Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights

Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights

by Larry Tart, Robert Keefe

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The recent forced landing of a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft on Hainan Island after aerial harassment by Chinese fighters underscores that the dangers of the Cold War are not behind us. Reconnaissance-intelligence gathering-has always been one of the most highly secretive operations in the military. Men risk their lives with no recognition for themselves, flying missions that were almost always unarmed and typically pose as weather survey or training flights. Now the true stories of these brave young men can at last be told. Larry Tart and Robert Keefe, former USAF airborne recon men themselves, provide a gripping, unprecedented history of American surveillance planes shot down by China and Russia-from the opening salvoes of the Cold War to the most recent international standoff with China.

Appearing here for the first time are many crucial documents, ranging from formerly highly classified U.S. files to conversations with Khrushchev and top secret reports from the Russian presidential archives. Along with previously unreleased military details, this meticulously researched book includes MiG fighter pilot transcripts and interviews with participants from both sides-including survivors of downed American planes. From the Baltic to the Bering Seas, from Armenia and Azerbaijan to China, Korea, and the Sea of Japan, these gripping accounts reveal the drama of what really happened to Americans shot down in hostile skies.

The Price of Vigilance brings to life the harrowing ordeals faced by the steel-nerved crews, the diplomatic furor that erupts after shootdowns, and the grief and frustration of the families waiting at home-families who, most often, were never told what their loved ones were doing. Armed with the results of recent crash-site excavations, advanced DNA testing, and the reports of local witnesses who can finally reveal what they saw, Tart and Keefe have written a real-life thriller of the deadly cat-and-mouse game of intelligence gathering in the air and across enemy borders.

The centerpiece of the book is the fate of USAF C-130 60528 and its crew of seventeen, shot down over Armenia on September 2, 1958, with no known survivors. Tart and Keefe also vividly describe other shootdowns, including the tense stand off between the U.S. and China after an American reconnaissance aircraft was forced to land on Hainan Island in April 2001.

The Price of Vigilance pays moving tribute to the courage and patriotism of all the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy crews, including those captured and the more than two hundred who never returned. Larry Tart and Robert Keefe wish to publicly acknowledge to the families, and to the nation, that we will never forget their sacrifice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345450159
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/01/2001
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 656
Sales rank: 610,332
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Larry Tart served in the U.S. Air Force Security Service for twenty-one years, retiring in 1977 as a senior master sergeant. Trained as a Russian cryptologic linguist, he logged approximately 3,000 hours aboard C-130 and RC-135 aircraft conducting aerial signals intelligence reconnaissance missions. He has received eleven Air Medals and two Meritorious Service Medals. In September 2000, the Air Force Air Intelligence Agency inducted Larry into its Hall of Honor. He played a major role in creating the Aerial Reconnaissance (C-130) Memorial to honor 60528’s lost crew, dedicated in Fort Meade, Maryland, on September 2, 1997. He and his wife, Diane, reside in State College, Pennsylvania.

Robert Keefe is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1956-57, he was trained as a Russian linguist and subsequently became one of the first airborne Russian-German linguists in Europe. He was a close friend of many of the recon crew members of aircraft 60528 when it was shot down. After his discharge from the Air Force in 1961, he received a B.A. from Brandeis University. Having won both a Woodrow Wilson and a Danforth Fellowship, he earned his Ph.D. at Princeton, specializing in Victorian literature. At UMass, he served for nearly a decade as director of English graduate studies. He lives in Northhampton, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


The Shootdown

Three a.m. is a miserable time to get up. By three-thirty on September 2, 1958, the crew of the C-130 was sitting in the dining hall. Nothing ever tasted good in the mess halls at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, but breakfast, particularly at that time of the morning, was even worse than the other meals. Powdered eggs, powdered milk, even the coffee (prepared to what they thought were American standards by cooks who were used to a quite different, much stronger Turkish brew) were terrible. The seventeen men, deprived of proper sleep by their strange schedule, looked as if they had been up for days.

In those days, duty in Turkey was awful at the best of times. There was nothing to do in the evening but drink and play cards, and the food inevitably gave at least part of the crew dysentery. This group was special, though, so perhaps they didn't yet feel ill. The eleven enlisted men who made up the reconnaissance section on the crew were almost all athletes, members of their unit's softball team, one that had nearly won the Rhein-Main Air Base tournament several days earlier. Because of their hectic playing schedule, they hadn't flown as much in the previous month as the other men in their unit, but they were in excellent physical condition. Maybe they had fought off the local microbes that seemed to have a fondness for American bodies. Though most of them drank, none of them was a really heavy drinker by the standards of their outfit. Besides, even suffered together, a hangover and the runs couldn't keep a man from flying.

