Operation Keelhaul

THE STORY OF FORCED REPATRIATION, by Julius Epstein

The Case of Simas Kudirka

On November 29, 1970-six days after the event occurred-The New York Times carried a report by Robert McFadden from which I quote the following parts:

At 2 P.M. last Monday (November 23, 1970), as the mother skip of a Soviet fishing fleet and a United States Coast Guard cutter rocked in the swells a mile off Martha's Vineyard, a Lithuanian seaman made a dramatic leap for political asylum.

The seaman, a radio operator known here only as Simas, hurled himself across a 10-foot gap from the Sovetskaja Litva and onto the deck of the cutter Vigilant.

About 10 hours later after a flurry of ship-to-shore radio consultations, the seaman was forcibly returned to the fishing ship by Soviet crewmen who had boarded the American vessel with the permission of the Coast Guard. The man, according to eyewitness accounts, was severely beaten by the Russians while the American seamen looked on.

'Simas pleaded with [the Americans] to let him stay,' a civilian who was aboard the cutter and witnessed the beating said yesterday. He added:

He was crying 'help' and was on his knees praying and begging him to save his file. But the captain said he was just following orders.'

The incident has led to a series of demonstrations here and in other cities, produced conflicting statements by the Coast Guard and the State Department, and raised questions over a possible United States violation of the Geneva Convention protocol on political asylum.

This latest event in the unending history of Operation Keelhaul a (for definition, see Introduction, p. i.) infuriated President Nixon who called the Coast Guard's refusal to grant asylum to Simas Kudirka "outrageous." An investigation by the Coast Guard was immediately ordered. In addition, Congress decided to investigate the incident.

Congressional hearings began on December 3, 1970, and continued on the 7th, 8th, 9th, 17th, 18th, and 29th of December, 1970. They were held by the Subcommittee on State Department Organization and Foreign Operations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, under the chairmanship of Wayne L. Hays, of Ohio.

Among the witness who gave testimony was Robert M. Brieze, President of the New Bedford Seafood Producers Association.

Brieze, himself a refugee from the Soviet Union, said in his statement before the subcommittee:

"At approximately 6 P.M., a United States sailor informed me that there was a defector aboard who had asked for political asylum. I then went to see Captain Eustis. The captain told me that the defector was a Lithuanian and that he was asking for political asylum.

"I explained to the captain that the United States State Department does not recognize the occupation of Lithuania by the Soviets, and that the State Department has a special desk which handles Baltic affairs. I further told Captain Eustis that should the Lithuanian defector be returned to the Soviet ship, he would either lose his life or be exiled to Siberia. I informed him that I had escaped the Soviets myself in 1944 and I know how they treated defectors.

"At approximately 6 P.M. Captain Eustis said that he had orders from above to give back the Lithuanian defector to the Russians. I then pleaded with Captain Eustis to save the defector's life and keep him aboard the Vigilant. Captain Eustis said he had no choice as he had received orders. At this time Captain Eustis was crying. He said that the orders had come from the Boston office.

"About 11:30 P.M. three additional Russians boarded the Vigilant for the purpose of removing Simas Kudirka. The six Russians were allowed to go to the room where Simas Kudirka was placed. A fight ensued and cries were heard by all of us from the room where the Russians had entered to get Simas Kudirka. The door was temporarily opened, and I heard cries of 'help, help,' and saw Simas Kudirka being beaten by the Assistant Soviet Commander. His face was bloody and his shirt torn off.

"Somehow, Simas Kudirka managed to escape the room, ran on deck, and still shouting 'help, help,' disappeared from sight on the upper deck. Somebody shouted, 'he jumped, he jumped,' and at that time the Vigilant started its engines and snapped its lines from the Sovetskaya Litva.

"The Russian sailors continued searching the U.S. ship. They found Simas

Kudirka hiding, overpowered him, tied him with ropes and blankets, and beat him violently.

"At midnight, somebody ordered a United States lifeboat lowered and several U.S. seamen accompanied the six Russians and Simas Kudirka to the Soviet ship.

"When the U.S. sailors returned, they said that Simas Kudirka had been beaten savagely and that he was either unconscious or dead when he was taken aboard the Russian ship. They said he had been kicked repeatedly.

"After the Soviet ship raised its anchor, we followed it out of United States territorial waters. On the way back to port, Captain Eustis asked all of us to keep the matter quiet."

Representative Hays, the Subcommittee chairman, thanked Brieze and remarked:

"Mr. Brieze, that is about as sickening a story as I have ever heard in all my years as an American citizen. It is contrary to American tradition. It is contrary to everything that this country stands for.

