Some 16 years ago, Nat Gough contacted the CIA to find out just what had happened to his father.
All he knew was that his dad — Marcell Rene “Gooch” Gough — had come back from the Congo late in 1965 in a sealed casket.
Back then, Nat was just 15.
Just a few months earlier the teen had been living on and off a sailboat with his dad, mom, two brothers and his sister in the Caribbean and life had been idyllic.
His father, who went by Rene, had retired as a U.S. Navy frogman. During World War II, he took on extra hazardous duty assignments as a member of the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team, or UDT, an elite group of combat swimmers who were the precursor of the Navy SEALs.
The UDT not only surveyed beaches and waters off shore for obstacles, it planted mines and, in Gough’s case, removed enemy ordnance, as well. In the 1950s, he had deployments to countries, such as Lebanon and the Dominican Republic, and later, after added training, he worked as an electronics specialist.
Finally, he had retired from service, and he and his wife, Ida, decided to trade in their Maryland home for the Katie Rowe — a more than 50-year-old Chesapeake Bay skipjack with a 57-foot keel and a 75-foot length overall that once had operated as an oyster dredging boat — and sail to the Caribbean.
The first year they lived on the boat, and the second they moved ashore on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
At about the same time, the United States government was getting involved in the Simba rebellion in the Congo, especially after the insurgency began committing war atrocities and ended holding about 2,000 American and European hostages.
The U.S. government had been supporting the weak, but friendly Congo government against the rebels, who were bolstered by outside forces hoping to set up a Marxist state in the heart of Africa. With public support from China for the rebels, the Soviet Union supplied weapons and training, and Cuba sent soldiers and military advisers, including, it later would be discovered, the famed revolutionary Che Guevara.
Rather than deploy military troops, the U.S. government used a counter insurgency force that was led by the Central Intelligence Agency and relied primarily on a proxy fighters.
Jim Hawes, a Navy SEAL Team 2 member who was involved with the U.S.’s first covert operations in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, was brought to the Congo to run the operation on the Lake Tanganyika, which was the primary supply route for the Simba rebels.
He recruited mercenaries from the ranks of “Mad” Mike Hoare, the infamous Irishman who led a military unit called 5 Commando ANC (Armée Nationale Congolaise), along with Cuban exile soldiers and select Navy men, one of whom was Rene Gough.
“I think of a number of his buddies were recruited by the CIA, and he decided to join them,” Nat said. “I knew he went to the Congo, but we were told not to talk about his job. Being a kid, all I knew was that he was over in Africa, probably doing spooky stuff. That’s it.
“He deployed in August or September of ’65 and died in November. The circumstances were presented to us that he was in an auto accident, and at the time I accepted what was told me.
“Still when you’re a 15-year-old kid it messes you up pretty good. It’s tough to rationalize and understand.
“But as I got older, I started thinking more about it: ‘Was that all B.S.? What’s the real story? Is what I’ve been told true? If not, what is the real story?’
“So back in about 2000, I filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request about my father’s involvement. But all I could get was the standard CIA response that it could neither deny nor confirm any of that. I found out nothing.”
But now, 51 years after his father’s death, the CIA is not only confirming his father’s involvement, it is honoring him for it.
Monday, the CIA is commemorating Rene Gough with one of its stars – just 83 have preceded him, all unnamed and still secretive in death — on the Memorial Wall at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
“They are awarded to CIA operatives who died while on a mission,” said Nat Gough, who will attend the ceremony with his wife, Lori, their four children — three of whom graduated from the University of Dayton — Nat’s 94-year old mother Ida, his sister and other relatives.
After the ceremony, they will visit his father’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I had sort of put this all to rest, and now this comes out of the blue, and I’m really excited about it,” Nat said. “I’m glad to see him finally get recognized.”
Hawes, who’s now in his mid 70s and lives in Texas, feels the same way:
“It’s long overdue. Gooch was an old-time frogman who was smart and technically very competent and was able to handle even the most hardened and ruthless of the mercenaries.
“He was one hell of a guy.
“And the only excuse I can think of for this not all happening sooner — the only excuse — is that up until a couple of years ago, all this was classified.”
A love for adventure
Nat talked about all this the other day as he sat at the kitchen table in his Centerville home just off Far Hills.
He’s 65 now and works for the British company, O3b Networks, a communications provider that delivers satellite Internet services to emerging countries and militaries. He has an office in Washington, D.C.
It’s safe to say that his four children — 27-year-old Andrew, the oldest, who lives in Columbus; Ben just graduated from medical school; Charlie, a second lieutenant in the Army; and Tessa, who graduated from UD earlier this month — had a tamer childhood than he did.
“My dad was a strict disciplinarian — it was ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’ — but he also did all kinds of crazy things,” Nat said with a growing smile. “One Christmas, he went out and bought us a pony.
“I have images of him and my mother in the Caribbean. He’s driving a motor scooter and she’s in a skirt, riding side-saddle behind him as they run all around the island. Just like him, she was game for anything.”
That included the notion of packing up their four kids and sailing to the Tropics.
“My father wasn’t wrapped too tight,” Nat laughed. “He was from Meridian, Mississippi, he had never sailed in his life. And my mom? She couldn’t swim.
