September 2008 marked the somber twenty fifth anniversary of the shoot down of the civilian Korean Airlines Flight 007 by Soviet interceptors.
This horrific act took place in the early morning hours of September 1, 1983. The shoot down resulted in the tragic loss of 273 passengers and flight crew and led to an international crisis, both on the diplomatic front and on the high seas where the US, in a cooperative effort with its regional allies Japan and South Korea, rushed assets to an area in the northern Sea of Japan where the airliner was believed have gone down. This was an area in international waters that extended just outside the 12 mile territorial limit of the USSR – north of Monoron
Island to the west of Sakhalin.
The Soviets also immediately moved ships and aircraft into that area, as well as into sectors within their own territorial waters where the allied vessels were not allowed to search. Against the backdrop of the cold War, the allied and Soviet search efforts were working at cross purposes. These operations had all the makings of a tense showdown situation between the Superpowers with potential for disastrous consequences.
One of those assets ordered to the area was the US Seventh Fleet’s USS Sterett (CG-31). Arriving on station September 14th, it became Flagship of the US Search and Rescue/Salvage Task Force 71. Many Sterett association shipmates who served aboard CG-31 at this time will recall the days of this deployment as very demanding ones – a balancing act which required taking many factors into account and where rigorous adherence to procedures was paramount. It’s now evident the crew’s training paid off. They were able to keep their wits in a very fluid situation, that came with several surprises and close calls.
If you want to read up on the “big picture” and details the overall KAL 007 incident, there are numerous sources of information available, including books and other media and on-line. Many of the earlier controversies have been cleared up following the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the passage of twenty five years. Some questions still remain. Good broad coverage and interesting details are available in the “open source” Wikipedia entry on the KAL 007 topic:
Korean Airlines Flight 007
Particularly relevant sections are: “The Soviet search and rescue missions”, “Soviet harassment of U.S. search and rescue” and the “Crash Scene”.
On the twentieth anniversary of the shoot down in 2003, The Discovery Channel produced an investigative documentary as part of its “Unsolved History” series. A DVD is available.
Discovery Channel KAL 007 Documentary
Up Close and Personal
Shipmate and KAL 007 Ops Vet
Tim Page relates: “During the search and salvage operation, the OOD was instructed to adhere (obviously) to the nautical rules of the road to the letter. We were shadowing the…salvage ships that were towing the “drones” that had the equipment/cameras tethered to a long cable and running a grid search. If they got off the grid, the search would have to start over. The speed and direction was critical so the equipment would not get tangled or caught on the bottom of the ocean. We (i.e. CG-31) would steam right by those guys and keep the (what we called the “KGB boats”) Russians from impeding their search. We called them KGB boats because there was always a civilian on the bridge wing in a long coat that looked like a KGB agent (Note: the Wikipedia article also mentions that there were “KGB border guard boats” deployed as part of Soviet operations.)
Tim recalls that those KGB’s would “..get right up in front of the US ships, cut their engines, and start drifting to get us to back off the search (or in a situation I remember) to alter our course. Tim remembers one close encounter: “We slipped by the Russian shipso close… “that the next day, one of the Boatswain mates went over the side to inspect for damage. You could literally step on onto the deck of the other ship!”
As most sailors know, normal search and rescue/salvage operations are challenging enough by themselves. They normally call for nearly full attention and focus on the search grid. Add to that the new dimension of unusual and dangerous harassment maneuvers that Task Force 71 now had to deal with. Topping it off, add the arrival of Soviet naval combatant ships on scene and threatening flyovers of Backfire bombers that had to be tracked attentively. It was clear the Sterett-led Task force was in the soup with its hands full. A real busy situation, to say the least!
And then, there was the attempted (and, in some cases, successful), “mooring cutting” tactics!
Officer during the KAL 007 Search Ops, Capt. George Sullivan, shares his recollection of what can be called the “Sunday Afternoon
“First, we have to remember that these were the days before GPS. We were restricted to operating outside the 12 mile limit and usually tried to keep a mile or two buffer. At that distance, navigation fixes were not very accurate particularly for the purpose “scanning” the bottom to find the black boxes. You will remember the fleet tug Narragansett and the CG Cutter
Munro had side scanning sonar which they lowered by cable from their fantails. (One also had a TV camera that would be lowered when something looked promising on sonar.) The search and salvage ship conserver, also on station, had a ‘pinger locator’. (‘Black boxes’ contain a pinger that last 30 days.) As they were sweeping the area, an accurate plot needed to be kept of what area they had covered.”
“We hired three Japanese tugs and put them in a three point moor outside the 12 mile limit. Using triangulation off the three tugs, the scanning ships had an accurate fix of where they were. The Soviets didn’t like this, hence the trawlers were sent out to cut these moorings. They were successful at least twice that I can remember.”
“There was one Sunday afternoon when we were sitting by one of the tugs and five trawlers came down on us in a “Form 1″ trying to take out the mooring of the tug next to us. As the trawlers came in on us, we were continuously sounding 5 short blasts on the whistle. As I recall, and looking at the pictures, the first two trawlers, with gear streaming, passed ahead of us. The third came in very close but passed ahead. At this point, the tug master decided to slip his mooring and haul out of there. The fourth trawler headed directly at us, and turned just before he would have hit us, but he got the mooring anyway. I ordered full astern at the last minute and just as I did he turned. I kept it on for less than 30 seconds – it had little if any effect. The pictures I have of this are quite definitive,”
“We tried to pick up the floating buoy and lines from cut mooring so we would have some evidence of what they did but it drifted so fast we couldn’t get to it before it got inside the 12 mile limit.”
Take a Look:
click on the link button below to view a photo gallery covering some of the incidents described above and other pictures related to CG-31’s participation in the KAL 007 Ops. This section on the website is included as part of the CG-31 Ship History and covers the topic as a source of pride and information on our ship heritage. As with other parts of the Association website, this section should be considered a “work in progress” so more shipmates can contribute additional items, fill in gaps, and tie up the loose ends.
Thanks also go out to Eugene Moosa-Mikami who tipped the Association last June about the upcoming 25th anniversary during our busy time in preparation for the DDG-104 commissioning. Some KAL 007 ops vets may recall Eugene, an AP
Reporter, who came aboard via US Marine helo on September 24th for a shipboard news conference. He had been covering the shoot down, early on, from nearby port of Wakkanai in Northern Japan.
After covering this story on station with Sterett – his first byline aboard a US Navy ship – Eugene continued his career as a reporter and eventually filed many other stories from other ships of the Seventh Fleet. He sees his time aboard CG-31 in 1983, however, as his “Baptism of Fire” and now describes its role as “flagship of a small but brave flotilla in the hottest scene of the climax of the Cold War”
Eugene still has his CG-31 Sterett ballcap. When we locate copies of his dispatches and photos, or receive any other information on the topic, they will be posted here.
If you have anything to contribute on Sterett’s role in the KAL 007 Search Operations. send a note along to the Sterett web administrator at email@example.com