March 22, 2004 - PCOL Exclusive: How does a PCV who speaks fluent Farsi end up teaching English in Micronesia?

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Iran: Peace Corps Iran : The Peace Corps in Iran: March 22, 2004 - PCOL Exclusive: How does a PCV who speaks fluent Farsi end up teaching English in Micronesia?

By Admin1 (admin) ( - on Monday, March 22, 2004 - 4:37 pm: Edit Post

How does a PCV who speaks fluent Farsi end up teaching English in Micronesia?

Peace Corps in Iran

How does a PCV who speaks fluent Farsi end up teaching English in Micronesia?

How does a PCV who speaks fluent Farsi end up teaching English in Micronesia?

In 2002, I returned to Iran with a group traveling under the auspices of the National Peace Corps Association and Friendship Force International. With us was a woman who had served in Uzbekistan. Her stories reminded me that the world has changed dramatically since the 1960s when many Iranians thought that Peace Corps volunteers were all CIA agents

Our group arrived in Iran in May 1966. I was assigned to teach English in Rasht, the provincial capital of subtropical Gilan. After a summer of organizing day camps in our communities, we were invited to go to Isfahan for a conference before the start of the school year.

Although Tom Dawson lived in the northwestern part Iran, he sent word that he and David Osterberg were planning to travel to Isfahan via Ardabil, Astara, a small fishing village on the Caspian Sea, and Rasht. The Ardabil-Astara road was notorious for its many switchbacks and sharp drop-offs. Just weeks before I received his letter, I had visited friends in Azarbaijan and observed the barbed wire fences and Russian outposts that flanked the Iranian-Russian border.

I was concerned when my friends did not arrive in Rasht on schedule and wondered if there been a traffic accident. But their delay was not that unusual in the days before cell phones. Generally, communications came by telegram or letter and often arrived after the fact. Since I had already purchased a bus ticket, I left for Tehran the next day. After another 7-hour trip from Tehran to Isfahan, I arrived at the final destination on September 16.

Over the next two days, our group worked on teaching techniques with Gertrude Nye-Dorry, the English program supervisor. When David showed up in Isfahan a day late, he was shaken and tired. He had spent a night in Tehran and was under strict orders not to tell anyone what had transpired earlier in the journey. He said only that he and Tom had made it to Astara, a refueling stop. In order to kill time between buses, they wandered over to the shores of the Caspian Sea. After a while, they split up because Tom wanted to look for seashells. As Dave started back to town, he watched in horror. Just as Tom was starting up a small stream that represented the unmarked border between the two countries, two or three Russian border guards swooped down from nowhere and took him into custody.

Dave frantically ran back into town and informed the local police chief. They finally contacted the Peace Corps director in Tehran by telephone. Meanwhile, authorities held up his bus until he was safely on board.

The story and Tom Dawson’s picture made the New York Times front-page headlines. As soon as my mother heard the news on the radio, she immediately wrote to me: “This morning’s newscast was very alarming with word that a Peace Corpsman had been arrested by the Russians at an Iranian border. He is Thomas Dawson of Annapolis, MD. The Russians don’t seem to kid around.” A week later, she wrote again that the chief consular officer in Moscow had finally been given permission to interview Tom in Baku. He was in good health and innocent of all charges. But a Russian investigation was underway and Moscow rejected all requests for his immediate release.

The press also noted a bizarre coincidence. Only twelve months before this incident took place in Iran, Newcomb Mott, then a 27-year old representative of an American book company, was on holiday with friends in northern Norway. They visited Boris Gleb, a village on the Norwegian-Russian border. The Scandinavians did not have to have entry visas to cross the border but the Soviets charged Mott with illegal entry. According to a New York Times article, dateline Moscow, September 11, 1965: “An American spokesman said that arrangements were being made for a consular official to see [Mott] ‘within a few days’ while he was being held in the far northern city of Murmansk.”

