The word "mercenaries" elicits images of thuggish killers, money-hungry, daring soldiers of no principle who truly fit the "Have Gun, Will Travel" slogan.

The legend of these soldiers of fortune — widely publicized for their activities in the Congo, Biafra, Yemen, Algeria and other hot spots — was recently revived in Angola where mercenary forces joined the bitter civil war on behalf of the two pro-western liberation factions: the National Liberation Front and the Union for Total Independence.

Robin Wright went into northern Angola with FNLA President Holden Roberto and spent four days with the British "dogs of war" who made a last-ditch effort to save the FNLA from the rapidly advancing columns of the Russian and Cuban-backed Popular Liberation Movement. In the following report, Wright offers a first-person account of her experience with the mercenaries and the fall of the North.

San Antonio do Zaire, Angola

f I hadn't lived through it, I'm sure I'd never believe it. Few dramas have ended in such tragedy. Few comedies have contained such pathetic slapstick. And no cast of characters were such perfect parodies of their stereotypes.

The action of this adventure stretched over four days, the period I spent with five British mercenaries in the oil-rich northern Angolan city of San Antonio do Zaire. I had flown in to report on how these hardcore "dogs of war" were changing the tide of the bitter civil conflict, helping the National Liberation Front (FNLA) hold the small strip of towns in the North from incursion by the Russian- and Cuban-backed Popular Liberation Movement (MPLA).

But the story I found in that steamy little ghost town just six degrees below the equator hardly fit my expectations. The five mercenaries were so busy administering the area they barely had time for the war.

The first afternoon I found them all seriously gathered around the elegant dining room table in the former Portuguese governor's mansion, rifles and grenade launchers strewn on velvet chairs, their dirty bush fatigues clashing with the plush gold and white striped fabric. Hunched over a map of the town, they were intently planning strategy — but not the type expected.

"Douglas, you check on the bakery and distribute the bread," the commander said in his thick Scottish burr. "Stewart, you make the rounds of the hospital and clinic. And Mike, get the women organized in fishing brigades. We need more food."

"The boys" had been in San Antonio, the northernmost town before the Zaire border, for three weeks and had yet to see any action. Other than the 7 a.m. roll call and assignment of duties, the mercenaries rarely saw their 350 African troops.

The rest of the day was spent searching for food for the few hundred residents who had not left for safer terrain in Zaire, trying to scrounge vehicles not sabotaged by fleeing Portuguese, and checking on the sick at the tiny hospital.

Not a single shot had been fired since their arrival, not even in training sessions, because of the shortage of ammunition. "At best we have 20 minutes of fire power," the commander lamented. "We can't waste it on the Africans. It'd take years of training to make them into effective troops. So we just drill them in the morning and dispatch them; they think they're defending the city, but it's all a grand charade."

Only once had a weapon been fired: when the fish weren't biting one of the boys tossed a couple of grenades into the water. "That gets them jumping," he chuckled.

But for this type of work they were perhaps better qualified than waging war against the powerful MPLA. Most of the mercenaries were unemployed bricklayers, assembly line workers or repairmen. A few were petty crime offenders, some were school dropouts and most were marital misfits. Few had any army training and then only as non-commissioned officers.

The men I spent four days with were typical of the mercenaries fighting with the FNLA: There was Mick, the intense 39-year-old former private eye who claimed he fought with the French Foreign Legion. But as with most of his boasts, it was highly suspect.

Then there was Stewart, the mid-30s Scottish laborer whose crew cut and tattoos — including the names of his brothers across his knuckles — made him a caricature of a mercenary. He had been involved in several petty robberies and thus was the most enthusiastic about fulfilling the full six-month contract in Angola.

Brumie also fit the stereotype with his shaved head, thick neck and hefty frame. A jovial con artist, he had convinced four of his friends to go into Angola with him in the same way he had talked them into working under him as bricklayers in England.

Then there was Douglas, the ever-laughing big bear of a man, with more tattoos and another shaved head, revealing several scars from marital rows. "My wife threw a mean ashtray," he would explain.

