14 April 2009

This Date in Naval Aviation History: 15 Apr 1969 - Deep Sea 129

ec121 The weak can be rash. The powerful must be restrained.- Secretary of State William Rogers, April 1969

For most of these past several weeks, international attention has been focused on the activities taking place near a peninsula on the north-east coast of Korea. There, despite protests and warnings from around the world, the North Koreans attempted to duplicate the success of another pariah state, Iran, and place a satellite in orbit atop a missile that also had ICBM capability. That effort failed in its stated intent, with the payload finding a watery grave in the broad ocean area of the Pacific, but the fact that the North Koreans defiantly carried out their intent should not have come as a surprise to international community. Indeed, roughly 100 nm east-north-east of the launch site is the site, unmarked, of another North Korean action undertaken in contravention of international norms. That spot is the terminus of Deep Sea 129’s final flight, now forty years ago this April 15th (Korea time, April 14th US).
slide13Deep Sea 129 was a Navy EC-121 Warning Star operated by VQ-1. With a crew of 31 (8 officers and 23 enlisted), the flight launched from NAS Atsugi, Japan on what was known as a BEGGAR SHADOW mission to collect ELINT information off the Soviet port of Vladivostok. The big four-engined aircraft was originally designed and built as a land-based AEW follow-on to Project CADILLAC II’s PB-1W’s with a capability to haul a significantly larger and more powerful radar aloft, remain onstation much longer and carry a larger crew to support the expanded mission and endurance. All of those characteristics made it an ideal platform to modified for the PARPRO mission. PARPRO, the Peacetime Aerial Reconnaissance PROgram, covered the variety of airborne missions flown by US Army, Navy and Air Force crews near what was termed “denied territory” which constituted hostile nations such as the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea among others. These missions gathered information on radar and other electronic equipment (signals intelligence or SIGINT), communications such as those found at regional or sector air defense centers (communications intelligence or COMINT), photography of critical facilities or geographic features (PHOTOINT which later became imagery intelligence or IMINT) or a combination of COMINT and SIGNINT – ELINT. The program began shortly after WWII when it became apparent the Soviet Union had designs on expanding its reach in to western Europe, the Mediterranean and Far East. As an Iron Curtain was reigned down on the Soviet perimeter, the need for intelligence collection grew on the capabilities of Soviet forces. With the acquisition of the atomic bomb by the Soviets in 1949, the urgency of that requirement grew. Surprises, like the appearance of the MiG-15 jet fighter and China’s ground incursion during the Korean War underscored the importance of intelligence collection and the need for expanded coverage from the air and sea.
Most of the PARPRO missions were flown in international airspace – electronic signals don’t obey national borders, but some were flown immediately adjacent to and at times, across those same borders. Sometimes, the effort was safely completed, all too frequently it wasn’t. And sometimes, despite the fact the aircraft, or ships (viz. USS Liberty) were operating in international airspace or waters and clearly marked with US colors, they were still attacked. Some survived and were rescued or captured and disappeared into the Gulag – many never came back. That was Deep Sea 129’s lot.
There were no indications of possible hostile intent on the North Korean’s part when the WV-2 launched on the morning of the 15th, despite the capture of the USS Pueblo a bit over a year ago. Setting course for the operating area, a point off Musu Point where it would set up 120nm orbits focused on Vladivostok. Besides the Navy airmen onboard, there were 9 Naval Security Group cryptologists and Russian and Korean linguists onboard, including a Marine. The mission was under strict orders not to approach the Korean coast any closer than 50 nm and the two hundred-some odd flights in the past three months by USN and USAF aircraft on the BEGGAR SHADOW track had given no foreshadowing of possible action by the Koreans – but then, neither had there been for the Pueblo.
