Sixty years ago this morning, an Air Force pilot from Nebraska floated bleeding and dazed off the Siberian Coast, just feet away from the flaming wreckage of his surveillance plane.
A few minutes earlier, Capt. John Roche, 28, had been co-piloting the piston-engine aircraft belonging to the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at 21,000 feet over the Sea of Japan near Vladivostok.
Then two Soviet MiG-17 fighters dived out of the clouds and attacked. The first destroyed an engine on the port side with gunfire. The second shot off the right wing, which crashed against the fuselage and sent the red-tailed RB-50G into a spinning dive.
On order from the pilot, Capt. Stanley O'Kelley, Roche bailed out, clawing his way to the nose hatch and diving headfirst into thick fog. His chute had barely opened when he hit the water. He cut it loose and swam away from the burning pool of oil around the debris that he said landed only 75 feet away.
“I continually had to wash out of my eyes the blood that was streaming from the cut on my head, but so far my luck had held,” Roche wrote four years later in a Reader's Digest first-person article. “When you're fighting just to live you don't stop to think about how you're doing. You do what comes next and do it the best you can.”
Picked up by the destroyer USS Picking 22 hours later, Roche is the only one of 17 crew members known to have survived the shootdown. O'Kelley floated in the water near him for hours but slipped under the waves soon after a rescue raft was dropped next to them. His body washed ashore in Japan months later. So did the body of one other crewman.
The rest were never seen again.
News of the attack competed in the headlines with the Korean War truce, executed two days earlier. It made clear that U.S. forces would be in harm's way long after the guns fell silent on the Korean Peninsula.
For a short while it thrust Roche, who came from the village of Newcastle in Nebraska's northeast corner, into the international media spotlight. Under the guidance of military public affairs officers, he gave a press conference in Tokyo a day after his rescue to counter the Russian version of events: that his aircraft had violated Soviet airspace, and that the Americans had fired first.
The job of Roche's flight, and thousands of others like it over the years, is to “tickle” the defenses of America's strategic rivals. If they can be provoked into activating their air defenses, then listening posts in the back of the aircraft could record the reaction.
That's valuable insight for the U.S. military.
The RB-50 was the sixth of 16 U.S. military surveillance flights downed by the Soviets during the Cold War. Add in the Israeli attack on the surveillance ship USS Liberty in 1967 and North Korea's seizing of the USS Pueblo in 1968, and Cold War-era snooping — even from a distance — starts to look like a dangerous business.
It still is. As recently as 2001, a Navy EP-3 surveillance plane flying off the coast of China collided with a Chinese fighter. The pilot — a Nebraskan, Lt. Shane Osborn of Norfolk — crash-landed on Hainan Island. The crew of 24 was interrogated for 11 days before being released.
Quietly, U.S. airmen — some of them here in Nebraska — are taking similar risks today.
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“The 55th Reconnaissance Wing is still active,” said William Burrows, a retired New York University professor who chronicled the Cold War-era surveillance flights in his 2001 book, “By Any Means Necessary.” “They're working North Korea, China, probably Iran. Aerial reconnaissance is still happening.”
1st Lt. Richard Y. Newton’s crew was one of four mustered to search for Roche’s downed surveillance plane. When Newton’s turn came, his crew learned that six survivors had been spotted. A lifeboat had been dropped to one pair, which turned out to be Roche and O’Kelley. Newton’s crew on the RB-29 rescue mission, its radar broken, flew passes at 500 feet, dodging fog.
“It's totally dark, with no ambient light,” said Newton, 85, of St. Petersburg, Fla., “I realized how big the ocean is.”
Once they came across six lights in the water. Hoping it might be the missing airmen, Newton approached and dropped even lower.
“I turned the landing lights on, but it was an instant whiteout,” he said, and pulled up. A Navy launch boarded the vessel as Newton circled and discovered that it was a Russian fishing boat.
Newton, who in the 1970s would serve as a wing commander at Offutt Air Force Base, turned home to Yokota Air Base near Tokyo shortly before dawn. Before he left, he saw Roche being lifted aboard the Picking.
Suddenly John Roche was America's Cold War hero.
Little in Roche's background prepared him for the spotlight that would shine on him and his family, briefly and intensely.
He grew up around his father's pool hall in Newcastle, but his parents divorced when he was young. His mother, Agnes Roche, became an art teacher in Sioux City, Iowa. She moved to Washington, D.C., at the beginning of World War II to take a war job. John Roche graduated from high school there in 1942 and promptly joined the Army Air Forces.
He had been interested in flying for a long time.
“When he was a kid he was building model airplanes and flying them around,” recalled Wendall Hanson, 85, of Newcastle, who knew Roche as a child and would revive the friendship decades later.
