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FEATURE STORY

Vietnam War airman's death re-examined after decades of controversy

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 11, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Air Force closed the case on Sgt. Joseph Matejov when his surveillance aircraft went down at the end of the Vietnam War.

The missing airman was deemed killed in the fiery crash, and more than two decades later a group gravestone was installed at Arlington National Cemetery. A single casket containing bone fragments recovered in Laos was lowered into the ground at the 1996 funeral for Matejov and seven fellow Air Force crewmembers.

Officially, it was the end of the military’s accounting.

But the funeral did not bury the controversy over the downed aircraft, call sign Baron 52. The case’s long history is riddled with doubts and disagreements within the Pentagon, intelligence community and Congress over whether Matejov died that night in 1973.

Now, the Air Force and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency are re-examining the incident after decades of pressure from Matejov’s family and could change his status from killed to missing in action. A decision could be made within weeks.

The airmen’s nine siblings, who have pushed for the change,  in February presented evidence to the accounting agency of Air Force conjecture over the crash circumstances and a radio intercept about potential American captives. The evidence, spanning 43 years and compiled by the family, contains declassified documents and was shared with Stars and Stripes.

“MIA is not closure, though it is better than this travesty that exists in the file to this day,” said his younger brother John Matejov, who is a retired Marine officer. “We shouldn’t have to fight for that.”

The change would add Matejov to the list of 83,000 servicemembers still missing and require DPAA to embark on a new effort to account for his remains.

An MIA status would be a stunning reversal for the Air Force, which has insisted since 1973 that there is no proof airmen escaped the Baron 52 crash. It would also be an extraordinary precedent for the DPAA to support the move, giving hope to other families still searching for loved ones lost in the war.

‘That KIA determination was wrong’

For Matejov’s family, the decades of uncertainty and frustration began with a letter from his wing commander a week after his EC-47 aircraft crashed.

“After careful consideration, I feel that there is a possibility that one or more crew members could have parachuted to safety, therefore your son will continue to be carried in a missing status until a final determination can be made,” Col. Francis Humphreys wrote to Matejov’s father and mother on Feb. 13, 1973.

 


A Feb. 13, 1973, letter from the Air Force notifying the Matejov family of the termination of the search for Sgt. Joseph Matejov.

Their hope was smashed days later by another letter from the colonel.

With little new evidence, Humphreys, who retired as a brigadier general and died in 2013, reversed his opinion and listed Matejov and all seven other crewmembers as killed in action.

“My chief concern is that KIA determination was wrong,” said Roger Shields, who was chairman of the Defense Department POW/MIA task group and directed the return of American prisoners of war during Operation Homecoming. “Nobody at the time when this decision was made could have said without any question that these men were dead.”

During the Vietnam War, the military often classified troops as missing in action – and assumed further effort might bring them back alive – even when the facts indicated otherwise, he said. Troops were rated MIA even when witnesses saw their aircraft go down with an intact canopy and no rescue beacon was activated.

“We just saw too many cases where it looked like the chances of survival were not that good but it turned out that people did survive,” he said.

 

Last contact


 

Joe Matejov turned 21 in February 1973. He had been deployed 10 months as an electronic warfare specialist with the Air Force Security Service, first to Vietnam and then to an airfield in Thailand. The classified work consisted of eavesdropping on North Vietnamese forces during flights over the officially neutral country of Laos.

His tour was wrapping up – 100 missions under his belt and a Distinguished Flying Cross in the pipeline – and he was ready to get back to the United States.

His EC-47 flew out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base just before midnight Feb. 4. The converted cargo plane, equipped with secret surveillance equipment, carried three other electronic warfare specialists from the 6994th Security Squadron and a four-man flight crew with the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron.

 

Over Laos, the flight left U.S. radar coverage. The airmen flew at a lofty 10,000 feet as they sniffed out North Vietnamese tanks moving south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Crews had recently begun flying at the higher altitude to avoid artillery fire. Even so, parachutes were packed and each crewmember carried a survival radio preset to an emergency frequency.

Every 20 minutes, Baron 52 radioed Moonbeam, the airborne command-and-control center also plying the night sky over Laos. At 1:25 a.m., the crew reported 37 mm or 57 mm anti-aircraft fire but no damage.

