EC-47 Air Crew United States Air Force

North Vietnamese Army (NVA) operations made use of radios for communication between units in the field and higher headquarters. The job of the Douglas EC47Q Sentinel Eagle was to monitor that radio traffic using aerial electronic surveillance. The electronic warfare equipment employed to intercept and record those communications was quite highly classified. The men were exceptionally well trained cryptology and language experts who knew how to operate some of the US Air Force’s most sophisticated equipment, and they were the first to hear the enemy’s battle plans. Their capture would have been extremely valuable to the North Vietnamese and their Russian ally. Further, the men in the 6994th Security Squadron and the 361st Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron operated in the greatest of secrecy. They were discouraged from mingling with others from different units. Likewise, the aircrews were not always told what their objective was until after they were airborne.

In the days following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, the United States still needed to monitor North Vietnamese communications to determine whether or not the peace would hold. To that end US forces continued to fly combat missions utilizing all aircraft at their disposal.

Just before midnight on 4 February 1973, Captain George R. Spitz, pilot; First Lieutenant Severo J. Primm III, co-pilot; First Lieutenant Robert E. Bernhardt, co-pilot; Captain Arthur R. Bollinger, navigator; Sergeant Dale Brandenburg, electronic warfare specialist; Sergeant Peter R. Cressman, Sergeant Joseph A. Matejov, and Sergeant Todd M. Melton, the three systems operators; comprised the crew of an EC47Q, call sign “Baron 52.” They departed Ubon Airfield, Thailand on a night intelligence gathering mission to monitor any enemy traffic flowing down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such movement of men and material by the communists would constitute a direct violation of the Peace Accords on their part.

This area of extreme southeastern Laos was considered to contain several major arteries of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. When North Vietnam began to increase its military strength in South Vietnam, NVA and Viet Cong troops again intruded on neutral Laos for sanctuary, as the Viet Minh had done during the war with the French some years before. This border road was used by the Communists to transport weapons, supplies and troops from North Vietnam into South Vietnam, and was frequently no more than a path cut through the jungle covered mountains. US forces used all assets available to them to stop this flow of men and supplies from moving south into the war zone.

At approximately 0125 hours on 5 February 1973, Baron 52 reported to Operational Command that they were observing ground fire directed toward them from the jungle covered mountains of Southern Laos. The last message received from the EC47Q, nicknamed the “Flying Pueblo”, came five to ten minutes later when Capt. Spitz reported that everything was all right. When the aircraft failed to return to friendly control, the crew was declared missing.

On 7 February 1973, a search and rescue (SAR) mission found the aircraft had “impacted the ground inverted and the whole bottom was off” in the forested mountains approximately 54 miles west-nothwest of Kham Duc, South Vietnam; 20 miles west of the Lao/South Vietnamese border and 50 miles east of the city of Saravane, Saravane Province, Laos. Three major roads were located no more than 8 miles away. Two of these roads, one to the north and the other to the south, ran east/west directly into enemy held territory in South Vietnam. The third road was situated to the west of the crash site and ran north/south feeding men and material into the other roads on their way into the recognized war zone.

A search team was dispatched to examine the wreckage firsthand. Three pararescue specialists and an intelligence expert were on the ground unmolested for over forty minutes to complete their survey. They found the charred bodies of Captain Spitz, First Lieutenant Primm and Captain Bollinger still strapped in their seats in the cockpit. They also found partial remains of First Lieutenant Bernhardt outside the wreckage where they could easily be recovered. Those remains were recovered on 9 February 1973 and identified on 13 February 1973. Subsequently Robert Bernhardt was buried with full military honors.

Evidence that the four sergeants bailed out of the aircraft and survived the loss manifested itself in several ways:

1. No remains, or any other evidence that they died in the crash, were found.

2. The search team found not only were the men gone, but also their seatbelts had been unbuckled, and their parachutes, along with their sensitive equipment, were gone. This indicated to the SAR personnel that all four men had time to follow standard operating procedures and jettison all the sensitive electronics gear prior to bailing out themselves.

3. The jump door was kicked away and could not be found in or near the crash site.

4. The NVA units operating in this immediate area had their communications to higher headquarters monitored by US intelligence personnel stationed at Phu Bai, South Vietnam. At 0824 hours on 5 February, 7 hours after last contact with Baron 52, the first of several intercepted messages discussing the capture of four flyers was received. These intercepts continued for three months, and other messages, the families are told, remain classified today.

5. A Laotian road watcher for the US reported observing these same captives being moved along a road in Southern Laos. This sighting corroborated the information gleaned from the intercepts.

6. This information, along with post-capture photographs of the four sergeants, was provided to the US Ambassador to Laos McMurtrie Godley during his daily morning briefing. Further, subsequent intercepted information reveals communist personnel interrogated them on several occasions as they were moved along a clear line through Laos, to Hanoi, then airlifted to Moscow.

On 22 February 1973, 17 days after the shootdown, all 7 men were declared Killed in Action under a Presumed Finding of Death (KIA-PFOD) in spite of the fact that our government knew differently.