"I have not been able to find out yet, at least to hear from him who ordered this, but whoever it is, he should be in my opinion court-martialed, dismissed from the service and preferably sent to Siberia where he assigned this poor man Kudirka."

He soon found out. On December 9, 1970, Admiral C. R. Bender, Commander, U.S. Coast Guard, appeared before the Hays Subcommittee. From his testimony evolves the fact that the three key figures in the forced repatriation of Simas Kudirka who, according to the official opinion of the State Department, was not a Soviet citizen, were: Admiral William B. Ellis, Commander of the First Coast Guard District, Boston; Captain Fletcher W. Brown, Chief of Staff of the First Coast Guard District; and the commanding officer of the Coast Guard cutter Vigilant, Commander Ralph W. Eustis.7

These are the people who bear the most direct responsibility for Kudirka's forcible repatriation. There is no doubt, at least in my own mind, that these thee men should have been court-martialed and dishonorably dismissed from the service. Instead, they were allowed to retire with full pay.

Interestingly, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, High Commissioner for Refugees of the United Nations, sent a telegram to Secretary of State William P. Rogers expressing his great dismay. He also discussed the incident with Charles W. Yost, at that time the United States Ambassador to the U.N. As The New York Times noted on December 1, 1970:

The prince is known to view the incident as a violation by the United States of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees. The convention prohibits states returning a refugee to territory where his life or freedom is threatened.

Characteristic of the Coast Guard's bungling is the fact that Admiral Ellis, who ordered the Vigilant's captain to return Kudirka, was not even on duty that day. He was at home convalescing from surgery. During Admiral Ellis' absence, his chief of staff, Captain Fletcher W. Brown, was the acting district commander. In no case was Admiral Ellis entitled to give any orders.

Reading the Subcommittee's Report on the hearings, the horrifying facts become crystal clear:

While Headquarters was seeking guidance to pass back to Captain Brown, he called Admiral Ellis who was not in command. What started as a briefing of Admiral Ellis by Captain Brown turned into a series of strong suggestions to Captain Brown by Admiral Ellis:

If the man did jump in the water. . . we should give the Russians the opportunity to pick him up. We should not let the man drown. We should save him if this became the situation. . . . If we get the defector, we should give him back.8

The drama reached its climax when Commander Eustis of the Vigilant tried to reach District Headquarters in Boston after Kudirka, at exactly 4:2O P.M., had jumped from the Soviet vessel to the American Coast Guard cutter. Unable to contact Captain Brown, Commander Eustis called Admiral Ellis (who was on sick leave) at 5:15 P.M. The Committee Report relates the pertinent parts of the telephone conversation:

Rear Admiral Ellis: Does the [Soviet] ship know that he has come aboard your ship? If not, I think they should know that, over.

Commander Eustis: Roger, understand they suspect that man has defected from the ship and is aboard Vigilant. However, they expressed no concrete desire to recover man from ship, over.

Rear Admiral Ellis: In view of the nature of present arrangements with them and in the interest of not fouling up any of our arrangements as far as the fishing situation is concerned, I think they should know this and if they choose to do nothing keep him on board, otherwise put him back, over.9

This statement reveals the boundless naiveté of Rear Admiral Ellis. How could he ever be so ignorant as to assume there was the slightest possibility that the Soviets would choose "to do nothing" about the defector Simas Kudirka?

Again I quote:

Commander Eustis: Boston this is Vigilant. Roger on that. Will search out further with them whether or not they know the man is aboard and desire to return him to Soviet mother ship. If they have no indication that he is aboard or no desire to recover him, will intend to get underway at this time with man on board. If they desire to recover him will have them return man to mother ship. If he desires to jump from mother ship to Vigilant as we depart will make attempt to pick him up as he leaves mother ship and recover man and stand by for further instructions, over.

Commander Eustis' ignorance matches that of Admiral Ellis. He really believed that Kudirka would still have the opportunity to jump from the Sovetskaya Litva after his forceful return to the Soviet mother ship. This conversation shows that neither Admiral Ellis nor Commander Eustis have ever been instructed in Soviet history and Soviet practices concerning defectors. After more than half a century of Soviet brutality and vengefulness, they had not the slightest idea how the Soviets would treat defectors from the "workers' paradise." If even high ranking officers of the Coast Guard never acquire such basic knowledge about the Soviet Union, it is easy to imagine how little, if anything, the lower ranks of our armed services know.

Rear Admiral Ellis even opposed the Vigilant's Commander Eustis' readiness to save Kudirka's life in the rather hypothetical case that Kudirka would be allowed by the Soviets to jump-half dead-from the mother ship into the water. According to the subcommittee's report, he told Commander Eustis: "Go ahead that way. If the man jumps into the water give the Russian ship first opportunity to pick him up."1

Admiral Ellis reiterated this advice by telling Commander Eustis:

"Make sure that you don't preempt them in taking that action."

