Cold War shoot-down over St. Lawrence Island: Survivor returns to thank villagers who rescued him

  

Category:  News & Politics

Via:  kavika  •  one month ago  •  28 comments

By:   Mike Dunham (Anchorage Daily News)

Cold War shoot-down over St. Lawrence Island: Survivor returns to thank villagers who rescued him
A survivor of a Navy patrol plane, shot down by Russian jets in 1955, recounts how he was rescued by Siberian Yupik National Guard members on St. Lawrence Island.

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T



WHITTIER -- They called it the Cold War. But for the crew of a Navy patrol bomber based in Kodiak, things got very hot when Soviet MiG fighter jets swarmed them, guns blazing, during a routine maritime patrol over the Bering Sea on June 22, 1955.

The P2V-5 Neptune was cruising at about 8,000 feet, recalled David Assard, a navigator on the flight, when Lt. Richard Fisher, piloting the plane, got word from the back, "There's jets out here. And they're firing at us."

There were six MiG-15s in the attack, Assard said, "two high, two below us and two shooting in a scissor pattern."

Within seconds, 23 and 37 mm cannon fire had raked the plane, wounding several crew members and setting fire to the left wing and engine. Fischer recalled "the sound of ripping metal and tinkling glass" in a 2006 article in Foundation magazine. He rolled the plane and dove into the clouds.

The maneuver put out the fire temporarily and lost the attackers. "Apparently they didn't see us," Assard said. "Or else they thought we were done for."

So did the men on the plane. As Fischer slowed and leveled the plane about 50 feet off the ocean, the fire in the magnesium metal frame reignited. Those with a view off the left could see the wing spar, the skin burned off. It was twisting and appeared ready to rip away.

By shifting fuel from the one remaining tank to the one remaining engine, the Neptune might reach Nome, in theory. But Fischer was sure the wing would fail before then. He briefly considered ditching at sea while the wing still held, but with one life raft ripped up by enemy fire and questions about whether the other could be deployed and half of his men without rubber "poopy" dry suits, he expected that even in a best-case scenario they would die in the cold water before help could arrive.

That left the desperate option of a crash landing on St. Lawrence Island. "I'm going to stretch this to land," Fischer said, and called for a heading. Assard, who had shrapnel in his hand and back, ran the calculations as best he could. The circuit breaker had been hit and most electronics were out. But he gave Fischer bearings that he hoped would bring the plane to American territory.

A high rocky cliff shortly appeared in front of the cockpit. Fischer eased the plane up to 100 feet to clear the cliff. He feathered the props, cut the power and, with the wheels up, skidded the plane along the tundra on its belly.

"He did a superb job of landing the plane," Assard said. "It was as beautiful as you can do it."

But the landing set off another explosion toward the tail of the plane. It created a fireball. "The plane stopped fast enough, but the fireball kept right on going forward through the whole plane," Assard said.

The men managed to escape the flaming wreck and made it to a ditch a short distance away. They ducked as ammunition and flares in the smoldering plane continued to explode. They had no clear idea about where they were or whether anyone at their base knew what had happened.

And everyone had injuries, some severe, from bullets and shrapnel, broken bones, smoke and fire. "We were all burned," Assard said.

Dangerous duty


Assard, 82, recounted his story during a trip to the Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier on Aug. 8, a visit hosted in part by the Prince William Sound Economic Development District. He was visiting the state with his wife, Linda, and several friends from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area where he now lives.

Museum founder Ted Spencer gave the group a tour of the place. He paused at the Cold War display and said, "This is our David Assard exhibit."

The case includes Assard's flight jacket.

A Connecticut farm boy, Assard became fascinated by aviation as a young man and joined the Navy to learn to fly. He got his wings before his 21st birthday. He was assigned to several duty stations over his career, including the Navy Base on Kodiak, now a Coast Guard facility.

In 1955 the Dew Line and White Alice radar and communications systems were still two years from completion. The U.S. needed to know what the Russians were up to and the only way to do that was with reconnaissance flights in aircraft big enough to hold a lot of electronic equipment and fly long distances.

"Our mission was to fly up between the Diomedes toward Wrangel Island," Assard said. "We'd check the ice, the weather, any sign of activity, and return skirting the international date line, but being careful to stay east of it. The Russians claimed everything on the west side and we didn't want to start World War III. So our orders were: Don't fire unless fired upon."

