The Vietnam War Deserters Who Sought Asylum in Sweden


The tumultuous events of 1968, the so-called “year that rocked the world,” have been very much in the news in 2018, their 50th anniversary. Though overlooked in many histories of the period, Japan, too, was the scene of massive New Left-inspired protests and university occupations throughout that famous year. An obscure but significant part of that history is about Japanese radicals assisting U.S. soldiers who deserted the military in protest of an unjust war. I just had to write about them.

My novel Sweden, which is based on true characters and events, traces the paths of American soldiers who, while stationed in Japan during the Vietnam War, went AWOL and the anti-war Japanese activists who made their escape possible. The soldiers’ ultimate destination was Sweden, which at the time granted asylum to American servicemen who abandoned the military in protest of the war in Vietnam.

More U.S. military personnel deserted during the Vietnam War than in any other war in modern American military history. According to the Department of Defense, there were a total of 503,926 desertions between July 1st, 1966 and December 31st, 1973. This compares with an estimated 50,000 desertions during World War II and 13,790 during the Korean War.

But the overwhelming majority of desertions during the Vietnam War occurred on U.S. soil, typically among troops who had returned from a tour of duty. Only a small minority, probably no more than a few thousand, fled to foreign countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Sweden, where they joined an ever-increasing number of American draft resisters. It was a tiny proportion of deserters who fled while actually serving in Vietnam, while an equally insignificant number absconded while stationed at bases elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region.

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In Japan, which hosted more than a dozen U.S. military bases and was a popular R&R destination for American military personnel, circumstances were quite different to those faced by deserters either in Vietnam or at home. Outside places like Okinawa and Yokosuka, where there was a heavy U.S. military presence, foreigners were few in number and English was not widely spoken, making it difficult for American deserters to hole up. Moreover, not only were they unable to claim asylum in Japan, but under Japanese immigration law, once deserters left the armed forces they could be arrested as illegal residents. Despite these difficulties, a number of deserters chose to remain in the country. Others acquired forged travel documents and attempted to flee Japan on their own. At the end of 1967, another option became available when Japan’s largest anti-Vietnam War organization, Beheiren, began reaching out to U.S. military deserters, offering to smuggle them out of Japan.

“The soldiers’ ultimate destination was Sweden, which at the time granted asylum to American servicemen who abandoned the military in protest of the war in Vietnam.”

I first learned of these events while living in Japan in the early 1990s. I had been interested for some time in the Japanese radical left (I later went on to study the Japanese pre-war anarchist movement at Keio University in Tokyo), and was drawn to the story because of its political dimension. But it also appealed to me as a classic David and Goliath struggle, with a small group of idealistic young anti-war activists and deserters taking on the might of the U.S. military and the American and Japanese governments.

The Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to U.S. Anti-War Deserters, or JATEC, the clandestine group whose real-life exploits were the inspiration for Sweden, was active for just a few years. Yet it was so successful that the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee rated it “the most active and effective” of the two dozen or so organizations in seven countries working with American deserters during the Vietnam War.

Formed in early 1968 in the wake of the Intrepid Four episode (see below), JATEC functioned as the underground wing of Beheiren, or the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam. Beheiren had existed since 1965 as a popular anti-Vietnam War movement. It initially concentrated on organizing largely non-confrontational actions, such as marches and public meetings. By 1967 it had become more militant, staging sit-ins in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and actively encouraging American military personnel to take direct action against the war, including sabotage. But it remained highly open and inclusive, and these qualities meant Beheiren was ill-suited to the task of assisting American deserters, which required a high level of secrecy.

Given this unsuitability, as well as its unpreparedness to act in the event of deserters actually seeking their assistance, the speed and efficiency with which Beheiren organized and implemented the escape of the Intrepid Four were nothing short of remarkable. It was on October 23rd, 1967 that Beheiren’s Tokyo office first learned of the existence of the four American sailors who went AWOL when their ship, the USS Intrepid, docked in Yokosuka after a tour of duty off the coast of Vietnam, and of their wish to desert. Beheiren took custody of them on October 28th. Less than two weeks later, on November 11th, the four were transported to Yokohama and smuggled aboard a passenger ship bound for the Russian port of Nakhodka. They arrived in Sweden on December 29th.

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Beheiren’s coordination of the escape of the Intrepid Four was a major PR coup for the organization and a cause of great concern for the U.S. and Japanese governments, who were worried that others would be emboldened to follow in the quartet’s footsteps. Despite this concern, the American Embassy in Tokyo was convinced that Beheiren’s success was a “fluke.” This conviction proved to be wildly optimistic.

