Before dawn on November 19, 1947, Siam’s Senior Statesman Pridi Banomyong arrived at the Bangkok residence of British naval attache Captain Stratford Hercules Dennis. Pridi was wearing a naval uniform and thick spectacles, and had further disguised his appearance by growing a moustache and removing his false teeth.
Pridi was on the run, his life in danger. Ten days earlier, on the night of November 8, an alliance of militarists and royalists had seized power in a coup. Troops were sent to Pridi’s riverside home to seize him, and probably to kill him. He escaped by boat as an armoured vehicle broke down the gates to his compound. He initially tried to rally support, holed up in a naval base downriver from Bangkok, and on the night of November 10 he was secretly visited there by a British official and an American colleague:
In the days that followed, as the coup regime began making wild and baseless accusations that Pridi had masterminded the killing of King Ananda Mahidol in June 1946 as part of a communist plot, he decided that resistance was hopeless, and that he would have to leave Thailand. And on the morning of November 19 he asked the British for help.
Pridi was very highly regarded by both Britain and the United States because of his wartime service: he had secretly led the Siamese resistance movement fighting the Japanese. British ambassador Geoffrey Thompson conferred with his U.S. counterpart Edwin Stanton, and a plan was hatched to use the boat of U.S. naval attache Commander Skeats Gardas to take Pridi downriver, where he could either return to the safety of the naval base at Sattahip or board a Shell tanker bound for Singapore. A cable from Thompson describes the “dangerous melodrama”:
In another secret cable shortly afterwards, Thompson reported that Pridi had successfully been spirited onto the Chao Phraya river in Gardas’s boat. To maintain secrecy, Gardas did not use his Siamese crew: instead his wife and his 19-year-old sister helped him sail the vessel.
Thompson said Pridi had left behind “two or three machine guns, several other weapons and two hand grenades” in Captain Dennis’s house. “These will be disposed of discreetly,” he added.
Gardas took Pridi and his entourage down the Chao Phraya river to the Gulf of Thailand, where they hailed the Shell tanker.
It had been a lucky escape, as it later transpired that one of Pridi’s entourage had been spotted boarding Gardas’s boat:
A telegram from the British Foreign Office on November 21 summarized the events surrounding Pridi’s escape:
Pridi Banomyong would only return to his homeland for one brief, violent, tragic visit in February 1949, when he unsuccessfully tried to seize back power in an abortive coup. He died in exile in Paris on May 2, 1983.