In 1978, 5 years later, the mother of one of the “backenders”, heard columnist Jack Anderson, on “Good Morning America”, describe a Pathet Lao radio communiqué that described the capture of four “air pirates” on the same day as the EC47Q carrying her son was shot down. There was no question that this information pertained to that specific crew because it was the only aircraft downed during that time frame.

In the fall of 1992, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs received sworn testimony from the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) senior analyst, Robert DeStatte, concerning this case. In his testimony, he stated that “the intercepted NVA communication that excited US Air Force analysts actually related to the movement of four airmen to the area of the port city of Vinh in the panhandle of North Vietnam and hundreds of kilometers from the site of Baron 52’s disappearance. With such a message received only minutes after the loss of Baron 52 in South Laos, DIA concluded the report correlated to airmen other than those in Baron 52.” Mr. DeStatte was not questioned about those four airmen were or why no apparent attempt was made to secure their freedom.

In October 1992, Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee, forwarded his strong recommendation to the Lao Government that the planned crash site investigation for Baron 52 take place as scheduled. In November 1992, a survey team arrived at the crash site. During its preliminary examination of the area, a team member “looked down and found, laying in plain sight and totally exposed to the elements, a military dogtag in pristine condition with Joe Matejov’s name on it.” Since this crew was flying “sanitized” – wearing no dogtags and with no insignias or rank on their flight suits, this find was both miraculous and suspicious. Later, the American excavation team recovered 23 bone fragments and half a tooth, a pre-molar reportedly belonging to Peter Cressman. Interestingly, the commander of the Central  Identification Laboratory – Hawaii (CIL-HI), has publicly stated that the bone fragments “can not be proven conclusively to be human.” Requests from the families for DNA testing of these bone fragments to establish identity were denied.

In a letter sent to Congressman Bob Dornan in January 1996, Mrs. Mary Matejov, mother of Sergeant Joe Matejov, eloquently wrote, “I do not dispute a burial for the three men we know died on this flight. Captains Spitz and Bollinger and First Lieutenant Primm deserve this honor. They kept that aircraft in the air long enough to give the backenders – Joe, Peter Cressman, Todd Melton and Dale Brandenburg -time to jettison (according to procedure) the electronics equipment and bail out. However, in honoring these men, the government should not be allowed to ignore the reams of intelligence data which prove my son, along with Sergeants Cressman, Melton and Brandenburg, were  captured.”

On 27 March 1996, a group burial of the 23 bone fragments, ½ tooth and dogtag bearing Joseph Matejov’s name was conducted at Arlington National Cemetery. The families of all seven men were in attendance; however, the families of the four sergeants were there to honor the officers who gave their lives providing the men the time needed to jettison their equipment and bail out themselves. Thankfully the families of George Spitz, Severo Primm, Arthur Bollinger and Robert Bernhardt have the peace of mind of knowing where their loved ones now lie. For the families of the four sergeants, only questions remain. If they are in fact dead, they have a right to have their remains returned to their families, friends and country. However, if they survived the downing of Baron 52 – a position US government documents support – their fate, like that of other Americans who remain unaccounted for in Southeast Asia, could be quite different.

I wanted to write because I read your remembrances on the Virtual Wall. My brother, Major Daniel F. Shea, was a C-130 pilot and now is training in the reserves on a C-5. In early spring of 1996 (maybe it was February?) my brother was part of a fly over (I’m sorry I don’t know the exact military vocabulary) for a burial service at Arlington Cemetery for members of the EC 47 that was downed in Laos in February of 1973. I went to the burial service because my brother asked me to (we live right by Arlington).

I read your emails and called Arlington Cemetery just now (703-607-8052), to verify that Todd M. Melton was buried there at this service. It is grave section 34, by Grant Drive. If you go to Arlington, it is very easy to locate the site when you go into the visitor center. It is at the bottom of a sloping hill, and the view is vast and silencing in its beauty.

I also checked and Peter Cressman was buried in the same place in 1996, and when I was there, there were many families present. I’m assuming therefore, that other members of that EC 47 are also buried there (Dale Brandenberg, Severno Primm, George Spitz).

I hope you have the chance to go to their grave sites. That day was one of the most beautiful and moving moments I have ever experienced. I remain in greatest awe and admiration for the men and women that served in Vietnam. I hope this helps,

Joanna M. Shea

Arthur Ray Bollinger
Captain, United States Air Force
Greenville, Illinois
June 3, 1944 – February 5, 1973


Dale Brandenburg
Sergeant, United States Air Force
Capitol Heights, Maryland
November 11, 1948 – February 5, 1973


Peter Richard Cressman
Sergeant, United States Air Force
Wayne, New Jersey
May 23, 1951 – February 5, 1973


Joseph Andrew Matejov
Sergeant, United States Air Force
East Meadow, New York
February 2, 1952 – FEbruary 5, 1973


Todd Michael Melton
Sergeant, United States Air Force
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
April 11, 1949 – February 5, 1973


Severo James Primm III
First Lieutenant, United States Air Force
Nw Orleans, Louisiana
November 3, 1947 – February 5, 1973


George Ross Spitz
Captain, United States Air Force
Kahaluu, Hawaii
January 17, 1943 – February 5, 1973



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