The service of the U.S. pathologist investigating the deaths of three U.S. airmen in El Salvador was incorrectly reported Sunday. Glenn N. Wagner is a captain in the Navy. (Published 1/8/91)

SAN SALVADOR, JAN. 5 -- A U.S. military forensic team said today that two American servicemen were shot to death by Salvadoran guerrillas after the rebels brought down their helicopter Wednesday. One of the Americans was probably trying to escape when he was cut down by rebel gunfire, the team said.

The third crew member, the pilot, was fatally injured in the helicopter's crash-landing, according to the preliminary report based on a 14-hour autopsy by two pathologists of the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Examiner's Office.

William G. Walker, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, said the autopsy indicated the two slain Americans "were murdered in cold blood while in the custody of an armed unit" of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which has waged an 11-year guerrilla war against the Salvadoran government. "I believe they were executed," Walker said.

The preliminary medical analysis did not use the words "execution" or "assassination" but concluded that "two crew members . . . apparently survived the helicopter crash but were killed a short time later by rebels."

However, Marine Capt. Glenn N. Wagner, a pathologist and flight surgeon who performed the autopsies Friday, said when asked if the servicemen were executed that he had "no reason to believe otherwise."

The medical team's analysis is likely to bolster the position of the Bush administration and others in Washington who advocate restoring $42.5 million in frozen military aid to the Salvadoran armed forces.

The aid -- half the scheduled amount for 1991 -- was frozen Oct. 19 because of concern about the armed forces' involvement in the slaying of six Jesuit priests in November 1989 and other human rights abuses.

Now allies of the government and armed forces are likely to point to the guerrillas' alleged slaying of U.S. servicemen as justification for releasing the withheld funds. Bush is scheduled to make his recommendation to Congress in the next few days on whether to restore the aid.

"This is the FMLN's Jesuit case," a diplomat here said.

Walker, speaking at a news conference, declined to predict the administration's recommendation. "But obviously," he said, "the United States government, the United States people, would not take lightly the cold-blooded assassination -- execution -- of two American servicemen."

One of the airmen, Pfc. Earnest G. Dawson Jr., died from a single, small-caliber gunshot wound to the back of the head, fired from within one or two feet, Wagner said. He said the bullet traveled through Dawson's skull on a downward trajectory, exiting through his left cheek.

The other slain serviceman, Lt. Col. David H. Pickett, received 10 bullet wounds, of which four to the face and head were fatal, the report said. Wagner added that the fatal shots were fired from a distance of two or three feet.

The medical report added: "Pickett received several clusters of multiple gunshot wounds, strongly suggesting that he tried to evade his captors prior to being killed."

The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel S. Scott, died from "blunt force" injuries to the neck and chest sustained in the crash, according to the forensic report.

All three men were assigned to the Army's 4th Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment at Soto Cano air base in Honduras.

The dead servicemen are to be honored in a ceremony Sunday at the international airport in San Salvador, then taken by U.S. military transport plane to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, with a brief stopover at Soto Cano.

Their helicopter, an Army UH-1 Huey transport helicopter, was returning to Honduras Wednesday afternoon from a routine supply flight to San Salvador when it was hit by a barrage of small-arms fire from the guerrillas. The craft bore U.S. Army markings, but U.S. officials say that, because of the helicopter's speed and low altitude, they doubt the guerrillas would have seen its markings.

The rebels, who acknowledged shooting down the helicopter, have denied murdering the Americans but have offered three different versions of events. They first claimed the three Americans died in the crash, but later maintained that one died on impact and the other two shortly afterward from injuries sustained in the crash.

In its latest version, the FMLN asserted Friday that the helicopter was shot down after it opened fire on rebels and civilians on the ground. However, no evidence has come to light to suggest that the helicopter, which was armed with an M-60 machine gun, fired on the rebels.

The FMLN asked Friday for an autopsy by an independent forensic medical team. Walker said today that if the U.S. autopsy "does not satisfy naysayers," the United States would consider an additional examination.

Several peasants who saw the helicopter come down have said that two of the crewmen survived the crash and asked for help and water. The peasants said they went to fetch water while one guerrilla stayed and set the helicopter on fire. After hearing several shots, the peasants said, they returned to find all three Americans dead, two with new bullet wounds to the head. No witnesses to the shootings have come forward.

The peasants' testimony that one guerrilla stayed with the Americans conflicts with the forensic report, which said the Americans were shot with at least three weapons -- two high-velocity rifles and a handgun.

The Marines' Wagner said none of the bullets that struck the Americans appeared to have passed through the helicopter. All were shot on the ground after the crash, he said.

Still unanswered is whether the American helicopter took sufficient precautions in selecting its route and time of travel.

The helicopter was flying at low altitude, perhaps 40 to 50 feet above the ground, as a precaution against anti-aircraft missiles, which the guerrillas have used at least twice since November to shoot down Salvadoran planes. However, by flying so low, the helicopter was vulnerable to small-arms fire.

Moreover, the area where the helicopter was downed, in eastern El Salvador's San Miguel province, is a zone of intense rebel activity where Salvadoran army patrols rarely venture. "There were probably safer ways to go," Walker acknowledged today.

Since the rebels began using missiles late last year, Salvadoran military helicopters have stopped almost all daytime flights outside the capital, except in emergencies.

Special correspondent Andrea Dabrowski in Mexico City contributed to this report.