The body of aviation electronics technician Richard Edson Sweeney is brought ashore from the USS Tucker on its arrival at a port in Japan on April 20, 1969. The destroyer arrived with the bodies of two members of a 31-man crew who manned a U.S. reconnaissance plane shot down by North Korean jets five days earlier over the Sea of Japan.
text size A A A July 6, 2010
Since March, South Korea and the United States have pondered how to respond to North Korea after the torpedo sinking of a South Korean naval ship that left 46 sailors dead.
It was the case, too, in 1969 after North Korean fighter jets shot down an American spy plane. Then, President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, considered a range of military responses, up to the possible use of nuclear weapons, according to newly disclosed documents.
On April 15, 1969, an American EC-121 reconnaissance plane carrying a full crew took off from a base in Japan and did what it had done dozens of times before — it flew over international waters gathering signals, radio communications and other intelligence.
This year, South Korea and the United States have struggled with the question of how to respond to North Korea, which is accused of sinking a South Korean warship in March. Here, South Korean soldiers patrol the border with North Korea in May.
This time, though, fighter jets from North Korea intercepted the American plane and shot it down, killing all 31 Americans on board.
‘Prepare To Strike’
But a former U.S. fighter pilot has come forward with a story about a nuclear alert just hours after the attack.
Bruce Charles was on temporary duty that day at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. He was on standard alert as part of the Single Integrated Operational Plan, or SIOP — the plan for nuclear war with the Soviet Union. His assigned target was an airstrip in North Korea.
Early that afternoon, his commanding officer called him into his office, Charles says.
“When I got to see the colonel, it was very simple. He described the shooting down of the EC-121 about a hundred miles at sea. And that he had a message, which he showed me at that time, saying to prepare to strike my target,” Charles says.
The military produced the options, ratcheting up the level of military force all the way to all-out war and to using nuclear weapons.
– Robert Wampler of the National Security Archive
Charles then rechecked his F-4 fighter jet and the weapon it was carrying. He says it was a B61 nuclear bomb, with a yield of about 330 kilotons — not the biggest bomb in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but more than 20 times the size of the bomb dropped over Hiroshima.
Then there were several hours of waiting, Charles says, and the order came to stand down.