Podcast: Al Glatkowski’s anti-war high seas mutiny aboard the SS Columbia Eagle
In March of 1970, Al Glatkowski and his associate, Clyde McKay, did something unique in modern U.S. History. As an act of protest, the sailors seized the SS Columbia Eagle, a merchant vessel under contract to the US government to take napalm to US Air Force bases in Thailand for Vietnam bombing missions. This is the first time Al Glatkowski has publicly spoken about what happened nearly 50 years ago.
“We were weighing out the destruction that these bombs would do on humans. We knew that we were causing more suffering, and we had a chance to actually stand up against it. We honestly believed that our lives were worth less than the lives of all the people that would be affected, as well as the environmental destruction that would be affected. Being sailors and transporting these weapons, it just made it all more real for us. You can’t have a war without us.”
“We felt that this was an imperative thing that we had to do, even if it meant we lost our lives. We also had no desire to hurt anyone else; our goal was to get them off the vessel. All of them. … Our goal was to save as many lives as possible, and if it meant losing ours in the process, so be it.”
Vietnam Full Disclosure
This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
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The Eagle Mutiny: The true story of the only mutiny on an American ship in modern times
by Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman (Kindle Edition available from Amazon)
The Last Mutineer
by Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman, Penthouse
The Eagle Mutiny (website by Richard Linnett)
The SS Columbia Eagle Mutiny
by Steven Johns
March 14, 1970: SS Columbia Eagle Mutiny
“This day in history” by the Zinn Education Project
Al Glatkowski: We were weighing out the destruction that these bombs would do on humans. We knew that we were causing more suffering, and we had a chance to actually stand up against it. We honestly believed that our lives were worth less than the lives of all the people that would be affected, as well as the environmental destruction that would be affected. Being sailors and transporting these weapons, it just made it all more real for us. You can’t have a war without us.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure Effort of Veterans For Peace.
Today’s special guest is Al Glatkowski. In March of 1970, Al and his associate, Clyde McKay, did something unique in modern U.S. History. As an act of protest, they led a mutiny on a U.S. Vessel, the SS Columbia Eagle. They commandeered the ship, with its cargo of napalm bombs en route to Thailand.
After securing the crew, they sailed the ship to neutral Cambodia in the hopes of preventing the bombs from being used in the Vietnam conflict. Al has rarely spoken about this mutiny, and we are honored to hear his story today.
Al, thank you so much for taking this time to join us and tell your story of anti-war activism and the very bold decision that you made. Really excited to hear your side of the story told for one of the very few times in your life.
Let’s just start for some background information about you, Al. Just tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what life looked like for you, growing up in America here.
Al Glatkowski: Initially, I can say that I grew up in the military. I was born at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. And I moved to California at 18 months old to a town called Long Beach, California, which is once again, a military town, a sailor’s town. It’s a port town.
And then from there to other naval bases. My mother remarried, and then I went to various naval bases. Eventually Florida, and Norfolk, Virginia. So most of my growing-up experiences has been in and around the military, all of my life. Many of my family members are military or were military, including two of my sons.
Matthew Breems: So growing up, did you have this idea that that was going to be your path as well as— joining the military at some point?
Al Glatkowski: There was no idea; it was for certain. I was supposed to go into the military. I had relatives putting pressure on me when they thought I was a juvenile delinquent. But I was supposed to go in the military, and I had relatives that insisted that my parents sign for me to go in at 16.
Matthew Breems: Growing up in the military, what led you to start getting involved with more of an anti-war mindset?
Al Glatkowski: I had a couple of friends that were older than me. We were at different grades in high school. One of them ended up joining the Navy because of pressure—again, peer pressure, military families. And the other ended up not doing it—he fought against it.
And the one that ended up joining the Navy ended up committing suicide when he had come back from Vietnam. At that time, he was still alive, when I started becoming active. In fact, the three of us had even gone down to the draft board when I was 15 or 16, I had sat in with the draft boards and messed with the secretaries, even ruffling their files. I myself was laid across one of their desks. Not necessarily to protest the draft—I was a little bit too young to understand that.
