Democracy Dies in Darkness

Retropolis

The U.S. did nothing after North Korea shot down a Navy spy plane in 1969. Trump vows that won't happen again.

By Michael S. Rosenwald

November 7, 2017 at 9:56 PM

The Washington Post front page with news of the attack.

This post has been updated.

On​ ​April​ ​15,​ ​1969,​ ​a​ ​U.S.​ ​Navy​ ​reconnaissance​ ​plane​ ​took​ ​off​ ​in​ ​from​ ​an​ ​airbase​ ​in​ ​Japan​ ​on​ ​a​ ​routine​ ​mission​ ​to​ ​spy​ ​on​ ​an increasingly​ ​belligerent​ ​threat​ ​-​- ​North​ ​Korea.

The​ ​flight​ ​commander​ ​was​ ​nervous.​ ​In January the previous year,​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​captured​ ​the​ ​USS​ ​Pueblo​ ​spy​ ​ship,​ ​holding​ ​more​ ​than 80​ ​crewmen​ ​hostage​ ​at​ ​a​ ​prison​ ​camp.​ ​Preflight​ ​intelligence​ ​reports​ ​indicated​ ​the​ ​North​ ​Koreans​ ​were​ ​still​ ​agitated ​about the​ ​snooping.

​The​ ​plane​ ​had​ ​been​ ​flying​ ​over​ ​the​ ​Sea​ ​of​ ​Japan​ ​for​ ​about​ ​five​ ​hours​ ​when​ ​two​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​MiGs​ ​pounced,​ ​firing​ ​a missile that​ ​killed​ ​all​ ​31​ ​crew​ ​members.​ ​

Nearly​ ​50​ ​years​ ​later,​ ​the​ ​incident​ ​– and President Richard M. Nixon’s choice not to retaliate — has​ ​been​ ​mostly​ ​forgotten. But on Tuesday, during a major speech in South Korea, President Trump brought up the attack. Any sort of provocation, Trump said, would be met with force.

“We have learned together,” he said, “the high cost of weakness.”

And he issued a warning: “Do not underestimate us. Do not try us.”

In recent months,​ ​with​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​girding​ ​for​ ​war​ ​–​ ​conducting​ ​frequent missile​ ​tests,​ ​threatening​ ​to​ ​shoot​ ​down​ ​U.S.​ ​planes,​ ​trading​ ​insults​ ​with​ ​President​ ​Trump​ ​–​ ​historians​ ​and​ ​national​ ​security analysts​ ​have been ​reexamining​ ​the​ ​1969​ ​attack,​ ​particularly​ ​declassified​ ​documents​ ​that​ ​reveal​ ​Nixon’s​ ​struggle to​ ​retaliate​ ​amid ​​the​ ​Vietnam​ ​War.​ ​

Short​ ​of​ ​all-out​ ​destruction​ ​of​ ​North​ ​Korea,​ ​Nixon’s​ ​national​ ​security​ ​team​ ​couldn’t​ ​promise​ ​that​ ​even​ ​targeted​ ​airstrikes wouldn’t​ ​escalate​ ​the​ ​conflict,​ ​leading​ ​to​ ​untold​ ​deaths​ ​in​ ​South​ ​Korea​ ​and​ ​a​ ​wider​ ​conflict​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region, perhaps​ ​drawing in​ ​China​ ​and​ ​Russia.

“I​ ​think​ ​it’s​ ​a​ ​problem​ ​that’s​ ​still​ ​present​ ​today,”​ ​said​ ​Robert​ ​A.​ ​Wampler,​ ​a​ ​senior​ ​fellow​ ​at​ ​the​ ​National​ ​Security​ ​Archive, a​ ​George Washington University think​ ​tank​ ​that​ ​successfully​ ​pushed​ ​for​ ​release​ ​of​ ​documents​ ​related​ ​to​ ​the​ ​incident.​ ​”What​ ​can​ ​you​ ​do​ ​to​ ​ensure​ ​that​ ​nothing else​ ​will​ ​happen?”

