episode-graphic-smaller.jpgWorking Class History are delighted to be launching the first season of our new occasional podcast, WCH Crime, where true crime meets the struggle for a better world. Our first series is about the Columbia Eagle mutiny in 1970, perhaps the most spectacular act of resistance to the Vietnam war, when two sailors hijacked their ship transporting thousands of tonnes of napalm for US forces, and sailed it to Cambodia. But they never could have predicted what would happen next…

WCH Crime will feature cases where people have faced criminal charges for their beliefs or political activities, and will look at cases where people have been framed or even killed by the state. It will be in the same feed as the regular Working Class History podcast. To subscribe, find us on your favourite podcast app or follow the hyperlinks at the bottom of this page.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 2.1: bonus episode here for our $5+ patreon supporters

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 4.1: bonus episode here for our $5+ patreon supporters

You can support this podcast, listen to bonus episodes, get early access to future episodes and other benefits on patreon: patreon.com/workingclasshistory

Pictured above are the two mutineers: Alvin Glatkowski, left, and Clyde McKay, right, superimposed on the ship.

We speak to Al about his experiences, in addition to Vietnam war-era sailor and historian Roberto Loiederman.

We have been working on this miniseries for almost a year, and have put in so many hours we lost count some time ago. We are taking time out from our day jobs through 2019 to devote more time to WCH and podcast, but this will only be sustainable in the longer term if we get more support from our listeners on patreon. So if you appreciate what we do, and if you can afford it, please consider supporting us. If you can’t afford it, no problem, please just give us a review on your podcast app, and share episodes on social media.

MORE INFORMATION

SS Columbia Eagle.jpg
The SS Columbia Eagle, c1970 | Image courtesy of The Eagle Mutiny by Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman
Al surrendering.jpg
Alvin Glatkowski surrendering, 1971 | Image courtesy of The Eagle Mutiny
Clyde McKay.jpg
Clyde McKay in Cambodia, 1970 | Image courtesy of The Eagle Mutiny
Larry Humphrey.jpg
Larry Humphrey in Cambodia, c1970 | Image courtesy of The Eagle Mutiny
flag peace sign.jpg
US military investigators aboard the Columbia Eagle, 1970 | Image courtesy of The Eagle Mutiny
Alvin Clyde prison ship
Clyde, left and Al, right, in Cambodia in front of their prison ship, 1970 | Image courtesy of The Eagle Mutiny

News footage of the captain and the ship after the mutiny

Al 2018.jpg
Al, 2018

For a detailed history of the events, we recommend the book The Eagle Mutiny, by Roberto Loiederman and Richard Linnett.

To find out more about different aspects of the Vietnam war check out the other WCH podcast episodes in our Vietnam war series:

MERCH
We’ve produced a range of merchandise commemorating the anti-war movement by service people during the Vietnam war using some of their original artwork to help fund our work. Check it out here: shop.workingclasshistory.com/collections/vietnam-gi-resistance

FTA snapback mockupFTA white T-shirt mockup

CORRECTION
Part 1: We erroneously say that Al was born in Norfolk, Virginia. Al was born in the military base at Ford Gorgon in Georgia. He later moved to Norfolk for his high school years.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
These episodes were written by WCH and Daniel Woldorff
Editing by Daniel Woldorff
Music composed by Austin Coulson: https://www.mixcloud.com/tsonazores/
Outro episode for episode 3 is Deep Water by the RJ Phillips Band. Stream it here: https://soundcloud.com/hillipsand/deep-water

SUBSCRIBE
Listen and subscribe to WCH in the following ways: RSS | AppleSoundcloud | Stitcher | Podbean | TuneIn | Spotify Google Play

TRANSCRIPT

WCH Crime – The Columbia Eagle Mutiny – Part 1

WCH:

We at Working Class History are very excited today to be launching a new podcast series, WCH Crime, where true crime meets the struggle for a better world. In these occasional miniseries, we’re going to be looking at cases where ordinary people have faced criminal charges for standing up for their beliefs or where they’ve been framed or even killed by the state. We’ve been working on this series for almost a year and have put a lot of hours into it. We’re also committed to having no adverts or corporate donors and having all of our content be available to everyone. With these episodes and over the next year, we’re going to be putting a lot more time into our podcasts than previously but this will only be sustainable in the long run if we get more support from you, our listeners, on Patreon. More info on this at the end of the episode and in the show notes. We hope you enjoy it.

[Audio clip about the mutiny]

‘It’s the case of the successful two-man mutiny aboard the American munition ship, Columbia Eagle.’

‘Two crew men were armed when they took control of the cargo ship.’

Al:

When we got the guns out to clean them, I got up and I told Clyde, ‘I’ll be right back. I’m going to go to the bathroom before we do this.’ I looked in the mirror and I said to myself, ‘You may not live through this. This may be your last few minutes.’

WCH:

This is Al. It was 1970 and he’s a sailor on a ship carrying thousands of tons of napalm into the Vietnam War. I think it’s helpful to start with a bit of background here. Napalm is basically a highly flammable sticky jelly made by mixing chemicals with gasoline. Early on in the conflict, U.S. and South Vietnamese ground forces used napalm in flamethrowers to burn villages that they saw as being sympathetic to the Viet Cong and to clear bunkers, as even if flames couldn’t penetrate an entire bunker, they still consumed all the oxygen and suffocated anyone inside. Later on, U.S. bombers began dropping napalm bombs, burning and killing untold thousands, including many civilians. Napalm sticks to human skin and melts off the flesh and the only way to put it out is to smother it which then spreads the burning jelly around and burns an even bigger area. Al knew this when he signed on to the vessel, the SS Columbia Eagle. In fact, it was the reason he chose it. What Al was about to do that day, on March 14th 1970, would change his life forever but at that very moment, Al’s mind was on other things; what his future children would think of him if he turned back now.

Al:

‘I will never ever be able to see or look my children in the face when they ask me, ”What did you do to stop the war, Dad?” You will be able to say that you did your duty to stop it. You did your best to stop it.’ I walked around, turned around, went out the door, got the gun and said, ‘Let’s move.’

WCH:

Before we get into the detail of what happened, we’re going to go back a bit. There are a lot of unexpected twists and turns in this story but it is a true story, as told to us by Alvin Glatkowski, who everyone calls ‘Al’. We think it’s an important story as not only is it one of the only mutinies in U.S. history but it was perhaps the single most spectacular act of protest against the Vietnam War. Al was born in 1949 in the military base at Ford Gorgon in Georgia.

Al:

I grew up in the military and we were expected to go into the military.

WCH:

Al’s family believed in the American military and that it was generally a force for good in the world and so did Al but in the mid-1960s, America was in the middle of the Vietnam War and Al was a teenager. In Norfolk, a city built around one of the biggest military bases in the world, there wasn’t much vocal opposition to the war but across the country, opposition was steadily growing louder. Al was too young to be drafted but some of his friends were eligible. They started to go to demonstrations and teach-ins.

Al:

I ended up going with them to the draft board and trying to slow down the progress of the workers at the draft board to process paperwork. I didn’t realise, at the time, that that was really a guerrilla action. It was just something where we went and sat on their desks or walked over to the file cabinets and just started rummaging through the files. Nobody expected that in the military town that I lived in that that would ever occur. The women working there were very polite and said, ‘Please don’t do this. Get off our desks.’ One of my buddies was rifling through a file cabinet and another one was sitting on the other desk. The difference between him and me was he was sitting and I was laying across the desk [laughter]. It wasn’t until we starting rifling through the files that they said, ‘If you guys don’t stop, we’re going to have to call security.’ I don’t think that any of us ever really thought it out. We just went in and did this. So that was my first anti-war statement, I believe.