Communications along that faraway border were as slow and unpredictable as they were in Iran a year later. If an official of one country wanted to communicate with his counterpart, they hoisted flags. Couriers went out to collect the written notes and bring them back to their superiors. But replies often took days. American officials protested vehemently that Mott’s crossing was entirely innocent. However, after he was charged, he was taken to Moscow, questioned, tried, and sentenced to two years (later reduced to eighteen months). Although his parents tried to gain entry into Russia to visit their son, their applications were rejected.

On January 22, 1966, Newcomb Mott was found dead in a compartment on a train that was supposed to transport him to a Soviet labor camp. The Russians insisted that he had killed himself and they invited American representatives to attend the autopsy. The body was covered with multiple stab wounds and lacerations - clearly inconsistent with a verdict of suicide. However, by the time his body was returned to for repatriation and burial in his hometown of Sheffield, MA, a second autopsy proved inconclusive.

There is one more astonishing piece to this global puzzle. In January 1965, two Russian sailors had drifted ashore near Wales, Alaska in a dense fog. After an INS interview, they were granted political asylum. Two months later, however, one of the men changed his mind about living in the United States and went back to his motherland.

Pyotr Kalitenko, on the other hand, settled in Detroit, Michigan and began a new life. Yet on September 20, 1966, he spontaneously contacted the US State Department and asked for immediate repatriation. After exhaustive questioning, officials determined that his request was voluntary. As he boarded a plane bound for Russia, they maintained that “no bartering was involved.”

By early October, the Soviets had completed their investigation and agreed that the simple act of wading into a small stream marking the Iran-USSR border did not constitute the action of a spy. After holding him for three weeks in Baku, they brought Tom Dawson back to Astara and released him into American custody on October 3, 1966. He flew back to Tehran on a military transport and on home to Annapolis, MD, fully expecting to resume his work in Iran.

The Iranian government, however, had declared him persona non grata. When we met again at his home in Maryland a few years later, he told me that he had been given the opportunity to complete his Peace Corps service in Micronesia.

With the advent of global communications, it is still hard to imagine how an American tourist’s visit to the Norwegian-Russian border and two Russian sailors’ search for mushrooms in Alaska could have played such key roles in securing the release of a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran in the midst of the Cold War.

Jennifer B-C Seaver

Iran (1966-68)

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: PCOL Exclusive

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Iran; Humor; Intelligence Issues



By Alfred Reasor ( - on Tuesday, August 31, 2004 - 5:43 pm: Edit Post

What a fascinating story. Did you know Peter and Paul, who also worked in Rasht? What about Elizabeth White? I knew some of these people during that era. Do you know if Gertrude Nye-Dorry has ever published her book about her life in Iran?

By John Krauskopf ( - on Sunday, January 09, 2005 - 5:32 am: Edit Post

The friend who forwarded Jennifer’s story asked if I remembered this incident.

Do I remember the Dawson incident? Yes, indeed I do, and it caused me a lot of flack 800 miles away in Khuzistan!

I never met Tom Dawson so perhaps I wrong him. However, what I relate below was pretty universally believed by the PCVs I knew, and it differs from Jennifer's take. My main source was my PC field rep. and Terry O’Donnell, the cultural studies director for Peace Corps - Iran training.

First of all, the border area at Astara was a menacing and highly charged place. No PCVs were allowed to work there though they had assignments elsewhere in that province. It is hard to imagine a PCV, supposedly trained to be culturally sensitive, misinterpreting this atmosphere and not exercising extreme caution in all behavior.

I went on a similar bus trip through the Iran-Soviet border area (although in the other direction) three months before Tom and Dave's ill-fated journey. My bus made a lunch stop in Astara, and within ten minutes, the local SAVAK agent, without any of the normal Persian ta’aroaf (conversational pleasantries), sat down at my table and started asking questions. After a thorough interrogation about my purpose for being in Astara, he made it clear that I had better be on the bus when it left. The first part of the conversation was unpleasant, but my Farsi was good enough to defuse some of his aggressiveness. By the end of the conversation, things were more relaxed, but I was sufficiently intimidated that I would have never remotely considered wading in the Araxes River or gathering seashells.

