Saturday, September 6, 2014

Profile 87: FINISHED—The RB-47H as flown by Freeman "Bruce" Olmstead

Conspiracy Theories are the sugary breakfast cereal of the History Geek crowd; everyone knows they’re bad for you but everyone also has a favorite.  And if your favorite Conspiracy Theory contains a toy at the bottom of the box, all the better!

I remember in 2003 when the Iraq war started.  I was readying to tour Europe with a group of WWII fighter pilots and, the September 11 attack loomed especially large over people's psyche.  A family friend took me aside and cautioned, “You know what they are going to do, don’t you?!  You’re over there with American heroes!  They’re going to take you hostage!”****

And who were “They”?   She wasn’t quite sure.  After all, they could have been...anyone!

Ok.  Hold that thought.

Have a look at the RB-47H above - it’s the one the Russians blew apart on July 1, 1960.  Six men went down, four died, two returned and one remains.  That remaining soul is Bruce Olmstead.  A few weeks ago, he blessed the artwork and now I can call it “Finished!”

No piece has evoked the whistles and admiration that this one has.  The owner of the printing company that replicates my art—typically quiet about my airplanes—summed it up by saying, “I had no idea we had such a pretty airplane!”   Everyone who’s seen it remarks similar.  And I agree.

Boeing nailed it.  But so did the Russians.  

According to my tally, about 50 American aircraft were lost to murky reasons between 1947 and 1973.  4 of them were ‘47s.   At least that’s what they say.  Of course, “281” was one of them.  And in this case, we know exactly who the “they” are that shot it down.  Down to the chromosome, too.  His name was Vasily Polyakov.


Vasily Polyakov
Credit: Sovfoto (is this still even in business?!?)

According to Polyakov’s nervous after-the-fact testimony, he was responding to intense psychological pressure. Bear in mind that, back then, the arms-race was really gathering steam and the world had fairly divided into a USA vs. USSR dichotomy. Though there was no formal declaration of war, the two empires were indeed enemies and treated each other with corresponding suspicion.  And violence.

To Polyakov’s ‘defense,’ a U-2 flown by Gary Powers had been shot down near Sverdlovsk just two months prior.  Immediately denied, implacably excused then begrudgingly admitted, the U-2’s flight came as a rude slap to everyone.  For one, the Americans were caught spying.  For two, the trailing Russians advanced to the point where they could do something about it.  Immediately President Eisenhower suspended any more overflights.  Yet, if anything, the shoot-down only ramified the importance of gathering intelligence on each other!

Anyway, while Powers sat in Stalin’s ex-torture chamber— Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison—it's easy to see how Polyakov got trigger happy when he scrambled to intercept 281 over the Barents Sea.  And he got close, too.  Bruce remembers Polyakov’s MiG-19 tightened right up, no more than 40’ off the starboard wing.  I bet that rarified, frigid air held so much tension, it could have been cut with a knife!  As it turned out, a knife would have been welcome.

Bruce remembers what happened next with a sigh,  “John, it was a traumatic moment.  I have grown tired of thinking about it.”


Credit: Inside spine of book.  E.P. Dutton & Company

I’ll spare you the temptation to poke Bruce one more time:  281 was at 30,000 feet and approximately fifty miles from Soviet airspace.   While the “Ravens” (see prior post) worked the dials in their dark bomb-bay closet, Navigator Capt. John McKone called for a turn to the northeast.  Pilot Major Willard Palm responded with a gentle left bank.  Polyakov banked right.

It would appear that the two enemies parted ways.

But then... 

Polyakov reversed his turn, carved in, fangs out: Poom!  Poom!  Poom!  Poom!   The MiG's three 30mm cannon spat shells, punching the beautiful Boeing with explosive jabs.  Olmstead reacted quickly to man the RB’s 20mm defensive cannon but somehow the Russian had jammed the gun’s targeting system and Olmstead’s fire ran wild.


Credit:  Me.

Right now, I can see it in my minds-eye; the devilish MiG, hot sparks of magnesium tracers, the shudders of impact, glints of aluminum shards and the wind up into a death dive...

“BAIL OUT!”

Four Americans died*.  Two survived.  One remains.

54 years later, Bruce Olmstead was polite but clear.  “It’s all in the book, John.  It’s all old news.”  

Normally, I’d be happy to place a link but the book, “Little Toy Dog,” is way out-of-print and almost impossible to find.  In fact, I got my copy as a surprise from a reader who in-turn got it from an antique dealer!

Antique or not, it’s an important work.  William Lindsy White does a fascinating job of telling the story.  His Cold War paranoia and contrasting intellectualism are almost as interesting as the what happened; on every level, it’s worth the hunt.  But in case you’re a Gen-X’er like me with latent ADD, I'll summarize.

McKone and Olmstead were rescued from the cold ocean by a Russian fishing boat and chugged to Russia.  Palm died in the water while the three Ravens were never found.  Russian chief Nikita Khrushchev was trying to distance the USSR from Stalin’s legacy and didn’t allow the two survivors to be physically tortured.  But he did have an axe to grind.  So, though McKone and Olmstead were safe from thuggery, they were subjected to daily interrogations.

