Deep Sea 129: The price Silent Warriors pay
February 15, 2017
VQ-1 EC-121M BuNo135749, shot down, April 15, 1969
On April 15, 1969 a North Korean MiG-21 shot down a US Navy EC-121M electronic surveillance aircraft assigned to Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) Atsugi, Japan, BuNo 135749, c/n 4316. She was shot down over the Sea of Japan about 100 nm off the coast of the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), North Korea, in international waters. There were 31 American souls aboard, all lost, only two bodies recovered. The EC-121 was unarmed and had no escort. It was flying out there alone, just as so many others had and still do.
The US, President Richard Nixon at the helm, did not retaliate. The purpose of this story is to try to understand why.
I want to do this for two reasons. First, I wanted to get a look at US crisis decision making topside. Second, there were 31 lives of military people involved, nine officers and 21 mostly young Sailors and one Marine. I care about these men. So I wanted to get some insight as to why the US did not retaliate.
This story comes by coincidence at a time when the US, now the Trump administration in its first weeks in office, has had to face North Korea and its intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) launch which landed in the Sea of Japan, close to Japan than to Korea. Once again, it appears this administration feels it has limited options. It will be interesting to watch.
Inside an EC-121M
All together, the aircrew was young, smart, talented, brave, well trained and well briefed. Some were on their first hitch in the military. The crew knew their unescorted and unarmed missions were dangerous. They knew it was possible for hostile events to occur. They did have the capability to monitor North Korean reactions which could make escaping attack feasible. The pilots had a certain number of evasion options, limited given the size of this aircraft and slow speeds, but they had some options nonetheless.
Everyone was trained on bailout procedures, survival techniques, and, in the event of capture, resistance tactics. I am sure they were confident US forces would come to their rescue in the event they successfully bailed out, though they understood such forces might not always be nearby.
They knew they were involved in the Cold War, a participant in what was really a secret war. They also knew the enormous value of the intelligence they collected.
The US knew very little during the early years of the Cold War about Soviet, Chinese, Eastern Bloc, and North Korean military capabilities and force disposition. That meant, long other things, the US Air Force and Navy would have to send out vulnerable reconnaissance aircraft close to an opposing force’s frontiers. For a lot of technical reasons, much of the intelligence collection had to be done from the air by military aircraft and along the periphery of target countries. That remains true to this day.
Most aircraft conducting these missions were slow and vulnerable, usually unarmed, and usually without escort. Their missions were long, often exceeding eight hours. Risks of mechanical failures were always present, as were hostile reactions. This also remains true today.
The EC-121 we will discuss was over the Sea of Japan. But many flights were over the Arctic near Siberia, over the Bering Sea, Black Sea, the Barents Sea, the Baltic Sea, and off the coast of Kamchatka. The mission was to probe air defenses, obtain air order of battle and electronic order of battle, in addition to obtaining information about how weapons systems worked.
Chinese fighter buzzes Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft
As opposing air forces received better and better fighter aircraft, and as they improved their overall air defense systems, the US missions became increasingly more dangerous. Veterans have told me fighter aircraft would often come so close the crews could see each other nearly face to face. Furthermore, opposing force fighters would develop harassment techniques and maneuvers, often wing-tip to wing-tip. I am told by veterans of USAF reconnaissance that MiGs would even fly under the reconnaissance aircraft's wings.
“To the Soviet, Chinese and North Korean leaders, all foreign aircraft (and ships) that approached their borders were up to no good —- pure and simple. The considered all intruders to be spy missions, and responded with hostile actions.”
So they would challenge such flights on a regular basis. One could never be sure when an attack might come. I would say there is no such thing as a routine reconnaissance mission, just as for police, there is no such thing as a routine stop.
It is against this backdrop that I wish to explore why US decision makers did not retaliate to the EC-121 shoot down.
Many US reconnaissance aircraft were shot down during the Cold War, and to my knowledge no significant military retaliation by the US occurred. Back in 2013, I published a story, "Airborne Peripheral Reconnaissance, Cold War losses, Silent Sacrifices” which addressed Soviet shoot downs of US reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War.
