by Marijona Venzlauskaite Boyle
THE MAN FROM RED OCTOBER
When Tom Clancy’s novel “The Hunt for Red October” became a best seller and was made into a successful motion picture starring Sean Connery, everyone believed it was only fiction. Everyone, except Jonas Pleškys, the man on whom the book was based, but who for fear of his own life had to remain silent for thirty years before he could tell his part of the story.
MYSTERY STILL SURROUNDS the life of Jonas Pleškys, the man from “Red October.” He was hunted by Soviet agents all over Europe and the United States. Just as the “Red October” successfully eluded Soviet and American sonar systems, Jonas eluded the long arm of the KGB for over thirty years, with the help of American intelligence services. In the end, he faced death alone. He died from a brain tumor in his apartment in Oakland, California on April 14, 1993.
Jonas Pleškys was born on March 10, 1935 in Tverai in Žemaitija, western Lithuania. He went to school in Žarenai and Telšiai. His parents were deported to Siberia in 1948 because of their ties to the miško broliai — partisans. Three adult brothers and sisters, who had been scattered by the war, escaped the “ethnic cleansing.” Jonas and his three sisters had been herded onto the train with their father and stepmother. Their father, Juozas Pleškys, pushed the children off the train at the last moment as it was leaving the station. He charged his twelve year old son, Jonas, with the care of his sisters. “Bekit, pasislepkit pas B “Hurry, run to B… in the village. Hide!” His sister Eugenija Pleškyte verifies how seriously he took his responsibilities and how he fulfilled his promise to his father. Thanks to kindly villagers and family, the young ones were hidden and thereby cheated fate. In the difficult postwar years, the children were split up as orphans often are. Whenever asked about their father officially, they were taught to reply, “Nežinom… we don’t know… he left us… we are orphans.” In that way, they hoped to escape the charge of “political unreliability”. Otherwise, they too might be sent east in the vežimai — cattle cars.
Jonas and his sister Eugenija were separated for a few years. Finally, their older married sister, Onute, took them in and raised them. The dramatic events of his early childhood prepared Jonas for his future defection from the Soviet Union. His sister recalls him as her protector. Whenever they passed the bodies of the partisans in the ditch on their way to school at Žarenai, he cautioned her to look straight ahead. Several years before that, when he was just ten years old, she remembers how stoically he stood vigil all night at the bedside of his dead mother. He kept relighting the beeswax candles to comfort the family.
When he was about fifteen years old, he was expelled from school at Telšiai for “anti-Soviet activities.” He and two of his friends were subject to immediate arrest. Several kindly old teachers, who had somehow managed to escape deportation themselves, felt sorry for the quiet, lonely “orphan.” They convinced the authorities to give Jonas and the others a chance. Not much of a choice. Join the Komsomol (Communist Youth) or be arrested. Jonas joined the Communist Youth League and apparently fell ill for two weeks from the strain of the situation. Still, this conformity permitted him to finish school at Telšiai.
Despite the fact that his entrance examination results for Kaunas Polytechnic Institute were outstanding, the credentials committee refused him admission. No doubt he was considered “politically unreliable” like his parents. When he returned to Telšiai, he was immediately drafted into military service. Being unusually gifted intellectually, he impressed his commanding officer in his study of nuclear materials and weaponry.
He also made a painstaking effort to gain the confidence of his superiors through diligence and industry. Jonas claimed he had a singular goal in mind all this time: “pabegti — to run away.”
When he finished his basic training, he continued his studies at the Leningrad Higher Naval Academy. As a result, he became a captain of one of the latest Soviet nuclear submarines. The year was 1961. He was assigned to the Baltic fleet with home ports at Klaipėda in Lithuania and Liepaja in Latvia. During reconnaissance and surveillance missions in the Baltic, he carefully planned his defection. As he told his sister many years later in 1988, he was always looking for an opportunity. As a captain of a nuclear sub, he could not have had a better life in the Soviet system. He was one of the elite. He could have enjoyed the privileges of his position. Yet he could not forget the injustices he had seen. He spoke to no one about his plans or his work, which was indeed top secret. Jonas’ closed personality and iron-willed character, — often attributed to people from Samogitia (Žemaitija) — contributed heavily to his success. There is also something about him and his story reminiscent of the old Lithuanian myth of the geležinis vilkas — the iron wolf. The iron wolf remains today as the symbol of the founding of Vilnius.