After breakfast the men climbed into the waiting truck and headed out to their plane parked on the west side of the tarmac, the side of the Turkish army base reserved for Americans.

The aircrew consisted of six flight crew members (the "front-enders," who actually flew the aircraft) and eleven recon specialists (the "back-enders," who monitored Soviet bloc communications). The front-enders and their RB-50 and C-130 recon aircraft were assigned to the 7406th Support Squadron, U.S. Air Forces, Europe (USAFE), and the recon crewmen belonged to Detachment 1, 6911th Radio Group Mobile-- a U.S. Air Force Security Service (USAFSS) unit. Both the 7406th and Detachment 1 were based at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, Germany.

Although the two units flew together daily, their relationship was uncomfortable. The men in the plane that day reported to two different headquarters with different and, at times, conflicting goals. Under such circumstances, cooperation was useful, but hardly inevitable.

The small detachment of the 6911th was composed primarily of Russian and Soviet-satellite language specialists who were responsible for aerial reconnaissance of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from the Baltic Sea in the north to the southernmost reaches of Soviet Armenia in the south. The 7406th maintained and flew the planes. However, although the flight crews possessed secret or top secret clearances, and the common sense to guess what the back-ender recon crewmen were doing, they did not officially know who their passengers were or why the aircraft flew their specific routes. The front-enders (all officers except for an enlisted flight engineer) had no need to know the details of what the back-enders did, and the back-enders (all enlisted) were forbidden to tell.

The two halves of the crew were completely separate, in the air and on the ground. In fact, the men of the 7406th were forbidden even to mention to outsiders the 6911th or its Rhein-Main detachment; they referred to the back-enders simply as "sailors." The head sailor (the NCO who was the airborne mission supervisor) was the "admiral."

In reality, Detachment 1's back-enders came by their name logically. When the 7406th and Detachment 1 were being formed in 1955-56, the RB-50 recon aircraft assigned to the 7406th Support Squadron was dubbed the "Dream Boat"--a nickname used in unclassified conversations and messages. It followed that the recon crews would become "sailors."

Some of the 7406th pilots resented the fact that they seemed to be treated like chauffeurs by a group of enlisted men. Questioned years later about that relationship, one pilot had this to say:

I came to the '06th out of TAC [Tactical Air Command] with the usual heavy indoctrination from flight training of the position of the officer over the enlisted troops and the leadership qualities for which I had been chosen. . . . [It] took some getting used to when I found that enlisted personnel had such a measure of control over operational aspects of the mission. Over time, I came to realize that I wasn't dealing with "typical" enlisted troops, but for the whole time that I was flying in the '06th, I was going on blind faith that [those] guys knew what they were doing. There was the vague discomfort from time to time when I thought about mission success and crew survival.

These strangely split crews, with enlisted men who often gave directions to officers, normally rotated into Incirlik for a stay of two weeks every two months, flying eleven hours a day in RB-50s, three days a week. That schedule changed in the late summer of 1958 because of heightened Middle East political tensions, and the resulting American apprehension about a possible Soviet attack on Turkey. In normal times, crews took off before dawn, spent eleven hours flying along the Soviet border, then landed and drove to a hangar where they stored the classified tapes on which they had recorded Soviet military communications. The rest of the evening was free. But because of the political tensions in the summer of 1958, the five language specialists specially chosen for an August 5 deployment remained in Turkey for an extended period and, after each day's flight, spent several extra hours in the hangar reviewing what they had taped. Thus, their workday often lasted from 3:00 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. or midnight.

The intelligence specialists on the September 2 mission expected to remain in Turkey for well over a month but probably looked forward to improved working conditions, at least while in the air: the 7406th had received a consignment of new C-130s to replace the RB-50s, worn-out relics of the Korean War era that had been retrofitted for reconnaissance work. Since the new planes were expected to be more reliable and carried twice as many intelligence operatives, both the 7406th and Detach- ment 1 were anxious to place them into service as quickly as possible, in Turkey as well as Germany.

Fresh out of the factory, the C-130s were outfitted with a galley, a real toilet (the RB-50 had a bucket), and a heating system that worked. They even had red carpeting. The large pods under the tip of each wing, built to look like auxiliary fuel tanks, were actually crammed with radio antennas. Powered by four turboprop engines, they took off at what for the 1950s was a steep angle, and they could land on unbelievably short runways.

Arriving at their aircraft before dawn on the morning of September 2, 1958, the crew for the local mission over Turkey was informed by the 7406th maintenance chief that the plane wasn't ready to fly. C-130 tail number 60528, which had arrived in Turkey the previous day, would not be ready until late morning. Like the other new C-130s in the squadron, 528 was a spanking-new aircraft with less than two hundred total fly- ing hours, most of them in transition training for the flight crews and recon crews--nonmission flights to familiarize the men with their new equipment. For its time, the C-130 was a state-of-the-art machine, with hundreds of new, unfamiliar systems and components; neither the maintenance crews nor the aircrews were yet completely comfortable with the new gear. And 528 was the most trouble-prone of the new aircraft.

