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By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War
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The scene on the other side of the Plexiglas, far beyond the steady, rhythmic drone of the engines and the reach of the machine guns, was sublime. It could have been a classic Chinese scroll, a Song dynasty painting, come to life. Capt. John E. Roche, belted securely in the copilot's seat, took in a vast landmass shrouded in early morning fog. He couldn't make out the coastline, but he could clearly see several mountain peaks towering above the thick mist. Roche guessed that they were seventy to a hundred miles away. The mountains and the mist had an ethereal quality. But they were not Chinese. They were Siberian.
Roche, aircraft commander Capt. Stanley K. O'Kelley, and the others in this particular plane's crew had been told two days earlier, on the morning of July 27, that they were to take off the following night on a nine-hour mission. It was relatively short notice because they would be replacing another crew whose aircraft had developed mechanical problems. Planes and their crews always stayed together. Most planes had idiosyncrasies that took getting used to. So did most crews.
The day -- July 27, 1953 -- figured importantly in history and decisively in the fate of John Roche, Stan O'Kelley, and the other sixteen men who were now flying a United States military aircraft toward Soviet airspace. It was the day the armistice was signed that ended the Korean War.
It was understandable that the cease-fire was celebrated by long, boisterous parties at U.S. military bases throughout East Asia, including at Yokota Air Force Base outside of Tokyo, where O'Kelley and his crew were stationed. Booze was officially prohibited at the celebrations, but the only people who took that order seriously were the officers who issued it, and maybe they didn't, either. The parties at Yokota were thrown on the night of the 28th, as O'Kelley and his crew got ready to fly, and would cause a number of ground personnel to sleep later than usual the following morning because of a number of afflictions. Stan O'Kelley went to one of them, but he was a good aircraft commander who had a mission to fly in a matter of hours, so he left early and got some sleep.
In South Korea itself, however, the mood in the Air Force's crack fighter units -- notably the Sabrejet-wielding Fourth and Fifty-first Fighter Wings -- was somewhat different. The fighter fraternity was an intensely competitive, self-defined elite that traced its bloodline back to the legendary Eddie Rickenbacker's Hat in the Ring Squadron and Manfred von Richthofen, imperial Germany's fabled Red Baron, and his Flying Circus. Like their ghostly predecessors, the brotherhood kept score by kills. Five victories in the air conferred the status of ace on a man; ten made him a venerated double ace: a tiger. Capt. Joseph McConnell, Jr., won the Korean "ace race" with sixteen kills.
The armistice meant the fighter pilots would have to stop attacking enemy planes to run up their scores. But Capt. Ralph S. Parr, who flew a yellow-banded F-86F Sabrejet in the renowned Fourth Fighter Wing, needed only one more kill to join the pantheon of double aces. His fighter carried six machine guns in its nose that could chew an opponent to shreds. Parr and three other pilots in the wing were flying escort near the Yalu River on the afternoon of the 27th, just before the armistice took effect, when they spotted a twin-engine Soviet Ilyushin 11-12 transport, which he later reported had red stars on its wings, heading east. After making two identification passes, Parr pounced on the unarmed propeller-driven aircraft, guns blazing in long bursts. It blew up in midair. Parr's was the last kill of the Korean War.
In a heated exchange of diplomatic notes that started almost immediately, the Department of State chose to ignore the fact that the 11-12 was an airliner, not a combat aircraft, and instead insisted that it had been shot down over North Korea and was therefore fair game. The Soviet Foreign Ministry was just as adamant that it had been attacked over Manchuria, not North Korea, and was therefore technically out of bounds (though American fighter pilots, unable to suppress boyish exuberance, had routinely poached in the "priviledged sanctuary" that harbored MiGs north of the Yalu throughout the war). More to the point, the infuriated Russians maintained that the 11-12 was on a regularly scheduled civilian flight to Vladivostok and that the fifteen passengers (reportedly including advisers heading back to their country) and six crewmen on board had therefore been murdered well inside China in a "pirate-like attack." Evidence indicated that the 11-12 was in fact taking the most direct route from Lu-Shun in China to Vladivostok, which cuts across the extreme northeastern tip of North Korea. And that's where Parr bagged it. But the boundaries are so close that most of its wreckage apparently came down in China, and that's how the Russians, who were notoriously thin-skinned, made their case. They were undoubtedly in a vengeful mood.