As a captain of a Soviet nuclear sub, Pleškys could have enjoyed all the privileges of his position. Yet he could not forget the injustices he had seen.
Two weeks before his final sail from Klaipėda, he made plans for his wedding, which was to take place upon his return. It now appears that these plans were a cover and a diversion. Jonas had an unusual grasp of electronics and cybernetics. He was able to rig the submarine’s electronic instruments, so that the Žvalgyba, Soviet Intelligence Forces which followed all naval movements, saw his ship following an orderly path, other than where it was. Actually, he was passing the port of Liepaja and heading for Sweden. When he was passing Liepaja, he feared that the lighthouse beacon might pick up his movements. Lady Luck proved to be on his side, because the lighthouse beacon failed at that particular time. On board were other dangers. A politrukas — a political officer or “commissar” always accompanied the nuclear subs.
When the coast of Sweden became visible, the commissar demanded an explanation. Jonas had activated the ship’s alert system. He insisted that there were major technical problems with the ship’s navigational system. He would have to go ashore to clarify their location. Both the commissar and Jonas knew perfectly well the harsh orders for nuclear ships in trouble. Either they would wend their way out of danger alone or the entire ship and its crew would be sacrificed to the sea. Because of the top secret nature of the advanced nuclear systems, the Soviet masters would allow no possibility of detection. By some miracle, Jonas found the strength and courage to take the offensive. He stood up to the commissar. He declared, “I take complete responsibility. Only my orders apply.”
Eventually, the KGB informed the family that Jonas had defected to Sweden on a civilian ship. The truth would be known only many years later.
The entire crew of 31 was standing by at this confrontation. Seemingly at random, the Captain chose a young Lithuanian sailor and handed him two pistols, his own and the commissar’s. He ordered a lifeboat to be lowered and the armed sailor to accompany him. His orders were that the sailor would shoot him if there were any problems. The astounded commissar let them go.
When they reached the sleepy coast of Sweden under the cover of darkness, Jonas began to run. Either he outwitted the young man who accompanied him or sought his compliance. That this young man returned to his ship and hom eland is known. What happened to him later is not clear. Jonas escaped and hid in the hills and in remote Swedish villages. Old Lithuanian resistance contacts from WWII helped him. Otherwise, he could not have escaped the massive spy network of Soviet agents that stretched all over Europe. He remained hidden in Sweden for a year until a U.S. Military Intelligence plane brought him to the United States.
Mean while, the Swedish authorities returned the captainless ship and its remaining crew to the Soviets. A veil of secrecy covered the entire incident. The family had no idea why he did not return. Such disappearances were not uncommon in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. There was one glimmer of hope. They thought they heard Jonas’ voice one time on Radio Free Europe. Soon, Jonas’ sister Eugenija received a kvietima, an “invitation” to visit the KGB rooms. Eugenija’s older sister Onute warned her that she would shortly be interviewed. At this time, Eugenija was studying at the drama conservatory. She was on the threshold of a successful career in films and the theater.
Ironically, Eugenija claims her true acting career began on this day. Having been forewarned, she took the offensive. Instead of answering the questions of the two KGB agents, (one in front and one behind her), she just kept shouting, “Kur padejote mano broli?” — “Where is my brother? Where have you put my brother?” In effect she knew very little. Still, whenever she recognized a KGB agent following her on the street, she would scream at him, “What have you done with my brother?” Eventually, the KGB informed the family that Jonas had defected to Sweden on a civilian ship. Eugenija would know the truth only many years later.
Five years after Jonas’ defection, Eugenija met some Lithuanian Americans who were visiting in Vilnius. She asked if by chance they were acquainted with a certain Jonas Pleškys. “Of course,” one of the guests replied. “We just saw him at a Lithuanian event in southern California. He was singing Lithuanian folk songs. He has a very good voice. We can’t understand how such a young Lithuanian has managed such a successful career in the United States.” Eugenija asked no more questions.
She didn’t ask them to take any message to him in California. She understood his situation. That he was still alive made that day one of the happiest days of her life.
