Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Other Side of the Cold War

In the fall semester of my sophomore year at UMKC, I completed an assignment for my American History 102 class that required us to interview someone we knew about an event in American history. I chose to talk to my dad about his experiences in the Air Force from 1960-64. I heard all these stories growing up, but for whatever reason, never really identified my dad as a war-time veteran — and I never once even thought to wish him a happy Veteran's Day or thank him... until one day in November 2009 when, after a stroke rehabilitation session, he returned with tears in his eyes and told me his PT had wished him a happy Veteran's Day.

So here's a quick history lesson — a blast from my own past, written by my 19-year-old self 16 years ago — and a Thank You to the veterans of the Cold War.

by Kristi Gulick
American History 102
December 4, 1998

“A lot of people today don’t believe the ‘Cold War’ was a real war. Some of them might even think it was a big publicity stunt that was dreamed up by politicians and Big Business. They are wrong,” said Gary Gulick, a former member of an Air Force intelligence operation during the early 1960s (Gulick interview).

In his remembrances of the Cold War era, Gulick described a side of this period in American history which is not usually recorded in textbooks. The average encyclopedia article, such as Compton’s Encyclopedia, describes the Cold War in vague terms. It links the era to more concrete events, such as the 1946 speech given by Winston Churchill, which first described an “iron curtain” of Communism. The article points to treaties and conferences, like the Yalta Conference or the Warsaw Pact. It describes “hot spots” of the Cold War, such as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and the Berlin Wall.

Articles like the one in Compton’s make little or no mention of what was happening at and behind the Iron Curtain. They do not address Francis Gary Powers and the “U-2 Incident.” And they certainly do not include references to the 252 American airmen who were shot down along Soviet and Chinese borders between 1950 and 1970 (Stanglin, et al). One reason for the general silence over the 138 airmen still unaccounted for (ibid) is that the information surrounding these incidents has been—and much still is—classified information. The United States government vehemently denied most military spy activity in Soviet airspace during the Cold War. This denial included a speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower during a news conference in May 1960 (Internet, 1998).

Despite these denials, though, the information has gradually fallen into public hands since the official close of the Cold War in the early 1990s. This information, some of which was brought to public light by a joint-investigation effort of US News and World Report and ABC News’ Primetime Live, has confirmed what Gulick has known for decades: “Shots were fired. Things were blown up. Soldiers were killed. Oh, it was a war all right.” (Gulick interview)

In August of 1960, Gulick joined the United States Air Force, expecting to be taught a vocational skill, such as how to be a mechanic or “something useful like that.” Instead, he was given aptitude tests and it was determined he would be ideal for learning a foreign language.

“I studied Russian ten hours a day for nine months and came away fairly comfortable with the language,” said Gulick. “I still didn’t know what the Air Force wanted me to do—because it was highly classified information—but I was sure it had something to do with the Cold War.” Gulick was given the job of “voice-information processing specialist,” which he described as being “an electronic spy, eavesdropping on the radio transmissions of Russian air-force pilots and ground controllers.”

Gulick was sent to the front line of the Iron Curtain from February 1961 to August 1964, where he found himself in the midst of the Cold War. Gulick was stationed in Germany when President John F. Kennedy came to Berlin and gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech. He was there when the Berlin Wall was built. While stationed at a remote site in Turkey, Gulick listened to the radio transmissions and watched the image of the on-board camera of a spacecraft as Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. It was also during his stint in Europe that Gulick experienced a part of the Cold War that few civilians even knew existed.

“I listened and recorded Russian radar operators at early-warning sites in East Germany and Poland as they tracked US military aircraft that were meandering along their borders,” said Gulick. “And from time to time, one of those aircraft would take a sharp turn and penetrate their airspace, flying in a straight line toward some city or military objective. And the Russian radar operators would issue the full alert and the Russian air-defense commonly would scramble several flights of fighter planes and the Russian pilots would begin their search-party conversations.”

Gulick related one of these typical dialogues, which he eavesdropped over Soviet radio signals, as Russian pilots sought out the intruding American plane: “I don’t have him in sight, yet. Where is he now? Give me the vectors. Wait a minute, I think I’ve got him on my on-board radar. Yes! Lock on! I have him! I have the target! Permit me to arm my weapons! Permit me...Okay! I’m arming my weapons! I’m attacking, I’m attacking! There! I got him! I got him! He’s going down, down, down...”

Gulick said the morning following one of these American aircraft downings, the typical explanation in the Stars and Stripes newspaper would be: “A US Air Force twin-engine reconnaissance airplane with three people on board was shot down yesterday afternoon after a navigational error led the pilot to accidentally overfly the East German border.”

“We knew different, of course,” said Gulick. “We in the 6910th Radio Group Mobile knew that the ‘reconnaissance plane’ had been flying an assigned mission that was intended to test the Russian early-warning radar and air-defense readiness.”

