Cornelius A. Bass
Specialist 5th, United States Army
a contemporary press report:
On a late-April 1994 afternoon last year at Arlington Cemetery, Air Force Captain Cleon E. Bass and his wife sat near President Clinton and General Merrill A. McPeak, the former Air Force Chief of staff, watching a memorial service for their son Cornelius.
Specialist Cornelius A. Bass, a 22-year-old Army helicopter mechanic, and 25 others had died a few days earlier in northern Iraq when the two Army helicopters they were aboard were mistakenly shot down by Air Force fighter jets. Shortly after the service for his son, Cleon Bass, a communications officer, hung up his Air Force uniform for good after 19 years, deciding he could not "remain on active duty knowing the Air Force was responsible for this fatality."
Now, nearly a year after his son's death, Cleon Bass and several other relatives of the victims not only live with the constant pain of their losses but believe that the incident is being whitewashed by the military. In short, they believe that a scapegoat. has been found in Captain Jim Wang, the lone officer facing criminal charges in the incident. Although Defense Secretary William J. Perry and an exhaustive Pentagon investigation concluded the April 14 helicopter shoot down was an "avoidable tragedy" caused by mistakes made throughout the chain of command, only Wang is facing a court-martial, which is under way at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City.
Others besides Wang should be "held accountable," Elleen Thompson, the widow of Army Colonel Jeraid L. Thompson, said in an interview. Thompson was one of the 26 who died. "To say it's too bad and then do nothing is ridiculous," she said. "This is not right; people should be held accountable."
When proceedings against Wang and five others --a pilot and four crew members aboard Wang's Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, plane -- began, it looked like several people would face charges. But over time all charges except those against Wang have evaporated. At the same time, the Air Force has reprimanded others including senior commanders in the field and acknowledged that numerous mistakes in judgment were made. The Black Hawk helicopters that were shot down, the AWACS radar plane monitoring the skies for friendly and enemy aircraft, and the two F-15 fighters that brought down the helicopters all were participating in Operation Provide Comfort, a 4-year-old U.N. effort to keep hostile Iraqi aircraft away from Kurdish settlements in northern Iraq. The Pentagon's 21-volume investigation detailed mistakes by virtually everyone from the commander of the operation, Brigadier General Jeffrey Scott Pilkington, to the pilots who fired the missiles. That Wang alone faces a court-martial clearly has enraged families of the victims and divided the Air Force, particularly in two commands: Air Combat Command, which was responsible for the AWACS plane, and the Air Force command in Europe, which was responsible for the two F-15s. One senior Air Force of-tidal said angrily, "Our guy [Wang] is being railroaded, and the pilots' part of it is being swept under the rug."
One of the two F-15 pilots who shot down the Black Hawks, Captain Eric Wick-son, was granted immunity from any criminal charges in exchange for testimony. The other, Lieutenant Colonel Randy W. May, initially faced 26 counts of negligent homicide, which later were dropped. Both pilots said they misidentified the helicopters as Iraqi Hinds, which were considered hostile aircraft in that area. Four officers aboard the AWACS plane were investigated for not keeping accurate track of the Army helicopters and stopping the shoot down as they should have. After investigative hearings in November, Wang, the senior director on board the AWACS, is being court-martialed. According to the Air Force, Wang should have seen important symbols on his radar scope warning that the helicopters were friendly and not Iraqi. Wang, whose court-martial begins March 13 at Tinker when jury selection begins, could be dismissed from the Air Force and imprisoned up to nine months if found guilty of all three dereliction-of-duty charges against him.
"I have a difficult time with the fact that these same individuals will be flying the same missions," Bass, the father of the dead Army soldier, said, referring to the two F-15 pilots who fired the missiles and four other members aboard a nearby AWACS radar plane who were monitoring the area to prevent such accidents."It's just mind-boggling."
