T-39 Aircraft Incident

-- This excerpt is from the official USMLM Unit History 1964 --

At 1401 hours on 28 January, a USAF T-39 twin-engine, jet trainer military aircraft from Wiesbaden Air Base on a local training mission inadvertently flew into the Soviet Zone of Germany. Two Soviet interceptor aircraft pursued the plane and shot it down in the vincinity of Erfurt about 1514 hours.

Location of the T-39 crash site on a map of Germany.

Chief of Mission received a warning order at 1700 hours for USMLM to stand by for possible search and rescue operation. Forty minutes later, USMLM was directed to initiate a search for the missing aircraft, and by 1800 hours the first USMLM search team, composed of Army and Air Force officers fluent in Russian and German, departed Berlin for the Erfurt area. At 1915 hours, Chief USMLM met with Acting Chief, SERB and informed him that: "Information has been received of a downed American aircraft in East Germany. A USMLM team has been dispatched to investigate and render assistance under the terms of the Huebner-Malinin Agreement. It is requested that your office give us any information and render any assistance that may be required." Acting Chief, SERB replied that he would inform higher headquarters and notify USMLM as soon as any information was available.

At 2000 hours, when the second USMLM search team was being dispatched, the first search team arrived at the vicinity of the crash site, having covered a distance of approximately 190 miles at anaverage speed of almost 100 miles per hour along icy roads. Directed to search for the crash site about 20 kilometers north of Erfurt, the first search team had proceeded to the area, where an East German civillian informed that a US plane had crashed and burned, killing all crew members. He advised the search team that the best route to the crash site was through Vogelsberg. In Vogelsberg two groups of civillians pointed in the direction of the crash site and reported that a short distance down the road was a demolished American plane with three dead aviator. About this time VOPO vehicles attempted to detain the USMLM search team.

The members of the USMLM search team left their vehicle and started on foot up the hill toward the crash site. The hill was covered with ice and VOPOs placed themselves in positions to physically prevent the members of the team proceeding any further. The team could distinguish Russian soldiers on top of the hill and could hear the clanking of metal. When a USMLM officer called out in Russian for help, several Russians scrambled down the icy hillside. A senior lieutenant stated that he was in charge and that the USMLM search team would not be permitted to view the crash site. He would give no information as to the status of the crew of the aircraft, saying only that the team could view the site the following day. Seeing that further discussion would be useless, one of the USMLM officers attempted to force his way up the hill toward the crash site. The Soviet lieutenant pushed him back, saying:"Don't even consider it; don't make me use more force", and nodded to a Soviet soldier next to him holding a submachine gun at the ready. The lieutenant then advised the USMLM search team to: "Go see the Commandant - he will give you permission to look.". As the search team returned to their vehicle and departed the area, it encountered a detail of East German soldiers errecting a Mission Restriction Sign. The road was also blocked by a VOPO on foot made threatening gestures with his submachine gun. Seeing that the team was leaving instead of entering the area, the VOPO patrol moved their vehicle so that the USMLM search team could proceed.

In Erfurt, one member of the search team telephoned the USMLM Potsdam installation and gave a full report on the events which had transpired since the team departed. Another member went to see the Soviet Commandant, who was still at his office at 2245 hours. In reply to a request that the team be permitted to proceed to the crash site, the Commandant stated that no aircraft had crashed in the Erfurt area and, furthermore, he could not permit the team to enter the area since it had been declared a Temporary Restricted Area for training purposes by Headquarters, Group of Soviet Forces. He further stated that the restriction had become effective at 1800 hours and would continue for an indefinite period. The first search team then went to the Erfurter Hof Hotel to rendezvous with the second USMLM search team of Army and Air Force officers which had departed Berlin at 2000 hours. Both teams were instructed by Chief USMLM to disregard the restrictions and attempt to reach the crash site.

At 2325 hours, Chief USMLM again visited SERB regarding the previous request for information and assistance. Only the Soviet interprter was available, and he said he would transmit the message.

On 29 January, after eluding initial surveillance and departing Erfurt in the early morning hours, one USMLM team attempted to reach the crash site from the east while another team approached from the west. The first team eluded a further surveillance attempt by driving three miles cross-country without lights to a location from which the crash site could be observed in the moonlight. During about four hours preceding dawn, 12Soviet vehicles visited the crash site and Soviet troops were continuously at work on the hilltop, apparently removing certain parts from the wreckage.