There were no more updates from Baron 52.

Report: No evidence of survivors

Four days after the last radio contact, an HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopter hovered over the Baron 52 wreckage as it lowered two pararescuemen and a radioman. The airmen worked quickly once on the ground. The area was hostile, and approaching aircraft heard gunfire and were targeted by a missile. Two large North Vietnamese bases were just miles away.

“When we got there one of the PJs set up a perimeter, and the other one and myself were looking for bodies,” the technical sergeant radio operator at the time, Ron Schofield, said in a declassified Air Force oral history interview in 1989.

Schofield and the team searched for crewmembers and ensured the classified surveillance equipment used by the Air Force Security Service was destroyed.

The EC-47 was on its back. The rear of the fuselage – where Matejov and three other electronic warfare specialists were seated – was badly damaged after a heavy load of fuel burned off in the crash.

Still, the bodies of four airmen, including the seated pilot and copilot, were visible, preserved by their fire-retardant flight suits. The team was only able to recover the remains of pilot 1st Lt. Robert E. Bernhardt during a rushed 15 minutes on the ground.

Matejov and the other three “backenders” could not be seen in the wreckage.

“There should have been some remains of the backenders in the fire, but there wasn’t anything,” Schofield said in 1989.

The search-and-rescue report found no evidence of survivors. However, Schofield remembered a clue in the burnt fuselage that pointed to crewmembers escaping through a rear door.

“These aircraft flew with the doors on. If that aircraft had crashed with the door on, there would have been a little bit of it left at the top” where the plane had burned, he said. “It was gone. It looked like it had been kicked off.”

‘A certain amount of conjecture’

After the search, Humphreys believed some of the crew could have gotten out of the EC-47 before it crashed Feb. 5 on the jungle floor.


On Feb. 5, 1973, about a week after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, an EC-47Q electronic warfare collection aircraft call sign Baron 52, was shot down over Saravane province, Laos, about 50 miles east of the city of Saravane.

But pressure was mounting from the families over the missing-in-action status. They wanted progress in finding the airmen.

An Air Force cable from higher command to Humphreys on Feb. 21 said, “The father of one of the missing men has contacted this office” after receiving the colonel’s letter about possible survivors.

A few days later, Humphreys again wrote to the Matejovs and other crew families, this time with a very different conclusion.

“A careful review of all available facts has been made and there is no reasonable doubt that there were no survivors,” the letter said.

The letter was met with enough fear and doubt that the colonel wrote again to the families in March, denying that his decision was premature or lacked a sound basis.


A letter from Humphreys to the Matejov family denying his decision that there were no survivors was premature or lacked a sound basis.

“We did employ a certain amount of conjecture in trying to visualize the events as they took place,” Humphreys wrote. “However, we made logical assumptions based on all the available faces and information.”

He said the Baron 52 flight was blown out of the air suddenly, leaving no time for escape. The high-tech equipment on the EC-47 and the crew’s survival radios were key to his determination. The airmen never made contact again in the moments – and then days – after the crash.

“The intensive training of all flying personnel makes it improbable that at least one of the crew members would not have instinctively transmitted on one of the many pieces of communication equipment available in case of an emergency, unless they were all immediately and completely incapacitated,” he wrote.

‘Holding four pilots captive’


The barracks at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base located on the eastern border of Thailand was the host to Detachment 3 of the 6994th Security Squadron and eventually the Headquarters, 6994th Security Squadron. Detachment 3 operated out of Ubon from Dec. 1, 1972, until Feb. 7, 1974.

At the time of the Baron 52 crash, a U.S. surveillance plane flying somewhere over the South China Sea picked up an enemy radio intercept.

The initial classified translation was: “Group is holding four pilots captive and the group is requesting orders concerning what to do with them.” A later version used the word “pirates,” which some would claim was a term used for Americans, and also included numerical markers.

The intercept was publicly revealed years later, in 1979, when it became a central – and strongly disputed – piece of evidence. Was it proof Matejov and the three other “backenders” had escaped and been captured by enemy forces in Laos?

