THE BOOK OF HONOR -- DECEPTION
THE AFTERNOON of August 25, 1964, was hot and steamy as a tiny knot of mourners-a mother and father, a sister and a widow-gathered on a grassy Chattanooga hillside to say a last good-bye to thirty-four-year-old John Gaither Merriman. There, in grave 172, section BB, Merriman took his place in the national cemetery among many honored dead. Interred around him were more than six thousand unknown Civil War casualties who fell at Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Lookout Mountain, as well as six recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. John Merriman would have been proud to be in the company of such men, and they in his.
All that August day, Merriman's widow, Val, had done what she could to steel herself The night before, she had spoken with the minister, Brother Paul, and told him only that her husband had been involved in "a terrible accident." Those were the very words he used from the pulpit of the Church of Christ addressing some thirty-five mourners, among them many brawny young men with weathered faces and aviator glasses tucked into their coat pockets.
In a pew close to Val sat Dorothy "Dot" Kreinheder, a casual friend who had worked with John and now took a more than casual interest in Val's well-being. If she was there to offer Val Merriman emotional support, she was also there to ensure that the widow said nothing that might raise questions about Merriman's death or implicate the CIA Kreinheder had made herself indispensable, even purchasing Val's mourning dress (a black affair with a low circular collar and white inset), a snug black pill- box hat, and the black fabric purse Val would clutch to her side, knowing it held a picture of her husband.
By all accounts, Merriman's was an utterly unremarkable and prosaic passing. The local newspaper reported what the family had told them: that Merriman had been in an auto accident the evening of August 20 while at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico. The precise cause of death, it was said, was a pulmonary embolism. It was all in black and white on his death certificate, his autopsy report, and his cemetery record. Merriman had had the misfortune to somehow strike "a road abutment"-the words appear- ing on his official death certificate. As a common traffic fatality he hardly seemed worthy of such hallowed ground.
But Val Merriman knew otherwise. She knew the death certificate had been dummied up, the newspapers duped, and the pathologist misled. She knew it was all part of one grand lie-everything, that is, except the one undeniable fact: John Merriman was dead. Still, she was determined to be a good CIA wife to the very end, to cling to the cover story and not ask questions. It was nobody's business but "the Company's." In the midst of her sorrow, she would deliver the performance of a lifetime. She was not even to tell her three young sons the truth of their father's death, at least not until years later when the boys could be trusted not to tell a soul. Jon, Bruce, and Eric were not even to be there at their father's funeral.
At least thirty-three-year-old Val Merriman might draw some small comfort from knowing that her husband had received the best of medical attention in his final hours and that he died among people \vho cared about him in the Puerto Rican hospital. Syd Stembridge, a senior CIA officer and friend, had shared with Val a detailed account of Merriman's final evening. John, he told her, had known little pain He had been resting quietly that evening and was well provided for. He even asked for a bowl of ice cream, which the nurse promptly brought him. He polished it off with boyish delight, then lapsed into a peaceful sleep from which he did not awaken. What Val Merriman could not know was that her husband was never in a Puerto Rican hospital and that the story of the ice cream was pure invention, a fiction within a fiction. No one at the Agency could bring themselves to tell her the truth. It was that gruesome.
What she did know was that her husband possessed the stuff of which heroes are made. Others knew it too. A quiet man of modest height and build, he had a glint of mischief in his eyes and a pencil-thin mustache that gave him the look of a dashing Hollywood roue. He was ruggedly individualistic, with an insatiable yen for action and a confidence in his skills that was easily mistaken as a disdain for risk.
But he also had a gentler side. In his spare time he painted with oils, especially seascapes and aircraft. He wrote short stories and poems, designed sailboats, and could turn the Sunday newspaper into a soaring box kite to the delight of his sons. A crack marksman and able gun- smith, he once brought down a monster of a Kodiak bear but was so distressed at the loss of such a majestic creature that ever after he swore off hunting.
His passion for flying dated back to earliest boyhood. At five, he cajoled his parents into buying him a ticket to ride with a barnstormer who took him up for a series of stomach-churning stunts above the Chattanooga skies. After that, Merriman was intent on getting his own wings. At fourteen he soloed for the first time. At sixteen he had his pilot's license. At seven- teen he dropped out of high school to join the 82nd Airborne. As a young man he once tried to put his feelings for flying into words.
The wind on the wings strong and tight
Like a high spirited steed
If I'm ever sent to heaven, and paradise I see,
Long before he had thrown his lot in with the CIA, before the cloak of secrecy obscured his life, Merriman had demonstrated ample valor. For one fleeting instant he was even thrust into the public spotlight. It was July 9, 1953. Merriman was then a twenty-four-year-old pilot assigned to the Civil Air Patrol's Yakutat Squadron in Alaska. On that day another pi- lot flying mail and supplies to a remote climbing expedition discovered a distress signal written in the snow. The message indicated that a member of the party had come down with appendicitis and needed to be airlifted out immediately.
The pilot sent a message to Elmendoff Field, which dispatched a Grumman SA-16 Albatross in the hope that it could land safely on the glacier and retrieve the stricken climber. But the pilot found it too treacherous to land at the 7,600-foot base camp and was forced to turn back.
Merriman, then a meteorological aid, a lowly GS-5 with the U.S. Weather Bureau, heard of the situation and volunteered to make a rescue attempt. Already an experienced bush pilot, he flew a Piper Super Cruiser to the nearby Malaspina Glacier, carrying on board a set of skis to be attached to the plane for a glacial landing. The mission was perilous from the outset. Merriman's Piper aircraft was not designed for landings and takeoffs above six thousand feet. The gnatlike plane, a mere twenty-two feet in length and fueled by a one-hundred-horsepower engine, had a top speed of Jl4 miles per hour. As Merriman's superior would observe, "No one should have to use it" at such altitudes. When the plane landed at a midway site, the aircraft was damaged by rocks protruding through the ice. Merriman pressed on, further damaging the plane as he took off; his craft now outfitted with skis.
As Merriman flew on toward the site of the climbers' camp, the winds picked up. A driving rain pelted the windshield. By the time he reached Seward Gap, visibility was down to three miles. Only his familiarity with the wilds of the Yukon Territory allowed him to navigate. Even so, the skis of his plane twice skidded across the icy terrain at full cruising speed, violently rattling his aircraft. Merriman's commanding officer later likened it to "flying inside of a milk bottle." Finally he spied the campers' site, which had been marked off with a piece of canvas and a cargo parachute. After a week of bad weather and thawing, the snow had rotted through and barely supported the weight of the aircraft. Merriman's plane came to a slamming halt after touchdown on a glacier at the foot of Mount McArthur.
By then it was dusk. The weather was too hostile to risk taking off Merriman grabbed a few hours' sleep while members of the trekking party swept clear a 4,300-foot runway with their snowshoes. At daybreak Merriman and his patient, Dick Long, took off; requiring every foot of the runway. Unable to put the tires back on his plane, Merriman landed on his skis in the tall grass beside the airport in Yakutat. A doctor was waiting to take Long to the lower forty-eight.
