History: SS Columbia Eagle Incident

The SS Columbia Eagle incident refers to a mutiny that occurred aboard the U.S. flagged merchant vessel Columbia Eagle in March 1970 when two crew members seized the vessel with the threat of a bomb and handgun, and forced the master to sail to Cambodia. The ship was under contract with the Military Sea Transportation Service to carry napalm bombs to be used by the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and was originally bound for Sattahip, Thailand. During the mutiny, 24 of the crew were forced into two lifeboats and set adrift in the Gulf of Thailand while the remainder of the crew were forced to take the ship to a bay near Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The two mutineers requested political asylum from the Cambodian government which was initially granted but they were later arrested and jailed. Columbia Eagle was returned to U.S. control in April 1970. This is the only mutiny of a United States Ship in recent history.

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The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
16 Mar 1970, Mon  •  Page 1

Clyde William McKay, Jr.

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Clyde McKay was born on 20 May 1944 near Hemet, California. His father was in the military at the time and often had duty away from the family. While a teenager, he suffered a misdiagnosed bowel obstruction and was seriously ill for a year. Because of this, he lost a year in school and never finished high school and decided to join the merchant marine. McKay received his merchant marine documents on 23 October 1963 and joined the Seafarers International Union shortly thereafter.

Alvin Leonard Glatkowski

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Alvin Glatkowski was born on 11 September 1949 at Augusta, Georgia. His father was also in the military at the time of his birth but shortly after Glatkowski was born, his father abandoned the family. His mother married a Navy third-class machinist mate named Ralph Hagan when Glatkowski was three. Hagan was abusive to Glatkowski when he was home, but was often on duty or cruises and Glatkowski learned to be independent at an early age. As a teenager, Glatkowski assumed the role of head of the household when Hagan was at sea and this made Hagan very angry when he returned home. He often took out his frustrations on Glatkowski violently, which led him to leave home at eighteen. Glatkowski went to New York and enrolled in the Seafarers Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship operated by the Seafarers International Union. Lundeberg School taught the skills needed to get deck, engine and steward jobs on merchant marine ships. On 17 April 1967, Glatkowski received his merchant mariner papers stating he was eligible for entry-level jobs on U.S. flagged ships.

Mutiny

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On 14 March 1970, McKay and Glatkowski used guns they had smuggled aboard to seize control of their ship, SS Columbia Eagle, in the first armed mutiny aboard an American ship in 150 years. The ship had been sailing on a Department of Defense supply charter carrying Napalm to the U.S. Air Force bases in Thailand for use in the Vietnam War.

The mutineers claimed that there was a live bomb on board the ship, and forced the captain to order 24 of the crewmen to abandon ship in the lifeboats. The ship’s cargo, 3,500 500-pound bombs and 1,225 750-pound bombs, gave this threat credibility.

When the crewmen departed in lifeboats, a SOS was transmitted. A Lockheed P-3B from VP-1 operating from U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield, Thailand, were directed to launch a search and rescue (SAR) mission to find the SS Columbia Eagle and assist as needed. Upon arrival at the ship, they found a small crew and the presence of small arms, they immediately reported the hijacking and their assessment that the ship was heading for Cambodia. Communications and status reporting was maintained until they were relieved. Other P-3 Orion aircrews kept the Columbia Eagle under constant surveillance.

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The merchant ship Rappahanock picked up the lifeboats and crew members and broadcast the news of the mutiny. The United States Coast Guard cutter Mellon was the first US military vessel to pursue the Columbia Eagle. The amphibious transport dock USS Denver was diverted to relieve Mellon in its pursuit. The destroyer, USS Turner Joy, was detached from station at I Corps to pursue the Columbia Eagle at flank speed and to intervene. However, the Columbia Eagle reached Cambodian waters before any U.S. naval ships could intercept.

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With only 13 crewmen remaining aboard besides the mutineers, they sailed into Cambodian waters, where they assumed they would be welcomed as heroes. They anchored within the 12 miles territorial limit claimed by Cambodia on the afternoon of 15 March.

