The Shootdown of Flight 60528

     The United States emerged from World War II victorious and the most powerful nation on Earth with its enemies completely vanquished. With a world weary from years of war, American leaders at the time expected an extended period of peace and reconstruction based on cooperation with wartime allies. It soon became apparent, however, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, more commonly referred to as the Soviet Union, and more specifically, Russia, along with its newly expanded bloc of closely-controlled satellites were acting with increased hostility toward the nations of the West, particularly the United States.
     Rather than a shooting war, this new conflict came to be know as the “Cold War,” played out in many theaters behind the scenes as a political chess match with the threat of nuclear holocaust constantly hovering above the participants. The United States initiated new actions to protect the security of the U.S., among them national-level intelligence activities. Most decision makers at the time remembered the trauma of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 which caused heavy loss of life, great damage to the U.S. Navy, and swept the U.S. into the Second World War. These officials were determined to prevent another Pearl Harbor.
     At the same time, the primary object of concern for the U.S., namely the Soviet Union, was a “denied” country, that is to say, travel within its territories for foreigners (and even its own citizens) was severely restricted. Obtaining reliable information about the country or its military capabilities was extremely difficult, if not impossible, through conventional intelligence methods. In response to the need for more verifiable intelligence, defense policymakers established a national program of reconnaissance, carried out by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy. The U.S. Army also engaged in reconnaissance, but primarily for tactical objectives.
     The existence of the intelligence program was kept classified for decades. When I arrived in West Berlin in 1965, the 6912th Security Squadron had been at the U.S. base at Tempelhof Airport for several years, but even the base commander did not know the true mission of the squadron for a long period after the group arrived on base. Although it became obvious that the Soviets suspected some aspects of the program, many key features remained secret from them. The fact that the U.S. was running a clandestine operation in West Berlin, a city 100 miles inside the Iron Curtain and in the very middle of Soviet military activities, grated on the Soviets’ nerves, and as a result, they took every real and imagined opportunity to exert pressure, both political and military, upon the U.S. military presence in West Berlin.
     The decision to keep the program secret had some unfortunate implications: it prevented public recognition for the veterans of the program as well as public honor for those who lost their lives while conducting various forms of intelligence gathering, such as aerial reconnaissance. During the Cold War Period of 1945-1977 more than 40 reconnaissance aircraft were shot down by the Soviet Union. The secrecy of the intelligence programs prevented recognition of the slain military personnel at the time of the incidents. Their loss was mourned by their families, fellow soldiers, sailors, and airmen, but the fallen could not be accorded public honors. The end of the Cold War has allowed the United States to lift some of its security restrictions concerning these programs and allowed recognition of the achievements and sacrifices of these silent warriors, and to tell their stories.
     On 2 September, 1958, Soviet MiG 17 pilots shot down Flight 60528, a U.S. Air Force C-130 reconnaissance aircraft, over Soviet Armenia. Six crewmen were aboard along with eleven Security Service Russian language specialists. What exactly happened is unclear. The C-130 crew navigated by homing in on a beacon signal, and it was suspected that Soviet navigational beacons deliberately overpowered the beacon Flight 60528 was following and drew the aircraft into Russian territory. The aircraft was easily identifiable as U.S. Air Force and non-lethal. One Russian pilot identified the craft as “a four engine transport.” Four Soviet aircraft attacked the plane in groups of two. On the third approach the C-130 caught fire, the tail section blew off, and the plane plummeted to the earth. No parachutes or survivors were identified.

This photo of Flight 60528 aflame was taken through the gunsight camera of the attacking MiG-17.

     Of all Cold War incidences involving the Soviets, the shootdown of Flight 60528 is the most controversial. Not willing to admit that Flight 60528 was on a spy mission, the U.S. Government did not confront the Soviets until 6 September, when the Soviets denied all knowledge of the incident. On 12 September, the Russians stated they had “found an aircraft,” and “assumed that six airmen had perished.” At the same time, the Soviets publicly denied downing the aircraft, claiming the aircraft inadvertently “fell to the earth.” On 24 September, the Soviets returned six sets of human remains but stated they had no knowledge of the other missing eleven airmen. Throughout the Cold War period, the Soviets denied responsibility for the shootdown, and the fate of the remaining crewmen remained unknown.
     Finally in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin began releasing “available” information about the shootdown. Among the information was a combat report, published 20 September, 1958, from the air control officer who commanded the MiG aircraft. He described in great detail and with a great deal of professional pride the second by second events which took place as the attackers surrounded and eventually destroyed Flight 60528. It is a fascinating document describing the cool professionalism of the dedicated fighter pilot while embellishing with the usual hyperbolic language of the standard communist terminology prevalent at the time.  Eventually, the remains of the crew of Flight 60528 were returned to the United States and now rest in Arlington National Cemetery.