“I warned CINCPAC (Commander-in-chief Pacific) about four days before the plane (USN EC-121) was shot down. I was specifically talking of Air Force flights, but we knew the North Koreans were doing something that was damned suspicious. I recommended they have a very close watch or tie-in with radars watching … airfields, and if they got a scramble to get the hell out of there.”
Bonesteel knew the DPRK had provoked the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) many times on the peninsula between 1966 and through March 1969. US and ROK soldiers were killed during these provocations. The DPRK’s overall strategy at the time seemed to be to cause an insurgency in the South and weaken the US-ROK relationship. The DPRK's strategy, mainly involving unconventional warfare, did not work and there was a significant military purge.
All that said, the USAF and USN had flown 190 similar missions from January through March 1969, forty-nine of which were Navy VQ-1 reconnaissance flights and there had been no hostile North Korean reaction. Risk assessments considered a hostile intercept action unlikely. Bonesteel had no authority or control over the EC-121 mission. Those fell to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the CINCPAC, and in this case, the Commander-in-chief Pacific Fleet (CINCPACFLT). This was a signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection flight, mainly an Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) flight, so the National Security Agency (NSA) did not have any control over it either.
There has long been a dearth of knowledge about North Korea, often called the "Hermit Kingdom." The State Department’s Bureau of of Intelligence and research wrote the following after the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968:
“North Korea is the most denied of denied areas and the most difficult of all intelligence targets. Estimates of North Korean strength, intentions and capabilities, therefore cannot be made with a high degree of confidence.”
To underscore the environment in which the EC-121 crew flew, Richard Mobley, in his book Flash Point North Korea: The Pueblo and EC-121 crisis, noted that a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) of September 1967 highlighted that “since October 1966, North Korean infiltrators had initiated far more violent activity against US and ROK forces along the DMZ than at any time during the preceding ten relatively peaceful years. The SNIE portrayed North Korea as an independent actor in its game of increased violence toward the South.”
But the SNIE concluded North Korea did not want war. Increased tensions were just fine, but no desire for war.
Let’s take a quick look at the EC-121 mission flown on April 15, 1969.
This was an EC-121M, BuNo 135749, c/n 4316. This photo shows that specific aircraft prior to the shoot-down. It carried six tons of electronic equipment. The vertical radome on top of the aircraft is curious. NSA said its job was to pick up radar signals. It is my understanding that the vertical radome had a height finder radar and an air search radar. When NSA says "pick up radar signals," I'm sure it means ELINT intercept of opposing force radar signals. However, it would seem a height finder and air search radar would detect opposing force aircraft as any radar does. What is curious about this is that in all my research, I have not seen one mention of Deep Sea 129 having such a radar capability or using it. That in turn makes one wonder why Deep Sea 129 did not detect the MiGs coming out to sea in its direction. I have no answer.
The plan was to fly to a point off North Korea's northeastern coast, then fly two-and-one half orbits along a 120 nm elliptical track and recover at Osan AB, ROK about 30 miles south of Seoul. The scheduled flight duration was 8.5 hours.
This was a route the navy had been flying for two years, and some 200 similar missions were flown in this area during the first three months of 1969. Mission rules of engagement were that the aircraft could not approach closer than 50 NM to the North Korean coast. Friendly radar coverage would be available during part of the flight from Japan and South Korea. Multiple Army, USAF and USN ground based COMINT collection, analysis and reporting stations monitored North Korean communications that might indicate an enemy reaction to the flight. Furthermore, the USN Korean linguists aboard the aircraft could monitor the air-to-ground communications between the MIG pilots and their Ground Control Intercept (GCI) station.
Historically, North Korean fighters were not permitted freedom of action, but instead took all their flight instructions from a GCI controller. The GCI controller would have had to issue the order to fire by radio along with all kinds of other instructions. One would have expected the EC-121 linguists would have picked up these communications and would have had an idea of where the MiGs came from, their flight tracks, and even the commands the GCI controllers were issuing.
Shortly after the EC-121 arrived to its elliptical orbit area, North Korean fighters reacted at 1035 hours, but far to the southwest. They did not show any hostile intent, the mission continued and the fighters returned to their bases.