PARPRO missions, since the Gary Powers shootdown over Russia required monitoring and tracking by ground-based sites to serve as both a means of flight following and to provide warning if danger approached. That day, radar sites in Japan and Korea monitored Deep Sea 129’s mission, and the USAF 6918th Security Squadron at Hakata Air Station, Japan, and Detachment 1, 6922nd Security Wing at Osan Air Base monitored the North Korean reaction by intercepting its air defense search radar transmissions. Additionally, the Army Security Agency communications interception station at Osan listened to North Korean air defense radio traffic, and the Naval Security Group at Kamiseya, which provided the seven of the nine CTs aboard Deep Sea 129, also intercepted Soviet Air Force search radars. Still, there was no airborne escort and it would take several minutes, long agonizing minutes, for interceptors to be airborne and reach the Warning Star’s OPAREA should it come under attack. But with nothing showing on the boards that would lead commanders to think otherwise, no alerts were moved up or placed airborne.
It is an axiom of aviation that a problem in the developing stages tends to be slow and stealthy, but in the final stage it reaches completion in a rush. Thus an incipient icing condition builds slowly, steadily stealing lift until an aviator finds himself in an impossible coffin corner of airspeed, maneuverability and altitude with fatal results. So too did the final hour of Deep Sea 129’s mission progress.
At 1234 local, radar and listening posts reported the launch of suspected Mi-21’s in North Korea. Alerted, the larger monitoring network pricked it’s electronic ears and eyes to attempt and see and hear more. Deep Sea 129 completing a 1300L “ops normal” report to parent squadron VQ-1 and twenty-two minutes later the MiG’s were lost, not being re-acquired until 1337L. Alerted, VQ-1 passed a “Condition 3” report to the Warning Star indicating a possible intercept might be in progress. LCDR Overstreet, plane an mission commander for the flight, acknowledged the report and instituted abort procedures to terminate the mission. At 1337L the radar tracks of the MiG’s and Deep Sea 129 merged with radar and radio contact with the EC-121 and its crew lost two minutes later.
No CAP was launched and while a rescue effort was launched later that day, and eventually expanded to include over 20 aircraft, no debris was sighted until the following morning – which just happened to have been recovered by two Soviet destroyers in the area. When US ships arrived on the scene that evening, the USS Henry W. Tucker (DD 875) recovered a piece of the aircraft, riddled with shrapnel. The bodies of LTJG Joseph R. Ribar and AT1 Richard E. Sweeney were also recovered, the only ones thus so. The Soviet ships turned over what wreckage they had recovered to the US ships who then returned to Japan.
North Korea not only acknowledged the shoot down, they loudly and boastfully celebrated their action. President Nixon suspended PARPRO flights in the Sea of Japan for three days and then allowed them to resume, only with escorts. No reparations were ever paid to the US or the families of the lost airmen.
And Kim Il-Sung celebrated another birthday (April 15th).
The crew of Deep Sea 129:
LCDR James H. Overstreet,
LT John N. Dzema,
LT Dennis B. Gleason,
LT Peter P. Perrottey,
LT John H. Singer,
LT Robert F. Taylor,
LTJG Joseph R. Ribar,
LTJG Robert J. Sykora,
LTJG Norman E. Wilkerson,
ADRC Marshall H. McNamara,
CTC Frederick A. Randall,
CTC Richard E. Smith,
AT1 Richard E. Sweeney,
AT1 James Leroy Roach,
CT1 John H. Potts,
ADR1 Ballard F. Conners,
AT1 Stephen C. Chartier,
AT1 Bernie J. Colgin,
ADR2 Louis F. Balderman,
ATR2 Dennis J. Horrigan,
ATN2 Richard H. Kincaid,
ATR2 Timothy H. McNeil,
CT2 Stephen J. Tesmer,
ATN3 David M. Willis,
CT3 Philip D. Sundby,
AMS3 Richard T. Prindle,
CT3 John A. Miller,
AEC LaVerne A. Greiner,
ATN3 Gene K. Graham,
CT3 Gary R. DuCharme,
SSGT Hugh M. Lynch,(US Marine Corps).