For Merriman the flight was nothing extraordinary. Four days later he was off on another mercy mission, this one to the Situck River to pick up a fisherman sick with pneumonia. But Merriman's daring rescue of Dick Long had caught the attention of his superior in Anchorage who relayed a description of Merriman's exploits on to Washington.
Six months later, on February 16, 1954, Merriman found himself standing on the stage of a cavernous auditorium in Washington, D.C., as Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks presented him with a gold medallion, the esteemed Exceptional Service Award. The citation read: "For heroic action involving jeopardy of life in piloting the plane which under adverse weather and extremely hazardous operating conditions effected the rescue of a stricken mountain climber from the Malaspina Glacier."
Merriman was then just six blocks from CIA headquarters, but the thought of covert operations had yet to cross his mind. In an otherwise totally private life, this moment onstage was the one time John Merriman would come to public attention. Already, though, within the community of bush pilots and smoke jumpers, he was becoming something of a legend, as much for his guts as for his gift as an aviator. It was said of him that he could fly the box the airplane came in.
A decade later some of those same pilots who admired him most and who shared his secrets would gather inside the Church of Christ to pay their last respects to Merriman. To some it seemed a cruel irony that one who had been so willing to risk his life to rescue others, should have met such an unconscionable end.
For many years John Merriman worked as a commercial pilot, but the tedium of fixed schedules and the routine of routes did not agree with him. Then in 1962 he took a job as pilot to the royal family in Saudi Arabia. But that job was cut short after less than two years when King Saud was deposed. After that, Merriman put out feelers for a job within the community of clandestine operatives.
In 1963 he was contacted by Intermountain Aviation, ostensibly a private firm, but one that, in reality, was part of the CIA's growing stable of wholly owned airlines called proprietaries. Collectively this network of seemingly private companies created a virtually invisible air force at the disposal of the CIA, permitting it to expand its clandestine paramilitary activities around the globe. Undetected, such CIA front companies as Civil Air Transport, Air America, Evergreen, and Inter- mountain could move vast amounts of materiel-weapons, communications gear, and provisions-and men in support of America's proxy wars against the Communists, be they in Europe, Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Such firms were always on the lookout for savvy pilots. There was none better than John Merriman.
During the year that Merriman underwent an extensive CIA back- ground and security check, he signed on with Johnson's Flying Service in Missoula, Montana. There he ferried smoke jumpers to forest fires. In its wisdom the Agency had steered him to a job that would polish precisely those treetop turns and acrobatic flying skills needed in counterinsurgency operations. It would also allow him to gain the trust and confidence of many of the very men who were to become the backbone of the CIA's daring covert paramilitary efforts in places like the Congo, Laos, and Vietnam. Even the smoke jumpers were impressed with Merriman's sangfroid. Before taking off; he calmly slipped a leather glove over his left hand. On it was written the word "Bandersnatch." Many of the jumpers took to calling him that as a nickname of affection and respect.
When he had finally cleared Agency scrutiny, Merriman and his family were moved to Intermountain's headquarters at a vast top secret facility a half hour northwest of Tucson, Arizona. Its name was Marana Air Base. A former World War II facility, it offered three runways intersecting in a triangle and set upon a perfectly flat stretch of barren earth. In the distance to the west, the Sawtooth Mountains broke the monotony of land and sky. For years it would be the premier CIA training ground for paramilitary air operations, offering a kind of postgraduate curriculum in air ops. Merriman was jubilant. In a letter to a friend he wrote, "I'm sure I've found my life's work if I don't get fired."
From around the country the CIA had recruited top experts in all the arcane arts needed to carry out covert operations-smoke jumpers and "riggers" adept not only in making complex jumps but in the packing of specialized parachutes, kickers" capable of designing and delivering pallets and chutes for extraordinary supply drops, pilots willing and able to fly through torturous weather conditions, and mechanics, armaments experts, and engineers eager to convert conventional aircraft and apparatus to meet the needs of the most exotic missions. Together they formed a tightly knit community-all of them sworn to absolute secrecy. The unseen instrument of U.S. foreign policy, they were warriors in a world of undeclared wars.
More than a mere training base, Marana was a realm unto itself with-drawn from all the world. Ordinarily there was little visible security that might call unwanted attention to the base. It was said that not even Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was privy to its mission and that when he finally learned of it he went to the CIA's Dick Helms demanding to be briefed. When sensitive equipment was being tested, signs would go up that read, "Warning: Do Not Proceed Further; Use of Deadly Force Authorized."
Over time there evolved a distinct culture of secrecy, a society within a society in which the mores were defined by security classifications, compartmentation, and an unspoken taboo on asking too many questions.
For the families living on or around Marana it was anything but a hardship post. When the household chores were done, Val Merriman and the other wives passed the afternoons playing cards beside the Olympic- sized swimming pool or looked forward to bowling leagues, bingo nights, and turkey shoots. Even the teenagers became a part of the enterprise. Some worked as lifeguards or in the carpentry shop or on the watering crew. Others painted numbers and lines on the runways. The men would gather after hours at the base's watering hole for drinks and the chatter of good old boys reveling in doing what they loved best. In the evenings the base featured not a crude canteen, but a polished dining hall offering fine cuisine with ice sculptures and a chef who had worked on a cruise ship.
Periodically the men, especially the riggers, would disappear for weeks and months at a time. No one asked where they had gone. Most al- ready knew. Those who didn't had no business knowing.
When the Merrimans arrived at Marana in early 1963, the Agency was still licking its wounds from the Bay of Pigs fiasco of two years earlier. By then, several of the Agency's most vaunted figures had been publicly discredited and quietly departed, men like Director Allen Dulles and Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell. But the Bay of Pigs had not put a damper on covert operations. Far from it. Between 1960 and 1965 the CIA expanded its operations in the Western Hemisphere Division by 40 percent, reflecting a perceived increase in Soviet activity in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and elsewhere.
Decolonization in Africa led to expansions in CIA activity on that continent as well. Again the aim was to stymie Soviet and Chinese ef- forts to extend their spheres of influence. Until such perceived threats, Africa had commanded little interest at the Agency. Indeed, African operations, before 1960, had been folded into the divisions overseeing Europe and the Mideast. Between 1959 and 1960 CIA stations in Africa increased by 55 percent. Asia, too, was demanding greater covert re- sources, particularly in Laos and Vietnam. Those theaters of operations would provide an entire new generation of CIA leaders and station chiefs who would take the place of the graying OSS veterans still at the helm in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Overseeing much of this expansion, after Bissell's departure, was his replacement in 1962 as deputy director of plans, Richard Helms, as experienced and hard-core an operative as any the Agency had. The clandestine service would continue to extend its reach and resources until the late 1960s when public suspicion, budgetary constraints, and concerns about exposure reduced the frenzied pace of covert operations.
