Mystery of Korean War’s Secret Air Force Mission Is Unraveled : Military: Relatives say they finally have pieced together how a U.S. spy plane and its crew members were shot down in 1950 by the Soviets.


On Dec. 5, 1950, the day after Capt. Charles E. McDonough was shot down in his Korean War spy plane, an Air Force telegram arrived in Glen Rose, Tex. With official regret and a note of haunting finality, it informed his wife, Mary Jo, that the plane had disappeared.

“All possible search completed,” it said.

He was gone, silently swallowed up in a war that would keep many grim secrets.

The search, though, was anything but completed. In a sense, it had not yet begun.


Nearly 44 years after the Air Force gave up on McDonough and the three other Americans aboard his silvery RB-45 reconnaissance bomber, new information has come to light--evidence that points to Soviet involvement not only in the shoot down but also in exploiting McDonough after his capture. The evidence, not yet publicly disclosed by the U.S. government, contradicts recent denials by Moscow that the former Soviet Union had played any role.

The loss of the RB-45 and its crew on Dec. 4, 1950, isn’t even mentioned in the Air Force’s official history of the Korean War, although it notes that two planes of that type flew in the war. (The unmentioned McDonough plane, tail number 8-015, made three.)

McDonough, of New London, Conn., was commander of the three-plane detachment which flew missions mainly over North Korea from Yokota Air Base, Japan. At 31, this was his second war; he flew bombers in Europe in World War II.

The RB-45, well before the U-2 and now an artifact of the Cold War, was no ordinary plane. It was converted from a jet bomber as the most advanced photo reconnaissance plane in the world, and this was its first wartime use. The Air Force knew the RB-45 was a target of Soviet intelligence.


Moscow was aware that U.S. Air Force planes were overflying its territory throughout the 1950s, but it didn’t become an international issue until the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers in a CIA-operated U-2 spy plane on May 1, 1960.

This story of the RB-45 is based on interviews with relatives of two of the four crewmen, officers who knew them, and retired Korean War RB-45 pilots, as well as declassified war records and other government documents. It is the first published account of what the Air Force called simply a “mission over enemy territory.”

Leading the effort to unravel the case are Jeanne Dear, the only child of Charles and Mary Jo McDonough, and Nancy Dean, the daughter of Col. John R. Lovell, a top Air Force intelligence officer who was based at the Pentagon but happened to be aboard the plane for reasons that may never be fully known.

Dear, 44, of Ft. Worth, was 6 months old at the time. Because she never knew her father, she says, the pain of sifting through his past doesn’t sting as badly. But her voice makes clear that the emotional armor she wears is not impenetrable.

“It’s hard,” she said. “It’s a commitment I feel to my mother.”

For her and Dean the search has been complicated by the secret nature of the RB-45.

Although never officially acknowledged by Washington, men who flew this plane in Korea say their top-secret missions sometimes took them deep into Chinese and Soviet airspace. More routinely, it flew photo reconnaissance over North Korea.

Records that could shed light on McDonough’s mission that fateful day have not been found.


Louis Carrington of Tyler, Tex., one of the two other pilots in McDonough’s unit, recalls that “Mac” and his crew, attired in blue flight suits, took off into clear skies from Yokota Air Base at about lunchtime on Dec. 4. He remembers McDonough, 6-foot-3 and blue-eyed, as a likable, accomplished, robust man.

“He could do anything,” Carrington says.

The last word from the RB-45 crew was a routine radio contact 100 minutes after takeoff, signaling their entry into North Korean airspace. Then, everlasting silence. The crash site was never pinpointed. No bodies were recovered.

The McDonough and Lovell daughters haven’t lived on hope that their fathers are alive.

“I can’t get sucked into the emotional quagmire,” said Dean, 62, who was a freshman at the College of William and Mary when her father was listed as missing. “My father would not have wanted that.”

Yet she’s convinced there is more to the story than the Air Force admits.