“And our boat? It wasn’t designed for blue water sailing. It was a flat bottom boat with shallow draft that was used for dredging oysters from the bay.”
But his parents were undeterred.
“They were adventurous people, and they exposed us kids to a lot of things other kids weren’t. I was the youngest and for a 12 year old like me, I had moments on that boat that ranged from pure terror to some of the fondest memories I ever had.”
One of his first tests came a couple of years before the family sail when he and his brother, Mickey, were out with their dad and a couple of his UDT buddies in a boat off the Virginia Beach area.
“We were a couple of miles offshore in the late afternoon, and we got caught in 20 foot waves and the boat capsized,” Nat said. “For the UDT guys, it was like, ‘OK, dammit, the boat sank. Let’s swim ashore.’ For them it was nothing. For a 10-year-old it was a little more challenging.”
On the family trip he remembers the Katie Rowe being caught in “a pretty good blow” off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. “There were some pretty good seas, and we ripped out the jib, the foresail.
“The next thing I know, my mother has strapped her legs around the bowsprit (the long spar that extends outward from the vessel’s prow) and there she was, sewing the thing up as water was coming in over the bow. She got it all sewn, and we hoisted it back up, and she came back in.
“When I think back now, it’s like ‘What kind of woman — one who can’t swim, mind you — would do that with no apparent fear?’”
As for “pure terror” though, he said that came off the Haitian coast when they were caught in 30-foot seas in a boat not built for such challenges.
“We’d go up a wave and then come back down, and the bow would hit with a ‘SMACK!’ We pounded the living hell out of that boat. The mast was shaking, and the caulking got knocked out of the seams and water started coming in until the floor boards were floating. We had all the pumps going, but it didn’t look good until we finally managed to get into Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.”
On the flip side, Nat said several joyous moments stand out.
“I remember we passed Cape Canaveral and saw a rocket launch. And then there were the nights Mickey and I were on midnight watch. So there we were, a 12 and 13 or 14 year old standing on the foot of a 75-foot boat in the middle of the night. We’d see the Milky Way and meteors and stars we’d never seen before. I’d steer by fixing on one of those stars. I enjoyed the living hell out of all that.”
He talked of other pleasures: seeing schools of porpoises, snorkeling and visiting numerous islands along the way. “It was an adventure. My horizons were expanded, and there were some real character building moments.”
But he believes that after two years, finances might have been tough for his father, so he decided to come out of retirement and serve in the Congo.
Turning mercenaries to sailors
Jim Hawes, who lived in Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia more than 30 years following his Vietnam War and African days, is now writing a book that centers on his Congo exploits.
Back then his task was to intercept the weapons and supplies the Simba rebels were bringing in across Lake Tanganyika from Tanzania. That had become their main supply route after the ANC and Hoare’s mercenaries had closed the Congo borders with Uganda and Sudan.
Hawes had to cobble together a small “navy” to patrol Tanganyika, which is the world’s longest freshwater lake (417 miles) and its second deepest.
The U.S. government sent him a few Navy patrol boats — 50-foot Swift Boats — which were armed with three heavy machine guns and an 81mm mortar.
They were manned by 16 Cuban exiles, who had experience launching seaborne attacks, including at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He also got 30 mercenaries to man the ranks
Gough, a demolition specialist, was brought in not just for that expertise, but, as Hawes said, to “get the engines, radar and electronics working,” and to “try to train the mercenaries into becoming sailors.”
He said they had almost nightly skirmishes with the rebels, and it was in one of those fights that they encountered Guevara.
“Nobody knew he was there,” he said. “We were the ones who confirmed it.”
Although the CIA’s covert effort ended up a rousing success, there were at least eight American and Cuban exile casualties in the venture.
Hawes said Gough did die in a crash.
“It was a pitch dark night and the Congolese Army had left one of their big sixes (six-wheeled military cargo trucks) in the middle of the road where it broke down. Gooch was driving along with another guy in an open jeep, came around the corner and smashed into the back of it. Both men were killed.”
After Gough’s death, Hawes — because of the covert nature of the mission — said he was under orders not to contact the family.
And so just as the general public learned almost nothing of the success of the secret mission — “there’s never been one like it before or since,” Hawes said Rene Gough’s death went without notice, as well.
And Nat’s questions went unanswered.
But that’s all changing now, not only with Monday’s ceremony but with a surprise phone call Nat got Thursday evening just as he was about to board a flight from Washington back to Dayton.
“It was the most wonderful thing to happen in relation to my father,” he said. “The phone rang and the number showed up unknown. In recent conversations when the agency (CIA) has called me, the people only used their first names, but this time the man said he was John Brennan.
“And suddenly it hit me. I said, ‘John Brennan? As in the director of the agency?’
“He said that yes it was, and he wanted to personally express his gratitude for the sacrifice our family made and to say that he was really glad we were coming out for the ceremony. He wanted us to know it was really important and meant a lot to him.
“I thought that was a real class act.
“It means a lot to us, too.”
Tom Archdeacon shares a Kettering family’s five decade quest to get the U.S. government to acknowledge officially how Marcell Rene Gough died while battling rebels in the Congo. Read more of Tom’s columns at myDaytonDailyNews.com.