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Petty Officer 1st Class Eli Redstone rings the bell twice for each of the 31 U.S. troops killed on April 15, 1969, when North Korean fighters downed their EC-121 reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan. Wednesday’s ceremony marked the 40th anniversary of the attack.

Petty Officer 1st Class Eli Redstone rings the bell twice for each of the 31 U.S. troops killed on April 15, 1969, when North Korean fighters downed their EC-121 reconnaissance plane over the Sea of Japan. Wednesday’s ceremony marked the 40th anniversary of the attack. (Matthew M. Bradley/Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Forty years ago this week, a U.S. Navy electronic intelligence plane patrolling over the Sea of Japan was shot down by North Korean MiG fighter jets.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy Information Operations Command Misawa gathered for an annual memorial service for the 30 sailors and one U.S. Marine lost in the attack.

Seaman Grant Dempsey, who helped organize the event, said the goal was simple: "We want to make sure these guys aren’t forgotten."

According to the Navy, the lumbering EC-121 — a large, propeller-driven aircraft — took off from Naval Air Station Atsugi at 7 a.m. on April 15, 1969, on a routine surveillance mission.

Six hours into the mission, the aircraft was intercepted by the North Korean fighters.

And at 1:47 p.m., "the EC-121 disappeared from the radar screen and was never heard from again," according to a ceremony pamphlet.

North Korea contended the EC-121 violated its airspace, but Pentagon officials denied the claim, according to news reports at the time.

Naval Air Facility Misawa commander Capt. James Haugen was keynote speaker at Wednesday’s ceremony.

The operations command moved from Atsugi to Misawa in 1971.

"These 31 men did not become reconnaissance aviators because it was easy or safe," he said. "They got in that airplane knowing the risks they faced."

Haugen explained that because of national security issues — little could be reported about the men or their missions — the story quickly faded from public awareness.

"Indeed, the many unanswered questions surrounding the shoot-down ... will in all probability remain a mystery as none of the crew survived, the aircraft went down in waters too deep to recover, and the perpetrators of this heinous act have not shared the truth of what they know," he said.

Haugen said the good thing is that America "never lost faith in their mission."

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