C-130 60528 debris (tail stabilizer) at crash site, September 3, 1958 (from Soviet Air Defense Archives)

60th Anniversary of Shoot-Down of USAF Aircraft over Armenia

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By Larry Tart

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

SASNASHEN, Armenia – Few Armenian Americans are aware that 17 United States Air Force airmen perished in a crash in Armenia on September 2, 1958, yet this major international incident was the most publicized confrontation between Soviet and U.S. military aircrews during the Cold War. The tragedy occurred when four Soviet air force MiG-17 pilots attacked and shot down an unarmed US reconnaissance aircraft after its crew inadvertently flew into Soviet Armenian airspace.

Headstone, C-130 60528 Crew, Arlington Cemetery, VA (intermingled remains excavated from crash site in 1993 interred on 40th anniversary of shoot-down — September 2, 1998)

Soviet air defense headquarters informed the Communist Party Central Committee the same afternoon that the state border had been violated near Leninakan [present-day Gyumri]: “A ‘scrambled’ fighter pilot, Senior Lieutenant Lopatkov, intercepted the violator at 15:10 and shot it down at 15:12. The burning aircraft fell on our territory in the vicinity of Mastara, 20 kilometers southeast of Leninakan.

“According to gun camera film, the aircraft had USAF markings and tail number 60528. It is an American military transport aircraft of the type C-130 ‘Hercules’ with four turboprop engines. The violator aircraft was hit and went down in a region 55 kilometers northwest of Yerevan.”

MiG-17 pilot’s gun camera photo of C-130 # 60528 during shoot-down
of the unarmed aircraft over Armenia, September 2, 1958 (from Soviet Air Defense Archives)
MiG-17 pilot’s gun camera photo of C-130 # 60528 during shoot-down
of the unarmed aircraft over Armenia, September 2, 1958 (alternate color-enhanced version)

No Survivors

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Ground and air observations indicated that the crew did not parachute from the aircraft. No one survived, and a medical examiner in the field said the charred remains were those of six human corpses. Flying simulated air searches over Turkey for their missing plane, the USAF lulled the Soviets into believing the Americans did not know where or why their C-130 had crashed.

“According to radio intercept, the Americans are conducting a search for a downed aircraft type C-130, tail number 60528 that had taken off from Adana airfield.”

Post-shoot-down Diplomacy

Following 96 hours of diplomatic silence, on September 6, 1958 the American Embassy in Moscow delivered a note to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking information on an unarmed USAF C-130 with a crew of 17 that went missing on a roundtrip from Adana, Turkey, to Trabzon and Van — for the Soviets, this was the first indication that 17 crew members, not 6, had been aboard the C-130.

On Friday, September 12, the foreign ministry informed the American Embassy that the remnants of a burned airplane had been found 55 KM northwest of Yerevan and that judging by discovered remains, “it may be assumed that six members of the crew perished.”

The same day, an American spokesman requested a further search for 11 missing-in-action crew members (MIAs). He also sought permission for a US embassy official to visit the crash site and asked that arrangements be made to transfer the 6 corpses to American authorities.

Topics: Cold War

In a press release later Friday night, the US State Department stated that the Soviets had notified the United States that an American Air Force C-130 transport plane had crashed in Soviet Armenia, killing 6 of a 17-man crew.

Without accusing the Soviets of shooting down the C-130, the press release announced that Soviet fighter planes intercepted the plane “in a Turkish-Soviet border area near Kars, a point some 35 miles inside Turkey” — the first public statement that Soviet fighters had intercepted the American plane. Offering no explanation for the crash and making no mention of the 11 MIAs, the Soviets merely said the aircraft had “fallen” in their territory.

Unaware that a clandestine site had intercepted communications from the MiG pilots during their attacks on the American plane, the Soviet government believed incorrectly that the U.S. government had no knowledge of Soviet complicity in the tragedy.

