3 USAF Airmen's bodies lie unrecovered for 2 days after the Soviets admit to shooting down an AF T-39 jet that was lost

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On January 28, 1964, three Cold War Air Force Airmen were tragically killed after their T-39 jet was shot down over Erfurt, East Germany, by the Soviet Union. During this period in history, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were heightened. As a result, outrage spread quickly regarding the incident, with many calling the downing of the plane a “shocking and senseless act.” [i] [ii]

The cover of a newspaper reporting on the downing of the USAF jet on January 28, 1964.Photo byUSAF, Public Domain

US Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Hannaford, Captain John Lorraine, and Captain Donald Millard departed from Wiesbaden Air Base for a T-39 training mission. The training mission progressed until 47 minutes into the flight. Then the jet veered off its course and into Soviet-controlled airspace over East Germany. [iii]

The pilots had become disoriented due to an intense storm and malfunctioning radio systems. As a result, they veered an estimated 100 miles off course. Many attempts to alert the pilots were unsuccessful. Two Soviet aircraft pursued the T-39 jet, shooting it down an hour after takeoff. Soviet diplomat Georgi M. Korniyenko justified the cold-blooded takedown by saying,

“We have all grounds to believe this was not an error or mistake. One would not imagine that an airplane is flying 100 kilometers deep beyond a border and then not submit to orders to descend. It was a clear intrusion. The plane was intercepted. And then it did not obey orders. [iv]

An East German civilian gave notice of a US plane that “had crashed and burned, killing all crew members.” U.S. Military Liason Mission (USMLM) members immediately attempted to locate the crash site. The Russians refused to allow the team to view the crash site as they monitored it while “removing certain parts from the wreckage,” sometimes with as many as “15 Soviet troops with unslung weapons.” [v]

Finally, two days after the jet was shot down, late in the evening of January 30, 1964, Chief USMLM surveyed the charred bodies and aircraft wreckage. Following the preparation of an identification and evacuation statement, the remains were loaded into ambulances the following morning and transferred to a USAFE C-130 aircraft headed to Wiesbaden for funeral services. [vi]

A monument for the three airmen remains in Vogelsberg, Germany, where the local community continues to honor the crew annually. Shortly after the crash, a farmer in Erfurt contacted several Airmen headquartered in West Berlin. He had found a ring that belonged to one of the fallen airmen and wanted to return it. The wedding ring belonged to Captain Lorraine and was promptly shipped back to his widow in 1966 at Langley Air Force Base, Va. [vii]

A monument remembering the three fallen US Airmen.Photo byWikswat, CC BY-SA 3.0

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[i] Western Allies Berlin, T-39 Aircraft Incident - USMLM Unit History 1964 (2023)

[ii] The NYT, U.S. Says Soviet Shot Down Jet; Protest Note Terms Killing of Three in East Germany Brutal and Inexcusable (Jan. 30, 1964)

[iii] Janis El Shabazz, 3 fallen Cold War Airmen remembered in 50th-anniversary ceremony (Jan. 30, 2014)

[iv] Staff Sergeant Ryan Crane, German village, remembers downed American pilots (Jan. 30, 2014)

[v] Western Allies Berlin, T-39 Aircraft Incident - USMLM Unit History 1964 (2023)

[vi] Id.

[vii] Janis El Shabazz, 3 fallen Cold War Airmen remembered in 50th-anniversary ceremony (Jan. 30, 2014)

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