Russia, U.S. attempt to lay to rest a Cold War mystery

September 16, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Seven U.S. Marines in dress uniform marched slowly across the tarmac at a Moscow airport yesterday, past solemn Russian generals and alert Border Patrol troops, carrying a plain metal flag-draped coffin to a waiting Air Force jet.

They bore what are almost certainly the remains of Capt. John Robertson Dunham, an Easton, Md., man and 1950 Naval Academy graduate who was navigator on a U.S. reconnaissance plane shot down by a Soviet fighter in 1952.

The remains had come from an unmarked grave, discovered by a joint U.S.-Russian team Sept. 2 on tiny Yuri Island in the Pacific Ocean off Russia's Far Eastern coast.

Maj. Gen. Anatoly Volkov of the Russian army said that Russia had promised Captain Dunham's widow and daughter that his body would be located and returned. "Today, we have fulfilled that task," he said.

The navigator's widow, Mary Nichols, has remarried and now lives in Rodgers Forge. His daughter, Suzanne Fong, who was 6 weeks old when her father died, lives in Holland, Mich.

A C-140 transport will fly the coffin to Hawaii, where Army forensic experts will try to make a conclusive identification of the remains.

Captain Dunham's RB-29 reconnaissance plane, based in Japan, took off Oct. 7, 1952, on a mission that would have it skirting the nearby Kuril Islands, occupied by the Soviet Union since the end of World War II. At 3:25 p.m., a Soviet colonel piloting a fighter plane got the RB-29 in his sights and opened fire.

The colonel later reported that both wings were torn off and the plane plunged into the Pacific.

The United States protested. Moscow said the plane had violated Soviet airspace.

All eight crewmen aboard were presumed lost, but the government of the former Soviet Union never said whether any bodies had been found.

In 1992, however, the Russian government declassified a telegram referring to the recovery of Captain Dunham's body.

And then, last year, a former Border Patrol sailor, Vasily Syko, now living in Rostov-on-Don, sought out members of a newly appointed joint commission set up to look into the fate of U.S. servicemen shot down or believed to have been brought to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Syko had a Naval Academy ring with Captain Dunham's name engraved inside it, and he told investigators that he had been on the scene when Captain Dunham's body was found floating in the water just off Yuri Island, along with a parachute and a partly inflated life raft.

And he said he could direct them to the American's grave.

Captain Dunham's body had been held on the island for three days, then buried on orders from Moscow, according to declassified telegrams and interviews conducted by the joint commission.

In May, Col. Michael Semenec Jr. led a team to the 3-mile-long, treeless island, which is uninhabited except for a squad of 10 border guards and a variety of livestock.

They looked for five days without success, then returned Aug. 19 for another try. Carefully "trenching" through bamboo roots into thick, black earth, they found a wooden coffin two weeks later, about five feet down. There was no identification, but a remaining piece of sleeve showed a U.S. Air Force patch.

There were 38 confirmed Cold War downings of U.S. planes. In some instances, said Richard Miles, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, the Soviet Union handed over any bodies recovered.

Yesterday's ceremony marked the first time that a body recovered by the joint U.S.-Russian commission has been sent back to the United States.

"I hope," said Colonel Semenec, "it shows the success of the commission in finding something that maybe helps the family back home get in the process of healing."

He said he hopes it will lead others who have evidence of missing Americans to come forward.

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