Thirty-nine years ago this summer, Eddie Ray Berg was a gangling 19-year-old crewman aboard an Air Force B-29, flying some of the most dangerous missions of the Cold War: secret photo reconnaissance flights off the Soviet Union’s Pacific coast.
“He loved flying, and he wanted to serve his country,” his brother Gordon recalls. “He never told us what the missions were about. But he did write a letter saying that he was scared.”
On June 13, 1952, Eddie Ray Berg’s plane took off from Yakuta Air Base in Japan with 12 men aboard, flew north in the direction of Siberia and disappeared. The next day, Air Force rescue planes sighted a six-man life raft in the Sea of Japan off the Soviet coast, but it was empty.
The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, George F. Kennan, asked the Soviet government if the crew had been picked up by a Soviet ship. Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky replied blandly that his government knew of no Americans in Siberia.
That might have been the end of the story--except that in 1953, a Japanese prisoner of war released from Siberia reportedly said he had seen as many as a dozen Americans at a labor camp near Khabarovsk.
According to recently declassified documents, later that year another Japanese POW told American officials that he had met a U.S. Air Force officer in a military hospital north of Magadan, in the Soviet Far East. The Air Force officer told the Japanese that he had been shot down over the Sea of Japan in 1951, convicted of espionage by a Soviet court and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment.
The State Department called the reports “so persistent and detailed, and so credible” that in 1956 it demanded a formal accounting from the Soviet government. The diplomatic note estimated that the Soviets were holding at least 12 American prisoners--some from Berg’s B-29 and others from a Navy plane shot down over the Baltic Sea in 1950.
A secret Pentagon memorandum at the time said as many as 33 missing airmen could be in Soviet hands. But in the depths of the Cold War, the Soviet Union merely repeated its blanket denial. And there the matter stood--until today.
Now, with a reformist government in Moscow and U.S.-Soviet relations at their warmest point in history, the case of the vanished B-29--and dozens of similar cases from World War II, the Cold War and the Korean War--are quietly being revived. The relatives of missing airmen, emulating the activist families of Vietnam War-era POWs, are organizing pressure groups and writing to their representatives in Congress. Soviet researchers have agreed to look for evidence that Americans and other foreigners were among the thousands of prisoners in the Stalin-era’s unforgiving Gulag Archipelago. And this week, during President Bush’s summit visit to Moscow, the U.S. government is going to press for resolution of its questions for the first time in a generation.
“We’re certainly going to be raising it with them,” a senior Administration official says--though he adds that it isn’t fully certain that President Bush himself will take up the issue.
For Gordon Berg and other relatives of missing Americans from the long-ago era before Vietnam, the sudden flurry of activity has reawakened an old, secret hope, half exhilarating and half terrifying: What if some of them are still alive?
“You get a gut feeling about something, and it sticks with you,” says Berg, an engineer in the family’s hometown of Blackduck, Minn. “I have always felt that they were taken, and that they are alive. Eddie was a young man. He’d be 58 today. He could still be there.”
And if the Soviets turn over records that show him to be dead? “Then at least we’d know something,” Berg says evenly. “It could be that most of them perished in the crash, or that all of them died in prison. But we’d be happy to know about it.
“It’s been 39 years for us,” he adds. “We’d like to know what happened.”
There have been reports of U.S. prisoners in Soviet hands ever since 1918, when American, British and French expeditionary troops fought a losing campaign in northern Russia against the new Bolshevik regime. More than 100 Americans were held by Lenin’s government until 1921, when they were released in exchange for emergency food aid from the United States.
At the end of World War II, more than 15,000 Americans fell into the hands of the Red Army, from thousands of POWs in German camps liberated by the Russians to airmen whose planes went down over Soviet-held areas. Most were repatriated, but some remained unaccounted for. During the late 1940s, reports trickled out of the Soviet Union of Americans held in Stalin’s labor camps, including one man described as wearing a tattoo reading “U.S. Navy.”
After the Korean War, the Allied command compiled a list of 952 Americans who were believed taken prisoner in Korea by Communist forces and never returned. Pentagon officials believed that most died in custody.
Still, according to declassified Pentagon documents from the 1950s, there were persistent reports from refugees and released prisoners about American POWs in both the Soviet Union and China. According to some reports, the Soviets specifically sought prisoners with expertise in aeronautics or electronics--to help their own military industries advance.
But in some ways, the most intriguing cases come from a war that is now almost forgotten: the white-knuckle days of the early Cold War, the years from 1945 through 1959 when U.S. and Soviet armed forces waged a dangerous--but largely secret--struggle.
There were no spy satellites in those days--not even high-speed reconnaissance jets--so American intelligence-gathering depended on thousands of flights by vulnerable planes like Eddie Berg’s B-29, a reconfigured, propeller-driven bomber with a cruising speed of only 360 miles an hour.
Officially, the planes were supposed to stay outside Soviet airspace, but one of the standard tactics of the day was “ferreting"--flying deliberately close to the border, perhaps even inside it, to force Soviet air defenses to reveal their radar signals to American monitors.
