This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane

Khalid Elhassan - June 17, 2019

Airplane hijackings today are no light matter, especially when carried out by terrorists seeking to extract political concessions by executing hostages until their demands are met. Worse, of course, are when the hijackings are carried out by nihilistic nutjobs, who seek to use the airplanes as weapons of mass destruction in order to inflict massive casualties and mayhem, as occurred with the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001.

However, there was a time in the 1960s and early 1970s, when hijackings were not viewed as sinister preludes to something horrific. Instead, in those more innocent days, hijackings were often viewed as mere annoyances, and the hijackers – or at least some of them – were often seen as fascinating figures or romantic rebels. It was a time when many distrusted the establishment, which translated into many people embracing outlaws. Some hijackers, such as Raffaele Minichiello, were lionized as folk heroes, whose deeds elicited sympathy and calls for understanding, rather than horror and condemnation.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Raffaele Minichiello. We the Italians

The Age of Hijackings

Starting in the 1960s, hijackings became something of a fad in the United States, sometimes occurring on nearly a weekly basis. In an era before universal airport security checks, it was easy to bring a firearm, or even a bomb, onto an airplane. Airlines more often than not gave in to the hijackers’ demands, hoping to get their airplanes and passengers back safely. Illustrative of how easy hijacking was the case of two unlikely misfits: a Vietnam veteran named Roger Holder and a 20-year-old party girl named Cathy Kerkow. In 1972, they took over a Western Airlines flight to Seattle, and after a few missteps, they escaped overseas with over half a million dollars in ransom money.

All in all, between 1961 and 1972, more than 150 flights were hijacked in American airspace. With rare exceptions, such as a drunk and somewhat deranged oil worker who sought to hijack a plane from California, and head to Arkansas in a cockamamie bid to reconcile with his estranged wife, most hijackers headed to Cuba. Most expected a warm welcome on the communist island but were sorely disappointed. Fidel Castro feared the American adventurers landing in his country as dangerous and often delusional figures, who posed a threat to the revolution. As the Cuban dictator saw it, the American hijackers were either psychopaths or CIA spies.

Hijackers who made it to Cuba were interrogated at length by the security police, then either sent to chop sugar cane in work gulags, or left to live hand to mouth in a decrepit Havana dormitory. Hijackers who headed to more prosperous nations usually had an even more difficult time than their Cuba-bound counterparts. Governments in developed countries, well aware the hijacking epidemic was viral in nature, feared that allowing one hijacked flight to land on their soil would encourage a host of copycats.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Hijackers Roger Holder in Paris, 1977, and Cathy Kerkow, 1972. New York Times

For example, when Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow hijacked Western Airlines flight 701 in 1972, they ended up on an international odyssey, before they were finally able to get off the aircraft and plant their feet on terra firma. Their misadventures took them, among other places, to Switzerland, where the authorities refused to allow the plane to land in Geneva. As one Swiss official put it, they did not want their country to become the “Cuba of the Alps”, a destination of choice for hijackers. They eventually ended up in Algiers.

As a result, happy endings for hijackers were rare. However, a few who had compelling personal narratives, managed to beat the odds to land on their feet. For example, early in the Cold War, a group of Czech soldiers hijacked three airplanes and flew them to West Berlin. There, they claimed political asylum, and justified their actions on grounds that they sought to save themselves from a Stalinist purge. There was little chance that Western officials, eager for stories that confirmed the narrative of evil communism, were going to turn them away, so the Czech hijackers were granted asylum. Another hijacker who beat the odds with a compelling narrative, albeit one that was markedly different from that of the Czech hijackers, was Raffaele Minichiello.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Raffaele Minichiello in high school. Raffaele Minichiello

A Troubled US Marine

Raffaele Minichiello was born in Melito Arpino, Italy, in 1949. Given the dire conditions of post-war Italy, he grew up in poverty until age 14, when his family emigrated to the United States, and settled in Seattle. While the family’s conditions improved in their new country, the teenaged Minichiello, who spoke little English, had a tough time. Picked on and taunted in high school because of his accent and poor grasp of the language, he grew taciturn, touchy, and ever so sensitive to slights – characteristics that would contribute significantly to the most dramatic act of his life.

In 1967, he left high school to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. During training in Camp Pendleton, his drill instructors were impressed by the casual speed with which he assembled and disassembled weapons and all things mechanical. Apparently, the one subject in which he shone at high school was the one subject that required little linguistic skill: working with his hands in shop class. He was shipped to Vietnam in late 1967, where he was wounded in action, before returning to Camp Pendleton with a Purple Heart.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Raffaele Minichiello in Vietnam. Wikimedia

Back in Pendleton, Minichiello came to believe that his unit’s paymaster had shorted him $200. His complaints went nowhere, and Minichiello, as touchy and sensitive to slights in the Marines as he had been back in high school, saw that as a great betrayal and an intolerable affront to his honor. So one night in May of 1969, he decided to extract his own form of justice. Guzzling eight cans of beer for liquid courage, Minichiello broke into the Post Exchange, where he took exactly $200 worth of wristwatches and radios.