The core of senior CIA officers who had overseen the Bay of Pigs operation had escaped their superior's fate and had been reconstituted as if nothing untoward had happened. Indeed, they would help usher in the new era of covert paramilitary operations.
Perhaps it was because they were below the screen of public criticism, perhaps because they possessed skills or experience too valuable to lose. Whatever the reason, the men most closely involved with the Bay of Pigs simply packed up from their ill-named "Happy Valley" operations base in Nicaragua and ended up at Marana, where they played pivotal roles in an ensuing decade of CIA adventures and misadventures. For them the Bay of Pigs was not a career-ending disaster, but merely a stepping-stone to the next assignment.
Chief among these was Gar Thorsrude, Marana's commander and undisputed top dog. It was Gar who had overseen base operations at the Bay of Pigs and briefed men like Alabama pilots Pete Ray and Leo Baker. A company man through and through, he accepted long odds and operational failures as part of the landscape. He was nothing if not a survivor. A commanding figure, he stood well over six feet, had a stony, often sullen face, a mouth full of gold teeth, a crew cut, and a volcanic temper. A former smoke jumper himself he knew his stuff and knew it well. For this he was widely respected, but not universally beloved.
The less kindly disposed used words like "prickly" to describe him. He had played an integral role in the covert war against China by training Tibetans and providing them with weapons and provisions. He had overseen operations from which more than a few men had not returned. It was said of him by one Agency wife that when he died it would be hard to round up enough people to serve as pallbearers, to which another Agency wife added that she would volunteer -- if for no other reason than to make sure he was indeed dead. No one, not even the brassiest of the flyboys, had the cojones to ask Thorsrude about the Bay of Pigs. As head of Marana, he was Merriman's ultimate boss.
Others at Marana were veterans of the Bay of Pigs too, among them the base's chief pilot, Connie Seigrest, the smoke-jumping brothers Miles and Shep Johnson, and the head "kicker," Jack Wall. Many had known each other for more than a decade, dating back to the early 1950s when they had been with the CIA front company called Western Enterprises based in Taiwan. There the mission had been to relentlessly heckle the Chinese. Even Gar had once been a kicker for Western Enterprises.
From Asia to the Bay of Pigs to Arizona, and from there to points around the world. Technically, few if any of them were CIA employees but merely contract workers. But they would have taken strong offense at any suggestion that they were mercenaries. They saw themselves as soldiers out of uniform, not soldiers of fortune, part of an elite cadre forged by more than a decade of covert combat. The men of Marana were the leading edge of any CIA air operation, the go-to guys of Langley. While the State Department boys politely parsed policy in the salons of Georgetown, their stubble-cheeked alter-egos at Marana were flying above treetops through blackest night rehearsing supply drops.
And as John Merriman was soon to find out, even the Cuban exile pilots themselves, those who had survived Castro's murderous fire, would find steady work for the CIA. They would provide a perfect ready-made force -- already trained in flying, experienced in aerial combat, only too eager to take on the Communists, and just distant enough from the professional ranks of Langley for Washington to once again deny any knowledge of them. It was some of these very pilots that John Merriman was expected to polish and prepare for covert combat missions overseas.
One of these pilots was Gus Ponzoa, the senior Cuban pilot in the Bay of Pigs operation. It was up to Merriman to test Ponzoa and to certify that he was ready to take a T-28 into combat. The first time up together, Merriman had Ponzoa do a series of acrobatic rolls. Ponzoa had trouble controlling the aircraft, the g-force got out of hand, and Ponzoa vomited in the cockpit. Within a day Merriman had him in full control.
Even among the crack fliers of Marana, Merriman was a standout. "He was one of the best pilots I ever flew with," remembers Don Gearke. "He was a Hollywood-type pilot. I've never seen anybody so calm in my life. He'd always go to the end of the runway. When he was cleared for takeoff, he'd sit back in his seat, pull his gloves on one at a time, and like Smilin' Jack, light a cigarette and say 'Let's go.' That was pretty cool."
Sometimes Merriman's playfulness got out of hand. On one occasion he was teaching less experienced pilots how to pursue and attack a plane in flight. He noticed a small private aircraft overhead and decided to in- corporate it into his gunnery lesson by dive-bombing it and hectoring it midair with his more nimble T-28. Again and again he dove on the plane. Unbeknownst to Merriman, the pilot was an air force general on his way to David Mothan Air Force Base. When the officer landed, he immediately filed a formal complaint against Merriman with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Such friskiness was a part of Marana's culture. The timid, they said, need not apply. Even the stern Gar Thorsrude was not above the occasional hotdogging. From time to time he would fly the gauntlet below the Grand Canyon's rim. One time, after a prolonged overseas assignment, he took the canyon route. He was flying below the rim and above the Colorado River, a twisting course, when suddenly, as he rounded a bend, there loomed in front of him, filling his windshield, a solid wall -- the Glen Canyon Dam. "Oh shit," yelled Don Gearke, a passenger in the backseat. In the time that Thorsrude had been overseas the dam had risen to its full 710-foot height. Thorsrude pulled back on the stick and barely cleared it.
On May 29,1964, Merriman offered to fly Cuban pilot Gus Ponzoa from Marana to Las Vegas, where Ponzoa was to catch a plane back to Miami. It was a cloudless day, not even a hint of a breeze. As a stand-off gift for his newfound friend, Merriman took the canyon route, flying below the rim, artfully zigzagging between the canyon walls at 170 knots. It was Ponzoa's most memorable flight and a celebration of his having checked out in the T-28.
In a month, Ponzoa would leave for a top secret mission to the Congo. There he was to head up a cadre of fifteen Cuban pilots, all of them Bay of Pigs veterans. Recruited by the CIA, they were to pose as mercenaries working for the Congo Air Force under orders from General Joseph Mobuto. Merriman's parting words to Ponzoa: "I would give anything to be going with you."
One month later Merriman got his wish. He was to ready himself for the Congo, where he would oversee air operations. His was to be a supervisory role. The last thing the United States needed was to expose its hand in that faraway conflict. But nothing could have prepared Merriman for the quagmire that was the Congo.
The CIA had had a secret role in the Congo that dated back to 1960 when Belgium granted its former colony independence, one of a series of colonies that won their independence in the early sixties. Against the backdrop of the Cold War and superpower struggles, each of these young nations became yet another target of opportunity caught in the tug-of-war between East and West. The United States and its handmaiden, the CIA, were intent upon preventing the Soviets or Chinese from gaining a new foothold anywhere in the world, especially in a land as rich in minerals and as strategically located as was the Congo. Just how far the CIA was willing to go was made plain in the fall of 1960.