From​ ​Truman​ ​to​ ​Trump,​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​has​ ​vexed​ ​13​ ​presidents​ ​–​ ​during​ ​the​ ​bloody​ ​Korean​ ​War,​ ​which​ ​claimed​ ​the​ ​lives​ ​of​ more than​ ​33,000​ ​U.S.​ ​military​ ​service​ ​members;​ ​in​ ​1976,​ ​when​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​attacked​ ​and​ ​killed​ ​several​ ​American​ ​soldiers​ ​with​ ​axes in​ ​the​ ​demilitarized​ ​zone;​ ​in​ ​1994,​ ​when​ ​a​ ​U.S.​ ​military​ ​helicopter​ ​was​ ​shot​ ​down,​ ​leaving​ ​the​ ​co-pilot​ ​dead;​ ​in​ ​2009,​ ​when North​ ​Korea​ ​sank​ ​a​ ​South​ ​Korean​ ​warship,​ ​killing​ ​46​ ​crew​ ​members.​ ​

Only​ ​now,​ ​there’s​ ​a​ ​new​ ​wrinkle:​ ​nuclear​ ​missiles.​​ ​

Related: [Trump urges “deal” to resolve standoff with North Korea]

Just last week, the Pentagon warned lawmakers that a ground invasion would be required to secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites and that U.S. forces could face biological and chemical weapons.

A​ ​pre-emptive​ ​U.S.​ ​military​ ​strike​ ​on​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​would​ ​trigger​ ​”a​ ​large-scale​ ​peninsular​ ​and​ ​regional​ ​conflict,​ ​involving hundreds​ ​of​ ​thousands​ ​of​ ​troops​ ​and​ ​potentially​ ​hundreds​ ​of​ ​thousands​ ​of​ ​civilian​ ​casualties,”​ ​a​ ​recent​ ​Brookings Institution report​ ​concluded.​ ​​

Both​ ​sides​ ​are​ ​amping​ ​up​ ​the​ ​rhetoric.

In recent months, he has​ ​taken​ ​to​ ​calling​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​leader​ ​Kim Jong​ ​Un “Little​ ​Rocket​ ​Man.”​ ​Kim,​ ​in​ ​return,​ ​has​ ​called​ ​Trump​ ​a​ ​”mentally​ ​deranged​ ​U.S.​ ​dotard.”​ ​

Beyond​ ​the​ ​name​ ​calling,​ ​the leaders​ ​have​ ​each​ ​threatened​ ​horrific​ ​destruction​​upon​ ​the​ ​other,​ ​with​ ​Trump​ ​promising​ ​”fire​ ​and​ ​fury.”

Related: [Beyond ‘dotard’: A history of epic North Korean insults]

To​ ​the​ ​families​ ​who​ ​lost​ ​relatives​ ​that​ ​day​ ​in​ ​1969,​ ​the​ ​verbal​ ​missiles​ ​have​ ​been​ ​a​ ​traumatic​ ​flashback​ ​to​ ​the​ ​very​ ​real rocket​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​fired​ ​at​ ​the​ ​Navy​ ​plane.​ ​Many​ ​belong​ ​to​ ​a​ ​Facebook​ ​group,​ ​sharing​ ​old​ ​photos​ ​and​ ​memories​ ​–​ ​and,​ ​lately, their​ ​views​ ​on​ ​the​ ​conflict.

“Someone​ ​just​ ​needs​ ​to​ ​be​ ​silent​ ​(president),”​ ​one​ ​member​ ​wrote,​ ​”and​ ​surprise​ ​the​ ​crap​ ​out​ ​of​ ​them​ ​like​ ​they​ ​did”​ to​ ​the downed​ ​spy​ ​plane.

Joe​ ​Ribar,​ ​a​ ​Texas​ ​police​ ​officer,​ ​was​ just three months old​ ​when​ ​his​ ​father,​ ​Lt.​ ​Joseph​ ​R.​ ​Ribar,​ ​was​ ​killed.​ ​His​ ​body​ ​and another were​ ​the​ ​only​ ​ones​ ​recovered​ ​in​ ​the​ ​rough​ ​waters​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Sea​ ​of​ ​Japan.​ ​

Ribar​ ​has​ ​a​ ​hunch​ ​about​ ​where​ ​the​ ​tensions​ ​are​ ​headed.

“I’m​ ​fully​ ​expecting,”​ ​he​ ​said,​ ​”another​ ​plane​ ​to​ ​be​ ​shot​ ​down​ ​out​ ​there.”