The SAVAK agent told me that the border was a sensitive area, and relations with the Russians across the border were tense, mostly because Soviet nationals continuously tried to flee into Iran. Despite that fact that Iran was a relatively poor country and supposedly had an oppressive government under the Shah, it was apparently so much better than Azerbaijan or the other more northern Soviet Republics that people made rational decisions to risk their lives to get there. The ones that the Russian guards discovered in the process of leaving were shot or captured.

The Soviets had erected a very high fence topped by razor wire and punctuated at short intervals by ominous guard towers with lots and lots of searchlights. From the bus as it climbed the Astara Road, the view of the barrier as it followed the undulations of the land on the north side of the Araxes reminded me of pictures of the famous Chinese wall. The ground for about fifteen feet on both sides of the fence was stripped of vegetation and raked every day. The river itself was the border, although at some times of the year, it was barely a stream. The above described fence and adjacent security installations were some distance back from the river and well within sovereign Soviet territory.

The widely believed story of what really happened is that Tom and his companion, Dave Osterberg, somehow didn't get the intimidating SAVAK warning that I did. Tom decided that it would be cool to be able to say that he had pissed into the Soviet Union. Dave quarreled with Tom about his juvenile idea and urged caution. Osterberg refused to ford the river and go over to the fence with Dawson (Tom may have thought the fence was the actual border) but instead remained on the Iranian side of the Araxes. Tom waded the stream and relieved himself at the fence. Before he could turn and scoot back to the Iran side, a squad of Soviet border patrol soldiers double-timed up the raked strip with guns drawn and captured him.

If Osterberg hadn’t been waiting just a few yards away on the Iranian shore for his friend to finish his business, there would have been no witnesses other than the Russian guards. Tom would have vanished without a trace and who knows when the Peace Corps or the Iranian police would have figured out what had happened. As it was, despite the witness, the Soviets denied for more than two weeks that there had been an incident or that they were holding an American. The seashells were just a cover story so that the full embarrassment of this foolish incident would not get out. Since the Soviets denied anything had happened, no contradiction to the seashell story was going to come from their side.

The consequences stemming from the incident were comical. After the local police were informed, it turned out that nobody who could possibly deal with the incident was at home. The Shah was traveling somewhere. Prime Minister Hoveda was at a conference. The Peace Corps director was on leave and his deputy was not a sophisticated diplomat. The Russian Ambassador was on home leave. Andre Gromeko and the American Secretary of State were at meetings and out of their own countries. Armand Meyer, the American Ambassador to Iran, was somewhere else. The lesser diplomats were afraid to take responsibility for any kind of decision. The Peace Corps staff reported complete frustration at getting past the level of receptionist to any person with authority in any of the three countries to try to resolve the problem at a lower level.

The Iranian and the U.S. press loved the juiciness of the “spy” scandal and pushed the story hard in both countries, so within two days, whatever was done to resolve the situation was done very slowly at the Foreign Minister/Secretary of State level and in the delicate political context of the Cold War. Jennifer is probably right about the other international border incidents she recounts that provided precedents or perhaps a quid pro quo. Living down in the deserts of Khuzistan, I was unaware of this part of the incident's resolution.

I was, however, uncomfortably aware of the “Dawson incident.” The local Iranians whom I counted as my supporters teased me about being a CIA spy as long as the story was current in the newspapers. Mr. Ziah-Ahmedi, the principal of one of my schools, looked at me during a tea break and announced to the gathered faculty that one of my fellow spies had been captured. My teacher colleagues thought this remark was highly amusing, but fortunately for me, Ziah-Ahmadi was a man with a raucous sense of humor and intended no serious harm.

I ran into some less friendly reactions as well. One young university student pushed a copy of Kayhan, a national newspaper, in my face and said over and over, "American spies, CIA! CIA!" I had spent a year working to get the trust of my sometimes skeptical students and colleagues, so I had very uncharitable thoughts about Tom Dawson.