North Korean Air Force (NKAF) MiG-21
Some six hours into the flight, two NKAF MiG-21 interceptor fighters launched from East Tongchong-ni near Wonson, NK. It turns out the North Koreans had moved two MiG-21s from Pukch'ang-ni Airfield in the west to Hoemun-Ni Airfield in the east 18 days before the shoot-down. The deployment base at Hoemun-Ni was a MiG-15/17 training base. While this was an unusual deployment, it did not seem to carry much weight in analysts’ minds. Analysts in Okinawa concluded the aircraft were sent there for training. There was no NKAF tactical unit at Hoemun. The EC-121 crew was not briefed on this deployment, a grave omission.
An USAF ground collection site tracked the MiGs, they were moving quickly across the Sea of Japan, and then the site noted they were within 50-55 nm of the EC-121. In retrospect, the MiGs timed their flight so they came at the EC-121 while on the northernmost part of its orbit, the point where it would be closest to Hoemun. One of the MiGs flew a defensive patrol no closer than 60 nm from the EC-121 while the second MiG proceeded toward the EC-121. The USAF site alerted the EC-121 crew through what are known as advisory warnings. However, the aircraft did not have communications equipment to receipt for the warnings. Therefore it is not known whether the crew received them. However, in is book Melvin Laird and the Foundation of the Post-Vietnam Military, 1969-1973, Richard A. Hunt, says three advisory warnings were sent out and the EC-121 acknowledged receipt of the third, but was lost from radar shortly thereafter.
VQ-1 had received the warning messages and alerted Deep Sea 129 that it might come under attack. It ordered the skipper to abort and return to home base. Commander Overstreet turned the aircraft away from North Korea and headed toward Japan. But the radar tracks of the second MiG merged with the EC-121. The EC-121 disappeared from radars two minutes later. The second MiG shot it down about 80 nm from the North Korean coast.
F-102s take off from Elemendorf AFB, Alaska
Shortly after the advisory warnings were issued, Brigadier General Arthur Holderness, USAF, commander, 314th Air Division, Osan AB, ordered the launch of two F-102s to be placed on combat air patrol (CAP) about 100 nm from the incident area. The F-102s located themselves in the vicinity of the EC-121's expected flight route on its final leg to Osan. They were to search for the EC-121, and rescue it from harassment or attack if it were still in flight. The F-102s got airborne about 17 minutes after the EC-121 had been shot down.
Except for the scramble of the two F-102s, further US reaction was muted. There was an expectation that the EC-121, if under attack, would rapidly descend below radar coverage. The NKAF needed radar coverage to instruct the MiGs where to fly and what to do. The idea was to hide the EC-121 from the GCI controller's radar, inhibiting him from directing the MiG.
An USA COMINT site sent a CRITIC message about an hour after the shoot-down which went to the National Command Authority (NCA) and others saying Deep Sea 129 had disappeared. The NCA is a term used by the Department of Defense (DoD) of the US to refer to the ultimate source of lawful military orders. The NCA comprises the President of the United States (as commander-in-chief) and the Secretary of Defense jointly, or their duly deputized successors.
National Security Advisor Dr. Henry Kissinger informed President Nixon. DPRK radio said the aircraft intruded into NK airspace. Search and Rescue (SAR) proceeded with minimal effect.
Three Soviet destroyers joined the search. One of the destroyers, the Vdokhnvenie found some wreckage and two bodies. She transferred the two bodies and the wreckage to the US destroyer USS Henry W. Tucker. This photo shows the body of aviation electronics technician Richard Edson Sweeney coming ashore from the USS Tucker on its arrival at a port in Japan on April 20, 1969. The destroyer arrived with the bodies of two members of a 31-man crew who manned the EC-121, the other one Lt. jg Joseph R. Ribar.
I have read a report that another Soviet ship engaged in the SAR found some debris, laid it out on the deck, and a US aircraft overflew to take photos. The USS Dale had picked up some pieces of the fuselage. The fuselage was riddled with shrapnel holes.
North Korea went to a high state of alert, but it appeared to be a defensive posture. NAS Atsugi was closed, placed on lock-down. Naval reconnaissance aircraft that had staged from Atsugi were recalled.
