Friday, April 15, 2011

Remembering the tragic shootdown of Deep Sea 129 and the loss of 31 Aircrew brothers

Flight of Deep Sea 129

Beggar Shadow mission

At 07:00 local time of Tuesday, 15 April 1969, an EC-121M of the U.S. Navy's Fleet Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron One took off from Atsugi, on an intelligence-gathering reconnaissance mission.

The aircraft, Bureau number 135749, c/n 4316, bore the tail code "PR-21" and used the radio call sign Deep Sea 129. Aboard were 8 officers and 23 enlisted men under the command of LCDR James Overstreet. Nine of the crew, including one Marine were Naval Security Group cryptologic technicians (CTs) and linguists in Russian and Korean.

Deep Sea 129's assigned task was a routine Beggar Shadow signal intelligence (SIGINT) collection mission. Its flight profile northwest over the Sea of Japan took it to an area offshore of Musu Point, where the EC-121M would turn northeast toward the Soviet Union and orbit along a 120-nautical-mile (222 km) long elliptical track. These missions, while nominally under the command of Seventh Fleet and CINCPAC, were actually controlled operationally by the Naval Security Group detachment at NSF Kamiseya, Japan, under the direction of the National Security Agency.

LCDR Overstreet's orders included a prohibition from approaching closer than 50 nautical miles (90 km) to the North Korean coast. VQ-1 had flown the route and orbit for two years, and the mission had been graded as being of "minimal risk." During the first three months of 1969 nearly 200 similar missions had been flown by both Navy and U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft off North Korea's east coast without incident.

The mission was tracked by a series of security agencies within the Department of Defense that were pre-briefed on the mission, including land-based Air Force radars in Japan and South Korea. The USAF 6918th Security Squadron at Hakata Air Station, USAF 6988th Security Squadron at Yokota Air Base, and Detachment 1, 6922nd Security Wing at Osan Air Base monitored the North Korean reaction by intercepting its air defense search radar transmissions. 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.

At 12:34 local time, roughly six hours into the mission, the Army Security Agency and radars in Korea detected the takeoff of two North Korean Air Force MiG-17s and tracked them, assuming that they were responding in some fashion to the mission of Deep Sea 129. In the meantime the EC-121 filed a scheduled activity report by radio on time at 13:00 and did not indicate anything out of the ordinary. 22 minutes later the radars lost the picture of the MiGs and did not reacquire it until 13:37, closing with Deep Sea 129 for a probable intercept.

The communications that this activity generated within the National Security network was monitored by the EC-121's parent unit, VQ-1, which at 13:44 sent Deep Sea 129 a "Condition 3" alert by radio, indicating it might be under attack. LCDR Overstreet acknowledged the warning and complied with procedures to abort the mission and return to base. At 13:47 the radar tracks of the MiGs merged with that of Deep Sea 129, which disappeared from the radar picture two minutes later.

At first none of the agencies were alarmed, since procedures also dictated that the EC-121 rapidly descend below radar coverage, and Overstreet had not transmitted that he was under attack. However when it did not reappear within ten minutes, VQ-1 requested a scramble of two Air Force Convair F-102A Delta Dart interceptors to provide combat air patrol for the EC-121.

By 14:20 the Army Security Agency post had become increasingly concerned. It first sent a FLASH message (a high priority intelligence message to be sent within six minutes) indicating that Deep Sea 129 had disappeared, and then at 14:44, an hour after the shoot-down, sent a CRITIC ("critical intelligence") message (the highest message priority, to be processed and sent within two minutes) to six addressees within the National Command Authority, including President Richard M. Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

A search and rescue effort was immediately launched by VQ-1 using aircraft of both the U.S. Air Force and Navy. The first response was by an Air Force Lockheed HC-130 Hercules, with a Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker tanker in support and an escort of fighters, but the search effort rapidly expanded to a total of 26 aircraft. At short notice, two U.S. Navy destroyers, USS Henry W. Tucker and USS Dale, sailed from Sasebo, Japan, on the afternoon of April 15 toward the area of last contact (41°2800N 131°3500E / 41.4666667°N 131.5833333°E / 41.4666667; 131.5833333), a position approximately 90 nautical miles (167 km) off the North Korean port of Ch'┼Ćngjin.

