The plane was brought down in Vietnam while performing a combat mission. The pilot is missing. In the 30 post-war years it has been impossible to discover anything else about many American pilots.
Photo: Archive photo, AP
Hunting for the “Rustling Death”
One of the greatest mysteries in the Soviet-American history is the fate of the American citizens who disappeared in the Vietnam war and are believed to have been exported to the USSR. The Russian-American commission looked for them for more than 10 years; millions of dollars have been spent. All in vain. The investigation held by the columnist of Vlast, Evgeny Zhirnov, has turned out to be more successful.
The conduct of the major was as least strange. In the last decade of November (it was 1991), he called me at the Moscow office of Stern where I worked at that time. His voice was depressed and he asked me whether I was coming to Kiev for the elections. To tell the truth the elections of the first president of the Ukraine, which had almost broken away from Russia, were of no interest either for me or for the German readers. The second world power was going to pieces and the most significant events were taking place in Moscow. Some comrades were hurriedly hiding the money of the East-German communist party in the capital of the dying empire; others were trying to find a place for the CPSU assets in banks and cooperatives. The trade of the Soviet heritage (raging from archives to arms) was picking up before our very eyes.
There was none whatsoever desire to go. However, the major hinted that he had something interesting for me. As it should be they bought me a ticket for currency. When the Intourist staff in Vnukovo saw my ticket as well as the foreign correspondent accreditation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID) they tried to speak German with me. There was a separate bus that took us, foreigners, to the plane. We received abundant food in flight separately from the citizens of the USSR.
However, contrary to my expectations the major did not meet me in Borispol. On the phone his wife said he was not home, nobody picked up the phone at work. I had to wait for him at the doors of the check-point in the evening. When he saw me he got the hump. For some reason known only to him we went to the Dom Ofitserov, drank some wish-wash that was called cognac and I listened to his stories about Ukraine's happy and wealthy future once it became independent. Then suddenly I saw that he was absolutely afraid. That was the only reason he had been hiding and was trying to put off the beginning of the conversation.
We got down to business in the street. Actually, it did not happen right away either – we silently strayed about side streets for 30-40 minutes. I was beginning to feel bored with this spy game. Finally, he plucked up the courage: “Have you heard about the Americans who found themselves in the Union against their will?” Of course I have! That autumn everybody wrote about the Americans who had disappeared in Russia (including Kommersant).
It followed from the publications that America had lost a considerable number of its citizens on the one-sixth of the land. First of all, it was those who helped in the industrialization of the USSR, believed in the coming triumph of socialism and stayed at its motherland for good. Then, a greater part of them was arrested on charges of espionage and disappeared forever.
American pilots interned during the time of the Second World War were referred to the second category. Those were the pilots from bombers: the damages their planes received after raids to Japan prevented them from returning to their bases and they hardly made it to the Soviet territory. Of course, the USA was an ally of the USSR. However, there existed a non-aggression pact with Japan, according to which, all of its enemies had to be disarmed and interned. Not to irritate the neighbor, the Soviet authorities sent the American pilots to special places where they were kept as guests until the time the USSR joined in the war against Japan. According to Americans, far from all of those pilots returned home.
However, it was the following category that was specially looked for: the American military missing in action in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Their compatriots asserted that as appreciation for the military assistance on the part of the USSR, North Korea and Vietnam handed over part of the war prisoners to their senior partner in the socialist camp.
General Oleg Kalugin added fuel to the fire (Kalugin was ousted from the KGB by Gorbachev). According to him, he personally interrogated an American prisoner in Vietnam scrutinizing the possibility of his recruitment. He said that some of his colleagues interrogated prisoners for the same purpose. Thus, some of the Americans who wavered during the conversations of the kind could have been brought to the USSR.
The boom around the Americans lost by the USA reached its peak when a multi-millionaire from the USA announced that he was ready to pay $ 10 million bonus for each live prisoner returned home.
“I have specific information about prisoners. – I could scarcely hear the major. – Suppose – this was his favorite word - I will share it. Can I get money for it? Things look black in my family.”
Everything fell in its places. He was afraid that he would sell too cheap. Apparently, the number of zeroes in the bonus had turned his head. I did my best to convince him that the figures of the kind were a carrot displayed for fools. That one had to have a realistic view of life.
The major became quiet. Then he suggested that we put the conversation off until the next day. He had to think. I would agree to stay in Kiev another day for him, wouldn't I? I could not refuse taking into account the fact that he had helped me out two years earlier.
There was no doubt that the major did know something. Throughout my whole life of a journalist I had met not more than a dozen people who were as informed as he was (even though I had a chance to talk to members of Politbureau and leaders of special services).
We met by chance. At the end of 1988 I waved applied science good-bye since it had lost the financing. I had to choose between my reserve professions. My publications in newspapers had been few but Komsomolskaya Pravda still took me on for training. I wrote a whole bunch of small articles. However I needed a considerable one if I wanted to take root in the editorial staff.
|Photo: Archive photo, RGAKFD/ROSINFORM
|At the time of the war the American air force suffered a major technical damage (left) and casualties (right down, wounded American pilot propping up a grummet with his legs) from the anti-aircraft defense of North Vietnam (center).
