When an off-course U-2 spy plane out of Alaska nearly triggered war
“I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” U.S. Army Gen. Billy Mitchell, 1935
Five days after President John F. Kennedy stunned America into fearing that nuclear war was closer than ever because of Soviet missiles in Cuba, a U-2 spy plane quietly lifted off from an obscure airfield outside Fairbanks. It was dark and well below freezing at Eielson Air Force Base just after midnight on Oct. 27, 1962. More than 4,100 miles away in Washington, D.C., the atmosphere could not have been more heated. At the height of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, American surveillance planes detected medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off Florida’s coast. The 67-foot-long missiles could turn the Eastern Seaboard into smoking rubble in just 13 minutes.
On Oct. 22, Kennedy reported the chilling discovery in a dramatic Oval Office address to the nation. He demanded that the country Americans feared most the Soviet Union remove the missiles, and he imposed a quarantine on ships destined for the communist-led Caribbean island in hopes of preventing their launch. For veteran Air Force Capt. Charles Maultsby, his flight that night in far-away Alaska was routine. The Soviet Union had been conducting nuclear tests at Novaya Zemlya, an island off Siberia about 1,000 miles south of the North Pole. As part of “Project Star Dust,” Maultsby’s mission was to fly his spy plane, nicknamed “Dragon Lady,” to the pole and collect air samples on special filter paper to detect radioactivity. Most missions came back clean. Of 42 already flown that month from Eielson, only six found radioactive material. The elite flyer, a combination pilot and astronaut, preferred more action.
Before this assignment, Maultsby had flown aerial acrobatics with the Air Force’s famed Thunderbirds. After being shot down over North Korea during the Korean War, he had survived 600 days as a prisoner of war. As the nation steeled itself for war, the thin-mustached captain settled into the one-man cockpit for what he knew would be an eight-hour flight. He had prepared himself for the coming 70,000-foot altitude by inhaling pure oxygen for several hours to rid his body of as much nitrogen as possible to guard against the bends. At just 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds, Maultsby was a perfect fit in the cramped cockpit. To build an aircraft capable of flying 14 miles high, U-2 designers eliminated weight wherever possible, starting with the fuselage. Most of the plane was wing surface, 80 feet from tip to tip. As Maultsby’s U-2 neared the North Pole, he knew his compass would become useless, the needle automatically pointing downward toward the Earth’s magnetic field. So he reverted to standard operating procedure: the celestial navigation method of 15th-century explorers, reading the stars. But in the late fall at that latitude, the sky was filled with dancing bright lights the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Maultsby was prepared with a stack of celestial charts, but each time he tried to fix on a guiding star such as Vega or Polaris, the northern star, the shimmering aurora made it difficult to tell one from another.
After collecting samples over what he thought was the pole, Maultsby executed the standard maneuver for reversing course: turn left for 90 degrees and then reverse the turn for 270 degrees. He headed back for what he assumed was home base. The regular practice for returning U-2 pilots was to rendezvous with a United States air-rescue plane near Barter Island off Alaska’s northern coast. The intercept aircraft, dubbed “Duck Butt,” had promised to “leave a light on in the window.”
Maultsby could see nothing but darkness from horizon to horizon. Concerned with the whereabouts of the U-2, the Duck Butt pilot radioed that he would fire flares every five minutes for Maultsby to follow. Nothing but black sky for the captain as radio transmissions from Alaska grew weaker. Finally, Maultsby picked up the faint signal of a local radio station: balalaika music and chatter in Russian. The captain was dangerously miles off course.
When Maultsby entered Soviet air space west of Wrangell Island off the Chukchi Sea, Soviet MiG fighters scrambled from two air bases in the Chukotka region, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Their orders: Intercept and shoot down the intruder. Maultsby yelled, “Mayday, mayday,” over his emergency channel as he maneuvered his plane eastward.
Captain Maultsby s U-2 plane, serial number 56-715 (NSA)
By radar from nearly 1,000 miles away at a Galena Air Station west of Fairbanks, interceptors tracked Maultsby’s location. Because of the Cuban missile crisis, F-102 Delta Dagger intercept jets stationed there had been upgraded earlier in the week. When the squadron was elevated to DEFCON 3, their conventional weapons had been replaced with nuclear-tipped Falcon air-to-air missiles. Just one of the nuclear warheads could destroy everything within a half-mile radius. Using such weapons certainly would invite reciprocation from the Soviets. Two of the nuclear-equipped F-102s with distinctive red tails received immediate orders: Intercept the Soviet MiGs and escort Maultsby home. In the nation’s capital, meanwhile, America’s top leaders monitored the Cuban missile crisis around the clock. Shortly before 2 p.m. that Saturday, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was conferring with the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he was passed a message: A U-2 spy plane was lost off Alaska. It had taken the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, 90 minutes to report the missing plane to Washington. With Soviet and American armed forces on the highest alert across the globe, now this.