With JATEC now handling the deserter operation and news of Beheiren’s success in spiriting the Intrepid Four to Sweden spreading, the organization’s continued efforts to reach out to disillusioned American military personnel quickly bore fruit. Over the next 12 months they successfully sent a further dozen deserters to Sweden, most leaving Japan on fishing boats sailing out of the port of Nemuro and being transferred to Soviet Maritime Border Patrol vessels on the high seas in the manner depicted in my novel. By 1971, when JATEC’s underground railroad effectively ceased operating, this number had doubled.

Given JATEC’s effectiveness in smuggling deserters out of the country, then, why did this operation end so prematurely? One reason is that the Soviet Union, whose assistance was essential to the operation of the Nemuro route, ceased cooperating with JATEC toward the end of 1968 after an American spy infiltrated the group, leading to the arrest of a deserter. Related to this was the increasing cost of JATEC’s operations. The number of deserters seeking JATEC’s help increased, but the unavailability of the Nemuro route required them to be sheltered in Japan for longer, up a to year in some cases. Also a factor was the knowledge that the PR value of providing assistance to deserters in Japan had diminished significantly after the initial shock and intense media coverage of the escape of the Intrepid Four.

In the fall of 1970, two American deserters flew out of Japan on commercial flights bound for Europe using forged passports provided by JATEC. They were the last deserters to be spirited out of the country by Beheiren’s underground wing, which henceforth directed most of its resources toward supporting G.I. resistance among troops stationed at U.S. military bases in Japan.

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The growth of Beheiren, support for which swelled early in 1968 following the publicity surrounding the escape of the Intrepid Four and Beheiren’s involvement in a large protest in Sasebo over the visit of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was just one manifestation of the dramatic rise of the New Left in that country. The student movement, which had atrophied and split following its failure to prevent the re-signing of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty in 1960, experienced a resurgence, culminating in the occupations of the University of Tokyo, Japan’s most prestigious university, and Nihon University, the country’s largest tertiary institution. By the end of the year, dozens more high school and college campuses around Japan had been taken over by students.

Later in 1968, on International Antiwar Day, October 21, nationwide protests reached a crescendo in Tokyo where students overran Shinjuku Station, the city’s largest train depot, in an attempt to stop a freight train loaded with aviation fuel leaving for the U.S. military base at Yokota. Demonstrators occupied the station and the surrounding streets, forcing the closure of several major department stores and the suspension of rail traffic. 500 people were arrested at Shinjuku and a further 200 at Roppongi and other locations around Tokyo.

The responses by authorities around the world to the New Left-inspired uprisings of 1968 varied both in their swiftness and in their intensity. In France, President Charles de Gaulle threatened to implement a state of emergency and call in the army if workers did not return to work. The National Assembly was dissolved and a snap election called, after which the revolutionary fervor of both students and workers subsided. The Prague Spring ended that summer, crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August at a cost of 72 dead and more than 600 injured.

“It also appealed to me as a classic David and Goliath struggle, with a small group of idealistic young anti-war activists and deserters taking on the might of the U.S. military and the American and Japanese governments.”

In Japan, the occupation of Nihon University, which had been ongoing since June, was dealt a blow with the issuing in October of arrest warrants for the student leaders, who were forced underground. Despite this, the occupations at Nihon University and the University of Tokyo continued until January the following year, when the police moved in. Beginning early on the morning of January 18th, the police assault on Yasuda Hall, the students’ stronghold at the University of Tokyo, lasted two days. Police fired thousands of tear gas grenades from the ground and sprayed tear gas from helicopters. There were 400 arrests, and 270 students and 710 police were injured. Far from abating, however, the student unrest spread, with nationwide campus occupations totaling 127 in 1969, compared to 67 the previous year. By the end of 1969, however, nearly all of the barricades at campuses around the country had been dismantled and the street demonstrations subdued.

Eight years ago, when I decided I wanted to write a novel about this time period, I found that a great deal had been written about it, much of it by those directly involved. On the Japanese side, Beheiren’s membership included several writers and other intellectuals, whose descriptions of the organization’s activities were often incredibly detailed. In writing Sweden, I also relied heavily on two moving accounts by U.S. soldiers who sought Beheiren’s help. Reading these accounts by former deserters enabled me to get a better understanding of their motives and internal struggles for which I’m endlessly in debt.