Why Did North Korea Shoot Down a U.S. Recon Plane in 1969?


It was over shortly. On April 15, 1969, a North Korean MiG-21 shot down an unarmed U.S. Navy Lockheed EC-121M reconnaissance aircraft over worldwide waters. 

All 31 on board—30 sailors and one Marine—perished, the biggest single lack of American aircrewmen through the Chilly Battle. Solely two our bodies have been ever recovered. 

President Richard M. Nixon thought-about and in the end rejected a navy response. Over time, understanding of what the mission entailed advanced with the gradual launch of categorized paperwork. What has by no means modified, nonetheless, was the tragic lack of American lives and the large toll it had on the crew’s households. 

The shootdown occurred through the peak of the Chilly Battle, when tensions between the US and North Korea have been at a peak. The Korean Battle had ended 16 years earlier with 37,000 U.S. personnel killed in motion and each nations signing an armistice, not a peace treaty. After that 1953 armistice, violent incidents continued, such because the North attempting to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee in 1968.

EC-121 Bu.No. 135749, the Warning Star concerned within the incident, lands at Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan. (HISTORYNET Archives)

In January 1968, North Korea seized the Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo. President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisers concluded that diplomacy was one of the simplest ways to resolve the scenario, which in the end led to the crew’s launch in December. Some historians discuss with the perilous 1966-69 interval because the “Second Korean Battle.” 

Each the Navy and the Air Drive had energetic aerial surveillance and digital intelligence gathering capabilities within the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Digital Countermeasures Squadron 1 (VQ-1) was established in June 1955 at Naval Air Station (NAS) Iwakuni in Japan. Digital reconnaissance was carried out by extremely educated personnel who carried out their missions in subtle plane.

VQ-1 operations have been shifted to NAS Atsugi, Japan, in 1960 and the squadron was renamed Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 (although the VQ-1 designation remained). The squadron had accountability for territory all through Asia and the Pacific, working from bases in South Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, in addition to from plane carriers. Through the Vietnam Battle, the Atsugi base contingent grew to 1,000 Ameri­can servicemen.

Threat was a continuing companion for the airmen of VQ-1 and different intelligence items. In June 1959, North Korean MiG-17s attacked a Martin P4M Mercator reconnaissance aircraft about 50 miles east of the Demilitarized Zone. The pilot was capable of land the broken plane, although the tail gunner suffered severe wounds. Six years later, MiG-17s severely broken an Air Drive Boeing RB-47 (the reconnaissance model of the Strato­jet) about 80 miles off the North Korean coast.

Naval personnel monitor radar scopes and sensors in a Warning Star. (U.S. Navy)

With the 1954 introduction of the WV-2 Warning Star—a navy variant of Lockheed’s L-1049 Tremendous Constellation airliner—the Navy possessed a robust new digital reconnaissance platform. Nicknamed “Willy Victor,” the Navy’s navy Connie was redesignated EC-121 in 1962 as a part of the Tri-Service plane designation system. The Warning Star usually had a flight crew of 5 males—two pilots, two navigators and an observer—in addition to crew chiefs, upkeep, radar and electronics personnel onboard. It was a giant airplane: greater than 116 ft lengthy, with a wingspan over 126 ft and weighing nearly 70,000 kilos empty. 4 Wright R-3350-42 18-cylinder radial engines offered the ability. Vary was about 4,200 miles, with a service ceiling of 25,000 ft. 

In 1959-60 Warning Star Bu.No. 135749 was modified by the Martin Firm with radars put in in higher and decrease radomes. Redesig­nated an EC-121M in 1962, the plane utilized AN/APS-20 radar expertise initially developed throughout World Battle II by the Massachusetts Institute of Know-how. A small staff of navy and civilian technicians, often called the “Bicycle Store,” helped VQ-1 make ongoing modifications and upgrades to the electronics gear. 

Atsugi-based EC-121M crewmen had a heavy workload. Crews would fly to Danang, South Vietnam, to conduct surveillance for Navy, Air Drive and Marine missions and alert aircrews about surface-to-air missiles. After returning to Atsugi for upkeep, they’d fly missions surveilling the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. The specter of hostile fighters intercepting the flights was ever-present, although not an awesome concern. Naval Safety Group (NSG) personnel supporting these missions have been on the close by Kamiseya base.

Dangers to the missions elevated with the addition of the electronics gear, because the added drag and weight restricted the EC-121M’s prime velocity to about 220 knots. Moreover, EC-121Ms have been unarmed and had no digital countermeasure gear onboard, making them simple targets. Given the plane’s incapacity to defend itself, Senator Strom Thurmond on the Armed Providers Committee characterised it as a “flying Pueblo.”

Crews on these missions have been all naval personnel or Marines, some on task to the NSG. Work included amassing non-Morse communications, analyzing radar and disseminating sign intelligence data. A teletype station was related to Kamiseya. As a result of satellite tv for pc communications weren’t extensively accessible, some crew members have been educated within the nonetheless predominately used Morse code. Linguists fluent in languages resembling Korean and Russian have been on board to translate and interpret intercepted voice communications from plane, ships or floor bases.