It is unclear whether the Air Force command had direct access to the classified intercept in February 1973 when it decided to list Matejov and the other crewmembers as killed in action. Records show the Air Force Security Service discussed the possibility of “sanitizing” a specific piece of classified intelligence so it could be presented to support keeping Baron 52 personnel listed as missing in action.


A cable on sanitized intel from the Matejov presentation to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Records show the Air Force Security Service discussed the possibility of “sanitizing” a specific piece of classified intelligence so it could be presented to support keeping Baron 52 personnel listed as missing in action.

Lionel Blau was a captain serving as operations officer at Matejov’s 6994th Squadron at the time. He was skeptical of the push for a KIA status and pressed Humphreys to look into the intercept.

“I went in and simply told the colonel, ‘Please do not make that decision yet until we can get straightened out what this [intelligence] is about,” Blau said in a declassified 1989 oral history interview. He said Humphreys turned him down because he believed the search-and-rescue evidence showed no one could have escaped the crash.

But Blau continued to believe the airmen had an opportunity to escape.

“I’ve gone through this in my sleep, awake. It haunted me for quite a while,” he said during the interview.

‘The science was conclusive’

By spring 1973, Shields, the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency still believed there was a slim chance that crewmembers escaped the aircraft, a Senate select committee found in 1993 after investigating the case.

An NSA analyst named Jerry Mooney stoked the smoldering doubts with a memorandum in May 1973 about the enemy radio intercept.

Mooney, a fiery critic of U.S. treatment of POWs during the Vietnam War, retired from the agency in the late 1970s and left public service for an isolated part of Montana, where he keeps three telephones but no computer. “Too easy to bug,” he joked.

The radio intercept could only be traced to one area – the Baron 52 crash site in Laos, according to Mooney.


Retired NSA analyst Jerry Mooney, a fiery critic of U.S. treatment of POWs during the Vietnam War, claimed that a radio intercept that could only be traced to one area – the Baron 52 crash site in Laos --  showed not only the location of the transmission, but also that U.S. crewmembers with burns were given water and transported by truck along a road in Laos.

“Everything showed that the target communications that were sent were from that area and in reference to that shoot-down. … The science was conclusive,” he said.

His NSA interpretation of the radio intercept claimed it showed not only the location of the transmission, but also that U.S. crewmembers with burns were given water and transported by truck between particular mile markers along a road in Laos.

“After three months, there was no doubt all this stuff was tied into the EC-47,” Mooney said.


The Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base is located on the eastern border of Thailand.

Word of the intercept and Mooney’s memo spread among airmen in Matejov’s squadron. It was startling news to Joe Matejov’s father in 1979 when it was made public by the press. The Matejov family had held a funeral, as the Air Force advised, and was coming to grips with the sergeant’s death.

Airmen began telling Stephen Matejov, a former Army lieutenant colonel with a Silver Star from the Korean War, about sightings of men herded along dirt roads and radio intercepts about American captives.

“It was ‘barracks room’ talk, and these men expressed surprise and consternation that those captured would be declared dead in so short a time,” he wrote in a frustrated letter to the Air Force.


Word of the radio intercept and Mooney’s memo spread among airmen in Matejov’s squadron and was made public by the press in 1979. In response, Stephen Matejov wrote a letter to the Air Force. The service brought him to the Pentagon to review the records in his son’s death and lessen his doubts about the KIA decision. When he left the building, Matejov was “as amazed and as puzzled as my son’s comrades were.”

The service brought Matejov to the Pentagon to review the records in his son’s death and lessen his doubts about the KIA decision. When he left the building, Matejov was “as amazed and as puzzled as my son’s comrades were.”

Theory or ‘musings’

Bob DeStatte, a senior analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, was handpicked by the White House in 1986 to take another look at the case after years of public controversy and news coverage, much of it over the radio intercept.

DeStatte was an Army signals intercept technician during the Vietnam War and was later recruited by the DIA to investigate Vietnam POW cases. “I knew how to make reasonable judgments,” he said.

If Mooney was a believer in the value of intercepts – called signals intelligence – DeStatte was a skeptic.

“In general, I think you should never rely on signals intelligence without some collateral information from other sources to deal with it,” he said. “In this case we had one intercept.”

DeStatte tracked down the airman on the modified Boeing 707 who had picked up the transmission. He provided flight logs, which often include handwritten notes for analysts.

