When people think of provocations from North Korea most people today think that the deadliest incidents from the rogue regime have been targeted against South Korea. The largest loss of life from one provocation by North Korea was the sinking of the ROK Navy ship the Cheonan in 2010 that killed 46 personnel on the ship and wounded 56 more. What many people don’t realize is that the US military historically has been subject to many provocations from North Korea as well to include the 2nd deadliest attack the shoot down of an EC-121 reconnaissance plane that killed all 31 men onboard.
This deadly attack occurred on April 15, 1969 when the EC-121 which used the call sign “Deep Sea 129” was shot down in international waters 167 kilometers off the coast of North Korea. The EC-121 is an intelligence gathering platform that picks up radio transmissions in the area that it is conducting surveillance of. The mission of the Deep Sea 129 would not only be to pick up radio transmissions from North Korea, but from China and Russia as well. The military has conducted these flights on behalf of the National Security Agency (NSA) for many years.
The routine flight of the Deep Sea 129 began at 0700 local time when it took off from Atsugi, Japan. On board were 8 officers and 23 enlisted men under the command of LCDR James Overstreet. The plane first flew over Japan and then over the Sea of Japan. Once over the Sea of Japan the EC-121 flew in a clockwise ellipse as it collected signal intelligence from the region. LCDR Overstreet was given orders to that his flight pattern would not go any further than 90 kilometers from North Korea. Radars at Osan Airbase in South Korea as well as back in Yokota Airbase in Japan tracked the missions progress as well as looking for any aircraft being dispatched from North Korea. At 12:34 local time radars at Osan Airbase detected that two MIG-17s had been launched by North Korea. At 13:00 Deep Sea 129 issued a routine report and everything seemed normal. At 13:22 the radars as Osan lost track of the two MIG-17s and reacquired them at 13:37. When the aircraft were reacquired it became obvious that the MIGs were dispatched to intercept the EC-121. At 13:44 Deep Sea 129 was alerted that they were being intercepted. At 13:47 the MIGs had reached the vicinity of Deep Sea 129 and then at 13:49 the EC-121 disappeared from the radar screen.
After the EC-121 disappeared from the radar screen the operators originally thought that it may have followed normal procedures and dropped to an altitude below radar coverage. This thought prevailed because the operators figured that if the MIGs were acting hostile to the EC-121 than LCDR Overstreet would have radioed something back to Japan. However, after 10 minutes had past and no radio transmission had been received from LCDR Overstreet, people began to fear the worst. Two US jets were dispatched from Japan to conduct a Combat Air Patrol of the area where the EC-121 had last been tracked. By 14:44 almost hour after Deep Sea 129 was last tracked, the CAP planes could not find the EC-121 and the command in Japan decided to send an urgent message back to the Pentagon and the White House that they feared the EC-121 had been shot down.
The reactions from political leaders in Washington once the news was heard was initially very harsh. On Capitol Hill, Mendel Rivers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, proclaimed: ‘There can be only one answer for America-retaliation, retaliation, retaliation!’ Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. L Mendel Rivers, called for military retaliation against North Korea with “whatever is necessary. If nuclear weapons are required, let them have it. It’s time to give them what they ask for.”
As the political leadership back at the US reacted to the shoot down the military command back in Japan prepared a massive search and rescue effort to recover the plane and any survivors. The plane had life rafts the crew could have used if the plane crashed intact. The seas were not too rough and temperatures were in the 40s. So if the crew survived the crash they had a high chance of survival in the conditions if found quickly. The search was conducted by C-130s from Japan that were supported by a K-135 Stratotanker to provide fuel support. These search and rescue aircraft were further supported by CAP aircraft. In total 26 aircraft were used during the search and rescue operation. Besides the aircraft two American destroyers, the USS Dale and the USS Tucker reached the suspected crash site around 9PM. The Soviet Union would also dispatch two destroyers to search for survivors as well. The Soviets were probably eager to show the US they did not support the North Koreans actions by assisting with the search and rescue. The Soviet destroyer the Vdokhnovenie recovered pieces of the downed aircraft as well as the only two bodies found during the entire search effort. The bodies of LTJG Joseph R. Ribar and AT1 Richard E. Sweeney were turned over to the USS Tucker on April 17th. This ended the search and rescue operation and the bodies of the other 29 crew members were never recovered.
