Review of The Price of Vigilance by Wes Kelly

“The Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights”
Larry Tart and Robert Keefe
Ballantine Books, New York, 2001.

My first acquaintance with C-130 aircraft dates from summer of 1958. I had started assembling plastic models of air force planes, hanging them on beams in my basement bedroom. When fifth grade began in the fall I actually did notice a CBS TV News account ( “Douglas Edwards with the News”) of such an aircraft lost and then revealed shot down by scrambled Soviet fighter jets after wandering across the Turkish border into Soviet Armenia. All seventeen crewmen were killed - or missing. This was a terrible variation on reconnaissance and fighter aircraft encounters, similar yet distinct from what happened off the China coast to a naval EP-3 surveillance plane in April of this year…

“…And if you have any questions, about bombers, talk to this guy. He's the expert. Larry Tart.”

I had just reported to duty in Germany in March, 1968. On that introduction I shook hands with a sergeant wearing fatigues, five stripes and aircrew wings. Tart then looked a little like Washington reporter Russell Baker; though as an analyst in aerial reconnaissance, Technical Sgt. Larry Tart wrote reports of a different nature. Larry Tart probably knew climb rates and cruise speeds for Soviet Badger, Bear, Bison and Blinder bombers, maybe even their landing gear tire pressures. And later, on missions in the air, if I had doubts of their presence, he would quote that enigmatic operator adage: “Well, if it sounds like a roach, it's got to be a bomber.” - wisdom that somehow rang true.

In the course of things, I would work for Larry on the ground and in the air. At a spring picnic the year I returned to the States and civilian life, we played opposite each other at a picnic Short-timers vs. Lifers soccer game. Confounding all, the short-timers' victory goal was kicked by a forward who a week or two later switched sides by re-enlisting. One would think it was “Jailers vs. Inmates” the way we all had carried on, but it was the way the 6916th carried on about everything: pranks, parties, friendships, feuds, political bull-sessions... Much of the squadron's character had already set in 1958, even though it had responded to dreadful “lessons learned” of that September shootdown.

Now, over thirty years later, I am happy to discover that Mr. Tart, in collaboration with Prof. Robert Keefe, has written a book detailing history of the unit in which we served, the fatal shoot-down of one of the unit's planes( 2 September 1958) nearly ten years before our meeting, and an analysis of similar aerial engagements through the Cold War, inclusive of the EP-3 incident off the China Coast in April 2001. What's more, Mr. Tart, retired from the air force, was instrumental in obtaining the facts surrounding the September 1958 shoot-down of the C-130A-II (oft referred to as an RC-130 or EC-130) in Soviet Armenia as well as establishing a memorial to the crew on-board at a park near National Security Agency headquarters in Maryland.

If Omar Bradley was a soldier's general, then Larry Tart is an airman whom airmen would gladly post as an airman's general. Where Tart obviously provides much of the broad air force picture from his career perspective, Keefe complements with some academic scholarship points and firsthand knowledge of the incident, flying with the unit at the time. Tart and Keefe's book, of course, reveals previously undisclosed material about the Cold War; it also gives its due to enlisted personnel who performed many of the assignments. Excepting Vietnam and Korea, there were no Cold War battles like Midway or Normandy. Yet for decades (generations?), when American youth dropped out of college, left the farm or hardware store and disappeared for three or four years or a career in military service, something was happening. In many cases, these volunteers would not come home: the crew of aircraft 60528 a case in point. In other instances, they could say little about what they did or what happened to them. Tart and Keefe give a detailed account of some of this activity, which in terms of military linguists and signal analysts at any given time employed tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen around the world in ground, sea and air listening posts.

By chance I came across Larry Tart's work prior to publication. During the summer of 2000, I noticed a picture of one of the unit's planes in Aviation Week, a plane on which I had flown as a crewman for hundreds of hours. Subsequent internet inquiries revealed that a memorial had been dedicated to the 60528 in 1997, that joint U.S.- Russian investigations had uncovered the gun photos of the shootdown and the actual fate of the crew. What's more - the unthinkable: flyers of the 6916th had regular sanctioned reunions in an organization for which Larry Tart was a founding and presiding officer.

I attended the year 2000 reunion in a small town west of San Antonio and (beside old friends and co-workers) I was surrounded by veterans of the 1958 incident: I gave a lift to a man with his wife to the memorial dinner who was in the aerial search parties; I stayed at a bed and breakfast of another former airman who was also there at the time. All 17crewmen were known to be lost; six bodies were recovered, thought to be the flight deck crew. That left unaccounted for another 11 crewman involved in the intelligence gathering at lower deck positions. Had they survived? Did they parachute to the ground like part of a crew a few months earlier in a similar cargo plane shoot-down incident in the same area? Were they captured and interrogated endlessly in the Soviet prison system? We had all wondered about these possibilities over the years. According to attendees, there were once even rumors that individual crewmembers had surfaced in Europe or California in Beat Generation hideaways. For years, though, no one in the West knew if they had survived or not. But their fate certainly influenced airborne reconnaissance from the survival training programs all participants underwent thereafter to the procedures put in place on subsequent flights. And there were small things such as a plaque near the door of the mission briefing room that crewmen had to see headed out to the mission aircraft. Last year in that picturesque Texas town near the Guadaloupe River valley, I began to realize that not all legends and myths were hundreds of years old; that I had been living with one all my adult life as had my comrades. Though for years we could hardly talk about it, we had now had our formal processions. Now that was changing.

