‘Hippies’ Hijack a Ship full of Napalm Bombs and sail it to Cambodia.
Above Photo: Napalm in action during the Vietnam War.
Of all the unusual Vietnam War tales I read while researching my novel BACK, the hijack of a ship carrying 34,000 tons of napalm and aircraft bombs, headed for U-Tapao airport in Thailand, which was diverted to Cambodia by two young, armed American hijackers, is one of the oddest I came across.
On 14 March 1970 two American sailors and anti-Vietnam War protestors, Clyde McKay, aged 25, and Alvin Glatkowski, aged 20, pulled pistols on the captain and seized control of their ship, the SS Columbia Eagle, in the first armed mutiny aboard an American ship in over 150 years. The merchant vessel was chartered to the US government and was stuffed with bombs and napalm destined for Vietnam, by way of U-Tapao air base in Thailand.
The hijackers said they’d detonate a home-made bomb they’d rigged, and, given the amount of highly explosive ordnance the ship was already carrying (3,500 500-pound bombs and 1,225 750-pound aircraft bombs), the captain ordered the vessel be abandoned by 24 crewmen and only a skeleton crew remained on board.
The hijackers then ordered the captain to sail away from Thailand towards Cambodia, with two US Navy vessels in hot pursuit, but they couldn’t reach the ship before it entered Cambodian waters off the port of Sihanoukville.
Because of the behaviour of the hijackers, which bordered on hysterical, the captain said he believed they were on drugs and could not be reasoned with. One hijacker subsequently admitted they’d been smoking opium cigarettes and taking amphetamines for days before the hijack.
At this time the Cambodian government (of Norodom Sihanouk) was a pro-Communist and anti-American, so the hijackers presented the ship and the bombs to the Cambodian government, declared themselves anti-war revolutionaries, and requested political asylum in Cambodia.
All the US government could do at this stage was protest and watch glumly as events unfolded before them. They didn’t even have an extradition treaty with Cambodia, so it looked like the hijackers had got clean away with it.
Having turned over the ship and cargo to the the pro-Communist government, the hijackers expected to be feted like heroes, although it soon turned out that what they got was more Fate than fete, as they were flown to Phnom Penh and put into ‘protective custody’ as a bout of anti-government violence broke out in the capital.
The front of the Stars and Stripes newspaper for 18 March 1970 broadcast “Two Hippies Hijack Ship,” calling them “pill-popping and marijuana-blowing” hippies, which probably sounds better than “two committed anti-war protestors successfully stole our multi-million dollar cargo of war weapons from under our very noses, and we can’t get it back.”
A Timely Coup
Unfortunately for the hijackers, a few days after they were put into protective custody, the pro-communist Cambodian government they had hoped to impress was deposed in an unrelated CIA and US-backed military coup led by a pro-US general called Lon Nol, and so suddenly Cambodia was pro-American again and the ship was quickly returned to the US.
That just left the shocked hijackers to be dealt with.
Rumours of a CIA plot
The great thing about the CIA is you can usually accuse them of anything, and your case is already half made. Here, given the uncanny timing of the arrival of the hijacked ship in Sihanoukville, the fall of the pro-Communist Cambodian government days later, and its replacement by a pro-US one, many saw a CIA plot in engineering the arrival of the armament-laden ship, and believed it might have also been carrying weapons for the new, pro-US government.
Unfortunately for the hapless hijackers, they were now ironically tarnished with the suspicion of being CIA stooges. The Russians therefore refused to give them political asylum, and they were held on a prison ship moored in the Mekong River in Phnom Penh as an increasingly embarrassed Cambodian government tried to work out what to do with them.
One, Alvin Glatkowski, became mentally unstable and was removed to a hospital where he was put under psychiatric evaluation, before being repatriated back to the US where he was sentenced to serve ten years for mutiny and five years for assault.
McKay and another prisoner, a US soldier who’d deserted, were removed from the prison ship and allowed to stay in a government guest house in Phnom Penh, where they did a totally-expected runner, with, the US believed, the collusion of the Cambodian government, who were only too glad to see the back of them.
McKay and the deserter headed to the northwest of Cambodia to join the Khmer Rouge, after which they disappeared.
Be careful what you wish for
Knowing what we now know about the Khmer Rouge, it’s clear the recruits could never have survived for long in that organisation, under any circumstances.
CIA and Department of Defense documents from the time contain reports of a man matching the description of McKay being held in a lightly-guarded Khmer Rouge camp in Kampong Cham Province not long after he’d fled to join them.
Long after the Khmer Rouge had been toppled, it was revealed McKay had been brutally executed, Khmer Rouge style, very shortly after joining them.
In a statement, one Cambodian witness reported that McKay was one of two foreigners “who were led away by five or six guards…to a site behind a Pagoda and near a large mango tree,” where the foreigners were shot in the back and buried in a large grave nearby.
In 2003 some of the remains recovered at the site were positively identified as belonging to Clyde McKay. He’d lasted less than a year in the company of the Khmer Rouge, and his identification brought closure to what was the most bizarre hijacking incident of the Vietnam War.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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