The Neptune was a Lockheed design that resembled the lines of a World War II B-25 Mitchell Bomber, though with a single high tail instead of the Mitchell's double-rudder configuration. It had a variety of guns and turrets, but they were useless without the electrical power. "Once we were hit, we couldn't fire back," Assard said.

Even if its guns had been fully functioning, the odds would have been stacked against the single, prop-driven, lumbering Neptune. The six jet-powered MiG fighters had top speeds of more than 600 miles an hour; the PV2 cruised at less than 200 miles an hour. One on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, is named "The Truculent Turtle."

"Look at that plane," Assard said, pointing to a photo in the museum exhibit. "That was not designed for aerial combat."

Surveillance was dangerous duty, said Spencer, who has made a life study of aviation in general and in Alaska in particular. The Cold War display at the museum lists a score of American planes shot down by the Russian military on recon missions between 1950 and 1970. The sites of these incidents range from the Sea of Japan and Korea to the Black Sea and Arctic Ocean. The June 22, 1955, shoot -own is the only one that took place in Alaska.

The display gives a total of 165 American personnel killed or missing in these clashes.

"The ones who got captured in Russia were nobodies," Assard said. "The U.S. didn't want to admit that spying was going on and the Russians weren't going to say that they were being spied on. So those guys just disappeared, sent off to mines in Siberia where they were worked to death."

Skin boat rescue


The possibility of capture was very much on the minds of the Navy men clustered on the tundra. Assard had given Fischer his best guess of their location, but neither of them were totally confident. The rest of the crew was even less certain.

"We knew very little of St. Lawrence," wrote Fischer, including what it looked like if you happened to find yourself on the island and how you might go about finding anyone who lived there.

About 40 minutes after the crash, they heard approaching motors. Looking toward the water, they saw boats with armed men coming in their direction. Rescue or gulag? Everyone held his breath.

The men turned out to be members of the Alaska National Guard. "And thus our prospects for survival were greatly improved," Fischer observed with noteworthy understatement.

The guardsmen were Siberian Yupik Eskimos from Gambell, a village 8 miles from the crash site on the side of St. Lawrence closest to Russia. Villagers had heard the plane approaching the island and determined, from the sound of the engine, that something was wrong. They immediately set out to look for it.

The guardsmen were led by a soldier assigned to the U.S. Army signal station near the village. The Navy men knew nothing about the presence of the station, a nearby Air Force radar site or even the existence of Gambell itself. "If we'd known," Fischer wrote, "we would have tried for the landing strip at Gambell."

The guardsmen supplied first aid and shuttled them to the village, some in a Weasel tracked vehicle, Assard and others in skin boats powered by 20-horsepower Johnson engines.

A nurse at the village's Presbyterian mission supplied what Fischer called "excellent emergency medical care" and, within 12 hours of the crash, the seriously injured men were evacuated by C-47 cargo plane to the hospital at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, where they underwent surgery.

Those with minor injuries, like Fischer and co-pilot David Lockhart, were taken to Elmendorf Air Force Base where, Fischer recalled, "(we) underwent an extremely long and tiring debriefing in a large room full of more generals and colonels than I thought existed in all of Alaska."

Assard was among those evacuated to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, once they had been stabilized in Anchorage. Recovery lasted for months or longer. Assard recalled that one radioman had his ears and nose burned off and remained in treatment for five years.

Restitution and gratitude


Historian Stephen Ambrose has asserted that the Navy plane was "over Soviet airspace" in his book "Eisenhower: The President" (Simon and Schuster, 1984). Fischer dismissed that claim in his Foundation article.

"So much for historical accuracy," he wrote. "The facts are otherwise. We were not on a recon mission over Soviet territory. There was no warning pass, no shots across the bow, no close formation attempt to warn us away, only the single live-fire pass." And the Neptune was clearly in American airspace. The evidence was so compelling that the Soviets admitted that the shoot-down was their error and offered to pay the U.S. for damages.

"They admitted responsibility and paid for the cost of the plane," Spencer said. "It's the only time that happened in the whole Cold War."

Global politics are one thing. Personal obligations are another. Forty years after the crash, Assard said, "I decided it was time to go up to Alaska and say thank you."

After leaving active duty, he became an aeronautical engineer and went on to become president and chief executive officer of Textron Lycoming, Cessna Aircraft and Elliott Turbomachinery, among his other business interests. He had made enough money to order a bronze plaque and bring it to Gambell, where it was attached to the side of the village's high school.

