Published on April 15, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
“Deep Sea 129”, the code name for a US Navy reconnaissance flight, took off from the Naval Air Station at Atsugi, Japan, at 6:50 am local time on April 15, 1969. The mission was a routine reconnaissance flight, known as “Beggar Shadow”. The plane was operated by the US Navy’s Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1), flying as part of a National Security Agency (NSA) operation. The type was a Lockheed EC-121M Warning Star, the ELINT version of the Constellation. As was usual for this type of mission, the plane carried a crew of 31 men. The aircraft commander was LCDR James Overstreet, USN. He was a veteran of the “Beggar Shadow” missions. What made the EC-121M special was that its sides, top and bottom bristled with ELINT antennae of all types. Each antenna was tuned to intercept and record a different type of enemy radar, communications system, or other electronic signals equipment.
The flight would first fly north from Atsugi, and then turn to fly back down the coast of North Korea, then China, and then the Soviet Union. As usual, it would never come closer than 50 nm from the shore line. Since January 1, 1969, nearly 200 similar “Beggar Shadow” missions had been flown. This averaged to a rate of more than two a day. The mission was so commonplace that it was categorized as “low risk”.
That day, however, everything changed.
Six and a half hours into the mission, at precisely 12:37 pm local time as the plane was flying down the North Korean coastline, 70 nm offshore, communications technicians on board began to detect an increase in North Korean communications. The EC-121M had no tactical radar of its own to track airborne targets, however, so all the men in the back could do was listen to the increasing frequency and urgency of radio communications. Most of the team in back were communications experts. There were some who were fluent Russian, others in Korean, and also Chinese speakers. From the communications they could hear, they knew the intent of the controllers — they were vectoring interceptors toward their airplane.
They were nearly blind, however, to the location of any other aircraft, except for relays from the US Army’s Army Security Agency. In support of the mission, the Army had a radar facility in South Korea that tracked the North’s air movements. Through the World Wide Military Command and Control System, the Army station was in the loop and could communicate with the Navy, though not directly with the Beggar Shadow aircraft.
At first, the Army radar operators detected and tracked the take off of a pair of Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF) MiG-17 “Fresco” aircraft. Based on the timing of the launch, they suspected that the flights could have something to do with the presence of the Navy ELINT plane, though initially the headings of the MiGs didn’t show anything unusual. As it was, they were right — the North Koreans were out for blood.
As the ground-based Army radar operators watched, the two MiG-17s flew a routine course, heading eastward to the coast line and flying along the shore. About 20 minutes later, at 1:00 pm local time, the EC-121M filed a routine position report through normal channels. As usual, communications with the EC-121M were virtually continuous. Flights of North Korean aircraft, so long as they remained over or near North Korea, were usually welcomed from a SIGINT and ELINT perspective. When they flew, it meant that various communications and radar systems that might otherwise have been idle were active and could be recorded for later analysis.
At 1:22 pm, however, the Army’s radar operators lost track of the two MiG-17s. Most likely, the planes had descended to fly low over the ocean. In doing so, they disappeared into surface reflections that confounded even the most advanced radar systems of the late 1960s. Army operators considered whether they were returning to their base, given that the MiG-17s had a very limited fuel supply. However, just fifteen minutes later at 1:37 pm, the two MiG-17s suddenly reappeared on the Army radar screens. Shockingly, they were on a direct course to intercept the EC-121M. They were closing at high speed. The Army broadcast a warning message.
Almost instantly the communications team of VQ-1 at NAS Atsugi that was supporting the Beggar Shadow mission saw the warning on the World Wide Military Command and Control System network. They relayed the message to LCDR Overstreet in the cockpit of the EC-121M. The message declared a “Condition Three Alert”, which meant that they were to immediately abort the mission and return to base. The message also transmitted that, based on the rapid approach, the North Korean MiGs were likely on orders to attack the plane.
Shootdown and Death
Even as the EC-121M turned to escape back to Japan, the two KPAF MiG-17s were already rapidly closing the distance. The MiGs were flying at full military power, were burning fuel at an extraordinary rate in hopes of closing the gap quickly and avoiding an extended tail chase. Their strategy was working. The two MiGs had a closing speed of perhaps 200 mph.
The MiG-17s carried the typical heavy armament of that Soviet-built type — each plane had three cannons, including a Nudelman N-37 37mm cannon and two 23mm cannons with 80 rounds per gun. Only a few well-aimed cannon rounds could bring down the EC-121M.
Just ten minutes after the EC-121M had made its turn to return to NAS Atsugi, at 1:47 pm, the radar operators along Japan’s coast and in South Korea watched as the twin blips of the pursuing MiGs merged with the single blip of the EC-121M. The planes were at the following position: 41°28’00″N 131°35’00″E. Later analysis of intercepted North Korean and Soviet radar traces confirmed the position exactly.
The situation for the EC-121M was desperate. If the North Koreans meant to attack, it wouldn’t be much of a fight. The American ELINT plane was unarmed and unarmored. LCDR Overstreet and the other 30 members of the flight crew on the EC-121M had no warning of the close proximity of the attackers and, with the limited view from the plane’s cockpit, they couldn’t see behind and could do little to evade an attack.