But they understood it. And in part because of my friends but also in part attending be-ins and teach-ins, I was learning slowly but still nonetheless learning from friends that would attend these things, and we would all go down together. Learning about the ramifications of the draft and what it was involved in.
Some of my friends had already been in the service and had come out.
Matthew Breems: It’s 1967, you’re a very young man, you left home early. And you start sailing, not in the navy but in commercial ventures. One of those trips you made to Vietnam. Describe what you experienced there and how that impacted you.
Al Glatkowski: I ended up leaving home because my stepfather thought I was a communist. Eventually I was forced out of the house when he was abusive to my mother, and I stood up against it and defended her. I was very rapidly invited out of the house with a gun up to my head.
I ended up joining the United States Merchant Marine. Took the paperwork to my mother, and my mother signed before I was 16, and I was able to go straight into the Merchant Marine.
Matthew Breems: So these are independent commercial ventures, shipping companies, that are paid to ship war materiel to the war zones for the government.
Al Glatkowski: Correct. So yes, I signed onto a vessel, went overseas. Another thing that occurred was, hearing these stories about the war from returned— well, you heard them from not only the students, but you also heard them firsthand from the soldiers that had come back. It was a hard pill to swallow, growing up in the military, and idolizing the military the way we were trained to do.
I decided to go to Vietnam and look for myself. I signed onto a ship that was carrying war materiel to Vietnam, and I went over there. I was somewhat shocked, I guess, because I met soldiers that were telling me, “Yes, this stuff occurs; this is what happens.”
There I was in country, I was actually ashore. We had no weapons, we were non-military civilians in a combat zone, and I got to hear these stories from these different guys, and by the time I had come back to the United States, I was sold.
Matthew Breems: Let’s fast forward a little bit to the incident with the Columbia Eagle. This started when you met another gentleman named Clyde McKay. How did you meet Clyde, and how did this whole plan develop?
Al Glatkowski: We were both at a union hall in California, looking at getting on another ship. He was one of the people that was up at a bulletin board, where they were talking about the disaster of the SS Badger State, which was carrying munitions. I believe it was munitions, but it was certainly war materials to the war.
But at the time it was very fresh in all our minds, because it was one of our ships, and there were crewmen that some of our people knew. But in the course of that walking up to the bulletin board and reading the latest bulletin on it, there was four young guys up there, and myself included. And it was interesting that we were all speculating if it could’ve been sabotage, as an anti-war demonstration.
That afternoon, when we went for a late lunch, or early dinner, we actually discussed that: was it was a possibility; would someone be that crazy to do such a thing, etc. etc.
We gravitated towards each other, all four of us. And we kicked this thought around, my goodness, but we all did it with suspicion. Nobody did it with anything, “Oh man, we ought to try that.” That didn’t exist.
But a few days later back at the union hall again, McKay had apparently been there, and had dropped some ID on the floor out of his wallet or something—it had fallen. And I saw it, and I picked it up, and I almost turned it in to the counter. But then I thought, “I’ll just hold onto this, and see if I can get a hold of this guy.”
And sure enough, either that day or the next day, he came in, and I handed him this identification. At the end of that day, we went out for dinner again, and we got to talking a little bit more seriously. It was a cat-and-mouse type discussion.
“What if? What if? No, that can’t possibly happen.” It was just back and forth, back and forth banter. And then this happened for about a week, or more. And during that time, we became more comfortable with each other. McKay had a pistol and I did not. So he says, “What would it take for you to get a pistol?”
And I said, “Some money, or I have to break in someplace and steal one.” We let that drop, and we moved on to other stuff. But that wasn’t with any idea towards doing anything at that point.
And then we got a little bit more solid on our thoughts, with background information on each of us, and a little bit more solid, a little bit more solid. Until we felt safe enough to actually discuss a possible mutiny, and how it might occur. And how could it succeed?
During that three- or four-week period, we discussed it pretty regularly. When he was able to get a job on a particular ship, I got a job on the same ship. We were therefore able to cement a little bit more of our thinking, but not really knowing if we would go through with it. You don’t know who to trust in four weeks’ or three weeks’ time of knowing someone.