President Kennedy informed
The president had just finished a swim in the White House pool to relax his back and was headed to the residence for a quick lunch when his defense secretary called with the troubling news. Conferring with his national security aides, President Kennedy broke their tension over the missing U-2 when he laughed, “There’s always some sonofab – who doesn’t get the word.” McNamara canceled air-sampling missions worldwide, calling back another sampling plane already in the air.
During a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council regarding Cuba, President John F. Kennedy spoke with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara in the West Wing Colonnade outside the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, Oct. 29, 1962. (Cecil Stoughton / National Archives via The New York Times)
As the Soviet MiGs screamed toward him, Maultsby maintained his altitude. Their supersonic engines made the fighters much quicker than the U-2, but they could only climb to about 60,000 feet, leaving them 10,000 feet short of their target. Maultsby thought of fellow U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who two years earlier was shot down over Siberia, harshly interrogated and imprisoned for 21 months before being released in a prisoner exchange. The Powers incident had been a huge black eye for the United States and a domestic public-relations coup for Nikita Khrushchev. The implications of the downing of another American spy plane at the height of the Cuban missile crisis was unthinkable.
Already airborne for more than nine hours, Maultsby soon faced another complication: running out of fuel. With a light airframe and long wings, U-2s were capable of gliding on wind currents for up to 200 miles without power. To save his remaining 12 minutes of fuel for an emergency, Maultsby reluctantly switched off the plane’s single engine and battery power, isolating himself 14 miles above the Soviet mainland without radio contact. Still hundreds of miles inside the Soviet Union, Maultsby glided silently across the black sky. Below him, the MiGs tracked the U-2 for about 300 miles before being forced to peel off in search of fuel. They were replaced by MiGs from Chukotka’s capital city of Anadyr, which followed him across the Chukotka Peninsula. The Strategic Air Command operations center 3,500 miles away in Nebraska tracked the cat-and-mouse intercepts. Finally, a glow of dawn on the horizon reassured Maultsby he was headed the right way, east to Alaska. Maultsby continued to glide east as he slowly descended to 25,000 feet. Suddenly, two fighter jets with red tails appeared off his wings. Maultsby switched his radio back on to hear an American voice: “Welcome home.”
At the recommendation of the F-102 pilots, Maultsby backtracked about 20 miles to the closest landing spot, a snow-covered airstrip near Kotzebue on Alaska’s northwest coast. Coming in too quickly for the short strip, Maultsby killed his engine, lowered his flaps and deployed a parachute out the rear of the plane to slow his speed. The U-2 skidded along the icy runway and burrowed into deep snow.
Once the plane came to a stop, Maultsby remained transfixed in the cockpit, his legs numb, unable to climb out. What he later described as a “bearded giant” in a government-issue parka lifted the captain out by his armpits and set him down in the snow. The first order of business: He shuffled to a snowbank to relieve himself. Maultsby’s 10-hour-25-minute flight was the longest ever recorded for a U-2. The following day, after a 13-day standoff in which the world came closer than ever to nuclear annihilation, Soviet leader Khrushchev agreed to dismantle Soviet missiles in Cuba. In a message to President Kennedy, Khrushchev noted that the Alaska U-2 flight easily could have been mistaken “for a nuclear bomber, which might push us to a fateful step.”
U.S. Air Force Capt. Charles Maultsby (NSA)
Cold War across Bering Strait
Two decades before Capt. Maultsby’s harrowing flight over the Soviet Union, U.S.-Soviet relations had plummeted to another low. The ink was barely dry on the pre-World War II diplomatic exchange allowing regulated visits by American and Soviet Natives across the Bering Strait when U.S. paranoia grew over Soviet intentions in the region. In 1940, Anthony Dimond, Alaska’s territorial delegate to Congress, alarmed his constituents when he announced that the Soviet Union was settling “thousands of Russians, supposedly colonists” on Soviet Big Diomede Island, just 2 1/2 miles from Alaska’s Little Diomede. The settlers were reported to be of the “younger generation” who were “carried away with the idea that they are to be the glorious conquerors of the world and they must sow the seeds of revolution.”
Their first mission: “Get their hands on Alaska, which so idiotically was sold to capitalist America by the Czarist government.” Within a few months, the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Perseus confirmed Soviet construction of an airplane hangar on Big Diomede. Alaska Natives also reported observing Soviet submarines berthed around Big Diomede’s shoreline.