The US was completely surprised, blindsided by the shoot down.
President Nixon gets personally involved
He was highly concerned about the loss of the 31 crew, he was adamant about taking military action, and he was angry that the US seemed to have its hands tied against North Korea.
The SNIE I referred to earlier had said North Korea would not invade the South and would not attempt to provide a resumption of major hostilities. The bottom line was that the DPRK would engage in as many hostile actions as it thought it could away with such that it would not provoke all-out war.
He asked that the study group closely coordinate its work with the National Security Council (NSC), no doubt because Nixon and Kissinger had just come on board and Korea was important to them.
The ambassador was, among other things, interested to know how the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam were progressing, whether the US was refocusing on Europe and away from Asia, and whether the US had planned on increasing security commitments in Asia. On this later point, Rogers said the US had no such plans.
The PM met with Secretary Rogers on April 2 and reiterated what he told President Nixon though in much more forthright terms.
The EC-121 was shot down on April 15. The JCS prepared a paper analyzing possible courses of action that same day. The JCS said there were two issues at stake: freedom of international airspace and the “right to gain redress of the wrong against a US aircraft and its crew.” The JCS said that as of yet the US had taken no actions.
The JCS paper said the US was prepared now to do the following:
- Diplomatic demands for appropriate redress
- Conduct high altitude/high speed reconnaissance operations over North Korea
- Conduct escorted reconnaissance flights in the same area with the same type of reconnaissance aircraft
- Request the Soviets to make representations to the North Koreans
- Destroy North Korean aircraft off the coast of North Korea
The JCS said it would have to reposition forces to take these actions:
- Show of force
- Feints against North Korean air defenses
- Selective air strikes
- Blockade of North Korean ports.
President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger talked by phone on April 15. Nixon had earlier asked whether there were any North Korean ships in the area. Kissinger said there was one Korean ship sailing with Dutch registry, a Dutch crew and flag. Kissinger opined it would be impossible to seize that ship. However, during this call, Nixon said he thought the US should “pick up the ship.” Kissinger was not excited about seizing this ship but Nixon was. It apparently was one of North Korea's largest fishing ships. Nixon said “we should just pick the darn thing up.” The ship once was manned by North Koreans, but following the Pueblo capture of 1968, she changed out to Dutch crews.
Nixon said the US had become a great nation by breaking international law and told Kissinger to find a way to do that. Nixon was adamant the US cannot just sit around and do nothing, that the price that was paid was too high to do nothing. Nixon had no problem in dealing with the Dutch. Nixon complained that some were trying to cast the EC-121 as a regular reconnaissance plane that was fair game. Kissinger said it indeed was not a regular reconnaissance plane, but that it had been flying this kind of mission for 15 years with no protest. Kissinger opined the North had made a deliberate decision to shoot it down. Nixon reiterated the Dutch ship must not make it to North Korea.
Nixon told them he was resolved to take acton, “even if I have to overrule everybody in the State Department.” I might mention here that throughout my research I noted the president's disdain for the State Department.
“Kim … was one of Moscow’s most difficult allies, even though he owed his political fortune to Soviet patronage. Kim Il Sung was demanding, unreasonably militant, and prone to taking offense. When it suited his interests, he played on contradictions between Beijing and Moscow, keeping both at arms’ length.There were several moments in the Cold War when Kim Il Sung drove Moscow to utter exasperation.”
As an example, Kim captured the USS Pueblo without consulting the Soviets. When Brezhnev summoned him to Moscow, he refused to go. The problem was the Soviets had many international interests and the North Koreans were making those exceedingly hard to attain. The Soviets especially did not want North Korea to go to war again on the peninsula.
I’ll note here that at this point in time, as far as I can tell, the status of the EC-121 crew was not known to the principals in the White House.
Nixon was not yet through with Kissinger, however. In a telephone call Nixon asked about doing the “Lunch Plan.” As I understand it, the "Lunch Plan" was one option under a highly secretive overall plan named "Operation Menu" during the Indochina War. It described a series of bombing strikes planned against Cambodia March 1969. It would start by executing the "Breakfast" Plan against one set of targets, the a "Lunch" Plan against another etc. I assume Nixon was referring to this approach as a good one for retaliation against North Korea.