A sister EC-121M from VQ-1, the identical digital countermeasures unit as 135749, sits in a revetment at Atsugi Air Base, Japan. (HISTORYNET Archives)

The general umbrella title for recon missions was the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance Program (PARPRO), which in flip had naval (“Beggar Shadow”) and Air Drive (“Commando Clinch”) parts. Beggar Shadow missions monitored elements of the North’s air protection capabilities and communications. The intense northeastern nook of North Korea that borders China and the Soviet Union was an space of explicit curiosity for the navy and intelligence communities. Sometimes, the Joint Chiefs of Employees and the Protection Intelligence Company authorised particular person missions.

On April 11, 1969, Normal Charles Bone­metal III, commander of U.S. forces in Korea, despatched a message to commander in chief, Pacific Command (CINCPAC) Admiral John McCain Sr. concerning the rising tensions with the North. Bonesteel famous that in latest navy armistice fee conferences, the North Koreans had been significantly vehement about “provocative actions” by United Nations forces. Bonesteel urged “aircrews be particularly alert and ready to abort on the first indication of any North Korean response.”

CINCPAC then suggested the Pacific and Seventh fleet instructions about these considerations and informed them to make use of additional warning close to North Korean territory. Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Overstreet, who commanded the April 15 flight, was briefed of those warnings upfront. 

The mission was formally characterised as “low-risk.” From November 1968 to April 1969, 14 recon sorties had been flown close to North Korean territory with little difficulty. Including to Normal Bonesteel’s considerations, nonetheless, the North Korean air pressure deployed two of their superior MiG-21 “Fishbed-F” fighters to Hoemun Airfield in late March 1969. Though Hoemun was primarily a coaching base, it was the closest launch level to Beggar Shadow mission tracks, which normally adopted the identical route. 

Mission preparations have been routine. Aviation Structural Mechanic (Security Gear) 2nd Class (AME2) Greg Andrews of VQ-1 helped put together the plane, together with packing life rafts for this largely overwater effort. Navy floor help personnel signed out the cryptologic gear early on the fifteenth to Lt. (j.g.) Robert Sykora, who can be onboard the EC-121. Fourteen hours later, after the shootdown, these identical floor personnel would ship out a top-secret message indicating the codes have been probably compromised.

Warning Star 135749 (PR-21), name signal “Deep Sea 129,” took off at 0700 hours with eight officers and 23 enlisted personnel on board. (This complement was bigger than for a typical mission because it included Navy personnel in coaching.) The deliberate flight path would hold the EC-121 not less than 50 miles exterior the North Korean border and it will then fly to Osan Air Base, about 40 miles south of Seoul, South Korea. Flight time was estimated at 8½ hours—together with 2½ occasions round a “racetrack loop” primarily parallel to the North Korean shore—earlier than the plane headed to Osan. 

A CIA map exhibits the EC-121’s flight path and website the place the North Korean navy seized USS Pueblo in 1968. (Central Intelligence Company)

A really condensed timeline for the April 15 mission follows, all native Atsugi occasions:

  • 13:00—Kamiseya acquired a routine communications examine from Deep Sea 129, which was to be the plane’s final transmission.
  • 13:30—The EC-121 approached the north finish of the loop and commenced turning east.
  • 13:40—A warning was despatched to the EC-121 crew that North Korean air pressure exercise was being tracked. The 2 MiG-21s at Hoemun had taken off and seemed to be on a course to intercept Deep Sea 129. (Because the EC-121 lacked the communications gear to take part in an advisory warning system arrange by the Nationwide Safety Company, it’s unclear if Deep Sea 129 acquired this or a subsequent warning.)
  • 13:45—The commander of the 314th Air Division at Osan ordered two Convair F-102 Delta Daggers launched on a fight air patrol to a place the place they may help the EC-121.
  • 13:46—An extra warning of the MiGs’ method was issued to the EC-121 (one flew a defensive patrol 65 miles from Deep Sea 129 whereas the opposite made the assault).
  • 13:47—Estimated time of the shootdown, when the EC-121 disappeared from radar. No misery name was acquired. EC-121 emergency procedures have been to dive to a low altitude if attacked; thus the disappearance of the EC-121 from radar didn’t instantly point out {that a} tragedy had occurred.
  • 14:00—Kamiseya tried a routine hourly communications examine with the plane, however no reply was acquired. Concern escalated and all subsequent communication efforts failed. 

Right now, Captain Frank Wilson, who was chargeable for command middle communications, famous that the bottom deputy commander instantly ordered two Convair F-106 Delta Darts into motion at 14:53. Tragically, it was too late.

The primary affirmation that the EC-121 had been shot down got here the subsequent morning when the crew of a Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion noticed particles—uninflated life rafts, paper and dye markers—two nautical miles northeast of the presumed downing location. On the Navy’s request, the Soviets’ Vladivostok-based Pacific Fleet, which was closest to the scene, was first on website to render help. The Soviets offered two destroyers and an anti-submarine ship, probably for goodwill plus the chance to watch the U.S. fleet and procure intelligence data. The search-and-rescue operation marked the primary cooperative assembly of naval ships between the 2 Chilly Battle antagonists since World Battle II.