Bass and the family members of other victims in the friendly fire catastrophe are pressing Congress to hold hearings to look into how it ended up that only one person will face a court-martial Danny Piper, a retired Air Force colonel who lost his daughter in the shoot down, Air Force First Lieutenant Laura Piper, said in a February 22 interview that the Air Force justice system was flawed by parochialism. He said some of those responsible have not been held accountable because the Uniform Code of Military Justice divides the responsibilities for assigning-blame between two Air Force commands.
The decision not to proceed against the F-15 pilots was made by Major General Eugene D. Santarelli, commander of the 17th Air Force, based at Sembach Air Base in Germany. The decision to proceed against one of the five AWACS crew members was made by Lieutenant General Stephen B. Croker, commander of the 8th Air Force, based at Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossjer City, Louisiana.
"Piecemealing the responsibility to different commanders put out the mind-set that 'My guy didn't cause this whole thing, so I'm not going to hang him,'" Piper said. "A congressional hearing would put one single focus on the case." Piper and Bass said they don't want jail sentences for everyone involved in the case. But they believe that everyone directly involved should not be allowed to continue to fly fighters, monitor radar scopes and command military operations. "They should not be given a second chance to make life-and-death decisions," Bass said. 'Somewhat confused'
Indeed, some Air Force officials in the Air Combat Combat, which command the AWACS planes, were dumbfounded when the U.S. Air Forces in Europe gave one F-15 pilot immunity and dropped all criminal charges against the other. "Those of us over here [in the United States] are somewhat confused over how things over in Europe transpired," one colonel in Air Combat Command said. Not all believe the 28-year-old Wang is a scapegoat, however. Some of those close to the case say he should have seen on his radar scope that friendly helicopters were in the area. The accident investigation report released by the Pentagon in July said symbols showing the Black Hawks' location were "clearly visible, along with intermittent radar returns, on the AWACS radar scopes" only a few minutes before the accident. "To not act on that information, that's negligence," said one Air Force official familiar with the derision to bring criminal charges against Wang. "That's not mistaking an identity, which can happen to anybody," he added. "That's negligence." Wang was an experienced AWACS crew member, having flown almost 2,400 hours in the plane.
But his record is spotty: He had received several "unsatisfactory" ratings from instructors throughout his career, and two years before the accident he was reprimanded for falling asleep while crew members under his supervision were controlling fighters, according to the accident report. But at other times, his record revealed him to be "well above Air Force requirements." Wang said he was not derelict and that he has been turned into a scapegoat for a flawed operation. "The entire [AWACS] crew, including myself, acted in accordance with our training and the information we were provided," Wang said the day the decision was made to bring him before a court-martial. In a February 20 interview, Wang denied he saw symbols on his scope indicating friendly helicopters were in the area.
"A green H [the symbol indicating a friendly helicopter] would be a large indicator to me as an experienced crew member that there might be something wrong," he said. He blamed out-of-touch commanders who allowed Army helicopters to fly routinely without using proper identification procedures and who did not make sure AWACS and F-15 crews knew the whereabouts of Army helicopters. Four senior commanders of the operation refused to testify at an October investigative hearing, but Wang's claims of serious command problems in Operation Provide Comfort seemed to be supported by evidence that has pried up over the months since the accident. Regardless of the outcome of the Wang case, the decision to prosecute only him has sparked debate throughout the Air Force, as evidenced by letters and commentaries appearing in Air Force Times over the months. One colonel said responsibility for the accident should not fall upon "one captain who didn't shoot anything," and that doing so leaves the appearance that Wang indeed is a scapegoat. Even Air Force Secretary Sheila E. Widnall took the highly unusual step of asking Defense Secretary William J. Perry in December whether the court-martial against Wang should be halted. In a February 14 statement that may be used as testimony in Wang's court-martial, Widnall said that Perry's "initial reaction was to allow the due process procedures in place to run their course." Widnall added she did not express an opinion to Perry on whether charges against Wang should be dropped at that meeting with Perry. "I still have not made up my mind," Widnall said in her testimony, which was signed by defense and prosecuting attorneys on February 14.