At that time, General Boris Gromov was the hero of the Soviet Union in all respects. An Afghan army commander, a people's deputy and simply another Marshal Zhukov as it seemed to many back then. I thought that an interview with him was just what I needed. The new commander of the Kiev military district did not have time for conversations in Moscow. So he invited me to Kiev.
I put up at a military hotel and Gromov's adjutant politely informed me that the commander would see me the next day. However, the next day he said the same. And the next day as well. My neighbors-officers had different interpretations of the situation. According to one, the sarcophagus housing over the fourth power unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had subsided and Gromov was there all the time to exercise personal control over the restoration work. Another was sure that the commander was not getting on well with the district's officers and allegedly somebody had hinted to Gromov that an accidental shell in the course of maneuvers could put an end to his ascension to the heights of the military power. So much for fables because there was a chance that my trip could result in failure.
Out of despair, I went to have beer on Kreshchatik. There were a lot people. However, there was no one next to a lieutenant who was sipping his beer. The reason was simple: the Burgundy cap-band on his service cap showed that the guy was an interior forces officer (“rex” – in common parlance). People did not like them. As for the latter, their conduct was that of real outcasts. I knew a sergeant from the interior forces school. He called his educational institution by its former name – the NKVD Commander School named after Comrade Beria. The students took pride in the fact that running was their finals (various-distance races) and that trying to get the best grade some of them died while running. Thus there was nothing unusual about the reaction of the people in the bar. Actually he was lucky he did not get beaten.
I came up to the lieutenant with my beer. “They look sideways at me, - he complained. – Whereas I am not a convoy guy. I am from the specialized troops, do you understand?” This was how they called the units of interior forces that guarded special objects – nuclear power plants, plants on the production of nuclear weapons, etc. We got into a conversation. It turned out that the guy was in command of the regiment, which guarded the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the 30-kilometer zone around it. I was surprised: “Which regiment? I've read that the power station and the area around it are guarded by those in additional service.” The lieutenant got angry: “They bam you! We have a whole regiment of soldiers drafted for a fixed period of time.” “Don't they die?” – “Only once they get home. Everything is perfect with the reports in the regiment.”
This was a subject for my article. The lieutenant showed me into the district headquarters of the interior forces and quietly receded. As for me, I found the person in charge of political indoctrination to talk to. When I asked if I could visit the Chernobyl regiment I expected nothing but a refusal. However suddenly the general said that a car and an attendant would be waiting for me in the morning at the hotel.
Everything was done precisely as he had said. However, there were two fellow travelers. There was an elderly officer in the back seat of UAZ (military jeep). He took the opportunity to get to his unit in Chernobyl. This was the major. Right away we found common ground. It turned out that the major was a good acquaintance of my scientific advisor (I defended my thesis in Kiev) – the basis for friendly relations was more than sufficient. The lieutenant colonel from the department of political indoctrination quickly detected that and suggested that the major should assume the care about me. Having delivered us to the regiment, he hurriedly left back for Kiev. We drove around the Chernobyl area in the major's car. I listened to the stories of the soldiers about their weird service and looked around. The parks with the equipment contaminated by radiation were guarded by “guerilla”-reservists called for periodical training. They sunbathed spreading out their bed-sheets on this very equipment. Once we saw children walking along a road in the district, which according to all calculations should have been evacuated. They told us that their parents had brought them to their granny for vacations.
Major and I spent our evenings getting rid of radionuclides with the help of vodka and green tea – the best, according to major, means ever invented by mankind for this purpose. Day in and day out, I listened to the stories about his life and service. At times, I had the impression that he had visited practically all of the country's secret objects. He told me things about the numbered Chelyabinsk towns, which appeared in newspapers only 5-6 years later. For example, I learned about mutant fish from radioactive lakes. He told me about Baikonur. Back then nobody knew that there had been a shuttle project in the USSR long before Buran.
|Photo: Archive photo, AP
|Photos of captive pilots and a photographer from AP archives.
However his stories about closed towns and their inhabitants were the most interesting ones. For example, he told me that some of those towns were a kind of a prison for former spies and some important foreigners. A person seems to enjoy freedom. They can go for a walk, take walks in the forest. However they are under constant supervision. Actually they are serving a life term in prison. Afterwards this also turned out to be true.
The major shared about many other striking things. However, some of that I have been unable to verify so far and there are other things, which I am saving for a rainy day.
I returned to Kiev and then to Moscow. Wrote an article – “Forgotten Garrison”, which was discussed in the Council of Ministers of the USSR. I did get the job.
We kept in touch with the major through regular phone-calls. I would buy some books and send them to Kiev for him. He would send something to me. He put on a brave face and said that radiation had no effect upon people like him. But then he shared that the soldier who had driven us around the zone had died. Several days after, he took his discharge – as usual in such cases. As for the ensign that used to bring hot water for our green tea, he was dying in a cancer hospital.
