Russell E. Hershey,
INTERVIEW WITH COLONEL JOHN McKONE - 30.8.1996
INTERVIEWER: First of all, can I ask you the hardest question of all, can we have your name and your title for the transcripts?
JOHN McKONE: I'm John McKone, I'm a retired air force colonel and that's my name and my rank is a full colonel in the United States Air Force and I'm retired.
INT: Thank you. Colonel McKone, can I ask, first of all just could you take us back to 1959-1960, what were you doing at that period?
JM: At the time of my life back in nineteen hundred and fifty nine, nineteen hundred and sixty, I was flying with the Strategic Air Command as a bomb person on a RB-47 and I was flying with the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, 343rd Squadron out of Forbes Air Force Base, Topeka, Kansas.
INT: And what was their role?
JM: The role at that particular wing at that time was to fly electronic warfare missions against different places in the world, throughout the entire world, to pick up information for the United States.
INT: When you say information, what sort of information were you out there looking for?
JM: Just about anything that you might want to think electronically, whether it was voice communications or radar sites, information, radio transmissions, telemetering type of information, anything in that particular area that was transmitted through the air, we were out to try to pick up.
INT: Just in general terms, can you tell me how you went about that? What would a mission involve?
JM: Well, to explain those missions'd be rather complex, because some of them were rather complex in nature. But very simply put, the missions were... we would take off from a forward locating base, whether it was in England or Japan or Alaska, wherever it would be, and we would fly around the periphery of the Soviet Union and do what we could to pick up this airborne radiological type of information.
INT: How many of these sort of flights were taking place?
JM: Well, for me as an individual crewmember, it'd be hard to estimate. But I can remember that I would fly in a particular month, anywhere from six to ten to fifteen missions, maybe a month when I was overseas. So it was fairly for me, I did not have at that particular time the information of how many total missions our particular unit was flying, so it would be hard to estimate, but we did have, I would say, four, five airplanes on station overseas at any one particular time, so we were fairly busy.
INT: It's astonishing. Could you tell me, before we get on to specifics of the infamous day, what was it like flying these missions? Was it frightening, was it boring?
JM: Well, let me say that flying these missions, we did not every take as routine. we knew that these missions were vitally important to the security of our country. At that particular time in the Cold War, for us, it was almost a Hot War, and in fact at times it did become a Hot War. The only armament we had on our airplanes were two twenty-millimeter canon in the tail. we test fired those canon before we'd take off on these missions overseas to make sure they'd function and if they didn't function, we would go back and land. So again, while we were not very heavily defended to protect ourselves, whatever defense we had, we ensured worked. The same way with the radios. we did have radios that had long-range capability and we could talk to our different bases with our radios and we made sure those worked and if they didn't work, then again we'd turn around and land. We knew that other people - and in fact I had been on flights where we had airplanes that would come up and visit us as we call them, that had the red stars on 'em and painted green and we knew that they were there and sometimes were very friendly. They would wave at us and we would wave at them and then they'd leave. there'd be other times when they would be... airplanes that would come up like that, we'd have one on either side of our wings, flying in formation with us, and then we'd call a junior coming up the tail, about two thousand feet below us and firing his canon and you could see the shells exploding in front of our airplane. So again there were times that things got very, very tight and there would be times when they would actually shoot at us. So, again, it was anything but routine as far as we were concerned, but at the same time, we knew that we had a very important and vital mission to fulfil, because we knew that if we didn't do our job, the bomber streams that would come in behind us would not know where to go on to avoid or to jam their ground to air radar systems and radio systems and so forth.
INT: How did you and your colleagues at the time view the Russians?
JM: Well, let's just say that we did not believe that they were friendlies. the Russians at that particular time were in a very antagonistic, aggressive posture, this was the time if you remember in history where President Eisenhower tried the open skies program, Khrushchev at that time, who was the Premier of the Soviet Union, rejected that out of hand. He came to the UN and pounded his shoe on the table there at the UN, trying to get his way. they were very aggressive and in Western Europe a few years before that we had the Berlin Airlift, then we had Korea and the Korean War. We knew that they were supplying pilots to the Korean air force at that particular war time stance and it was a very terse time, as far as we were concerned.
INT: Could you take me through what happened on the first of July 19960?
JM: I recall that particular flight very vividly. That we took off from Brise Norton Air Base in England, that was our forward operating location on that particular day, and we were supposed to fly this quote-unquote 'milk run'. There were not supposed to be any particular problems during that particular flight and we thought that this would be a rather simple flight, although it was a twelve-hour mission. We did refuel with a brand new KC135 jet tanker from SAC and that was quite a thrill, because we didn't have to fly behind this old KC97 propeller driven tanker and we did that about a hundred and fifty miles off the coast of Norway, flying in (inaudible) out to the coast of Norway and Norwegian Sea. we got up into the Barent Sea, which was north and east of Norway, in the Arctic Ocean, we started flying (inaudible) out to the Soviet coastline, which had Murmansk and the mouth of the White Sea and so forth up there, and we knew there was quite a bit of activity going on up there by the Russians at that time. so we were quite interested in that particular area. And as we were flying parallel to the coastline, a couple of fighters came out and made a beam pass on our airplane from ninety degrees to our aircraft, we could see the con trails, but that's all we saw, and then as it came closer to the turning point, after flying for about thirty minutes, we came close to the mouth of the White Sea and in order to stay in international waters, we were about fifty to sixty miles away from the nearest Soviet land mass, we had to make about a ninety degree left turn. And I'd already given the aircraft commander the new heading to take and had a radar fix of a couple of known points at that particular point, and I said, OK, Bill, it's time to make your left turn now, because I had the fix, very positive, I knew exactly where we were and at that time, just about at the same time, the co-pilot said, check, check, check right wing and the aircraft commander, Major Pond said, where the hell did that guy come from? And he started his left turn and as we started our left turn, the co-pilot watching this aircraft said that he saw him come down below and behind and without any warning, started firing his canon and the canon shells hit the number two and three engine. they caught fire, according to the co-pilot, and seized and went ninety degrees to the airstream, like this, and served as a big rudder and that was at about thirty thousand feet, that was the altitude we were flying at that time. And then we had a second burst of fire from the fighter, after we'd leveled out about twenty eight thousand feet and I see the holes opening up around where I sat in the fend of the airplane in my station, and I saw fire coming down the aisle way and then I heard the aircraft commander say, bail out, bail out, bail out, on the intercom. I saw red bail out lights going off and alarm bells ringing to bail out. I heard a couple or explosions behind me and I decided that was the time to get out of that thing. So then I went ahead and pulled my ejection seats and handles and then I was shot out of the airplane on a seventy five millimeter canon shell and free fell from twenty eight thousand to fourteen thousand feet, whereupon my chute automatically opened and I looked around and I saw a bunch of papers flying in the air, saw a very intense fire on the water and a couple of chutes below me. One of was about a thousand feet below me, another about two thousand feet and they had the same orange and white panels as mine, so I assumed they were other crew members and the first one looked like my aircraft commander. The second was closer and I could almost identify him as Captain Omsted the co-pilot, and the first fellow was hanging limp in his chute, he never moved all the way down to the water, so I assumed he was unconscious and that was probably aircraft commander Pond. the other three crew member - we had a six-man crew members