At 09:51 on 16 March, Denver anchored 15.6 miles from the coast in the Gulf of Siam, remaining outside Cambodian waters. Mellon joined shortly thereafter with Commander, Amphibious Squadron Seven, as the senior officer present. Two CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters landed on Denver from bases in South Vietnam to assist in visual surveillance. Meanwhile, the mutineers had turned the ship over to Cambodia’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government, declared themselves anti-war revolutionaries, and were granted asylum.

On 17 March, the helicopters were detached and Denver, with Commander, Amphibious Squadron Seven, departed for Singapore, passing on-scene command to MellonTurner Joy remained on station in a cruising pattern within shipping lanes and in sight of the harbor channel.

On 18 March at 06:36, Denver reversed her course; Prince Sihanouk had been deposed by a coup led by the pro-U.S. Sirik Matak and Lon Nol. If the Cambodians could be persuaded to release Columbia EagleDenver’s flight deck could help the rescued crew members rejoin their ship. The coup was unfortunate for mutineers, McKay and Glatkowski; as they had hoped to find asylum in a pro-Communist country; instead, they became prisoners of the new Cambodian government. At 23:59 on 18 March, Denver anchored in the Gulf of Siam 17 miles (27 km) from the coast of Cambodia.

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The Transcript
North Adams, Massachusetts
16 Mar 1970, Mon  •  Page 1

Sihanouk, now in exile, charged that the CIA had masterminded the mutiny to deliver weapons to Lon Nol. Both the mutineers and U.S. officials denied his charges, but the damage was done; no Communist forces would shelter the mutineers after they were labeled as CIA stooges. When it became clear that Columbia Eagle’s release was not imminent, Denver was detached to proceed to Da Nang.

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The Courier-Journal
Louisville, Kentucky
16 Mar 1970, Mon  •  Page 20

On 8 April, Columbia Eagle was permitted to leave Cambodian waters. She rendezvoused with USCGC Chase where a Navy explosive ordnance disposal team inspected the ship while Chase departed to An Thoi Naval Base to pick up the Columbia Eagle crew and return them to the ship. With the crew and ship reunited, Chase escorted her to U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay arriving 12 April.

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Status

McKay and Glatkowski were held by the post-coup Cambodian government for several months after their capture. A United Press newspaper interview from August 1970 describes them as living under guard in “a rusting World War II landing ship moored in the Mekong River,” regularly using marijuana supplied by their guards, and making statements supporting the Manson Family and violent overthrow of the United States government. Both claimed they were supporters of Students for a Democratic Society. Mr. McKay said to a reporter: “We are sympathetic with the Asian people and, while I’m not an authority on the war in Vietnam I respect the opinions of people who were authorities like Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre who said the war in Asia was genocide.” and “I intend to carry on my actions against the American Government.” In June both men were indicted in absentia by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles on charges of mutiny, kidnapping and assault.

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Glatkowski

After months of imprisonment Glatowski was released and, after seeking asylum at the Chinese and Russian embassies he turned himself in at a US Embassy in Phnom Penh and was extradited to the United States to face trial. He was charged with mutiny, kidnapping, assault and neglect of duty, convicted, and served his sentence. He has admitted to mistakes in the hijacking but remained unapologetic about their goal of interrupting the napalm shipment. United States federal judge Manuel Real heard the testimony of four psychiatrists; three of the psychiatrists reported that Glatkowski was currently sane and was sane at the time of the mutiny incident. On 2 March 1971 Glatkowski pleaded guilty in a Los Angeles District Court to mutiny and assault as pleaded deal. He was sentenced by Judge Manuel Real to 10 years in Federal prison and served seven of the ten years in a Lompoc, California federal prison.

McKay

McKay escaped from his captors along with U.S. Army deserter Larry Humphrey in October 1970 and sought out the Khmer Rouge. He was officially declared missing on 4 November 1970 and has never been located by the authorities. However, Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman, co-authors of The Eagle Mutiny, wrote an article, entitled “The Last Mutineer”, for the February 2005 issue of Penthouse in which they report that remains brought back from Cambodia were positively identified as Clyde McKay’s at the Central Identification Laboratory – Hawaii (CILHI), the U.S. Navy’s forensic lab in Hawaii. Subsequently, the remains were cremated and the ashes were buried in the family plot in Hemet, California, where McKay had spent his youth.

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