It was September 19, 1960, that the CIA sent a message to Lawrence Devlin, its station chief in Leopoldville (today called Kinshasa), the Congolese capital. The message, classified "Eyes Only," was cryptic even by CIA standards. It alerted Devlin that he would soon be receiving a visit from "Joe from Paris" and that he was to take his instructions from him. Not long after, as Devlin was walking to his car near the Cafe de la Presse, he saw a familiar face -- Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a senior scientist on the technical side of the Agency.
Gottlieb was an odd figure by any measure. Born with a clubfoot and stricken with a severe stutter, he had been a socialist in his youth and a Buddhist as an adult. A chemist by training, he put his formidable talent in the lab to exotic use, making poison darts and handkerchiefs, and overseeing a program with LSD that tested theories of mind control. His subjects were not always privy to the fact they had been dosed. A genius by many accounts, he would have been a perfect model for Dr. Strangelove. In Leopoldville he arrived with a plan for Devlin to carry out.
Devlin took Gottlieb to a safe house, where the two men huddled over a radio whose volume was cranked up high enough to obscure their voices from any eavesdroppers or listening devices. Gottlieb said it was the CIA's directive that Gottlieb assassinate former Congolese premier Patrice Lumumba. A charismatic leftist trained in the Soviet Union, Lumumba was viewed as a threat to U.S. objectives in the region. "Jesus Christ! Isn't this unusual?" asked Devlin, demanding to know upon whose authority such an order had been given. In-house the plan had been approved by none other than Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell. CIA head Allen Dulles had branded Lumumba "a Castro, or worse." But the scheme also, Devlin said, had the blessings of an even higher authority- President Eisenhower.
From his bag, Gottlieb produced a small kit containing a well-known brand of toothpaste. Inside was a deadly poison. The kit also contained rubber gloves, gauze, masks, and even a syringe in the event that the toothpaste could not be slipped into Lumumba's possessions. Devlin had no intention of carrying out the directive, but in the interest of preserving his career, he decided to quietly stall for time. He slipped the kit into a drawer in the embassy safe.
Three months later Devlin's and the Agency's dilemma was resolved. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was brutally murdered by a rival Congolese faction. Whether that killing was purely fortuitous or given an assist by the Agency has been a subject of debate. One week later, under cover of darkness, a much-relieved Devlin drove to the edge of town and tossed the poison into the rapids of the Congo River.
But neither Lumumba's death nor the intervening four years had done anything to stabilize the Congo. Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson had all secretly deployed the CIA in a desperate effort to shore up the Congolese government as the nation teetered on the brink of anarchy.
So it was when Merriman arrived in Leopoldville on July 17, 1964. A two-month-old revolt in the eastern province of Katanga once again threatened the country. But Merriman's spirits were high, the weather cooler than he expected, and the Congolese ivory and wood carvings caught his eye. "Looks as if I will be able to bring you some pretty' presents from here," he wrote his wife. "Love boys for me and remember that you are the one I love most in the world."
The letter was necessarily brief There was much to do. His assignment was to oversee the Cuban pilots, to help prevent a breakup of the Congo, and to suppress the revolt in Katanga. Merriman spent less than two weeks in Leopoldville before taking command. of the CIA's air operations and. the Cuban pilots who worked. under cover of the Congo Air Force.
On July 20, 1964, he and. three Cuban pilots, all veterans of the Bay of Pigs-Jack Varela, Rene Garcia, and. his friend. Gus Ponzoa ferried. three T-28s to Kamina Air Base in Katanga. As Merriman approached. Kamina flying the lead. plane, he was dumbstruck at the enormity of the base rising up in the middle of nowhere. Composed of hundreds of barracks, depots, and. hangars, it was the largest air base south of the Sahara. But for a skeletal crew of mechanics and engineers from the Belgian Air Force, and. the few Cuban pilots, Kamina was deserted, a ghostly expanse of runways and. empty buildings stretching as far as the eye could see.
Even more haunting was its original purpose. Built at the height of the Cold War by the Belgians, it was intended. to be the relocation site for the Belgian royal family, as well perhaps as the government and. elements of NATO, as they rode out what appeared to be the inevitable nuclear war. Kamina was a completely self-contained redoubt, a concrete and. steel colossus created to withstand. the Cold War's ultimate nightmare. Not far off was an entirely different world. inhabited by zebras, antelopes, elephants, and the occasional cobra sunning itself on the road.
Merriman unpacked his gear in a barrackslike structure known as the Ops Center. He had a two- room suite complete with a private bathroom -- but no running water. The base boasted. an enormous mess hall, but that, too, was abandoned. Instead, Merriman and. his Cuban cohorts ate mostly tins of sardines and basic rations. Merriman was embraced almost instantly by the Cubans. Devoid of pretensions and the John Wayne swagger of some of his CIA predecessors, he was immediately welcomed. For his part he soon appreciated the hazards the pilots faced in the field. The Agency had made it clear to the Cuban pilots that if anything happened to them, if they crashed or were captured, the U.S. government would disavow any knowledge of them.
Nor was there any recourse to the Geneva Convention for those who were downed. Rebel tribesmen, it was said, would eat the testicles of their foes if they thought them brave, and their hearts if wise. Cuban pilot Fausto G6mez had been found literally butchered. By such a standard, Mario Genebra was luckier. His engine failed as he was taking off from Albertville and his plane flipped over into the lake at the edge of the runway. Unable to open the cockpit, he drowned in two feet of water.
Merriman was prepared for the risks, but not the disorder. "The situation here is a real bucket of worms," he wrote his wife the day of his arrival at Kamina. "I thought it would come more clear after I arrived here but so far it hasn't."
On July 25 Merriman returned for the day to Leopoldville for a doctor's appointment. He had been having trouble with his right eye, out of which he saw only "a blank spot." In a moment of downtime, he wrote his wife another letter. " A lot of the work so far is frustrating as the organization is still disorganized," he wrote. "However the one worry I don't have is the personnel. My people are a real bunch of tigers. The pilots are all veterans of the Bay of Pigs & good at their jobs. Some of them are real friends already. Someday maybe we'll visit them in some happier place."
The next day, July 26, 1964, Merriman returned to Kamina. That afternoon he received an intelligence report from the Belgians that a convoy of rebels known as Simba, Swahili for "lion," had been spotted on the road from Kabalo. It was a vulnerable target and Merriman was eager for combat. He approached his friend Gus Ponzoa, hoping he would join Merriman in a strike on the convoy. But Ponzoa and the other pilots had already had a full morning of combat. Besides, Ponzoa's energy was sapped from a lingering case of hepatitis. He tried to discourage Merriman, arguing that it was already 4:00 P.M., that the target was a good hour away, and that it would be dark by the time they returned. Rene Garcia also opposed the idea. If they crashed at dusk in enemy territory, there would be no one to rescue them and, besides, the convoy was of little importance.