‘Vehement and vicious language’

The​ ​plane​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​shot​ ​down​ ​was​ ​an​ ​EC-121​ ​–​ ​hulking​ ​and​ ​armed​ ​only​ ​with​ ​high-tech​ ​surveillance​ ​gear​ ​that​ ​monitored​ ​sensitive communications​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region,​ ​including​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.

Lt.​ ​Cdr.​ ​James​ ​H.​ ​Overstreet​ ​led​ ​the​ ​operation,​ ​code​ ​named​ ​”Deep​ ​Sea​ ​129.”​ ​He’d​ ​been​ ​on​ ​dangerous​ ​missions​ ​before,​ ​including harrowing​ ​flights​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.​ ​But​ ​something​ ​about​ ​this​ ​flight,​ ​over​ ​less​ ​dangerous​ ​international​ ​waters,​ ​made​ ​the​ ​34-year-old pilot​ ​from​ ​Mississippi​ ​anxious.

“He​ ​told​ ​my​ ​mother​ ​he​ ​might​ ​not​ ​be​ ​coming​ ​back,”​ ​said​ ​his​ ​son,​ ​Joe​ ​Overstreet,​ ​who​ ​was​ ​six​ ​years​ ​old​ ​at​ ​the​ ​time.​ ​”There​ ​was something​ ​different​ ​about​ ​this​ ​mission.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​it.”

Navy Lt. Cdr. James H. Overstreet visits a market near Yokohama, Japan, in 1968. He was among 31 killed when North Korea shot down the spy plane he commanded in 1969. (Family photo)

Documents​ ​declassified​ ​in​ ​2010​ ​explain​ ​why.

Before​ ​the​ ​attack,​ ​military​ ​commanders​ ​”were​ ​aware​ ​of​ ​anomalous​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​behavior,”​ ​according​​to​ ​a​ ​2015​ ​unclassified​ ​article​ in ​a​ ​CIA​ ​intelligence​ ​journal.​ ​National​ ​security​ ​officials​ ​knew​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​was​ ​becoming​ ​increasingly​ ​agitated​ ​by U.S.​ ​intelligence gathering​ ​missions,​ ​but​ ​there​ ​were​ ​disagreements​ ​about​ ​the​ ​seriousness​ ​of​ ​the​ ​threats.

Related: [What if the president ordering a nuclear attack isn’t sane? An Air Force major lost his job for asking.]

Overstreet​ ​briefed​ ​crew​ ​members​ ​before​ ​the​ ​flight.

“He​ ​discussed​ ​a​ ​message​ ​from​ ​the​ ​commander​ ​of​ ​US​ ​Forces​ ​Korea,​ ​warning​ ​of​ ​unusually​ ​vehement​ ​and​ ​vicious​ ​language​ ​used​ ​by the​ ​North,”​ ​the​ ​CIA​ ​paper​ ​said.

What​ ​the​ ​commander​ ​didn’t​ ​know:​ ​In​ ​the​ ​days​ ​leading​ ​up​ ​to​ ​the​ ​attack,​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​had​ ​been​ ​quietly​ ​moving​ ​fighter​ ​jets​ ​to a​ ​base​ ​just​ ​off​ ​the​ ​coast.​ ​U.S.​ ​intelligence​ ​identified​ ​the​ ​activity​ ​as​ ​preparation​ ​for​ ​pilot​ ​training.​ ​They​ ​were​ ​wrong.

The​ ​EC-121​ ​took​ ​off​ ​unaccompanied​ ​by​ ​any​ ​protection.​ ​An​ ​Air​ ​Force​ ​tracking​ ​station​ ​monitored​ ​the​ ​flight​ ​on​ ​radar.

“Suddenly,​ ​two​ ​new​ ​blips​ ​appeared​ ​on​ ​the​ ​radar​ ​screen,”​ ​according​ ​to​ ​a​ ​1969​ ​Newsweek​ ​article​ ​on​ ​the​ ​attack.​ ​”A​ ​pair​ ​of​ ​supersonic North​ ​Korean​ ​MIG’s​ ​were​ ​closing​ ​in​ ​fast​ ​on​ ​the​ ​EC-121.”

An​ ​urgent​ ​warning​ ​was​ ​sent.​ ​But​ ​the​ ​North​ ​Koreans​ ​fired,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​American​ ​plane​ ​was​ ​destroyed.