Mentioning interception of the C-130 near Kars, Turkey, incensed the Soviets, while lack of information from the Foreign Ministry on the 11 MIAs contributed to further erosion of Soviet-American relations. The Committee for State Security (KGB) transferred the 6 corpses to the US Air Force on September 24, 1958, but the fate of the 11 MIAs remained a mystery.

In November, the State Department discretely sent to the Kremlin a transcript in Russian of a recording of the MiG pilots’ conversations as they attacked the C-130 — Soviet leadership declared the recording a fakery, but the Eisenhower Administration held out hope that Deputy Premier Anastas I. Mikoyan’s planned fence-mending trip to Washington in 1959 might unlock news on the fate of the 11 MIAs.

In January 1959, Mr. Mikoyan outright lied to Vice President Nixon and US senators who wined and dined him in Washington — stating time and again that Soviet pilots did not shoot down the American plane. Waiting two weeks after Mikoyan returned before abandoning hope of a reply, on February 5 the US State Department issued a press release with copies of a recording and a transcript documenting how Soviet pilots shot down the C-130. Release of the recording had an immediate impact around the world — front-page coverage in major US and Western newspapers. The Washington Post captured much of world opinion in a February 6 headline “Intercepted Conversation Throws Doubts on Value of Any Statements by Reds.”

With four of the six sets of remains identified, interment of the two unidentified corpses in Arlington Cemetery on February 6 captured national headlines. Members of the thirteen families who had received no word of their loved ones wept at the memorial services. All of the families would wait another 38 years for answers.

Implosion of Soviet Union and Renewed Interest in the MIAs

With the implosion of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991, Russia (the Russian Federation) became the successor state to the Soviet Union, and Armenia regained independence as the Republic of Armenia — the Cold War was over. Tensions between Russia and the USA eased for a decade, and under the United States – Russian Joint Commission on POW/MIAs created in 1992, renewed efforts ensued to determine the fate of Cold War POWs and MIAs, including MIAs associated with the crash by Sasnashen Village in 1958.

Renewed Investigations into C-130 Incident

The Joint Commission on POW/MIAs resulted in a restart of investigations into the C-130 60528 incident that had lain essentially dormant since 1959. Commencing in 1993, a joint commission team found a treasure trove of related materials in Soviet Air Defense archives, including gun-camera film and target score cards for each of the four pilots involved in the shoot-down of 60528, accumulated field reports addressing the incident, and minutes of Communist Party Central Committee meetings dealing with the event. Concurrently, Sasnashen village elders openly discussed the tragedy that had occurred 35 years earlier, and the joint commission team published a story in the local newspaper asking eyewitnesses to the shoot-down to come forward for an interview – six eyewitnesses responded, and all provided similar recollections of Soviet jets firing on the American plane. Their stories contradicted the official Soviet version of  the attacks.

Martin Kakosian — Artist/Sculptor

Eyewitness Martin Kakosian, a college student on a field trip in 1958 and a skilled sculptor by 1993, collaborated with the villagers to create a memorial — a khachkar— honoring an unknown American crew that had died unceremoniously at the edge of their village. In late August 1993, Sasnashen village commemorated the 35th anniversary of the shoot-down during the unveiling the khachkar.

Belated Recognition in America

The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 began to crumble the robust Cold War security wall such that American security is now akin to a sheer security curtain that allows open discussion of many issues that were previously concealed from the public in secure vaults. In 1993, the National Security Agency established the National Cryptologic Museum (NCM) with displays of materials that a decade earlier had been classified Top Secret/Codeword, but were now available for public viewing.

During a visit to the NCM in 1995, I [Larry Tart] was struck with a light-bulb moment, “With a softball-sized fragment of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane that a Soviet missile shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 on public display in the museum, why not create a display addressing the shoot-down of C-130 60528 over Armenia in 1958?”  (A former Soviet army general had given the U-2 fragment to the museum curator during a visit to the NCM in 1994.)