Then Admiral Ellis added a completely new point which seemed to be borne out of a rather incredible bureaucratic desire: He told Commander Eustis that Kudirka should not be returned without a written request from the Soviets. In relaying this order to Commander Eustis, Captain Brown ordered Eustis to find out whether the Soviets really wanted the defector back. Here we have just another example of the astounding naiveté which is so characteristic of the Kudirka affair. One wonders what made Admiral Ellis and Captain Brown think that the Soviets might not desire to get Kudirka back. Was there ever any such precedent in Soviet history? Certainly not. Why didn't Admiral Ellis realize this? How can one become an American Rear Admiral without knowing the most basic facts about Soviet behavior and Soviet history, facts which every college student learns in the first semester of Russian history?

Admiral Ellis reached the summit of his ignorance after Captain Brown conveyed Commander Eustis' concern for Kudirka's life. Admiral Ellis replied: "I don't think we have any reason to believe this will happen. They are not barbarians." 13

At this point, the Subcommittee's report reads:

In his testimony before the subcommittee when lie was reminded of the mass executions under Stalin, he defended his characterization because he thought 'the situation has changed considerably.' lie seas not familiar with more recent Soviet actions. In fact, he exhibited appalling ignorance about basic American history as well as current international events.14

At 8:19 ~ Commander Eustis informed Captain Brown that he had just received a formal written request from the Soviet captain to return the defector. And he added: "My intentions are to return defector to custody of Soviet vessel ... Am getting underway at this time." 15

It was not, however, until 11:50 P.M. that Simas Kudirka was returned. And the Vigilant did not get underway until midnight.

The final act was played out on the Vigilant. The Subcommittee's report states:

The Soviet captain presented a written request for Kudirka's return in which he followed the common Soviet ploy of accusing Kudirka of criminal conduct, alleging that lie had stolen 3,000 rubles from his safe. 'the implication was that Kudirka was a common thief. Commander Eustis could not convince Kudirka that he should return nor could the Soviet captain. Several of tile U.S. civilians on the Vigilant, as well as some junior officers, suggested that Kudirka be brought to the United States. One of the civilians even attempted to call the State Department. The Soviet captain attempted to call his embassy. In his last conversation with Captain Brown at 10:50 PM., Commander Eustis described the tense situation on the Vigilant. Captain Brown interrupted: You have your orders. You have no discretion. Use whatever force is necessary. Do not let any incident occur.'

Given Kudirka's resistance, force was required and an incident was inevitable. 'The only option open to Commander Eustis was whether his crew or the Soviet crew should use force. He chose the latter course for three reasons: (i) lie felt that adverse publicity could result from the use of Coast Guard personnel to forcefully remove a defector to the Soviets; (a) if the man went overboard and was lost while Coast Guard men were attempting to return him, they might be accused of allowing him to get away; and (3) Commander Eustis was "concerned with the effect personal participation in the forceful return of the defector would have on the attitude of the crew

Five Soviet crew members boarded the Vigilant bringing with them a blanket, rope, and a ball of material that they intended to stuff in Kudirka's mouth. Kudirka prepared to fight and gave to Commander Eustis the few personal effects he had brought with him. Included in these were his identification card and a photo of his wife. Action moved to the Vigilant as Kudirka was thrown into a small boat. One of tile Soviet crew sat on his head while another beat him. From the boat he was thrown into a net lowered from the Soviet ship. His bid for freedom was over.

This is the record, the quintessence of the congressional investigation. It bears some comment.

The record notes the fact that "the only option open to Commander Eustis was whether his crew or the Soviet crew should use force ... He (hose the latter for three rather strange reasons: (i) he was afraid of adverse publicity if the American Coast Guard personnel would have forcefully returned Kudirka; (2) if Kudirka jumped and drowned they might he accused of being guilty of his death; amid (3) Commander Eustis was "concerned with the effect any personal participation in the forceful return would have on the crew."

Not one of these "reasons" holds water.

If Commander Eustis was afraid of adverse publicity, in case the American crew returned Kudirka by physical force, why was he not afraid of any adverse publicity if he and his crew allowed the Soviets to beat Kudirka unconscious, to bind and gag him and then return him in an American boat with American sailors on board? Did he expect any favorable publicity for this performance?

The record shows that a tremendous outcry went through the United States from the President on down when it became known-after the unsuccessful attempt by Commander Eustis to hush it up-that the Coast Guard allowed the Soviets to commit this crime, and by doing so became accomplices to it.