McKay told me he was gonna bring his gun along, and we solidified enough that I was going to have to have a pistol myself. And we didn’t have enough money to go buy another one right then. But we figured we could get one at our first port of call.
Prior to that, we had discussed getting the crew off the ship by having a fire on the ship, hoping that we could stop the cargo, and our cargo happened to be 10,000 tons of napalm.
We discussed it, plotted different ideas, until we finally decided, the two of us, that we were going to do this.
Matthew Breems: So this was before the ship had even sailed.
Al Glatkowski: No, the ship had already sailed when we made the decision that this was going to happen.
Matthew Breems: Okay. So before you’d even sailed, you’re like, “Well, this is a distinct possibility, so much so that we’re making plans to bring firearms on board, to see it through.”
But then as you’re sailing, you’re cementing the details—
Al Glatkowski: That’s correct, you’re correct.
Matthew Breems: So you’ve got quite a bit of time at sea before you get over there, and quite a bit of time to think about it, to think about the consequences of what you’re planning to do. How did you wrestle through this decision?
Al Glatkowski: Oh, it was not easy. First of all, we wondered if we could recruit some more people. And it just so happens that two of those younger people at the union hall that were really kicking out the ideas of stuff that had happened to Badger State, had signed onto the same ship.
So we were able to talk with them as well. But never— just throwing out ambiguous messages, not trying to recruit openly. But just dropping hints.
We realized soon enough that they weren’t really serious the way he or I were. Ideas that I was able to understand— I was hanging around with much more radical people. And these individuals on the West Coast that we had befriended were not that way.
Clyde and I had already agreed that the likelihood of us surviving this was not going to occur.
Matthew Breems: And you had come to terms with that. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision; this was weeks and weeks of thinking about it.
Al Glatkowski: Right. We had discussed the possibility that we might not survive this. And I was prepared as well as Clyde, that that was the case. We didn’t think we would survive it.
Matthew Breems: So you’re sailed across the Pacific, and your first stop was in the Philippines, is that correct?
Al Glatkowski: Yes, in the Philippines. And that’s where we acquired another pistol, and we smuggled it aboard the ship. We hadn’t really come up with a– formulated a hardcore plan. Clyde just wanted to set the ship afire and try to sink it, scuttle it. I thought there had to be a better way. There had to be a far better way than killing anybody or the chance of hurting someone.
And we had an unexpected fire drill. And during that fire drill, we go to our fire stations. And my particular fire station was at a particular point that was high up in the bridge area. And I remember being up there and looking over the handrail and watching all of the people scurry to their different positions. So when watching this, I had an epiphany. I just realized that we had people in the lifeboats, and the epiphany came to me that that’s how we do it: we have to get everybody convinced that there’s a problem on the ship, and get them into their positions, and release them over the side.
When the fire drill was over, I tore ass down below decks, got down on the main deck, and just as I got to the main deck Clyde was coming up topside, and I looked at him and I pointed my finger right in his face and said, “I know how to do it.”
And he started to pick up on what I was trying to tell him. We had to whisper this back and forth. And he got real excited and went back down below deck to his job, or whatever. And the bottom line was, we concluded that if we could capture the officers, the most important officers of the ship, and got everybody else off the ship, we would have a skeleton crew large enough to run the ship.
Then the question was, where were we going to take the ship? So we were having this debate about which way to go. And Clyde convinced me of the neutrality of Cambodia, and so we set sights for Cambodia, but then we had to figure out how to get rid of the crew, etc.
And we knew there was another vessel behind us, called the SS Rabahanak. But a day or two later, when we realized that they were only four hours behind us, that it might be the optimum time to do this. And we were basically two days away from Cambodia.
Matthew Breems: So your consideration of this other ship is that they would be a rescue vessel if you’re making the other guys evacuate the ship.
