ROME (Reuters) - For 42 days three decades ago, U.S. General James Lee Dozier was the world’s most famous hostage and his captors, the Red Brigades, were Europe’s most feared and bloody terrorist organization.
Dozier, now 80, has come back to Italy, perhaps for the last time, to meet the members of the police special operations unit who liberated him in one of the most daring rescue raids of those dramatic years in Italian history.
“If it weren’t for guys like these I wouldn’t be here,” he told Reuters last Saturday at an emotional 30-year reunion with the 13-man SWAT team that saved him on the cold but clear morning of January 28, 1982.
Thirty years on, the members of the once svelte and swift squad that saved him have lost some of their hair, put on weight and become grandfathers. But no one can forget.
Say Dozier’s name to any Italian old enough to remember and they will tell you it brings back dark memories of the country’s “Years of Lead,” when the ultra-leftist Red Brigades kidnapped, maimed and killed politicians and business leaders as part of their war against the state.
Dozier, then NATO’s deputy chief of staff for land forces for Southern Europe and based in Verona, was the biggest fish the Red Brigades nabbed after former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, who they held for 55 days in 1978 before killing him.
Dozier knows he was probably destined to meet Moro’s fate had it not been for the raid led by Major Edoardo Perna on an apartment in the northern city of Padua where five Red Brigades guerrillas had held Dozier prisoner in a tent.
“This is something that I live with almost perpetually. But in a way it’s cathartic,” Dozier said. “You know, you keep thinking about it and I‘m told by psychologists that is one of the best medicines - keep thinking about it and don’t worry about it.”
Dozier was kidnapped in his apartment in Verona on December 17, 1981 by four Red Brigades’ guerrillas masquerading as plumbers. One held a gun to his wife’s head to convince him not to resist.
The period was one of the most tense of the Cold War. At the time, NATO was making plans to deploy nuclear Pershing II and Cruise missiles in Western Europe, including in Sicily, to counter the threat of Soviet SS-20 missiles aimed at Europe.
His kidnapping stunned the Pentagon and sent shivers throughout Western European governments.
“Quite frankly, I had no indication that I was a target. All the intelligence I received at the time -- and I thought I had pretty good intelligence -- gave me no indication that I was a target for the Red Brigades,” he said.
From Verona, the Brigades drove Dozier to a safe house in Padua in the same northern region.
They kept him in a tent inside one of the rooms and forced him to listen to loud music through headphones, resulting in permanent hearing damage. For 42 days they interrogated him about NATO operations and occasionally sent flyers with his picture behind their trademark five-pointed star to newspapers.
At 11:25 on the morning of Jan 28, 1982, Perna and 12 other men launched the daring operation. Six men secured the perimeter while Perna and six others stormed the apartment where five Brigades members, including two women, were holding Dozier.
“After we knocked down the door I immobilized one of the women and used her as a shield to move forward. One of my men rushed into the tent where Dozier was being held and hit the terrorist guarding Dozier on the head with the butt of his pistol,” Perna said. “There was some blood but not a shot was fired.”
Inside the tent, Dozier recalled, he was confused and, for a moment, feared the worst.
“I did not know what was happening. I had read accounts of the Aldo Moro kidnapping and about the factions within the Red Brigades and my first thoughts were that I may be caught up in a jurisdictional dispute among factions of the Red Brigades,” he said.
“They (the police) pushed their way into my part of the tent and I tried to push them back out because I wasn’t sure who they were. But then it dawned on me that these probably were policemen ... and one of them removed his ski mask.”
Perna and his team arrested Dozier’s captors, led by Antonio Savasta, who later gave evidence. Savasta was also involved in the Moro kidnapping and killing three years earlier.
At a trial in Verona in March, 1982, Dozier stared down Savasta and the other guerrillas who kidnapped him for the last time. Savasta was sentenced to 16 years and six months in prison. He was freed after serving 10 years.
Asked how he felt about his captor walking free now, Dozier said: “If he has been sufficiently punished in the eyes of the Italian government that’s fine with me.”
That was the last time General James Lee Dozier saw his captors. Now retired, he lives in Florida and works with the U.S. Air Force, teaching a course on hostage avoidance and survival.
Reporting By Philip Pullella,; editing by Paul Casciato