Commander Eustis' fear of being accused of having caused the death of Kudirka if he had jumped and died in the water may have been justified. But was he actually afraid of being accused if Kudirka had died while in the hands of his Soviet masters to whom he delivered him? Obviously, this never occurred to Mr. Eustis.

As for the third "reason," Eustis' concern with the effect on his crew in case the Coast Guard subdued Kudirka and then handed him over to the Russians, the same holds true. Allowing the Soviets instead to capture Kudirka on the Vigilant, to beat and gag him before he was thrown from the boat in the net, must have had exactly the same effect on the American crew. It certainly left a horrifying impress which will plague the Vigilant's crew for the rest of their lives. They are most certainly aware that they functioned as accessories in a crime for which nobody was punished.

The idea that Eustis had no choice and that his only option was whether the Americans or the Soviets should capture Kudirka is wrong, and again shows the tragic lack of imagination and awareness of what we taught the world at the Nuremberg war crime trials. Commander Eustis certainly had another option: to protect Kudirka and to prevent the Soviets from kidnapping him in contradiction to the unlawful orders from Admiral Ellis and his chief of staff, Captain Brown. If he had disregarded the orders of Admiral Ellis-who was not even on duty and in no position to give any orders-and if he had saved Kudirka, he would have been the hero of the day and would rightfully have earned the gratitude of the nation. The President might well have decorated him. But Eustis did not remember the Nuremberg lesson and did not know the principle laid down in the American military code of justice, according to which every officer and every enlisted man has not only the right, but the duty to disobey orders from superiors if these orders are of a criminal character. To disregard these orders was Commander Eustis' duty. To allow the Soviets to commit the crime on an American ship was tantamount to committing it himself.

Although President Nixon's clearly expressed outrage and his promise that "it should not happen again" 19 was gratifying and supported by the American people, it was not enough. In view of the demonstrations from New York to San Francisco, such a promise was to be expected. But the people expected more than just outrage and protest They expected deeds. Since Kudirka was not, in view of American law, a Soviet citizen, the President should have demanded his immediate return; and he should further have told the Soviets that if they did not return Kudirka, the fishing agreement would be abrogated. President Nixon should also have ordered the FBI to arrest some of the Soviet spies disguised as international civil servants at the U.N. Secretariat, and well known to the Bureau, for possible exchange for Kudirka. This was the least President Nixon could have done to save Simas Kudirka, uphold American honor, and to restore justice. Furthermore, the President should have ordered the Coast Guard authorities to court-martial Admiral Ellis, Captain Brown, and the Vigilant's Commander Eustis.

When the Voice of America broadcast the Kudirka story, it stressed three points: (1) the United States had bungled; (2) U.S. policy for political defectors has not changed; (3) the real substance of the incident is what it reveals about freedom in the Soviet Union and the countries it occupies.2

The last statement blurs the issue. The real substance of the incident is by no means what it reveals about freedom in the Soviet Union and the countries it occupies, since these "revelations" are old hat today. More than half a century of Soviet history has "revealed" all on this subject.

What the Kudirka case reveals is nothing new about the Soviet Union but instead the fact that freedom, international and domestic law, and the sacred right of asylum, could still be violated and abandoned by the United States of America in the Year of Our Lord 1970.

On May 27, 1971, the Associated Press carried a report from Moscow which read as follows:

Moscow (AP)-Simas Kudirka, the Soviet sailor who was refused asylum by the U.S. Coast Guard last November, has hecIt sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp, a court official in Soviet Lithuania said today.

The Lithuanian Supreme Court convicted Kudirka of treason last week, the court spokesman said in a telephone conversation from Vilnus, the Lithuanian capital.

He refused to give any details of the trial. But a 10-year sentence for treason is comparatively light.2'

The crime committed against the Lithuanian seaman, a non-Soviet citizen, is just the latest example of Operation Keelhaul, the forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands, maybe even more than one million anti-Stalinists by the British, American and French military authorities, a forced repatriation which was-as we shall see-a gross violation of international law and of everything for which America stands, especially of the time-honored American tradition of ready asylum for political exiles.

Operation Keelhaul began in 1944, months before the Yalta agreement on the exchange of prisoners of war and displaced persons was signed.

To evaluate the magnitude of this classical crime against humanity-. according to the Nuremberg principles for which the Nazi war criminals were hanged-we have to delve into international law, which does not recognize forced repatriation of prisoners of war and civilian displaced persons. Moreover, we have to revive the historical record itself to show the reader how forced repatriation was carried out and to point out, so far as possible, who the perpetrators of this crime were. That is exactly the subject of this book.

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