‘Force must be met with force’

Henry​ ​Kissinger’s​ ​phone​ ​rang​ ​at​ ​1​ ​a.m.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​duty​ ​officer​ ​at​ ​the​ ​Pentagon​ ​notifying​ ​him​ ​of​ ​the​ ​attack.

Kissinger​ ​was​ ​then​ ​a​ ​special​ ​assistant​ ​to​ ​Nixon​ ​on​ ​national​ ​security​ ​affairs.​ ​He​ ​raced​ ​to​ ​his​ ​basement​ ​office​ ​in​ ​the​ ​West Wing​ ​to​ ​gather​ ​facts​ ​before​ ​phoning​ ​the​ ​president​ ​around​ ​7​ ​a.m.,​ ​according​ ​to​ ​his​ ​memoirs.

It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​first​ ​national​ ​security​ ​crisis​ ​Nixon​ ​faced​ ​in​ ​office​ ​beyond​ ​the​ ​ongoing​ ​conflict​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.

Nixon​ ​certainly​ ​knew​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​was​ ​a​ ​growing​ ​threat.​ ​The​ ​Pueblo​ ​incident​ ​occurred​ ​during​ ​the​ ​campaign.​ ​He​ ​assailed​ ​President Lyndon​ ​B.​ ​Johnson​ ​for​ ​not​ ​forcefully​ ​responding​ ​to​ ​what​ ​many​ ​saw​ ​as​ ​an​ ​act​ ​of​ ​war.​ ​Now​ ​Nixon​ ​faced​ ​the​ ​same​ ​dilemma.​ ​​ ​

“We​ ​were​ ​being​ ​tested,”​ ​the​ ​president​ ​wrote​ ​in​ ​his​ ​memoirs.​ ​”And​ ​therefore​ ​force​ ​must​ ​be​ ​met​ ​with​ ​force.”

President Richard Nixon, left, talks with Defense Secretary Melvin Laird about Vietnam on March 13, 1969, the month before North Korea shot down a U.S. spy plane. (AP)

But​ ​what​ ​type​ ​of​ ​force?​ ​

Johnson​ ​had​ ​considered​ ​a​ ​variety​ ​of​ ​military​ ​responses,​ ​including​ ​naval​ ​blockades​ ​and​ ​even​ ​nuclear​ ​strikes,​ ​according​ ​to​ ​declassified documents.​ ​He​ ​eventually​ ​decided​ ​it​ ​was​ ​too​ ​dangerous​ ​to​ ​respond.​ ​

In​ ​Nixon’s​ ​case,​ ​declassified​ ​documents,​ ​administration​ ​memoirs,​ ​and​ ​other​ ​scholarly​ ​research​ ​reveal​ ​an​ ​extraordinary​ ​effort throughout​ ​the​ ​government​ ​to​ ​identify​ ​a​ ​military​ ​response​ ​not​ ​just​ ​to​ ​the​ ​attack​ ​on​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​plane,​ ​but​ ​to​ ​any​ ​future​ ​provocations by​ ​North​ ​Korea.

The​ ​options​ ​ranged​ ​from​ ​a​ ​single​ ​targeted​ ​airstrike​ ​on​ ​North​ ​Korean​ ​airfields​ ​to​ ​a​ ​limited​ ​nuclear​ ​attack​ ​– ​code​ ​named​ ​FREEDOM DROP​ ​– ​to​ ​a​ ​full-scale​ ​nuclear​ ​war.

But​ ​it​ ​quickly​ ​became​ ​clear​ ​that​ ​even​ ​the​ ​most​ ​limited​ ​responses​ ​risked​ ​wider​ ​conflict​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region,​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​depleting U.S.​ ​military​ ​power​ ​in​ ​Vietnam.

A​ ​memo​ ​to​ ​Nixon​ ​in​ ​the​ ​hours​ ​after​ ​the​ ​attack​ ​warned​ ​of​ ​”vigorous​ ​defense​ ​measures”​ ​from​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​targeting​ ​the​ ​U.S.​ ​military and​ ​South​ ​Korean​ ​airfields.​ ​Even​ ​as​ ​Kissinger​ ​pushed​ ​for​ ​retaliation​ ​-​- ​in​ ​his​ ​memoir,​ ​he​ ​called​ ​the​ ​administration’s​ ​response “weak”​ ​–​ ​​ ​Nixon​ ​and​ ​Pentagon​ ​officials​ ​pushed​ ​back.