Internally, Air Force officials have considered taking the rare step of publicizing the normally private. reprimands that have been handed out to commanders of the operation. "I think it would be very demoralizing to the troops to not know that any punishment was levied upon any commanders," said one officer familiar with the internal Air Force discussions. But at the moment, the only visible sign that action is being taken is the court-martial of Captain Jim Wang. Here is the U.S. chain of command that was in place on April 14, the day that two Army Black Hawk helicopters mistakenly were shot down by two Air Force F-15 Eagles. The chain of command was established for all activities relating to Operation Provide Comfort, the mission aimed at protecting the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. Many played a role in the tragedy. Captain Jim Wang may be the only individual to face court-martial in the shoot down over Iraq, but plenty of people might have prevented the incident by doing their jobs better, according to court testimony, documents and an Air Force Times investigation over the past several months.
Also at issue is whether the incident could have been avoided by better leadership at a high level. That is a question the Air Force hierarchy has been asking itself for months, and the answer appears to be yes. The April 14 shoot down came as two Army Black Hawks were on a mission through a no-fly zone over Iraq that had been set up to protect Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein. The operation, set up in April 1991, was called Provide Comfort. In the months before the April shoot down, it was becoming clear that Provide Comfort's senior leadership, including those at the U.S. European Command in Germany, were aware of the possibility of just such a horrible accident. There were many reasons for that concern, but a lack of coordination between the Army and the Air Force was a big part of the problem. For example, Army helicopter pilots regularly operated without using proper identification and radio frequencies, according to testimony from Air Force officials at hearings at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City last year. Also, the Air Force commanders in the region, despite having the authority to coordinate operations and force Army officials to comply with regulations, failed to do so, according to the testimony and other reports on the incident. In fact, there is much doubt as to whether commanders knew the extent of their authority or the specifics of the regulations. Air Force planes in conjunction with British, French and Turkish aircraft in the months before the shoot down were responsible for ensuring that no Iraqi aircraft entered the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. It was the Army's job, using its helicopters, to help rebuild Kurdish cities destroyed by Saddam Hussein's forces. But since the start of the operation in April 1991 the two services by all accounts had grown apart to the point that many Air Force commanders no longer viewed Army aircraft as part of Provide Comfort, according to sources. In the months before the shoot down, poor coordination between the Army and Air Force resulted in numerous instances in which Army helicopters were 'targeted but not fired upon by friendly Air Force fighters.
On one occasion an Army helicopter pilot took evasive action out of fear be was about to be shot down by Air Force Fighters. The lack of coordination was severe enough that Brigadier General Jeffery S. Pilkington, the operation's commander, and others on his staff in the months before the accident complained to European Command officials in Stuttgart-Vaihingen, Germany, about the management of Army flight operations. But European Command officials, some of them Army officers, appear to have rebuffed Air Force commanders, and the helicopters continued to operate with their customary autonomy, officials said. Operation Provide Comfort's Army officials, including Coloneel Jerald L. Thompson, the commander of the Military Coordination Center at Zahku, Iraq, and the Army helicopters, also could not or would not get their helicopters to comply with regulations. Thompson was among the 26 killed in the shoot down. The reason for the noncompliance? The personnel and supply missions the helicopters flew were deemed important enough to afford the Army greater flexibility in its operations than the Air Force wanted. Playing a major role in the lack of communication between the Army and Air Force was Air Force Colonel James R. O'Brien, according to Colonel William S. Colwell, a military judge who investigated dereliction of duty charges against five officers who served aboard an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System plane on the day of the shoot down. O'Brien, the director for plans and policy for Provide Comfort, was responsible for the coordination of all the operation's aircraft, including helicopters. He also was in charge of the Joint Operations Center in the region, whose job it was to communicate helicopter flight information to fighter and AWACS crews.
