The Story Not Told of the EC-121 Shootdown by North Korea (Part 1)
The National Cryptologic Museum sits outside the gates of the National Security Agency (NSA) in Ft. Meade, Maryland. Inside is a memorial wall with the names of those killed while on missions for the agency. It is simply inscribed “They Served in Silence.” Included on that wall are the names of the crew members of the EC-121 aircraft that was shot down by North Korea on April 15, 1969. Behind every name on that memorial lies a story.
One story is well-documented.
On that day, President Nixon faced his first presidential foreign policy crisis. Without warning or provocation, North Korea shot down an unarmed U.S. aircraft over international waters, and the ensuing crisis brought the U.S. to the brink of a nuclear war. In the following days, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger convinced Nixon that there were two, equally bad options:
Public protests designed to remind Kim Il-Sung of the overwhelming US power
Military retaliation, which would inevitably lead to a bloody conflict with massive casualties.
Nixon chose to resume the reconnaissance flights and not undertake a retaliatory strike. Every President since has found himself bounded by those same two options when dealing with the unpredictable Kim dynasty.
The other story is personal.
My brother was on that flight. I was only 15 at the time, but that day shaped my life, impacting my eventual career as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. Many of the details about the flight were classified at first, and, over the years, contradictory information has appeared in the press. The search for the truth led me ultimately to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library, where the declassified archives shed light on what went on behind the scenes in the US government. This is my reconstruction of the EC-121 shootdown and the impact that it had on my family.
The Dear Leader’s Birthday
April 15, 1969 – Morning
Staff Sergeant Hugh Michael Lynch, USMC, received a call early in the morning. The dispatcher at the Atsugi Naval Air Base told Hugh to report for duty to fill in for someone who had called in sick.
Hugh put on his uniform and kissed his wife Kieran goodbye. She was seven months pregnant with twin boys, and she always worried whenever he would fly these classified missions. Hugh also kissed goodbye his four-year old daughter Kieran and two-year old daughter Mary Kay. He had no idea this was the last time he would see his family.
Hugh arrived at the base around 6am and boarded an EC-121 aircraft. The EC-121 was a military version of the propeller-driven Lockheed Super Constellation that ferried passengers on long-flights before the advent of the jets. The Navy chose the EC-121 for a specific reason. Although it was relatively slow and flew low (only 20,000 feet), it could stay in the air for very long periods of time.
Before military satellites circled the globes, getting signals intelligence (SIGINT) on many communications frequencies required a line-of-sight platform. The EC-121 was filled with six tons of communications equipment designed to intercept and record enemy signals. These listening missions were given the designator Beggar Shadow. The April 15thflight was tasked with listening into communications from Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean military units in East Asia where the three countries come together.
Hugh had been carefully selected for the mission. He had learned Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California and had been posted in Key West and Hawaii. He had asked for advanced language training in Russian but was instead given training in Korean. He was thus well-trained for the specific mission of the flight – to listen in to both Soviet and North Korean communications.
Hugh had a knack for languages, something that he had inherited from his father. Hugh Sr. had immigrated from County Mayo, Ireland and was a brilliant student at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, excelling in Latin and Greek. He started college, but when the Great Depression hit, Hugh Sr. quit school to help his older brothers get through college. When it was his turn, his brothers had married, leaving him with no support. In 1940, he met Betty, then a recent college graduate. They married and moved after the War to Colorado and Wyoming.
My brother, Hugh Jr., was the second of four Lynch children. He had flaming red hair and a smart-alecky personality to go along with it. In 1956, Hugh Sr. was hospitalized following a major bipolar episode. During his episodes, he became abusive to his family. Betty considered leaving him, but a priest insisted that divorce was not an option. It was decided to return to Ohio and that Hugh Jr. was to be sent to a minor (high-school level) seminary in Canton.
