Monday, November 17, 2008

This story is taken from Sacbee / Living Here
Published Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2008

Merry Lee Croslin doesn't remember her uncle William S. Meyer.

Long before she was born, he disappeared when the Navy spy plane carrying him and nine other crew members was shot down Nov. 6, 1951, near Vladivostok, Siberia.

"One of my mother's biggest fears when I was growing up was that her brother had somehow survived and was in a Soviet gulag," says Croslin, who's now 51.

The event made national headlines during the tense early years of the Cold War. It haunted the lives of her late grandmother, mother and aunt. And it resonates in Croslin's life even now.

It resonates as well with a retired Nevada City nurse named Melody Raglin, who was only 15 months old when her father – Bill Meyer's crew mate and friend Erwin Doyle Raglin – disappeared in the same incident.

If the Cold War is a conflict largely forgotten by a country now at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, its casualties are the forgotten veterans.

But their families haven't forgotten. They're troubled by decades of unanswered questions, by fears and frustrations that cloud their search for information. They want answers.

Melody Raglin can hardly talk about her father without crying.

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to know what happened," says Raglin, 58. "My mother would say, 'The Russians shot him down, and no trace was ever found.' "

Her mother never remarried, she says, because what if Doyle came home one day?

Croslin, who lives in midtown Sacramento, recently returned from a three-day conference for families of those who went missing during the Korean War and Cold War. Raglin is a veteran of nine such meetings, run by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C.

She joined Croslin the other day to go through an old suitcase filled with Bill Meyer's effects. His Navy dress blues. The Air Medal and other service awards. An album filled with photos of people unfamiliar to Croslin's family. Bits and pieces of a life interrupted in 1951, when Meyer was 27.

On Veterans Day, they honor the memory of men they never knew.

Incident during tense times
The Navy's telegram mentioned only the unexplained disappearance of the P2V Neptune plane in the Sea of Japan during a weather reconnaissance mission.

"Weather reconnaissance was a common cover story in those days," says Frank Tims, a founding member of the American Cold War Veterans. "To send military aircraft into someone's airspace can be construed as an act of war."

Consider the political landscape in 1951. The Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe and threatened to expand into Western Europe, still devastated by World War II. A year earlier, American forces launched into war in Korea to halt the spread of communism there. As Tims says, the American public feared that the Soviet Union wanted to wage war against the United States.

Within a few weeks of the Neptune's disappearance, American newspapers reported the incident as the shoot-down of a U.S. spy plane by Soviet fighters.

The crew's families had no idea. The government never told them, says Pat Dickinson, a West Virginia woman whose 20-year-old brother, Jack Lively, was the plane's youngest crew member.

She was 14, and she remembers seeing her father on the porch, crying and holding his head in his hands, when she ran down the hill from school for lunch. Unlike Bill Meyer and Doyle Raglin, who served in the Navy during World War II, her brother had enlisted only a year earlier.

The day he left for boot camp was the last day his family ever saw him.

The entire crew was declared legally dead on Nov. 7, 1952.

Forty years later, after then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin confirmed that American POWs could still be alive in camps in the former Soviet Union, Dickinson decided to track down surviving family members of the other crewmen – strangers united by their common loss.

Through her efforts, military forensics experts were able to collect DNA samples from each man's next of kin in case evidence turns up.

"I've done 15 years of research to resolve the fate of Jack and his fellow crewmen," says Dickinson, 71, from her home in West Virginia. "I can personally confirm that the wall of secrecy is very discouraging.

"Sometimes, you wait for years to get a reply, and then it's totally redacted. I recently got a packet that was totally blank except for the cover page. I find this insulting."

Federal law requires the release of all requested information to the primary next of kin, except for anything that might reveal intelligence-gathering sources or methods, explains Larry Greer, a spokesman for the DMPO.

"It sounds like the sources and methods are being struck out," he says.

What information could remain a security risk after 57 years? The plane's technology has long been obsolete. And the idea that a source – a spy from the 1950s – could be compromised today sounds improbable.

Current diplomatic strains with Russia may play a part, suggests Tims.

"They may be trying to get the Russian archives open again," he says. "There may be a POW from the 1970s still alive after all these years. I know it's hard on the families. It's repugnant to me to say it, but there might be reasons."

Seven years ago, according to Dickinson and Melody Raglin, the date to declassify information about the case was reset from 2001 to 2026.

Drips, drabs, disappointments
So the families wait.

At the most recent meeting for families of missing personnel, Croslin learned that an elderly Vladivostok man claimed several years ago to have been in the hospital in late 1951 along with four wounded Americans. One of the Americans was in his mid-20s, with blue eyes and fair hair.

"I read that and thought, 'Wow, is that my uncle?' " she says.

Military researchers have discounted the Russian's testimony, citing discrepancies in dates, and Croslin returned from Washington disappointed that leads have dwindled.

Raglin puts the situation more bluntly.

"(Defense representatives) say, 'It's one of our highest national priorities to find out what happened,' " she says. "That gives you hope when you're new. But after all these years, I wonder, 'How can you even look me in the eye?' "

Why not just let the past go? Croslin wants to honor the grief her mother and grandmother endured, and Raglin longs for connection with the father she never knew.

And Dickinson says: "This is my brother. I feel that he and the crew were abandoned. I don't think a country that sends service personnel on these missions should ever abandon them."


Call the Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136.