Edward Wootten, a Cold War intelligence officer and WWII vet, dead at 91
By BEN STEELMAN | Star-News, Wilmington, N.C. | Published: August 11, 2016
WILMINGTON, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — A burial in Arlington National Cemetery is planned for Col. Edward Wootten, a Wilmington native who served as an intelligence officer during some of the Cold War's hottest moments.
Wootten, 91, died Tuesday at a nursing facility in Springfield, Va.
A World War II veteran, Wootten spent years with the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 1960, he was posted as an assistant air attache with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
At the 1960 Mayday Parade in Red Square, he was busily taking pictures of the Soviet military hardware when he noticed that Premier Nikita Khrushchev was being hustled away from the reviewing stand. Wootten rushed to the embassy to notify his superiors that something serious was up. It was the first indication U.S. authorities had that the U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers had been shot down over the U.S.S.R.
Later, on Oct. 21, 1960, Wootten was flying back to Moscow after a secret mission to the Soviet Far East when the jetliner on which he was a passenger crashed and burst into flames while on approach to the airport in Ust-Orda. He was one of only four survivors.
"He had all this film and these notebooks he was carrying back on his person," his daughter, Janet Wootten, recalled. "Even though the plane was on fire, Dad destroyed all of it before he crawled out."
Wootten then re-entered the burning plane to try to rescue a British colleague, suffering second- and third-degree burns that later cost him his flight status.
Janet Wootten recalled a cloak-and-dagger childhood, with spies and listening devices planted in their Moscow apartment. Later, when based as U.S. air attache in Warsaw, Wootten would take his wife and children off on long drives to remote parts of the Polish countryside.
"He'd have us count up all the planes and tanks we saw," she said. "We had to write it down."
Wootten, along with two other U.S. military attaches, was expelled from Poland and declared persona non grata in 1966 in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Polish spies in the United States.
Born Sept. 16, 1924, in Wilmington, Wootten was the youngest of five children of Edward Yonge Wootten, a civil engineer, and his wife, Ruth James Wootten. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force at the age of 19 and served as a pilot and navigator in the Pacific theater. After attending college on the GI Bill, he was recruited into military intelligence and served with the Defense Intelligence Agency before retiring in 1974 at the rank of full colonel.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Wootten will be buried next to his wife, Barbara Tuthill Wootten, a former Army nurse. Survivors include his second wife, Frances Ann, two children and one grandchild.
Ben Steelman can be reached at Ben.Steelman@StarNewsOnline.com.