Meanwhile, the USA was on the cusp of culture-shift of its own.  The golden hue of the 50’s was setting on one horizon while the storms of the 60’s flashed on the other.  There’s no doubt that  that the 1960 presidential election played into the politics of negotiating for McKone and Olmstead’s release.  Sure enough, the two men were officially welcomed back to the U.S. on January 24, 1961 by John F. Kennedy.  It was his first official act as President.   


Olmstead and McKone come home, JFK stands by
Credit:  Unknown.  Please let me know; I'm assuming Associated Press.

McKone and Olmstead had been imprisoned nearly seven months.**

Ok.  Back to Conspiracy Theories.

Like I wrote, Bruce Olmstead is tired of telling the same old story.  To him, it’s reliving the blast of ejection, loss of friends, humiliation, deprivation and also, nursing a broken back under an enemy’s care.  He's done his duty and owes nothing more than taxes and the laws of the land.

For the most part, I respect Old Men who feel their finished talking.  But when their tales are lost in some bohemian book nook or don’t-know-what-you’re-looking-for-until-you-find-it internet-search, I get concerned that the wisdom will stay shelved.

Ok.  Have one last look at the RB-47.  It was, by role, a “Reconnaissance airplane”  Formally, “Electronic Intelligence.”  Militarily “ELINT.”   But for us regular folk?  It was a Spy Plane flown (by definition) Spies.  And the currency in which Spys trade are Secrets.

Today, in the Snowden-Nude Celebrity-Lost Email world, Secrets are like fish pellets at a Koi pond.  Toss them out and water erupts in rainbow of fury.  Personally, I really do want to know if Lois Lerner had an axe to grind.  I also want to know if there are any kind of prejudices of Congress or the President that cause them to make this decision or that.  

So, I’ve learned to look beyond the obvious and dig around.  You know.  Snoop for something else.  Bruce “got” that.  And was happy to throw me a few bits.

“Several weeks before our shoot-down, two men from the NSA defected to the Soviet Union. Through Cuba.  They had with them a copy of the SIOP.”

What?!  They had the SIOP?!



Cuba's Fidel Castro (Center) and USSR's Nikita Khrushchev

Credit:  A now defunct Latin news agency.  That's all I know.


SIOP stands for “Single Integrated Operational Plan”.  Boring title, shocking info:  it was the general plan for nuclear war that the United States operated from 1961 to 2003.  In it contained everything an enemy needed to know about US.   And when I mean everything, it's everything.   Kind of like if hackers not only got your bank account info, medical records and emails, they also got your nude photos, too.

No wonder we were snooping!  And no wonder the reds were trigger happy!  And to top it off,  this was a time when a nuclear war was still not only conceivable, but winnable.  At least for the United States. The Soviets didn’t have the tech, the defenses or the manpower to win a war with the United States.  In fact, Curtis LeMay, chief of Strategic Air Command stated, “It would have cost us essentially the accident rate of flying time…”   In other words, we could have really won.

Think about it.  No arms race.  No Mao.  No Vietnam War.  No Pol Pot.  No (fill in with whatever your imagination is conjuring).

Holy Smokes (pun intended)!   And now, "Dr. Strangelove" doesn't seem all that strange does it?!  It makes you wonder just how connected everything really is—don't forget that two years later, the Russians got caught smuggling missiles into Cuba and that standoff made whatever happened over the Barents Sea seem trivial.

Thank gawd Khrushchev and Kennedy kept their cool.

“Most of the Air Force thought we flew weather recon at night and golfed during the day,” Olmstead stated wryly.  “(But) I have (one) comment.  I very strongly believe that keeping secrets about our government’s strategic planning, military or otherwise, is an absolute necessity.  I do not believe at-all that the public has a right to know everything that our government, who’s job it is to insure our peace and safety, might be planning to get that job done.”

Hmmm.  I think about that "serenity prayer" that I see stuck on refrigerators:


                     God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  The courage to change the          
                     things I can And the wisdom to know the difference.

Thus, "281" dedicated to the Intelligence community.  Not all (of course), just the ones that are looking out for, in Bruce's words, 'our peace and safety.'  That, to me, is the only toy surprise I want out of my box of Conspiracies.

The "Little Toy Dog" that McKone carried with him for luck.  It went down down with the plane.
Credit:  E.P. Dutton & Company

You know who you are... ;)



Credit:  Wide World Photo

*Americans killed in the shoot-down: Pilot Major Willard Palm (front left), and Ravens (back row): Major Eugene Posa, Captain Oscar Goforth and Captain Dean Phillips.  Bruce Olmsted is center, John McKone is front right.

**Gary Powers ended up spending 22 months in prison, released February 2, 1962.  In comparison, Lt. Cmdr Everette Alvarez spent over 8 years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, from 1964 to 1973.

***Actually, there's more to the story and this will come at a later date.  For now, it's need-to-know only.

****Obviously not.  Had a great time, too.   Carry on you Bastards of Bodney!