“It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​calculated​ ​risk​ ​that​ ​the​ ​North​ ​Koreans​ ​would​ ​not​ ​escalate​ ​the​ ​situation​ ​further​ ​if​ ​we​ ​retaliated​ ​with​ ​a​ ​single​ ​strike against​ ​one​ ​of​ ​their​ ​airfields,”​ ​Nixon​ ​wrote.​ ​”But​ ​what​ ​if​ ​they​ ​did​ ​and​ ​we​ ​suddenly​ ​found​ ​ourselves​ ​at​ ​war​ ​in​ ​Korea?”

Related: [Before North Korea had nuclear missiles, it had wild and often deadly plots]

That​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​disaster​ ​the​ ​first​ ​time​ ​around.​ ​More​ ​than​ ​5​ ​million​ ​died​ ​in​ ​the​ Korean​ ​War.​ ​

In​ ​the​ ​end,​ ​Nixon​ ​ordered​ ​a​ ​show​ ​of​ ​naval​ ​force​ ​in​ ​the​ ​region​ ​and​ ​the​ ​resumption​ ​of​ ​reconnaissance​ ​flights​ ​–​ ​with​ ​protection.

Many​ ​people​ ​couldn’t​ ​​ ​fathom​ ​why​ ​Nixon​ ​didn’t​ ​respond​ ​with​ ​force,​ ​Overstreet,​ ​the​ ​son​ ​of​ ​the​ ​EC-121​ ​commander,​ ​recalls​ ​his mother​ ​telling​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​later​ ​became​ ​a​ ​Navy​ ​pilot​ ​and​ ​learned​ ​the​ ​military​ ​reasons​ ​why​ ​Nixon​ ​sat​ ​on​ ​his​ ​hands.

“It​ ​probably​ ​hasn’t​ ​changed​ ​that​ ​much​ ​over​ ​the​ ​years,”​ ​he​ ​said.

But​ ​Overstreet​ ​also​ ​wonders​ ​whether​ ​the​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​a​ ​forceful​ ​U.S.​ ​response​ ​for​ ​decades​ ​just​ ​keeps​ ​emboldening​ ​North​ ​Korea.

“Now​ ​they’ve​ ​gone​ ​nuclear,”​ ​he​ ​said.​ ​”I​ ​guess​ ​at​ ​the​ ​highest​ ​level,​ ​I​ ​prefer​ ​a​ ​strong​ ​stance​ ​toward​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​over​ ​letting them​ ​do​ ​what​ ​they​ ​want.”

Nixon​ ​swore​ ​North​ ​Korea​ ​would​ ​be​ ​dealt​ ​with​ ​eventually.

“They​ ​got​ ​away​ ​with​ ​it​ ​this​ ​time,”​ ​he​ ​told​ ​Kissinger,​ ​”but​ ​they’ll​ ​never​ ​get​ ​away​ ​with​ ​it​ ​again.”

Now,​ ​decades​ ​later,​ ​another​ ​president​ ​is​ ​talking​ ​tough.​ ​Trump​ ​responded​ ​to​ ​North​ ​Korea’s​ ​threat​ ​to​ ​shoot​ ​down​ ​U.S. military planes​ ​by​ ​vowing,​ ​”I’ll​ ​fix​ ​that​ ​mess.”

“It’s​ ​called​ ​the​ ​military​ ​option,”​ ​Trump​ ​said.

He​ ​insists​ ​there​ ​is​ ​one.

CORRECTION: This story previously said that the shoot down incident on April 15, 1969, occurred four months after the Pueblo was captured. The Pueblo was captured in January 1968.

Read more Retropolis:

In Trump’s North Korea warnings, his military school classmates hear echoes of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis

Gen. MacArthur witnessed Trump-style ‘fire and fury’ in Korea, and it sickened him

Before North Korea had nuclear missiles, it had wild and often deadly plots

What if the president ordering a nuclear attack isn’t sane? A major lost his job for asking.

Like Trump, Nixon was obsessed with leaks. It led to Watergate — and ruin.

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

The savage fight for Guadalcanal: Jungle, crocodiles and snipers during World War II


Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post's local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.

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