Nixon thought it would be fine if the US were caught bombing North Korea and told Kissinger he wanted every plane moved into South Korea. Kissinger said forces were getting ready to move but urged caution, to which Nixon agreed. But Nixon would not give up on that Dutch ship. He told him to call Lloyds of London to find out where it was, or call the Hague to find out.
I should mention that Secretary Rogers was interested in a diplomatic protest, but Kissinger told him Nixon did not want to protest to anyone. We'll talk a bit more about Nixon and Rogers later.
- Bombing the airfield from which the MiG-21 launched
- A plan for a naval blockade
- A plan for mining Wonson harbor
- A plan for submarine-launched torpedo attack against a North Korean military vessel inside or outside territorial waters
- The order of battle (OB) of US and North Korean forces.
- An assessment of US reinforcement requirements should the North Koreans attack the ROK after US retaliation with either air or with air and ground.
It should also be noted that at about the same time on the evening of April 15, Nixon authorized moving three aircraft carriers to waters off North Korea from Vietnam. They were to start sailing on April 15. Nixon was told they would be 72 hours away.
USN Task Force 71 was assembled employing ships mainly being used off the coast of Vietnam. Keep in mind the war in Vietnam was full throttle at this time. TF-71 included aircraft carriers Enterprise, Ranger and Ticonderoga and the anti-submarine carrier Hornet, the battleship USS New Jersey, three cruisers, the Chicago, Oklahoma City and Saint Paul, and 16 destroyers. This photo shows part of TF-71 off shore Korea. A tanker is refueling the USS Ranger. She is hard to see, but the battleship US New Jersey is visible in the background.
On April 16, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird forwarded a first (rough) cut of the JCS concept of possible targets in North Korea which might be struck in retaliation. It suggested Wonson and Son Dong Ni airfields for attack, either from carrier-based aircraft or from USAF land-based fighter aircraft and carrier based aircraft, USN A-6s (left) and USAF F-105s (right).
USN aircraft would attack Wonson and USAF and USN aircraft would attack Sondok. Options were provided if a single strike were preferred and if maximum destruction were preferred.
A B-52 option was presented, employing from 24-48 aircraft out of Guam, recovering at Guam.
JCS recommended all US-ROK forces be placed on alert, covert attainment of DEFCON 3 at launch of the strike force, overt DEFCON 1 at Time over Target (TOT). Place the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) assets for nuclear war on alert throughout the Western Pacific (WestPac). Place USAF units in Japan and Okinawa on DEFCON 3 at TOT.
- The JCS expected a range of North Korean reactions including attacks against the ROK and intense action along the DMZ. Direct Chinese interference was not expected. Soviet reactions would probably be close surveillance. Both sides would engage in heavy propaganda.
- The mission would be to disrupt the military posture and impose a penalty. JCS warned that such an attack would be an act of war and the North may retaliate against US-ROK forces. It recommended agains attacking anything on the west coast because of the high concentration of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the fact that the operation would be so close to China. Flight operations from the Sea of Japan wold also require undesirable overflight of the ROK.
Readiness Condition DEFON 3 requires an increase in force readiness above that required for normal readiness. The USAF must be ready to mobilize in 15 minutes. DEFCON 1 means nuclear war is imminent.
SIOP was the United States' general plan for nuclear war from 1961 to 2003. The SIOP gave the president a range of targeting options, and described launch procedures and target sets against which nuclear weapons would be launched. The plan integrated the capabilities of the nuclear triad of strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).
I need to inject some added information about employment of nuclear weapons.
Bruce Charles, a former USAF F-4 fighter pilot, told National Public Radio (NPR) news that he was on temporary duty at Kunsan AB, ROK on the day the EC-121 was shot down. NPR reported:
"Early that afternoon (April 15,1969), his commanding officer called him into his office, Charles says. 'When I got to see the colonel, it was very simple. He described the shooting down of the EC-121 about a hundred miles at sea. And that he had a message, which he showed me at that time, saying to prepare to strike my target,' Charles says. Charles then rechecked his F-4 fighter jet and the weapon it was carrying. He says it was a B61 nuclear bomb, with a yield of about 330 kilotons — not the biggest bomb in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but more than 20 times the size of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima." Hours later, Charles said he was told to stand down.