Hugh hated the seminary. He was frequently in trouble but, at the same time, discovered his talent for languages. After graduating from high school, he went to a local Catholic college for one year and did poorly, as he was living with friends and not allowed to return home. Wanting a future, Hugh signed up for the Marines, where he found his home.
On that fateful April morning, Hugh was surprised to find double the usual 15-man crew on the flight. There were eight Air Force NCOs, watching as part of a training mission. There were also five Navy officers hitching a ride, so they could enjoy R&R in Seoul. Hugh was the only Marine out of the 31-man crew aboard.
The flight was commanded by Lieutenant Commander James H. Overstreet, USN. In the routine pre-flight briefing, Overstreet discussed three messages, including one from the Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea (General Charles Bonesteel) to CINCPAC (Admiral John S. McCain, Jr.) dated April 11th, 1969. This message warned of unusually vehement and vicious language used by the North Koreans at arecent Military Armistice Commission meeting held at Panmunjom. The crew was told to be alert and to abort if there were any problems. Overstreet didn’t have to mention the seizure one year earlier of the USS Pueblo by the North Koreans, which was also on a signals intelligence monitoring mission.
The incident was one of many in an escalating number of provocations by the North Koreans, including a team of infiltrators that was stopped only two months before some 800 yards from the Blue House, the residence of South Korean President Chung Hee Park.
The crew was not briefed on two other critical threats.
On March 20th, the North Koreans moved two MIG 21 fighter jets to the Hoemun Air Base in the north-eastern part of the country. The base was used for training and did not usually have MIG 21s attached. Most critically, April 15 was the 57thbirthday of the founder and brutal dictator of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung. Kim’s birthday was normally celebrated with parades and events. This year, something more spectacular was planned.
The preflight check uncovered some last-minute communications equipment problems, but the flight took off at 7 am. The flight was scheduled to be eight and a half hours. From Atsugi, the EC-121 was to fly to a point off the northeastern coastal city of Ch'ongjin, near North Korea's border with Manchuria. The plane was then to fly two and a half orbits along a 120-mile elliptical path parallel to the coast of North Korea before continuing to Osan AB, near Seoul. Except for the beginning and ending legs over Japan and South Korea, the entire flight was to be over international waters. It was to fly no closer than 50 miles to the North Korean coast. Note: The North Koreans claimed territorial waters and airspace only 12 miles from their coast.
This same track had been flown at least four times previously since January.
For security reasons, the plane had only minimal communications with Atsugi after it was airborne. As it left Japanese air, Overstreet communicated with the command center. Thereafter, it would only send a short three letter code each hour to verify that the flight was still on schedule.
The plane flew out to its designated starting point off of Ch'ongjinand began the elliptical flight paths. At the end of the second full circle, at about 1:30 pm local time, two MIGs took off from Hoemun Air Base, some 50 miles away from the EC-121. The two MIG fighters were immediately picked up by U.S. Air Force radar, and an alert was sent. Unfortunately, the Navy EC-121 lacked the equipment to quickly decode the message, and it was never determined if the flight had received the warning. At 1:40 pm, the two MIGs split their trajectories. One came parallel to the coast to guard against any US aircraft. The other homed in on the EC-121 and fired an air-to-air missile at the plane. At 1:47 pm local time, U.S. radars lost the image of the EC-121.
No Good Options
April 15, 1969 – Afternoon and Evening
The Air Force scrambled fighters from South Korean bases some 17 minutes after the shootdown, but the operational command (USN-39) for the Beggar Shadow flight at Kamiseya Navy Base was initially left off the messages sent by the Air Force with the alert about the possible downing. USN-39 sent the hourly message at 2 pm and, when no response was received, began frantically trying to reach the flight. A “CRITIC” message was sent out at 2:40 pm, which ended up at the White House situation room (12:40 am Washington time).
