Puma 164 Down at Mapai, 6 September 1976
September 6th, 2010 marks the 31st anniversary of the downing of South African Air Force Puma 164 near Mapai, in the Gaza Province of Mozambique, during Operation Uric in September 1979.
Seventeen brave young men lost their lives that day and thirty one years later their families and comrades-in-arms honour their memory and remember the sacrifice they made so that we could live.
Included in their number were three South African Air Force crewmen:
Captain Paul Velleman
Lieutenant Nigel Osborne
Sergeant Dick Retief
Five men from the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers:
Captain Charlie Small
2nd Lieutenant Bruce Burns
Sergeant Mick Jones
Corporal LeRoy Duberly
Lance Corporal Peter Fox
Nine men of the Rhodesian Light Infantry:
Captain Joe du Plooy
Corporal Gordon Fry
Trooper Kosie Briel
Trooper Aiden Colman
Trooper Jeremy Crow
Trooper Brian Enslin
Trooper Stephen King
Trooper Colin Neasham
Trooper Dave Prosser
In the same operation the Rhodesian Air Force lost one of their helicopter technicians when his Bell Cheetah helicopter was shot down at Barragem on 5th September, 1979: Leading Aircraftsman Alex Wesson
On 6th September we remember not only these fine young men but also their families, who grieved for thirty long years without knowing the true circumstances surrounding the loss of their loved ones, nor the location of their remains.
In April 2009, former RLI officer Rick van Malsen led a small team of former Rhodesian soldiers on a search for the crash site of Puma 164 and the last resting place of their former comrades-in-arms. In doing so he honoured the pledge he had made thirty years previously, whilst being flown out of the Uric operational area to complete and send the Noticas signals for the men lost that fateful day.
Rick was successful in this search and placed a steel cross on the grave of the fallen soldiers and then held a short but emotional graveside service to formally lay them to rest.
Of the eighteen men who lost their lives on Op Uric, the search team has so far managed to inform sixteen of their families of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their men, and the exact whereabouts of their last resting place. The search for the relatives of the last two men is ongoing on a worldwide basis.
This news has brought immense relief and final closure to these grieving relatives and the depth of their gratitude has been incredibly humbling for the search team members.
Since the discovery and marking of the war graves, the families of three of the crash victims have returned to the site to pay their last respects to their men. Rick van Malsen and Neill Jackson recently led a second expedition to Mapai, taking with them three former RLI men wanting to pay their respects at the grave site, and also undertaking further research for their book about Op Uric. During this second trip they also succeeded in locating the burial place of Bell technician Alex Wesson, near Barragem. The Wesson family has been informed of this find and is planning a trip to the grave site. Rick is also planning a third trip to the area in order to guide other next of kin to the graves.
There is a separate project underway, under the auspices of The Ebo Trust in South Africa, to raise funds for the construction of permanent memorials at the Puma crash site, at the graves of the Frelimo victims of Operation Uric in Mapai and at the burial site of Alex Wesson near Barragem. This project is fully supported by Rick van Malsen and his search team.
In February 2010, shortly after the 49th Birthday celebrations of the RLI Regimental Association in Durban, Terry Griffin, former OC of 1 Engineer Squadron, suggested that the Rhodesian Engineers and the Rhodesian Light Infantry jointly adopt and observe 6th September every year as Mapai Day. Operation Uric resulted in the most casualties, from either unit, in any single operation of the Rhodesian War and this tragedy has united the two units forever in history. It is for this reason that the observance of Mapai Day has been proposed.
This proposal has been favourably received in many quarters and has been forwarded to the RLI Regimental Association for ratification.
“They shall not grow old
As we who are left, grow old.
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”