Although Army helicopter crews rarely filed complete flight plans and often changed the ones they did submit, O'Brien, in testimony after the accident, seemed to be unclear about what to do with the information. Like other commanders, he had the mistaken impression that helicopters were not part of the operation, so they were not coordinated like other aircraft, according to the Colwell report. How were the AWACS crews to find out about helicopters flights? O' Brien assumed that the Army helicopters would call the AWACS and pass along any vital information as the helicopters crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border on their way into northern Iraq. But the AWACS crew members later said they needed more information. And on April 14, the lack of communication became painfully evident. The AWACS crew had no knowledge of the helicopters until the copters from Zahku said they were heading for lrbil. Whether more contact would have prevented the catastrophe will never be known. O'Brien's office also was responsible for coordinating the flight operations of British, French and Turkish air units participating in Provide Comfort. Allied aircraft operate from Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey.
But Army helicopters operate from Diyarbakir, Turkey, about 300 miles to the northeast of Incirlik and about 150 miles from Zahku. That separation between Air Force and Army commanders made O'Brien' s office vital to maintaining sound communications between the helicopters, and the AWACS and fighter aircraft intended to protect them.
On one occasion, O'Brien's office knew of a Russian civilian cargo plane that was to fly over northern Iraq on its way home from Baghdad, Iraq, but the information never was passed along to the fighters patrolling the area. Unaware that the flight had been approved, fighters spotted the plane on their radar and intercepted it. After making a visual identification the plane was allowed to proceed. Fighter pilots told investigators after the shoot down that they often complained to Air Force Colonel Douglas J. Richardson that they were not informed of flights cleared by O'Brien's office. Richardson then was Combined Forces Air Component Director of Operations, who was responsible for the daily operations of the 50 Air Force aircraft flying from Incirlik. At the bottom of the command structure were the fighter and AWACS crews who often were without a clear picture of other aircraft they would encounter. April 14 was no exception. Although Pilkington himself had approved the helicopter mission that day, the word never reached the AWACS or the fighter crews that such a mission was taking place. Aboard the two Black Hawks were 26 Americans and foreigners. Despite apparent mismanagement on many levels, Provide Comfort's commanders appear to have weathered their mistakes. None was charged with wrongdoing and none is expected to be court-martialed, officials said.
Although Army General George A. Joulwan, commander of the European Command, removed Pilkington from 'his Provide Comfort command in June. Pilkington retained command of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ram-stein Air Base, Germany. Beyond losing that job, Pilkington's career has not been affected, and he is on the fast track, according to sources. O'Brien now is serving as a planning and programs officer on the Air Force Issues Team at the Pentagon. He will soon become the team's roles-and-missions officer. Two other officers, who played a lesser-role in the tragedy, also appear to have gone on with their careers. Brigadier General Curtis H. Emery, [I. then a colonel in charge of all of the operation's American aircraft and the commander of the 39th Wing at Incirlik, now is the assistant deputy for theater missile defense operations with the the Defense Department's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization at the Pentagon.
Richardson now is the deputy chief of staff
for plans and programs for the Air Force element for the Supreme Headquarters
Allied Powers Europe at Vicenza, Italy. And of the two pilots and five
AWACS crew members directly involved in the incident. only Wang is being
Five others charged were disciplined but never faced a court-martial. In addition, sources said that an un-specified number of other senior officers also have been disciplined, but it is unclear who they are or how they were punished. Here is what happened to those who faced criminal charges in the incident: Wang's court martial began on began on Feb. and sentenced, Wang could lose his rank, privileges and benefits, and could spend up to nine months in jail.
