The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
By Brendan I. Koerner
It’s been observed by many that when you get to know someone, even one who commits criminal acts, you will, in most cases, see the humanity in that person. And that is particularly true of Vietnam War vet, psychologically disturbed skyjacker Roger Holder, a sympathetic character if ever one existed. It is, however, not the case with his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow, who was never caught, whose whereabouts are yet unknown, and who, conjectures Brendan Koerner, may be living very well anywhere in the world, most likely incognito somewhere in Europe.
Koerner skillfully traces the lives and actions of Holder and Kerkow from the time they first encountered each other as small children in Coos Bay, OR, to their reuniting in San Diego, through Holder’s planning of the Western Airlines Flight 701 (after a destination and plane change, Flight 364) skyjacking, and most interestingly, its aftermath in Algiers and Paris. (The June 1972 skyjacking remains the longest distance skyjacking in American history.)
Koerner probes deeply into the life of Holder, the son of a military man, who did a couple of tours in Vietnam, tours that saw him watch his best friend die horribly, and also saw him kill Vietcong with ferocity while drugs addled him. A combination of drugs and his growing anger and resentment over the purpose and conduct of the war resulted in him doing some truly stupid things that led to his dishonorable discharge. He could never resolve the effects of the war, the killing, and his treatment satisfactorily. Nor did the military recognize that he suffered from PTSD and provide treatment. Left to his own devices, given to mysticism, fascinated by the Black Panther movement and the idea of revolution in general, he concocted a plan to fly to Hanoi and deliver his airline ransom money in support of North Vietnam’s war effort and as atonement for his sins. In the end, after years in France, Holder eventually returned to the U.S., did minimal time for his skyjacking, and died a thoroughly dispirited man in San Diego in 2012.
As for Kerkow, her interest was living a carefree life. She was very wily and brilliant. She became enamored of Holder, and went along as a willing participant. After the skyjacking, especially when the two lived in Paris, she cared for Holder and saw to his sporadic psychiatric treatments, until their lives finally diverged and she went her own way. Unlike Holder, who spent his life in disillusionment and despair, she found a new life, a life she had dreamed of as girl. She quickly gained fluency in French (and probably other languages, as she proved herself a very quick learner), took up with the film and intellectual set, and disappeared from the face of the earth as beautiful Cathy Kerkow from Coos Bay.
In addition to the central tale of Holder and Kerkow, Koerner intersperses stories of numerous skyjackings that occurred in the 70s, as well as the U.S. government’s reaction and efforts to end the plague, and the airlines steady resistance to screening passengers. Koerner also provides insight into the Black Panthers, especially Eldridge Cleaver and members of the so-called International Section scrapping by in Algiers, as well as officials of the Algerian government, including president Houari Boumédiène and his henchmen.
The book benefits from Koerner’s ability to assemble the facts and relate them clearly, as well as from his primary research consisting of interviews with most of the principal players, among them the pilots, FBI, and Holder himself. But not Kerkow, of course.
A thoroughly enlightening, well done exploration of a period, an incident, and people who have all but vanished from the memory of most Americans, even those who lived through the period. Indexed, footnoted, but lacking a ready-reference of skyjackings and annotated list of participants, which would add to the book’s value. w/c