WCH:

And it wouldn’t be his last. In 1967, aged 17, Al signed up for the Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marine is primarily a civilian body of mostly privately owned vessels but in times of war, it can be an auxiliary to the U.S. Navy and it carries personnel and cargo for the military. So Al travelled extensively and this exposed him to more organised opposition to the war in big cities. He remembers one time, in particular, in Antwerp, Belgium.

Al:

We had some time to kill and so I went sightseeing, met students and was constantly being asked questions by people about the war. I met some Swedish students that were there and they spoke multiple languages. I was amazed. I can barely speak English, let alone anything else. More importantly, what was amazing to me was the activity against the war which I thought was more than where I was from because I hadn’t been to any major big cities on the northeast coast other than the Merchant Marine training school in Brooklyn, New York. I was slowly being indoctrinated and having my eyes opened to the international views of what America was doing abroad.

WCH:

While Al was away at sea, back at home, groups like churches, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Mobilisation Committee to End the War in Vietnam, known as ‘the Mobe’, had stepped up their opposition to the war. The trip to Antwerp strengthened Al’s growing opposition too and this continued when he got back.

Al:

When I came back to the States, I had the wonderful experience to be in New York City. The Mobe was doing a march led by Stokely Carmichael to the United Nations.

WCH:

It was another opportunity for Al to learn about the war but after the rally, at a hotel and meeting with other demonstrators, he heard things he hadn’t heard before and he didn’t want to believe.

Al:

A lot of people were looking for places to stay and spend the night before they went back home, so I opened my hotel room up as a crash pad. I had the opportunity, once again, to listen to a lot of things about the war in Vietnam but being raised on a military base, I was extremely dubious about it. I would say, ‘That’s not the way things are. That can’t be happening that way.’

WCH:

Even though Al opposed the war and kept going to protests, he found it hard to accept some of the extreme things his peers were saying about the conflict until he attended one demonstration that really shook his world view to the core.

Al:

Some of us decided to go up to a demonstration that was in Washington D.C. in October, if I’m not mistaken, of ’67. I decided to sign a pledge to be a pacifist with the possibility of being arrested. We marched all the way from downtown Washington D.C. to the Pentagon. When we got there, it was already surrounded by the military and the soldiers had fixed bayonets. I don’t know if they had live rounds or not but I would suspect they did.

WCH:

While this was all going on, some demonstrators were giving speeches.

Al:

It was during those speeches that I started to… they were saying stuff that I was trained and ready to not believe yet. I thought, ‘We’re not going to bomb civilians. We’re not going to kill them. That’s not what the military does. We don’t burn people. We’re there to protect everybody and to try to defend something.’ I started to question what was going on there.

WCH:

As Al was hearing these speeches, the soldiers with the bayonets were closing in on the demonstrators.

Al:

They had their bayonets down but they were doing a two-step march with one forward half-step back, one forward half-step back. If you stayed, you were going to get bayonetted. Oftentimes, they would slow down a little bit, move aside, make a little hole and the U.S. Marshals would grab somebody by their hair, their arm, their clothing or whatever and drag them out and arrest them. That was just another eye-opener for me. I think it was when I was about ready to be bayonetted, while sitting on the ground, that my view of pacifism changed. That’s when I moved from where the pacifists were over to where the people were using civil disobedience. I didn’t think I would ever do anything like that but I started paying attention, watching what was going on and moving rapidly from one area to another area as the police and the military would step in and arrest people. They would drag them out between the legs of the soldiers. That’s where I threw my first can of tear gas [laughter]. They’re not cold, by the way. They’re hot. When someone shoots a can of tear gas at you and it hits the ground just a few feet from you, what are you going to do? Do you run away?

WCH:

No. Al wasn’t the sort of person to run away. He did want to find out though whether all these terrible things he was hearing about the Vietnam War were true. When trying to figure out what’s going on in the world, most of us do things like watch the news, read the papers or do research but Al wasn’t most people.

Al:

When I returned back to Norfolk, Virginia, I fell in with some of the SDSers and started asking questions. It was so confusing. I didn’t know whether it was true or not. It was shortly after that that I signed on to a ship that was going to Vietnam because I really wanted to go and see for myself. I wanted to witness what was happening. I needed to find out if what I was being told was true or not. That was a hard decision. As soon as I’d signed on the vessel, I went back to where my friends were and told them I’d be leaving on such and such a day. Immediately, I started getting the cold shoulder from all my friends and that was unexpected. I wasn’t prepared that they would drop me like a hot potato.

WCH:

Al’s decision cost him a lot of his friends but he felt that he needed to know the truth. So he got a post on a ship transporting military equipment to Vietnam. Over there, although he was a civilian, he found himself in the same docks and bars as service people.

Al:

I was able to hang out with a lot of GIs. The interesting thing is if you smoked a joint with somebody, they opened up a little bit and started to talk about their experiences, what was going on with them and that they were never raised to kill people. They never expected to be where they were at and doing what they were doing. They were fighting farmers that had nothing, the soldiers had everything and here they were killing people.

WCH:

Al learned what the rest of the American public learned later that many Vietnam vets were unsure about the mission they were sent to do and what made it worse for them was that many soldiers couldn’t tell who the enemy was.

Al:

As you were walking down the street, you didn’t know if this person was a Viet Cong or not. The next thing you know, a bomb is going off in a restaurant.

WCH:

All these pressures led many GIs to join the anti-war movement and start resisting the war effort in Vietnam itself. We talk to some veterans about this in our episodes 10 and 11.

Al:

I met different soldiers who were having nervous breakdowns. It was pretty interesting listening to these guys talk and tell these things. What was shocking to me was that they were telling the truth and it was exactly… not the exact same thing but similar things that were being said back at the demonstrations in D.C. and other places. Listening to them made me realise think, ‘Oh yes, it really is this bad.’

WCH:

At one point, Al came across a relocation camp. As we discussed with Noam Chomsky in our episode 14, these were essentially concentration camps for the civilian population, built to keep out the influence of the Viet Cong.

Al:

They had a little shanty town in there. People wanted to go in and you would find ways to get smuggled in through a cut in the fence or sometimes on a truck that was going in with the MPs. I did this a couple of times. It puts you in a strange place when you’re in a village that’s surrounded by machine-gun towers and the people are scared of you. They’re terrified. It opened my eyes up to some things and I had never heard any of that being discussed at any demonstration. I just got to see things that I was unprepared for. I was kind of naive, young and just didn’t know about it. None of my family ever spoke about those types of things, even though they were in World War Two, in Korea and the Cold War. You just didn’t hear it. Most military guys come back and the only time that they would sit and talk was when they were with their buddies. They didn’t talk to their kids, their families or, in fact, their wives. They didn’t hear it. They held it inside. So to have this opportunity to see, and listen, and hear what was going on, and actually witness it changed my life.

WCH:

Despite all the valuable knowledge Al had acquired, when he got back, his friends still couldn’t accept that he had, in their eyes, essentially supported the war effort by working as a merchant mariner.

Al:

I had nobody to greet me. Nobody wanted to say hi to me or anything. None of my friends. I remember them accusing me of being a baby killer but they were doing it just as a gross way of trying to get me to not go the first time. After that, when I came back, maybe one or two of them were being particularly nasty to me and made some comment like that. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with me and in the process of sitting with them and talking with them, they would say, ‘You could have done it a different way.’ I asked them, ‘What are you doing against the war? I went there and at least I’ve seen it. I can come back and talk about it because I’ve seen it and I went there.’ I got tired of listening to them badmouth me and I just started going on the offensive and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing to stop the war? You’re not fucking doing a goddam thing.’ I pointed to one of them and said, ‘What? You’re working in a tin factory and you’re just using a marker to put ‘ban the bomb’ symbol at the corner of the tin? How effective is that and what is that doing to stop the war?’