The second USMLM team was able to follow battle telephone cable to within 200 yards of the aircraft before being discovered and forced to withdraw. At daylight the team worked its way to within 75 yards of the crash site where it encountered 15 Soviet troops with unslung weapons. Since further advance could have been made only at the risk of physical violence, the USMLM lieutenant colonel in charge of the team dismounted and requested permission to inspect the crash site in the name of CINC, USAREUR. A Soviet colonel replied that no aircraft had crashed and that the immediate area was a winter training area. The Soviet colonel warned that USMLM vehicles should not be using secondary roads and trails in this area, which was restricted. After again insisting on being allowed to inspect the crash site and citing the seriousness of this situation, the USMLM team finally was forced to follow the Soviet escort to the Erfurt Kommandantura.

A thirs USMLM team, which departed Berlin shortly after midnight, managed to elude surveillance and penetrate to within 150 yards of the crash site before being halted by four Soviet soldiers carrying submachine guns. Once again the USMLM officer requested to view the aircraft crash site, but the team was escorted from the area after being accused of having penetrated a restricted Soviet training area.

About noon, in the office of the Soviet Commandant at Erfurt, the two USMLM teams being detained were accused of a violation of the TRA and were shown a map outlining the restricted area which included the crash site. The USMLM officers protested not being able to telephone their headquarters but the Soviet Commandant stated that it would be not permitted until after the investigation was complete. Repeatedly the existence of a downed USAF aircraft was denied and the USMLM officers were told it would be impossible for them to visit the site. Finally, about 1400 hours, both teams were released and proceeded to a hotel in Erfurt where they telephoned the Potsdam installation and received instructions to form one composite team to remain in Erfurt for possible employment and to send remaining personnel back to Potsdam to report on the situation.

Meanwhile, about noon on 29 January, Chief USMLM delivered to SERB a letter from General Freeman, CINC USAREUR, to General Yakubovsky, CINC GSFG. The letter contained a description of the downed aircraft, details of the incident and a request that CINC GSFG initiate an investigation as to the condition of crew and aircraft and assist USMLM under the terms of the Huebner-Malinin Agreement.

Further US efforts were stalemated until the next day when, at a meeting with SERB at noon on 30 January, Chief USMLM was informed that arrangements could be made for release to US-control of the aircraft wreckage and the bodies of three USAF officers killed in the crash. An hour and a half later a second meeting was held between Chief USMLM and Acting Chief SERB, and arrangements were made for a US convoy to proceed to the crash site. Chief USMLM departed Potsdam immediately after the meeting to go to the crash site with Acting Chief SERB. The convoy of recovery vehicles from Tempelhof Air Base and the USMLM ambulance departed Berlin about dusk.

Chief USMLM arrived at the crash scene shrotly after dark and inspected the aircraft wreckage and the charred bodies of the crew. Although some electronic equipment appeared to be missing, the major portion of the burned wreckage was there. The Soviet attitude was now most cooperative. SERB prepared a statement concerning identification and evacuation which was signed by Chief USMLM and Acting Chief SERB.

On 31 January the evacuation convoy arrived about 0200 hours and the ambulance was loaded with the remains of the crew members. At dawn, Chief USMLM and the ambulance departed the crash site. Upon arrival at Berlin, the USMLM ambulance proceeded to Tempelhof Air Base where the bodies of the officers were transferred to a USAFE C-130 aircraft which took them to Wiesbaden for funeral services.

The remainder of the evacuation convoy personnel started work immediately upon arrival but made little progress in the dark on the ice and snow-covered hill. The next day the wreckage of the T-39 aircraft was loaded into trucks with the assistance of the Soviet troops. The Soviets were completely cooperative, even to the extent of pointing out to the recovery party where scattered fragments could be found at some distance from the crash site. About 2100 hours the recovery convoy departed the crash site for Berlin. The wreckage of the T-39 reached Berlin about 0900 hours on 1 February, and shortly thereafter USMLM teams returned to the general area of the crash and interrogated German nationals in the area concerning the incident. It was thus learned that the t-39 aircraft was shot down by two Soviet Air Force interceptorfighters.

The Chief of Staff, GSFG sent a message to Chief of Staff, USAREUR commending USMLM for the manner in which the inspection and evacuation was accomplished.