I submitted a suggestion for a C-130 60528 display to the NSA historian, and he responded promptly with a letter stating that NSA was not interested in “a display addressing the C-130 incident at this time.” Not easily dissuaded, I created a small briefing package that surreptitiously found its way into the in-basket of the Director, National Security Agency (DIRNSA), Lt. General Kenneth A. Minihan. At his next DIRNSA staff meeting (November 1996), General Minihan announced that he wanted to create a memorial honoring a C-130 crew that had been shot down over Armenia in 1958. The entire staff, including NSA Historian Dr. David Hatch, who had disapproved my suggestion, nodded in agreement with their boss, and the museum curator spoke up, saying, “Yes, Sir,” “We will create a nice display dedicated to that C-130 crew.” Gen. Minihan interrupted, “Perhaps my interest in a memorial has been misinterpreted; I want a full-size C-130 aircraft set up in one of our parking lots, and we’d like to dedicate the C-130 memorial on the next anniversary of the shoot-down (September 2, 1997) – the countdown began to memorialize the C-130 60628 tragedy.

Locating Martin Kakosian

Researching associated events, I tracked down Martin Kakosian in February 1997 – he and wife Maksena had recently immigrated to Queens, NY, sponsored by daughter Irena (a gynecologist) and son Karen (a dentist), both of whom had moved to America years earlier. Martin Kakosian volunteered to serve as interpreter/tour guide for an Air Force-sponsored research team that was planning a visit to the crash site.

Martin and Maksena Kakosian, daughter Irene and son Karen, Queens, NY, February 21, 1997

Visit to Crash Site

In July 1997, Martin Kakosian served as tour guide-interpreter for a research team that I accompanied to the crash site — learning that I was paying my own travel expenses, Mr. Kakosian hosted me gratis in the Kakosian condo in Yerevan. During a visit to the crash site on July 12, 1997, we observed that the khachkar memorial had toppled off its base and broken. With tears in his eyes, Martin Kakosian vowed to create a new memorial to the C-130 crew. With financial assistance from a non-profit USAF-affiliated association, Mr. Kakosian kept his promise by sculpting a modern monument dedicated to the 17 crew members in 1998.

A primary objective of the team visit was to locate and return to the United States debris from the crashed C-130.

Broken khachkar at crash site, Nerkin Sasnashen Village, Armenia, July 1997
Research Team — Horace Haire, Larry Tart, Michael Patterson, and Paul Martin by broken khachkar at crash site, Sasnashen, Armenia, July 12, 1997
Larry Tart holding C-130 60528 debris – second piece of debris is shoring up mesh fence, Sasnashen Village, Armenia, July 12, 1997
Villagers in farewell photograph with their American guests, Sasnashen Village, Armenia, July 14, 1997
Schoolteacher Artashes Khachatryan and his mother, Lower Sashnashen, Armenia, July 12, 1997
Team leader Paul Martin (Maj. Gen., USAF, Retired), village mayor Ghukas Hakobyan and teacher Artashes Khachatryan bidding farewell, Sasnashen, Armenia, July 14, 1997

Dedication of C-130 60528 Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial

On September 2, 1997, while dedicating the newly created Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial — a restored C-130 in the paint scheme of the one shot down over Armenia — Lt. General Kenneth A. Minihan, Director, National Security Agency, apologized to family members for withholding sensitive national security information during the Cold War and announced that C-130 60528’s 17 crew members had been on a top secret reconnaissance mission.

Dedication of C-130 60528 Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial, Fort Meade, Maryland, September 2, 1997
Joint Service Honor Guard at Memorial Dedication, Fort Meade, Maryland, September 2, 1997

60th Anniversary Memorial Service Honoring C-130 60528’s Last Crew, September 2, 2018

Many of the 100 Prop Wash Gang members, who attended the memorial dedication ceremony at Ft. Meade in 1997 lost their best friends / flying comrades in the tragic shoot-down. With time having taken its toll, on September 2, 2018, a smaller PWG group will host a 60th Anniversary Memorial Service honoring their 17 lost C-130 60528 brothers in Bellevue, Nebraska.

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