Truth and Lies
On her way to the gym one afternoon in 1992, my mother stopped by a Phoenix bookstore to check out a new book titled Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington's Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union. Perched in an aisle, she scanned the index under "China" and, upon flipping to page 185, read two paragraphs that almost brought her to her knees.
They were an account of a U.S. Navy plane that had been shot down off the coast of Shanghai during a Cold War spy mission in 1956. My mother already knew plenty about the incident. Of the 16 men aboard, the Navy said, only four mangled bodies had been recovered. The other 12 crew members were never found. One year later, the Navy declared them dead. No one, it concluded, could have survived such a crash.
The crew's families believed their government. They included my mother, then named Beverly Billinger Deane. Her college sweetheart, Lt. j.g. James Brayton Deane Jr., 24, had been one of the lost plane's pilots. At the age of 24 and married just three months, my mother had suddenly found herself a widow.
Yet, here she was, nearly four decades later, reading a far different story.
"American intelligence knew that two of the crewmen had survived the shoot-down," my mother read, feeling the shock pour over her. The two Americans had been rescued by a Chinese patrol boat, the book said, and were taken to an army hospital.
The book -- by journalists James D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter and R. Cort Kirkwood -- quoted a declassified U.S. Navy report dated almost two months after the crash. The unnamed crewmen had recovered and were being imprisoned in China, the report said. Their existence was so secret, the book said, "that the U.S. government never asked the Chinese to return the Americans."
My mother bought the book, slipped it into her purse and continued on to the gym. After working out in stunned disbelief, she read over the two paragraphs again, then stepped into a locker room shower and cried.
It had been 36 years since the morning she had awakened to another Navy wife tapping urgently on the screen of her open bedroom window. She was living in a cramped rental house near Iwakuni Naval Air Station in Japan. "There's been a little trouble with the plane," her friend said. My mother searched for her robe. The squadron's executive officer and a chaplain were at her front door.
Over the next several days, my mother would learn only that the crew of her husband's Martin Mercator P4M-1Q had sent one emergency message saying it was under attack. Then the radio cut out. Nothing had been heard from the crew since.
Within a week, my mother found herself headed back to the States on a Navy transport plane. Three weeks after that, she returned to her third year of studies at Cornell University medical school deep in a fog of grief. It took two more years before she gave up hope of ever seeing her vibrant, handsome husband again.
When a surgical resident asked her out on a date three years after the shootdown, my mother, by then a pediatric resident in New Orleans, accepted. He made her laugh for the first time she could remember. One year later, she agreed to marry him, removed her first wedding ring and took down the framed military portrait of the man she had vowed to love for life. Her second husband, Jim Shaver, would become my father.
After returning home from the gym that night in 1992, my mother showed my father her bookstore purchase. Look at this, she said. As my father read, my mother recalls, he looked stricken.