No event in recent memory has more angered both the President and the American public than the forcible return of a defecting Lithuanian sailor to his Soviet ship last month. Simas (short for Simonas) Kudirka sought asylum aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant during a rendezvousto discuss North Atlantic fishing rightsbetween the two vessels in U.S. territorial waters off Cape Cod. The incident resulted in the suspension of Rear Admiral William B. Ellis, commander of the Coast Guard's First District in Boston, his chief of staff, Captain Fletcher Brown, and Vigilant's skipper, Commander Ralph Eustis. TIME Correspondent William Mader has continued probing what happened aboard Vigilant and has assembled this account:
The evidence thus far clearly shows that Commander Eustis realized that the Lithuanian was a genuine defector, was loath to return him, and did so under direct order from Admiral Ellis. While in radio contact with Captain Brown, Eustis said: "I have talked a great deal with the individual . . . I believe he is sincere in his intention to defect to this country. The defector is definitely in fear of his life. At this time, indications are that regardless of what we do, he will go over the side [if we hand him back] as soon as we depart this area."
Ellis' reply: "If the man jumps into the water, give the Russian ship the first opportunity to pick him up. Don't let him drown. Go get him if they are not going to retrieve him."
Commander Eustis deliberately misunderstood the order. He radioed back: "I believe if the Russians take Kudirka back aboard, his life is in jeopardy." He also informed Brown that, should Kudirka jump overboard, Vigilant would stand by to pick him up instantly.
"I think you misinterpreted your last order," Brown shot back, "you are to take all precautions to prevent the incident from occurring." Brown was suggesting, on order from Admiral Ellis, that Eustis was to ensure that Kudirka would not jump overboard by returning him to the Soviets. Eustis was also informed that this hard line was "in the interest of not fouling up any of our arrangements as far as the fishing situation is concerned."
Like a Log. Thus it was that Commander Eustis reluctantly permitted six Soviet seaman to board Vigilant. When the Russians arrived, Kudirka was about to jump overboard. Within 10 or 15 seconds, however, according to one of Vigilant's crew, D.R. Santos, "the Russians grabbed him, about four of them, and beat this man viciously. One of them grabbed a ship's phone cord and was going to wrap it around the defector's neck when the phone talker pulled the cord away. While this happened, another Russian was beating the defector's head against the rail of the ladder."
Soon after, Ensign John Hughes found "one member of the Russian party trying to tie the defector to our port winch. The man had one end of the rope tied around the defector's neck and was trying to throw the other end to the Russian ship. I ordered him to stop . . . and he stopped." Hughes then went off the deck for "approximately one minute. When I returned, I found the Russians again beating the defector."