Al Glatkowski: Correct. That was the idea and the plan. We were afraid that if they passed us, that there would not be another vessel back, to pick up the sailors. So we gave up trying to get closer to Cambodia before doing the mutiny.
We had planned that it was critically important to have our position reported, because we had planned on going radio silent for 24-48 hours. To get the position reported, the report goes out at 12:00 noon. So what we did was we waited for the radio report to go out, and then that’s when we made our move.
So that’s one less officer on the bridge, that is down below, passing on the information for our location. The captain’s in his cabin, the first mate’s in his cabin, next door to each other. So we were able to walk in on the first mate, capture him, take him over to the captain’s fo’c’s’le, and then capture the captain.
A sailor had come down to bring something into the captain’s room, and disturbed us just briefly, and I told him, “The captain’s having a meeting, he just asked me to tell you to come back later.” And he goes, “Okay,” and he’d look off. And then we went over and captured the radio operator. We had the captain call for another officer to come down to his room, his office, and we captured that person. They made a couple attempts to try to disarm us, and that stopped really quick. We had the captain call the bridge and say to the officer on duty— the officers on duty—I think there were one or two up there—that there was an explosive device that has been radioed in— or they had been informed that there’s an explosive device on the vessel, and it’s set to go off, and we need to abandon ship as soon as possible, immediately. Not as soon as possible. Immediately.
So he stood there on the ship’s phone while he did it, myself and McKay, who held guns on him, and he made the call.
Matthew Breems: And McKay and yourself were the ones who told the captain there was an explosive on board.
Al Glatkowski: Yes sir.
Matthew Breems: So at that point, he didn’t know if there actually was or not; he just knew that you had told them that you had planted one on the ship.
Al Glatkowski: Correct. In fact, we didn’t tell him “one”; we told him there were multiple.
Matthew Breems: So what happened next? He radios in, “There’s an explosive on the ship. Evacuate the men.” Then what?
Al Glatkowski: He called up topside, he didn’t tell me it was under gun or anything, he said, “Explosives have been deposited around the ship, they’re set to go off soon. We need an immediate ‘abandon ship.'”
And the officer did, went out and did the blast for “abandon ship.” And the ship— we had the engineer cut the speed on the ship. Everybody was told, almost within a minute of each other, that they had to stop. And then people began to go to their “abandon ship” positions, and climb into the lifeboats, and got lowered away.
Matthew Breems: So what size of crew was on the Columbia Eagle at this time?
Al Glatkowski: 34-38 people.
Matthew Breems: And by the time the sailors had abandoned ship, who was left on the boat?
Al Glatkowski: There were the ones that we had captured, and plus we had an extra officer below decks that stayed. We had an electrician that stayed that was not supposed to—I think he stayed because he was drunk. We probably had 12 or 14 people still on the ship.
Matthew Breems: So you’ve got control of the ship at this point, most of the sailors are now in lifeboats, and you know where you’re heading. Take us to the next part. What happened next?
Al Glatkowski: We went up topside, and set the course to Cambodia. We didn’t tell them it was Cambodia at first, because we didn’t know if the radio operator would go back to his room and rattle something off.
We kicked on the radar, and I kept an eye on the radar, looking for obstacles and ships and things, planes. The sailors behind us, four hours later, got picked up … or three hours later, two hours later. Ended up getting picked up.
You have to remember, we stopped totally in the water, in the shipping lanes. Then by the time we got going again, this other ship had made considerable progress catching up to us. And that was the first information being sent out that an American ship had been hijacked.
As we were steaming away, a few hours later, after these guys had been picked up, the first plane was a PBY … no, not a PBY. A Neptune. I think a Neptune flew over us and it went around us a couple times, and then some other plane came in. And it was about that time that we had the radio operator contact them. I think we went 24 hours. We had the radio operator notify them that we had hijacked the ship and that more information would be coming out slowly.
As we were approaching closer to Cambodia, I had to go up to the chart room, and he cooperated with showing me exactly where we were on the charts. Proceeded at that point to notify our demands. Our demands were that we requested political asylum in Cambodia, the neutral country of Cambodia. We were asking and requesting that the government of Cambodia, being a neutral country, that they would hold— detain the cargo and the vessel throughout the duration of the Indo-Chinese conflict.
