The EC-121 Shootdown by North Korea and the Government's Response (Part 2)

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This is part two of Christopher Lynch’s recounting of the EC-121 shootdown by North Korea in 1969. To read part one, click here.

April 18, 1969

The silence from the White House left everyone, from the press to world leaders, guessing what the US response would be. After long hours of discussing the repercussions of the two options with Kissinger and other senior advisors, President Nixon called a news conference for early that morning. 

The President started off by noting that the unarmed plane was some 90 miles offshore from North Korea. 

“This attack was unprovoked. It was deliberate. It was without warning.” 

Nixon then shifted the argument as to why the U.S. had such flights, saying that they were necessary to protect the 56,000 American troops stationed in Korea. Similar flights had been undertaken over the years and these flights were even more necessary given the escalating aggressions by the North Koreans. Using that rationale, Nixon announced that the reconnaissance flights would resume, this time with fighter escort.

Nixon concluded:

“Looking to the future, what we do will depend upon the circumstances. It would depend upon what is done [by] North Korea [and] its reaction to the protest and also any other developments that occur as we continue these flights.”

In the press conference, Nixon inadvertently disclosed previously classified information about U.S. capabilities. In describing the exact location of the shootdown, Nixon said:

“We knew this based on our radar. What is also even more important [is that] the North Koreans knew it based on their radar.”

In other words, the U.S. could mirror the North Korean (and by extension Soviet) radar. There were some raised eyebrows in the intelligence community that the President had let such critical information slip out.

At an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg reiterated the US protest delivered to the North Koreans at Panmunjom, Goldberg’s briefing provided details on the flight path. Pentagon officials handed out a detailed checklist about the flight at hearings before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. 

The reaction by the political class was surprisingly positive. According to Time Magazine:

“Hubert Humphrey lauded the President's restraint; Senator Barry Goldwater reluctantly went along, saying he personally favored taking 'an eye for an eye,' but conceding that the U.S. cannot afford to fight wars simultaneously in Vietnam and Korea. Senator William Fulbright thought Nixon had no alternative, but repeated his doubts about the usefulness of the kind of spying missions the Pueblo and the downed EC-121 were engaged in.”

With the flights resumed and no further North Korean provocations, the attention of the Administration and of the press quickly returned to the foreign policy and national security problems of the day. North Vietnam was ramping up its efforts against American and South Vietnamese forces. The Middle East was a powder keg, and the Soviet Union was cracking down on dissent in the Eastern European satellite states.

The President continued to be troubled by the lack of options against North Korea. Over the next six months, the National Security Council developed a series of 25 responses from surgical conventional strikes to use of nuclear weapons. All the options resulted in the same outcome – the North Koreans would quickly escalate their actions in response to a U.S. attack, plunging the peninsula into all-out war leading to great casualties among US forces. 

In its April 25 edition, Time Magazine reviewed the events and summed up the US response as follows:

“Nixon, who had built much of his reputation on militant anti-Communism, kept his response to the minimum consistent with national honor and domestic politics. As Secretary of State Rogers acknowledged, great power -and responsibility- often imposes narrow limits on national choice.”

On May 2, the Defense Department declared dead the remaining missing 29 crew members, including Staff Sergeant Hugh Michael Lynch.

Ripples

When the crew was declared dead, there was a brief ceremony at the base in Japan. There were no bodies, and the survivors were given the folded American flags. With a death of a serviceman overseas, the families suffer a second shock as they must return home. Soon, everyone was gone, except for Kieran who was on bedrest waiting for the twins to be born. By regulation, my mother would have gone to be with her, but she realized Kieran needed her own mother. With the help of the local congressman Ralph Regula, Kieran’s mother flew there.

The twins were born on May 17, and Kieran gave them the names of Hugh Michael and Michael Francis. When the twins were able to fly the next month, Kieran made the long journey back to Ohio with her two daughters and infant sons. Their arrival made the front page of the Canton Repository, and a fund was set up to help out the family. There was some grumbling about the fund since servicemen were being killed every day in Vietnam. In this case, the small amount collected combined with the life insurance allowed Kieran to buy a modest house in the suburbs.

Canton, which had already begun its slow industrial decay, was a relatively inexpensive place to live, and Kieran was able to raise the family on the limited pension. In the aftermath of the Vietnam war, there was not the support for Gold Star families that one sees today. It certainly was not an easy life for her, but she raised her children on her own. She never remarried.