The North Koreans wasted no time. They made their attack, firing cannon rounds into the fuselage and wings of the EC-121M. Within seconds, Beggar Shadow was fatally damaged. Many of the crew on board were probably killed in the very first seconds. Despite the extensive damage, it still took a full two minutes for the blip that was the EC-121M to finally disappear from the radar scopes. The radar screens showed the EC-121M descending rapidly toward the surface of the sea — or probably what was only large pieces of it. Later analysis concluded that most of the time that the radar operators could track the blip in a steep descent, what they were witnessing was the pieces spinning down into the ocean. The first attack pass had finished the job. The ground-based radar operators watched helplessly as the two blips of the MiG-17 fighter planes turned back west toward their base. No American aircraft were anywhere nearby to even attempt to intercept them.
Still, despite what everyone suspected, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the EC-121M had been destroyed or had simply descended in a steep dive in accordance with established procedures to make an escape. While all indications were that the MiGs shot it down, they had to watch for the unlikely event that the American plane had escaped and was flying at low level over the waves. It was also possible that the MiGs had intercepted the plane, buzzed it and then turned for home. There was still hope, though most were already thinking the worst.
Ten minutes later, with no word from the plane, it was clear that the plane had been shot down. The fate of the 31 men on board was unclear, however. Although it was considered virtually impossible for them to bail out of the EC-121M aircraft, given its design, the plane might have been damaged, somehow escaped and then ditched in the ocean. Therefore, at 2:01 pm, a protective combat air patrol was scrambled from Japan. This put two F-102 fighter jets into the air. The scramble was ordered too late to intercept the North Korean planes, but rather just in case the EC-121M had somehow survived and was limping home at low altitude. No additional North Korean planes came up to challenge the F-102s and there was no sign of the EC-121M.
As it happened, the attack uncovered flaws in the military’s emergency communications systems. The National Security Agency had transmitted a FLASH message and then a CRITIC message, relaying word of the attack throughout the system and to the National Military Command Center, as well as to the White House. However, each of these warnings as well as their follow up messages, and confirmations of each event that transpired, were all late being delivered. In one case, a FLASH message, normally requiring no more than 6 minutes to deliver, was received 1 hour and 16 minutes late, far too late to be meaningful.
With no further sign of the EC-121M, an immediate search and rescue effort was mounted. For protection, the SAR aircraft were covered by a combat air patrol of both USAF and US Navy fighter planes. Surprisingly, two Soviet Navy ships asked to assist in the search. At first, the Navy considered the offer suspect. However, it was soon reasoned that the Soviets were volunteering their efforts not for nefarious purposes after all, but truly in the interest of supporting the rescue. Both sides knew that American Navy ships were still more than a day away. Nonetheless, any rescued ELINT crew member would have been a valuable asset for questioning.
At first, despite the extensive air search that the USAF and USN mounted, nothing was found. Then, the following morning, a P-3B Orion of VP-40 spotted some wreckage on the sea’s surface. After coordinating with the Soviets, who also sailed there to recover what wreckage could be found, the US Navy and USAF planes guided their ships to the scene. The Soviet Navy crews retrieved some debris, but found no survivors, nor even any bodies. Later, the Soviets turned over all of the debris that they had taken in a mid-ocean rendezvous with an American ship.
When the first American Navy vessels arrived at the scene, they too found and retrieved debris from the sea. They found two bodies as well, those of LTJG Joseph R. Ribar, USN, and AT1 Richard E. Sweeney, USN. Sadly, the bodies of the remaining 29 crewmen were never recovered.
Some of the debris recovered showed telltale signs of the attack, such as cannon fire damage. The North Koreans had fired with devastating accuracy, though it would have been hard to miss a slow moving target the size of an EC-121M that was out in the middle of a clear blue sky and unable to effectively to manuever. As no message had been transmitted by the EC-121M informing of an ongoing attack, it seemed likely that the plane had been downed in the first pass when the two MiG-17s roared up from directly behind. Most likely, it was over in a few seconds.
US Response and Final Thoughts
In the wake of the shootdown, the Nixon White House was outraged. Despite palpable anger, a tempered the US response was sent, calling it a matter of “restraint”. The US Military was not ordered to retaliate as this might have escalated the situation. To send a clear message, additional “Beggar Shadow” ELINT missions were resumed just a few days later. These were covered with available fighters in the event that the KPAF tried another interception. Formal protests were made, but these obviously had little impact on the North Koreans. In Pyongyang, the North Koreans were proudly celebrating the event.
Ultimately, the shooting down of the Beggar Shadow mission code-named “Deep Sea 129” was a victory for North Korea. It also served as a clear reminder that the militarism and raw aggression of the North Koreans remains untamed — then as now — and that the leadership was unpredictable. The shootdown marked a watershed event for the World Wide Military Command and Control System as well. Better coordination and more timely warnings were needed in the event of another crisis. Fixing the flaws in the emergency communications system became a top priority.
Sadly, there would be a next time, but that’s another story.
From the Archives
Reds Down U.S. Bomber — read about another loss of a reconnaissance plane, this one shot down by the Soviets just off the coast of the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido. Indeed, reconnaissance was a deadly game during the Cold War.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
Why did the North Koreans select that flight on that day — April 15, 1969 — to shoot down the American aircraft? What event precipitated the attack?