The Downing of PR-21
by Trevor Nagle ’89
Memorial Day Address, May 26, 2003
On April 15th, 1969, while flying a routine reconnaissance mission in international airspace over the Sea of Japan, a U.S. Navy EC-131 aircraft was suddenly and tragically shot out of the sky by two North Korean MIG fighters. This was not a combat engagement, but a routine flight in a peaceful arena. All thirty-one crewmembers onboard PR-21 perished. Only two bodies were ever recovered.
How many here this morning have heard this story? How many Americans have perished in service to our country, in wartime and in peace, only to be forgotten in the annals of time?
In speaking before you this morning, I am humbled to remember the sacrifices of so many Americans. Their willingness to pay the ultimate price for our freedom and our way of life cannot be forgotten. Veterans throughout the ages have understood all too well the dangers and risks of military service, both in battle and in eras of relative tranquility. And yet, they have not run in the face of peril, but stood their ground, side by side their fellow servicemen and women, regardless of politics, ideologies, ethnicity, religion, or social class.
While the realities of our country at war have become strikingly clear in the past eighteen months, the idea that one of you may indeed serve in the next major world conflict is possibly more difficult to comprehend. Take a moment, if you will, to look around you. Look at the person seated to your left and right…in front of you…behind you. As a Deerfield Academy alumnus, I remember well sitting in your place, with my classmates, my peers…my friends. Little could I imagine that less than two years after crossing the stage as so many of our graduating seniors did yesterday, I would be making a far different walk…to a waiting aircraft, deploying as part of the Desert Storm coalition forces – the first in a long string of deployments and real-world missions as an Army light infantry scout and later as a Russian linguist in the Navy.
It is not only possible, but likely that one or more of your classmates here today will be involved in military action before you graduate from college a few short years from now. I make this comment not to evoke fear or apprehension, but merely as a statement of probability.
At the beginning of my remarks, I recounted briefly the story of the 1969 downing of a Navy reconnaissance plan over the Sea of Japan. Most of you have never before heard of PR-21. This account provides a stark example of our endangered American heritage, a story of heroism and sacrifice known to only a handful of Americans. The importance of Memorial Day lies here…in remembering and revisiting the sacrifices of those who have died in this country’s defense. For many Americans, the significance of Memorial Day is lost in the faceless identities of those who have served so willingly.
So how is it that I first came to know the story of the downing of PR-21?
In Misawa, Japan, each year, a small handful of sailors and marines pause to remember the crew of PR-21 – tolling thirty-one bells, one for each of the men lost that fateful day in 1969. I count myself proudly among those who recall this particular tragedy. For in the hours and days following each annual memorial service, we took to the skies on missions that mirrored that of PR-21 thirty-four years ago.
On one particular flight three years ago, our EP-3 Aries II aircraft, which we affectionately referred to as the “Sky Pig” banked sharply a mile offshore over the Pacific Ocean and broke through the layer of low clouds at an altitude of 1000 feet. Navy Petty Officer Rodney Young and Marine Sergeant Mitch Pray provided their usual running commentary and comedic critique of the day’s 9-hour mission and the impending landing. The final approach on this day was unusually turbulent, a result both of a malfunctioning number four engine and extremely inclement weather. With the Japanese shoreline in sight and visible whitecaps on the 10-foot swells of the Pacific Ocean beneath us, our plane suddenly and violently lurched to the starboard side and plummeted toward the sea. As our stomachs lurched, I recall hearing through my helmet intercom Sergeant Pray quip, “Well gentlemen, it’s never a good day to ditch at sea, but today it appears we have no choice.” Rest assured none of us found any humor in this comment, but it represents well the dedicated camaraderie we each brought to our missions. Thankfully, as quickly as the sudden descent had begun, it ended, several hundred feet above the water. Less than two minutes later, we were safely on the tarmac, unnerved to be sure, but safe. Surprising as it may seem, this flight differed little from many others flown during my time in the Navy.
However, less than one year later, on April 1st, 2001, this same EP-3 ( PR-32) was knocked out of the sky as a result of a mid-air collision with a Chinese F-8 Finback over the South China Sea. The Navy surveillance plane managed an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Following thirteen days of detention, all 24 crewmembers returned safely home. Among the crew of PR-32 were Marine Sergeant Mitch Pray, Petty Officer Rodney Young, and a dozen others with whom I lived and served – many of whom are still flying these same missions and fulfilling a legacy… a proud heritage, knowing all too well that, while this incident ended safely, the next time might be much more tragic, as was the case in 1969.
Many of you probably remember this highly publicized international incident, if only for the brief two weeks of “around-the-clock” reporting on the “U.S. Navy Spy Plane’” story by the news media. Although these reports and so-called “expert” commentary were frequently inaccurate and overstated, for two weeks these 24 souls captured the attention of this country. For many of you, however, I imagine it is already difficult to recall the details of that incident, but for my wife Kristin and I, those two weeks will never be forgotten as we awaited word on the fate of those servicemembers…our friends. For us it was very real and very personal.
It is my hope that each of you will take away from this Memorial Day a renewed dedication to learning about those individuals who have not only put themselves in peril in service to this country, but have lost their lives so that the rest of us may live in freedom. Take the time to personalize your heritage. These thousands of Americans lived selflessly for the ideals that so many of us take for granted. It is not enough for us to live life in the present. We need to be mindful of those who have carved out our heritage over time. Through their willingness to serve and die in service to this country, each and every fallen servicemember proved that they, indeed, were “Worthy of their heritage.” By honoring their memories, we can, in small part, be worthy of ours.