Baron 52

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Aerial reconnaissance photo of the Baron 52 crash site in Salavan Province, Laos, 1973. The fuselage lies upside down and both wings were severed.

Baron 52 was the call sign of a United States Air Force EC-47 carrying eight crew members that was shot down over Laos during the predawn hours of 5 February 1973, a week after the Paris Peace Accords officially ended the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.[1] The remains of four crewmen were recovered from the crash site, but those of the remaining four have never been found. Although the U.S. government considers them to have been killed in action and as late as 1996 listed them as "accounted for", family members and POW/MIA advocates believe the four survived the crash and were taken captive and possibly sent to the USSR.[2][3] The intelligence gatherers and their equipment would have been highly valued by the Soviets who maintained a presence both in Laos and North Vietnam.[4] The incident has been featured on several nationwide news programs and a 1991 episode of the U.S. television series Unsolved Mysteries.[5][3] More recent research by the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Servicemen presented to Congress has prompted a status review of the incident scheduled to take place in 2016.[2]

The mission[edit]

Although the Paris Peace Accords had officially ended the United States' direct role in the Vietnam War, only a week after its signing the U.S. Air Force sent an EC-47Q electronic warfare collection aircraft on a night-time radio-direction-finding mission to monitor the Ho Chi Minh trail and locate North Vietnamese tanks moving south. The plane, tail number 43-48636, belonged to the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron and began its mission from Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. The flight crew also were part of the 361st while the collection crew manning the rear of the plane were from Det 3, 6994th Security Squadron.[6] Over Laos, the plane began taking anti-aircraft fire and went down in Salavan Province, Laos about 50 miles (80 km) east of the city of Salavan and 20 miles (32 km) from the border with South Vietnam at a site in the jungle within 8 miles (13 km) of three major roads leading into North Vietnamese-held territory.

Crew[edit]

361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron:[7]

  • Capt. George R. Spitz – Pilot
  • 2nd Lt. Severo J. Primm III – Co-Pilot
  • Capt. Arthur R. Bollinger – Navigator
  • 1st Lt. Robert E. Bernhardt – 3rd Pilot

6994th Security Squadron:[7]

  • SSgt. Todd M. Melton – Radio Operator
  • Sgt. Joseph A. Matejov – Radio Operator
  • Sgt. Peter R. Cressman – Radio Operator
  • Sgt. Dale Brandenburg – Systems Repair Technician

Recovery efforts[edit]

The location of the wreckage was first discovered by U.S. Air Force search and rescue on 7 February 1973. The plane was determined to have crashed inverted, coming to rest upside down in the jungle; both wings had been sheared off. A team consisting of three pararescuemen and an intelligence expert were on the ground for approximately an hour and found three bodies in the charred wreckage, those of Spitz, Prim and Bollinger in the cockpit, still strapped in their seats. Outside of the wreckage, they found Lt. Bernhardt's body. In the rear of the plane they observed that the jump door had been removed (it was never located), the crew's safety belts were unbuckled, and all of the top secret sensitive equipment was missing as were the rear crew's parachutes.[1][8]

On 9 February 1973, Bernhardt's remains were recovered and positively identified four days later. On 22 February, the other seven men were declared killed in action despite no confirmation of the fates of the four members of the collection crew.[8]

Controversy[edit]

The families of the missing crew members believe there is evidence they bailed out and were taken captive by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). They point to information in official reports, such as the fact that their safety belts were unbuckled and their remains were not at the crash site, to support their beliefs that the rear crew had time to bail out.[1] In addition, at approximately 8:00 AM on 5 February, U.S. Intelligence listening post at Phu Bai Combat Base in South Vietnam intercepted NVA communications from the area indicating they were transporting four captured Airmen. Such communications continued to be intercepted for the next three months. Also on record is a Pathet Lao radio intercept regarding four "air pirates" captured the day Baron 52 was shot down; no other U.S. aircraft was downed that day. A Laotian operative secretly working for the U.S. reported observing the transport of four prisoners along the road near the crash site.[1] All of these records remained classified by the U.S. government. This evidence was first presented to the American public by columnist Jack Anderson on the U.S. news program Good Morning America in 1978. During Anderson's report, he stated a "Pentagon spokesman now agrees there's a good chance these four men were survivors of the crash. Yet, the Pentagon deliberately gave the families misinformation".[9]

