A Former Peace Corps Official Honors American and Ethiopians Who Fought for FREEDOM
Remarks by Dr. Theodore M. Vestal at the Patriot’s Day Celebration on May 1, 2016, at the African-American Civil War Monument and Museum in Washington, D.C.
Today we remember the Ethiopians who valiantly fought Mussolini’s Italian Fascist forces during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, 1935–1941, and especially their heroic victory in liberating Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941 (Miazia 27 in the Ethiopian calendar), and restoring Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne. That day, Miazia 27, is celebrated not only as a significant holiday in Ethiopia but also as a major Pan-African triumph against European Imperialism.
The events leading up to the defeat of the Fascists and the end of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia should be well known to all Ethiopians: how Emperor Haile Selassie coming out of exile in Great Britain had gone to the Sudan to lead the Ethio-British Gideon Force in a bold overland return to Ethiopia (in a caravan of 15,000 camels!); and how Ethiopian guerilla fighters alongside British Commonwealth troops conquered the Italians, providing the Allies with their first substantial victory in World War II.
The path that led Emperor Haile Selassie to reclaim his crown had been a rocky one. The Fascist had invaded his country in 1935, and the superior firepower of the Italians’ planes, tanks, armored cars, and artillery—and the use of mustard gas, a blistering agent, described by the Emperor with the French term yperite, against barefoot Ethiopian soldiers, some armed with swords and shields—quickly turned the tide of battle. The Emperor himself sustained mustard gas wounds on his hands during battle. The Ethiopians put up a good fight, but within six months, they were overwhelmed.
Among your speakers today, I may be unique in being the only one with a mustard gas scar of his arm. Before my Peace Corps service in 1963-1966, I had been an officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps. I was inducted into the Order of the Tear, which among other things required that I have a drop of mustard gas on my arm. The tiny drop resulted in a blister about the size of a dime. After two weeks, the blister healed but left a small scar. Most of the fair-skinned officers in my unit had a similar result. The African-American officers, however, had a stronger reaction to the agent. Their blisters were fifty-cent-coin-sized. Imagine what a large splash of mustard gas would do an exposed leg or arm—or worse yet a drop in the eyes or in the lungs of a dark-complexioned soldier. Such would have been the agony of the Ethiopians who were gassed by the Fascist forces. It is unknown whether the Italians were aware to the more severe damage caused on dark-skinned people, but they had previously used mustard gas in Libya in 1930. It was not until 1996, 60 years after the event, that the Italian Ministry of Defence was finally brought to admit that the Italian Royal Air Force had used poison-gas in Ethiopia [Angelo Del Boca, I gas di Mussolini. Il fascismo e la guerra d'Etiopia. (Rome. 1996), pp.17-48].
The Fascists also used Phosgene, a choking (pulmonary) gas against Ethiopian troops. Again, I saw the effect of this chemical agent at very close range. A fellow Lieutenant standing next to me during an outdoor exercise, with the blessing of the officer in charge, removed his gasmask to sniff the characteristic odor of Phosgene, a very pleasant aroma of new-mown hay-- before the chocking begins. The wind shifted at that time, and my friend had his hands on his throat unable to breathe. He was still in the hospital trying to recuperate from the gassing when I left that base three months later.
Libyan colonial troops were members of the Italian army that invaded and occupied Ethiopia. The Libyans received a "Gold Medal of Honor" for their distinguished performance in battle. In 2007, I visited the National Archives of Libya in Tripoli where I found meticulous records of the 30,000 Libyan nationals who had served in the Italian military in Ethiopia in 1935. The records were well-documented because the Libyan Government asked the Italians to recompense all the Libyans forced to serve in the colonial army (see the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation Between Italy and Libya, signed in August 2008 by Berlusconi and Qaddafi in Benghazi, putting an end to disputes related to colonialism).
Eritreans were enlisted too by Mussolini’s army and fought against Arab rebels in Libya in 1930 and against the Ethiopians in 1935-1941. About 60,000 Eritreans served in both regular ascari units and in irregular bands during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and the Eritrean Ascari were considered the best of Italy's colonial soldiers.
By spring 1936, the Ethiopian army had been defeated. On the advice of a council of royal advisors, Haile Selassie left the country to continue to present Ethiopia’s case before the League of Nations and in Europe. His eloquent appeal to the League of Nations in 1936 asking the international body to live up to its mandate and to use collective security to protect small nations from powerful invaders made Haile Selassie an international celebrity. The League did nothing meaningful, and Ethiopia was occupied by Fascist forces. The Emperor eventually settled into exile in Britain. The official attitude of the British Government was one of indifference toward Ethiopia during the Italian occupation. That attitude changed abruptly when Italy declared war on Great Britain on June 10, 1940, and the Emperor was allowed to fly to the Sudan to take part in the liberation campaign to free the Italian colonies, the campaign that culminated in the victory on Miazia 27.
In addition to honoring the Ethiopian Patriots and their Allies who liberated Ethiopia from the Italian Fascists, we pay homage to U.S. President John F. Kennedy and one of his most successful programs in Ethiopia and in Africa, the Peace Corps. We also celebrate the recently announced Sister City relationship between the capital cities of Washington, D.C., and Addis Ababa