Brother and sister would not meet for twenty seven years. Meanwhile, her own career in films and on the stage prospered. She and other Lithuanian artists made covert protests of their own. She thought about her brother constantly and hoped she could also protest the injustices of the system. She was proudest of her film Herkus Mantas, filmed by the Lithuanian Film Studios in Vilnius in 1974. This historical spectacle portrayed the old Prussian nation fighting a Teutonic invader and occupier. After some problems with the Soviet censors, the director convinced them that the film dealt with past history and not current politics. Those who worked on the film, as well as the Lithuanian audience, knew exactly what the film was about. The film won prizes at several international film festivals. Since Soviet artists were not permitted to travel, they had no idea their film had won acclaim and prize money abroad. Moscow claimed the glory for itself. They did honor “Pleškyte”, as she was known professionally, with a best acting prize in Moscow. By this time, she was much beloved in her own country as well as in other corners of the Soviet Union. When asked how she was able to do such an outstanding acting job in “Herkus Mantas”, she replied, “When the film portrayed our hateful enemies, the Teutonic Knights, in my mind I substituted them with Russians”. “Nevaidinau she laughed, “I wasn’t acting.”
Perestroika opened the doors to artistic exchange with the United States so that Eugenija’s repertory company toured in 1988. On the 34th floor of a hotel in downtown Houston, Eugenija and Jonas were finally reunited. It was in that unlikely setting that Jonas told her the truth of his defection and explained the circumstances of his life under the protection of the CIA. In order to talk privately, he turned up the TV full blast and took her outside on the balcony. He was used to being spied upon. Even at this late date, he was taking no chances. He knew he had been condemned to death in absentia by a Soviet Military Tribunal. The sentence was never revoked. Eugenija also knew that a KGB Major was traveling with her acting troupe. She was never sure who else might be an informer.
Eugenija learn ed that Jonas has had a series of careers, moved around a lot to elude his pursuers. Even today, his exact chronology is not clear. Much remains shrouded in mystery. What is known, is that after debriefing at CIA headquarters at McClean, Virginia, which lasted about five years, he was able to transfer tremendous amounts of technical information on Soviet nuclear subs. Because of his contributions, the CIA helped him obtain a teaching job at the Seattle Naval War College. Later, he studied and taught at Stanford U niversity, worked at an important Los Angeles computer firm. The CIA finally placed him with American President Companies in Oakland, California as a systems management specialist. Before that, he spent nine years in hiding in the hills of Central and South America. He lived among the Mayas. He felt some of those years outside of modern civilization were his happiest.
Jonas fell in love with a beautiful woman of Spanish ancestry. With her he fathered a daughter, Jennifer. Being one of the “hunted,” he was unable to lead a normal family life. He was constantly on the move. Jonas sacrificed his personal life as a protest against the inhumane Soviet system. He longed for his homeland, but other than companionship of Lithuanian immigrants, there was little he could expect. He was sworn to silence. He rarely spoke of his past or his defection. Even the Lithuanian Americans with whom Jonas socialized could not understand him. They were often surprised and sometimes annoyed when he suddenly disappeared. The CIA always followed the KGB. When the KGB was close on Jonas’ tail, the CIA warned him or hid him.
Before Tom Clancy wrote his best-seller The Hunt for Red October, Jonas spent two years inassociation with him. Even Jonas’ American friends were unaware of this. No doubt the CIA permitted this association, since Clancy’s book would portray our own Navy and CIA in a favorable light. Jonas was able to give Clancy an enormous amount of technical information on the Soviet subs, the details of his “escape,” as well as provide him with a prototype for his hero, Captain Marko Ramius. Obviously, Clancy’s book was fictionalized and had the usual disclaimers. He was not able to include Jonas in any of the credits without endangering him.
The book was published in 1982,and several years later was made into an exciting and popular film starring Sean Connery as Marko Ramius. When Jonas’ sister Eugenija saw the film, she was astounded at his portrayal. Although it is unlikely that Sean Connery had any association with Jonas, he was able to capture not only his physical characteristics, but also his determined and taciturn manner.
There was a calm and faultless logic about this man, which neither the CIA nor the Soviets were able to decipher.