Arrested and charged with burglary and theft, Minichiello was scheduled for a court martial. He saw that as yet another betrayal, and a further affront to his honor, to add to his growing list of grievances against the Marine Corps and America in general. Once again, he decided to take matters into his own hands, and escalate things by ditching the court-martial, the Marines, and the United States. He would go back to Italy. However, instead of buying an airplane ticket, he decided to return to Italy in an epically dramatic way.

Minichiello’s court-martial was scheduled for October 29th, 1969. On October 28th, he deserted, and headed to Los Angeles. There, he bought an M1 rifle and 250 rounds of ammunition, and a plane ticket on TWA Flight 85 – a Boeing 707 bound for San Francisco. A handsome hunk, Minichiello bypassed what little security existed in those days by flirting with some stewardesses, and charmed them into letting him board the plane early with them, via a secondary entrance. His carry-on luggage included the disassembled rifle and ammunition. 15 minutes into the flight, Minichiello reassembled and loaded his rifle, and announced a hijacking.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Raffaele Minichiello. Skyjacker of the Day

Hijacking And Aftermath

At gunpoint, Minichiello ordered the captain to fly to New York. The plane landed in Denver, where he released the passengers, before continuing on to the Big Apple. As the plane refueled in Denver, Minichiello told the captain and crew that NYC was not his final destination, and that he planned to go all the way to Italy. There, he felt, people would understand why getting screwed over $200 was such a grave insult to his honor, that it justified the drastic steps he was taking by way of redress.

At John F. Kennedy Airport in NYC, FBI agents in bulletproof vests surrounded the aircraft. Whether they sought to intimidate Minichiello, or were preparing for an assault to take out the hijacker and end the drama, it did not work. To demonstrate that he meant business, Minichiello fired a bullet into the roof of the fuselage, which startled the FBI into backing off. The 707 then proceeded to Bangor, Maine, thence across the Atlantic to Shannon, Ireland, and finally, to Rome. All in all, Raffaele Minichiello had pulled off what was the longest hijacking in the history of civil aviation, which lasted more than 19 hours in the air from Los Angeles to Rome, and covered nearly 7000 miles.

In Rome, Minichiello avoided arrest by taking a cop hostage at the airport, and stealing his police car. He sped off to a rural church, where he sought sanctuary, and where he was tracked down and arrested on November 2nd, 1969. As he was dragged off by Italian police, he wailed “Paisà, perchè m’arresti?” (“countryman, why are you arresting me?”) – a phrase that went viral, as many Italians rallied to his cause. It helped that Minichiello was easy on the eyes, and women swooned over his movie star good looks. He became an instant sensation and folk hero in Italy.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Minichiello’s trial in Rome. Giannella Channel

With that kind of head start in the battle for public sympathy, Minichiello’s legal team had a relatively easy time in framing his crime as resulting from trauma he had experienced in Vietnam while earning a Purple Heart. That elicited great sympathy from an Italian public that was growing increasingly appalled by America’s conduct in Vietnam, and public pressure got the authorities to go easy on him. At his subsequent trial, Minichiello was acquitted of all charges, except for weapons possession.

Sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, Minichiello spent only eighteen months behind bars, before he was set free. Upon his release, he signed a contract to star in Spaghetti Western movies. The movie career did not pan out, however, and Minichiello ended up working as a waiter back in his birthplace of Melito Irpino. Today, he spends much of his free time maintaining a YouTube channel, dedicated mainly to accordion music.

This Heartthrob Marine Became an Italian Folk Hero For Hijacking a Plane
Raffaele Minichiello, decades later. Amazon


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

BBC News, July 11th, 2013 – Hijacking Epidemic in America: 1961 – 1972

Koerner, Brendan I. – The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (2013)

Leominster Enterprise, October 31st, 1969 – Jetliner Seized Over California

New Yorker, February 17th, 2014 – A Throwback to an Earlier Age of Hijacking

New York Times, June 13th, 2013 – Bonnie and Clyde, the Aerial Version

New York Times, November 6th, 1970 – US Hijacker Goes on Trial in Rome

People, December 15th, 1980 – An Ex-Skyjacker Who Survived an Earthquake Himself Rushes Aid to Italy’s Homeless

Slate, June 21st, 2013 – Raffaele Minichiello Hijacked a Plane to Italy and Became a Folk Hero