On 27Nov05, George Bitsoli
emailed the following story taken from a much larger effort entitled "A
Thousand Suns," written by French author and journalist Dominique Lapierre.
For some time, amongst our lot, there has been a small controversy brewing as to whether or not there had been one or two fools attempting to board the Santa Maria via parachute, landing instead in the shark infested waters between the passenger liner and our destroyer, the USS Gearing DD710.
A biography and further information about the author and his book can be found at page bottom.
Those things dealing with Galvao, his history and political designs, may be found elsewhere on our website and have therefore been omitted here AND, independent of Lapierre’s opinion, there are those that believe Galvao was no less a terrorist than the Palestinian pirates of Achille Lauro infamy who killed Leon Klinghoffer, in 1985. Galvao was, after all, a thug with a uniform and a title, that used violence in an attempt to gain political advantage and foment insurrection. Righteousness alone makes nothing right.
The Grandiose and Mad Dream of a Twentieth-Century
Don Quixote, excerpted from "A Thousand Suns" by Dominique
In that spring of 1960, fifteen years after the collapse of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, two political tyrannies still held sway in Western Europe. Democratic nations seemed resigned to the dictatorships of General Francisco Franco in Spain and his colleague Professor Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal. But one February day of that year, their regimes were shaken by an unprecedented event. One of the immediate consequences of this event was to project the shy fledgling reporter that I was into the eye of a media cyclone. It was my first major assignment with the French news magazine Paris Match.
Five hundred journalists from all over the world had descended like a swarm of locusts upon the hotels of the Brazilian port of Recife. Even Red China had sent reporters and photographers. We were covering the hijacking on the high seas of the Portuguese cruise ship the Santa Maria, with its 630 passengers and crew of 390....
The man responsible for this feat, sixty-seven-year-old Captain Henrique Galvào...and his small band of black-bereted Portuguese and Spanish revolutionaries wanted to attract world attention to the fascist regimes of Antonio Salazar and Francisco Franco. They had hoped to steer the ship to Angola and there foment an uprising to overthrow the dictatorships in Lisbon and Madrid.
Their attempt had failed.
Surrounded by a pack of American warships, the Santa Maria cruised off the Brazilian coast, hoping to unload its hostages. No one knew where and when the release would take place, nor how the captain and his companions' adventure would end. Every police officer in Brazil was on alert, and word was that a commando of the PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, had arrived from Lisbon to assassinate Galvào as soon as he set foot on land.
The assignment my editor in chief had given me was quite straightforward—and identical to that given to reporters from all the other papers. Get on board the ship, secure a photo scoop and an exclusive on the pirate captain's account of his extravagant adventure. A big, fair-haired fellow, armed with camera bags, was waiting for me at the airport. A veteran of the Indo-Chinese War and half a dozen other conflicts, a specialist in difficult missions, twenty-eight-year-old Charles Bonnay was one of our profession's top photographers. His presence alone was enough to suggest that I had not come to Brazil for a picnic.
"Do you know where this bloody captain and his boat are?" I asked rather ingenuously.
Charles guffawed. His teeth gleamed white against his tanned face. "Somewhere on the high seas, a hundred to a hundred and fifty miles from here. The American navy is refusing to give out any information. We'll have to find him ourselves!"
His rash suggestion took us to the port of Recife, where we hired a fishing boat. Aristotle Onassis's yacht would have cost us less than the old lobster trawler on board which we spent the day spewing up our guts in a twelve-foot swell, without seeing a trace of the pirated liner. The next morning Charles's patience had run out. He gripped my arm.
"Get me a parachute. We'll look for the ship by plane and I'll jump onto it."
"A parachute?" I repeated incredulously.
I knew that Bonnay had taken part in airborne operations in Tonkin and in Egypt during the Anglo-French Suez expedition of 1956, but the idea of dropping him out of the sky onto the deck of a passenger ship seemed completely crazy.
"What about the sharks?" I worried. "This area's infested with them."
