KAL 007/ Russian Ram attempt
Here is the eyewitness account of a Russian Ramming attempt and the bravery of South Korean sailors during the KAL 007 operations.
The Search for KAL 007
by Don Downing USN CW03
(The author entered the US Navy as an Operations Specialist Seaman(OSSN) in 1982 and while onboard USS STERETT (CG-31) advanced to the rank of Operations Specialist Second Class (OS2). While on STERETT he held many jobs including Chart Petty Officer. He retired as a Chief Warrant Officer 4 with 29 years served)
On September 1, 1983 the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines flight 007, which had strayed off course, killing all aboard. Since then there have been many investigations, documentaries, reviews, and conspiracy theories. Much has been said about the plane and the events in the air. Little has been said about those in the search area and what they endured and faced. This is one such story.
I was relatively new to the Navy, reaching 10 months enlisted and assigned to my first ship homeported in Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines. I had recently taken over the job of Chart Petty Officer, responsible for updating over 400 charts and nautical publications. On September 1, 1983 my Leading Chief Petty Officer told me to go to the Chart Office on base and get a list of charts that we needed. He also gave me a peculiar order to not look at the chart numbers, names, or actual charts. I thought this was strange, but I respected it nonetheless.
I retrieved the charts and returned to the ship to find it a flurry of activity. Cranes were hoisting on pallets, and sailors were hustling their bulging seabags across the quarterdeck. I learned that the Captain had made an announcement to the crew. “Men”, he announced, “Go home, pay you bills, kiss your wife, and grab all the uniforms you have. Be back onboard in three hours. Don’t know where we’re going, don’t know how long we’ll be there, and don’t know when we’re coming home.”
My ship, the USS STERETT, set sail that evening and steamed north at maximum speed past South Korea, past Japan, and continued north into the Okhotsk Sea. There an international search and salvage team searching for the wreckage met us. South Korea, Japan, Soviet Union, and United States all had vessels there conducting their own search of the deep, cold waters.
The gray seas were large, dark, and unruly. We were constantly tossed and turned which was compounded by our slow speed and top-heavy superstructure. The fall temperatures got colder each day, and the skies were constantly overcast. The wind was bitter cold and made my eyes tear. This part of the world did not welcome us, and the ocean made that very apparent.
Our Captain said our mission was to conduct searches for the wreckage and provide some protection, in the form of deterrence, to the other allied and friendly forces there. We were also tasked to locate the aircrafts in-flight data recorder, the black box. There were many US Navy ships as well as USSR Navy ships, each suspiciously watching the other. After all, this was in the middle of the Cold War, when tensions between the USSR and US were razor-thin, and any mistake by a commander at sea might open up war between the two nations.
The South Korean’s conducted searches of the area by laying large, round, black buoys that were tethered by three large cables and held in place by three large cement blocks. It resembled a buoy on a tripod when it was sitting in the ocean. These buoys were used to mark the area into a grid and accurately conduct a systematic search. Not wanting to search the same area twice, these buoys were critical to the South Korean government search effort. We had received reports that rogue ships of other nations that were ramming these buoys to hamper the search efforts of South Korea.
One gloomy, cold day we received a call over marine band VHF bridge-to-bridge communications. It was from a frantic vessel master of a South Korean ocean going salvage tug. He reported that he was under attack and needed help desperately. Under attack? Our bridge team notified the Captain, and he gave orders to make best speed through the gray water to the South Korean vessels position. We were anxious and nervous, not knowing what we would find when we got there. We manned gun mounts, got missiles ready, and surged forward with all our steam plants at maximum capacity.
We arrived to the area to find the South Korea tug and a rogue Group 3 vessel.* We found out that this Group 3 was trying to ram a buoy and the South Korean tug was protecting the buoy. We arrived and everyone stopped. These three large ships floating slowly in the ocean, watched each other, waiting for a move.
Suddenly, the water behind the Group 3 began to churn into green and white foam indicating it had ordered its engines to full power. It made a hard turn to the right and made a line for the buoy. We cranked our engines forward as well, sending our ship into its path to cut it off. Wait a minute. This was a US Navy cruiser, weighing nearly 10,000 tons, laden with guns and missiles, and we were using it like a bumper car to block another huge vessel. The Group 3, seeing us trying to cut it off, reversed its engines making it stop. We shuddered past it, trying to slow and stop, but were going too fast and slipped past as if skidding on ice. The Group 3 again surged forward aiming for the buoy, but the South Korean tug came from our port side just in time to force the Group 3 to turn.
For the next three hours that was the scene; three captains, each determined in his mission. One ship was sent to destroy, two ships assigned defend and protect. The three ships surged forward, backward, made hard turns, and reversed rudders. Our Captain expertly rode our warship like it was a trained mustang, each anticipating the move of the other. We were determined to not let this buoy get hit. Then, as if clouds parted to show a sudden ray of light, everyone stopped again, breathing hard, sweating, but ready for the next move. What happened next hit me as nothing had before, and still leaves vivid images.
I watched as the South Korean tug set their small rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) into the water and set two crewmen into it. They were decked in ocean survival suits of international orange and inflatable devices. This RHIB then shot out at high-speed toward the buoy. The high seas made the RHIB disappear then reappear from view as it climbed and banked the heavy swells. When they had arrived in the RHIB, they tied their boat to the buoy. That’s when it hit me; these men were so dedicated in their effort, so justified in their cause that they were willing to risk, in fact give their life for that reason. I had never beheld such a selfless act and I was painfully honored to bear witness.
This seemed to be a new wrinkle for the rogue ship, and I thought that it would end this madness. I was wrong though, as the Group 3 surged forward and once again aimed for the buoy and the two terrified men. And again the STERETT responded, surged, and shuddered forward. We were trying to protect not only the buoy, but now the lives of the men being tossed in the seas and wakes made by three skirmishing ships.
This continued for another forty-five minutes until unexpectedly the Group 3 calmly turned away and steamed into the cold gray drizzle beyond the horizon. The RHIB returned to the tug and the South Korean crew recovered their boat and two shaken crewmembers. The master of the tug gave us emotional thanks on the radio; I could tell he was nearly, if not already, in tears. Mission complete, we turned and resumed our patrol.
Almost ten years later, in January 1993, I was leaning back in my front room, flipping through 200 channels of nothing-to-watch. I came across yet another news flash, and was about to continue to the next channel if it weren’t for something on the screen that caught my eye; zero zero seven. I sat up with eyes alert and quickly turned up the volume. There on the news was a press conference of Russian president Boris Yeltsin handing over the Korean Airlines Flight 007 black box to South Korean President Roh Tai Woo.
Memories came flooding back to me. I remembered the boiling seas, the bitter wind, and the gray doom-filled skies. I remembered the sixty-six days on station searching in vain for any clue about the fate of the aircraft. I remembered the long days that turned into weeks, then ended up being months. But what I lingered on were the two dedicated men, tossed in a tiny boat surrounded by giant ravenous waves. To the ocean they were small and the search for their comrades mattered not. For them, however, it was all that mattered in the world, and I remembered them.
Note* Merchant ships are categorized by hull, superstructure, stern, and bow. These are further categorized by size, location, and type. A Group 3 resembles a small oil tanker, with a raised superstructure over the stern, some masts, cranes, and kingposts amidships, and a raised bow.