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Cold War shoot-down over St. Lawrence Island: Survivor returns to thank villagers who rescued him

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 20, 2015

WHITTIER -- They called it the Cold War. But for the crew of a Navy patrol bomber based in Kodiak, things got very hot when Soviet MiG fighter jets swarmed them, guns blazing, during a routine maritime patrol over the Bering Sea on June 22, 1955.

The P2V-5 Neptune was cruising at about 8,000 feet, recalled David Assard, a navigator on the flight, when Lt. Richard Fisher, piloting the plane, got word from the back, "There's jets out here. And they're firing at us."

There were six MiG-15s in the attack, Assard said, "two high, two below us and two shooting in a scissor pattern."

Within seconds, 23 and 37 mm cannon fire had raked the plane, wounding several crew members and setting fire to the left wing and engine. Fischer recalled "the sound of ripping metal and tinkling glass" in a 2006 article in Foundation magazine. He rolled the plane and dove into the clouds.

The maneuver put out the fire temporarily and lost the attackers. "Apparently they didn't see us," Assard said. "Or else they thought we were done for."

So did the men on the plane. As Fischer slowed and leveled the plane about 50 feet off the ocean, the fire in the magnesium metal frame reignited. Those with a view off the left could see the wing spar, the skin burned off. It was twisting and appeared ready to rip away.

By shifting fuel from the one remaining tank to the one remaining engine, the Neptune might reach Nome, in theory. But Fischer was sure the wing would fail before then. He briefly considered ditching at sea while the wing still held, but with one life raft ripped up by enemy fire and questions about whether the other could be deployed and half of his men without rubber "poopy" dry suits, he expected that even in a best-case scenario they would die in the cold water before help could arrive.

That left the desperate option of a crash landing on St. Lawrence Island. "I'm going to stretch this to land," Fischer said, and called for a heading. Assard, who had shrapnel in his hand and back, ran the calculations as best he could. The circuit breaker had been hit and most electronics were out. But he gave Fischer bearings that he hoped would bring the plane to American territory.

A high rocky cliff shortly appeared in front of the cockpit. Fischer eased the plane up to 100 feet to clear the cliff. He feathered the props, cut the power and, with the wheels up, skidded the plane along the tundra on its belly.

"He did a superb job of landing the plane," Assard said. "It was as beautiful as you can do it."

But the landing set off another explosion toward the tail of the plane. It created a fireball. "The plane stopped fast enough, but the fireball kept right on going forward through the whole plane," Assard said.

The men managed to escape the flaming wreck and made it to a ditch a short distance away. They ducked as ammunition and flares in the smoldering plane continued to explode. They had no clear idea about where they were or whether anyone at their base knew what had happened.

And everyone had injuries, some severe, from bullets and shrapnel, broken bones, smoke and fire. "We were all burned," Assard said.

Dangerous duty

Assard, 82, recounted his story during a trip to the Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier on Aug. 8, a visit hosted in part by the Prince William Sound Economic Development District. He was visiting the state with his wife, Linda, and several friends from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area where he now lives.

Museum founder Ted Spencer gave the group a tour of the place. He paused at the Cold War display and said, "This is our David Assard exhibit."

The case includes Assard's flight jacket.

A Connecticut farm boy, Assard became fascinated by aviation as a young man and joined the Navy to learn to fly. He got his wings before his 21st birthday. He was assigned to several duty stations over his career, including the Navy Base on Kodiak, now a Coast Guard facility.

In 1955 the Dew Line and White Alice radar and communications systems were still two years from completion. The U.S. needed to know what the Russians were up to and the only way to do that was with reconnaissance flights in aircraft big enough to hold a lot of electronic equipment and fly long distances.

"Our mission was to fly up between the Diomedes toward Wrangel Island," Assard said. "We'd check the ice, the weather, any sign of activity, and return skirting the international date line, but being careful to stay east of it. The Russians claimed everything on the west side and we didn't want to start World War III. So our orders were: Don't fire unless fired upon."

The Neptune was a Lockheed design that resembled the lines of a World War II B-25 Mitchell Bomber, though with a single high tail instead of the Mitchell's double-rudder configuration. It had a variety of guns and turrets, but they were useless without the electrical power. "Once we were hit, we couldn't fire back," Assard said.

Even if its guns had been fully functioning, the odds would have been stacked against the single, prop-driven, lumbering Neptune. The six jet-powered MiG fighters had top speeds of more than 600 miles an hour; the PV2 cruised at less than 200 miles an hour. One on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, is named "The Truculent Turtle."

"Look at that plane," Assard said, pointing to a photo in the museum exhibit. "That was not designed for aerial combat."

Surveillance was dangerous duty, said Spencer, who has made a life study of aviation in general and in Alaska in particular. The Cold War display at the museum lists a score of American planes shot down by the Russian military on recon missions between 1950 and 1970. The sites of these incidents range from the Sea of Japan and Korea to the Black Sea and Arctic Ocean. The June 22, 1955, shoot -own is the only one that took place in Alaska.

