On Nov. 23, 1970 a Soviet trawler, Sovietskaya Litva, was moored alongside the Coast Guard cutter Vigilant off Martha’s Vineyard for a fishing conference. At 6 p.m. a 40-year-old Lithuanian radio operator named Simas Kudirka leaped to the railing of the Vigilant and ran to the bridge. “Good evenings, comrades,” he greeted the startled Americans. “I wish go with you.”
At first the U.S. crew hid Kudirka in a bathroom but ultimately, to avoid an international incident, Cdr. Ralph Eustis, under orders from the Coast Guard, handed him back to the Soviets. They beat and chloroformed him right on the deck of the American ship, tied him in a blanket with a glove stuffed in his mouth and took him back aboard the Sovietskaya Litva. “My God,” Kudirka remembers thinking, “it is kaput.”
As a result of the public outcry in the U.S. and subsequent investigation, Eustis was relieved of his command and his two superior officers were forced to retire. The incident brought about new guidelines regarding those who seek asylum in the U.S. It was too late for Kudirka. Back in Lithuania, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor. But his cause was taken up by the U.S.-Lithuanian community, which raised money and lobbied on his behalf. Investigation revealed that Kudirka was in fact a U.S. citizen under the laws in effect at his birth in 1930. His mother had been born in Brooklyn and had returned to Lithuania when she was a child. The State Department interceded, and in November 1974 Kudirka, his mother, wife and two children were permitted to emigrate to the U.S.
When the jet landed at JFK, Kudirka could not believe his sudden change of fortune. “It was as shocking as when I was returned to the Russian trawler,” he recalls through an interpreter. English still comes hard to him—although everything else is looking bright.
In Lithuania the Kudirkas once lived in a barracks with 12 families and no plumbing. “You couldn’t protest because it was very dangerous. You waited, you suffered.” Today Kudirka, his wife, Gene, 38, and their son, Evaldes, 11, have a five-room apartment on a tree-lined street in the Bronx. (Unable to learn English quickly, their 17-year-old daughter, Lolita, has been sent to a Lithuanian-language school in Germany.) As superintendent of the 63-unit building that he co-owns with another Lithuanian, Kudirka paints and makes repairs. His wife cleans apartments and babysits.
Their finances were considerably improved by the $16,000 paid for the movie rights to his story. The made-for-TV film will be aired next January. Kudirka’s bank account may be fattened more if a book about his life, For Those Still at Sea, to be published by Dial next April, does well.
“Now we have American problems—like the blackout,” Kudirka says with a smile. “American problems are nothing.”