The first debris sighting occurred at 09:30 the next morning, 16 April, by a Navy VP-40 P-3B Orion aircraft. Two destroyers of the Soviet Navy #429 Kotlin Class and #580 Kashin Class were directed to the scene by the Navy aircraft. The Air Force HC-130 SAR aircraft, that relieved the P-3B, dropped the Soviet ships URC-10 survival radios and eventually made voice contact in the afternoon as the Soviet craft were departing. Both Soviet ships indicated they had recovered debris from the aircraft but had not found any indication of survivors. That evening Tucker arrived in the area and after midnight recovered part of the aircraft perforated with shrapnel damage.

At approximately noon of 17 April Tucker recovered the first of two crewmen's bodies, then rendezvoused with the Soviet destroyer Vdokhnovenny (D-429) and sent over her whaleboat. The Soviets turned over all of the debris they had collected. The bodies of Lt.j.g. Joseph R. Ribar and AT1 Richard E. Sweeney were taken to Japan but those of the other 29 crewmen were not recovered.

North Korea publicly announced that it had shot down the plane, claiming it had violated its territorial airspace. The U.S. government acknowledged that it was conducting a search for a missing aircraft but stated that it had explicit orders to remain at least 50 nautical miles (93 km) offshore. Of note, April 15 was the 57th birthday of the North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung.


Those lost include:

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,
AE3 LaVerne A. Greiner,
ATN3 Gene K. Graham,
CT3 Gary R. DuCharme,
SSGT Hugh M. Lynch,(US Marine Corps).


Anonymous said...

We remember them and continue to mourn their (our) loss.

Storypainter said...

Thanks for posting, Mike.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Aid

On Monday, April 14, 1969 at 5:00 PM EST (1544Z), a Navy EC-121M
reconnaissance aircraft (PR-21/BuNo 135749) of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) with a crew of 31, including nine Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU) and Marine linguists, took off from Atsugi Naval Air Station,
Japan on a routine Beggar Shadow SIGINT collection mission over the Sea of Japan. The EC-121M had been directed to proceed to a point off the Musu Peninsula, where the aircraft was to orbit for several hours along a 120-mile long "track," then land at Osan Air Base in South Korea. The aircraft
commander had been ordered not to come any closer than 50 nautical miles to the North Korean coastline. This particular route had been flown by VQ-1 EC-121Ms for two years without incident, and the mission had been graded as
being "minimal risk." More than 190 similar missions had been previously flow by Navy and Air Force reconnaissance aircraft off North Korea's east coast during the first three months of 1969, all without incident. Six hours
after takeoff, the crew of the EC-121M transmitted a routine radio-teletype activity report at 11:00 PM EST, then disappeared off USAF radar screens at 11:50 PM EST, 90 miles southeast of the North Korean port of Chongjin. The
EC-121M mission had been monitored from the ground by Air Force radar
sites in Japan and South Korea, as well as by the USAFSS 6918th Security Squadron at Hakata, Japan and Detachment 1, 6922nd Security Wing at Osan Air Base, Korea (USA-31), which followed the flight by intercepting North
Korean air defense radar tracking transmissions. Air Force radars and USAFSS COMINT intercept operators in Korea had detected two NKAF MiGs flying towards the unarmed EC-121 prior the plane's disappearance. In addition, the intercept operators at the USAFSS listening post at Osan, South Korea, who were copying North Korean voice and morse air defense radio traffic, tracked the flight path of the EC-121 aircraft as well as the intercept course of the North Korean fighters. The NAVSECGRU listening post at
Kamiseya in Japan was also intercepting Russian PVO radar tracking of the EC-121M mission, giving NSA two sources of information as to the flight path
of the aircraft. The USAFSS listening post at Osan attempted to warn the aircraft's commander by transmitting a mission abort signal at 11:46 PM EST. But the MiGs caught up with the slow flying aircraft as it turned for home 90 miles southeast of the North Korean port city of Chongjin, and the MiGs shot the EC-121 down at 11:47 PM EST. All 31 crewmembers were killed,
including nine NAVSECGRU cryptologists. The bodies of only two of the crew were ever recovered. The USAFSS listening post at Osan issued a CRITIC message on the incident at 5:44 AM GMT on April 15, 1969. President
Nixon order an immediate halt of all aerial reconnaissance missions in the Sea of Japan, but rescinded his order three days later, this time ordering that all peripheral reconnaissance missions off North Korea be accompanied by fighter escorts. According to one source, an NSA review of COMINT intercepts of North Korean Air Force ground-to-air radio traffic from the
USAFSS listening post at Osan showed that the shootdown had resulted from a command and control error between the North Korean ground controller and the
fighter pilot. Other NSA intercepts showed that the Soviets were shocked by the North Korean action, so much so that Russian warships were sent to the crash site to help American ships search for survivors. President Nixon's
revelation that NSA had successfully monitored both the North Korean and Russian air defense tracking nets caused both nations to immediately change all of their radio frequencies, operating procedures and crypto systems in use at the time. It took NSA's cryptologists months to get back to the point where they were prior to Nixon's press conference.