In addition to the flights off the Soviet Union’s Pacific coast, there were reconnaissance flights from U.S. bases in Turkey along the Soviet Union’s southern border, where an American C-130 with 17 men aboard went down in 1959. And there were flights over the Baltic Sea, where Soviet MIGs shot down a Navy PBY4Y2 Privateer with 10 men aboard in 1950. (In that case, U.S. rescue planes sighted two empty life rafts off the coast of Soviet Latvia.)
The annals of those days include glimpses of a secret war on the ground as well: Reports of American military officers kidnaped by Soviet or Soviet Bloc units in Berlin, Vienna and on the border of Czechoslovakia, and reports of agents of the new Central Intelligence Agency, who had been captured inside the Soviet Bloc itself.
All of these missions were--and still are--classified, so the United States government never publicly sought the return of many reported prisoners. But the Army has kept a secret archive of alleged sightings under the title: “American Citizens Detained in the U.S.S.R.” Its summaries--obtained from the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act by Mark Sauter, an investigative reporter at KIRO television in Seattle--are spare, but chilling:
From a German POW released by the Soviets around 1953: “Tuischet Camp . . . American officer of U.S. Air Force. Kidnaped in November, 1950, by Soviets in the Soviet sector of Vienna. About 30 years of age; tall, blond hair, blue eyes; limped badly and had to use crutches.”
From a source whose identity remains classified: “Labor Camp No. 7, Vorkuta . . . American officer . . . While on duty on zonal border (between West Germany and East Germany) had been kidnaped by Soviets who threw a bag over his head, dragged him into their car and drove him to East Germany.”
From a Polish former prisoner cited in a State Department report: “The two Americans whose names are given below were captured in Korea in 1951. These men, who think that their families believe them dead, asked (the informant) to inform the embassy in Poland that they were prisoners in the U.S.S.R. . . . The health of both men is poor as a result of working in the phosphorous mine associated with the camp.”
As with reports of Vietnam-era prisoners reported seen in Indochina, the Pentagon holds officially that few if any of these reports are credible. “Although stories have surfaced from time to time alleging that Americans are still being held by the North Koreans, the Chinese or the Soviets, there are no intelligence indicators that U.S. personnel from the Korean conflict were not returned,” Rear Adm. Ronald F. Marryott, deputy directory of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told a House subcommittee last month.
But the case of the two Cold War air crews--Eddie Berg’s B-29 and the Navy PBY42 shot down over the Baltic--is different. The Defense and State departments have declared from the start that the evidence suggested that they may have been captured by the Soviets.
Earlier this year, after relatives and members of Congress pushed for action, the State Department asked the Soviet Foreign Ministry to look into the issue of American POWs--specifically the missing airmen from the two reconnaissance flights. On July 19, the State Department renewed the request and also asked for access to the archives of the Soviet POW administration.
“There is no conclusive evidence that U.S. POWs are secretly being detained in the Soviet Union,” State Department spokesman David Denny says. “But we believe it’s appropriate for us to take advantage of the improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations to make this inquiry.”
The Soviet government replied that it had “no new information” about alleged American POWs. But it has agreed to consider the request for access to the archives. The Soviet Interior Ministry and the KGB secret police have kept detailed records of their prisoners and interrogations. Their secret archives could hold a key, not only to the fate of Eddie Berg and his crew mates, but to those of hundreds of other alleged Soviet prisoners as well.
Already, the Soviet government has released records on thousands of World War II prisoners to Japan, Germany and France as part of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s new foreign policy. Other records have been given to the family of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who was captured by the Red Army in 1945 after he helped thousands of Jews escape from Nazi-held Hungary. “Memorial,” the Soviet organization that is pledged to expose and commemorate the crimes of the Stalin era, has been agitating in Moscow for the release of more records on both Soviet and foreign prisoners in the Gulag.
“We have been banging our heads against this immovable wall for 10 years,” says Rachel Ostreicher Haspel, director of the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States. “Now we are beginning to see some chinks in the wall. If the U.S. government can gain free access to all the Interior Ministry files, it could be a tremendous advance.”
The remaining, scattered relatives of the missing airmen have a more mixed bag of emotions. Some, like Gordon Berg, believe that the crewmen are still alive. But others are more skeptical.
“I cannot believe that there’s any chance that my brother’s alive; he’d be 71 now,” says Joseph J. Sculley, a retired Philadelphia executive whose older brother Jimmy was a pilot on the B-29. “But we may find out what happened, and that would be overdue.”
Still others, including the wives of some of the airmen who remarried 30 years ago or more, have been reluctant to reopen a long-closed wound.
But those who have pursued the issue have been remarkably effective in only a few months, amassing long-forgotten reports of “live sightings” and enlisting congressmen and senators to their cause.
“It’s meant staying up late a lot of nights to get the work done,” says John Berg, another of Eddie’s brothers, in Anoka, Minn. “I’m angry that it’s taken this many years. But I feel good that we’re finally getting near the truth.”
“We’re a forgiving country,” John Berg adds. “I don’t think we’d blame the Soviet Union now for something their government did back then.”
“I was 7 years old when he disappeared,” Gordon Berg recalls. “I can remember him coming home that last Christmas; he gave me a model airplane. Boy, did I look up to him.
“This thing has just captivated me,” he says. “If Eddie’s still out there, I want to get him back. And if he’s not, well, at least we’d know something.”