Lives lost in secrecy honored Memorial: The National Security Agency unveils a tribute to those who died flying secret reconnaissance missions against the Soviet Union.

September 03, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

She remembers it was 2 p.m. on Sept. 3 when a taxi delivered the yellow telegram to her door in New Jersey. Teresa Durkin RTC expected it to be from her brother in the military, needing a ride to another air base. Instead, it was from the Air Force, and it started with five awful words: "It is with deep regret "

That was 39 years ago, and yesterday the federal government finally recognized the sacrifice of her late brother -- Master Sgt. George P. Petrochilos -- and dozens of other airmen who died in some of the most secret service of the Cold War.

The National Security Agency unveiled the National Vigilance Park and Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial at its headquarters near Fort Meade. More than 2,000 spectators broiled in a grassy clearing near the National Cryptologic Museum as an Air Force band, several honor guards and a military flyover honored those who died flying secret reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union.

"Their contribution could not be acknowledged at the time because of the necessity to maintain secrecy," Democratic Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said at the ceremony. "We are here today to recognize that they helped keep the peace and security around the globe."

The focus of the memorial is a four-propeller C-130 transport plane painted to resemble the one Petrochilos was in when it was shot down over Soviet Armenia on Sept. 2, 1958.

All 17 people aboard died after four Soviet MiG-17 fighter planes took turns firing on the unarmed C-130, which had drifted into forbidden air space during what is now acknowledged to have been a routine reconnaissance flight around Turkey.

Families of most of the victims -- six of whose remains were recovered -- attended yesterday's ceremony to accept posthumous Air Medals for meritorious service.

"We're taking a major step to publicly acknowledge and remember the sacrifices and dedication" of the lost fliers, said Lt. Gen. Kenneth A. Minihan, the NSA director.

He noted that in the days before satellites and the Internet, the best way to get information about enemies was to put cryptologists on airplanes and fly them as close as possible to hot spots.

It was particularly dangerous duty. Forty of those spy planes were shot down during the Cold War, killing 64 cryptologists and 45 crew members.

The Pentagon had to deny the existence of the program at the time, Minihan said, but "peace and security have prevailed, in large part due to the vigilance and sacrifice of those we honor here today."

For the widows, now gray-haired, and the children, now middle-aged, the ceremony was an emotional event that some thought would never come.

"This has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, to see the acknowledgment like this," said Air Force Maj. Mark Simpson of Austin, Texas.

Simpson was an infant when his father, Capt. John E. Simpson, went down piloting the C-130 over Armenia.

The memorial "is a great opportunity for families to gain closure on the whole incident. And it's a great opportunity for the Air Force and NSA to acknowledge all the people who did those missions who up till today really haven't had any good things said about them," he said.

This year, DNA tests confirmed that the remains of Simpson's father were among the six sets returned at the time by the Soviets. His remains will be buried today at Arlington National Cemetery.

There will be no such closure for Durkin, 75, whose brother's remains have never been found.

"You just continue to hope each year you're going to get word," she said. "But unfortunately it doesn't look like any other news is coming."

At least, she said, the government "finally recognized the sacrifice that these people made."

Not everyone was entirely comfortable with that fact. Seated in the sunlight behind the relatives, who were under an awning, was a grizzled group of veterans of the aerial reconnaissance campaign.

"Certain things need to be kept secret in this world," said Carl Antonik, 58, who guards his secrets every day as he works at a Wal-Mart in his hometown, State College, Pa.

A retired master sergeant, Antonik flew classified missions from the late 1960s through 1979. He lost friends to the hazardous duty, but anonymity was always part of the game. He didn't expect a public tribute.

"For all the years we flew, our wives didn't even know where we were," said Butch Moore, 60, a former Russian linguist who hadn't seen Antonik for 25 years until they reunited at the services yesterday.

Now a social worker in Arkansas, Moore said he had mixed emotions about the memorial.

"It's wonderful to have the recognition, but it flies in the face of what we were doing all those years," he said. "It was so secret, hush-hush, you can't talk to strangers. It was a way of life. There's such a degree of openness now. It just feels kind of strange to see it in public."

The reason it is public is that their missions ultimately succeeded.

"We won. We eventually won," Moore said. "It's a success that few people know about. Being here is very prideful."

Pub Date: 9/03/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.