Not all the facts are similar. Jonas’ defection took place in 1961 at the height of the “Cold War,” the hunt for “Red October” just before Perestroika in the ’70s. Like Ramius, Jonas was outwardly quiet, emanating great strength, despite his short stature. He risked great danger for the ideal of liberty. When asked once after many years where he considered his homeland, he replied, “Kur laisve, ten mano namai” (Where freedom is, that is my home). Ramius was described as half-Lithuanian from Vilnius. Jonas was a Lithuanian patriot from. Tel šiai. Ramius’ bitterness and determination in carrying out his task stemmed in part from the death of his wife, because of a botched operation by Soviet doctors in Moscow. Jonas is once reported as having said his strength came from seeing “too much blood.” He never forgot the deportation of his parents to Siberia, the dead bodies of partisans lying in the wayside on his path to school.
When Jonas defected to Sweden, he was only 26 years old. Captain Ramius is portrayed as a bearded, middle-aged žilas juru vilkas — a gray sea wolf, as the Lithuanians would put it. Amazingly, before Jonas’ death at middle age, there was a remark able resemblance between the two men, down to the wrinkles on the sides of their eyes. Both men had studied at the Leningrad Naval Academy. Both transferred enormous amounts of technical in formation to American intelligence agencies. The “Red October” successfully eluded Soviet and American radar in the North Atlantic and eventually docked at Norfolk, Virginia, not in Sweden. In both cases, the instruments were rigged to elude the captors. In the film, Ramius had a dramatic confrontation with the political commissar on board, and eventually killed him. Jonas confronted the political commissar, but did not kill him.
Jonas’ real life adventures took their toll in 1991, when he discovered he had a brain tumor. It may well be that poor radiation shields on early atomic subs contributed to this. He harbored a seemingly impossible dream, to visit the tevyne — the homeland, one last time. He kept a powerful short-wave receiver in his apartment on Alice Street in Oakland, and invariably listened to Radio Moscow precisely at 4:30 PM each day. When his homeland, Lithuania, led the Baltic states in a quiet, singing revolution that eventually exposed the cracks and weaknesses in the Soviet Empire, he was overjoyed. When blood flowed again on the streets of Vilnius in January of 1991 — Soviet tanks ran over unarmed protestors — he was unutterably saddened. With CNN television cameras filming the bloodshed in the Baltics, the Soviet Union could no longer maintain its shield of duplicity. The Empire crumbled. Lithuania led the other Baltic nations in declaring independence. The world community recognized and applauded. The notorious Soviet-Nazi Pact of 1939 was finally destroyed.
In the spring of 1992, Jonas realized his dream of returning to the homeland. He flew through Scandinavia to Riga in Latvia, then on to Lithuania. Soviet agents still lurked at border crossing points. He knew his death sentence, issued in absentia, had never been revoked. He was still fearful of having too many borders to cross. Soviet troops were still stationed in Lithuania.
Yet with only about a year more left to live, Jonas may have felt he had nothing to lose. He was really “sick from nostalgia.” When asked what he wanted to see most of all, he said, “All I want to do is go for a walk in the fields and meadows where I used to run as a boy.” Fortunately, he was able to do that as well as to see his brothers and sisters and their families. During his time there, he forgot his illness, spoke to as many villagers as he could, saw as much of the homeland as possible. He was comforted there. He often sighed, “It’s too bad I’m sick. Maybe I could still help Lietuva — Lithuania in some way.”
When he said his farewells to his family and homeland, he knew it would be forever. He asked his sister Eugenija that his ashes be returned someday to the family cemetery at Žarenai. Unfortunately, this mission has not yet been accomplished. When Jonas met death alone in his apartment in Oakland in April, 1993, it was much as he wanted it. His only daughter, Jennifer, arranged for the cremation but returned to her home in Guatemala with his remains after the funeral. Because of the political repression in Guatemala, his daughter has been unable to travel or send his ashes out of the country. Once again he is forced to be in exile from his country. Someday soon, Jonas’ wishes may be fulfilled and he will go “home” again.
The author and her family were friends of Jonas Pleškys during the last three years of his life (1990-1993). In addition, Jonas’ sister Eugenija Pleškyte was a guest in her home in Lafayette, California from 1993-1994. The above information is drawn from these two sources.