Bonnay dismissed my objection disdainfully.
"They can't be any worse than the Vietcong."
Locating the Santa Maria by plane and boarding her on the open sea was obviously our best chance of beating our competitors. We made for the local air base. The base commander, a slightly built colonel with lots of braid, received us effusively. Our request seemed to amuse him enormously.
"I'll lend you my own parachute," he told Charles. "How much do you weigh?"
"A hundred and ninety-eight pounds," responded Charles, forgetting the few extra pounds he had put on in the Brazilian bistros since his arrival.
"A hundred and ninety-eight? That's a shame. I only weigh one forty-three, and the flying surface of my parachute is geared to that weight. You might come down a bit fast."
"Never mind," Charles replied, "the water will break my fall."
We took the little colonel's parachute away with us and set off in search of the Recife flying club to rent a plane. On the way I got Charles to stop outside a hardware store, where I bought a large kitchen knife.
"At least you'll be able to cut the parachute webbing if you fall in the water," I said, handing him the instrument.
"You think of everything," my colleague marveled.
"Wait," I continued, "I've got something else for you."
I handed him a large plastic bag containing a very fine pink powder.
"What's that?" asked Charles. "Cocaine?"
"No, it's shark repellent powder. You sprinkle it in the water around you and the little bastards clear off as fast as they can. The guy promised me it was effective for five or six minutes—just enough time for you to get out of the water, because afterward they come back, fiercer than ever."
The photographer responded with a slight, sardonic smile.
Reporters for Life, the New York Times, the London Times, the Tokyo Asahi and a few other major newspapers had already snapped up the flying club's best planes. We were left with an old battered Piper Cub. Its pilot, a muscular black man who looked like Muhammad Ali, assured us that it was capable of crossing the Atlantic with a single flap of its wings. He wanted five hundred dollars payable in advance, for two hours' offshore searching.
Charles put his parachute on his back, fastened the straps, then attached the watertight case containing his photographic equipment to his right leg. I looked anxiously at his luggage: the added weight would accelerate my friend's fall even more.
The sea was so blue it was almost black, iridescent in places with trails of white foam. Apart from a light-tonnage tanker and some cargo boats, there was not a ship to be seen on the horizon. Soon we were completely alone above the vastness, without any points of reference. The land had disappeared. I listened nervously to the throb of the engine. An hour went by. The pilot announced he was going to turn back. Immediately the plane began to veer around to the right. That was when Charles gave a shout.
There was the Santa Maria, as majestic and colossal as a cathedral, with its large yellow funnels with their green and red stripes. A few hundred yards to starboard a U.S. Navy destroyer was escorting her. Charles signaled to the pilot to lose altitude and bank around the liner. I could see passengers waving vigorously to us. From the air, I saw that the ship had been rechristened. Her new name was printed in enormous red letters on the upper quarterdeck. She was called the Santa Libertade.
Charles carefully examined the sea conditions. The water was as flat as a mill pond, indicating the almost total absence of any wind. If he were to jump from directly above the ship, he would have a good chance of landing on the upper deck. He made a sign to the pilot to pull slightly on the joystick to ensure that the plane was high enough to give the parachute time to open. My colleague's coolness amazed me. The idea of dropping into a shark-infested sea seemed not to perturb him at all.
The liner's decks and gangways were packed with people. Some were waving flags and banners. One of them said: "Free Spain and Portugal from the fascists." There seemed to be a certain agitation on the American destroyer also.
"Okay, old man, see you in Recife. Put the champagne in the fridge!" With these words Charles jumped into the void. I heaved a sigh of relief as I saw the white corolla open almost immediately, just over the ship. Yet his descent seemed terribly fast. What if he fell into the funnel? I saw Charles pulling on his webbing and thought his fall slowed down a little. But it might only have been an illusion. My nails dug into the palms of my hands. The last few feet seemed to flash past at lightning speed. Below, people were waving their arms ever more frenziedly. A few seconds to go and my colleague would crash on the deck. I was terrified. Suddenly the corolla disappeared from view. I scoured the outline of the boat, then the surrounding sea. Finally I found him again, floating in the waves between the Santa Maria and the American warship.
