Crew offers more details on captivity

Fliers played cards, performed skits between questioning

5-hour interrogations

April 16, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

OAK HARBOR, Wash. - On Day 1 of their captivity, the crew of the downed Navy surveillance plane stepped onto Chinese soil to find startled soldiers wielding weapons. By Day 11, the crew's anxiety had given way to tedium. In between stretched long hours of interrogations and uncertainty relieved by card games and skits to keep up morale.

Still sleep-deprived and wrung out from Saturday's welcome home celebrations at Whidbey Island Naval Station, members of the EP-3E electronic monitoring plane detailed yesterday their captivity on China's Hainan Island and what information their captors attempted to extract from them.

The plane, one of only a dozen in the U.S. arsenal, is a great prize, which the 24-member crew sought to keep from the Chinese. Even as the pilots were struggling to land the sophisticated surveillance plane, they were concerned that the Chinese might dispatch fighters to shoot them down.

The crew sent more than a dozen mayday calls on the international distress frequency. "We were letting them know, `We have a major emergency and we need to land right away,'" Lt. Patrick Honeck told reporters yesterday. The Chinese maintain they received no such calls, but Honeck said, "We sort of think they did - they had a pretty large group of people to meet us."

Once on the ground, Lt. Shane Osborn, the mission commander, was first off the plane.

"They told us not to move and not to touch anything," he said of the military personnel who met the plane.

"It wasn't a time to make a stand. We were unarmed. They're armed. So they have the advantage," Osborn recounted on ABC-TV's "This Week."

The crew followed Osborn off the $80 million Navy plane, which remains in Chinese custody, and were herded onto a bus on the tarmac. They waited there while Chinese military officials milled around the plane and talked on cellular phones.

"I'm not sure they knew what to do with us," Osborn told ABC. "We sat on the bus, and they let four people go at a time to the restroom, and then we just kept requesting to be able to talk to our ambassador or chain of command so we could let everyone know we were safe."

The Americans were given water and cigarettes, fed and then taken to officers' barracks. Osborn described the conditions as being the best the Chinese had to offer but said the quarters were hot and buzzing with mosquitoes and other insects.

On the first night, the crew was kept together and spoke freely with one another. After that, Osborn was isolated from the rest and saw his crew members only at mealtimes until the final two days. Asked how he passed the time, Osborn smiled wryly and said, "on self-reflection and interrogation."

The crew commander was singled out for the most intensive and extensive questioning.

He often was wakened in the middle of the night, at times for questioning that might last as long as five hours.

"I thought it was harassing. They would have some excuse to wake me up, every time, you know? Some type of reason ... checking the air conditioner or just anything. Tons of reasons. ...

"I wasn't sleeping much anyway because I wanted to hear down the hallway if anybody was being taken" to be interviewed, he told ABC.

The crew was questioned individually, and all the sessions were videotaped.

"They went through different phases of what they wanted from us," Honeck said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

"Initially they wanted information regarding the accident. They also wanted further information that we weren't willing to give them, and then later on ... their attention turned more toward an apology - again, which we weren't going to give them."

Osborn, a former high school linebacker from Nebraska, said that at first he believed that his captors might "get physical."

"Initially, of course, everyone felt threatened," he said. But as time went on, that fear abated and gave way to a more general vigilance. The crew assumed their rooms were bugged, for example.

After two days, the crew was moved to Haikou and more spacious quarters in a military guest lodge. The 24 Americans were housed on two floors. The three women were placed in one room on the fourth floor, and Honeck and Lt. jg. Jeffrey Vignery roomed across the hall. The remaining crew aside from Osborn were placed two to a room on the fifth floor.

Osborn and others said their guards, who spoke English, were not armed, and some were friendly.

"They wanted us to teach them how to play cards, and one of the guards wanted to know the lyrics to some American songs," Vignery said.

They taught him "Hotel California."

The crew paid special attention to the food they were served. By taking note of what remained untouched on the detainees' plates, the Chinese eventually modified the crew's meals.

"I think they figured out we were not into the fish heads," Vignery said.

Petty officer Wendy Westbrook, a flight engineer, said the day's schedule seemed to be dictated by the timing of meals: Breakfast at 6:30 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m., dinner at 6:30 p.m.

They were restricted to their rooms throughout the day, but gathered for meals.

Osborn said it was not until the third night, during a visit by Brig. Gen. Neal Sealock, U.S. military attache in Beijing, that they began to feel better about their chances for eventual release. In that first hour-long meeting, Sealock spoke sharply to a Chinese official who had interrupted him, Osborn said.

"That's when we knew we had the right guy working for us," he said.

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