At 3:55 pm, North Korean radio (as monitored by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service) announced that a US reconnaissance plane was shot down “when it intruded into Korean air space.” At 5 pm local time, North Korean radio called the shootdown a “brilliant achievement" by the NorthKorean Air Force “in downing with one stroke at a high altitude of a reconnaissance plane of the imperial aggressor troops.” The broadcast added that any retaliation would be met with a “hundredfold revenge.”
With the initial confusion about the shootdown, there was a delay in starting search and rescue operations. It took about two hours for the HC-130 search and rescue craft to reach the zone, by which time night was beginning to fall. There were some reports of flares in the area, but the initial hopes for survivors did not materialize. The search was suspended for the night.
Back in Japan, the grim task of notifying the families began. Kieran was surprised to hear a knock on her door after dark. A familiar Navy officer was there along with a chaplain. She knew immediately that the presence of the chaplain indicated bad news. She heard the words “missing” and clung on to hope that he might be found alive. She sent the two away, saying she would be okay on her own. The next twenty-four hours were a blur for her.
The reports about the shootdown reached Washington about 1 am EST. The White House notified National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger shortly thereafter, who then notified President Nixon at about 4 am.
No one anticipated that Nixon’s first foreign policy crisis would be with North Korea. The previous day, Kissinger had been focused on Vietnam and the crumbling regime of Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubcek. French President Charles de Gaulle was in the middle of a referendum on reforms to decentralize the government and threatening to resign if it failed.
There are two conflicting stories on Nixon’s initial reaction. One narrative, reported years later by retired CIA officer and Vietnam expert George Carver, was that Nixon had become infuriated by the North Korean aggression. Reportedly, Nixon got drunk that evening and ordered the Pentagon to undertake a limited tactical nuclear strike against North Korean targets. Kissinger was listening in on the call and, according to that version, told the Joint Chiefs of Staff to hold off until Nixon could sober up in the morning.
The other version is the official one given by Nixon years later in his memoirs. He portrayed himself as the rational leader facing difficult choices.
“We were being tested, and therefore force must be met with force…It was a calculated risk that the North Koreans would not escalate the situation further if we retaliated with a single strike against one of their airfields. But what if they did, and we suddenly found ourselves at war in Korea?”
Beyond the immediate White House, the new administration had its first test of its decision-making apparatus. The first step was an emergency meeting of the 303 Committee, which coordinated the actions of the national security agencies. The main recommendation coming out of the meeting was for the President to order an immediate halt to the EC-121 flights.
The CIA quickly assessed that it was a “unilateral action on Kim’s part with no advance coordination with either Moscow or Peking.” The CIA paper went on that “Kim persuaded himself that the US had overextended itself in Vietnam and that [North Korea] can engage in acts with relative impunity.” The U.S. Embassy in Seoul opined, “We believe it unlikely that any of these [military] options would accomplish the objectives of future deterrence.” Nixon was upset at the lack of options and asked Kissinger to get the national security agencies to come up with more forceful responses.
While Washington was in full crisis mode, the sad duty of informing the families stateside was underway. I arrived home after school around 4 pm. Our neighbor came running over to say that “two men from the gubberment” in uniforms had been there earlier. Although I was only 15, my heart froze. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and I knew of many families that had received those visits. I picked up the afternoon paper and saw the headline, “North Korea Shoots Down US Plane.” The article said it was a reconnaissance plane based in Japan. At that point, I knew what had happened. I sat alone for about an hour waiting for my parents to arrive after work. I decided to tell my father about the newspaper article, since I thought he could better deal with the shock. He didn’t react. About 6 pm, two Marine NCOs in dress blues showed up to deliver the news that Hugh was listed as missing. We asked so many questions, but the messengers could only respond that most of the information about the flight was classified. My parents emptied a bottle of bourbon that night, as we cried looking at photos of my brother.
April 16, 1969
While my family tried to find some sleep in Ohio, the search for survivors resumed some 90 miles off the coast of North Korea. US ships had reached the area where the EC-121 was last reported. The destroyer USS Henry Tuckerrecovered the bodies of two of the crew. The search and rescue ships also recovered pieces of the fuselage with damage consistent with an air-air missile impact.