"We were very fortunate in landing on an American island and being found by American Eskimos," he said. "They couldn't have been more gracious."

In the early 1990s, Assard thinks it was probably 1991, he made the trip to Gambell to present the plaque. He was welcomed with a big party and Native dancing that went on for three hours. Joining tribal leaders he made the overland trip to the crash site on four-wheelers to see what was left of his old airplane.

Cyrillic graffiti indicated that Russian frogmen had been to the wreck. But the only satisfaction they got was to leave some presumed taunts. The American military blew up much of the plane shortly after the crash to keep the Soviets from getting access to classified electronics.

"They wanted to come back and remove everything," said Assard. "But the Eskimos said no. The tail was still up and visible for miles. They were using it to get their bearings. So they left it" along with surviving portions of the front and wings.

Spencer, who has been to the site more recently, said the tail is now slumping forward. He hopes someday to recover part of the plane for the museum to help people remember the great non-war war in which Alaska was a major front.

Assard seemed to think it's enough that he cheated death. For that he credits the people of Gambell and his commanding officer.

"Dick (Fischer) was a tough old bird," he said. "They gave him the Distinguished Flying Cross and he deserved it. He told us, 'If I can save anybody, I'm going to save everybody.'

"And here I am, 60 years later."


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Kavika
Professor Principal
1  seeder  Kavika     one month ago

Alaska once again is on the front line. In WWII the Japanese invaded and the Eskimo Scouts protected Alaska's vast shoreline and islands. 

Then came the cold war and once again Alaska was on the front line now a new cold war has changed the Military in Alaska with the redesign of the Army units with the 11th Airborne and cold weather troops taking over. 

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Kavika @1    one month ago

St. Lawrence Island is in the news again when two indigenous Siberians escaped Russia by 15 foot boat across 35 miles of very dangerous water to St. Lawrence Island and asked for asylum.

 
 
 
devangelical
Professor Principal
1.2  devangelical  replied to  Kavika @1    one month ago

great article, thanks...

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  devangelical @1.2    one month ago

I doubt many people are aware of US planes being shot down by the Russians during the cold war.

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Professor Quiet
1.2.2  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @1.2.1    one month ago

Even as a Corpsman, I spent most of my 20 year Naval career in and around Navy and Marine Corps aviation units, so I heard my share stories. Thank you Kavika for a most excellent article. 

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.3  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.2.2    one month ago

Your welcome Doc, I wanted to post this since I doubt many people were aware of it second it seemed timely with what is happening with Russia.

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Professor Quiet
1.2.4  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @1.2.3    one month ago

Yep, I am reminded of the Hainan Island Incident in 2011 where a US Navy EP-3 Aries electronic intelligence aircraft with 23 crew aboard was damaged and forced to make a emergency landing on Hainan Island off the coast of mainland China following a midair collision with PLAN Shenyang J 8 interceptor. The Chinese pilot did not survive. Fortunately, except for some minor injuries, all crew survived and were interned by the Chinese and released after 10 days. China would not allow the aircraft to be flown out but the US was allowed to fly it out pieces aboard two contracted Antonov An 124 transports.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.5  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.2.4    one month ago

The good news is that the crew was safe and that we got the plane back, in pieces. Can you imagine having to disassemble the plane and load it into two Russian planes to get it out of China.

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Professor Quiet
1.2.6  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @1.2.5    one month ago

The Chinese tried to stiff us for a million dollars to cover the loss of their plane and pilot. The US gave a flat no. The hotdogging Chinese pilot was the cause of the aircraft to begin with. We wound up paying out about $35,000.00 got the cost of feeding and housing the Aerie's crew. We got off good all things considered.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.2.7  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Ed-NavDoc @1.2.6    one month ago
We got off good all things considered.

Indeed we did.

 
 
 
Trout Giggles
Professor Principal
1.3  Trout Giggles  replied to  Kavika @1    one month ago

I was stationed in Alaska during the tail end of the Cold War. We had an early warning missile site that needed an industrial hygiene survey every so often and I went there once. It was a coal powered plant and a large building housing personnel. The power plant was to keep the radar powered up. You may have heard of it...Clear AFS?

Mr Giggles got stationed in Alaska in 81-82. He worked for SAC in the administrative offices but saw lots of classified material. There was a burn barrel somewhere in that office where he was supposed to burn material if the Soviets invaded.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
1.3.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Trout Giggles @1.3    one month ago

Not familiar with Clear AFS, Trout.