Peter V Nguyen said...

Just curious, so what was US's reaction to this incident?

Anonymous said...

SGT Hugh Lynch had returned to Kamiseya just a few weeks before the ill fated flight of PR21 from a TAD stint aboard the USS RANGER (CVA-61) in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those of us in the NSG Det aboard RANGER were shocked and heartbroken at the loss of our shipmates aboard the aircraft, and especially SGT Lynch, who we'd worked so closely with... We can never forget!!!

The Cutoff Score said...

Thank you for this wonderful recounting of this important piece of Naval history. I had the privilege of being selected to fly with VQ-1 during my tour of duty at Kamiseya and then later when the NavSecGru moved to Misawa, Japan.

Jim Sida, former CTO3 1968 - 1972.

Cheryl AKA "Haku Seki said...

My Daddy is Richard E Sweeney- I was only 5 years old when he died.... thank you for choosing to remember

Cheryl Sweeney Muzaca

Anonymous said...

hello. My dad was Joseph Ribar, I also wanted to say thank you for remembering the event. Joe Ribar.

Captain - Special Duty Cryptology said...

Anon @ 9:31 AM

Our community will never forget your Father or his fellow DS-129 crewmates.

Anonymous said...

I was only 10 when my brother-in-law was shot down....Joseph Ribar....will always remember the ice cream cone :)

Anonymous said...

By Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Daniel Sanford, Naval Air Facility Misawa Public Affairs

MISAWA, Japan (NNS) -- Navy Information Operations Command (NIOC) Misawa honored the 43rd anniversary of a downed Navy EC-121 aircraft in Misawa, April 15.

Two North Korean MiGs intercepted and shot down the aircraft over the Sea of Japan, April 15, 1969, and the entire crew, consisting of 30 Sailors and one Marine, perished.

Since then, NIOC Misawa has conducted a memorial ceremony each year to commemorate the ultimate sacrifice the crew members made during this Cold War-era incident.

"Throughout the Cold War, men and women climbed into aircraft like the EC-121 and routinely flew into harm's way," said Capt. Chris Rodeman, Naval Air Facility Misawa commanding officer and guest speaker at the ceremony. "And while their sacrifices were no less significant than those service members who served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, they are rarely remembered."

The aircraft's crew consisted of service members from both Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1 and Naval Security Group Activity Kamiseya, which has since evolved into NIOC Misawa.

Each crew member was honored during the memorial's two-bell ceremony. After a NIOC Sailor read the name of a crew member aloud, two bells were rung in their honor. Upon reciting all 31 names, a bugler from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force performed "Taps."

