• U.S.

Refugees: No Sanctuary for Simonas

4 minute read

With mounting anger, Richard Nixon summoned an aide to confirm the accuracy of the item he was reading in the weekend news digest prepared for him. Then he lost his customary cool. “It was a sight to behold. His face turned red with anger; he banged his fist on the arm of his chair. I’ve seldom seen him so furious,” reported one man in the room. “Those idiots, those fools—brainless bureaucrats!” Nixon fumed. “This is outrageous, this is inhuman, this is going to wreck the image of the country.”

What had so enraged the President was an incident off Cape Cod in U.S. waters that had occurred on Nov. 23. In a series of monumental gaffes, the Coast Guard had first refused asylum to a defecting Soviet sailor, then permitted Russian seamen to board a U.S. cutter, beat the would-be defector into unconsciousness before the eyes of the crew, then return with him—in a Coast Guard launch—to a waiting Soviet vessel. Preoccupied with the Son Tay prisoner-of-war camp raid, the President did not see reports of the incident until a week later. By then, much of what took place had been pieced together.

Alert Goes Up. The stage for the defection attempt was a previously arranged rendezvous—to discuss fishing rights—off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard between the Coast Guard cutter Vigilant and the Soviet refrigerated fishing ship Sovietskaya Litva. The talks were just under way aboard the Sovietskaya Litva when a crew member approached one of the Americans and said that he wanted to defect.

Word was quickly passed to the Vigilant’s skipper, Commander Ralph Eustis, who in turn radioed the news to his superior, Rear Admiral William B. Ellis, in Boston. From there, the alert went up to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington and finally, at 2:30 p.m., to the Russian affairs desk of the State Department. The deskman instructed the Coast Guard not to entice the sailor, but under any circumstances to “keep me apprised” of what happens next.

Fought Desperately. According to eyewitnesses, the sailor—a Lithuanian named Simonas Kudirka—jumped ten feet to the deck of the Coast Guard cutter at 4:30 p.m. and pleaded for sanctuary. When informed of the situation, Admiral Ellis reportedly directed the ship’s commander to follow “normal” procedure for dealing with stowaway crew members from another vessel. Such procedure stipulates that the skipper of the ship from which the sailor jumps must give a written request for the return of his man.

Though he apparently argued the decision for several hours, Commander Eustis complied with Ellis’ order, and three Russian sailors were allowed to board the Vigilant to take Kudirka back. But he fought desperately, and pleaded with the Americans to let him stay. Recalls Robert Brieze, one of the U.S. fishing experts who was aboard the Coast Guard cutter: “He was crying ‘Help!’ and was on his knees praying and begging them to save his life. The Russians came aboard. Sometimes I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him crying. Then he ran to the upper deck. His face was all bloody.”

Kudirka fought so fiercely that three additional sailors from the Sovietskaya Litva were required to subdue him. They did not leave the Vigilant with their prisoner until close to midnight, nearly five hours after the Coast Guard had originally reported that Kudirka was back aboard the Russian ship.

No Guarantee. That the Coast Guard permitted Kudirka to be beaten aboard an American vessel, and turned him over to the Russians is, at best, incredible. What is more, the American actions could also be a violation of Article 33 of the Geneva Convention on Refugees. That covenant states: “No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.” In Russian hands, Kudirka now has no guarantee of either.

Amidst a growing public outcry, President Nixon moved to ensure that such an incident can never happen again. In a hastily written directive, he ordered that under no circumstances in the future should anyone be “arbitrarily or summarily returned” without a full study of his case. At the same time, the Coast Guard relieved Admiral Ellis, his chief aide, Captain Fletcher Brown, and Commander Eustis from their duties “pending completion and review of an investigation.”

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