Many people disappeared during the Cold War, from inmates of the Soviet Gulag prison system to left-wing activists in Latin America.
To American families, some of the most important missing people from the Cold War are US aviators lost while conducting missions against the Soviet Union and China. A number of these missions were so-called “ferret flights,” designed to trigger enemy radar and then collect the signals. Around 40 of these flights were shot down during the Cold War, leaving more than 100 Americans missing, some last reported alive in enemy hands.
Here are the stories of two of these ill-fated missions and the American heroes still missing.
The Missing Crew of the P2V
On Nov. 6, 1951, Soviet fighters downed a Navy P2V surveillance plane over the Sea of Japan, off the Soviet Pacific Coast, leaving ten men missing.
US analysts believed the plane was attacked to send a Soviet message regarding spy flights along its borders. Because the plane’s mission was linked to UN operations, the State Department decided to downplay the case, upsetting at least one Pentagon official who recommended “something be done to show the Soviets they cannot get away with it.”
Little was done, either to threaten the Soviets or account for the missing crewmen. They were soon declared dead.
There the case remained until more than 40 years later, when a former Soviet soldier named Vladimir Trotsenko contacted US investigators in Russia.
In November 1951 Sgt. Trotsenko hurt his leg during a training exercise and was sent to Hospital 404 in the town of Novosysoyevka in the Primorskiy Krai of Russia near the Pacific Coast. A special hospital for air crews and officers, the hospital was crowded when he arrived, so Trotsenko was given a bed in a second floor corridor. He soon realized there was something unusual about the room nearby. A guard sat at a desk outside it.
When the guard needed to use the restroom, he turned to Trotsenko and asked him “to keep an eye on the Americans.” Inside the room, he could see four patients. Patient Number 1 had an injured back and cast on his left arm, but could walk and speak. He was slender, 22 to 27 years old, about 5′ 6” with light hair and blue eyes. “Although unable to speak each other’s language, the American still managed to communicate,” according to a US report. “Based on random words he recognized as well as gestures, Sergeant Trotsenko believes that the American was from Cleveland and had two children.”
Patient Number 2 was in traction, his arms suspended above his head. He was older, at least 40, heavyset and with a dark complexion. Patient Number 3 was in the bed next to the wall, his face bandaged and able to move slightly. Patient 4, by the window, was burned and also had face bandages. The last American had already died and been buried near the hospital.
Trotsenko stayed in the hospital for more than two weeks, watching the Americans and their visitors. He would later give US investigators a detailed description of the facility and its inhabitants.
The Americans were well cared for, treated by the facility’s best doctors. They ate the same food as the Soviet patients. And they were regularly interrogated by a Soviet lieutenant colonel and captain, both in Air Force uniforms. Trotsenko provided the last name for at least one of them.
One day a Soviet colonel arrived and “approached the second bed where the burnt older man was lying, and he pulled something out from under the sheet from around the neck of this patient. At first, I thought it was a cross. I did not really know what it was. It was some kind of medallion -a round medallion. He pulled it out, looked at it, and then stuck it back under the sheet. He went around to all of the other patients and did the same thing. He looked at the medallion on the neck of each patient. He did not make any comments or say anything. He simply looked and stuck them back under the sheet.”
The story of these circular medallions had a powerful effect on the investigation of Trotsenko’s story. US investigators thought the former sergeant was trying to describe a dog tag, which all American veterans knew was rectangle shaped. Then they consulted a US Navy Artifacts Historian, who revealed that between 1940 and about 1956, Navy dog tags were round.
The US-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs arranged for Trotsenko to visit the old hospital. There they found his descriptions were stunningly accurate. Even Russian members of the Commission, who often disputed information the Americans found convincing, concluded Trotsenko was telling the truth.
But there the investigation ended, because Moscow still refuses to release sensitive files on foreign prisoners held by its intelligence service.
A few months after Vladimir Trotsenko left the hospital and his new American friends, another American reconnaissance plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan on June 13, 1952.
This was an Air Force RB-29 on a classified mission to gather intelligence on Soviet shipping between the Sakhalin and Kurile Islands. Twelve men were left missing, including mission commander Maj. Sam Busch (see his photo at the top of this page.)
On June 18, days after the downing, the US sent a message to the Soviets, reporting floating debris associated with the mishap, such as oxygen bottles and life preservers (life rafts and even the entire aircraft were also seen on the water, according to various reports). “The presence of such items would indicate that there were survivors who may have been picked up by Soviet ships,” the State Department said, asking for Soviet help. The Kremlin claimed to know nothing about the crew.
A returned Japanese prisoner from POW Camp 21 in Kharbarovsk would have disagreed. He said twelve or thirteen US airmen were in the prison as of the spring of 1953. Guards told him they were the crew of an American plane shot down by the Soviets.
Another Japanese repatriate said he’d met an American in a hospital at Narionburg, in the Magadan-area. We have seen two dates associated with what we believe is the same report, March 1952 and October 1953. Both concern an American officer shot down and wrongfully charged with espionage by the Soviets.
According to the earlier report, the American was Caucasian, a captain who had crashed in the vicinity of Kamchatka. He suffered from wounds and lung disease. The captain told the Japanese prisoner “I am going back alive and fight the Russians to the finish. Also, I cannot accept the sentence of being a spy. The sentence of 15 years based on item 6 of Article 58 (espionage) is unjust.” He was described as about 28, with shaven blond hair, an oval face with protruding forehead, deep set blue eyes and thick eyebrows.
Among the US airmen searching for the RB-29 after it went missing was Air Force Sgt. William Koski. The next month he himself was shot down over Korea and sent to a special POW camp in China. There he was interrogated about Maj. Sam Busch, commander of the lost aircraft. “If he were dead at the bottom of the Sea of Japan, why all the interest?” he recalled, adding “I am as convinced today as I was then that they had Busch . . . and maybe a few others of his crew.” (Major Busch’s sister Charlotte Busch Mitnik, who lost another brother in WWII, went on to become a leader in the POW/MIA family movement.)
Russians on the Joint Commission claimed Moscow had no information on survivors from the flight. When American investigators asked why Soviet officers had repeatedly interrogated a Korean War POW about Busch, who had disappeared far away, Moscow said the Soviets might have picked up the name from “communications intercepts.”
After further incidents, a 1955 Department of Defense memo concluded: “Air Force crews…are probably held by the Soviet Union. …The missions on which these aircraft were flying, while related to the Korean War, are highly classified…The US should not be surprised, particularly in light of Japanese and German experience with the Soviets in World War II, if a number of completely unrecorded Americans are ultimately found to be alive…”