We call the period between the end of World War II and the end of the Soviet Union the “Cold War”. And in truth, it wasn’t an all-out, no-holds-barred global fight like World War II.
But it wasn’t always particularly “cold”, either.
The US and USSR (through allies) engaged in numerous wars by proxy throughout that period. Korea, French Indochina, the Hukbalapap Rebellion in the Philippines, Quemoy/Matsu, the Arab-Israeli Wars, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, Grenada – the number of proxy conflicts, as well as casualties, were extensive.
Even disregarding proxy wars, direct hostile fire incidents involving US and/or either Soviet or Soviet-client forces were not unknown. Some such incidents are reasonably well-known: the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo; the murder of MAJ Arthur Nicholson in East Germany in 1985; the 1976 Panmunjom Ax Murder Incident; the 1983 downing of KAL-007. But our collective memory for many if not most such incidents has faded to the point that most are remembered only dimly, if at all.
Such Cold War hostile fire incidents were far more common than most people realize. The Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office maintains a list of 126 US personnel still unaccounted for due to 14 Cold War aircraft losses. Two of these incidents (and 18 of the personnel still unaccounted for) were apparently not due to hostile action – but the other twelve aircraft and 108 personnel were indeed lost due to hostile fire. And these 14 incidents are nowhere near a complete list of even Cold War aerial hostile fire incidents; it records only those where US personnel are still missing and formally unaccounted for. A more comprehensive list of such Cold War aerial hostile fire incidents may be found here. There were also numerous other hostile incidents on ground and at sea.
Perhaps the deadliest single Cold War hostile fire incident involving US forces is today virtually unknown. Like the USS Pueblo, it was the result of hostile action by a Soviet client – North Korea – and involved the US Navy. But unlike the USS Pueblo, no US survivors returned.
The 44th anniversary of that incident occurs shortly before midnight EDT tonight.
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After the capture of the USS Pueblo, the US continued to conduct electronic reconnaissance in the Sea of Japan. Many of these missions were executed by USAF and/or USN aircraft.
During the first quarter of 1969, US air reconnaissance missions had been flown over the Sea of Japan approximately 190 times without incident. Because of that, the missions had come to be regarded as “minimal risk” and were flown without fighter escort.
Unfortunately that risk profile changed, dramatically and without warning, on 15 April 1969.
On 15 April 1969, a US Navy EC-131M – call sign Deep Sea 129 – flew a routine reconnaissance mission over the Sea of Japan. At roughly 1350 local time, while approximately 90 NM off the North Korean coast southeast of Chongjin, the plane was shot down by North Korean MiGs. All 31 US personnel on board were killed.
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Deep Sea 129 took off at approximately 0700 local time from NAS Atsugi, Japan. Because the mission was deemed “minimal risk”, it flew its mission over the Sea of Japan unescorted – as had close to 200 other reconnaissance missions earlier that year.
The crew were experienced; they’d flown similar missions before. They arrived on-station and began flying slow, repetitive “racetrack” patterns over the Sea of Japan.
The mission proceeded normally for several hours. Their orders were to remain a minimum of 50 NM off the coast of North Korea. Those orders were followed.
Though they were flying unescorted, Deep Sea 129 was neither forgotten nor completely neglected. They – and the tactical situation – were being closely monitored by USAF assets in South Korea. Early warning radars were tracking their location, as well as North Korean air activity. USAF monitoring stations were also tracking North Korean voice and Morse code nets associated with air defense operations. In addition, a NAVSECGRU listening post in Japan was apparently intercepting Russian air defense radar communications relating to the mission, providing second source information regarding Deep Sea 129’s location.
Deep Sea 129 submitted a routine report via teletype at approximately 1300 local time. It continued its mission.
However 26 minutes previously – at approximately 1234 local – USAF and Army Security Agency assets had detected the takeoff of two North Korean MiG-17 aircraft. Under the assumption that these MiG-17s might be responding to Deep Sea 129, the MiGs were tracked.
Radar contact with these two MiG-17s was temporarily lost at approximately 1322. They were reacquired on radar again at 1337, heading in the direction of Deep Sea 129 on what appeared to be an intercept course.
Deep Sea 129 was notified to abort its mission and return to base at 1344. The commander acknowledged and turned towards home.
Unfortunately, the EC-121M is a relatively slow plane. The MiG-17, though not supersonic, is decidedly not slow.
The MiG-17 and Deep Sea 129’s radar tracks merged at 1347. At 1349 local – or 2349 EDT, 14 April 1969 – Deep Sea 129’s radar track disappeared. It was 90 NM off the coast of North Korea at the time.
