The early 1960s were a period of traumatic political upheaval for the Republic of the Congo. As a civil war raged that ultimately claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 people, America was particularly concerned with what would happen to the more than 3,000 Western missionaries scattered throughout the region. The decision was ultimately made to begin flying reconnaissance flights over the African nation, looking for signs of the missionaries and keeping tabs on the unfolding conflict.
One incident of note was recounted in 1979 in the CIA’s internal publication, Studies in Intelligence, though the event itself had been classified as “Secret, Not for Foreign Dissemination” until 2005. Despite being declassified, the story and accompanying image didn’t make its way into the public’s purview by and large until earlier this year, when the website Muchrock uncovered it during a deep dive into the interesting tidbits one can now glean from the CIA’s expansive Freedom of Information Archive.
The flight in question took place during the early planning stages of a rescue operation that was being mounted to save a mixed group of American and European hostages being held in what is now called Kisangani, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the aircraft returned and the pictures were analyzed, one shot caught the interest of CIA Deputy Director General Marshall S. Carter, as it appeared to show a single Congolese civilian attempting to hit the reconnaissance plane with a spear.
According to the CIA’s report on the incident:
“Flying reconnaissance at low levels is always hazardous because of the threat of small-arms fire, but we at the National Photographic Interpretation Center were surprised to see on a photo acquired on one of these missions a Congolese peasant in the act of throwing a spear at the reconnaissance aircraft. General Carter saw the photograph and decided to use it in his briefing with Mr. Truman.”
Carter, who must have been willing to interject a bit of humor into a classified briefing on the state of the hostages for President Truman, described the spear with all the technical proficiency (and seasoned snark) one might expect of a seasoned war fighter:
“The missile, a Mark 1, Mod 1, has a manual inertial guidance system, a mobile launcher with a one-sling power velocity on takeoff, and considerable pucker power on impact. It is, however, of questionable accuracy and has an undetermined C.E.P [circular error probability]. The refire capabilities have not yet been determined,” he said to the president.
The president was reportedly pleased with the report and with General Carter’s characterization of the event, reportedly saying afterward, “I hope someone has advised the pilots to fly a little higher. Just imagine the effect on a young Air Force pilot if his career service record showed he had been downed by a spear.”