While Gulick was living the reality of the Cold War, the United States government concealed this reality from the public. Between 1950 and 1970, 252 American airmen were shot down, 24 died, 90 were recovered alive, and 138 are, to this day, unaccounted for (Stanglin). Before this information was uncovered in the early 1990s, most Americans were aware of only one American aircraft shootdown during the Cold War. This was the downing of Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 aircraft 1,200 miles inside the Soviet Union borders on May 1, 1960 (Norton, et al, 864).

The “U-2 Incident” was made public by the Soviet Union, with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev demanding an apology from the United States for violation of Soviet airspace (ibid). The United States issued a note to the USSR on May 6, stating “a United States National Aeronautical Space Agency unarmed weather research plane based at Adana, Turkey, and piloted by a civilian American has been missing since May 1.” (Internet, 1998) In later correspondence over the matter, the United States tentatively admitted the plane may have been in Soviet airspace for intelligence-gathering purposes, but refused an apology at a Paris summit meeting two weeks after Powers’ plane went down (Norton).

Although Powers was safely returned to American custody, the government had to provide the public with an explanation for the downing of this American plane over Soviet territory. In a news conference statement on May 11, 1960, President Eisenhower explained the need for intelligence-gathering activities: “No one wants another Pearl Harbor.” Eisenhower used this World War II incident, which struck anger and fear into any American’s heart, as rhetoric for justifying spy activity, which he called “a distasteful but vital necessity.” He also told the American people, “(Intelligence-gathering activities) are divorced from the regular, visible agencies of government... We do not use our Army, Navy, or Air Force for this purpose, first, to avoid any possibility of the use of force in connection with these activities and, second, because our military forces, for obvious reasons, cannot be given latitude under broad directives but must be kept under strict control in every detail.” (Internet, 1998)

Three months later, Gulick would join the Air Force—one of the agencies which was, according to Eisenhower, not associated with any intelligence-gathering activity—and be trained to listen to Soviets chasing down American aircraft over USSR territory.

US News and World Report wrote in March 1993, “Although Washington admitted to only a single violation of Soviet airspace with the Gary Powers spy flight, intelligence documents and interviews with former government officials show that the penetrations were numerous—and deliberate.

These flights were typically called “ferret” flights, intended to identify the locations, capabilities, and response times of Soviet electronic and radar defenses along borders. As many as 20,000 spy missions were launched, mostly, by the United States Air Force, Navy, and the Central Intelligence Agency, from 1950 through the late 1960s (Stanglin).

A list of published Cold War shootdown incidents, complied by Robert L. Goldrich, a specialist in national defense with the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division, gives details of a handful of these ferret flights that did not go as planned. One of the earlier incidents occurred in 1951, when a US Navy aircraft was lost near Vladivostok. The report states: “This aircraft was apparently shot down by Soviet fighters either over international waters about 20 miles from Vladivostok, USSR (according to the United States) or over Vladivostok (according to the Soviets).” In this shootdown, no survivors and no remains were recovered of a crew of ten (Goldrich).

The list continues, relating incidents of American survivors being turned over to the US government by Soviet authorities. Sometimes the Soviets admitted to firing upon the American plane and the United States apologized and said the plane’s purpose was weather research, or gave some other benign explanation. Other times, no survivors or bodies were recovered, and the Soviet Union denied ever attacking the plane (Goldrich).

This deadly dance of secrecy and suspicion continued between the US and the USSR for nearly 50 years. A fear of nuclear attack—of “another Pearl Harbor”—kept the Iron Curtain drawn, armed, and patrolled in the duration of the Cold War. Today, encyclopedias may not recognize the lives which were lost during this, technically, “peace-time” period. But as the information about airmen who died in this cold conflict is slowly declassified and uncovered, maybe more people will see the side of the Cold War that Gulick experienced.

“How many soldiers and sailors and airmen have to be killed before you can call it a war?” asked Gulick. “As many as 50,000? Or as few as 800? Or maybe only 150?

“One thing is certain: The men and women who served their country in the military during the Cold War deserve as much recognition as those who served during other conflicts. After all, they were there, nose to nose with the armed forces of the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t have taken too much to get things really hot. They would have been the first to die—and they knew it.”


“Cold War.” Compton’s Encyclopedia. Compton’s Learning Company, 1998. [Online]. Available Internet: http://www.encyclopedia.com

Goldrich, Robert L., ed. “Published Cold War Shootdown Incidents.” AII POW-MIA Web page, 1992. [Online] Available Internet: http://www.aiipowmia.com/cw1.html

Gulick, Gary. Interview by the author. November 27, 1998.

Internet. “Francis Gary Powers, the U-2, US & USSR.” AII POW-MIA Web page, 1998. [Online] Available Internet: http://www.aiipowmia.com/powers.html

Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People and a Nation, 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Stanglin, Douglas, et al. “Secrets of the Cold War,” US News & World Report. March, 1993. Source: Infotrac.

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