NPR has said Charles' story could not be independently confirmed.
The F-4 Phantom II was cleared to carry the B61. The B61 is one of the primary thermonuclear weapons in the US stockpile. The photo shows an inert B61 uploaded on a F-4 in Europe.
Following the capture of the USS Pueblo, on May 14, 1968, the JCS published a Top Secret (since declassified) memo to the CJCS addressing possible responses to North Korean attack on the ROK. One item in the memo address a nuclear contingency plan against North Korea named "Freedom Drop." This plan would employ US tactical aircraft uploaded with a nuclear weapon and/or Honest John and Sergeant missiles with nuclear warheads. The JCS staff approved the plan, which was drawn up by CINCPAC. The nuclear attacks could be limited or go to all out nuclear war.
That's as much as I have to say on use of nuclear weapons. There have been allegations that Nixon was inebriated when thinking of using nuclear weapons. I'll not go into that. Apparently he was a heavy drinker at night.
- The attack was deliberate. Purpose was to revive high level of tension with the US
- Kim Il Sung will act without regard to the Soviet Union and China. Shows himself to be strong and assertive
- Recall however North Korea has mutual defense treaties with both the USSR and China
- North Korea has again shown it can take on the mighty US
- No doubt Kim saw the EC-121 attack as low risk given the US reaction to the Pueblo (no reaction)
- Kim could focus public attention on challenging the US rather than on failing to attack the ROK
- The DPRK immediately asked for a meeting of the Military Armistice Commissions at Panmunjom for April 18
- The North Korean military has remained rather quiet since the shoot down: no evidence of any change in military status
- The North Korean attack against the US only one of many serious incidents. Aggressive actions toward the ROK have been much more frequent and increasingly severe
- The Soviets had some ships in the area and helped with rescue operations. They also flew two Tu-16 bombers to reconnoiter the area
- North Korea can defend against a ROK attack, but would need help to attack the ROK
Also on April 16, President Nixon chaired a National Security Council (NSC) session. Helms said North Korean military actions since the shoot-down have been limited, defensive if anything. There is no indication of survivors. (I cannot say for certain this is the first time the White House was told there were no survivors for sure, but I think it was). Helms reviewed the mission track; Soviet tracking agrees with ours.
- Employ drones (I assume instead of manned reconnaissance aircraft)
- Escort future flights
- Show of air and naval force. Had no effect during Pueblo.
- Air strike against the North could cause the North to attack the ROK, and we could experience losses
- A blockade can be implemented within 48 hours, but would have little effect as North Korea has very little shipping. The US could commandeer some North Korean ships; the Dutch ship is now at sea
- Sea-to-shore bombardment could be done within 48 hours. It would require air cover. East coast presents best targets.
- Could attack areas adjacent to the DMZ using Honest John missiles, which are inaccurate at extreme range. That would violate the Armistice agreement and would trigger retaliation
- A ground raid across the DMZ would also be a violation, and will cause the ROKs to do the same. Such raids would require heavy fire support for the ROKs.
- The US can conduct a wide variety of air attacks, using from 24 to 250 aircraft. Chances of success are excellent. Expect 2-8 percent losses.
- Panmunjom talks are a forum, the North would probably talk and walk out. Recommend against this.
- The UN is a possibility, but we cannot expect much support. Members will wonder why we conduct such flights.
- No obvious need to move immediately. Might be best to watch for a change.
President Nixon then started asking questions. I did not see the exchanges as very edifying. ROKs are concerned we will do nothing. Diplomatic and military actions must be in synch. The Soviets and China are bound to the DPRK if we attack, though they do have an escape clause.
On April 17, the JCS directed CINCPAC to prepare to bomb the airfields at Sondok and Wonsan. Once again, Cmdr. Mobely reported:
“Launching from carriers, 12-24 A6s would fly ‘night full systems’ attacks against each airfield under CINCPAC Plan ‘Fracture Maple.’ The JCS also tasked the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to plan similar raids using as many as 24 B-52 bombers against each base.”