A little bit later, they came back with an answer and said yes, that they agreed! So we brought the ship into Cambodia. And we thought that we were going to be boarded, we thought one of the ships would get close enough to send helicopters over and drop the Green Berets— or something. So we just figured that that was it: we were gonna get captured or killed, because at that point we were gonna go to where the detonators were and just shoot into the detonators.
Yes, it sounds cold blooded. We were prepared to die.
Matthew Breems: Yeah. So to an average listener, like you said, it sounds cold blooded. Just walk us through that mindset, why you had come to a place where that was acceptable to you. Just explain that a little bit to us.
Al Glatkowski: Well, we were weighing out the destruction that these bombs would do on humans, farmers and peasants— as well as soldiers. We knew that we were causing more suffering, and we had a chance to actually stand up against it and not be a good Nazi— We actually used the word “Nazi soldier,” just following orders.
When the sailors on board the ship would ask us, “Why are you doing this?” And we told them, “We have no intention of being a Nazi soldier that just follows orders, and you can get away with it because you followed orders.”
We believed— We honestly believed that the war crimes tribunals and the governments of the world had outlawed the use of napalm. Which is not necessarily the case, but there were attempts.
So we had some confused information, but nonetheless, we honestly believed that our lives were worth less than the lives of all the people that would be affected, as well as the environmental destruction that would be effected. But being sailors and transporting these weapons, it just made it all more real for us. You can’t have a war without us. And if we could convince other sailors to do a similar thing, if we lived, and if we didn’t live, then nobody would know unless we tried to tell our story.
So we tried to inform as many people on the ship what our intentions were. And I remember, just before we did the event, Clyde and I took a few minutes. He went into the restroom, washed his face and hands, and I did the same. And I remember going in and leaving a piss, and then washing my face and hands, and looking in the mirror and thinking, “You will never, ever be able to look any child in the face, your child or any child, when they ask you, ‘What did you do to stop war?” Or, “Why didn’t you do something to stop it?'”, if I didn’t proceed.
And I know that Clyde felt the same way. We felt that this was an imperative thing that we had to do, even if it meant we lost our lives. We also had no desire to hurt anyone else; our goal was to get them off the vessel. All of them. I could’ve thrown those life rafts over the side.
No, we saved them for last. Our goal was to save as many lives as possible, and if it meant losing ours in the process, so be it. That’s what would happen.
Matthew Breems: Well, let’s go back to the story. You’re being pursued by other vessels, there’s planes, you’re heading towards Cambodia. Let’s pick up from there.
Al Glatkowski: Well, we got word through the radio operator that our demands had been met, that Cambodia was giving us political asylum. And we were not aware of all of the political turmoil that was going on in Cambodia. We sailed the ship into the largest port area that they had, which was basically a fishing village with some small naval vessels in it.
So we came in, and anchored the ship within sight of the shore. Noticed the water was extremely shallow, we had to dump a lot of ballasts in order to bring the ship in to that point, because we didn’t want to run aground. The officers that stayed with us on the ship, under their captain’s orders, they cooperated as much as possible to bring the ship in, and then once the ship was in, we killed the engines. And that was— They did not want to kill the engines; they wanted to leave it on “dead stop.”
But we told them that we wanted the engines killed. When we arrived, we killed the engines, and once everything was cooling down, the Cambodians were afraid to come up to us because of the bombs. And eventually, they got close enough. We told them who we were, we told them that we were there to surrender to Sihanouk’s forces—armed forces, and we were thanking them for coming to get us, or helping us in any way whatsoever.
They left. They came back the next day. We surrendered our pistols to them, and they actually gave them back, and the seamen on the ship were panicked over that, because we were given the guns back by the Cambodians. And we surrendered them again to an officer later, and we were flown from there to Phnom Penh. We were then taken from there into the capital. From the capital we were taken to a military base, and we were put up in a room at the military base.
And then that night the coup started.