WCH:

While Al tried to process all the information about the war, he remained in the Merchant Marine and continued on with his life.

Al:

I was in college and I was trying to take college classes. I got married and was settling down.

WCH:

That is until he might Clyde McKay.

Al:

I had met this sailor at the union hall and his name was Clyde McKay. We had gotten to talking and we went out to lunch a couple of times. In the course of staying a week in the union hall, we became closer friends and in the next week, a little bit closer. By the third week, we were both talking about the Cuban Revolution and things that were going on in Africa and other places.

WCH:

What really caught their attention and, perhaps, also changed the course of their lives was news of a ship that had sunk on its way to Vietnam. It was an ammunition ship called the SS Badger State which exploded and sank, taking with it 26 of its 40 crew. Eventually, the captain testified that a large wave hit the ship and caused its cargo to explode but Clyde and Al had a different theory.

Al:

There were sailors in the union hall that were talking about it because we had updates on it and there were constant postings on it but there was a lot of speculation that there were anti-war hippies on that ship and they sunk it. We were there one day and talking about it and we made some comment, like, ‘It probably wasn’t some hippie. It was probably some leftists that decided enough was enough.’ Boy, the Seafarers’ International Union Hall is not the place to do that. We were told, ‘You need to put that in a jar, put the lid on it and get it out of here.’ So we went out to a local bar to sit down and talk and we began to dance around the issue, without asking each other straight up, ‘Would you be willing to participate in a mutiny?’ Clyde asked me if I had a gun and I told him, ‘No, I don’t.’ He said, ‘Well, I do. What would it take for you to get a gun?’ I said, ‘Well, right now I’m pretty broke but maybe we could find one.’

WCH:

They got to talking about what they’d actually have to do to prepare for a mutiny.

Al:

There’s a lot of bravado that goes on with young boys and we just kept pushing each other and pushing each other.

WCH:

Until they were serious enough that they might actually do it. Maybe, they’d actually pull off a mutiny.

[Outro music]

WCH:

That’s it for Part 1. The relevant levels of our Patreon supporters can listen to the rest of this series now, as well as bonus audio. So if you don’t already, you can support us, get early access to episodes and other benefits at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. For everyone else, future parts will be out each week. Future series of WCH Crime we’re working on include one on the execution of radical songwriter Joe Hill and on the Reichstag fire which helped propel the Nazis to absolute power. The regular Working Class History podcast will also be back soon with episodes in the works on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the movement against the Vietnam War and more. Thanks so much to our patrons for making this podcast possible. This episode was written and produced by WCH and Daniel Woldorff. Audio editing by Daniel Woldorff. Music composed by Austin Coulson. Catch you next time.

Part 2

WCH:

Welcome back to Part 2 of the first series of WCH Crime, the Columbia Eagle Mutiny. At this point in the story, Al was now married and his wife was pregnant. He might have continued to settle down but in early 1970, he met Clyde McKay and together, they hatched a plan to take over a ship that was carrying U.S. military equipment to be used in the Vietnam War.

[Audio clip about the mutiny]

‘It’s the case of the successful two-man mutiny aboard the American munition ship, Columbia Eagle.’

‘Two crewmen were armed when they took control of the cargo ship.’

WCH:

Clyde was a few years older than Al and he was in a pretty turbulent stage of his life.

Roberto:

Clyde William McKay Jnr. was born on 20th May 1944 and his father was a military lifer. The family moved around quite a bit, both in and out of the United States because he was a military man.

WCH:

This is Roberto Loiederman. Roberto is a writer who was a merchant marine in the Vietnam era as well and co-wrote a book The Eagle Mutiny with Richard Linnett. Researching the book, they interviewed many of Clyde’s friends and family to find out what his life was like before the mutiny.

Roberto:

Clyde was the oldest of six children and so the feeling I got when interviewing Clyde’s mother and his sisters was that Clyde was not happy at being the surrogate father whenever his father was away on military duty. He was a rebellious kid who left school before graduating high school. He joined the Merchant Marine when he was 18 or 19 years old and when he did that, he did it in his normal determined way. He lived in Hemet, California which was about 70 miles from San Diego. He bought a broken bicycle for $5 which he fixed and rode all night to get so San Diego to be with his Aunt Ruth. She helped him make the contact that he needed to make in order to get into the Merchant Marine.

WCH:

After he left home, Clyde had an interesting life. He jumped ship one time in Thailand; he stumbled into a leper colony; he spent two stints in jail in Franco’s Spain; he got lost on foot in the Sahara desert and nearly died. However, one key experience he had was of military service. This came about one night in a bar when Clyde ran into some guys he admired. They were in the French Foreign Legion and Clyde ended up joining them but he quickly discovered that army life wasn’t for him. He hated the discipline and the obedience to authority and he realised that, for his mental health, he had to get out. In the end, Clyde managed to bribe a doctor to get out of the Legion. He then had a lot of difficulty getting back to the States, as he was told that by serving in the French Foreign Legion, he’d effectively given up his American citizenship. Eventually, he managed to resolve that and get back home but for people who knew him, like his family and his friend, John Stafford, he’d changed.

Roberto:

The sisters and the mother say that when Clyde McKay, at the end of 1967, got back to California, he was a different person. He was a changed person from the Clyde McKay that they had known before. They said that he was somehow strangely spiritual but also very political and very much distant from normal human feelings and normal human relationships.

WCH:

At the end of 1967, Clyde went back to work as a merchant mariner.

Roberto:

He worked on a number of ships carrying ammo and several of them went to Vietnam during the war.

WCH:

By 1969, Clyde had felt extremely guilty about having helped the war effort, so he resolved to do something about it.

Roberto:

He told John Stafford that he wanted to do something dramatic to stop an ammo ship from getting to Vietnam. Stafford thought was just hot air and that it was the kind of bullshit that people say. He never believed that McKay actually had something like that in mind.

WCH:

So Al and Clyde had decided they would try to organise a mutiny and they both signed on to a merchant ship carrying materials to be used in the Vietnam War, the SS Columbia Eagle. It was carrying napalm, the gasolene jelly that the U.S. military was dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of on the people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Clyde got a job in the engine room and Al as an officers’ steward, a sort of support staff member for the captain and other officers on the ship. With nothing more than Clyde’s gun and a rough plan, they shipped off to sea.

Al:

We were still unsure with each other of how serious we were because we had discussed and realised that at best, we would be arrested and go to prison for the rest of our lives and at worse, we would be killed, never see our families again and nobody else would know anything about us. We would sit and discuss things privately. We would go for a walk on the ship or go back to a place where we knew that there would be nobody and where we could keep an eye on the surroundings and who was around us.

WCH:

There were a whole load of questions they didn’t have answers to yet. How would they take control of the ship? How would they deal with the other crew members on board? Where would they even go after mutiny? How would they evade the U.S. military who would surely try to intervene? A practical problem they had was that they still only had one gun which, as the captain also had a gun, wouldn’t leave them in a strong position to take over the ship which also had over 30 other crew members. They solved this quite simply by buying one on the docks during a pitstop in Subic Bay in the Philippines and smuggling it on board but they still faced the problem of how they would actually go about taking control of the ship. The story of the Badger State, the ship that exploded and sank, gave Clyde the start of an idea. The napalm on the ship they were on, the Columbia Eagle, was, of course, very explosive. One day, something happened which gave Al an idea.

Al:

There was an unscheduled fire drill. There’s one thing that’s incredibly important on board a ship carrying munitions and that is fire control and so we’re all drilled on those things. Normally, they would announce them but one day, they just decided to do one without an announcement. My particular position was at a life raft and so I was able to see what was happening from an upper perspective where I could see people at different stations on the ship. It was like bingo! The light went off.