John (Jack) Lovell, then 46, worked directly for the head of Air Force intelligence, Maj. Gen. Charles P. Cabell. Lovell’s daughter recently found in the National Archives a declassified report, stamped top secret, that was signed by Cabell and included a proposal for using the RB-45 for reconnaissance over the Soviet Union. It was dated Oct. 5, 1950.

Lovell’s presence on the plane is a mystery. He was not a regular crew member, but Dean believes Lovell had a hand in overseeing the RB-45’s spy role.


Howard Barkey, who worked with Lovell in Army intelligence during World War II, says an officer with as much knowledge of secret U.S. war plans as Lovell normally would not be allowed to fly over enemy-held territory.

“He was a leader, and the qualities of leadership require sometimes taking risks,” Barkey said. He figures Lovell had responsibility for the RB-45 program and therefore wanted to see firsthand what risks its crews were facing.

Dean recalls helping her father pack his bags on Nov. 23, Thanksgiving Day. He left that night, saying only that he was headed to the Far East.

Since then there have been only two hints of his fate:

* His name was mentioned in an “enemy broadcast” picked up by U.S. intelligence in China on May 21, 1951, which suggested he had been captured in Korea.

* His was among 71 names of Americans listed by the U.S. Far East Command as “men positively identified as remaining in the hands of the Communists” after the final exchange of Allied and Communist POWs in September, 1953. Yet he never was officially listed as a POW. Dean recently obtained the list from a declassified Dec. 14, 1954, report in the files of the U.S. Far East Command.

Nearly a year earlier, on Feb. 28, 1954, the government had declared Lovell dead. He was from Ottumwa, Iowa, a graduate of West Point (class of ’27), a former U.S. Olympic boxing team coach and a veteran of Cold War espionage.

The two other men on board were co-pilot Capt. Jules E. Young, 29, of East Rochester, N.Y., and 1st Lt. James J. Picucci, 32, of New York City, the navigator.

When the daughters of Lovell and McDonough started researching the incident in detail in 1992, both were surprised to learn that many records from that period are lost; many are still classified secret, off-limits to most citizens.

Dear began her quest in earnest in 1992 when, at the prodding of an aunt, she called the Air Force casualty office at Randolph Air Force Base, Tex., to ask for the file on her father. Her family had been told before that his service records had burned in a records center fire in St. Louis in the 1970s, but this time the casualty official said she would check and call back.

The return call was a bombshell: Her father’s name was on a list of U.S. airmen provided by the Russian government.

“I was absolutely stunned,” Dear recalls. But no one could tell her what the list was, whether she should think her father had been taken by the Russians.

“They didn’t have a clue,” she said. The Russian list indicates that McDonough and other U.S. POWs were interrogated by Soviet officers. Indeed, the Russians later released a copy of a McDonough interrogation which says a Soviet “prepared the questions” and “a Chinese comrade translated” the answers.

Still, Moscow denies it ever had contact with the RB-45 crew.

Dear began digging. She attended congressional hearings in Washington and searched Air Force archives at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and at the National Archives in Washington and Suitland, Md. She pored over historical records at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., collected books on the Korean War and the Air Force, and tracked down anyone who might be of help.

She found Nancy Dean, who coincidentally had begun her own research. Dean, helped by her husband, Dick, fired off letters, organized documents and plotted her search strategy from a basement “war room” in her Wheaton, Md., home.

Many questions about the RB-45 case went unanswered in the years after the last American POWs returned from Korea, but the one that mattered most to each crew member’s family was: Did he, in fact, die?

Mary Jo McDonough stayed in Glen Rose after her husband was listed as missing. She never changed houses, never married again.

But she didn’t wait idly. She sought out her husband’s colleagues when they returned after the war. She wrote to families of other missing airmen and urged them to press for a full accounting. In a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Jan. 5, 1954, Mrs. McDonough wrote, “This matter is more important to me and to the thousands in my position than anything else. And we’re not going to forget it.”

