It was 33 years ago this month that a C-123 cargo plane aiding the counterrevolutionary insurgents in Nicaragua was shot down by the Sandinista government, nearly derailing US policy in Central America.
Eugene Hasenfus, an ex-Marine, and long-time CIA contract employee then in his mid-40s, was the sole survivor of the crash, which killed the two American pilots and a Nicaraguan radio operator
The incident was controversial because it came at the height of the Reagan administration’s high-profile campaign to dislodge the first radical Marxist movement to seize power in the Western hemisphere since Castro’s Cuban revolution.
Officially, the United States was no longer aiding the Nicaraguan rebels, known as the “contras,” because the U.S. Congress had cut off all “covert” military aid to them two years earlier.
But secretly, a White House National Security Council staffer, Col. Oliver North, had organized a “private” re-supply operation to aid the contras through a network of former CIA operatives led by Richard Secord, a retired U.S. air force general.
Hasenfus, no fighter himself, had agreed to sign on as a “cargo kicker” whose sole mission was to stand in the back of the C-123 supply plane and push supplies out an open hatch when ordered to do so by the plane’s pilot.
But in December 1986, Sandinista troops armed with anti-aircraft missiles shot down Hasenfus’ plane.
Hasenfus managed to parachute to safety but he was discovered by a government patrol and captured a day later as he slept in a makeshift hammock.
The Sandinistas paraded Hasenfus before the news media and accused the Reagan administration of having bankrolled and directed the operation, a charge the administration denied.
But eventually, when the truth spilled out, it caused a national scandal. North, while at NSC, had funded the “private” operation with proceeds collected from the illicit sale of arms to Iran to free American hostages held there. And North, it turned out, was also operating with the concurrence of his boss, US National Security Advisor, John Poindexter, who was forced to resign, along with the top officials
But few people believed it was a “rogue” NSC operation. As a special Senate investigation got underway, there was talk of a high-level cover-up that included Reagan as well as his then vice-president George H.W. Bush.
Hasenful himself claimed that the operation was sanctioned at the highest levels of the US government – a charge he would later recant. A special prosecutor was named who tried to find Reagan and Bush were criminally culpable for bypassing Congress and lying to investigators about what they knew and approved.
But in the end, Reagan and Bush survived. Bush, of course, went on to inherit the presidency.
And some of the key players like North, who became a conservative folk hero, went on to build new careers. Even those that received criminal convictions – in some cases for perjury –were eventually pardoned.
Hasenfus from the beginning was considered something of a laughingstock – a loyal foot-soldier and hapless pawn of people and forces much larger than himself.
U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, who was a fierce critic of Reagan’s Central America policy, flew to Managua and to secure Hasenfus’ release. The Sandinistas, having obtained enormous publicity advantage from his capture, were happy to pardon and release him on “humanitarian” grounds.
Hasenfus returned to his hometown of Marinette, Wisconsin where townsfolk greeted him with confusion and amusement. Was he a patriot or a fool? many asked. Some of his long-time friends abandoned him.
Others considered him a patriot.
But he was largely unemployable. No one in the US government or even the private military contactor sector would touch him again. He survived on low-wage jobs and barely managed to scrape by.
In 1987, Hasenful sued General Secord and 300 of his associates for fraud, saying he’d never been paid for his “patriotic” work as they’d agreed. He also charged that the contra re-supply planes had been poorly maintained and lacked proper navigational equipment.
In 1990, a court ruled that Secord had employed Hasenfus but awarded him no money
In the end, he never saw a dime.
His notoriety survived, however. In 1991, a comic book publisher, Eclipse Books, issued a series of satirical trading cards collections, including one depicting the leading personalities of the “Iran-Contra affair.” Hasenfus was one of the cards.
A website noted: “It will soon be possible to trade a Charles Keating for a Eugene Hasenfus.”
But things soon went downhill for Hasenfus. He and his wife divorced and he lost custody of his son.
In 2000, he was arrested after police in Marinette found him masturbating in the parking lot of a Home Depot.
Since then, Hasenfus has retreated into obscurity, his whereabouts unknown.