I worked on the staff of four subsequent Iran Peace Corps training projects, and we used the Dawson incident (my version of it) as a case study and cautionary tale to illustrate how something seemingly innocent and/or playful can have serious consequences in a cross cultural context.

Of course, having reported this less innocent version of Dawson’s border troubles, I will probably find out that Tom is now a world-renowned invertebrate biologist who has assembled a major collection of seashells from the Caspian and Micronesia.

Jennifer apparently is in touch with Tom and has some of her information directly from him. If I have got this story wrong, I apologize to both of them. However, Tom might want to know that everybody I knew who was involved in the Peace Corps believed and repeated the version of the incident I have laid out. The seashell story carried no credibility at all. At this late date, it probably doesn't matter anymore, and my version doesn't negate Jennifer's points about the strange and delicate maneuvers of international diplomacy in the Cold War era.

Remember this incident? I sure do!

John Krauskopf

By Adrienne Gorman ( - on Sunday, February 20, 2005 - 3:57 pm: Edit Post

I was in Tom Dawson's group and at the Isfahan conference when both Dave Osterberg and Mr. Fishbach showed up, the latter, who had been in the United States when the incident occurred, with U. S. newspapers headlining the story of the Peace Corps Volunteer taken by Soviet border guards -- days after the capture, not two weeks. The story we were told, no doubt by Dave, since no one else was there, was the one you seem not to believe, that Tom wanted to be able to say he had pissed into the Soviet Union. Tom confirmed this story several years later when I saw him again in Washington, D.C. Certainly it is a childish tale, but we were very young back then. Like you, I faced two years of being thought by some Iranians to be a CIA agent. But no one ever mentioned Tom to me in relationship to this. The connection they alluded to always was the CIA's role in overthrowing Mossadeq and putting the shah back on the throne. Iran X, the group from which Tom and I came, was notorious in many ways. But to imagine that Tom's motives were in any way sinister or more than a childish prank gone wrong is to do a disservice to us all.

By Thomas Watkin ( - on Wednesday, July 18, 2007 - 3:32 pm: Edit Post

Noticed this thread about Iran.
I saw recently that Gertrude Dorry died in 2004 in Massachusetts. Don't think she published a book about her times in Iran. She hired me in 1976 to teach English at Tehran Polytechnic. She was the head of the language department there. She was referred to by everyone there as "Dr. Dorry"

By Inger Handeland ( - on Monday, October 15, 2007 - 1:36 am: Edit Post

I am a Norwegian Nurse and former PCV, volunteering in Sari by the Caspian Sea 1967-1969. We met and associated with many American PCV during that time. Unfortunately, I have forgotten names,but it would be great fun to hear from someone who lived in Sari remembering 3 Norwegian Nurses, Aasbjorg, Berit and Inger..
..We did a lot of partying and dancing at Babol Casino on our days off. We also visited Rash to see friends.. Great people and wonderful memories from Iran.

By Isabel Wendy Nye ( on Thursday, August 14, 2008 - 10:31 pm: Edit Post

Gertrude Nye Dorry did self-publish her memoirs in 3 volumes, the last covering Iran in detail. I believe University of New Hampshire has copies. Her family and friends do, too.
Wendy Nye

By Paul C. Pitzer ( on Sunday, August 31, 2008 - 11:56 am: Edit Post

I replaced Tom Dawson in Northwest Iran in 1966. He had been posted to a small village named Ahar. I lived there for the next two years. Following Dawson was an experience as everyone suspected that I, along with other Peace Corps people, were spies. It took some doing to convince people that such was not the case. One bit of proof was the fact that there was nothing anywhere around to spi on!.
I wrote up my adventures in Ahar, Iran and have posted them on the internet. Go to:

A few years ago Gertrude Nye Dorry visited mywife and myself. We helped her with her memoirs which she did publish. I also have copies. Gertrude died a couple of years ago - in Massachusetts with her daughter, complications from Alzheimer's Disease - she was over 90 years old.

Paul Pitzer Iran XII

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.