WCH:

Al was so excited that he ran down below deck to meet Clyde and explain what he’d realised.

Al:

I looked at him and I will never forget this. I must have had the biggest grin on my face and I clapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I know what to do. I’ve figured it out. If there is a fire on board, everybody stops doing their normal jobs and they go to these fire stations. What happens when the fire drill is extended and they actually drop the lifeboats. If they drop the lifeboats, there’s got to be crews in those lifeboats.’

WCH:

What that meant was they could use a fire drill to evacuate the ship and most of the crew. Whilst some crew members were sympathetic to the anti-war movement and the counter-culture, others, especially the older ones, were really supportive of the war effort, like the chief mate, Herrick Morgan, who despised hippies and war protesters.

Al:

We were thinking of how we could do this without injuring other people because in his exuberance, Clyde didn’t care if we injured other people but I did. I just couldn’t see myself killing someone just because they were there. There had to be ways to get them off the vessel. When I discovered this possibility, that changed things for us. It changed things for Clyde and he immediately grasped what I was saying. Clyde had come up with the idea that he was going to announce that there was a bomb on board the ship – that we had the ability to detonate it, that there was more than one and therefore, we needed to abandon ship.

WCH:

This posed another problem though. They didn’t want to injure the rest of the crew but they also didn’t want to strand them all at sea and while they were thinking about how they would take over the ship, they also had to think about what they’d do if they could even pull it off. What would they do with the ship? Where would they go? Some answers came by some seemingly innocent snooping on Al’s part.

Al:

What we came up with was this. Because I was the officers’ steward, I could go up and talk to the officers and ask them to show me the positioning on the map, like some young kid saying, ‘I just wanted to know.’ They wanted to be helpful and they would show me and then one of the officers would help me do it. I would say, ‘How long will it take us? What time can we be at this particular point right here?’ He would say, ‘Let’s figure it out.’ He would try to show me how to figure it out and so I was able to find out how far back the next ship was and how many hours away, our speed and where we expected to be at such a time.

WCH:

The information Al learned about positioning was crucial. It helped them, first, figure out that the ships in the fleet behind them would be able to pick up the stranded crew in lifeboats within just a few hours of the mutiny. Second, it gave them an idea of where they could go once they took over the ship.

Al:

Clyde and I discussed with Cambodia being a neutral country, maybe we could just take the ship to Cambodia. If we could get it to Cambodia, then we would be safe.

WCH:

At the time, Cambodia was ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, a former king who abdicated, then formed a political party which won the 1955 General Election after independence from France. He then imposed one-party rule. Officially, his government was neutral in foreign relations, although, in practice, it was closer to the socialist states than the West and it was essentially turning a blind eye to North Vietnam ferrying troops and equipment to the South through the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran through Laos and rural eastern Cambodia. These were the main areas being secretly bombed by the U.S. since 1965. There was also no extradition agreement with the U.S. and so it was a good choice for a final destination. Al even hoped that, if they got asylum, his wife and child could join him there. Back on the ship, if Al and Clyde were able to capture it, before they got anywhere, they’d need to avoid the U.S. military which would soon find out about the mutiny and try to stop them.

Al:

We thought that the U.S. might land on our ship and try to capture us and we would probably be killed in a shoot-out. Our goal was to keep them away as far as possible and for as long as possible. The easiest solution, when I talked with Clyde, was that we run on radio silence and so that meant we had to capture the radio operator.

WCH:

They also found out one critical piece of information that might help them avoid conflict with the U.S. forces for as long as possible. What they found out was that the rest of the world knew the ship’s location only at a certain time of the day. In the mornings, the officers would use their navigation instruments to take measurements.

Al:

They determine their location and at 12 o’clock, noon, that location is immediately sent to the shipping company. From that point on, you’re not in touch with that shipping company again until the next day at noon. We determined that if we were to do something, it had to be immediately after the 12 noon signal went out.

WCH:

That would give them nearly 24 hours from the noon signal until the next day’s noon signal when the rest of the world would have no idea that anything was amiss.

Al:

Over the next day or two, I was able to get more information and then it was time to make our move. I stationed myself close by to the radio operator’s shack and I could hear him sending our location.

WCH:

Once he confirmed that the radio operator had sent the signal, he headed down to a room where he and Clyde could prepare without anyone noticing.

Al:

When we got the guns out to clean them, I got up and I told Clyde, ‘I’ll be right back. I’m going to go to the bathroom before we do this.’ I looked in the mirror and I said to myself, ‘You may not live through this. This may be your last few minutes.’

WCH:

This brings us back to that moment we started with. Clyde and Al could be killed or be locked up forever and never see their families again. What if they just turned back now? There was plenty of napalm making it into the war anyway. What would this accomplish? But then again, what would their future children think of them if they turned back now?

Al:

I said to myself, ‘I will never ever be able to see or look my children in the face when they ask me, ”What did you do to stop the war, Dad?” You will be able to say that you did your duty to stop it. You did your best to stop it.’ I walked around, turned around, went out the door, got the gun and said, ‘Let’s move.’

WCH:

They started first by finding the chief mate, Morgan. Remember? The one who hated anti-war activists and who might try to be a hero. They forced him into the Captain’s Lounge where the captain was too and held the two of them at gunpoint until there was a knock on the door.

Al:

Something had to be handed over to the captain. He came to the door and knocked on the door and so I interrupted him and said, ‘Hey thanks. Do me a favour? The captain would like to talk to the chief radio operator. Can you ask him to call down?’ He said, ‘It’s not a problem.’ He went on over and got him to come over. We then had the captain, the first mate and the chief radio operator. We had the three big key players.

WCH:

They told the captain that they had a bomb aboard the ship and they were ready to detonate it. They told them they were taking control of the ship and that they wanted the ship to be evacuated, leaving only a skeleton crew at the minimum needed to keep it afloat and moving.

Al:

We had the captain do the fire drill to abandon the ship and so he had to talk to the mates upstairs on the bridge. When they said to ‘Abandon Ship’, they were asked, ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘Yes!’ They followed his orders and did what he said. The ship was abandoned and as they were doing it, we asked them to cast off the lines. That’s the last thing you do on an abandoned ship is cast off the lines. There were several sailors on board that we were concerned about but we thought they would have gone down with the boats but they didn’t. They were up on the lifeboat decks tending the lines before they were cast off which we weren’t prepared for. In other words, we had too many people on that ship. When they were told to cast lines off, they wanted to know what was going on. Maybe they had done a quick analysis on who was around, who wasn’t around, figured that it wasn’t a drill and that maybe Clyde and I had done something. We told the captain to tell the mate on duty that there was a bomb on board and they had to cast them off right then because there was a possibility of it exploding.

WCH:

In those tense few moments, the rest of the crew followed the procedure. They got into the boats.

Al:

Once they were cast off, we moved from the lounge up to the bridge deck. We secured the radio room so that nothing could be transmitted and then we exposed ourselves by stepping off the bridge deck to the flying bridge and telling them the lifeboats needed to move away quickly. We leaned over and yelled down to them that there was a vessel three or four miles behind and they would be able to get it if they headed in a particular direction.

WCH:

Just like that, they had control of the Columbia Eagle. The next question was could they make it to Cambodia without losing control of the ship or getting caught?

Al:

I was on the radar quite often during that first day. We stayed up that whole first night. There was no way to sleep. The next day, we took shifts and I think we dozed an hour each that night, if that.

