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What images are conjured up when you hear “The Cold War”? Does it make you think of espionage? The Iron Curtain? The Politburo? Cuban Missile Crisis? Kruschev? Checkpoint Charlie? The Berlin Airlift? Those are all typical answers from the average American that was alive and even somewhat aware of global politics anywhere from 1947 to 1991. It was called the Cold War because there were no large scale engagements between the Western Bloc countries and the opposing Eastern Bloc countries. NATO versus the Warsaw Pact nations. East against West. Sure, there were small skirmishes and minor engagements between some proxy countries but the major powers merely sat back while simultaneously building up their paranoia and their nuclear arsenals. Direct contact between the USSR and the United States was minimal and only a few stories, like Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 shootdown, made it anywhere close to national headlines. But there were other, more serious incidents that remain as unknown now as they were then. To some, the Cold War involved actual life and death situations.
One such incident involves 17 men who were lost in the line of duty while flying an unarmed aircraft near Soviet Armenia on September 2, 1958. USAF flight 60528, an unarmed C-130A-II, took off from Incirlik Air Base, Turkey with a crew of 6 aircraft personnel, 9 linguists, and 2 maintenance technicians onboard. Their mission was to fly a racetrack pattern close to the border of Soviet Armenia while remaining in Turkish airspace and use their onboard antennas to pick up any radio communications they could for translation and analysis. This was a typical SIGINT (signals intelligence) mission and had become a routine type of mission for this area. In fact, Flight 605238 reported clear weather and everything in the green as it reached an altitude of 25,000 feet. It was never heard from again.
As this was in the era before GPS, most navigation was done using radio beacons of known frequencies, and due to a Soviet beacon in the Tblisi Air Defense District using a similar frequency as the beacon near Trabzon, Turkey, the aircraft mistakenly crossed into Soviet airspace. The National Security Agency helplessly recorded Soviet aircraft communications describing the aircraft sighting and subsequent shootdown. According to the transcripts, four Soviet MiG-17 fighters were directed to the “hostile” “enemy” C-130’s location. At no point did they attempt to make radio contact with the aircraft. Never did they attempt to communicate visually with them. There were no attempts made to escort it out of their airspace. They clearly identified it as a “big transport” and then each fighter took a turn firing at it until it burst into flames, broke apart, and crashed outside the village of Sasnashen.
The incident was not made public because of the obvious and sensitive nature of that type of mission. The State Department even waited two days before contacting the Soviets, and once confronted, the ambassador denied his country’s role in shooting down the aircraft but did confirm that they found a crash site. He even refused to listen to the recordings of the attack, dismissing them as propaganda. Later, after considerable and lengthy negotiations, six sets of remains were handed over and the fate of the other eleven crew members was not revealed. It would be another 40 years before the rest of Flight 60528 would make it home.
In 1996, Lt Gen Kenneth Minihan, then the Director of the National Security Agency, directed Col. Wyat Cook to help create a memorial for the crew of Flight 60528. Within less than a year, a moth-balled C-130 was located and restored to flight status, repainted, and delivered to Tipton Field across from Ft. George G. Meade, MD. After the wings, tail, and engines were removed, it was transported across base to its final resting place, National Vigilance Park, and reassembled for its dedication on September 2, 1997, 39 years to the day of its unfortunate demise.
One year later, on September 2, 1998, the remaining crew members’ remains were laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Flight 60528 had finally returned home in its entirety. I was proud to have had a hand in the planning and preparation for their memorial and I look back on the day I watched that aircraft land in my truck’s rearview mirror while driving down Tipton Field as one of the proudest of my military career.
National Vigilance Park has constructed more memorials since then, to commemorate some of the 13 total reconnaissance aircraft shot down during the duration of the Cold War. These “Silent Warriors” were lost in the line of duty under less than ideal conditions. They were usually close to hostile environments in unarmed aircraft, often operating under strict radio silence, and typically out of range of Search and Rescue assets. That didn’t deter them from their assigned missions. With the exception of Francis Gary Powers, these men were unknown outside of their friends and families. But Flight 60528’s sacrifice is not forgotten. In addition to the memorial next to the NSA, there’s a plaque outside of the little town of Sasnashen, that was placed there by the locals. It reads, “We must never forget that freedom is never really free. It is the most costly thing in the world. Freedom is never paid in a lump sum. Installments come due in every generation. All any of us can do is offer the generations that follow a chance for freedom.”
In Memory of: Capt. Paul Duncan, Capt. Rudy Swiestra, Capt. Edward Jeruss, 1st Lt. John Simpson, Lt. Ricardo Villareal, MSgt. George Petrochilos, A1C Robert Oshinskie, SSgt. Leroy Price, Tsgt. Arthur Mello, A2C Gerald Maggiacomo, A2C Clement Mankins, A2C Robert Moore, A2c Archie Bourg, Jr., A2C Harold Kamps, A2C Joel Fields, A2C James Ferguson, Jr., and A2C Gerald Medeiros.