Americans saw the moves as part of broader Soviet muscle flexing in the region. “Simultaneously a string of nearly a dozen ‘Soviet bases of culture,’ which include army and navy contingents, have been established in this region, fortresses have been built, coast defense guns have been mounted, submarine bases are being built, airfields have been completed, and all foreigners are rigorously excluded from the whole area,” reported The New York Times. The newspaper’s sources said the Soviets recently had deemed the Commander Islands (where Bering died 200 years earlier) restricted to Soviet military personnel, “although German naval officers continue to visit there with great frequency, which deepens the suspicion that a German submarine base is being prepared there.”
Aircraft through Alaska, Siberia
Just a year later, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union dramatically altered attitudes across the strait as suspicion gave way to international cooperation. Within weeks of the German aggression, President Roosevelt pledged all possible help to the Soviet people. He dispatched veteran Soviet observer and businessman Averell Harriman to Moscow to devise an American-British assistance program for the Soviets.
Soviet leader Joseph Stalin unconditionally rejected Harriman’s idea to deliver U.S. aircraft flown by American crews through Alaska to Siberia. He reportedly was nervous about provoking Japan. As the war raged, Stalin dispatched his key foreign-affairs adviser, Vyacheslav Molotov, to Washington to hammer out a deal for additional American aid. Arriving in such a hostile country for the first time, Molotov packed sausages, Russian black bread and a pistol for survival. The Soviets continued to resist the Alaska-Siberia route for warplanes, fearing the weather, unprepared Siberian cities, and an unwanted American presence in the Far East. However, with Soviet losses mounting, in June 1942 Stalin finally agreed to a Lend-Lease plan. Two months later, the first Soviet envoys arrived in Nome to implement the scheme. The proposal called for flying aircraft from Great Falls, Montana, through the Canadian cities of Edmonton, Alberta, and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Alaska airfields in Fairbanks and Galena. A major new airfield was constructed in Nome, the last stopping point before Siberia. U.S. pilots flew the planes to Alaska then handed them off to Soviet pilots. The Soviet airmen were specially selected for their loyalty to the motherland and were housed in separate quarters from the Americans. Most of the Russian interpreters were uniformed Soviet women required to pass security clearances.
Cold weather, poor maintenance, aircraft overload and liquor consumption by the Soviet pilots took a modest toll on the operation. Of the 7,983 planes delivered to the Soviets between September 1942 and September 1945 on the Alaska route, 1.6 percent or nearly 130 planes were lost to weather or pilot error. Though deemed helpful to the Allied war victory, Lend-Lease was subject to conspiracy theories. Rumors abounded of uranium, gold bars and American banknotes being smuggled to the Soviet Union in U.S. aircraft. After the war, the Soviets minimized the program’s importance to the war effort, arguing that American aid represented only 4 percent of overall Soviet production during the war. Later, some Westerners received Soviet recognition for their contributions to the war effort but Lend-Lease participants did not. A generation after the war, Soviet leader Khrushchev charged that “American monopolists made billions of dollars on war deliveries” and “fattened themselves on the blood of the people lost during two world wars.”
Six months after the war’s end, in March 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill joined President Harry Truman in Truman’s home state of Missouri to receive an honorary college degree. Churchill used the occasion to deliver what became known as the “Iron Curtain speech,” which ominously altered the way the West viewed the Soviet Union. The speech was broadly considered to be the onset of the Cold War, which triggered a massive military buildup to block Soviet aggression around the world, including the Bering Strait region.
Sir Winston Churchill in 1942 (U.S. Library of Congress)
A few months after Churchill’s speech, an incident soured relations between Alaska and the Soviet Far East. In July 1946, 26 Little Diomede Natives sailed their walrus-hide boats to Big Diomede for a friendly visit. Landing on the island’s north shore, they were met by uniformed Soviet soldiers, including both Russian and Native troops. At gunpoint, the Alaskans were herded to tents on a rocky plateau and held for 52 days. They were interrogated about U.S. military activities and fed saltwater soup once a day. One Alaskan died in captivity.
After their release, Alaska Natives were reluctant to venture across the dateline, even to follow pods of whales or walrus. The Soviets soon exiled their country’s Natives from Big Diomede to the Soviet mainland, further distancing them from their Alaska relatives. In their place, a border guard surveillance post was established on the island to monitor incursions across the strait. Those incidents and increased Cold War tension elsewhere prompted an internal debate within the U.S. government. On March 22, 1948, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issued a memo concluding that U.S. national-security concerns should outweigh the interests of local Alaska Natives. This cast a dark shadow on the 10-year-old agreement with the Soviets that had permitted relatively free exchange of Alaska and Soviet Natives. On May 29, 1948, the Soviet government concurred with Hoover, pronouncing the original 1938 agreement “invalid.”