 
 
 
Split Personality
Professor Principal
2  Split Personality    one month ago

Slightly stunned to see that survivors made it all the way to Oak Knoll, Oakland, CA.

Any one whoever served or visited Oak Knoll Naval Hospital called it an "accident waiting to happen".

Annual Award ceremonies in the lower level always pointed out that the awardees had survived

the cracked piers 'holding up" the building. 

Formed in the shape of a "plus sign" the hospital's wings were "designed to fall off first" in the event of an earthquake.

There were routine drills to get all patients to the areas surrounding the elevators and stairwells.

NICU Docs, nurses and Corpsmen were graded on how many infants they could grab and pocket on their way out.

Fond memories./s

It was imploded in 2011, in the end the bottom three floors survived.  Go figure.

512

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
2.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Split Personality @2    one month ago
NICU Docs, nurses and Corpsmen were graded on how many infants they could grab and pocket on their way out.

Damn!!

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Professor Quiet
2.1.1  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @2.1    one month ago

After I graduated from the Navy's year long advanced x-ray technician school in 1980, I was offered the choice of duty at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital or Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital. Had a friend who was stationed in at Oak Knoll tell me "Don't come here. This place is falling apart and it is outrageously expensive." I took Camp Pendleton and never regretted it.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
2.1.2  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Ed-NavDoc @2.1.1    one month ago

Sounds like you made a good choice, Doc.

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Professor Quiet
2.1.3  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  Kavika @2.1.2    one month ago

I did. There was hunting and fishing right on the base. Bass, crappie, and bluegill at Lake O'Neal ten minutes from my house in the 21 Area. Deer hunting and other game on various parts of the base. Trout fishing at Casey Springs up in the mountains. I loved it.

 
 
 
shona1
Junior Participates
3  shona1    one month ago

Arvo.. slightly off topic...

But Alaska is in the news here at the moment. A bird has just flown from Alaska to Tasmania non stop 15,500 kms...

It's a Godwit and they tracked it via satellite..took 11 days...

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
3.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  shona1 @3    one month ago

Wow, 15,500 km non-stop, that is unbelievable.

 
 
 
shona1
Junior Participates
3.1.1  shona1  replied to  Kavika @3.1    one month ago

But why would you want to fly from one cold hole to another...we have had a crap Spring so far and Tassie is not exactly warm..🥶

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
3.1.2  seeder  Kavika   replied to  shona1 @3.1.1    one month ago

Actually, they are regular long-distance flyers but cold to cold I have no idea why.

 
 
 
JohnRussell
Professor Principal
3.2  JohnRussell  replied to  shona1 @3    one month ago
A female  bar-tailed godwit  made a flight of 29,000 km (18,000 mi), flying 11,680 kilometres (7,260 mi) of it without stopping. [2]  In 2020 a male bar-tailed godwit flew about 12,200 kilometres (7,600 mi) non-stop in its migration from Alaska to New Zealand, a record for avian non-stop flight. [3]  More recently, a 5 month old, male bar-tailed godwit was tracked, traveling from Alaska to Tazmania. A trip that took 11 days, and recorded a non-stop flight of 8,400 miles (13,500 km). [4]

I take it they dont need to sleep. 

 
 
 
shona1
Junior Participates
3.2.1  shona1  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2    one month ago

Opps my apologies....it's 13,500 not 15,500kms..typo..

 
 
 
Ed-NavDoc
Professor Quiet
3.2.2  Ed-NavDoc  replied to  JohnRussell @3.2    one month ago

Built in natural auto pilot.

 
 
 
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
4  Buzz of the Orient    one month ago

When I first saw the name St. Lawrence Island, from the circumstances I knew it couldn't have been an island in the St. Lawrence River, so wanting to get my bearings I checked the seeded article and copied the map that was part of the article and pasted it here:

St_Lawrence_Is2.jpg

This map makes it clear just how close Alaska is to Russia.

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
4.1  seeder  Kavika   replied to  Buzz of the Orient @4    one month ago

I remember reading some time back that it was 50 miles from Russia.

 
 
 
devangelical
Professor Principal
4.1.1  devangelical  replied to  Kavika @4.1    one month ago

looks more like an eighth of an inch...

 
 
 
Kavika
Professor Principal
4.1.2  seeder  Kavika   replied to  devangelical @4.1.1    one month ago
looks more like an eighth of an inch...

That would depend on how many beers you've had.

 
 

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