US Navy EC-121M Constellation Shot Down

BB-62 & CVA-43 Underway USS New Jersey (BB-62) and Coral Sea departed from Yokosuka, Japan for the United States April 9, 1969. The homecoming for New Jersey was to be delayed. On April 15, 1969, while the ships were at sea steaming east toward the United States (shown at left), North Korean jet fighters shot down an unarmed US Navy EC-121M Constellation, Warning Star, electronic surveillance plane over the Sea of Japan, killing its entire crew of 31 men. Carrier Task Force 71 was formed and sent to the Sea of Japan; New Jersey was ordered to come about and steam due west toward Japan to join the task force.

Interception and Shoot-down

EC-121M ConstellationA United States Navy Lockheed EC-121M Warning Star of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron One (VQ-1) on a reconnaissance mission was shot down by North Korean MIG-21 aircraft over the Sea of Japan. Very soon after arrival over the Sea of Japan, North Korea reacted to the presence of the EC-121M, but not in a way that would jeopardize the mission. Roughly six hours into the mission, the Army Security Agency and radars in Korea detected the takeoff of two North Korean Air Force MIG-21s from East Tongchong-ni near Wonsan and tracked them, assuming that they were responding in some fashion to the mission of Deep Sea 129. In the meantime, the EC-121M filed a scheduled activity report by radio on time at 13:00 and did not indicate anything out of the ordinary, but this was the last message sent from the plane. Twenty-two minutes later the radars lost the picture of the MIGs and did not reacquire it until 13:37, where they were closing with Deep Sea 129 for a probable intercept.

The communications that this activity generated within the National Security network was monitored by the EC-121M's parent unit, VQ-1, which at 13:44 sent Deep Sea 129 a "Condition 3"' alert by radio, indicating it might be under attack. LCDR Overstreet acknowledged the warning and complied with procedures to abort the mission and return to base. Approaching from the northeastern coast at supersonic speed, the MIGs easily overtook the EC-121M, who could do little with their "warning." The MIGs were armed with 23mm cannons and AA-2 Atoll missiles; the EC-121M was unarmed and without a fighter escort. At 13:47 the radar tracks of the MIGs merged with that of Deep Sea 129, which disappeared from the radar picture two minutes later. The MIGs had blown the EC-121M out of the sky, and while the details of the incident have never been released to the public, it is assumed that an air-to-air missile was used as the North Korean press mentioned that a "single shot" downed the aircraft.

New Jersey Recalled to Task Force 71

BB-62 UnderwayIt is standard practice for all aircraft carriers returning to the United State from 7th Fleet WESPAC deployments to receive an UNREP of fuel in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands from an AO vessel out of Pearl Harbor Naval Station. Underway replenishment (UNREP) is a method of transferring fuel, munitions, and stores from one ship to another while under way.

Firsthand Account

Here is a personal recollection from Bert McNamee. "It was a clear fair-weather day on 15 April with our homeward bound group only 3-days out of home port on the west coast of the US. It was a good opportunity to go topside on the flight deck to watch the UNREP, have a smoke and enjoy the fresh air while chatting about what we were going to do when we finally get home. Everyone was excited to 'get back to the world' and lead a normal life after our 7-month deployment. I saw New Jersey belch a column of smoke out her stacks, picks up speed pulling out in front of our group making a wide starboard arc as she took her heading due west making what looked to me as flank speed away from our group. As New Jersey made wake west the Captain came on the 1MC to inform us of the New Jersey's departure and the EC-121M shot-down over the Sea of Japan and where the New Jersey was headed.

I have always wanted to be at sea on a battleship, but I did not want to be a sailor on that battleship that day! Can you imagine being within 3-days of home port after a long deployment and getting orders to go back across the ocean you just crossed going home and join another task force on another expedition!"