In 1992, in front of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, a representative of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified that it was the government's position that these reports were unrelated to Baron 52; this testimony was repeated in 1994 before the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.[10] In November of 1992, the Lao government allowed a team to survey the crash site where a dogtag with Sgt. Matejov's name on it was found, after nearly 20 years, lying in plain sight. Also recovered were 23 bone fragments and half of a tooth which were taken to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where Ellis R. Kerley publicly stated that the bone fragments "can not be proven conclusively to be human." According to further testimony given before the House Subcommittee by Albert Santoli, Kerley was replaced by "a U.S. Army Lt. Colonel, professionally a dentist, who has limited forensic experience",[10] and the bone fragments were declared to be the remains of all seven of the remaining crew members. The families requested DNA analysis be done on the bone fragments and tooth, but their requests were denied by the government.[1]

On 27 March 1996, the bone fragments were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in a group burial. The families of all seven men attended although the families of the four rear crew members were there to "honor the sacrifice" of the flight crew and did not believe the bone fragments were those of Melton, Matejov, Cressman or Brandenburg.[1] Matejov's younger brother, John Matejov, has sought help from both Wyoming Senators and Congressmen in petitioning the Pentagon for further information as well as appealing directly to President Obama.[1] Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Roger Shields said the government "acted 'precipitously' to declare Matejov and the other three missing crew members to be dead".[1] In their book, The Men We Left Behind, Mark Sauter and Jim Sanders wrote that "The names were scratched from the list (of MIAs) because they were an inconvenience that would have complicated Henry Kissinger's life".[4] Kissinger negotiated the Paris Peace Accords and was responsible for carrying out President Nixon's promise to bring all POWs home.[11] They further alleged that "the men weren't dead, and the Pentagon knew it" and that it was covered up because the flight was illegal under the Paris agreement.[11]

Congress is set to review the status of the four crewmen in 2016.[2] The status of one of the four crewman was not changed to MIA 2016.[12]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Francis, Mike (12 January 2014). "Still seeking answers about Joseph Matejov and many others missing in war". The Oregonian. Retrieved 9 February 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c Burke, Matthew M. (10 December 2015). "Lynn O'Shea, advocate for POW/MIA families, dies at 65". Stars and Stripes. Retrieved 9 February 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Yurick, Terry (2014). AP Alley. Lulu Enterprises Inc. p. xi. ISBN 1483407101. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  4. ^ a b Sauter, Mark; Sanders, Jim (1993). The men we left behind: Henry Kissinger, the politics of deceit and the tragic fate of POWs after the Vietnam War (illustrated ed.). University of Wisconsin - Madison: National Press Book. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  5. ^ "Baron 52". Unsolved Mysteries. Retrieved 10 February 2016. 
  6. ^ "Baron 52". 6994th Security Squadron. Retrieved 9 February 2016. 
  7. ^ a b White, Dillon (26 March 2014). "70th ISR Wing Airmen, Vietnam Veterans remember fallen heroes". Air Force Print News. United States Air Force. 70th ISR Wing Public Affairs office. Archived from the original on 16 February 2016. Retrieved 10 February 2016. 
  8. ^ a b "MATEJOV, JOSEPH ANDREW "JOE"". TaskForceOmegaInc.org. Task Force Omega, Inc. 501 (c) (3). Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  9. ^ Subcommittee, United States. Congress. House. Committee On National Security. Military Personnel. Department of Defense's Comprehensive Review of Indochina Pow Archived February 16, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.. Reprint. London: Forgotten Books, 2013. 38-9. Print. Retrieved 10 February 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Full text of "POW/MIA, where do we go from here: hearing before the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, One Hundred Third Congress, second session, February 10, 1994". archive.org. The Internet Archive. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  11. ^ a b Lippman, Thomas W. (10 December 1995). "MYSTERY OF THE LAST FLIGHT OF BARON 52 SOLVED". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  12. ^ US Stars and Stripes 2016