“The intercept technician sitting on that aircraft added such a footnote … his comment was, ‘Other transmissions on this frequency indicate that the transmitting unit is located in the vicinity of Vinh city,’” on the central Vietnamese coast, DeStatte said.

That put the origin far from the interior of Laos where the Baron 52 wreckage was found.


Sen. Bob Smith, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, questions Bob DeStatte, a senior analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, about the Baron 52 intelligence during a 1992 hearing.

DeStatte’s investigation resulted in a detailed takedown of Mooney’s theory – what DeStatte now calls a page and a half of “musings”—and a DIA conclusion that the transmission had nothing to do with the flight.

In the early 1990s, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs chaired by John Kerry also investigated Mooney’s claims. Relying heavily on DeStatte and the DIA’s work, it came back with an equally skeptical conclusion.

“Mooney’s analytical judgments regarding the Baron 52 incident are largely speculative and unsubstantiated,” the committee wrote in its final report. “There is no firm evidence that links the Baron 52 crew to the single enemy report upon which Mooney apparently based his analysis.”

‘Get this stuff behind us’

The Senate committee spent 18 months traveling the globe and holding hearings on Baron 52 and other reports of possible POWs from the Vietnam War. In 1993, it concluded there was no evidence that the United States left anyone behind.

Cover: POW/MIA's: Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, United States Senate
Cover: POW/MIAs: Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, United States Senate

But again, the Baron 52 case would have no clear-cut resolution.

“They started from the premise that it (the evidence) was all bogus,” said Bob Smith, a former New Hampshire Republican senator and the committee vice chairman. “Their goal was to get this stuff behind us, account for as many people as we could, put them on a list and then normalize relations with Vietnam.”

When the committee issued its findings, Smith released a list of POWs he said were still not accounted for by the United States. Matejov and the Baron 52 airmen were on it, despite the Air Force insistence and the doubts raised over the intercept evidence.

The crew should never have been considered killed in action if there was any indication of capture, he said. Instead the Air Force should have assumed they were missing.

“The Matejov family, what they went through is a disgrace,” he said. “They are still not getting all the information from the government.”

Cover: Metejov presentation to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Matejov and his mother, Mary.

Smith was a controversial figure on the committee. Shields and DeStatte viewed him as a zealot and still hold some bitterness. He and his committee staff were “true believers,” who like military families at the time were ready to assume a cover-up, said Frances Zwenig, a Democrat under Kerry who was staff director of the committee.

“You want to believe your loved one wasn’t killed,” she said.

‘Not my brother’s teeth’

The crash site in Laos was finally excavated in 1993. Examiners uncovered 31 bone fragments and a variety of zippers, fasteners, pieces of flight gear and side arms. The fragments could not be tested – or even conclusively determined to be all human.

The excavation uncovered compelling evidence includingmetal pieces to account for eight parachutes – enough for all crewmembers. It also found one of Matejov’s dog tags.

Cover: Metejov presentation to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Evidence found at the Baron 52 excavation site from the Matejov presentation to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. In November 1992, the Joint Task Force for Full Accounting was able to conduct an archaeological excavation of the Baron 52 crash site and recovered partial remains.

The Matejov family and others have discounted the findings. They say crews sometimes carried extra parachutes and airmen had more than one dog tag, leaving open the possibility of escape and survival.

Among the remains was a single tooth.

Sgt. Peter Cressman was a radio operator in the back of Baron 52, just like Joe Matejov. Twenty years after he was declared dead, the Air Force identified the tooth as his.

Arlington National Cemetery
Sgt. Peter R. Cressman was serving as an Airborne Morse Systems Operator, on Baron 52.

His younger brother, Bob, still has doubts. The tooth was identified using dental records instead of DNA testing, Cressman said. But the Air Force records showed two full rows of teeth. Some of Peter Cressman’s teeth had been knocked out and he wore a dental plate.

“Those X-rays are not my brother’s teeth,” Cressman said.

Cressman is a retired law enforcement officer, a former police sergeant who once oversaw a sheriff’s office crime prevention division. After clashing with the Air Force over his brother’s death, he parlayed his professional experience into investigating POW cases in the 1980s.

