A longtime seasonal resident of Swans Island on Tuesday became one of only roughly a dozen people to receive a Hero of U.S. Diplomacy award from the U.S. State Department.
William Rowland, who retired this summer from the U.S. Foreign Service, was given the award for putting himself in harm’s way in 1997 to make sure fellow Americans made it safely out of the Republic of Congo when the central African country erupted in civil war during his first international posting with the diplomatic service. After having been stationed in the country for nearly two years, Rowland, in the course of only a few days, made sure two groups of U.S. citizens made it safely out of the country on flights out of Brazzaville and rescued two colleagues detained behind rebel lines.
Rowland, a Baltimore native who now makes Swans Island his primary home, said Tuesday that he was grateful to have his name added to the list of award recipients, who include other State Department employees who served in Africa, Vietnam, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Eight of the 13 recipients of the award, which was just created last year, received the honor posthumously for their diplomatic efforts in Europe during World War I.
“It is a true honor,” Rowland said, adding that he is happy to now live in Maine full time. “Maine has always been my place to come back to” between embassy postings.
Rowland and his colleagues at the U.S. embassy in Brazzaville, located on the western bank of the Congo River, were caught by surprise on June 5, 1997, when fighting broke out in the city when the president of the country tried to arrest an opposition leader and disarm the opposition leader’s militia. The Republic of Congo is a separate country from the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose capital Kinshasa is located on the east side of the river, directly opposite Brazzaville.
The opposition leader’s compound was just down the street from the embassy, Rowland said, and embassy staff heard gunfire when the fighting began. Their escape route across the river to Kinshasa was cut off, and they ended up sheltering in place in a safe zone in the embassy for a week.
At one point, a small group of staff members left the embassy to scout out how close the ongoing fighting was and which militias controlled which neighborhoods. Two of them got trapped behind rebel lines and, when the rebels contacted the embassy to let them know, Rowland volunteered to go get them.
“The ambassador looked around and said, ‘Who can we send?’ and I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Rowland recounted Tuesday, adding that he had to drive the ambassador’s armored limousine through several tense checkpoints to get to the stranded staffers. “There weren’t a whole lot of us to start with, and it just seemed the right thing to do. I’m not sure there was a whole lot going through my mind at that point.”
A few days later, Rowland helped about 30 Americans including Peace Corps volunteers and family of embassy staff get out of the country on an American transport plane that had landed at the Brazzaville airport with a few U.S. military personnel sent to assist the embassy. Rowland said there was a firefight at the airport and he and others had to shelter behind vehicles and wait it out before the plane could land. He remembers there were “acres” of abandoned cars on either side of the airstrip left by people who had fled the country.
A day or two later, when he and other embassy staff members returned to the airport to be flown to Kinshasa, they found out the missionary airplane they expected to pick them up wasn’t coming because its insurance company would not let the organization fly into a war zone.
Instead, Rowland approached another plane waiting out on the tarmac to ask for a lift across the river. Its crew was a team of Russians and Ukrainians sent from Kinshasa to pick up a 747 airplane engine and Rowland, who had studied some Russian as a student at Georgetown University, managed to convince them to take him and a handful of other American embassy staffers back with them.
“Finally, we were on our way to a place that was stable,” he said, adding that the last remaining staff at the embassy made it out safely within a couple of weeks. He left only with a bag of clothes and his camera and later found out his house in Brazzaville had been destroyed as the warring sides shelled each other.
“That’s all I got out with — and my life,” Rowland said.
After returning to Washington, D.C., a few weeks later, Rowland went on to serve at embassies in Colombia, Brazil, Canada, Venezuela, India, Honduras, Nigeria and Haiti, where he was sent to help with evacuations after the devastating 2010 earthquake there. He said those assignments also were exciting in different ways, but none were as dramatic or dangerous as his first assignment.
“I knew what I was getting into,” Rowland said about joining the Foreign Service and being sent to countries with a history of tensions and armed conflict. “You have to be a little naive to think it can’t happen while you’re there.”