Mobely said the JCS asked the commander, USFK to recommend actions on the peninsula that would demonstrate an increased readiness posture to the North. CINCPAC proposed other options including using surface-to-air missile equipped ships to sail within 50 nm of the DPRK ready to shoot down any aircraft identified as North Korean. He also wanted to impound or harass North Korean coast craft and fishing boats going beyond the 12-mile limit, employ the battleship New Jersey (BB-62) to fire against selected targets in Wonson, and seize the ship built for the DPRK by the Netherlands.
- On April 17, the CIA presented an intelligence memo.
- The North shot down the EC-121 without consulting China or the USSR. That could affect their decision-making if we retaliate.
- Any US military retaliation will be to underscore the right to use international airspace and deter against future hostilities. North Korea will not pay much attention to those.
- The North Koreans planned this event betting the US would not retaliate based on the Pueblo experience.
- Kim Il sung may think the US is overextended in Vietnam giving him latitude to act against the US with “relative impunity.”
- Kim Il sung likes to take risks, he likes to bluff and intimidate, especially a “mighty imperialist.”
- CIA believes Kim is trying to offset his failure to attack the ROK.
- He probably feels he must keep tensions high, among other things, hoping the American public will tire of the whole thing and cause American withdrawal or reduction in forces.
- A show of force will have little effect and the DPRK is unlikely to challenge it.
- Intensification of non-combat actions will only help the DPRK convince the world the US should withdraw.
The CIA assessment on the expected impacts of retaliation were omitted from public view.
Richard L. Sneider of the NSC staff offered his thoughts on American public opinion. American support for strong reaction will be there, and the people will be proud of a success, but all that will likely erode over a few weeks. Then questions will arise. There is Vietnam fatigue already. Overseas expect a dovish reaction. The North Vietnamese are likely to interpret strong acton as meaning the Vietnam War will be extended. But if US public support erodes quickly, the North Vietnamese will renew pressures for the US to withdraw. Sneider concluded that his guess was strong action will not earn sustained support. The public will conclude vial US interests were not at stake.
Secretary of Defense Laird provided Nixon a memo on April 18 in which he provided his understanding of the alternative actions being considered.
- Best option was a one-time air strike using carrier-based fighters.
- Did not favor using B-52s.
- Fighter aircraft will provide surprise and accuracy, and if an aircraft is lost, it will be more palatable than losing a B-52 and its larger air crew. Laird preferred employing the A-6.
All that said, Laird recommended against any military option. He seemed unsure whether the US needed to fly so many reconnaissance missions over the Sea of Japan. He said escort flights are unsustainable. He felt more comfortable with explaining why the US conducts these flights, vowing to provide armed escort, challenge the North Koreans to try to stop us, instruct the military to destroy any North Korean aircraft or vessel approaching our aircraft outside their territorial airspace, and declare you retain the option to attack North Korea. He concluded saying the public and congressional members seem to support the measured approach employed thus far. He also said he was unsure whether the US could handle two wars. He said the JCS could fight two wars for about a week. Diversions from Vietnam would have to be made. Logistics support would take 30 days after a Korea war started. Laird did not think the North Vietnamese would conclude that the action Laird is recommending was a sign of weakness. He believed that progress with Vietnamization especially of the South Vietnamese Air Force was proceeding well. Plans to attack Cambodia would meet strong public disapproval if we were at war in Korea.
“(An attack against North Korea would be an) episode that didn’t have to be, that carried far more risks than the potential pay-off would seem to dictate, and that led to general public disenchantment across a broad range of affairs. If, for example, we take losses during the strike, the question will be raised about losing more life to vindicate original losses.”
By the mid-evening of April 18, President Nixon, talking with Dr. Kissinger, seemed to believe he could simply run through the facts of the EC-121 flight, order continued flights of this kind, take whatever steps are necessary to protect them, and use whatever action is determined necessary. There would be no military retaliation.