WCH:

Clyde and Al thought that Herrick Morgan, the chief mate, would be their biggest problem and sure enough, he was. In Roberto’s book, The Eagle Mutiny, Morgan and another crew member describe what they say happened. Morgan had found a crowbar. Clyde had been sitting for some time by the door of the wheelhouse. He had his gun but Morgan thought, with the element of surprise, he could lay him out, get his gun and then go after Al. However, as Morgan crept up on Clyde, Al clocked him and yelled to Clyde to look out. Clyde spun around and fired. The bullet didn’t hit anything but Morgan dropped the crowbar and put his hands up. The mutineers then apparently told the chief mate that if he tried anything else, they would kill him. They then went around the ship gathering hammers, axes, crowbars or anything which could potentially be used as a weapon and throwing them overboard. After that, there were no other attempts by the crew to rest back control of the ship and during the 24 hour period after the radio broadcast, just as planned, they didn’t see any signs that the U.S. military had realised what was going on but then noon, the following day, rolled around.

Al:

We started being buzzed by an American plane. If it had come any closer, we were going to shoot it and I’m certain we would have hit it. It was that close, even with pistols we would have hit it. We could clearly see the pilot and the co-pilot. We took an American flag, the ship’s flag, out of the bin, set it on the deck and painted a ‘ban the bomb’ symbol on it. We then hung the flag off the side of the vessel. Shortly after that, we started getting a tremendous amount of radio interferrence. There were other vessels that were coming towards us from different directions and we didn’t know if we were going to be missiled or what at that point. We didn’t know what they would do because either they stopped that ship or it was gone.

WCH:

By this point, it was 15th March and they were in Cambodian waters. One of the ships heading towards them was the U.S. Coastguard Cutter Mellon, so they needed to make their next move.

Al:

We broke radio silence and allowed the radio operator to transmit his position and what our goals were: that we wanted political asylum in Cambodia; that we were taking the ship; that we wanted it interred and held by the Cambodian government.

WCH:

They also made contact with the Mellon and warned them, and other American craft, to stay away, stating that they would go to any lengths to keep the cargo from reaching its destination, even to scuttling the vessel. This set off a scurry of diplomatic activity. The U.S. Embassy in Saigon contacted the Secretary of State, William Rogers, who sent a telegram to the military and every American embassy in Southeast Asia requesting approval from the Cambodian government to allow U.S. forces to enter Cambodian waters to seize the vessel. Failing that, to apprehend the ‘pirates’ and return the vessel themselves. After that, on the ship, everything went quiet and they just had to wait. After what must have been a pretty torturous waiting game, the following evening, 16th March, two Cambodian vessels arrived. Naval officers boarded the Columbia Eagle, surveyed the cargo and spoke to the captain. Meanwhile, Al and Clyde were taken aboard the Cambodian gunboat to speak to the naval chief of staff, Captain Amg, where they explained what they’d done and why. They formally requested asylum and managed to convince Captain Amg that the non-existent bomb they used to hijack the ship had been disposed of. To the incredulity of the Columbia Eagle’s remaining crew, the Cambodians then returned the mutineers’ guns and put them back on board while they headed back to shore where they contacted Prince Sihanouk who, at the time, was on an international tour of China and the Soviet Union. The next day, 17th March, Al and Clyde got their response from the Cambodian authorities and it looked like the mutineers had made a good choice of safe haven.

Al:

Sihanouk initially agreed and allowed us to come in with political asylum and holding the vessel for the duration of the Indo-Chinese war. That was our demand and that’s all we asked: political asylum and that they held the ship for the duration of the Vietnam War and to keep the cargo out of the war.

WCH:

At that moment, Al and Clyde had got everything they wanted. The U.S. military would be unable to use their deadly cargo to kill innocent civilians in Indo-China. They would be safe to live in neutral Cambodia and even bring their families over to join them and all that without having harmed anyone. However, they could never have predicted what happened next which threatened to undo everything they’d done.

[Outro music]

WCH:

This is the end of Part 2. The relevant levels of our Patreon supporters can listen to the rest of this series now, as well as bonus audio with more information about Clyde’s earlier life and adventures. So if you don’t already, you can support us, get early access to episodes and other benefits at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. For everyone else, future parts will be out each week. You can get Roberto and Richard’s book, The Eagle Mutiny, on the link in the show notes. If you enjoy our podcast, please give us a review on iTunes, or Apple Podcasts, or share it on social media to help us get more listeners. Thanks to our patrons for making this podcast possible. This episode was written and produced by WCH and Daniel Woldorff. Audio editing by Daniel Woldorff. Music composed by Austin Coulson. Catch you next time.

Part 3

[Intro music]

WCH:

Welcome back to WCH Crime. This is the third part of our miniseries on the Columbia Eagle mutiny. Where we left off last time, Al and Clyde had successfully hijacked the SS Columbia Eagle, got it to neutral Cambodia, been given asylum and a guarantee by authorities that their deadly cargo would be held until the end of the war.

[Audio clip about the mutiny]

‘It’s the case of the successful two-man mutiny aboard the American munition ship, Columbia Eagle.’

‘Two crewmen were armed when they took control of the cargo ship.’

WCH:

On 17th March, the mutineers, along with Captain Swann, were taken off the ship to the naval base at Ream, near Sihanoukville, and from there, they were flown to the capital, Phnom Penh. There, they were taken out to dinner by their Cambodian hosts and put up in an army barracks. So right then, it looked like Al and Clyde had got everything they hoped for but unbeknownst to them at the time, events in Cambodia were unfolding.

Al:

The U.S. had been trying to undermine Sihanouk for many years because they wanted the Cambodian government to step up the resistance against the Khmer Rouge as well as the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese people transporting materials down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They had been pushing different members of the government by providing, I imagine, material support and financial support to line their pockets. The CIA was adamantly moving towards trying to get some of those people on their side and this was the golden opportunity.

WCH:

The next day, 18th March 1970, Al and Clyde were driven to the Foreign Office to meet with officials and fill in some paperwork about what they’d done in order to process their asylum claims. On the way, Al asked to go by the embassies of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong which the driver did. Outside the embassies, there were big crowds shouting and yelling but from the car, they couldn’t see what all the commotion was about. That only became clear later.

Al:

That night, the coup occurred.

WCH:

A few days beforehand, Cambodian Prime Minister, Lon Nol, had given an ultimatum to North Vietnam for all of there and Viet Cong forces to withdraw from Cambodian soil by 15th March or face military action. When this didn’t happen, anti-Vietnamese protests broke out in Phnom Penh on 16th March, probably organised by figures in the government, and escalated into rioting and attacks on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong embassies which Al had witnessed. On 18th March, army officers, Lon Nol, and the pro-business and pro-U.S. Deputy Prime Minister Sirik Matak, dispatched troops to key positions in the capital while the National Assembly held a vote of no confidence in Sihanouk and appointed Lon Nol Head of State with emergency powers. In the chaos, Al and Clyde were put in limbo.

Al:

The first time, they sent us into a military facility and we were held there.

WCH:

At first, they were more or less allowed to move about in Cambodia and able to see the coup happen firsthand.

Al:

It was not a bloodless coup. We would see taxis coming in and minibuses coming in, all shot up with blood all over the place, bringing in people that were under arrest. There were people lined up on the ground and being beaten with their hands tied behind their backs. Multiple times, Clyde and I, had gone out and given them water, food and cigarettes and tried to comfort these people the best we could. We were told by the Cambodians, who didn’t know how to deal with us at all, that we couldn’t do it. After that first night, on the second night, we had been told that we were not allowed to interact with these prisoners at all. They actually killed these people. Some of them were murdered and just taken straight over to the river. They had a little dock and they would just waste them there and dump them into the Mekong River. They didn’t even have to shoot them. They could just push them off and they would drown because their hands were tied. Oftentimes, there were multiple people tied together and many, many of them were bloodied up and obviously had been interrogated and beaten severely.