But Merriman could not be dissuaded. Garcia and Varela reluctantly agreed to join him. Merriman suited up and climbed into Ponzoa's T-38, plane number 496. The three T-28s flew wing-to-wing, at times so close they could read the names written on each other's helmet. Finally Merriman spotted the convoy, a line of four jeeps and half a dozen trucks snaking their way across the open expanse. Jeeps often indicated someone of senior rank. Merriman pointed below, then peeled oft; his twin .50- caliber machine guns blazing. Varela was close behind. The convoy was riddled with bullets, but now the T-28s themselves became a target of ground fire. Garcia saw that there was still movement below in one of the jeeps and made a third pass, watching the gunners dropping beneath a withering fire. He came out of his strafing run and began to climb but became aware that something was wrong. As he and Varela prepared to join up with Merriman, he waved them off.
"Open up!" said Merriman over the radio, calling for them to widen the formation. "I might explode." They could see a trail of vapor streaming from Merriman's plane. "I am losing oil," he said.
It had been two hours since they left Kamina. They were deep in enemy territory, and there was no ejection seat in the plane. Merriman's only hope was to find a place to land. At the rate that he was losing oil, he would fall out of the sky like a rock long before Kamina. And still, Merriman appeared his usual calm self as he lit up a cigarette.
Garcia remembered a four-thousand-foot landing strip in Kabongo, still an hour from Kamina, but wide and open enough that Merriman might have a chance to bring his plane down -- if the oil lasted that long. Garcia took the lead and dropped down to search for barrels or drums beside the runway, any sign of the enemy's presence. It looked clear. He gave Merriman the go-ahead to land.
Merriman's T-28 descended slowly. He seemed confused. He was making a teardrop approach coming into the wind, a quarter mile from the runway. There would be no time to make another approach. Now it was clear to Garcia that he had taken a hit in the oil return line between the propeller and the tank. He was about to lose his propeller. Still Merriman was coming in perfectly level and straight when suddenly, at eight hundred to one thousand feet, he lost all power.
The plane plummeted. A huge red cloud rose into the air.
"My God: thought Garcia, "he's exploded." But it was only the red dusty earth of the fields. When it cleared, Varela and Garcia could see Merriman's propeller fifty yards from the rest of the plane, spinning absurdly. And they could make out the mangled remains of the plane. The wings were twisted crazily, the fuselage crumbled. They could see Merriman's head, motionless, in the cockpit. Varela wanted to land but Garcia talked him out of it. There was no way, he said, that Merrirnan could have survived such a crash. What good would it do to lose two men and two planes?
Back at Kamina, Ponzoa had begun to worry and had taken to the control tower waiting for some word. Garcia radioed the tower. "Kamina tower, this is Tango flight. We have lost one of our airplanes."
Ponzoa recognized Garcia's voice and called him by the Spanish word for "Baldy." "Calvo, is that you?" Then Garcia broke the news that it was Merriman who had gone down. Ponzoa shook his head in disbelief Merriman, his mentor and ace of aces, was too good to have been shot down.
When Garcia and Valera landed, there were few words spoken. They had lost their commander, an American whom in such short time they had come to call a friend. He was not even supposed to engage in combat. In his logbook Ponzoa scribbled in Spanish, "Tumbaron a Merriman" (They shot down Merriman).
The next morning there was a stir at the entrance to Kamina. A beat-up old truck, driven by two locals, had something in the back they wanted to unload. It was Merriman. He had somehow survived the crash and been discovered by these two men who pried him out of the crumpled cock- pit. Suspecting he had come from Kamina, they were determined to re- turn him before the rebels found him.
Passing in and out of consciousness, Merriman was carried to the base hospital. But it was a hospital in name only. There were no doctors, no nurses, only two local nurse's aides. There was not so much as an aspirin to ease Merriman's pain. Merriman was placed on a bed, the blood wiped off with a clean, damp cloth. His eyes were bloodshot, his face lacerated. His shoulder bone, both ankles, and three vertebrae were broken. His chest and legs were covered with contusions. The force of tile crash had been so great that the harness strap had cut a quarter inch into his flesh. Even the bezel of his Rolex watch had popped out on impact.
Garcia, the son of a doctor, was deeply concerned. He remembered his father's patients, how they could sometimes be up and about the very day they were operated on and then suddenly develop a clot and die. What Garcia noticed was that Merriman's skin had taken on a bluish tint. Garcia understood that as miraculous as it was that Merriman had not died in the crash, his survival now depended on getting him back to the States or Europe where he could receive proper care. Immediately the Cuban pilots notified the embassy in Leopoldville asking someone to come and medevac Merriman.
Each time Merriman regained consciousness, he would plead with Ponzoa: "Gus, please send me home. 1 want to see my family. You can run the operation here yourself. 1 am feeling very bad. Please, Gus." Even his flier's pride was wounded. "You guys fly so long and nothing happens to you," he would say to the Cuban pilots clustered around his bed. "I go on the first mission and ..."
But Ponzoa's appeals to Leopoldville went largely ignored. There was nothing they could do for Merriman but try to make him comfortable. Sometimes lucid, sometimes delirious, he would pass out for five or six hours. Ponzoa and the others could not understand why the Americans had not yet come for him.
But if the U.S. Embassy and CIA were concerned withMerriman's well-being, they were at least as committed to concealing the fact that he, an American, had taken part in combat and crashed. On July 25, 1964, the day before his crash, U.S. Ambassador McMurtrie Godley had sent a telegram to Secretary of State Dean Rusk advising that "we should indulge in no, repeat no, covert operations here that do not have Tshombe's [Moise Tshombe, the Congo's premier] and/or [Congo President Joseph] Kasavubu's blessing."
Adding to sensitivities was a State Department cable sent the day after Merriman's crash. It reported that rebels under Communist influence were now convinced that Americans had taken a direct hand in the conflict. They vowed to punish any and all whites found in the region. Thirty rebels had been killed and eighty wounded in one such attack in which Americans had allegedly participated.
A day later a military attache in the U.S. Embassy referred to a Congo Army report that a "T-28 on its third mission made a forced land- ing 300 yards short of runway at Kabango [sic]," and that helicopters from Kamina were attempting to salvage the parts. "Pilot not badly injured," the embassy erroneously concluded.
"We are concerned: cabled U.S. Ambassador Godley, "about increasing number of reports that if T-28 or mercenaries used by GOC [government of Congo] against rebel-held areas in eastern Congo, rebels will retaliate by killing whites in areas under their control." That was July 28. Two days later Godley reiterated his concerns and expressed his growing opposition to the CIA's reliance on an air campaign. "While we here unable to completely evaluate contribution which T- 8's may be making to security situation Katanga, own present impression is that aircraft alone cannot contain continuing rebel advance unless there are armed men on ground willing to stand and fight. This is not now the case in Katanga. Therefore suggest consideration be given halting T-28 operations temporarily until more dependable ground forces materialize."