Lieutenant Colonel Randy W. May, 42, an F-15C Eagle pilot who shot down one of the two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, was charged with two counts of criminal dereliction of duty and 26 counts of negligent homicide. After an Article 32 hearing, a military version of a civilian grand jury and pretrial hearing, all charges against May were dropped by Major General Eugene D. Santarelli, commander of the 17th Air Force at Sembach Air Base. Germany. May is the former commander of the 53rd Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. Maj. Douglas "Boots" L. Martin, 38, who served aboard the AWACS plane as a liaison between the crew and ground commanders, was charged with three counts of dereliction of duty. After an Article 32 hearing all' charges against him were dropped by Lieutenant General Stephen B. Croker, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossier City, Louisiana.
At the time of the shoot down, Martin was assigned to the Air Combat Command's Air Operations Squadron at Langley Air Force Base near Hampton, Va. Major Lawrence M. Tracey, 39, the AWACS mission crew commander with the 963rd, was charged with four counts of criminal dereliction of duty. After an Article 32 hearing all charges against him were dropped by Croker. Tracey, who was planning to retire before the incident happened, is expected to leave the service in July.
First Lieutenenat Joseph M. Halcli, age unavailable,
the AWACS en route controller with the 963rd. was charged with four counts
of criminal dereliction of duty. The Article 32 judge recommended that
Halcli receive Article 15 nonjudicial punishment. Officials would not comment
on whether Croker has decided to accept or reject the judge's recommendation.
Second Lieutenant Rickey L Wilson, 29, the AWACS tactical area of responsibility
controller with the 963rd, was charged with four counts of criminal dereliction
of duty, but after an Article 32 hearing he was cleared of all charges
by Croker. He is now training to become an air surveillance officer.
Twenty-six people were killed on April 14 when two Air Fore fighter pilots shot down two Army helicopters over northern Iraq. The victims were: Air Force Second Lieutenant Laura A. Piper, an intelligence analyst specializing in Iraqi air force command and control matters with the 7454th Tactical Intelligence Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. She was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant. Army Staff Sergeant Paul N. Barclay, a communications noncommissioned officer and Green Beret with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) based at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Army Specialist Cornelius A. Bass, a UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief with the 6th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, Giebelstadt, Germany. Army Specialist Jeffery C. Colbert, a UH-60 crew chief with the 159th. Army Private First Class Mark A. Ellner, a UH-60 crew chief with the 159th. He was posthumously promoted to specialist. Army Warrant Officer 1 John W. Garrett Jr., a UH-60 pilot with the 159th. He served for 10 years in the Air Force before joining the Army to fly. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael A. Hall, a UH-60 pilot with the 159th. Army Sergeant 1st Class Benjamin T. Hodge, an intelligence specialist and translator with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolins. Army Captain Patrick M. McKenna, a UH-60 pilot with the 159th. Army Warrant Officer 1 Erik S. Mounsey, a UH-60 pilot with the 159th. Army Colonel Richard A. Mulhem, who was to have become the new commander of the Military Coordination Center in Zakhu, Iraq. Army Specialist Michael S. Robinson, a UH-60 crew chief and member of the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant. Army Staff Sergeant Ricky L. Robinson, a medic with the 10th. Army Colonel Jerald L. Thompson, commander of the Military Coordination Center in Zakhu. Barbara L. Schell, the operation's U.S. Department of State political adviser. Major Harry C. Shapland, a British security officer. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan C. Swann, the operation's senior British representative. Lt. Col. Guy Demetz, the operation's senior French representative. Col. Hikmet Alp, the Turkish co-commander of the Military Coordination Center in Zakhu. 1st Lt. Ceyhun Civas, a Turkish liaison officer. 1st Lt. M. Barlas Gultepe, a Turkish liaison officer. Abdulsatur Arab, a Kurdish bodyguard. Ghandi Hussein, a Kurdish bodyguard. Bader Mikho, a Kurdish bodyguard. Salid Said, a Kurdish interpreter.
Posted: 12 August 2000 Updated: 26 November 2000 Updated: 20 May 2001 Updated: 17 June 2006