WARNER ROBINS, Georgia (41NBC/WMGT) - Marilyn Wendler was only 11 years old, but she remembers November 24, 1964, like it was yesterday.
"I remember walking in the back of this huge airplane sitting on the side in a hammock seat," she says, as she sits in a similar seat inside the same C-130 airplane that rescued her when she was a little girl.
Wendler was one of hundreds of hostages rescued in Operation Red Dragon. They'd been held for more than three months by rebels in Congo, who called themselves "Simbas," which in Swahili, means "Lions."
When the rebels got word the U.S. Air Force was on its way, they started killing the hostages one by one.
"Their attitude was very simple," says another freed hostage, Al Larson. "Americans come, we'll kill all of the Americans here and then we'll kill them, too."
Larson and other men had been separated from the women and children of the group. His wife, Jean, ran and hid in the jungle with other hostages to avoid being killed by the Simbas.
Meanwhile, her husband met up with CIA-hired Cuban exiles, who had infiltrated the city to save three American diplomats, but Larson asked if they'd help rescue his group, which included Jean and their two-year-old daughter.
"I certainly remember being out in the forest and having my husband call to us," says Jean Larson. "At first, I couldn't believe it, and then we went out and the Cubans came in behind Al, and when they saw the little children, some of them got tears in their eyes--it was amazing to me."
The Cubans escorted the group to a small runway outside the city of Stanleyville, where pilot Mack Secord was waiting to carry them away.
"The Simbas leaped out of the tall grass next to the taxiway and shot straight up and they shot into (one of the wings)," says Secord. "Of course, that's where all the fuel is carried."
With fuel spilling from the plane, Secord shut off one of the engines to prevent the wing from going up in flames and limped safely to his destination.
Friday, the group hugged Secord and thanked him for his bravery, something they've been waiting to do for 48 years, but Secord told them he was just in the right place at the right time.
Nineteen members of that missionary group lost their lives that day, but hundreds of American and Belgian hostages got out alive during the rescue operation.
The plane was recently retired in 2011 and now rests at Robins Air Force Base's Museum of Aviation.
As for its pilot, he's retired too, but he's still flying today. He lives in Atlanta and flies his private plane in his spare time.