Two Soviet destroyers had also arrived in the area. An Air Force plane dropped a radio down to the one of the Soviet destroyers. The Soviets responded that they had recovered debris from the airplane but had not seen any survivors. Kissinger contacted Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to effect the return of the recovered material. Dobrynin also passed along that the Moscow had no foreknowledge of the North Korean attack and was distancing itself from Pyongyang.
International reaction was mixed. South Korea demanded retaliation. Japan was keenly aware than any retaliatory response from the U.S. could invite a North Korean response against their country. In fact, there were street demonstrations against the US military presence for precisely that reason. Chinese state-run media took the opportunity to lash out at the Soviets, attacking the “despicable Russian revisionists for shameless and brazenly selling out North Korea by sending two warships to help the Americans.”The North Vietnamese government was alone in praising Pyongyang for its “glorious achievement” in downing the plane.
In the U.S. Armed Forces community in Japan and South Korea, Armed Forces Radio kept up with bulletins throughout the day. Kieran was sitting by herself when she realized Hugh was never going to return. At that point, all she wanted was to return home.
In Washington, the Nixon national security team was still arguing over responses to the shootdown. There was initial discussion of a Naval blockade of North Korean ports. Another idea was to seize a Dutch ship, which was carrying cargo from Cape Town to North Korea. Both ideas were quickly abandoned. Under Secretary of State Elliot Richardson asked Kissinger how much value there was in the intelligence gathered by the Beggar Shadow operations. Kissinger replied:
“That is a question we ought to ask when this over. It won’t help us now.”
At Kissinger’s direction, there was almost no response from the White House. Time Magazine reported:
“For three days after the U.S. aircraft was officially declared missing, the President went ahead with business as usual at the White House. The matter did not even come up at a Cabinet meeting the morning of the announcement; it scarcely could have, because the Cabinet wives had been invited to sit in for the first time.”
Even the April 16 Presidential Daily Brief only had two paragraphs about the incident.
Back in Ohio, my family was uncertain about what to do. The plane was missing, but there was no information on the fate of the crew. My father and mother stayed at home waiting for some news. It was decided that I would go to school. I walked the halls that day, but none of my classmates knew what to say to me. My teachers offered their support, and I am grateful to this day that they turned away the nosy TV reporters who showed up at my high school looking for a comment.
April 17, 1969
As it became clear that there were no survivors, the search and rescue mission changed to recovery. By Defense Department regulations, the recovery mission needed to be completed before the crew could be declared dead.
In Panmunjom – the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea – the regularly scheduled Military Armistice Commission met. The North Korean representatives dealt only with various petty accusations of DMZ violations and made no mention of the shootdown. When U.S. Major General Knapp protested the EC-121 attack, the North Korean General replied sarcastically, “Whom does the aircraft belong to?” General Knapp walked out.
Kissinger spent the day balancing several international crises. Czechoslovakia’s President Alexander Dubcek was under pressure from the Soviets to roll back reforms, and there were fears of a Russian invasion. There was fighting in Lebanon and riots in the Dominican Republic. The war in Vietnam dragged on with mounting casualties.
At the end of the day, Colonel Alexander Haig, then a senior NSC staffer, sent a short memo to Kissinger with two options:
A full-scale military retaliation which could set off a major war with tens of thousands of casualties
Diplomatic pressure on North Korea while resuming the EC-121 flights with fighter escorts
Kissinger brought the suggestions to Nixon who bristled at the lack of options.
Kieran, due within weeks with twins, was sent to the Naval hospital for observation. That night in the hospital in Japan, Kieran also understood that a war was possible, and many American servicemen and their families could die. As much as she wanted some retribution for the attack, Kieran prayed for peace and for the well-being of the North Korean people who were suffering under the brutal dictatorship.
This is part one of a two-part story. Read the conclusion to the story of the EC-121 shootdown here.