Merriman, from a diplomatic and security viewpoint, was an embarrassment and a liability. On July 30 Ambassador Godley, in a cable classified "Secret," reported that the pilot of the downed T- 8 was "Merriman, a U.S. citizen," but instead of expressing concern for Merriman's condition, he expressed relief that Reuters was reporting the pilot was Cuban. That miscue was courtesy of the Belgian consul general who was covering for the United States -- for which Ambassador Godley later expressed his appreciation. Any further inquiries into the crash were to be referred to the Congo Air Force, which the United States had advised to "stick to Reuters story."
Ambassador Godley simply wanted the Merriman situation to quietly fade away. "Should pilot's nationality be revealed we will continue refer inquiries to CAF [ Congo Air Force] but if pressed will emphasize non operational character of mission. Would hope that nothing be said by USG [United States government] officials." That message was passed on to the White House at 6:50 A.M. on July 30.
From the U.S. vantage point, Merriman's misfortune could not have occurred at a more inopportune moment, potentially inflaming as it did rebel passions against whites in the area and threatening to discredit U.S. denials of direct military involvement in the region. At that very moment the Congo seemed to be imploding. The very day the White House learned of Merriman's crash, a second cable, more dire than the first, arrived in Washington. "Security situation North Katanga continues to deteriorate ... ANC [Congolese forces] and ex-gendarmes have fled ... ANC troops deserting Kabongo ... Fall of Kongolo will be further psychological shock. Defection of troops at Kabongo opens way for advance on Kamina ..."
While the diplomats and covert planners fretted over the situation and continued their debate, Merriman lay in a hospital bed at Kamina, his condition worsening.
It was not until at least July 31-five interminable days of anguish-that a DC-4 was finally dispatched from Leopoldville to airlift Merriman out. But it was not to take Merriman home or even to Europe, but rather to a dismal and backward hospital in Leopoldville. So sensitive was the situation that Merriman was admitted into the hospital under the pseudonym of Mario Carlos in an effort to preserve the ruse that he was Cuban.
The days dragged on. His condition worsened. With nothing but pain to occupy his time, and no immediate prospect of a flight home, he tried to fend off depression. Ponzoa visited him in the hospital and was distressed by the care his friend was receiving. Aside from shots to help him sleep, Ponzoa saw little to indicate he was receiving appropriate medical treatment.
Ponzoa returned to Kamina. Even without Merriman the air campaign against the rebels had to continue. On August 4, Ponzoa and the other Cuban pilots strafed a train heading north between Kabongo and Pidi. They raked the locomotive and four cars with a murderous fire from their. 50- caliber machine guns, as men dove off the train in desperation. Only then did Ponzoa and the others discover that the men were wearing uniforms and that it was a troop train of friendly Congolese soldiers. By then some fifteen soldiers were dead. In the chaos that was the Congo, the mistake went utterly unrecorded.
By then, Merriman had been lying in the Leopoldville hospital for five days. Until then, it might have been argued that his fate was subsumed by the larger concerns for the Congo. But on August 4 the Congo and Merriman's future would both be eclipsed by events halfway around the world. On that day two U.S. destroyers were said to have come under attack by North Vietnamese patrol boats. The incident, of dubious credibility, provided the impetus for what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the legislative basis for the Vietnam War. Provocation or pretext, it consumed all other concerns. Even Ambassador Godley found himself pleading for attention from a Washington that was, in his words, "preoccupied with Vietnam." But there was no one to plead on Merriman's behalf.
Two days later, on August 6, 1964, Merriman took up a pen and wrote his wife a letter. "Dear Darling," it began. "Our letters will probably be a little staggered while I am here so 1 will write as often as I can when I can. 1 received several of your letters today and spent quite a while going through them ... by the way don't pay too much attention to my writing as 1 am not terribly coordinated at the moment. Also everything will be a little slanted." Indeed the words nearly veered off the page.
Merriman did not mention that he had been in a plane crash or that he was suffering. Whether it was to spare his wife worries or to avoid any breach of security is not clear. There were hints of a mishap and clear signs of growing resentment and disillusionment. "There are some people," he wrote, "I don't think I'll ever be able to like whether I want to or not. About the only one I know that is always straight is you." It had been two weeks since the crash and there was little hope that he would be sent back to the States anytime soon.
There was more than a touch of understatement in his letter. "Some of the work is exciting to say the least. Some of it I'll be able to tell you about when I come home. One thing you've probably heard by now is the fact that I've had an accident. Don't let this worry you. For a few minutes it was a near thing but everything so far has worked out O.K. and think everything will." Merriman was wrong. The Agency had apparently not yet made any mention of a plane crash.
As the letter progressed, Merriman's writing slanted more and more, the words themselves belying his fatigue. "I have to stop for now," he wrote, "so I'll use the rest of this page to tell you that 1 do love you so very very very much that you will never realize how much -- I'll try to tell you how much when I come home -- Your very own -- John."
Rene Garcia could scarcely believe that the United States would allow one of its own with such critical injuries to be left in a primitive Congolese hospital. On his first return to Leopoldville he visited Merriman in the hospital and saw that, aside from sedatives and painkillers, little or nothing was being done for him. He went straightaway to the embassy and confronted an air force officer stationed there, imploring him to intervene on Merriman's behalf.
The officer's response: "Rene, to win a war sometimes you have to be a son of a bitch."
Garcia was stunned. "I was always thinking there would be somebody with the decency to take care of the situation but there wasn't anybody to take care of anything. Maybe it was the fear of the press, I don't know why they didn't medevac him out. I knew we were expendable, we the Cubans, but it seemed then the American boys were expendable as well."
Two more weeks passed with Merriman lying in the Congolese hospital. Finally, on August 20, he was put aboard an air force cargo plane back to the States. Even then, the Agency was concerned that such a move not leak out. It was arranged that Merriman be transported under the name of an air force officer.
Somewhere high above Ascension Island, between one and three in the morning, John Merriman's weary and broken body at last gave in, as an embolism lodged in his lungs. That his death might well have been avoided had he been returned to the States weeks earlier is conjecture. Perhaps it was fitting that Merriman, who all his life had wanted nothing more than to fly, should have died in an airplane.
Not long after, it was said the family of the air force officer whose name Merriman had traveled under was notified that they had lost their son. After some moments of shock and a call or two, it was discovered that their boy was fine. But there was no such good news awaiting Val Merriman and her three sons.
On the morning of August 20 the telephone rang in their Tucson home. It was Syd Stembridge asking if he could come out and talk with her. A short time later he arrived. Val poured him a cup of coffee and the two walked out on the patio and took a seat. Stembridge's message was short and to the point. He said John had had an accident -- exactly what kind was not said -- but that he did not think it was life-threatening. If all goes well, said Stembridge, he would be flown to a hospital in Bethesda for an examination and then come home. If there was a problem, the Agency would fly the family to be with him. It was almost presented as good news. John was coming home early.
