Four days before the 1970 Lon Nol coup d’etat that overthrew then Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the Western news media focused briefly on two seemingly harmless young Americans who had hijacked a 7,500-ton US merchant ship full of napalm bombs off the coast of South Vietnam and brought it to Cambodia.
The two men, Clyde McKay, 25, and Alan Glatkowski, 20—described by some reporters as pill-popping hippies—sought asylum when they arrived at the port of Sihanoukville, where they let it be known that the hijacking was a protest against US war involvement in Vietnam that they hoped would be the first of several anti-war mutinees.
While the incident, which occurred 30 years ago this week, received front-page coverage from The New York Times and other newspapers in the US, Singapore and Australia, it has received little attention in histories of Cambodia and the war in Vietnam.
But two US authors—Richard Linnett and Roberto Loiederman—now are seeking to change that with a book about the incident, which they refer to as the “Columbia Eagle Mutiny.”
In a brief footnote to “Sideshow,” journalist William Shawcross describes the mutineers as “two American hippies.”
“Some left-wingers have assumed that the hijacking was part of a CIA plot to furnish arms to Lon Nol,” wrote Shawcross. “[But] they have discovered no evidence.”
King Sihanouk was also convinced the hijacking played a part in the March 18 coup and wrote about it in his book, “My War With the CIA.” He repeated his conviction in a brief 1984 interview with Linnett in New York.
“[But] our finding was that never happened. It was napalm and nothing was ever removed from the ship,” said Linnett.
Linnett and Loiederman are in Cambodia researching the final portions of their book. They plan to visit Kompong Cham, where McKay was last seen, and they will visit sites in Phnom Penh where McKay and Glatkowski were held for eight months under house arrest by the Lon Nol government.
McKay and Glatkowski met, according to the authors, in Long Beach in the US state of California in January 1970. The Columbia Eagle had docked there to pick up most of the 39-man civilian crew before sailing east toward a US military base in Sattahip, Thailand.
Along the way, according to Loiederman and Linnett, McKay talked the younger crew member into carrying out the hijacking.
“[McKay] was the seasoned guy, an adventurer. He had been in the French Foreign Legion and spent time in prison in Spain….He was the leader of the two,” said Linnett.
McKay had also taken part in anti-war protests in the US. But Glatkowski had “little to no” exposure to the peace movement, according to the authors.
Some of the crewman aboard the ship, however, disagreed with the notion that the mutineers were motivated by politics. “Both guys were always high on pot and pills. Hell, they wouldn’t know Marx from Lenin,” said one crewman in a 1970 news report published in the US news magazine Newsweek.
On March 14, as the ship made its way through the Gulf of Thailand, Glatkowski and McKay went to the bridge of the ship armed with pistols and forced the ship’s civilian captain, Donald Swann, to sound an abandon ship alarm.
Twenty-four frightened crew members clamored into lifeboats and cast off from the ship, mindful that the ship’s cargo would cause a huge explosion if there was indeed a fire.
“We kept hoping that we would be called back,” crewman Robert Stevenson told Newsweek. “In sea stories the ship either blows up or sinks. But neither of these things happened.”
After close to an hour of “lying to,” the ship headed off toward Cambodia. The 24 crew members were picked up at sea eight hours later by another US merchant ship.
“Some of the men joked that maybe we were being hijacked, but we thought it was just that—a joke,” said Stevenson.
On March 15, the two mutineers, Captain Swann and a skeleton crew of 14 arrived in Sihanoukville, and on March 16, the mutineers received asylum. One news report said the mutineers had requested to be repatriated to Russia, Poland or Cuba. Captain Swann, meanwhile, negotiated for the release of his civilian-operated ship, which had been hired by the US military. The Columbia Eagle was turned over to the US a few weeks after the mutiny, according to the authors.
On March 18, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown and McKay and Glatkowski were taken under house arrest by authorities loyal to the pro-US Lon Nol republican regime. They were later joined by Larry Humphrey, a US Army corporal who had deserted from the Sattahip base and fled to Cambodia, where he was arrested.
The three remained under house arrest until November. Glatkowski, according to the authors, went insane and attempted suicide in September. He was moved to a mental hospital and in December turned himself into the US charge d’affaires in Phnom Penh. He served seven years in a US prison and now owns a health food store and has three children, according to the authors.
McKay and Humphrey arranged an escape on Nov 3 and headed on motorcycles toward Kompong Cham near the front lines of the war between Republican forces and communist insurgents, the Khmer Rouge.
US intelligence documents, obtained by Linnett, indicate the pair may have eventually been executed by the Khmer Rouge. However, official details of what happened to them have never surfaced.
CIA reports also suggest that McKay and Humphrey may have crossed paths with US news photographers Dana Stone and Sean Flynn, who also disappeared in 1970 and were sighted near Kompong Cham, according to the authors.
Linnett, a journalist in New York, started working on a movie screenplay after meeting and interviewing Glatowski in the 1980s. He eventually joined efforts with Loiederman, a former merchant seaman who is a screenwriter in Los Angeles.
They began writing a book after several movie deals fell through. The book, tentatively titled “On the Hook,” is due to be published by the Naval Institute Press in the US in early 2001.