So both crews, front-end and back-end, had a few extra hours before the new scheduled takeoff time. M.Sgt. George Petrochilos had brought a crew down from Germany on 25 August for an extended stay, and Petrochilos's crew was living in the unit's Quonset hut. They were flying the local mission from Incirlik on September 2. While 528 was being prepared for a late takeoff, Pete's recon crew may have returned to the unit's hut, but it is doubtful that they had time to catch more than a few minutes sleep before they had to report back for takeoff.

The flight crew stayed at the plane, talking with the ground maintenance men about the minutiae of the repair and some of the hundreds of other details they would need to learn about the new craft in the course of the coming year. 1st Lt. Ricardo Villarreal, lead navigator, spent his time discussing the C-130's navigation system and the day's flight route with Capt. Edward Jeruss, second navigator. Lieutenant Villarreal had extensive experience on the unit's Turkish routes--he had logged more hours in 1958 than any other navigator in the squadron, but nearly all of his missions in general, and every one of his Turkish missions, had been in RB-50s. He was considered the best young navigator in the unit, but like everyone else in the 7406th, he was still getting used to the new C-130 equipment.

He did have more experience on the new planes than most of the navigators in his outfit. He had ferried 60528 from the depot at Greenville, Texas, to Rhein-Main, Germany; had flown several transition training missions in the plane; and had been the lead navigator on the previous day's mission from Rhein-Main to Adana. But the September 2 mission would be his first in a C-130 on the eastern Turkish route.

The aircraft's pilot, Capt. Rudy Swiestra, was a highly skilled veteran flier, but like the others, he had relatively little experience on the C-130, and none at all flying in the Turkish mission area. A more senior pilot, Capt. Paul Duncan, was "standboarding" him, checking him out in order to upgrade him to aircraft commander in Turkey. Swiestra had long since received that designation for the German missions. The copilot, 1st Lt. John Simpson, was one of the most impressive men in the 7406th; the senior officers felt sure that he would make general before he retired. Captain Duncan would also be taking a look at Lieutenant Simpson. Later in the week, he was scheduled to evaluate Lieutenant Simpson and in all probability upgrade Simpson's status from copilot to aircraft commander.

The crew was scheduled to fly an "overland" mission on September 2. That is, instead of flying out over the southern half of the Black Sea in order to listen in on Soviet air force pilots and ground forces in the Crimean Peninsula area, the aircraft would fly along the eastern border of Turkey--concentrating on Soviet military communications from Soviet Georgia and Armenia. With Soviet and American tensions rising over Lebanon and Soviet saber-rattling against Turkey, the crew's primary mission that day was to listen for Soviet ground communications involving new Soviet SS-4 SCUD surface-to-surface missiles suspected of being in that area.

But it had other missions as well. Soviet radar operators, tracking the path of the Trabzon-Van leg of the recon flights out of Incirlik, referred to the normal American procedure as "painting" the Soviet border. As the American aircraft hugged the Soviet border, it would be picked up and tracked by one Soviet air defense radar station after another. As the radar stations tracked airborne targets, Soviet operators used Morse code (and to a lesser extent, voice) to report tracking data via radio to air defense centers and command posts. Using the tracking data, updated minute by minute on a large map of the area, Soviet tactical aircraft controllers could direct fighter pilots by voice-command radios during intercept missions. Monitoring those communications was a handy way for the Americans to keep track of the "air order of battle" and modus operandi in the front-line Soviet air force and air defense units. Order of battle data are the identification, command structure, strength, and disposition of personnel, equipment, and units of an armed force.

Incirlik Air Base is located a few miles outside of Adana, a medium-size city in south-central Turkey. The plane would fly north-northeast from Incirlik, passing over or abeam the Kayseri beacon in east-central Turkey, and then head for Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast about a hundred miles west of the Soviet border. From there it would fly southeast to a point near the east coast of Lake Van, opposite the border of Soviet Armenia. The overland mission called for "orbiting" between Trabzon and Van in a figure-eight pattern (always turning away from Soviet territory) until heading back to Incirlik eight hours after takeoff. The C-130A-II had adequate fuel onboard to fly about three orbits between Trabzon and Van before returning home to Incirlik.

In the end, instead of taking off at dawn as they had planned, they weren't in the air until 11:21 a.m. Incirlik time. The pilot rescheduled their return to Incirlik for 19:40 that evening--projecting an eight hour and twenty minute mission. For that group, used to flying eleven hours at a time on ancient, uncomfortable RB-50 aircraft, those were bankers' hours.

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