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A Not-So-Quiet Arrival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) must constantly be on alert for security threats, which can sneak up during the most unexpected times. Oftentimes when FSOs arrive at a new post, they may expect to be greeted by friendly faces who are ready to welcome them to their new country.

The 1975 AIA Building Hostage Crisis in Kuala Lumpur (2017) | Huffington Post
The 1975 AIA Building Hostage Crisis in Kuala Lumpur (2017) | Huffington Post

However, even these simple, lively occasions can quickly turn catastrophic.

William (Scott) Butcher arrived to join the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August of 1975. Upon stepping off the plane, he received news that the Japanese Red Army (JRA) had taken over part of the American Insurance Associates (AIA) building in Kuala Lumpur. The building was home to several diplomatic missions, including the U.S. Embassy. Immediately, Scott began closely following negotiations to release those being held hostage and subsequently reporting to Washington about the evolving situation. All the while, he was navigating his own transition into the political section.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” Scott Butcher discusses the atmosphere surrounding the Kuala Lumpur hostage crisis and how those taken by the JRA were ultimately returned to safety.

Scott Butcher’s interview was conducted by David Reuther in December 2010.

Read Scott Butcher’s full oral history HERE.

For more Moments on diplomatic hostage crises, click HERE.

Drafted by Natalie Schaller

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Excerpts:

“As we were going through immigration, I showed the Malaysian immigration agent my passport. He looks at me. He looks at the passport and says, ‘Oh sir, there’s bang, bang, bang at your office.’”

An Unexpected Surprise: We arrived in KL on August 4th . . . . We got there and we expected we were going to have a fairly sizable greeting party. . . . I showed the Malaysian immigration agent my passport. He looks at me. He looks at the passport and says, “Oh sir, there’s bang, bang, bang at your office. I said something really intelligent like, “Huh?” We could see Linda Heaney, the wife of one of the economic/commercial officers, who we had met in Washington. She was waving her hands. . . . She said, “Japanese Red Army (JRA) terrorists have taken over part of the embassy. They’ve captured Bob Stebbins, the Consul. . . . So much for our arrival in “quiet KL!”

The JRA terrorists arrived at a time when the embassy was in the midst of a project to reconstruct a part of the consular section to improve security, but the new security improvements hadn’t been put in place. . . . Several athletic-looking young Japanese in tracksuits came in with handbags and athletic bags. They came into the consular section, saying they needed some visas. No sooner had they got in than they pulled weapons out of their bags. They started firing down the hallway to clear the floors. They ended up shooting a couple of people.

“Psst, are you American?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “Well, they’re in there.”

An Embassy Held Hostage: A Malaysian policeman offered to give me a lift to our embassy. . . . We went the long way down one street. There was no traffic. The car stopped and the guy said, “I can’t go any closer.” So I got out. . . . I was in the middle of the street. . . . I had looked at the post report and recalled a picture of the AIA building (American International Assurance, an AIG company), which had a distinctive metal façade on it. I recognized the building as I walked along, hauling a case of C-rations and heedless of the fact I was in the middle of the street in broad daylight and the JRA terrorists, who had already wounded a policeman on the ground, could have taken a potshot at me. On the ground floor was Citibank. Someone said from the shadows, “Psst, are you American?” I said, “Yes.” They said, “Well, they’re in there.”

I went in and there was the RSO (Regional Security Officer), Wayne Algire. He was kind of a portly guy and he had a chrome-plated magnum revolver stuck in his belt. I said who I was, and he said, “Okay, we’re using the freight elevator to get up to the 9th, 10th, and 11th floors.” Some of the floors were controlled by the JRA. We actually still occupied floors above them. I ended up going up this elevator with a Marine Guard escort and went into the political section. There, I was finally greeted by was my predecessor, Al La Porta. Al filled me in on what was going on…. The next couple of days were pretty much a blur.

“The pop heard round the world.”

           
Malaysian Hostage Crisis (2013) Witness History | BBC
Malaysian Hostage Crisis (2013) Witness History | BBC

Returning to Safety: The first thing that happened was the JRA released women and children because they had the problem of handling so many hostages. They kept the foreign diplomats, the Swedish secretary, her boss, Bob Stebbins, our other employees, and the male hostages. The Malaysian government offered to have some of their officials, as guarantors, swapped for the hostages. What the JRA wanted was the release of their colleagues who were imprisoned in Japan. Apparently, at least one of them said no, he didn’t want to be released. He was enjoying prison. He didn’t want to risk his life on the outside.

The Japanese government gave in because there were other nationalities involved, and they felt there was a certain loss of face since it was Japanese who carried out this terrorist act. . . . What happened was that the Japanese government gave in to the JRA demands in principle, but then drew out the negotiations for hours, if not days, driving everyone to distraction because they wanted to regain some face. The Malaysian government offered a dozen or so of their officials to stand in for the hostages. So they worked out an agreement to do a swap at the airport. . . . We evacuated the building. At just about the same time, the hostages boarded buses, with curtains drawn, along with the JRA captors, for the trip to the KL airport.

Al and I figured out we could go safely back to our offices. We went back. When we got word that all the hostages had been released at the airport with the exchange of the guarantors, Al and I popped a beer can or a Coke can over the phone to Washington, to celebrate the hostages’ release – the pop heard round the world.

“I went to open a can labeled ‘Applesauce’ . . . . it blew up in my face.”

An Unexpected Casualty: I often say I was one of the casualties of the JRA incident. I tell people of the explosive “C-ration incident.” While stuck in the Embassy, and drawing on the C-rations I had brought in from the Ambassador’s Residence, I went to open a can labeled ‘Applesauce.’ It was probably leftover from World War Two. As soon as I went with a can opener to open it, it blew up in my face. I was covered with rancid applesauce. And we had no water to clean it off. It was all over my glasses. We all didn’t smell too good by then anyway.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Government—Foreign Affairs, Miami University   1960–1964
MA in International Affairs, Johns Hopkins   1964–1966
Joined the Foreign Service 1965
Dhaka, Pakistan—Political Officer  1969–1971
Jakarta, Indonesia—Political Counselor  1981–1984
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—Deputy Chief of Mission 1990–1993