WCH:

One thing which was clear about the new government was that it was going to be more friendly to U.S. foreign policy than the previous one which didn’t bode well for Al and Clyde.

Al:

The strangest thing happened. Some mid-level military people came and got us and had us go over to where the flag pole was, which was across from where some of these prisoners were. They had us stand there and then a column of soldiers came in with rifles. They got down and it was almost like they were going to shoot us. We thought we were going to be shot then.

WCH:

That was until they had a small stroke of luck.

Al:

And then a higher ranking officer came and pulled the adjutants aside and dismisssed this squad of soldiers. We were sent back into our room and then we were moved, almost immediately, to another facility. They did this several times. We were moved to different facilities. I think it was just a question of whether or not this person or that person thought that they might be able to further their ambitions or maybe they could get permanent American status and go to the U.S. if they kept us alive.

WCH:

They were moved again but after their close encounter with a potential firing squad, they were held in conditions that got worse and worse.

Al:

We ended up in a prison vessel.

WCH:

In that vessel, things began to deteriorate for Al.

Al:

About that time, I started having sensory deprivation. We were being isolated. I remember government people coming in and showing me pictures of my wife and saying, ‘You have a baby now. Maybe you ought to do this. Maybe you should do that.’ It got to be pretty thick and heavy to the point where I started to slip away. What happened was I started to have a nervous breakdown. Finally, I just got so fucking fed up, I jumped off the end of the ship and thought I would try my best to swim across the Mekong.

WCH:

It’s unclear what Al would do or where he’d go if he swam across but he was in no condition to reach the other side.

Al:

I didn’t make it. I was placed into a cell that you couldn’t stand up in and you could only hunch over into it. It was probably five feet tall at most.

WCH:

They cut his rations and to make matters worse, only three weeks after Clyde and Al were taken prisoner, the new Cambodian government released the Columbia Eagle, its remaining crew and its napalm cargo back to the United States. While Clyde and Al’s conditions became harsher, the rest of the world was talking about what happened aboard the SS Columbia Eagle and, as is pretty standard with protest movements, the media tried to put their own spin on it.

[Audio clip from media]

‘…those two as pot-smoking hippies out to protest the Vietnam War…’

‘…Clyde McKay Jnr. and Alvin Glatkowski… reports that Glatkowski had been on drugs…’

‘…I assumed that he was under the influence of drugs or dope.’

Al:

The press wanted to constantly say that we were nothing but pill-popping, drug-induced hippies and that we’d had no politically brains whatsoever. That is an entire lie. We had an understanding of the politics that were involved. Merchant sailors may not be too well educated in many cases but when you are transporting weapons, particularly bombs, and you’re coming into port, it’s only a matter of a few minutes before you learn where these weapons are going to be used.

WCH:

Something else happened which the pair didn’t expect. Conspiracy theories started swirling around them. The unfortunate timing of their arrival in Cambodia, just a matter of hours before a pro-U.S. coup, led to widespread claims that Al and Clyde were actually working on behalf of the CIA and that they hijacked the ship in order to smuggle small arms to the coup plotters. Numerous false claims circulated, like a claim that when the Columbia Eagle left the United States, it was deeper in the water than when it left Cambodia, supposedly showing that weaponry had been taken off. Now, this was disproved by photographic evidence but even Sihanouk himself, then in exile, started repeating this, as did all of the official press associated with the Soviet Union and its allies which were then pretty influential, as well as even reputable publications like Le Monde. All this led to Al and Clyde being pretty much abandoned by the anti-war movement.

Al:

We lost all support from the left in the United States. The only people that gave us support were the clergy and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

WCH:

Even if Al had succeeded somewhat in getting his political message across, which was at least the case for groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he was paying a terrible price.

Al:

I was eventually sent to a facility and I believe it was a hospital for the insane. I can’t imagine I was there more than two weeks or so.

WCH:

While he was there, he was able to self-medicate with an anti-psychotic drug, Thorazine, that he got hold of until, as he says, he was able to get a better grip on reality. As he got better, he was moved into the Palais du Gouvernement, Sihanouk’s old residence, under house arrest, although with some limited freedom to go around the city.

Al:

I ended up being put back with Clyde. Clyde and I continued to talk about escaping together.

WCH:

Clyde actually came up with an idea but in the poor psychological and physical state that Al was in, Clyde told him he thought Al would slow them down.

Al:

I agreed with him. I said, ‘Yes, you’re right. I will slow you down. You don’t need me to do this. You need to be gone yourself.’ So I helped him make arrangements to do so. We went out to dinner and he was able to escape out the back door. Actually, it was a bathroom. He was able to go to the bathroom and escape.

WCH:

Clyde, along with another American, a Vietnam War deserter and Marxist called Larry Humphrey, had some outside help to escape.

Al:

They got to a certain point, they were dropped off and then that was it.

WCH:

Al knew that once they got away, he’d be questioned and so they had a story prepared to throw the Cambodian authorities off Clyde’s trail.

Al:

I understood that I would be interrogated and they’d want to know. My goal was to tell them that he had headed in a particular direction. That was my instruction and I did so.

WCH:

Clyde and Larry planned to join the Khmer Communists, or KC. They were communist guerillas who, at the time, were allied with North Vietnam and been fighting a war of insurgency in the countryside against the Cambodian state since 1968. Over this time period, Al and Clyde had a lot of contact with international journalists. One day, Al was approached by a U.S. reporter.

Al:

He said, ‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘Personally, I would love to stay here but I can’t. I’m afraid that I will deteriorate again. What I would really like to do is get back to the   United States and face trial and surrender myself.’ He asked me what he could do to help and I said, ‘What would really help is if you had a car that was sitting right there and we could get in and go.’ [Laughter] He said, ‘I can’t do that but I can bring one up to the gate at the Palace.

WCH:

Al knew what might face him back in the U.S.; the possibility of life in prison or even the death penality but he was worried enough about his psychological health that he needed to try.

Al:

They had a gate and lots of soldiers were camped out there, both in the building and out in the grounds. We made an arrangement for this to happen at a particular time and he would come by with a car and a driver. I would walk over and be talking with him right next to the gate. He would leave the door open on my side and we would just bail for it and then go. That’s exactly what happened. He took me straight to the U.S. embassy and I surrendered.

WCH:

Well, that’s it for Part 3. The relevant levels of our Patreon supporters can listen to the final part now, as well as the bonus audio. So if you don’t already, you can support us, get early access to episodes and other benefits at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. For everyone else, the fourth and final part will be out next week.

[Deep Water by the R.J. Phillips Band]

WCH:

If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War, check out the Working Class History podcast series on the conflict. Our episode 8 is about the strike wave which took place in the U.S. at the time. Episodes 10 and 11 are about the anti-war movement within the U.S. Army and Navy and in episode 14, we talk to Noam Chomsky about the geopolitics of the conflict and hear from a member of the Vietnamese Women’s Union about the human cost of the war. Coming soon, we also have a multi-part episode about the U.S. movement against the war, so subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss it. Thanks to our patrons for making this podcast possible. This episode was written and produced by WCH and Daniel Woldorff. Audio editing by Daniel Woldorff. Music composed by Austin Coulson. The outro music for this episode is the song Deep Water by the R.J. Phillips Band which is about the mutiny. Links to stream it are in the show notes. Catch you next time.

Part 4

[Intro music]

WCH:

Welcome back to the fourth and final part of WCH Crime, the Columbia Eagle mutiny. Where we left off last week, Al and Clyde had taken over the Eagle and sailed to Cambodia. They were hoping the Cambodian government would give them asylum and hold on to the ship to prevent its cargo, napalm, from entering the Vietnam War. Instead, a coup took place just after they arrived and the two mutineers were taken prisoner. Eventually, they escaped the deteriorating conditions of their imprisonment, each going their separate ways.