Still, we are still speaking on a periphery. If our silence and wondering as crewmen had been burdensome, what of the even greater burden of the survivors of those lost that September of 1958? The early days of reconnaissance flights were extremely secretive. Even the families of flyers at the bases hardly knew where their husbands deployed for weeks at a time, when they would return or what they did. And when they did not return after the shoot-down, there were layers of obstacles to discovery of what had happened. The Soviets would not admit that they had shot the plane down, and the air force would not admit that the crewman were assigned to the unit with which they flew. All involved were held to keep silent or maintain cover stories. Investigation into the crash wore on fruitlessly for years, then decades.

Tart and Keefe identify a number of causes for the shoot-down: some related to procedures; some related to technology. What is interesting about the latter, was the role of the old and the new. The importance of Morse-coded signals broadcast by the Soviet system continued to play an important role in the fate or safety of aerial reconnaissance missions. The book notes that Soviet aircraft after WW II switched from Morse communications at low frequencies and low digital rates to voice communications at higher frequencies that propagated shorter geographical distances. This served as one of many incentives for aerial electronic reconnaissance: to increase the listening range. Sadly, though, in 1958, means to detect signals across the spectrum had not improved as well. Later aircraft employed spectral display screens that displayed signals over the entire VHF or UHF bandwidth where signals were expected. Active signals appeared like fountains spikes on an electric green line displaying all of the signals or noise over a given signal range. It was literally like seeing all of the FM stations on a radio tuner when they were playing jazz rather than hearing one when you rolled the dial to 98.1 or 104.7. This might have meant that the aircraft crew did not detect the fighter aircraft activity in which they figured so centrally. Still, possibly they heard and partially understood that the fighters were scrambling after a hostile target, but realized all too late that Soviet pilots were talking about rubbing out them. Transcripts of the incident were actually recorded on the ground elsewhere and released by the United States a month or two later. The shoot-down portion took all of about 2-3 minutes.

The Price of Vigilance begins with a long introductory section about the EP-3 incident off China. The book itself starts with the last flight of the C-130A 60528 (chapter 1), then places the event in the context of “Attacks on Other Recon Platforms” (chapter 2), subsequently discussing “Cold War Aerial Reconnaissance” (3). If this chapter emphasizes the details of how, but does not suffice on why, my answer would be based on fear of Stalin with the bomb and an army large enough to occupy Western Europe without it. The system Stalin built seemed to roll on momentum up hill for forty years after his death and secrecy, stealth and espionage were part of its arsenal of weapons. If intelligence gathering never made the U.S. fully prepared for Soviet bloc moves, at least it would not be caught fully unaware. The fourth chapter of the book discusses the birth of the Aircraft Reconnaissance Program (ACRP), with the fifth chapter focusing on Europe and then the story suddenly swerves from an official tone to the capricious human element of “The Guys in the Outfit” and “60528's Last Crew”. The remainder of the book's chapters examine the aftermath, diplomatic exchanges, contributing factors to the shootdown, the end of the Cold War and paying tribute to Cold War MIAs four decades after.

My heyday of building plastic models was in middle school, but an urge to collect desktop wooden models has resurfaced. Immediate entries in my collection are the Space Shuttle Challenger and (on order) C-130A 60528. There are personal reasons for the selections, but these two aircraft grow more and more similar to my mind. In both cases they represent disastrous, fatal accidents to high priority national programs. There was a need to recover, bring closure to survivors, reform procedures, get up and fly again. Neither case study can rectify what happened to the other, but there are, no doubt, lessons for dealing with future reversals.

If I have criticisms of the book, I believe that there are some proof errors in the first edition. There is significant repetition, yet despite my familiarity with the subject, I found much of the repetition necessary myself. The military jargon and conventions might seem strange now to a generation without the draft and at peace with plenty. Perhaps they should bear with it like they would with Melville as he describes the world of a whaling ship. With an investigative rigor Tart and Keefe have explored everything about this incident that represents an important part of American history: related incidents, the people, the contribution of the grunts, the culture. We participants, our friends, families and children will better understand what happened in the Cold War and how it affected America as a result of this book.

Finally, in the final chapter, “Paying Tribute Four Decades Later”, Tart and Keefe remark on the distinctive sound of C-130 engines flying over the memorial in tribute. It's true. I need not even look up when they are flying over Houston's Ellington Field. And for years I have heard them in my head; sometimes, when I found myself in trouble or had made a mistake, I could hear them changing pitch as though I was on board and we were heading into a turn. Without doubt that was one of the last sounds 60528's crew heard.

Wes Kelly
04 July 2001