And finally young John, the melancholy ex-marine from Plymouth who had joined up mainly to spite his unfaithful wife. He also was bored with his assembly-line job.

The whimsical way all five of them had "tripped" into the war — with less than two days between the offer and their arrival in Angola — was as bizarre as their experience in the North.

They had been called together on a Friday night, January 23, at a Sussex pub where a friend told them attractive tales of a lush climate, friendly people, wealthy sponsors and lots of bounty — plus 300 tax-free dollars a week.

The next morning — without passports, inoculations or equipment — they and fourteen others flew to Brussels, then to Zaire to join the FNLA. A "special agent" got them through Heathrow Airport in London with papers and the Belgians "just looked the other way," they claimed.

In each case, the objective in joining was clearly money. "Why not, we have to make bread some way," Brumie rationalized. Two weeks into their jobs and some did not even know the name of the liberation movement they were fighting for.

"Tell me again, what's this FLA stand for?" Douglas used to ask regularly, not even getting the acronym right. And it was common to hear them referring to Roberto Holden instead of Holden Roberto, the FNLA president.

After a brief stop in San Salvador, the northern headquarters, they were dispatched to San Antonio, where disillusionment set in quickly.

"We got here and found absolutely no organization. We had to start from scratch," Mike explained. "You'd never guess they had been fighting for several years."

"And there was corruption everywhere. The FNLA regional commissar is a boozer who hoards everything to sell across the border for liquor and cigs. He's hopelessly drunk by mid-morning and since we've been here, he hasn't done a bloody thing for the locals — except milk them."

They were also lacking in basic equipment. The best arms were Russian AK-47s captured from the MPLA — but there was so little ammunition that few were used. Most troops used vintage American sten guns and carbines that were useless against the sophisticated artillery of the MPLA.

"We were told we'd get the latest in everything. But this stuff is useless," Brumie scowled. "And when we complained, Roberto ignored us. The only people who came around were the Americans."

"The Americans?" I quizzed.

"Sure, the four CIA blokes who flew down here to check the score. Usually brought survival kits, food, stuff like that. But once they brought us 40 carbines. Trouble is, they sent 10,000 rounds of the wrong ammunition."

The San Antonio unit did have one 106 mm cannon, but it too was quickly rendered useless in one of the many tragi-comic episodes of the four days.

On the morning of February 5, we heard that Quinzau, some 100 kilometers south, had been taken by the MPLA, so the boys organized the troops for their first and only mission. Everyone set out rather dramatically in a caravan to the cheering of the few locals left.

But just a few miles down the road the 20-ton truck that carried the 106 and most of the Africans overturned on a narrow bridge. People were stepping on each others' backs, shoulders and heads to get out before the truck sank, as ammunition floated down the river and frogs jumped in and out of the 106.

From that point on, the mission was a hopeless farce.

When the "advance team" got to the Quinzau area, Douglas ordered his men to disperse in the bush, which they promptly did — in reverse. Douglas looked around to find that his 70 men had all fled, so he followed suit. "I couldn't fight alone," he said, still stunned and indignant.

Brumie, deployed east of the town, had also to give up the defense line when he found his men had put all their ammunition in backwards on their bandoliers and in their magazines. "It would have taken hours to put it all right," he groaned. "Stupid Afs, I can't imagine how they've held out this long."

"It didn't take long for us to realize we joined a loser," Stewart added. "Not two percent of these men would stay if the city is attacked. The only reason they're here now is because we feed them. When you come down to it, the five of us are all this city has to defend it."

During my visit, it seems nothing went right for the mercenaries. Even an attempt to raise the morale through the first payment of the African troops in eight years backfired. After each soldier was given 500 escudos and each commander 1000 escudos, there was a small war among those who felt cheated and demanded more. The troops probably saw more action that day than in the entire eight years they had been fighting.

As it turned out, the timing of payment was another of the many pathetic episodes, for it was the very next day that the MPLA advanced on the city and wiped out the FNLA.