The next day, the 28th, O'Kelley, Roche, and their navigators, 1st Lts. Edmund J. Czyz, Lloyd C. Wiggins, the radar navigator, and James G. Keith, the nose navigator, had gone to the mission planning room. This mission would require three navigators because their plane's precise location at any given moment would be supremely important. Czyz, the chief navigator, used standard celestial navigation and dead reckoning. Wiggins would keep track of where they were with radar. And Keith, sitting in the glassed-in nose, would watch for landmarks. If Czyz and Wiggins couldn't agree on exactly where they were, Jim Keith had the tie-breaking vote.
Maj. John Norton, an operations officer, had handed O'Kelley a file containing precise instructions for the mission itself. It laid out the course of the flight on an aerial navigation chart in a series of coordinates and bearings, each of them at a specific altitude. Once the nature of the mission was absorbed, Roche left the room, followed a short time later by O'Kelley. The navigators stayed behind to plot details on their own charts.
At about 10:45 that night, with everyone dressed in flight gear, O'Kelley's crew had sat on wooden folding chairs in a Quonset hut that served as a briefing room for a final explanation of what was supposed to happen. "We were to fly out from Yokota," Roche would later recall in a written deposition, "climb on course to Wajima Homer (a radio station check point on a small island off the Japanese coast north of Nagoya), then on a course of approximately 315 degrees, climbing to an altitude of approximately 18,500 feet. Upon reaching a position of 133 degrees east longitude and forty degrees north latitude, we were to climb to an altitude of 25,000." They were instructed to follow that course until they reached a control point over the Sea of Japan at 5:30 a.m. on the 29th. It would be forty minutes after sunrise on a beautiful morning. From there, O'Kelley or Roche would make a series of right turns at precisely calculated intervals, which would keep them on a track off the coast of North Korea and then Siberia.
That, at any rate, is what John Roche said for the record after the incident that ended the flight. And most of it was true. But because the nature of his work required a special security clearance, and no doubt because he was coached by Air Force Security Service personnel, Roche understood that certain facts had to be left out of the story. Those facts had to do with the real reason they were flying to Siberia, not the "official" one, and so Roche's account would have to be "sanitized" (which is the intelligence world's fastidious way of saying censored).
After the navigation briefing O'Kelley and the others had gone to a routine meeting with Capt. James H. Keeffe, the unit's weather officer. He had told them there would be thunderheads and some rain as they headed out of Japanese airspace, but that there would be clear skies and only ground fog the rest of the way out and back. The fog would not be a problem. Whatever Keeffe's military specialty, he savored the excitement of combat missions and had hitched rides on more than a dozen of them. He had planned to go on this one, too, but since it was his wife Sandy's birthday, he decided to stay behind and celebrate the occasion with dinner and dancing, maybe at one of the lingering armistice parties. The decision to honor his wife instead of his ego probably saved his life.
Keeffe's presentation had been followed by one from a captain named Gorman, an intelligence officer, who explained what they were supposed to do that night. Then Gorman had gotten down to worst-case scenarios. O'Kelley and the others had heard this part so many times they had it memorized. If they had to crashland or bail out and were captured, Gorman had told them, lamely, they should demand to be taken to the American ambassador in Moscow. "Keep insisting on seeing him or talking to him," he had advised. The nature of their work made the suggestion seem like black humor. The cover story, Gorman had explained yet again, was that they were on a routine training mission in a B-29-type aircraft and that there were more than the usual number of crewmen on board because some were trying to increase their monthly flying time. Finally, as usual, he had warned them to keep strict radio silence starting at one hundred miles outbound from Yokota. Except for short, coded position reports every half hour indicating they were all right, which would be sent to a National Security Agency listening post, relayed from there to Far East Air Force Headquarters, and then sent to operations, they were to stay off the air until they reached that point coming home.
In the event they did go down in Siberia and bailed out or survived a crash
landing, every man in the crew carried a silk scarf, known in the fraternity as
a "blood chit," that said in Russian its bearer was a member of the U.S. Air
Force and a substantial reward would be paid for his safe return. But everyone
in the fraternity knew that a substantial penalty, say execution on the spot,
would be paid to any Russian who was caught protecting an American airman. There
was no delusion on that one.
Excerpted from By Any Means Necessary: America's Secret Air War in the Cold War by William E. Burrows. Copyright © 2001 by William E. Burrows. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.