She got no answers. Hope wore away with the passage of time.

Then, thanks to her daughter’s persistence, and quite apart from the government’s own efforts, an answer came in October, 1993: McDonough died about two weeks after his plane was shot down. Not all details are known, and the body has not been recovered.

“My mother had been waiting for 40 years,” Jeanne Dear said. “For us it’s like a miracle” to know for sure he died, and to complete their grieving.

She plans a memorial service for her father today in Ft. Worth.

Of the hundreds of relatives of Korean War MIAs, she apparently is the first to have confirmed a death through her own research and a network of contacts in the United States and abroad.

Ironically, the clinching evidence came not from U.S. government files but from Russia, whose MIG fighters shot down McDonough’s plane near the Yalu River that separates North Korea from China. McDonough parachuted from the plane.

The one-page document which said McDonough had died was found in Russian archives by Paul Cole of the research firm Defense Forecasts Inc., who has extensively studied Soviet links to Korean War MIA cases. Dear got a copy.

It was dated Dec. 18, 1950--exactly two weeks after the shoot down--but did not indicate the exact date or cause of death. Routing notations on the document indicate it circulated at the highest levels of the Soviet military staff.

“I am informing you that the pilot from the shot-down B-45 aircraft died en route and the interrogation was not finished,” said the note in Russian. It was signed by Marshal Stepan Krasovskii, the senior Soviet military adviser to China, and addressed to Marshal Pavel Batitskii, chief of the General Staff in Moscow.

This fits with recollections of the only American known to have talked to McDonough after he was shot down. Retired Air Force pilot Hamilton B. Shawe Jr., of Reno, Nev., said he spent about three days with McDonough as a POW in a bombed-out prison in Sinuiju, in northern Korea, starting about Dec. 14. He says he last saw McDonough being taken away from the prison on an ox cart, and that he was in such bad condition that it seemed unlikely he could live much longer.

Shawe said McDonough told him he had parachuted from the burning wreckage of the RB-45. He later suffered severe frostbite while trying to evade capture in the frozen wilds. When he sought food at an isolated Korean house, the occupants turned him in to the military.

Shawe reported his contact with McDonough to the Air Force in 1953 when he was released from captivity. On the basis of his information, and the lack of other news, the Air Force issued a presumptive finding of death on March 1, 1954.

Although the McDonough family members accept the Russian document as evidence that he died, they realize it raises other questions. Where were they taking him when he died? What did the Soviets want from him? What was done with the body?

A second Russian document obtained by Cole this year makes the Soviet link even clearer. It says the RB-45 was shot down about 45 miles east of Andung, China, just across the border from Sinuiju, North Korea. The report summarizes what McDonough said under a Soviet-controlled interrogation and asks that Russian “advisers” in Korea help retrieve downed American aircraft and “details.”

This document was dated Dec. 17, 1950, and was signed by the Soviet commander of the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps, which headed Soviet air operations in Korea. The note was addressed to top military officers in the Kremlin.

In November, 1994, Dear learned more painful details through a confidential source who interviewed the MIG pilot, A. F. Andrianov, who is credited with shooting down the RB-45. Andrianov recalled being told by the Soviet officer who interrogated McDonough that while McDonough was being moved from Sinuiju, apparently on Dec. 18, a sign was hung on him, “U.S. War Criminal.”

A crowd of North Koreans gathered around the defiant American and beat him to death, Dear said. For that final injustice, she and her mother hold both the North Koreans and the former Soviet Union responsible.

Because Andrianov said he saw only one parachute emerge from the RB-45, Nancy Dean now accepts that her father, Lovell the intelligence officer, died in the crash. Her search, too, is ended, though she still wonders why her father was there.

Whether or not the mystery of the RB-45 is ever fully unraveled, Mary Jo McDonough will always remember the good days before her husband left for Korea, and wonder about a cryptic departing remark on the sensitivity of his mission.

“I remember he said, ‘There is something I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.’ ”