There were several indications of the approaching column, but again the boys did not take them seriously. On February 6, the town's water and electricity went off, despite the fact the plants were in order. Later that morning, people started walking quietly from the city, parcels balanced on their heads and children in tow. There was no indication where or why they were leaving, but apparently they knew.

Most mysterious, however, was the tree pruning done the night before the invasion. All around the governor's mansion the trees had been cut to below window level, a major operation since the structure had only a single story.

At first we didn't understand. Sabotage? The answer was simple: MPLA infiltrators had cut the trees to pinpoint the headquarters to the advancing column.

There were other eerie elements on the morning of the invasion. The day had started slowly because of a fierce rainstorm. None of the boys was enthusiastic about the morning rounds. Part of the problem was the death the previous night of a 17-year-old girl who hemorrhaged after a miscarriage. The mercenaries had all taken turns stopping at the small hospital on the outskirts of town to check on her. There were no doctors or midwives in town, and the few pharmaceuticals at the hospital were unmarked, thus useless. The mercenaries had a small bottle of penicillin and at each shift the boys would give her a spoonful mixed in milk.

But it didn't help and she finally bled to death, her soldier-husband at her side in the pitiful and dirty little maternity ward full of other women and their howling babies. Her husband had walked down to give us the news and ask for a sheet to bury her in; there were no coffins or morticians in town. There weren't even sheets at the hospital.

He was still sitting at the dining room table sobbing, sheet-coffin tucked under his arm, when the storm appeared to get worse. Thunder cracked non-stop, scaring many of the soldiers. "It's the MPLA, it's the MPLA," someone hollered, setting off a panic.

At first we did not believe it. There had been absolutely no warning, no firing from the FNLA troops, no communication from San Salvador, nor any advance notice from troops deployed further south. But after we heard the rapid burst of machine gun fire, there was no choice but to move — and fast.

As could be expected, no one was prepared. Brumie, Mike, Stewart and Douglas set out to estimate the troops strength — their own and the enemy's — but it was no use. Chaos had broken out.

Mothers ran screaming down the city's main boulevard, dragging terrified children along behind. Troops dropped weapons and headed for the Congo River, the only way out of the peninsula town to safety in Zaire.

One of the African commanders stopped only long enough to report that the hospital was the first building hit by the incoming tanks. It had been destroyed and there was no hope for survivors, he screamed through the deafening gunfire. Then he too headed for the river.

There was no alternative but for us to also make a break for the water, to board the single small tugboat that could take us to safety. Within a period of 20 minutes we all met at the dock, a major accomplishment since the MPLA had quickly moved into town.

People on both sides of me were shot down by machine gun fire. And right behind Brumie and Mike — the last two to make their way to the pier — was an ominous T-54 Russian tank.

In one of the few strokes of luck, the tugboat had been repaired just the day before and was ready to take a handful of us out. But even our exit was not without mishap.

Shortly after John and I boarded, the tug capsized from the churning waves of the storm and the weight of the many Africans who were vying for space. It was uprighted with just minutes to spare. The MPLA was by then on the beach and firing into the water.

The motion had jerked the ropes off the pier and only Stewart and Douglas were able to board. As we took off with chaotic speed, we saw Brumie and Mike still standing on the pier. "Dive in," we yelled. "Swim. Swim out." But nothing could be heard through the barrage of fire and the screams from the shore.

There was that last minute-long eye contact before we faded into the fog of the rainstorm that offered protection from the three tanks and troops that loomed on the beach. But there was nothing we could do.

Several days later, from the safety of Zaire, we learned that Mike had been killed and Brumie taken prisoner of war.

It is difficult to write about these men as "dogs of war." Unemployed and naive, they got caught up in a messy and hopeless situation. They often showed compassion for the local Africans and never walked out, which would have been the easier and smarter thing to do. They never even had a chance to fight.

It is impossible to condone what they did. But it is also hard to condemn.

Received in New York on May 17, 1976

©1976 Robin Wright