“I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy idiot because I don’t believe in all that crap,” said Bob Cressman. “I think from everything I’ve seen and heard from interviews, I think that he and several people on that plane got out before it crashed.”

‘What it all boils down to’

Joe Matejov’s family filed into a conference room at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Arlington, Va., in February. All nine of his siblings and other relatives had flown in from across the country – two now using walkers.

Picture - Joe Matejov stands with his parents and nine siblings.
Joe Matejov (rear row, far right) stands with his parents and nine siblings, his brother John (rear row, center), who have carried on the quest to change his status to missing in action after his mother and father died.

Stephen Matejov had traveled to the area 37 years earlier and left the Pentagon perplexed by the decision in his son’s case. In 2007, the family received what they considered a lengthy run-around regarding a Baron 52 review from the DPAA’s predecessor agencies, the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.

But the years of persistence finally won them an opportunity to present their case directly to Michael Linnington, the DPAA director, and Brig. Gen. Mark Spindler, the deputy director. The  Matejovs went prepared with a presentation of witnesses, experts and declassified military documents put together with about a decade’s worth of pro bono work by a sympathetic Washington law firm.

Arlington National Cemetery
The family quest over the Baron 52 case has fallen mostly to Matejov's brother John, who maintains the evidence and memorabilia from decades of investigations and press coverage.

“What it all boils down to when all is said and done, however, is right here. … Sgt. Joseph Matejov, our brother,” John Matejov told the DPAA officials as he pointed to the airman’s portrait. “Joe put on a uniform and went to fight for his country, a country that has yet to properly account for him.”

The DPAA leaders listened for two hours and agreed to send a recommendation on the change of status to the Air Force by mid-April.

The service will make the final decision on whether to list Matejov as missing in action, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Brooke Brzozowske told Stars and Stripes.

A decision to change the status would mean that DPAA “would seek to account for them as we do with all other individuals who are unaccounted for from past conflicts,” agency spokeswoman Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter told Stars and Stripes.

It would also be an admission by the Air Force that it erred when considering Matejov killed all those years ago.

“I honestly don’t believe he is alive but he didn’t die in the crash,” his sister Theresa Freeze, 56, said. “We just want the truth. We want [the case] to remain open and be looking for him … because we don’t believe he came home.”

Arlington National Cemetery
The Baron 52 crew was finally laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in 1996 in a communal grave in Section 34, Site 4402.

Freeze, a West Point graduate who served as an Army captain, said it is unlikely the DPAA would launch a mission to Laos to find her brother, and that the family is not asking for the contents of the  Arlington grave to be exhumed for further testing. Instead, she wants her brother’s name to be added to the 83,000 servicemembers the DPAA lists as missing and unrecovered.

As unidentified remains are discovered in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, Matejov would be considered as a possible match, Freeze said.

“Every day now on Facebook, I see them finding remains and bringing them home and giving people closure,” she said.

‘He was denied’

John Matejov was the recipient of the last letter his brother ever wrote, sent from Southeast Asia before the plane crashed. He keeps it in a safe in his home. From time to time, he takes out the letter and reads it, choking with emotion.

Just a year apart, the brothers shared the tightest bond in the family.

They competed in everything and got in trouble together, Matejov said. They planned to enlist in the military together after high school.

“I oftentimes wonder where he would have been, what his career path would have been. Would he have kids?” he said. “And he was denied that.”

The family quest over the Baron 52 case has fallen mostly to John, who keeps the boxes of evidence and memorabilia from decades of investigations and press coverage. He was the one who gave the family’s final statement to the leaders at the DPAA in February.

The family quest over the Baron 52 case has fallen mostly to Matejov's brother John, who keeps the boxes of evidence and memorabilia from decades of investigations and press coverage.

He has mastered all the details of the case. Every point has been considered and reconsidered in the hope that it will finally, someday, persuade the Air Force to see the family’s version of the truth.

It has become a long-running theme in his life, repaying a debt to a brother he loved so much.

“First and foremost is honor. I don’t understand why people don’t grasp that. The debt of honor,” John Matejov said. “We all have our lives, we all have our distractions. I get that. But if we can’t uphold honor in the accounting process … who are we?”

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
  

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