There, But for the Grace of Fate
The Eagle Mutiny by Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2001
The Eagle Mutiny is an intriguing investigation into a forgotten crime - or perhaps a forgotten act of courage, depending on the reader's point of view.
The basic facts of the case are this: On March 14, 1970, two young sailors smuggled guns onto a cargo ship carrying napalm for US forces in South Vietnam. The hijackers - Clyde McKay, 25, and Alvin Glatkowski, 20 - claimed that there was a live bomb on board the ship. They forced the captain to sound the "abandon ship" alarm, and allowed only a skeleton crew to remain onboard. They then sailed the ship into Cambodian waters, where they believed they would be welcomed as heroes for having halted the ship's deadly cargo. It didn't work out that way. The ship arrived off the coast of Cambodia just as the neutralist Prince Sihanouk was deposed in a right-wing coup led by Sirik Matak and Lon Nol. McKay and Glatkowski had hoped to find asylum in a communist country; instead, they became prisoners of the new Phnom Penh regime.
Soon rumors began to circulate claiming that the "mutiny" was nothing more than a CIA ruse, and that the Columbia Eagle was carrying arms for Lon Nol to use in the coup against Sihanouk. This rumor was absurd on many levels: to begin with, Lon Nol already controlled the army, and hence, all the weapons. Moreover, if the ship had been carrying weapons for Lon Nol, nothing would have been gained by making the ship the center of a high-profile charade. For McKay and Glatkowski, however, it didn't matter that the claims were not credible: Once they had been accused of complicity in a CIA-sponsored plot, their dreams of refuge in a communist country evaporated.
After months of imprisonment, Glatkowski ultimately agreed to be extradited to the US to face trial. McKay, however, escaped from his captors along with another American, a shadowy deserter named Larry Humphrey. Outside the city, McKay and Humphrey sought out the Khmer Rouge in an attempt to join the communist revolutionaries. The mystery of their fate forms the final, compelling chapter of this book.
The authors do an excellent job of illuminating their subjects without either demonizing them, or deifying them. McKay and Glatkowski were not saints, but neither were they drug-addled fools. Were they misguided and naive? Definitely. Were they traitors? Possibly. But give the devil his due: treason takes courage. Linnet and Loiederman never attempt to excuse McKay and Glatkowski. But they do remind us that their actions did not occur in a vacuum: like many Americans, the McKay and Glatkowski were appalled by their country's actions in Vietnam.
It's always tempting to imagine that our enemies harbor nothing but evil, and that our allies harbor nothing but virtue. But the world isn't this simple. One of the striking things about The Eagle Mutiny is that McKay and Glatkowski's backgrounds seem eerily similar to one of America's Vietnam heroes: John Paul Vann. Vann grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, the product of a broken home. Smart and physically gifted, he excelled in the Boy Scouts and ultimately sought out the military as a path to a better life. Glatkowski, too, was the product of a broken home. Born in Georgia, his birth father deserted the family when Alvin was three years old. His stepfather moved the family to Vann's old home - Norfolk, Virginia - in 1963. Like Vann, Glatkowski was highly intelligent, and, like Vann, he excelled in the Boy Scouts. While Vann found acceptance and camaraderie in the military, Glatkowski, more rebellious, joined the Merchant Marine. And, again like Vann, he seemed to be seeking escape from an uneasy marriage. McKay, too, seemed to be looking for escape and adventure. Restless by nature, McKay was described as "brilliant but easily bored by details and by the hard work that preceded the payoff."
One wonders where their paths diverged: at what point, by what grace of fate, did Vann wind up a hero, while McKay and Glatkowski became fugitives? Perhaps there is a parable here: Vann and McKay would die far from home, and though they chose opposite sides of the same struggle, they were both victims of lost causes. Glatkowski would survive: he was scarred, certainly, but alive, perhaps because he alone saw the lost battle for what it really was.
The Columbia Eagle incident was ultimately little more than a footnote in the turbulent history of 1970s Cambodia. It is to Linnett and Loiederman's credit that the book isn't just an arcane discussion of an irrelevant event: the authors present us with a vivid picture of flawed men, flawed choices, and tragic consequences.
The Eagle Mutiny is published by Naval Institute Press.
It is available from Amazon.com.