On April 20, 1969 the entire TF-71 gathered in the Sea of Japan. TF-71 remained until April 24. It never fired a shot.
Recall that Nixon ordered the resumption of reconnaissance flights on April 18. However, between April 18-24 the Pentagon had authorized only one reconnaissance mission. On April 22 Laird told the president he had directed the JCS to request CINCPAC prepare a plan to resume such flights. Kissinger pressed Laird hard to restart the flights, and presented him with a formal memo telling him the president wanted these flights resumed along the Chinese coast from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Sea of Okhotsk. Laired decided to delay approving the JCS plan. He wanted to explore alternative methods of collection, reduction of flights against Korea and using unmanned or high fliers to do the job. Therefore he delayed resuming reconnaissance flights. He thwarted Nixon’s order.
On April 28 Kissinger told Laird by phone to resume China and Soviet flights, but hold off on flights off Korea involving fighter escorts.
Kissinger went to the president. He urged him to personally call for a resumption. He feared the North Koreans would have attained their goal and that China and the Soviets might follow the North Korean model. He also objected to Laird defying the president three times. As a result, Nixon assigned the 303 Committee to take over review of worldwide reconnaissance operations from the Department of Defense (DoD). The 303 had been formed to handle covert operations. The committee consisted of assistant for national security affairs (Kissinger at present), the deputy secretary of defense, deputy undersecretary of state, and the director of central intelligence. The secretary of defense would not be a member.
On April 24 Laird informed the president that General Wheeler had concluded that having four fighter-escorts accompany each reconnaissance mission “would be beyond the capability of currently assigned PACOM forces.”
On April 29 Dr. Kissinger informed the secretary of state, secretary of defense and Director, CIA that the president had directed the immediate resumption of regularly schedule reconnaissance operations in the Pacific, including those targeted at North Korea. Combat Air Patrols (CAP) would be provided. The CAPs would be authorized to approach up to 50 nm of the North Korean, Soviet or Chinese coasts.
Many high level and military command actions addressing North Korea ensued through May, including plans to attack North Korea in the event of a further provocation, assurances to President Park, and more in-depth studies regarding contingency planning.
In looking at the reasons for doing nothing, it seems that the risk of igniting a wider war while the US was engulfed in the Indochina War were the ones that prevented retaliation. There are some expert views on that below.
"The U.S. did not have a very good menu of options when this happened, which sort of constrained them in their ability to pick and choose amongst something that would work, and also contain the situation.”
“Contain the situation” seemed to be the watchword, despite an unprovoked attack that killed 31 American military people.
Returning to Wampler:
“The military produced the options, ratcheting up the level of military force all the way to all-out war and to using nuclear weapons. But constantly you find the military saying, 'But the risks probably still outweigh the potential gains,' "
“Nixon had made a decision that we would retaliate by bombing the air base from which we believed the planes had come to shoot down the EC-121. And he had ordered an aircraft carrier to move close enough to be able to carry out the bombing.”
But the reality was that both his secretary of defense and secretary of state did not support such action, and there was also a fear of public sentiment.
Dan Sneider of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University has said:
“The danger of a wide war tends to trump whatever benefit you think might come from punishing your enemy here with a retaliatory strike.”
“It is an eye-opener to some of us to learn that a retaliatory strike, if it had been ordered to take pace within 24 hours of the shoot down of our plane, would have been practically impossible unless it were launched from South Korean land-based planes; and political as well as military considerations obviously made this inadvisable.”
At the end of the day, President Nixon wanted to retaliate militarily, and so did Dr. Kissinger. But Nixon did not retaliate as he wanted to do.
"The fact of the matter was that toward the end the president really didn't use the NSC at all to speak of. I mean he hadn't used all of the staff of the NSC … Quite often … decisions were made by two or three or four people."
He also wrote in his memoirs:
"Our conduct in the EC-121 crisis was weak, indecisive and disorganized … I believe we paid in many intangible ways, in demoralized friends and emboldened enemies."
Commenting in his book The White House Years, Kissinger wrote:
"We made no strategic assessment; instead, we bandied technical expedients about. There was no strong White House leadership. We made no significant political move; our military deployments took place in a vacuum."