With the end of the search and rescue operation, US President Richard Nixon had to decide on what to do in response to North Korea’s deadly provocation. During this time period North Korea had even taken the rare step of bragging on their state radio station of shooting down the aircraft that they said was flying over their territorial waters. Despite calls for retaliation from various political figures Nixon decided to go with most other officials were recommending which was essentially to do nothing. With the war raging in Vietnam many US officials thought it was unwise to open up a possible second front war on the Korean peninsula. So he decided not to do anything provocative against the North Koreans such as bombing the airfield where the MIGs that shot down the EC-121 flew from. Instead he conducted a show of force by continuing the reconnaissance flights while backed with appropriate naval and Air Force support to protect them. This showed American resolve to the North Koreans while not creating a second war in Asia.
What I cannot understand is why the EC-121 was left without escort of some kind in the first place? The mission of the EC-121 was very similar to what the USS Pueblo ship was doing when it was fired upon and captured by the North Koreans in 1968. Considering that North Korea had shown previously an intent to target US reconnaissance efforts it seems surprising to me that the Pentagon was allowing the EC-121 flights off the coast of North Korea to continue with out a fighter escort or at least ships in the Sea of Japan that can provided better early warning of any potential North Korean fighters trying to intercept them.
Anyway below is a list of all the lives that were lost by this act of North Korean aggression. Like all the other lives brought to an early end by the thugs and killers of the Kim regime in North Korea these men should not be forgotten:
SQUADRON: FLEET AIRBORNE RECONNAISSANCE SQDN ONE (VQ-1)
AIRCRAFT: EC-121M, BuNo 135749, PR-21, “Deepsea Two One”
LOCATION: SE of Chongjin, North Korea.
EVENT: Shot down by two North Korean MIG fighters over the Sea of Japan.
LOSS: 31 of 31-man crew killed:
CREW: 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
Louis F Balderman, ADR2
Stephen C Chartier, AT1
Bernie J Colgin, AT1
Ballard F Connors, Jr, ADR1
Gary R DuCharme, CT3
Gene K Graham, ATN3
LaVerne A Greiner, AEC
Dennis J Horrigan, ATR2
Richard H Kincaid, ATN2
Marshall H McNamara, ADRC
Timothy H McNeil, ATR2
John A Miller, CT3
John H Potts, CT1
Richard T Prindle, AMS3
Richard E Smith, CTC
Philip D Sundby, CT3
Richard E Sweeney, AT1
Stephen J Tesmer, CT2
David M Willis, ATN3
Hugh M Lynch, SSGT, USMC
Frederick A. Randall, CTC
James Leroy Roach, AT1
Fortunately the US Navy in Japan has not forgotten the men of Deep Sea 129 when they held a memorial service at Misawa Airbase on the 40th anniversary of this incident on April 15, 2009.
Likewise political leaders back in Washington should not forget these men either when negotiating with the murderous rulers in North Korea. They have a long history of killing American and South Korean servicemembers as well as abducting citizens from other countries. They continue to cause these provocations because they have little fear of repercussions. At some point there needs to be repercussions.
Something else political leaders need to be aware of is that North Korea may try this again. Just as recently as 2003 the North Koreans intercepted the RC-135S Cobra Ball intelligence collecting aircraft that was flying over the Sea of Japan. One of the four North Korean jets actually locked on to the US aircraft and the North Korean pilots made gestures indicating they wanted the Cobra Ball aircraft to follow them back to North Korea. Fortunately the US aircraft turned around and returned to its base in Japan without incident.
In 2009 the North Koreans then came out and made threats to shoot down US reconnaissance planes before a scheduled missile test that had been condemned by the international community. Unless improved security measures have been taken to protect these reconnaissance flights these planes may be seen as a soft target to launch a provocation against the US with. They may not shoot down the aircraft like they did in 1969, but does anyone put it past them to try and damage a US aircraft to where it may need to make an emergency landing in North Korea? This would be similar to what happened with the EP-3 aircraft that was forced to land in China in 2001. This would be a dream come true for the North Koreans if they were able to pull this off. Also if such an attempt led to the crash of the US airplane how should US leaders respond to such aggression? These all things that I recommend people think about because I do not put it past the North Koreans to try something like this again if pressured too much by the US over their missile and nuclear programs. Especially if they feel like they can get away with it again without repercussions like what happened after the tragic loss of 31 US military personnel in 1969.