"The world has changed since 1969, but we military professionals know that some things remain the same," said Rodeman, a native of Anderson, Ind. "The Sea of Japan still marks a divide between the free peoples of the world, and those who suffer under repressive regimes.

"Our mission here, as before, is to keep a watchful eye on those regimes, and be prepared to act decisively if directed to do so," he added.

With many NIOC Misawa Sailors still taking part in aviation missions throughout the world, the memorial offered a stark reminder that any routine mission could very well be a Sailor's last.

"The missions we fly today still face many of the same dangers we faced back then," said Cryptologic Technician Interpretive 1st Class Nicholas Ham, who helped organize and coordinate the ceremony. "A day like today helps us reflect on that.

"It puts in perspective what we are risking, what we are devoting, and why we are doing it," added the Las Vegas native.

"Even in this era of satellite surveillance and unmanned aerial vehicles, our pilots, technicians, cryptologists, and linguists continue to man airplanes and fly these critically important missions," said Rodeman. "The crew of EC-121 reminds us that duty has consequences, and inspires us to perform our duties with the same honor, courage and commitment."

Don said...

I was a young lad, my dad a member of VQ-1 at the time. I can remember my mom coming to get us from school that day. I will always remember "Jim Overstreet" and will never forget what our service members do for us.

Anonymous said...

My father was with VQ-1 at the time and our family spent time with the Overstreets. I remember this incident like it was yesterday.

joe.overstreet said...


Thanks for posting, and remembering.

My father was James "Howard" Overstreet - I was 6 at the time.

Mike Lambert said...

Joe Overstreet

Our Shipmates in Misawa Japan have a ceremony every year to remember the loss of your Father and his shipmates/aircrew.

Very sorry for your loss.

I flew similar missions from 1983-1986 in the Sea of Japan.

All the best

Anonymous said...

Greetings Mike,

Sorry I'm late to this discussion. I just now found your blog. April 14, 1969 is a date that is burned in my memory like it was yesterday. Please allow me to add some first hand memories. I was there when it happened and there for the follow-up investigation by Rear Admiral John N. Shaffer. I was one of only a half a dozen CTs assigned to man the VQ-1 communication center. My day started very early that day as I had the mid watch in the comm center. Besides maintaining our teletype circuit with Kamiseya, one of our many duties was to make ready and double check the aircraft crypto bag for each Begger Shadow flight. LtCmdr Overstreet arrive around Oh-dark thirty to look over the incoming message board one last time and sign for and take the crypto bag for his flight. My last words to him was to wish him a safe flight.

Once all of the wreckage was returned to VQ-1 the outline of an EC-121 was painted on the hanger floor and each piece was painstakingly placed within the outline. Not a detail I would enjoy completing.

If you know what and where to search you will find Internet references to what I call sticking it to the KORCOM military. Some time in following May and June time frame VQ-1 supported two SR-71 overflights of North Korea. It was never referenced in any official military logs but the scuttlebut around the Squadron was that there was a lot of one finger salutes given that day.

In closing here is a declassified NSA document that hopefully will provide some kind of closure for the families and many people involved. If you were involved like me you will be able to fill in many of the blank boxes. This document will put to rest many suspicions and scuttlebut of the day.

CTO2 Dan Spry

Theresa Rzonca said...

Thank You for posting this My Uncle Louis Balderman was aboard the mission that day. I was only 5 years old I remember seeing his photo in his flight jacket in My Mom's china cabinet and seeing his letters I also remember seeing a photo of the crew in their flight jackets in front of the plance but That photo got misplaced and now our Grandparents and parents are all deceased .

Sandi Laws Phelps said...

My father Lcdr. William Laws was in VQ1 and I babysat for Mr. Ribar and he taught me algebra. I remember this time vividly. My heart goes out to you.

Sandi Laws Phelps said...

Hello. I babysat you when you were first born. Your father helped me with algebra. I loved your parents very much and think of that time often.