[Audio clip about the mutiny]

‘It’s the case of the successful two-man mutiny aboard the American munition ship, Columbia Eagle.’

‘Two crewmen were armed when they took control of the cargo ship.’

WCH:

While Clyde went off into the Cambodian countryside to join Khmer Communist guerillas, Al was in a poor state of health and surrendered himself at the U.S. Embassy. He then had to face charges for what he’d done.

Al:

The shipping company and the captain were demanding the death penalty and that I be tried for treason. The U.S. Government could not try me for treason, they claimed, but they could try me for the illegal things that I had done that were against the law. They were mutiny on the high seas, assault with a dangerous weapon, armed kidnapping and things of that nature.

WCH:

The Naval Intelligence Service officers who investigated the mutiny, initially believed that more of the crew must have been involved but Al was insistent that he and Clyde acted alone and, in the end, only Al faced charges. In total, Al was charged with 23 separate counts but after some clever manoeuvring from Al’s lawyers, prosecutors offered a plea deal.

Al:

They could get a better deal, they thought, if I pled guilty and they negotiated an offer with the Federal Government. They didn’t want a showcase trial. They wanted this thing slam-dunked and put out of the way. It just so happened that I had a judge, which my lawyers believed and told me, that was a Democratic judge, sympathetic and that we would probably get a fair shake from him. They had negotiated and I didn’t have to take the deal. I could have turned it down but they said, ‘We’ve talked to the government and they’re willing to have you plead guilty to two or three of the charges for a minimum sentence of ten years.’

WCH:

Al’s lawyers told him they couldn’t guarantee that’s what would happen but he took a chance and agreed to do it. They were banking on the fact that the government didn’t want to put up a fight that would have taken them to trial. Potentially, a trial could have been high profile and could have rallied the support of the anti-war movement, as apart from anything else, Al’s charges proved that he wasn’t working as a government agent. So Al pled guilty to two counts and was given the maximum sentence for each; ten years for mutiny and five years for assault with a deadly weapon. Initially, the judge ruled the two terms should run consecutively, one after the other, rather than concurrently as agreed with the prosecutor but fortunately for Al, after objections from the defence and consultation with the prosecutor, the judge reversed his ruling and agreed for the terms to run concurrently. Despite all that Al had been through, he was able to take a stand against the war.

Al:

We were in all the papers all over the world. Nixon had a cabinet meeting and was talking about it. It just blew them the fuck away. ‘What! Don’t they love me?’ It was done politically. We made a political statement and the government did their best to squash that political statement.

WCH:

But in the end, Al did feel that his decision to plead guilty diminished that statement.

Al:

I colluded. I colluded to help them to squash it by pleading guilty. If I had pled not guilty, I probably would be in the prison still to this day and they could have convicted me on every single fucking charge.

WCH:

So just two days shy of a year after his mutiny, on 12th March 1971, Al began his ten-year sentence at Lompoc Federal Prison. In an interesting parallel, across the Atlantic shortly after this, John Barker, the same age as Al, was also jailed for ten years for his involvement with the Angry Brigade and like with John, who we spoke to in our episodes 2 and 3, Al continued his resistance behind bars.

Al:

When I went into the prison on my first day, it was divided into different groups. On one side sat Blacks, on the other side sat whites, on the other side sat the Native Americans and on the other side sat the Hispanics. There was a sprinkling of others someplace else but the dead centre in the chow hall was empty. I picked up my tray of food, turned around, looked and realised the only place I fitted was in that dead centre. I went over and sat at a table all by myself and then slowly but surely, people got up from other places, walked over, brought their trays and sat down near me. Within a few minutes, there were probably ten people. Most of them were anti-war resisters, or hijackers for aeroplanes, or whatever. It was amazing. Some of them had been in the military and resisted and so what happened was all of a sudden, the centre became this multi-racial conglomerate and every day, that’s where I would sit. I picked the centre and every day, it got bigger and bigger and then by the time I got released, it was a mixed chow hall. That’s not to say that it was totally mixed because there was still segregation going on by themselves but it was self-chosen segregation. It wasn’t because of peer pressure. I felt pretty good about that. I actually got some neo-Nazis and some Clansmen to cover their tattoos and that’s not easy to do. What happens is you have to build bridges, and you have to build connections, and you have to have empathy, and you also have to understand their struggles. However, more importantly, that I would point out to people continuously from day one, I asked, ‘Why are you fighting amongst yourselves? You have a common enemy. Your enemy is the person that has put you behind these bars. Your enemy is this institution where these guards are pitting us against each other. You have an enemy and they are in your face every day.’

WCH:

As in London and around the world at that point, social movements on the streets and in workplaces spread to the prisons where hundreds of participants in those movements were also ending up.

Al:

Over a period of time, we got improvements in the prison. We were able to get a better canteen. We were able to get a better education and library and things started to develop and change. Now, that’s not to say that we did that ourselves. Certain laws were changed but we were asking and demanding that they instituted those things and that they made them occur. During that time, we started seeing that more and more people were being arrested for anti-draft or anti-war activity. We had Weather Underground in there and they gravitated towards me because I was the first person in there that openly declared himself a political prisoner. There were other people that were a little intimidated to use that phrase.

WCH:

Among the people Al met inside were prisoners of the Black Power movement and others who had been targeted by the FBI counter-insurgency programme called COINTELPRO.

Al:

Los Angeles County Jail has a section, or it did, called High-Power Maximum Security Death Row. That was the name of it: High-Power Maximum Security Death Row. One of the people that came in, that they brought there, was Elmer Pratt. That’s his slave name. His slave name is Elmer Pratt but his nom de guerre is Geronimo. I believe he was the Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party and he was also a vet. He and I met in a holding tank before we went up to that facility. He and I hit it off together.

WCH:

Geronimo Pratt was a highly decorated vet who had served two combat tours in Vietnam, being awarded two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. He then joined the revolutionary socialist Black Panther Party, recruited by Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. Now Carter and Huggins were murdered in 1969 by Black Nationalists being manipulated by COINTELPRO, then Pratt himself became a target of the programme after the FBI said they wanted to neutralise Pratt as ‘an effective functionary’ of the Panthers. Shortly after, he was arrested for the murder of a teacher, based largely on the evidence of a key witness who later turned out to be an FBI informant, although his conviction wasn’t overturned until 1997. With their shared commitment to the revolutionary movement, Al and Geronimo became friends. That friendship only strengthened after one day, the guards assaulted Geronimo.

Al:

He had something that was not any problem at all. He may have talked back to some guard and they popped his cell open and they rushed in with a bunch of guards, just beat the fuck out of him and dragged him out. So when this happened and the guards went running down and I saw who it was that they were dragging out, I stood up at the bars and started cussing the guards and telling them, ‘Fuck you! You punks. You ain’t got no balls. You eat shit for breakfast because you’re pigs and you just start dumping on him.’ When you see someone you know being dragged out… the next thing I know, my cell door is opened, they’re beating the shit out of me [laughter] and they’re dragging me out. They took him to solitary and they put me in solitary, so we’re in cells next to each other in solitary confinement. We got a chance to talk at night or during the day because we didn’t have anything else to do as you’re sitting there.

WCH:

It later turned out that Geronimo was a good friend to have in the California prison system. One day, Al was put in a holding cell waiting for a court appearance with a number of other inmates, not all of whom shared Al’s philosophy that prisoners shouldn’t fight amongst themselves.

Al:

A couple of the Black thug type guys started to make a move on me because I was a rather small guy. At this point, I looked up and I saw Geronimo in the next cell right next to us. I looked at him and I said, ‘Geronimo!’ He looks up at me and those two guys stopped. He looked at them and he said, ‘Y’all leave this fucker alone.’ Everybody in that cell moved away from the bars when he and I hugged each other through the bars.

