Acclaimed author Robert Whiting is so tightly plugged into Japan that the first edition of his memoir Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball came out in Japanese. Then the editors of the English edition, for whatever reason, decided against including his material on espionage. That decision is our readers’ gain. Asia Times earlier published one of those segments and now we’re serializing the other:
Early 1960s work at the Elint – electronic intelligence – Center, on Fuchu Air Base near Tokyo, quickly became monotonous and tiring, as I personally found as a US Air Force analyst. For U-2 missions you had to sit there for 12 hours at a stretch, three times a week, and watch the same signals appear and disappear.
But there was an underlying tension because of the high-priority nature of the work; and the all too frequent reminders of just how dangerous it was for the pilots who flew the missions.
The U-2 had a good claim to the title of flimsiest plane ever built. It was a specially designed single-engine, single-seat Lockheed aircraft. Nicknamed “Dragon Lady,” it flew at an altitude of 70,000 feet, conducting round-the-clock, all-weather missions.
It had a wingspan of 103 feet and only two permanent landing gear units set up in bicycle configuration – one front and one back. That limitation was necessary to give the plane more lift.
Special detachable “pogo” wheels, like training wheels on a bike, were fixed to either wingtip to balance the plane on takeoff. Those were jettisoned the moment the plane was airborne.
When it landed, workers on the tarmac kept pace with the incoming plane while it touched down; as it was coming to a halt crew members raced to grab the wings, wrestle them up or down as needed and re-affix the pogos to prevent the U-2 from toppling over.
The U-2 weighed 25,000 pounds when it was fully loaded with equipment. It flew at a maximum speed of 500 miles per hour with a cruise speed of 430mph. If you flew it too slow, it would stall and fall out of the sky. Fly it too fast and it would break apart. It required pilots of exceptional intelligence, skill, perseverance and courage.
U-2 planes were cold and cramped and flew so high pilots could see the curvature of the earth. They had to wear pressurized suits and helmets, which rendered them unable even to scratch their noses and required them to suck food and water through tubes.
They had to sit there for as many as 12 hours, then, fatigued and with depth perception skewed from the high altitude, they had to worry about a safe landing, putting the plane into a virtual stall 10 feet from the ground to set up the pogo alignments. After a mission, the pilot was seriously dehydrated from breathing pure oxygen and sometimes suffered DCS – decompression sickness – if nitrogen bubbles formed in the blood.
Through it all there was the ever-present danger of being shot down as the plane flew in and out of the target country. The high altitude the U-2s flew at was supposed to have put them out of range of enemy fighter planes and missiles, but it did not always work out that way, as Gary Powers discovered.
Powers’s plane was brought down by a surface-to-air missile (S-75 Divina) that exploded just behind the tail section, causing the U-2 to flip over and break its wings. Powers bailed out and parachuted to safety, where he was quickly captured. He had carried with him a modified silver dollar that contained a lethal, shellfish-derived saxitoxin-tipped needle, but did not use it.
Flying over China was no less dangerous. The strength and capabilities of the Chinese air defense system had improved so much during the 1950s that it became extremely difficult for reconnaissance planes to overfly the mainland.
Gaining intel from behind the “Bamboo Curtain,” as it was called then, was not an easy thing. Moreover, the communications security systems of the Chinese were so sophisticated and multi-layered that NSA was unable to break most of their codes and ciphers.
U-2 Missions over China began in January 1962. Between September 1962 and September 1967, five U-2 aircraft, all flown by Chinese Nationalist pilots, were shot down over the mainland by Chinese air defense fighter interceptors and surface-to-air missiles
The low-altitude P2V flights were also frequently attacked, sometimes more than once during the course of a mission. Ground searchlights would light up the sky, flak would explode all around and bullets would slam into the fuselage. Or perhaps a MIG-17 fighter would suddenly appear out of nowhere.
Planes would take evasive action, diving underneath the ground radar, below a thousand feet. But the maneuvers were not always successful. During my time at Fuchu, three P2V planes went down over the China mainland. One of them had 13 men aboard. In all, 50 crew members that I knew of lost their lives.
The incident I remember most vividly involved a low-altitude flight that was knocked out of the sky by a Chinese missile. An agent had been sent in afterward to locate the fallen aircraft, destroy onboard equipment and retrieve the tapes, which were then delivered to the Elint Center.
I was assigned to analyze the tape. I sat there and listened to the pilot’s commentary in halting English as a navigator called
“Coordinates 37 degrees north, 121 East.”
“Coordinate 37 degrees north, 120 East. Check.”
“Over land now.”
“Coming up on Early Warning.”
“Coordinate 36 degrees north, 119 East.”
Then I heard the distinct high-pitched fire control sound, followed by an awful screech resembling a modern-day fax or modem, that signaled lock-on. The last thing I heard was the Taiwanese pilot say, “I’m sorry. Goodbye.”
That was the last sound on the tape. No bang. No boom. No sounds of explosion. Just silence.
I felt sick. Nauseated. For the first time in my life, I understood completely the meaning of the word courage.
Try as it might, the CIA garnered very little human intelligence from within China. It was extremely difficult to recruit and control agents inside the Chinese mainland – and efforts to infiltrate it with CIA or Chinese Nationalist spies often ended with the agents being captured or killed.
In 1962, for example, as I learned much, much later, out of 873 Chinese Nationalist commandos who were sent into Communist China on raiding missions to capture prisoners and collect intelligence, 172 did not make it back. Subsequent missions in 1963 suffered an 85% loss rate.
What was left for the CIA was to buttonhole refugees who had made it into Hong Kong, then a British Crown Colony. But the reliability of the information gathered this way was suspect, to say the least. That left overflights as the primary source of intelligence.
Next: Adventures of ’60s US spooks in Japan, on-base and off-base