendsofgarrison.com