The older daughter, Kieran Jr. got married young. She had two children and was divorced. She was determined to create a future for herself and she studied to become a nurse. She now lives in Cleveland. The younger daughter, Mary Kay, was the only one to go away to college. My mother, my wife, and I were her cheering squad to get her to graduation. I proudly walked her down the aisle as a stand in for my brother. She is married and has four children.

The twins probably missed out the most by not having a father. Hugh Michael had a mental breakdown when he was 17 and died shortly thereafter in a freak accident. The other twin, Michael Francis, took the death hard. He joined the Navy but left the service after a few years unable to deal with the pressures. He now lives near Orlando and has only occasional contact with his family. 

My father, Hugh Sr., fell into a pit of Echo Springs bourbon and Pall Mall cigarettes, and he walked around at night talking to the ghosts in his life. He was an angry drunk and I would try to read his mood when he came home at night to see if there would be a meltdown. He worked at the railroad for another seven years and then spent five years in retirement smoking and drinking. He died in his sleep at age 70.

My mother, Elizabeth, tried her best to cope with the loss of a son and the guilt of having been complicit in pushing him out of the house. She got her chance at redemption when my father died just as she was retiring as a high school English teacher. She then set out to become the best grandmother she could to her eleven grandchildren. Grandma Betty was loved for her projects, and, every Christmas, the grandchildren would get handmade clothes or crafts. My mother found time to travel around the world, enjoying the second life of freedom without my father. She would attend Mass most every day and found strength in her religion, despite that the priests pressured her to choose her husband over her son. She fought cancer bravely and quietly for almost ten years. On her deathbed, at 80 years old, she asked for forgiveness for the choices she had made.

Because my brother’s body was never recovered, there never was a funeral or ceremony to say goodbye. By the time he was declared dead, public attention had already moved on. Moreover, friends and neighbors didn’t know what to say. It was during the Vietnam War and everyday families were receiving news of a combat death. I kept my grief bottled up inside.

I wanted to get as far away from my family as I could. My father insisted I attend a catholic college, and I chose Georgetown University in Washington D.C., 350 miles away from Canton. I studied international relations. After graduation, I passed the US State Department Foreign Service exam and embarked on a career where, like my brother, I could use my language skills. I served in five countries in Latin America and Europe, last as U.S. Consul General in Hamburg. The best thing to come out of my career was that I met my wife Linda at the State Department. We raised two daughters who thrived on the challenges and opportunities from growing up in other lands.

The lesson of the EC-121 shootdown, that there are sometimes no good options, stuck with me throughout my career. 

Occasionally, the U.S. had good options. When I was at the Embassy in Santiago, Chile, we worked to support the opposition to peacefully vote out the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Most of the time, however, the U.S. had a series of bad options, like in Colombia during the drug wars or in El Salvador after the civil war. There were no good guys to align with, only a series of corrupt politicians all of whom had blood on their hands. 

Many times, the U.S. has lacked important information to understand what our options could be. While I was running our Consulate General in Hamburg, we knew that there was an al-Qaeda cell operating in the city, but we didn’t understand how it fit into the larger picture. After an initial threat that temporarily shut down our operations, we spent a lot of time focusing on the physical security of the Consulate building. It turned out that the target of the Hamburg cell was not the building but the U.S. homeland itself. As I saw footage of Hamburg police raiding Muhammed Atta’s apartment in the late afternoon of 9/11, I understood it all.

The Friday after Thanksgiving in 2001, my family and I went to the National Cryptologic Museum. It was still closed in the aftermath of 9/11, but I was able to talk my way in due to my State Department credentials. I had wanted to go there for years, and it turned out to be the last thing I did as a Foreign Service Officer before I retired.

When I saw the wall – and Hugh’s name carved in stone – the pain of the events came back to me. I thought not only about the crew of the Beggar Shadow mission but also about their surviving families. The families behind the names on that wall still feel the ripples of those events fifty years later.

There was also a sense of closure for me. We never had a funeral for my brother and there was never a time to grieve. Now, I could see a memorial with his name. As I walked out hand-in-hand with my family, I exhaled and finally allowed myself a good cry.

 

The author wants to give special thanks to Mike Ellzey, Director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library as well as to their staff for their assistance in research for this article.

Christopher Lynch lives in Irvine, California with his wife Linda. He runs a business accelerator and teaches economics.