Matthew Breems: So you’re in Cambodia for two days, and there is a coup.
Al Glatkowski: Yes.
Matthew Breems: And this is a total change of government.
Al Glatkowski: Total change of government. The people that were Sihanouk’s relatives were immediately arrested and taken to a prison vessel. Retribution came heavily against people that were pro-Sihanouk or communist, or socialist.
Matthew Breems: So you’re being held at a military base while this coup is happening?
Al Glatkowski: Yes.
Matthew Breems: What about the rest of the crew from the Columbia Eagle? Where are they at this point?
Al Glatkowski: I believe that they were forced to stay on the ship temporarily, and I don’t know what much happened after that. The only person that flew in with us was the captain. And he flew in, and he was as nice as apple pie, and as soon as we got into Phnom Penh, he immediately demanded the death penalty, and we be tried for treason.
So one way or the other, we figured that we would die. We figured we’d either die on the ship, or die in prison, or die being executed for treason.
Matthew Breems: And that same captain had stated to reporters at this time that your actions, “It was a war protest entirely.” So he obviously got the intentions of what you were doing. Did his response, then, surprise you, that he would make that request for the death penalty?
Al Glatkowski: Well, I’m not even sure if he did do that. That was what was reported to us by different people. The captain knew that it was a war protest. He understood that. He got that.
On the plane, he actually shook our hands and commended us in not hurting anyone.
Matthew Breems: So now you’re basically under house arrest. You’re not entirely free to move off this military base.
Al Glatkowski: We were confined, yes.
Matthew Breems: Yeah. These days, they turn into weeks, and months. What’s happening during this time for you guys in Cambodia?
Al Glatkowski: Several things occurred. Depending on who had control of the military base that day, our luxury or not-luxury would be dependent upon who had control of the base, which officer had control of the base that day.
There was one time when Clyde and I thought we were going to be executed. And then we were brought over by the officer in charge, and put back in our room. And I suspect that that might have been something, because when that happened, we no longer mixed with the prisoners.
Matthew Breems: The political prisoners from Cambodia.
Al Glatkowski: Exactly.
Matthew Breems: So this is actions from the new government that’s trying to intimidate you.
Al Glatkowski: Absolutely. We were eventually taken to a prison ship. There was an American on it, his name was Larry Humphries. Never really found out who he was, or anything of that nature, other than his story that he would tell us.
He said he was an anti-war resister, and he had went AWOL and came into Cambodia for asylum, because he didn’t want to be involved in the war anymore, from Thailand.
So I don’t know if that— We don’t really know; we just know that that was the story we were given. They moved us to another base, and across the way from this base was the river, and then on the river was this prison vessel, and we would see this white guy up there periodically. So after about a week of seeing him and yelling at him, and asking him who he was, we were eventually moved there, along with the major big political prisoners from the Cambodian government.
It was a rotting ship, leftover from World War II. So we stayed there for a couple of months. My mind started to slip a bit, and then just a little bit faster. Until finally, I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore, and I left the ship. I jumped over the side. Couldn’t make it to the other side of the river, which was held by the Vietcong and Khmer Rouge.
So anyway, during that time period, I started to have what would affectionately be called a nervous breakdown. And when I tried this escape, when I was captured, I was put into a cage, a small cage. It was like, I couldn’t stand up. If I was hunched over, I could sit down cross-legged in it. I could lay down in it. But it was like a dog cage, almost. They only gave me water when they wanted to give me water. They fed me only when they wanted to feed me. And my senses started dropping more and more rapidly, and started to slip really fast.
After that, I recovered. I remember being able to obtain, somehow, some Thorazine. And if I could just get some Thorazine and self-medicate myself with the Thorazine, then I could bring myself out of it. And I did. After that, I was returned back to the ship. Clyde and Humphries were then taken over to the government palace, and we were placed into one room, and that was where we had to stay.
We were allowed out with permission, to walk on the grounds a few feet. We could go about maybe 25, 50 feet, turn around and go back. But that was it. We were in a courtyard.