     When I arrived in Berlin, it had been seven years since the shootdown of Flight 60528, but it was still uppermost in the minds of those whose mission was the gathering of intelligence. The loss of the airmen had hit home to the 6912th because the airmen of Flight 60528 had been based in West Germany at another Security Service site with which the 6912th worked closely. By 1965, the Soviets were convinced the 6912th Security Squadron was up to no good in the city of West Berlin, and we were warned to be ever vigilant while carrying out our duties. Our whereabouts had to be known by our superiors at all times. If we missed a rendezvous point by more than one hour we were counted as deserters and had better be able to show proof of our actions when we reappeared. We were to never mention our attachment to the 6912thSS when off the base. We did not wear our uniforms off the base but wore civilian clothes, preferably with a Germanesque style. However we were required to carry our military identification papers. Theoretically, it was our ticket to freedom if picked up by political adversaries. Upon arrival at our base of operations, Russian language specialists like me went through a week of orientation to prepare us for the job ahead. One of the tasks I had was listen to the audio transcripts of the Soviet pilots as they stalked, attacked, and eventually shot down Flight 60528.
     My first impression upon listening was the incredibly poor quality of the Russian transmissions, and I began to realize that I was about to embark on the most challenging mission of my life. Over the next two years, technology helped improve voice quality, but, even at best, listening, comprehending, translating, and deciphering communications required every ounce of concentration one could muster. As I listened to the calm, professional transmissions from the pilots, it seemed almost surreal that I was hearing the account of the deaths of seventeen airmen just like myself. The pilots coolly described the first two salvos of attacks, which resulted in hits on the plane, but it was not until the third pass that Flight 60528 burst into flames and the tail section fell off. The Soviet pilot then described how the plane rolled over upside down and began a plunge to the earth. After being satisfied that the aircraft was down, the four planes systematically returned to their home base and landed. There was no further comment about the downed aircraft.
     During my time in Berlin, I listened to other accounts of downed aircraft, some unfortunately as they were occurring.  Berlin, being located 100 miles inside Communist East Germany, was accessible by three ten-mile-wide air corridors. These corridors had been established after World War II through agreement by the Four Powers: France, the United States, England, and the Soviet Union. As the political strain increased between the three western powers and the Soviets, the Soviets became increasingly belligerent, to the point that if an Allied aircraft strayed out of the ten mile corridor, it ran the risk of being shot down by Soviet aircraft. Over the period of the Cold War, several aircraft were lost for this reason, with the Soviets generally claiming an “aggressive” act by the Allies caused each conflict. Regardless, lives and planes were lost and sometimes unaccounted for.  The Soviet pressure was increased on the ground in West Berlin, also.  During the life of the 6912thSS, two U.S. airmen defected to the Russian side due to bribes and threats.  One of the airmen wound up back on our side of the wall through mysterious circumstances, and as far as I know is still living a life of repentance at Ft. Leavenworth Military Prison.  There was no trace found of the second airman until the fall of the Berlin Wall.  As of a few years ago, he was living a quiet life somewhere in the former Soviet Union.

Soviet military personnel at crash site of Soviet fighter plane, West Berlin.

     Occasionally, the tables were turned. In 1966 a Soviet fighter aircraft experienced engine failure and crashed into a lake in the British section of West Berlin. As it turned out, it was one of their latest generation aircraft, and the Soviets panicked, sending soldiers through gates of the Berlin wall and heading for the lake to reclaim their aircraft. They were stopped at the edge of the lake by British and U.S. soldiers. They fretted, fussed, and fumed about not getting access to their aircraft, but eventually returned to their side of the wall. The U.S. and British promised full cooperation in the recovery of the pilot’s body and the aircraft. The pilot’s body was quickly returned, but the aircraft took nearly two months to be pulled piece by piece from the clear waters of the lake and returned to the Soviets. It took two months because U.S. frogmen and intelligence specialists photographed every piece of the Soviet aircraft before it was pulled out of the water. It was a treasure trove of current Soviet aircraft design.
     Fast forwarding to the present, I recently discovered that the National Security Agency, the primary intelligence gathering arm of the federal government, had declassified all documents pertaining to the shootdown of Flight 60528 fifty years after the event took place. Unbelieving at first, I went to the NSA website, and, sure enough, all previously secret and top secret documents including U.S. and Russian versions of the shootdown, photos, and audio tapes were available for public consumption. I downloaded the Russian pilots’ audio and copied the transcripts (both in English and Russian.)
     In the privacy of my den, I put on an old set of headsets, turned off all lights except my desk lamp, grabbed some writing paper and pencil, and listened and transcribed the conversations between four Soviet pilots that I had last listened to over 50 years ago. For one hour and ten minutes, I was transported back to 1965 to the fifth floor of Head Building East, 6912th Security Squadron, Tempelhof Central Airport, West Berlin, Germany. I had to listen closely and repeat some conversations…my Russian is a little rusty, but it was an incredible feeling of déjà vu. The impact of listening to the event was still powerful, but at least now, the names of the airmen who perished have been made known and their contributions to our society have been recognized.
     In September of 2011, many of those who served in West Berlin during those exciting years of the Cold War reunited in Berlin for what was probably the last reunion. Time has done to us what the Soviets could not do. But even time cannot diminish the patriotic pride felt by those who were the Silent Warriors of the Cold War. We did our job.