The Depot

America's Cold War Missing in Action

On 15 April 1969, a U.S. Navy EC-121M Warning Star, call sign Deep Sea 129, took off from Naval Air Station Atsugi, Japan, on an intelligence-gathering reconnaissance mission code named Beggar Shadow. The code name was used to describe the Cold War reconnaissance program of the U.S. Navy that collected intelligence and monitored communications between Soviet Bloc nations.

There were 31 sailors and one Marine aboard the aircraft. Nine of the aircrew were with the Naval Security Group and worked as cryptologic technicians, Russian linguists and Korean linguists. Warning Stars were equipped with a fuselage radar enabling crews to conduct long range patrols where they conducted electronic surveillance and helped detect hostile intentions. They collected signal intelligence.

The flight path of the Deep Sea 129 was to take it over the Sea of Japan and when it reached a particular point off the coast of North Korea, the aircraft would turn northeast and then fly over an area more than 100 miles long, flying in an oval pattern and then returning to Osan Air Base in South Korea. It was a minimal risk mission and the plane planned to fly, as usual, in international airspace over international waters. Similar flights had occurred for two years and nearly 200 missions had been flown that year.

Several hours after the mission started, North Korea scrambled jets, two MiG-21s. At 1300 hours, Deep Sea 129 filed a routine status report via radio and did not report anything out of the ordinary. Sensing that the MiGs were enroute to intercept Deep Sea 129, Deep Sea 129 was messaged and the aircraft commander aborted the mission and began to return to base. At 1347 hours, the MiGs’ radar track was co-located with that of Deep Sea 129 and minutes later, Deep Sea 129 disappeared from the radar.

North Korean media stated that the aircraft was downed by a single shot. U.S. officials interpreted that to mean it was shot down by an air-to-air missile. Eight officers and 23 enlisted men, 31 personnel, were killed in what is still considered the largest single loss of a U.S. aircrew during the Cold War.

These 31 men are just a fraction of the personnel listed by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) as missing in action from the Cold War. DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation. Their job is to actively search for those who are missing from World War II to the present.

Today, 126 service members from 14 missions remain unaccounted for from the Cold War. There are about 82,000 personnel still missing from every major conflict since World War II, of that, more than 41,000 of the missing are presumed lost at sea. Some estimates show that at least 4,400 are missing from World War I.

In 2019, DPAA found 217 missing personnel and brought them home. This year, DPAA has found 50 WWII MIA personnel, 20 Korean War MIA personnel and one person missing in Vietnam.

Thousands of service members risked their lives while collecting intelligence on the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea during the Cold War. However, since their sacrifices were made away from traditional battlefields, they are often overlooked by history. Cold War incidents took place near North Korea, the East China Sea, the Straits of Formosa, the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and over or near the Soviet Union.

On Jan. 18, 1953, a P2V-5 Neptune with 13 crew members took off from Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, on a shipping surveillance mission in the China Sea. While flying along the Chinese coast, the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The damaged aircraft was forced to make an emergency water landing in the Taiwan Strait.

All 13 crew members escaped the Neptune before it sank, and the most seriously wounded were placed onto a raft. While awaiting rescue, two crew members were washed toward shore and never seen again. A U.S. Coast Guard PBM5-G aircraft arrived from the Philippines, made a water landing and rescued eleven from the water. Due to rough seas, the PBM could not takeoff and it crashed into the water. Eventually, the USS Halsey Powell arrived and rescued three of the Coast Guardsmen and seven of the Neptune's crew. The remaining six members of the Neptune's crew were never found.

According to DPAA, these are the Cold War missions with missing personnel, listed in chronological order. Sadly, they are considered non-recoverable and they are listed as unaccounted for.  

  • April 8, 1950, a U.S. Navy PB4Y2 Privateer aircraft flying out of Wiesbaden, Germany, was shot down by Soviet fighters over the Baltic Sea. The entire crew of 10 remains unaccounted for.
  • 6, 1951, a U.S. Navy P2V Neptune aircraft was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The entire crew of 10 remains unaccounted for.
  • June 13, 1952, a U.S. Air Force RB-29 aircraft was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The entire crew of 12 remains unaccounted for.
  • Oct. 7, 1952, a U.S. Air Force RB-29 aircraft was shot down north of Hokkaido Island, Japan. Of the eight crewmen on board, seven remain unaccounted for.
  • Nov. 28, 1952, a civilian C-47 aircraft flying over China was shot down, and one American civilian remains unaccounted for.
  • Jan. 18, 1953, a U.S. Navy P2V aircraft with 13 crewmen aboard was shot down by the Chinese, in the Formosa Straits. Six crew members remain unaccounted for.
  • July 29, 1953, a U.S. Air Force RB-50 aircraft was shot down over the Sea of Japan. Of the 17 crew members on board, 14 remain unaccounted for.
  • May 6, 1954, a C-119 aircraft flying over Northern Vietnam was shot down. One of the two Americans onboard remains unaccounted for.
  • April 17, 1955, a U.S. Air Force RB-47 aircraft was shot down near the southern point of Kamchatka, Russia. The entire crew of three remains unaccounted for.
  • Aug. 22, 1956, a U.S. Navy P4M aircraft was shot down off the coast of China. Of the 16 crew members on board, 12 remain unaccounted for.
  • Sept. 10, 1956, a U.S. Air Force RB-50 aircraft with a crew of 16, was lost in Typhoon Emma over the Sea of Japan. The entire crew remains unaccounted for.
  • July 1, 1960, a U.S. Air Force RB-47 aircraft was shot down over the Barents Sea. Of the six crew members on board, three remain unaccounted for.
  • Dec. 14, 1965, a U.S. Air Force RB-57 aircraft was lost over the Black Sea. The entire crew of two remains unaccounted for.
  • April 15, 1969, a U.S. Navy EC-121 aircraft was shot down by North Korean fighters. Of the 31 men on board, 29 remain unaccounted for.

If you have a family member who is missing in action, please visit the DPAA FamWeb for more information.