Matthew Breems: Were you given any reason why you went from a prison ship and even horrible solitary confinement, to now being transferred to a government building?
Al Glatkowski: Not really, other than that maybe they were putting us into a better position so that the U.S. government could come in and talk to us.
Matthew Breems: Okay.
Al Glatkowski: So they did. They came and wanted to know what we were going to do, did we want to return, stuff of that nature.
Matthew Breems: So U.S. government authorities were visiting with you and trying to gauge what your intentions were.
Al Glatkowski: Exactly. As well as press people that wanted to talk to us. I honestly believe that what Cambodia wanted to do was to show the world that they were indeed honoring their neutrality by having us not under arrest.
Matthew Breems: Okay.
Al Glatkowski: And that’s what I think happened. An interesting thing that occurred is that it gave us an opportunity to actually get out from time to time, to go get a meal someplace. So during that time, McKay and I discussed the possibility of escape. And he was concerned that my condition would hinder a possibility of escape. And I agreed with him that it would, and encouraged him to do it on his own, and that I would help him whatever manner it took to make it happen.
He escaped, and was later captured by the Khmer Rouge, and eventually executed by them.
Matthew Breems: Did you and McKay discuss before his escape what his plans were to do, once he escaped? Was there a specific destination that he had in mind?
Al Glatkowski: Oh yes, we had discussed the different options. And McKay, a very determined individual, and a very brave individual. We went out to another restaurant, and he wanted to borrow my camera. I gave him my camera—it was no “borrow.” He had the ability to look like a press person; he had two cameras over his neck.
But the interesting thing, we’d go into one restaurant, and if we wanted to go to the bathroom, the guards would go in with you. But on this particular instance, we went to the place, and we would go somewhere else to get something else to eat, and we’d see something on the street that we liked, and then we’d go into there.
So the idea was to keep checking out these bathrooms. One of them, you’re gonna be able to get out of, and get away. And that’s what McKay was able to do. And yes, I contributed to that escape.
Matthew Breems: So McKay escapes. You’re still essentially under house arrest. What happened to you next?
Al Glatkowski: They secured me, gave me tighter security of my house arrest, and additional guards. A reporter had come and we had talked. He said, “Is there any chance that you’re going to want to go back to the U.S.?”
And I said, “I would surrender to the U.S. at this point.” He goes, “You know you’re facing a lot of time—you know they’ve demanded a heavy sentencing on you.”
“Yes, I understand that. So what do I do? Is there any way that you might help facilitate this?”
He and I worked together to have a taxi come up, and he came to the gate to talk to me, and they opened the gates enough for me to be able to step right at the gate and talk to him. And as he turned around, he ran to the taxi, and then I ran as well. We jumped in the taxi, closed the door and away we went.
Meanwhile, the guards are befuddled and trying to chase after us, but they had to get permission to get a vehicle to do so. And that was it: I surrendered myself to the U.S. embassy at that point.
Matthew Breems: Just so I’m understanding correctly: the Cambodians that were holding you under house arrest weren’t going to just let you surrender to the U.S. on your own? You had to actually sort of escape in order to do that?
Al Glatkowski: It wasn’t “sort of.” It was real important for them, for Lon Nol and the others to show the world that they were neutral.
Matthew Breems: So what contributed to your decision to surrender to the U.S.? You knew what you were facing back here. Why did you decide to do that, as opposed to stay in Cambodia and see what would happen long term?
Al Glatkowski: In part, Matt, I was afraid of digressing in my mental health again, and not being functional. Additionally, I knew that I was going to be facing a trial, and I figured, “Die here or die there.”
So when I did escape to go to the U.S. embassy, I walked in and surrendered myself.
Matthew Breems: So you surrendered to the U.S. Authorities, you get sent back to the U.S., to face our criminal charges. Walk us through the next phase of the story.
Al Glatkowski: Oh boy. This is getting heavy. You have to understand, there was a phase in Cambodia where Sihanouk had come out and said that we were CIA plants and that our ship was empty, that all the materials had been taken off, and it was supplies for the coup. Which was not the case at all.