From high up in my battered little airplane, I saw then a sight that would be forever engraved upon my memory. The speed of his fall and the weight of his case had dragged Charles several feet below the water. He was an excellent swimmer and reappeared on the surface a few seconds later. But the weight of the damp parachute was in danger of sinking him. The passengers were yelling their encouragement. Captain Galvào had already lowered a lifeboat into the sea. The commander of the American destroyer had done the same, and the two embarkations sped toward the castaway. One of the American sailors was standing in the bow of his launch with a gun pointing at the sea, ready to fire at the first shark closing in. With a pounding heart I followed the progress of the two boats to Charles. They looked as if they were racing. The contest was unfair. The Portuguese seaman's biceps could not possibly compete with the U.S. Navy launch's powerful engine. I could imagine my colleague's anger and frustration at the sight of his rescuers coming to rob him of his international scoop. I even saw him shove their launch away with his foot. It was unheard-of. I learned afterward that he had actually shouted at the Americans to "Beat it!"
The destroyer had lowered a second launch into the water, this one equipped with grappling irons and boat hooks. Despite all his courage, Charles was going to be caught like a common swordfish. Dodging his punches and even his kitchen knife, four sailors managed to grab hold of him and hoist him aboard their boat. He was transferred to the warship, where he was given dry clothes. Then, after confiscating his cameras, the commander had my photographer locked up in the ship's prison.
The U.S. Navy released my unfortunate colleague three days later when the pirated liner arrived in the port of Recife. Determined to avenge him, I carried two thousand dollars in small banknotes which I intended to offer Captain Galvào in exchange for the exclusive story of his capture of the Santa Maria. Along the quay, however, the liner was even more difficult to reach than out at sea. As soon as the passengers and crew had disembarked, dozens of helmeted Brazilian police formed an impenetrable cordon around it. The pirate leader had remained on board with his men. There was a rumor saying that he intended to take the boat out to sea, sink it and go down with it. Hundreds of impatient journalists were pressed up against the security barriers, ready to do anything to get on board and interview and photograph the heroes of the extraordinary episode.
"We'll have to rustle up a disguise," Charles declared, always one step ahead with his ideas. No sooner had he uttered these words than a fire engine stopped alongside us. Two leather jackets and gleaming helmets were hanging at a window. We exchanged a look of complicity. It took us less than ten seconds to don the providentially provided clothing. Thereafter, getting through police controls and scaling the gangplank posed no problems. Who would stop two firemen doing their rounds? Even if their brigade boots were Gucci moccasins?
We found the "pirate captain" in the first-class bar, calmly sipping a whiskey with his chief of staff. The "corsairs" with him looked more like unshaven bunker hands than the heroes of a revolutionary crusade.... [Editor's note: Lapierre speaks like the true frenchman that he is or, had he been American, nearly any member of the Democratic party...so long as the blood is someone else's.]
© 1999 by Dominique Lapierre
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: "No one knows the pulse of our world and its people better than Dominique Lapierre, author of such modern classics as Is Paris Burning? and The City of Joy. Awarded the International Rainbow Prize by Italy for his great humanitarian work, this acclaimed journalist has roamed the globe, witnessed momentous events, and met incredible heroes from all walks of life. Now he shares these stirring encounters and adventures in a critically hailed, international bestseller. From the rise of Nazism to the descent of the Iron Curtain, from the endless plains of the Ukraine to a cell in San Quentin, from Golda Meir to Mother Teresa, Lapierre gives passionate voice to the diverse people and pivotal events that have shaped our time. Here is a vibrant tribute to mankind's greatest gift: the ability to dream, endure, and triumph. Big in heart and grand in spirit, this exhilarating volume fervently reflects a favorite proverb from India: that beyond the clouds, there are always...A THOUSAND SUNS"
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