Roche piloted B-17s in Europe. Once he safely landed a crippled aircraft in Belgium with three engines on fire. But friends died in combat, almost daily. Years later he would tell his son, Marty, that he and his crew had to harden themselves against the losses.
“You got kind of callous about it,” said Marty Roche, 60, of Jacksonville, Fla. “He didn't get all melancholy about his friends getting blown up.”
He loved to fly and stayed in the military after the war. World War II gave him the steel nerves to fly the RB-50 surveillance runs. His wife, Nadine, endured his long absences while raising a young family back home in the Washington area.
Daughter Teri, who was then 8, dimly remembers a hubbub of reporters and other visitors at their house right after the shootdown.
Teri recalls that a series of quick moves followed the shootdown. Her parents never explained. Military families didn't complain, and they didn't ask questions.
“I went to seven different schools in two years. We were all over the Midwest, (and) in the state of Washington,” she said. “Now, you'd say 'Well, they were probably hiding him.' ”
Teri and Marty say John Roche never spoke of the shootdown, or of his work. He traveled frequently, without explanation.
“He left — that was it,” Teri said. “We didn't know where he was.”
Roche retired from the Air Force in 1962. The family remained in Homestead, Fla., near his last duty station. He took a job as a Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector in Miami.
But Marty Roche said that was only part of the story. He said his father flew covert missions for Air America, an airline owned and operated by the CIA. For a time, he said, John Roche piloted a jet for the Shah of Iran.
In his spare time Roche flew a Piper Cherokee. Marty Roche said he got to see his dad's steel nerves one day in 1970 when they were flying a tourist-watching trip at 600 feet over the sands of Miami Beach.
Suddenly the engine quit. As Marty nervously watched the sunbathers scatter below them, John Roche focused on the instruments. They were barely 100 feet above the ground when he got the engine restarted.
“I never doubted him after that,” Marty Roche said.
John Roche's personal heartache wasn't over yet. In 1966 his oldest son, John Jr., died in a car crash. Seven years later Nadine succumbed to a blood infection.
In the mid-1980s, John Roche moved back to Newcastle — in part to take care of his elderly father, and in part because he enjoyed the small-town lifestyle of his childhood home.
He bought an old lumberyard and feed store to use as a house and a shop, where he repaired and restored Model T Fords and scoured the countryside for bargains at auctions.
“He converted the office part of it into living quarters,” said Bob Juhlin, 91, a Roche friend from Newcastle. “He was just common as an old shoe, once you got to know him.”
He became a fixture at 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing reunions, where he could swap stories with old friends. He would trek to Bellevue from Newcastle once a month to shop at the Offutt commissary, and stay the night to hang out at the Officers Club.
“He'd meet with the boys, chat, share a little camaraderie,” said Reg Urschler, a retired brigadier general who flew with, and later commanded, the 55th Wing.
His children and his friends say John Roche rarely talked of the tragedies that had touched him. For the most part, he kept to himself.
“You had to get pretty close to him to get anything out of him,” Juhlin said.
His children say he showed no signs of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. If he felt any pain, he apparently treated it liberally with alcohol in the manner of men — particularly pilots — of his time.
“He drank a lot. Not every day, but more often than I would have liked,” Marty Roche said. “Pretty much all of them drank back then. It was a drinking man's game.”
John Roche died in 2002 during a visit to Teri's home in Florida.
“He had a blood clot that went straight to his lungs and killed him,” she said. “He was out on the porch, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Five minutes later, he was gone.”
He was cremated, his remains placed with Nadine's in a cemetery near Homestead.
His newspaper obituary briefly mentioned his service in World War II. It made no reference to the RB-50.
The lost RB-50 faded from public memory — at least until the end of the Cold War, when scholars finally had a chance to interview Russian sources and peruse government archives.
The new sources didn't solve the mystery of what happened to the missing crew. A joint U.S. and Russian commission followed up on interesting clues and talked to several witnesses who claimed knowledge of Western prisoners.
Some scholars speculated that the Soviets shot down the RB-50 in retaliation for the loss of a Russian IL-12 transport plane that had been shot down two days earlier, just before the truce, killing 21 people. According to the Americans, it was a military plane flying over North Korea, and thus fair game. The Soviets said it was an airliner on a scheduled flight over China, which would have put it off-limits.
Others doubt the thick Soviet bureaucracy could have set up a retaliatory plot so quickly.
Marty Roche said his father spoke of dark plots that contributed to the loss of the RB-50, involving a mysterious Russian he said was brought aboard the flight as a “translator” at the last minute.
“He truly believed the State Department set them up,” Marty said.
No such person's name was released with those of the missing crew members. Nor is there any mention in any of the declassified documents on the incident, either American or Soviet.
Sixty years later, it's certainly possible that some of the RB-50's remaining secrets still will be revealed.
Or, perhaps they'll stay buried in the Sea of Japan.
World-Herald researcher Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.