So that became a common conspiracy thing that circulated on the Left. When I came back to the States, we had been painted very thoroughly with a brush. The conservatives painted us as being communists and anarchists, and hippies, and drug crazed, and every other damn thing you can imagine—anything to make us look like we were insane.
And the Left went along with this theory that we were CIA. So our support came from— interestingly, from two groups. And when I say, “our support,” I mean, “my support.” The support I got. And if McKay had been there, it would’ve been the same: the two of us would’ve had that support from these two groups.
One was Vietnam Veterans Against War, Winter Soldier organization. The other group were clergy, religious groups, that thought that even if we weren’t religious, that we had made a religious statement, a moralistic statement.
The veteran group, the Vietnam Veterans Against War, and clergy that supported us, but the Left did not support us at all! I had a couple of good lawyers, and the two of them represented me. And the hardest thing to do was to make a plea agreement. They felt that I wasn’t stable enough, still, at that time still not stable enough. The hard thing to deal with was whether or not to go for a trial and make it a showcase trial.
And the lawyers were very clear with me that if I did that, the odds were as I was going to get probably close to a life imprisonment, multiple charges. I had 23 or 24 charges, or 26 charges, everything from armed mutiny to armed kidnapping, to assault with dangerous weapons, dereliction of duty, just all this crap. They just laid it all in, because they want to throw it all against the wall and maybe one of them will stick.
Matthew Breems: Did you feel that they were trying to set an example with your trial, like, “Hey, don’t anybody else get any bright ideas”?
Al Glatkowski: I had actually done what they charged me with, and readily would say so. If people say, “Do you have a regret?” I would say, the only regret I have is that the ship didn’t sink, that the weapons got back into circulation. That’s my only regret.
The challenges that we had, I was facing multiple up-to-life sentences, on armed kidnapping charges, for every person that was on the ship. My lawyers were happy that I had a judge that was considered a liberal. They felt that if we didn’t change the trial, or whatever— because he might not have been our trial judge. They felt that if I was up to wanting to plead guilty, that the likelihood is, I would get a much more lenient sentence from this judge than any other judge.
So after long, lengthy discussions, I made the decision to agree with my lawyers and walk in and plead guilty to the charges. I was guilty! What am I gonna do, tell people I wasn’t guilty?
No, I was guilty. The reality was, we had done this. I had participated, I was guilty, and I was willing to take whatever sentence was given to me. And I thought at the time, that I would get multiple life sentences.
The judge ended up sentencing me to six months to 10 years, which was the maximum. I pled guilty to two charges. He ran them concurrently: they could release me in six months, or hold me for the duration of the longest sentence, which was eight years. It was a 10-year sentence, but there’s a mandatory release two years before the expiration.
I maxed out the sentence.
Matthew Breems: Everything considered, your sentencing was pretty light compared to what you could have faced.
Al Glatkowski: It was not “pretty light”—it was a slap on the wrist.
Matthew Breems: And your lawyers attributed that to the judge that happened to oversee your case.
Al Glatkowski: Correct. And I believe he was Hispanic. And they felt that we had a sympathetic ear.
My mother came out to visit me in prison, a working-class mother, she was a nurse, a rural public health nurse. Her job was to drive around to the rural South and visit shut-ins that could not get to the doctor’s office.
She came out to see me and visit, and was turned away—wouldn’t let her visit. And actually told her, “What kind of a mother are you, that you haven’t been here until now to see your son?”
That hurt her. That hurt her a lot. I didn’t know about it until I got out of prison— never got to see me. When I came out of prison, she begged me to make only one promise to her, just one. She begged me to not do anything again that would put me in prison as long as she was alive.
She died on June 6 last year . I lived that promise, and as soon as she died, I started becoming vocal once again. It’s time to open up that door and step out, and once again be a voice for freedom. A voice for democracy. A voice to recognize that the world can be a brighter place, and will be. And I’m excited to be able to even participate in this conversation with you tonight.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure Effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the U.S. War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson.
Visit VietnamFullDisclosure.org and CouragetoResist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.