In preparation for his homecoming, Val prepared his favorite meal, roast turkey. While it was still in the oven the doorbell rang. It was Stembridge again, this time with Dot Kreinheder, Gar Thorsrude's personal assistant. Kreinheder went into the living room, where the boys were watching television. Stembridge walked Val onto the patio. He had bad news, he said. John, he said, had been in a Puerto Rico hospital, that his spirits were good, that he had eaten a solid dinner, and sometime around 11:00 P.M. a nurse had checked in on him. John had asked for ice cream, which he was given. At six the next morning, as the doctor made rounds, Merriman was dead.
Stembridge's arm was around Val's shoulder. When she calmed down enough to hear his words, he told her that Kreinheder would be staying with the family for a time and that the Agency had worked out an elaborate cover story to ensure that Merriman's death would not be linked either to the Congo or to the CIA. It was a story Val would be expected to tell John's parents, his friends, and his sons.
Merriman, so the cover story went, had been flying an airplane with a magnetometer to find minerals on the ground, and when he finished the job, the private firm for which he worked had asked him to fly to Puerto Rico to finalize a contract. When he arrived there, he rented a car and was to drive into the city, but on the way, exhausted from his trip, he ran off the road and crashed into a tree. From there he was taken to the hospital at Ramey Air Force Base. "I remembered every word of it," said Val Merriman.
John Merriman's children and parents were also told the cover story. It would be more than thirty years before Val Merriman would discover that the Agency had lied to her about the circumstances of her husband's death.
The Agency contacted a doctor who came out and gave Val Merriman a tranquilizer and left several others for her to take later. She hadn't asked for them but did what the Agency told her to do. She was so dazed by the medication that she remembers little of the days thereafter, except that either Stembridge or Thorsrude convinced her not to let her children attend the funeral. It was a decision she would forever regret.
The funeral was small, about thirty-five people. Thorsrude had flown in many of John's friends from Marana-Stembridge, Gearke, and many of the Intermountain pilots and smoke jumpers. Later there was a wake. Endless stories of Merriman's exploits as a pilot were told over drinks.
A few days later Merriman's final letter, the one written from his hospital bed in Leopoldville, arrived at the Merriman home.
For Val Merriman, John's death brought with it not only grief but a profound sense of isolation. "When John died, there was nobody I could talk to about this death. A wife that loses her husband in a car accident can go to a meeting with other widows and talk about what happened. I couldn't even tell my friends what happened. It's also pretty tough to lie to your children and your mother- n-law. To sit around telling them flat-out lies is pretty tough."
Not long after Merriman's death, the Merrimans began to receive monthly checks, which Val Merriman assumed were akin to workers' compensation. But these checks were drawn on an offshore bank and the Agency had instructed her to pick them up from a Tucson post office box. The last check arrived when Eric, Merriman's youngest son -- four at the time of his father's death -- turned twenty-one.
There were other ways, too, that the Agency tried to look after her. A local attorney working with the CIA arranged to take care of all tax, Social Security, and insurance matters. But the latter became more complicated than expected. Back when John Merriman was twenty-one and living in Alaska, he and Val had purchased a $3,000 life insurance policy that contained a double indemnity clause. If John Merriman died in a car accident, the policy would pay double.
Val Merriman knew that her husband had been in a plane crash in the Congo, not in a car crash as his death certificate recorded. But she had had no reason to doubt the Agency's story that his injuries had at first appeared minor and that his final day was spent in a Puerto Rican hospital attended by a solicitous medical staff. The grim truth -- that he endured agonizing injuries that went largely unattended -- would not be made known to her for three decades, and even then, not by the Agency. "It was the only story I had," she said. Still, she felt uneasy about accepting the insurance company's $6,000 that included the double indemnity payout. "John died in an act of war and I didn't want that to ever come back and haunt us," she said. "Keeping the money was not something that lor John would want me to do." So she returned the money.
But Robert Gambino, a senior security officer with the CIA's deputy director for plans, flew to Chattanooga where the insurance company was based and privately disclosed to the firm's president that Merriman had died serving his country. The company concluded that Val Merriman was indeed deserving of the proceeds, including the double indemnity provision. Even so, Val Merriman declined to accept it.
Finally there were individual acts of kindness about which not even Val Merriman was aware. At Marana, Merriman's death hit hard. His friend Don Gearke remembered that in the week before Merriman left he had been cited with a violation by the FAA for hassling a general's plane. The fine was still outstanding. Not wishing his widow to have to deal with such matters or to have Merriman's flight record blemished, he pulled some strings and had the violation quietly quashed.
In April 1965, eight months after Merriman's death, his widow was presented with a posthumous medal, the Agency's much-coveted Intelligence Star. It was a private ceremony held on the seventh floor of the CIA's Langley headquarters. Only Merriman's widow and parents were invited. The citation, signed by Director Central Intelligence John McCone, reads. "for his fortitude and courage in an overseas area of extreme hazard. Volunteering for an assignment which he knew to be fraught with danger and hardship, Mr. Merriman lost his life as a result of hostile action while engaged in an activity of great concern to the United States. His exemplary conduct served to inspire his associates and maintains the finest traditions of service to our Nation."
Later they lunched on filet mignon in a private dining room. The meal was abruptly interrupted as word was received that President Johnson wanted to meet Merriman's widow and parents. They were immediately driven to the White House, where Johnson received them. No record of that meeting would appear in White House logs or the presidential calendar, though the family was later permitted to pose for photos in the Rose Garden. Accompanying the Merrimans on their White House tour was Robert Gambino, the senior CIA security officer, and Syd Stembridge. (As if the scene were not already macabre enough, the Merrimans were later joined by the wife of film director Alfred Hitchcock. )
President Johnson solemnly received the family in the Oval Office and expressed his condolences. He said that the nation honored this son and husband, that the country owed him a debt that could never be repaid. He never mentioned John Merriman by name, but his eyes were tearing. He said he took the loss personally and was saddened even further that he could not declare to the public what this man had done. He even referred to Sam Houston, the hero of the Texas war for independence. A few moments later McGeorge Bundy, Johnson's security adviser, introduced himself to the Merrimans, as did Lady Bird Johnson. The president then clasped the Merrimans' hands, squeezing firmly.
He turned to Merriman's father. "So you're from Teru1essee?" said Johnson in an effort to infuse some levity. "We had some Tennesseans helped us out at the Alamo." The senior Merriman, a salty Chattanooga detective, was accustomed to speaking his mind. "Helped you out?" he fired back. "Hell, if you had more of us we would have saved your ass!"
For an instant Johnson, a man rarely at a loss for words, stood speechless. "You're okay," he said, then erupted in laughter, tears stream- ing down his cheeks.
Outside, a helicopter landed as the Johnsons prepared to leave for their Texas ranch. Before departing, Lady Bird handed Val Merriman a book on White House interiors. There was no inscription. A moment later the Johnsons were gone. Afterward the Merrimans were taken to the kitchen and served some finger sandwiches and iced tea. The two Merriman women, widow and mother, were then given an orchid corsage and led by a Secret Service agent on a rare tour of the upstairs residence.