Deep Sea 129’s radar track never reappeared. The aircraft never returned to base.
. . .
US air and naval forces quickly began a search for survivors. Soviet naval forces assisted. Two bodies were recovered, as was aircraft wreckage. The wreckage recovered showed shrapnel damage.
The North Koreans acknowledged shooting down the aircraft. They claimed they had done so because Deep Sea 129 had “violated their territorial airspace”.
At the time, North Korea claimed airspace out to 50 NM as their territory – a claim that was not internationally recognized as valid. Regardless, Deep Sea 129 did not come within 50 NM of North Korea on that mission.
Airborne reconnaissance missions over the Sea of Japan were briefly suspended after the incident, but were reinstated 3 days later – now with fighter escort. There were no attempts by North Korea to interfere with these missions after they were resumed.
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Unlike the USS Pueblo, I’m not so sure that this incident was reasonably foreseeable. Yes, it occurred during a period of relatively high tension, and after the USS Pueblo’s seizure. However, the previous 190+ missions that year had been flown without incident. Fighter escort flights are expensive, are themselves somewhat provocative, and are also inherently risky for the fighter crews involved even if no enemy is encountered. The mission was flown with ROE that seemed at the time to be reasonable and non-confrontational. Even though the US rejected the validity of North Korea’s 50 NM territorial airspace claim, US aircraft still stayed well outside that distance in order to give North Korea no excuses for hostile action.
Indeed, some accounts say US intelligence sources obtained information indicating the attack appeared to be due to an error between North Korean ground control personnel and the aircraft involved. Those accounts also indicate that the Soviets appeared shocked when they realized that the North Koreans had shot down a US aircraft.
Could we have done something to prevent this incident? Certainly. But were the procedures in-place that day reasonable, all things considered? I’m not absolutely certain, but IMO yes – I think they were. I think those in charge simply got blindsided by something that was not rationally foreseeable. An irrational act or an error of this magnitude is very difficult to predict.
. . .
I’d like to believe that this incident was due to error vice malice. But I’m not sure I truly believe that. I have my doubts, for three reasons.
First: the incident occurred during a period of increased Korean hostilities sometimes called the Second Korean War (1966-1969). The level of provocations, incidents, and hostile acts on and around the Korean peninsula during those three years was higher than any other time since the Korean War proper. The US was also distracted by our ongoing involvement in – Vietnam, and by a recent change in Presidential Administration. Together, these facts support – but don’t prove – the argument that the incident was an intentional provocation committed at a time when North Korea knew the US would almost certainly be less vigilant than normal while also less capable of a major response.
Second: in April 1969, Ho Chi Mihn’s health was failing (he would die that September). North Korea might have felt that such an attack would not only serve their interests – they were still trying to weaken the US-South Korean alliance – but might also provide a morale boost to both Ho and North Vietnam by striking a blow against a common enemy.
And, lastly: 15 April 1969 was Kim Il Sung’s 57th birthday.
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The memory of this incident has faded with time; few remember it today. But the sacrifice made by these 31 Americans deserves to be remembered and honored.
LCDR James H. Overstreet (mission commander)
LT John N. Dzema
LT Dennis B. Gleason
LT Peter P. Perrottey
LT John H. Singer
LT Robert F. Taylor
LTJG Joseph R. Ribar
LTJG Robert J. Sykora
LTJG Norman E. Wilkerson
Louis F. Balderman, ADR2
Stephen C. Chartier, AT1
Bernie J. Colgin, AT1
Ballard F. Connors, Jr, ADR1
Gary R. DuCharme, CT3
Gene K. Graham, ATN3
LaVerne A. Greiner, AEC
Dennis J. Horrigan, ATR2
Richard H. Kincaid, ATN2
Marshall H. McNamara, ADRC
Timothy H. McNeil, ATR2
John A. Miller, CT3
John H. Potts, CT1
Richard T. Prindle, AMS3
Richard E. Smith, CTC
Philip D. Sundby, CT3
Richard E. Sweeney, AT1
Stephen J. Tesmer, CT2
David M. Willis, ATN3
Hugh M. Lynch, SSgt, USMC
Frederick A. Randall, CTC
James Leroy Roach, AT1
LTJG Ribar’s and AT1 Sweeny’s remains were recovered during search and rescue operations. The remains of the other 29 US personnel on board Deep Sea 129 were never recovered.
Rest in peace, my elder brothers-in-arms. You – and your sacrifice – are not forgotten.
And if this were not due to accident or error: may whoever deliberately ordered it burn in hell.