Actually, the major was not doing any better. When after the strange evening meeting we saw each other in the daytime he looked pale as a ghost. White as a wall, bow-backed, coughing. “With me the radiation dose was excess even before Chernobyl. – He tried to smile. – Now I am the champion among our guys. The doctors say that my immune system is failing.” It was clear that his near death was his main family problem.
The major asked if I had read the article in Kommersant about a captive American pilot who lived in the closed town of Saryshagan. Just in case he had the clip with him.
|The photo was made in 2000: Vietnamese photographer Mai Nam who made this picture.
- It is true. However there were two captive American pilots - a crew. The engine was stopped and the plane was seized. Afterwards they were transported to the Union together with the plane.
- What kind of a plane?
- A fighter plane.
- Are you sure? – I asked.
- I saw the plane myself. I think it is still there. If need be I can show it.
He answered no more questions. Then he said that he had weighed and calculated everything. He wanted $ 40 thousand.
I returned to Moscow and talked to my superiors. However a German magazine was not interested in captive Americans. Let alone for such a sum of money. My colleagues suggested that I should turn to an American TV company. However having given it a thought they offered only $ 6 thousand.
To say that the major was disappointed means to say absolutely nothing. He would not even discuss any variants. “What should I do with the information about the plane that was seized? Can I use it without giving your name?” – I asked. The major was silent. Then he said: “You are not the only one who knows it now, are you? Go ahead, look for it - just don't do harm to my family.”
To put it mildly, the starting point for the investigation was not the most favorable one. Scanty information: two pilots, a fighter plane, seized, transported. What kind of a plane? By whom and where was it seized? Two pilots. Were in Saryshagan. But I did not know who they were and if they were alive. The list of the Americans missing in action in the South-Eastern Asia, which I received from the American TV company, contained 3507 names. According to reference books, there were about a dozen battleplanes used in Vietnam, which could be referred to the category of fighter or attack planes according to our classification. I suppose it would be easier to find a needle in a bundle of hay.
Nevertheless I thought that the investigation did make sense. The major must be telling the truth. And I was not mistaken.
(To be continued)
Newspapers Won't Lie
November 4, 1991
Captive Americans in Russia: it is unlikely that mother-America will seek them out…
On October 29 the hearings on the military missing in action (MIA) in Vietnam (but transported to the USSR, according to witnesses) began in the US Senate. According to observers, we have a scandal, which could compare to the Wallenberg one.
The scandal broke out on October 27 when The Los Angeles Times
Magazine published an article in which in a conversation with an American journalist KGB Major General Kalugin admitted that an acquaintance of his had interrogated Americans in Vietnam. Already on October 29 senator Kerry produced a direct confirmation of Kalugin's words to those present at the hearings in the Senate – a report unclassified by the CIA (there is a copy of the report in Kommersant
's editorial office). The report reads: “Preliminary inspection and surveys of the population in the Vinh Phu province (where American pilots were captured) point to the fact that the Soviet and Chinese military were present in this place… Interrogations were held at the Lam Thao superphosphate plant. Soviet representatives were here in 1963-1967…” The head of the Center for Public Relations of the inter-republican security service, Aleksander Karbainov, told a Kommersant
correspondent that he could not help in the investigation of the MIA story. However an informer from the former KGB (served in Vietnam in the 60-s) has revealed the following: in particular it was scientific-technical intelligence that was after the prisoners - they wanted information on the American aeronautical engineering. Interrogations were held not only in Vietnam but also in Laos.
As another participant of the Vietnam events, Pavel Ponomarev, has informed the Kommersant
correspondent, in 1962 he was a navigator in a troop-carrier and transported American prisoners from South Vietnam. Ponomarev refused to give the name of the KGB staff who supervised the “deportation”. According to some other Soviet soldiers that fought in Vietnam, there were attempts to transport sick captives by sea from the Haiphong port to Vladivostok. One attempt of the kind resulted in the death from fever of five Americans.
The further fate of the Americans deported to the USSR is unknown as is their total number. According to the information published in the American press, at the time of the July meeting Bush asked Gorbachev to look into the MIA issue. However, experts think that it is too early to expect results. In particular because some of those MIA Americans that found themselves in the USSR could have been recruited and are safely working abroad in the interests of their second motherland.
As a result of a private investigation held by a Kommersant
correspondent, one MIA American has presumably been ascertained. In September 1967, he was brought to Alma-Ata and from there – to Saryshagan. His name (known to the editorial staff) is not listed on the request of Kommersant
's informers because they are connected with the former prisoner through work. He was a co-pilot in the American Air Force and was brought down over Vietnam on May 19, 1967.
Speaking of Kalugin, as informed sources have revealed, in an interview to Australian journalists (which has not been published yet) the Soviet General announced that he was prepared to make an open speech in Washington with the information on MIA.
by Yury Pankov
| The types of planes flying which the Americans disappeared in Vietnam (battleplanes with the crew of two pilots)
| Pilots flying outdated propeller-driven airplanes disappeared as well. However, it was easier to buy such planes than to hijack them.
See the beginning:
Part two (#43)
Part three (#44)
Part four (#45)
Part five (#46)
All the Article in Russian as of Oct. 25, 2004