The Privateer's lost crew

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer

On the morning of April 8, 1950, a PB4Y2 Privateer patrol bomber took off from a U.S. airbase in Wiesbaden, West Germany.

Enroute to Copenhagen, Denmark, the aircraft was shot down by Soviet fighters over the Baltic Sea. The Americans insisted it was an unarmed flight that was attacked in international airspace. The Russians claimed the aircraft was conducting a reconnaissance mission over Latvia. There were no survivors. It was the first of many shoot-downs to flare up the cold war between the superpowers.

The incident 58 years ago this week has been shrouded in mystery. While small pieces of wreckage were found, the aircraft and the bodies of the 10 crewmen were never recovered. Had there been survivors who were imprisoned in the Gulag archipelago? What was the nature of the mission? Was it a secret reconnaissance overflight that had been inadvertently discovered by Soviet radar? Had the plane been secretly recovered by the Russians?

The Privateer flew out of Wiesbaden at 10:31 a.m. The plane and its crew had been stationed at Port Lyautey, French Morocco and was on temporary assignment with NATO. Two hours later, the plane radioed to say it had crossed the German coastline and was still in the British zone. American radar continued tracking the aircraft up until 2:57 p.m. It is believed the plane was intercepted by four Soviet Lavochkin-11 fighters shortly after. They ordered the Privateer to land at an airfield in nearby Latvia. In their reports, the Soviet pilots claimed the American plane opened fire. The interceptors returned fire. According to the eyewitnesses, the plane descended sharply and entered the clouds. It crashed into the sea some 10 kilometres from the coastline around 5:39 p.m.

Hours later, American, British and Swedish vessels arrived at the position of the last radar contact. The only wreckage they discovered was two life rafts. A fishing vessel found the nose wheel a week later. Seat cushions, radio logs and other debris washed up on the coastline. In Washington, President Harry Truman said the incident was being investigated, while the congress demanded the Soviets pay for the act of shooting down a "wholly unarmed" aircraft. The U.S. State Department conveyed a stern diplomatic note of condemnation to the Soviet embassy. The case was not taken to the International Court of Justice.

The Russians stuck to their position that the Americans violated Soviet airspace and the aircraft was 21 kilometres into Latvia in the vicinity of Liepaya. Scrambled fighters had been fired upon before the Privateer turned towards the Baltic. They also insisted it was a B-29 Flying Fortress bomber that they intercepted (the Privateer and the B-29 are similar in appearance).

The U.S. military accepted that there would be no survivors. Truman order Rear Admiral Richard L. Conolly, commander of the U.S. fleet in east Atlantic, to investigate. Congress directed the Secretary of the Navy to posthumously decorate the Privateer's four officers and six enlisted men. The U.S. navy issued a presumptive finding of death in April, 1951.

Despite this, rumours continued to surface from behind the Iron Curtain that there were survivors. The most credible report came from John Noble, an American citizen released from the Gulag in 1955. Noble said he was told by a Yugoslav national that eight survivors from a U.S. navy plane shot down in the Baltic were being held in the Vorkuta, a Siberian city above the Arctic Circle. A second report verified seemed to verify this. A Polish witness told U.S. army investigators probing American MIA's in Russia that a 40-year-old American arrived in a Vorkuta coal mine in June, 1953. He learned the American was the pilot of a spy plane shot down near Latvia. (A released Japanese prisoner also claimed to have met the American, who received burns to his face from the crash).

Some investigators have pointed to the fact that two life rafts were immediately recovered from the crash site as proof there were survivors. While one of the rafts was heavily damaged, U.S. authorities noted that all of the supply pockets in the other raft had been opened manually.

The case of the Privateer's crew was added to the agenda of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission, formed after the fall of the Soviet Union to investigate outstanding POW issues from the cold war. Two witness accounts seemed to dispute any contention the crew survived to languish in a Soviet prison. First, a former sailor by the name of Victor Shevchuk told the Russian newspaper Izvestiya that he was aboard one of the Soviet search vessels in April, 1950. He claimed they had found the Privateer and recovered several items from the wreckage. Divers had spotted the crew's remains in the cockpit, Sheychuk told reporters. Then in 1993, the commission interviewed Anatoly Gerasimov, one of the pilots who intercepted the plane. He stated they fired warning shots after the Privateer failed to obey instructions to land. He testified they then received orders to shoot down the aircraft. Gerasimov stated the Privateer "caught fire, exploded in the air, and fell in pieces to the sea." The attack took place 40 kilometres off the coast of Lithuania, Gerasimov said.

This might have put an end to any speculation about the fate of the crew, except Gerasimov gave a different version of events to a film documentary a few years later. During the interview, he stated they had shot down the plane, however, 10 parachutes were seen dispatching from the wreckage. The plane exploded seconds after. The pilots were instructed to radio where the men landed. Gerasimov was instructed not to tell the commission about the parachutists.

In November, 2000, the commission's working group looked over documents which detailed the search by Soviet naval forces (which claimed 45 ships and 160 divers could not find any trace of the aircraft). The Associated Press reported in 2001 that the Pentagon was continuing to probe the possibility that American servicemen were held in Soviet labour camps.

Even if they survived to be sentenced to life imprisonment, it's doubtful the men will be found alive. It's feared the Soviet carried out wholesale executions of foreign POWs, especially American MIAs from the Second World War and Korea, and possibly as recent as the late 1980s. While it's widely accepted German and Italian soldiers were held in the Gulag prison system, the revelation that countless American and allied soldiers were also held against their will would have precipitated a hot war. It's one of the greatest atrocities ever committed, and these servicemen deserved better.

Lest we forget the crew of the Privateer last seen on April 8, 1950: John Fette, Howard Seeschaf, Robert Reynolds, Tommy Burgess, Frank Beckman, Joe Danens, Jack Thomas, Joseph Jay Bourassa, Edward Purcell and Joseph Norris Rinnier.

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