After Merriman's death, Washington would continue to prop up Tshombe and later army strongman Mobuto. In the annals of the CIA the outcome in the Congo would be placed squarely in the win column, as Mobuto remained in the U.S. sphere of influence. He provided a share of his country's rich minerals (including tantalite, used in nuclear weapons) to the United States as well as a strategic base from which the CIA would launch later anti-Communist and counterinsurgency efforts in Angola.
For the people of the Congo, known as Zaire under Mobuto, it was not so clear a victory. For thirty-three years Mobuto's name was virtually synonymous with corruption and repression. Not since King Leopold II of Belgium a century before had the country been so plundered, its people so devastated. Mobuto became a billionaire, bankrupting his country. To describe the avarice and thievery of his regime, a new word had to be coined -- kleptocracy. But though he betrayed his own people, in the Cold War era of "clientitis" he remained "faithful" to the West. As was said of many, he may have been a bastard, but he was our bastard.
Sidney Gottlieb, the eccentric CIA scientist who delivered poison meant for the Congo's Lumumba, died in 1999 at the age of eighty. He spent his final years caring for the dying, running a commune, and fending off lawsuits growing out of his secret CIA experiments decades earlier.
CIA Station Chief Lawrence Devlin, who had tossed the poison meant for Lumumba into the Congo River, later went to work for American diamond magnate Maurice Templesman, paramour and final companion to Kennedy's widow, Jacqueline Onassis. Devlin's courtship of Mobuto had proved most valuable.
As for the Cuban pilots who survived the Bay of Pigs to later fly with Merriman, they remained close comrades, though they took divergent paths. Rene Garcia became Mobuto's personal pilot. From 1969 to 1985 he flew him everywhere, from Paris to China to North Korea to Disneyland. Garcia watched as the diamonds from the mines of Katanga, the province in which Merriman had died while trying to prevent it from seceding, went to Belgium -- except for the largest stones, which were lost to Mobuto's palace.
Gus Ponzoa would later fly for another CIA proprietary and ferry American weapons to an equally repressive U.S. client, the Shah of Iran. He is now retired and living in Miami.
Jack Varela, Merriman's wingman that fateful day, died in a Dominican prison where he was serving time on drug charges.
As for the Merrimans, John Merriman remains very much a daily presence in their lives. The oldest son, Bruce, joined the CIA in the Office of Security. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had gone to Gar Thorsrude and quietly persuaded him to promise that Bruce would never be placed in harm's way, a promise he honored. Bruce Merriman left the Agency after a decade.
The legacy of Agency service is often passed from parent to child, creating a kind of caste system in which sons and daughters are welcomed into the fold. Having been raised within the culture of secrecy, they need no reminders. Today Bruce wears his father's Rolex watch, the one whose bezel popped off in the crash.
Son Jon entered the 82nd Airborne just as his father had done be- fore him. In 1980 he, too, interviewed for an Agency job. As a former fine arts major, he was asked if he was interested in the "manufacturing section," and, in particular, where forgeries and false documents are prepared. Then they asked if he was willing to break the law. "Which laws: asked Merriman, "foreign or domestic?" That question put the interviewers off and no job offer was received.
For years Jon pursued every lead that might shed light on his father's life and death. His den is a kind of living shrine to his father, about whom he speaks in soft and reverential tones.
Merriman's widow, Val, remarried-another pilot, David Folkins, who also flew for the CIA. Increasingly, as the Agency matured, it moved more and more into the role of extended family. But Val Merriman Folkins did not forget John. His portrait hangs in their bedroom. Her second husband had no wish to expunge him from their lives, or to allow John Merriman's sons to forget him. No one had to convince him of the honor and remembrance Merriman was due. And in her purse, just as she did the day of the funeral, Val continues to carry a picture of John Merriman. Not a day goes by when she does not speak with him, silently communing with his spirit.
The CIA's Syd Stembridge, who told Val Merriman the story of her husband's passing in the Puerto Rican hospital and of his request for ice cream, is retired now. He attended the 1977 wedding of Merriman's son Jon. But when the wedding pictures were developed, Jon noticed that the only pictures of Stembridge were of the back of his head. A consummate professional in security matters, he was a study in anonymity.
Stembridge will still not speak of the circumstances surrounding Merriman's death. "It's security reasons with me," he says. "Once you start down that road, I would say something and you will want to know why and that will lead to something else. I've just made it a policy. I knew John Merriman well, and I know John is resting easy if I abide by what he knew to be the rules of the game."
But in 1996 the Merrimans made a dramatic discovery. It came not by way of the Agency, but from Janet Weininger, daughter of the Alabama pilot Pete Ray, who died at the Bay of Pigs. As Weininger pursued her lifelong search for answers about her own father, interviewing veterans of the Bay of Pigs, she came upon a pilot who told her the story of John Merriman. He asked her to help him track down Merriman's family Later the Merrimans were introduced to the Cuban pilots who served with John Merriman. They told her of his suffering and of what they believed was the u.s. government's inexcusable delay in getting him proper treatment. They were convinced that Merriman had suffered needlessly and that, had he received proper care, he might well be alive today.
Val Merriman was appalled. She contacted several lawyers in an effort to sue the Agency for wrongful death, but each one declined to take the case. So thorough was the Agency's security that she had not a shred of paper to document the circumstances surrounding Merriman's death. What Val Merriman said she wanted was not money, but someone to say "I'm sorry."
That same year Merriman's son Jon was idly thumbing through a magazine when he came upon a photo of the CIA's Book of Honor. There on the open page he saw inscribed his father's name. No one from the Agency had bothered to tell the family that Merriman had been so honored.
The next year the Merriman family once again approached the Agency pleading with them to release the file on John. At a December 16, 1997, meeting, CIA officers told the family it would take a prodigious effort on the Agency's part to retrieve the records. A few months earlier one of those same officers had said the file had been lost. But first the Agency insisted that the Merrimans sign a secrecy agreement pledging not to divulge whatever information they might learn. This they did.
It was only the latest in a series of bizarre negotiations between the CIA and the Merriman family. Several months earlier the Agency had made an even more unusual request. In return for any cooperation, the family would be required to tender their copy of Merriman's death certificate, the one that said he had been in an auto accident in Puerto Rico. This, too, the family did.
The only thing the Merrimans came away with from that December 1997 meeting that they did not have before was Merriman's autopsy report detailing the awful extent of his injuries. Val Merriman could not help but remember when the CIA had told her John had not suffered and had received the best of care.
The Agency maintained that it had done all it could for John Merriman, that his delicate condition would not permit him to have been moved any earlier. The idea that it abandoned one of its own in the field strikes a raw nerve even today at an Agency that prides itself in getting its people out when they are in danger. But that's not how the Merrimans see it. "They let him die," says Val Merriman. "I really hope he didn't realize that. He thought the Agency was the greatest thing in the world. He was a flyboy. He would never have thought they would have deserted him."