On April 15, 1969, a U.S. Air Force EC-121 aircraft (shown below) was shot down after a flyover of North Korea. The plane went down 100 miles off the North Korean coast. All crewmembers were killed. The EC-121’s mission was to gather intelligence on North Korean military installations and positions. Things at the 8th U.S. Army Headquarters communications center, better known as “where I worked,” became very scary very fast. This first thing that happened was the office in charge of the site went around to each section and announced that no one would be leaving until further notice. He also informed us that the usual guard at the entry gate had been replaced by a Korean soldier with orders to shoot to kill.
In communications, there are four general categories of communications: routine, priority, immediate, and flash. The first three could be used by almost anyone. The four was limited to high ranking officials in the Pentagon and White House. There were actually two more lesser known categories, flash override and red rocket. I do not know if the latter was a real status but it was what we called communications coming from the President. Communications equipment was, and probably still is, programmed to sort through the various levels of demand and proper prioritize messages. Anyway, on that fateful day we were suddenly deluged with flash override and red rockets. Even though I was not in the classified portion of the com center, guys would wander over to our section and tell us what was happening.
A little background. In government communications, there are two general areas which are called the red side and the black side. The black side refers to encoded communications, messages that are scrambled, while the red side refers to messages in plain print, just like on this page. I was always on the black side but the guys on the red side could read these very highly classified messages if the felt like it. I can tell you from experience, as I later in my career found myself on the red side, soldiers purposely do not read what is passing before them. It just keeps things a lot simpler. That was true on April 15th as far as I know.
Very shortly after things got hot, my battalion commander showed up in my section, the only section he had access to, and sat in a chair. I remember seeing total fear in the man’s face. Maybe it was because I was only 20 and maybe it was because I had never considered my own mortality, but I never felt a twinge of fear.
Sometime during all this we found out that our MPs had mounted a 50-caliber machine gun half way up one of our transmission towers. There was a pre-existing crow’s nest up there already for just such an eventuality. To the front and rear of our com center, the two entrances, were a squad of well-armed MPs. We were allowed out of the com center and so I did observe these things for myself. It was just that we could make it out of the door but could not fully leave the com center grounds.
What was happening that I, and everyone in the com center, did not know was that the rear infantry division had been very quickly moved from the southern portion of South Korea to positions just past the Han River, a river just north of Seoul. Also, many artillery batteries were also quickly moved northward. I learned some years later that a major portion of the Air Force’s Strike Command had left its base in Florida and was 2 hours distant from Korea when they were recalled. The guy who told me this inferred they had nuclear capability but I have no idea if that was true. According to a National Public Radio article written July 6, 2010, President Nixon was in fact considering a nuclear option.
Back in the United States, the nightly news reported that 71 servicemen had lost their lives in Vietnam. There was barely a mention of the EC-121 incident. Maybe it was because by that time the U.S. was truly a war weary nation and such news seemed almost routine. After all, as Sen. John McCain can attest to, aircraft were being shot down almost daily in Vietnam.
The entire incident, from beginning to end, lasted less than a day, but we were almost sucked into another war. President Nixon’s decision to take no action was absolutely correct. That is, unless you asked the South Koreans. My houseboy disappeared for a week. When he returned, he related that everyone one had been called to duty and they were itching for a fight. Just a month earlier, North Korean commandos had infiltrated to the south and ended up killing a South Korean police officer. At the same time, seven U.S. Army infantrymen were killed by North Korean soldiers. One of the lesser known facts about that era is that a portion of South Korea was still labeled as a war zone and soldiers received combat pay 16 years after the “cease fire” was agreed upon by the United States, North and South Korea. It was an uneasy truce to be sure.
Before 1969 ended, four more army infantrymen were killed and a North Korean hijacked a South Korean airliner. I think it unlikely any of these incidents got much press as my general impression from home was they thought everything was peaceful in Korea.
People today cannot imagine the difficulty with communications in the late 1960s. Where today we can dial a number on our cell phone and get someone on the line seconds later in Korea. In 1969 it seemed like it took an act of God to get a phone call back to the U.S. Even though I was in communications, I had no way to access phone lines connecting to the civilian populace. You had to know someone who did have such access and then make a deal with them. I think I managed half a dozen such calls, maybe fewer, but definitely not more. For the majority of GIs, of all rank, direct communications to the U.S. just did not happen during their tour of duty.
The only newspapers we had access to over there was an English version of the Korean News and the Defense Department published Stars & Stripes newspaper. If you really want to know the sort of news they allowed in that publication, watch the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” There is a very accurate depiction of what was and was not allowed.
This is probably a good place to mention a phenomenon I have felt and found other GIs feel the same who served in the late 60s and early 70s: survivor guilt. Many of us, myself included, feel that we should have been sent to Vietnam and that we somehow played it safe, or other foolishness, by serving in Korea. We are Vietnam era veterans but not Vietnam veterans. I have never been able to put my finger on exactly what its genesis is, but I have found some relief in knowing it is a shared emotion.