J. Edgar Hoover, who died in office after overseeing the FBI for 48 years, in New York, Nov. 14, 1968. In its 109-year history, only one FBI director has been fired until Tuesday, May 9, 2017, when President Donald Trump fired James Comey. (Neal Boenzi / The New York Times)
A Cold War Ice Curtain across the Bering Strait indefinitely sealed the border between the U.S. and USSR, banning all contact. Alaska’s economy had benefited enormously from World War II, and the Cold War kept federal dollars flowing. Fearful of invasions by both Germany and Japan, the federal government spent millions of dollars in the territory to construct numerous military bases and build the Alaska Highway, the only surface link with the Lower 48. Thanks to the influx of wartime military personnel, Alaska’s population jumped.
In 1940, only about 75,000 Alaskans lived in the territory; that increased to nearly 140,000 in just 10 years, with 18 percent of the population associated with the military. After the war, Alaska was spared an economic depression by a new military buildup for the Cold War. Alaska’s geographic location became a strategic asset against the feared “Red Menace.” Developing weapons technologies made the continental United States vulnerable to air attack, so Alaska was a perfect location for early-warning radar systems and front-line troops. The territory was close enough to the USSR to monitor seismic anomalies from nuclear tests. Alaska contained 10 of 16 minerals crucial to Cold War industrial development. And Alaska was America’s best place where troops could train for ground and air combat in cold-weather conditions similar to those in the Soviet Union. Compared to prewar expenditures of less than $1 million a year, military spending in the territory peaked at $513 million in 1953. Cold War paranoia ran so deep in Alaska that the FBI embarked on a top-secret mission to recruit and train average Alaskans fishermen, trappers, bush pilots and other private citizens to fight covertly against a feared Soviet invasion of its former fur colony. Dubbed by code names such as “Washtub” and “Corpuscle,” the operation had two phases, according to newly released classified documents. The first called for Alaska citizen-agents to be trained to hide in key locations during a Soviet takeover. They would find survival caches of food, cold-weather gear and radios with guidance on how to send coded messages about Soviet troop movements.
The second phase, coordinated with the CIA, was an “evasion and escape” plan where civilian operatives could help rescue and evacuate downed U.S. military air crews in danger of Soviet capture. Retainers of up to $3,000 were budgeted for civilian agents. The operation continued between 1951 and 1959. Documents show that FBI director Hoover soon got cold feet, handing Washtub off to the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations. The director feared that once shooting started, the FBI would be “left holding the bag.”
Valued Eskimo Scouts
With the limited success of Operation Washtub, Alaska’s more effective eyes and ears trained on the Soviet Union were those of the Alaska Territorial Guard, also known as the Eskimo Scouts. Formed in 1942 in response to the Japanese invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, many of the citizen-soldiers were Alaska Natives from coastal communities who served without compensation. After the war, the territorial guard was transferred into the “organized” Alaska Army National Guard, with armories constructed to recruit and train local Natives. Some Alaskans considered the guard a luxury that Alaska could not afford, arguing that it was unlikely that a territorial national guard would be able to forestall a Russian attack. By the time communist aggression began in Korea in 1950, Alaska Army National Guard units had been established in about 50 communities between Ketchikan and Barrow with nearly 1,300 officers and enlisted soldiers. The growth of the Alaska Air National Guard had the added benefit of helping overcome prejudice against Alaska Natives with President Truman’s 1948 military desegregation order.
By the 1950s, one of the primary roles of Alaska’s military was tracking and intercepting Soviet aircraft flying along and across the international date line. A Distant Early Warning Line, or DEW Line, radar system constructed along the northern and western coasts of Alaska and Canada helped monitor Soviet flights. The first documented interaction involving shots fired came in March 1953. Making what officials described as a weather-reconnaissance flight about 100 miles east of a Soviet military base on the Kamchatka Peninsula, a U.S. plane returned fire after being shot at by Soviet MiGs.
Not all U.S.-Soviet aerial interactions were belligerent. The first Soviet aircraft reported on Alaska soil since World War II was an Antonov An-24 turboprop checking Bering Strait ice conditions in winter 1974. It was quickly intercepted by two Alaska-based F-4 fighter jets. Facing severe headwinds and fog, the An-24 had run low on fuel and landed at Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. An Air Force C-130 flew in fuel from Elmendorf Air Force Base near Anchorage to help the Soviet plane get home.
Excerpted from the book “Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier” by David Ramseur and published by University of Alaska Press. Ramseur is a former Alaska newspaper reporter and political aide to Alaska Govs. Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles as well as U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.