The display gives a total of 165 American personnel killed or missing in these clashes.

"The ones who got captured in Russia were nobodies," Assard said. "The U.S. didn't want to admit that spying was going on and the Russians weren't going to say that they were being spied on. So those guys just disappeared, sent off to mines in Siberia where they were worked to death."

Skin boat rescue

The possibility of capture was very much on the minds of the Navy men clustered on the tundra. Assard had given Fischer his best guess of their location, but neither of them were totally confident. The rest of the crew was even less certain.

"We knew very little of St. Lawrence," wrote Fischer, including what it looked like if you happened to find yourself on the island and how you might go about finding anyone who lived there.

About 40 minutes after the crash, they heard approaching motors. Looking toward the water, they saw boats with armed men coming in their direction. Rescue or gulag? Everyone held his breath.

The men turned out to be members of the Alaska National Guard. "And thus our prospects for survival were greatly improved," Fischer observed with noteworthy understatement.

The guardsmen were Siberian Yupik Eskimos from Gambell, a village 8 miles from the crash site on the side of St. Lawrence closest to Russia. Villagers had heard the plane approaching the island and determined, from the sound of the engine, that something was wrong. They immediately set out to look for it.

The guardsmen were led by a soldier assigned to the U.S. Army signal station near the village. The Navy men knew nothing about the presence of the station, a nearby Air Force radar site or even the existence of Gambell itself. "If we'd known," Fischer wrote, "we would have tried for the landing strip at Gambell."

The guardsmen supplied first aid and shuttled them to the village, some in a Weasel tracked vehicle, Assard and others in skin boats powered by 20-horsepower Johnson engines.

A nurse at the village's Presbyterian mission supplied what Fischer called "excellent emergency medical care" and, within 12 hours of the crash, the seriously injured men were evacuated by C-47 cargo plane to the hospital at Fort Richardson in Anchorage, where they underwent surgery.

Those with minor injuries, like Fischer and co-pilot David Lockhart, were taken to Elmendorf Air Force Base where, Fischer recalled, "(we) underwent an extremely long and tiring debriefing in a large room full of more generals and colonels than I thought existed in all of Alaska."

Assard was among those evacuated to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland, California, once they had been stabilized in Anchorage. Recovery lasted for months or longer. Assard recalled that one radioman had his ears and nose burned off and remained in treatment for five years.

Restitution and gratitude

Historian Stephen Ambrose has asserted that the Navy plane was "over Soviet airspace" in his book "Eisenhower: The President" (Simon and Schuster, 1984). Fischer dismissed that claim in his Foundation article.

"So much for historical accuracy," he wrote. "The facts are otherwise. We were not on a recon mission over Soviet territory. There was no warning pass, no shots across the bow, no close formation attempt to warn us away, only the single live-fire pass." And the Neptune was clearly in American airspace. The evidence was so compelling that the Soviets admitted that the shoot-down was their error and offered to pay the U.S. for damages.

"They admitted responsibility and paid for the cost of the plane," Spencer said. "It's the only time that happened in the whole Cold War."

Global politics are one thing. Personal obligations are another. Forty years after the crash, Assard said, "I decided it was time to go up to Alaska and say thank you."

After leaving active duty, he became an aeronautical engineer and went on to become president and chief executive officer of Textron Lycoming, Cessna Aircraft and Elliott Turbomachinery, among his other business interests. He had made enough money to order a bronze plaque and bring it to Gambell, where it was attached to the side of the village's high school.

"We were very fortunate in landing on an American island and being found by American Eskimos," he said. "They couldn't have been more gracious."

In the early 1990s, Assard thinks it was probably 1991, he made the trip to Gambell to present the plaque. He was welcomed with a big party and Native dancing that went on for three hours. Joining tribal leaders he made the overland trip to the crash site on four-wheelers to see what was left of his old airplane.

Cyrillic graffiti indicated that Russian frogmen had been to the wreck. But the only satisfaction they got was to leave some presumed taunts. The American military blew up much of the plane shortly after the crash to keep the Soviets from getting access to classified electronics.

"They wanted to come back and remove everything," said Assard. "But the Eskimos said no. The tail was still up and visible for miles. They were using it to get their bearings. So they left it" along with surviving portions of the front and wings.

Spencer, who has been to the site more recently, said the tail is now slumping forward. He hopes someday to recover part of the plane for the museum to help people remember the great non-war war in which Alaska was a major front.

Assard seemed to think it's enough that he cheated death. For that he credits the people of Gambell and his commanding officer.

"Dick (Fischer) was a tough old bird," he said. "They gave him the Distinguished Flying Cross and he deserved it. He told us, 'If I can save anybody, I'm going to save everybody.'

"And here I am, 60 years later."

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