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American plane arriving within the search space established contact with the Soviet anti-sub ship, which revealed that it had picked up particles from the aircraft however noticed no survivors. One of many destroyers despatched small boats to gather particles marked by a smoke sign dropped by a U.S. plane. The Soviets subsequently recovered the our bodies of two crew members, Lt. (j.g.) Joseph Ribar and Aviation Electronics Technician 1st Class (AT1) Richard Sweeney, and turned them over to the destroyer USS Henry W. Tuckerwhen it arrived on the scene.

There have been experiences of flare sightings and beepers, thus hope for the survival of some crew, however these have been by no means confirmed. The search effort was suspended on April 19 and the remaining 29 males have been listed as lacking in motion. They have been declared as killed in motion on Might 2.

A North Korean pilot waves triumphantly from his MiG-21. The fighter carries AA-2 Atoll air-to-air missiles and is embellished with a purple victory star and “4.15”—probably referring to the April 15 Warning Star shootdown. (HISTORYNET Archive)

The North Koreans alleged the flight was over their territory, whereas the U.S. has constantly maintained it was over worldwide waters. Whereas North Korea claimed sovereignty as much as 12 miles offshore, the shootdown occurred roughly 80 miles off the coast.

A North Korean radio broadcast portrayed the downing of the alleged intruder as “an excellent battle success…with a single shot at a excessive altitude….” The MiG pilot credited with downing the EC-121 was Kim Gin-ok, an 11-victory Korean Battle ace acknowledged because the nation’s prime fighter pilot. Primarily based on wreckage recovered from the Sea of Japan, a joint Navy–Air Drive investigation later concluded that the Warning Star had sustained main harm from not less than one air-to-air missile, probably an AA-2 Atoll (a Soviet copy of the AIM-9 Sidewinder).

Again at Atsugi, casualty help calls officers went to work within the tough days following the shootdown. Many crew members had households on base who have been coping with the emotional, monetary and logistical influence of the tragedy 1000’s of miles from dwelling.

President Nixon was tempted to order a navy response. Choices included conducting Boeing B-52 Stratofortress or carrier-based Grumman A-6 Intruder assaults and ordering the battleship New Jerseyto fireplace on North Korean targets.

Admiral McCain really useful a navy assault: “If we function once more within the Sea of Japan solely as a present of pressure, and with out constructive motion, I consider that we proceed to offer justification to their judgment of us as ‘Paper tigers.’” Normal Bonesteel, nonetheless, believed a U.S. navy response would provoke a pricey retaliatory strike in opposition to South Korea, leading to heavy U.S. and South Korean casualties.

VQ-1 personnel have been understandably outraged and needed to retaliate. As President Johnson had determined with the Pueblo incident, nonetheless, Nixon thought-about the navy choices too dangerous. With the Vietnam Battle raging, a second Asian land struggle was politically perilous and navy sources have been already stretched skinny. As an alternative, the U.S. activated Process Drive 71—consisting of 4 plane carriers, New Jersey and a display of cruisers and destroyers—to guard future intelligence flights, and every week later resumed the flights at a lowered frequency and farther away from the North Korean shore.

A motor launch from USS Henry W. Tucker appears for particles on April 17. (AP Picture/USAF)

Nixon informed Nationwide Safety Adviser Henry Kissinger, “They received away with it this time, however they’ll by no means get away with it once more.” Kissinger wrote in his memoirs: “I choose our conduct within the EC-121 disaster as weak, indecisive, and disorganized….I consider we paid in lots of intangible methods, in demoralized mates and emboldened enemies.” 

Whereas contemplating the diplomatic and navy choices, the Navy carried out an in depth overview of the incident. A naval board of inquiry confirmed that the EC-121M by no means entered North Korean airspace, nor did the crew ship out a misery name. Navy officers, intelligence officers and sailors who testified stated that EC-121 flight crews usually solely placed on their parachutes in a bailout maneuver and underneath the circumstances wouldn’t have been capable of leap. 

Sailors on Henry W. Tucker carry ashore the physique of one of many EC-121 crewmen. (Bettmann/Getty Photographs)

Following the investigation, the board’s main suggestion was to enhance the procedures for assessing menace ranges, resulting in extra well timed warning to reconnaissance plane. Moreover, the Navy prioritized upgrading the plane used on these missions, with EC-121s phased out of navy service within the Seventies and changed by Lockheed EP-3s, the digital intelligence variations of the P-3 Orion. These enhancements in managing PARPRO missions helped keep away from additional losses of plane regardless of quite a few intercepts of intelligence-collection flights, till the Chinese language navy pressured down a U.S. plane in 2001.

The explanations for the North Korean assault stay elusive. Some be aware that April 15 was dic­tator Kim Il-Sung’s birthday, which was a extensively celebrated nationwide vacation within the North. Nixon had referred to North Korea as a “fourth price energy” within the 1968 presidential marketing campaign; Kim might have needed to show in any other case. What is definite is that North Korea has remained a really tough navy and diplomatic drawback for the U.S., proper as much as the current day.  

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