Key point: Ultimately, the Nixon administration—not dovish by any stretch of the imagination—declined to retaliate.
April 15, 1969 marked one of the deadliest days for the United States in postwar Asia. The shootdown of a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance aircraft off the coast of North Korea was unprovoked, and cost the lives of thirty-one Americans. Despite stern calls from Congress to avenge the deaths of the American servicemen, President Richard M. Nixon ultimately decided to avoid retaliation, lest he start a second Korean War. Although Nixon he never acted on them, he had a range of military options should his administration have decided to strike.
On the morning of April 15, a U.S. Navy WV-2, the Navy version of the EC-121M “Warning Star” aircraft and a precursor to today’s E-3 Sentry AWACS, took off from Atsugi, Japan bound for coast of North Korea. The aircraft, call sign “Deep Sea 129.” The EC-121M flew in a clockwise ellipse over the Sea of Japan, collecting North Korean signals intelligence for analysis later. North Korean troops had conducted numerous cross-border raids and shootings against South Korean and American troops, and U.S. forces needed to know ahead of time if North Korea was planning a surprise attack.
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Five and a half hours into the mission, U.S. radars in Korea detected two North Korean People’s Air Force MiG-17 “Fresco” fighters taking off from their airbase. After losing them on radar, U.S. forces reacquired them and realized they were on an intercept course against Deep Sea 129. The converted American civilian transport, with thirty-one Navy and Marine Corps personnel on board, disappeared from radar shortly afterward. Soviet and American warships sent into the area to assist with the search would turn up two bodies and pieces of aircraft debris.
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