WCH:

Because of his plea deal, when Al got out of prison, he was still a young man but Clyde wasn’t so lucky. After his escape, Al never saw or heard from him again and it’s only much more recently that research has found out what happened to him. U.S. military investigators managed to build a likely picture of what happened to Clyde and Larry Humphrey, the military deserter he escaped with. This was built on by Roberto Loiederman and Richard Linnett, who retraced Clyde’s steps researching their book, The Eagle Mutiny, which then sparked renewed interest in the case. After Clyde and Larry got out of prison, they headed to the countryside to join the forces of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, who later became known as the Khmer Rouge but at the time, were known as the Khmer Communists, or KC. Remember that this was in 1970, a few years before they took power and murdered hundreds and thousands of people, so Clyde and Larry wouldn’t have known exactly what they were getting into. At the time, they thought they’d be welcomed with open arms for an act of rebellion against the American war effort.

Roberto:

It was an act that was suspect from all sides. Everyone suspected them of being something other than what they were. The Americans suspected that they were communists. The communists suspected that they were acting for the Americans, etcetera. They were caught in a kind of limbo.

WCH:

They did get involved with the KC but their status was somewhere closer to captives rather than members of the group. They were put up in a house near Sangke Kaong and given tasks like carrying ammunition cases around. They weren’t given KC uniforms but they went out and bought some themselves to wear and some local people said they weren’t allowed to speak with them. In their naivety, Clyde and Larry didn’t appreciate that authoritarian communist groups typically demand the same sort of obedience as capitalist ones.

Roberto:

There was also something rebellious about McKay to begin with. He was always rebelling against the way that he was treated because McKay had demanded equal treatment with other people who were part of the Khmer Communist cadre.

WCH:

In June 1971, in protest at differences in rations between them and KC members, they went on hunger strike for a day and a half. When this failed to move KC cadres, they tried to go to another village to find food and cigarettes but were arrested.

Roberto:

The Khmer Communists felt they just couldn’t handle these two guys any longer. They took them out into an area not far from Sangke Kaong where they were killed and their bodies were buried there.

WCH:

There’s more to the story of Clyde’s remains in the bonus audio for this episode for our Patreon supporters but the short version is that in 2003, U.S. government investigators DNA-tested bone fragments found at the site and they were positively matched with the DNA of Clyde’s mother and sister. The following year, in California, Clyde’s family were finally able to have a funeral and buried his remains in the family plot. As for Al, he served his time and is now more active than ever. He recently went back to Cambodia with his son to see where Clyde ended up.

Al:

I flew into Thailand and from Thailand into Vietnam and we travelled all the way down. We used the book that Roberto and Richard wrote to go to Parrot’s Beak and track down the village where Clyde was killed and where his remains were recovered. We met with the villagers, we had a nice dinner with them and they told us their stories. They even took us over to the grave site… not the grave site, the murder site.

WCH:

That day in 1970, Al and Clyde were driven to do something extremely brave and extremely dangerous by the extreme circumstances and the dire human cost of the Vietnam War, which Al had seen firsthand. It had devastating consequences for both of them. Al lost his freedom, his family and nearly his sanity and Clyde lost his life. In the end, the napalm made it to Vietnam anyway but their rebellion did shock U.S. authorities and contributed, in a small way, to slowing the flow of munitions to the region and brought the anti-war movement to TV news and newspaper headlines around the world. Facing continued resistance from North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, and escalating resistance at home and amongst service personnel, eventually, the U.S. was forced to withdraw. Shipping and dock workers can play a key role in anti-war movements. When transport workers get organised together, they can stop vital flows of arms into war zones. For example, in 1920, dockworkers in England refused to load armaments for use by the Allies against the Russian Revolution. In the 1930s, dockworkers in Australia and the U.S. refused to load iron for the Japanese war in China. British dockers, in 1973, went on strike rather than load British weapons to be sent to General Pinochet in Chile and more recently, in 2003, train drivers in Scotland refused to move a freight train carrying ammunition to be used in the Iraq war, which Al opposed as well. But Al and Clyde were on their own, which put them in a really difficult situation as they couldn’t just take part in a collective strike, say. Faced with those odds, many people would just either go along with the majority or maybe individually opt out of assisting the war effort but Al and Clyde felt that wasn’t enough. They paid a price for their actions and was it worth it for Clyde? We’ll never know but I did ask Al if he had any regrets and this is what he told me.

Al:

Fuck no!

WCH:

He did say though that he had wished they’d been able to take the weapons out of the war but Al thought that the environmental cost of sinking the ship or blowing it up would be too high. Between his political activities, his day job and his seasonal work as a Santa Claus (and a great one, I should add), it was hard for Al to find the time to do this interview.

Al:

I’m working with my old group, Vietnam Veterans Against The War/OSS. I’m also working with Veterans For Peace, the largest anti-war veteran group in the world. We have chapters all over the world and, if I’m not mistaken, we have an observation seat at the United Nations as an NGO. We have chapters in Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, England, Germany, etcetera. We have chapters all over the world.

WCH:

While the Merchant Marine is technically a civilian body, mariners are sometimes recognised as vets. In World War Two, the Merchant Marine had a greater casualty rate than the U.S. Armed Forces and although typically denied recognition as veterans and the benefits that go along with that, merchant mariners from some conflicts have been recognised as vets many years later; basically once enough of them had died for the benefits to not cost much. Merchant mariners from the Vietnam War are not formally recognised as vets, although they are by Vietnam Veterans Against The War.

Al:

I also work with Military Families Speak Out which incorporates parents and family members that have family members that are in the military and may have been killed or may be still alive and some that have completed suicide. There are currently 20.6 veterans that commit suicide every single day in this country which just recently was recognised as the number of deaths by the U.S. government. That’s no exaggeration but we suspect it’s higher than that because there are lots of veterans that are not taking advantage of the VA programmes. They wouldn’t even have been counted in those records. Just recently, I’ve returned from the silent march that we just did in Washington D.C. to lay the wreaths on all the memorials. I sent you a picture of that. We went to speak for the 20.6 veterans that commit suicide every day. I carried our national organisation’s flag all the way through the Vietnam memorial and risked arrest in doing so. What am I doing today? Does it sound like I’m sitting on my fucking thumbs?

WCH:

So if ever you’re in the U.S. one December and you see a Santa Claus, know that it might just be Al, the only living mutineer on an American ship and his rebellion against war, capitalism and injustice is ongoing. Well, that’s it for our first WCH Crime miniseries. We put a lot of hours into it and we hope that it shows. Like we said at the start of the series, we’ve begun putting a lot more time into this and the Working Class History podcast, taking time off from our day jobs to make them better quality and better researched. We’ll be doing that through 2019 but in the longer term, we’ll only be able to continue to invest this amount of time if we increase our number of supporters on Patreon, as we don’t have any adverts or corporate donors. So if you value what we do and you want to support us, as well as get early access to episodes and bonus audio, like more information about Clyde’s life and disappearance, go to patreon.com/workingclasshistory. If you don’t have any spare cash, that’s fine. Please just give us a review on iTunes, or Apple Podcast, or share our podcast on social media. We’ve also got links to more information, and photos of the mutiny and related individuals in the show notes. Thanks so much to our patrons for making this podcast possible. This episode was written and produced by WCH and Daniel Woldorff. Audio editing by Daniel Woldorff. Music composed by Austin Coulson. We’ll be back soon with regular episodes of Working Class History and WCH Crime will return later in 2019. Catch you next time.

[Outro music]

Transcribed by PODTRANSCRIBE

 

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