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Archie Kalokerinos

George P (Pete) Petrochilos

Air Force Master Sergeant.

From, The (Philadelphia) Enquirer - National

Wednesday, September 3, 1997

After decades of secrecy, U.S. honors Cold War’s lost fliers

The crews were on spy missions along the borders of the Soviet Union and its allies.
Some were shot down, others just disappeared

By Michael E. Ruane


FORT MEADE, Md - The fat, gray American spy plane had blundered over the Soviet border like a cow into crocodiles. Four MiG fighters were on it in an instant. ‘Attack!’ the Russian pilots could be heard yelling into their radios. “Attack!”

The unarmed, propeller-driven C-130 never had a chance. The MiGs raked it with rocket and cannon fire. Flames burst from its side. Its huge red tail broke off. And down the plane went, taking George P. Petrochilos and 16 buddies to their fiery deaths.

It was Tuesday, Sept. 2, 1958. Back home in Levittown, “Pete” Petrochilos’ sister, Theresa Durkin, then 36, would soon be waking her three boys. Summer was over. The world was generally at peace. But within hours, heading to her home via taxicab, would be a telegram beginning: “It is with deep regret. . . .

Yesterday, 39 years to the day after Air Force Master Sgt. Petrochilos’ plane plunged into a field in Soviet Armenia, his white-haired sister, now 75, and hundreds of others paid tearful and overdue tribute to the scores of’ ‘silent soldiers” who gave their lives on aviation’s secret front lines of the Cold War.

Standing before a gleaming C-130 refurbished to look like Petrochilos’ aircraft, family members, former comrades and top military brass gathered on a hazy, humid morning to honor all service members, living and dead, who manned the nation’s spy planes during the long, delicate duel with the Soviet Union and its allies.

The ceremony was hosted by the National Security Agency, the nation’s secret, high-tech electronic eavesdropping and code-making organization, at a new park and memorial on the grounds of this Army base north of Washington where the NSA has its headquarters.

It marked the loss of about 40 aircraft - 13 to enemy fire - and the deaths of more than 100 Americans who were engaged in the top-secret aerial electronic and photo reconnaissance that went on along the razor edges of the Communist bloc during the Cold War.

Some of the incidents, such as the 1958 loss of Petrochilos’ plane, became public when they occurred. The Soviets initially denied downing the plane -- which officials have said probably got lost in poor weather -- saying it “fell” in Soviet territory. But only six bodies -- none of them, apparently, that of Petrochilos -- were ever returned.

About other incidents, though, little was said at the time.

Planes were quietly lost in the vastness of places like the Bering Sea; Shemya Island, Alaska; or the Sea of Japan. In some cases, U.S. officials knew that a plane had been shot down. In other cases, weather or malfunction was the cause. And some aircraft just vanished without explanation.

NSA officials and even the aging veterans of those days remain tight-lipped about what exactly was done, and how and where.

‘We’re from the old school,” remarked one silver-haired veteran yesterday, who said he had seen Petrochilos’ plane depart that day, but declined to identify himself

And no large public ceremony had ever been held honoring the dangerous work and those who performed it -- until yesterday.

By 1958, George Petrochilos had been in the service for almost two decades. He signed up in 1940, before the U.S. entry into World War II, made his way into the Air Corps, and aside from a brief stint in civilian life, was making it a career.

The eldest of the five children of a Greek restaurant chef, he grew up in Scranton and I-Iazleton with keen language skills hatched at home and as an altar boy in the local Greek Orthodox Church.

A handsome man with thick dark hair, he never married. By I958, with his home of record that of his sister in Levittown, Petrochilos was flying top-secret reconnaissance missions for the Air Force.

They were called “ferret” missions, designed to use language experts and state-of-the-art electronics gear to divine what was going on beyond the often-impenetrable barrier of the Iron Curtain.

Although there was some overflying of enemy territory -- as with U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 -- most of the missions saw airplanes flying back and forth along hostile borders eavesdropping, careful not to penetrate the adversary’s air space.

The missions often were long and tedious, with a small crew of pilots flying a larger crew of’ ‘back­enders’ packed in hot, darkened compartments in the rear of rugged craft such as the stubby, slow C-130.

Petrochilos’ family knew he was in the Air Force, but were not quite sure what he did. “He was a very close-mouthed individual,” Durkin, his younger sister, who now lives in Jamison, Bucks County, said in an interview last week. “He could write a letter three pages long and not tell you anything except how the weather was.”

The plane bearing Petrochilos, who was a back-ender, took off at 10:21 am. from the Incirlik Air Base near Adana, Turkey, flew northeast to the Black Sea, and then was supposed to fly back and forth along the border between Turkey and Soviet Georgia and neighboring Soviet Armenia.

Instead, the plane went off course and flew directly into Aimenia, where it was attacked and downed by the four Russian MiGs near the village of Sasnashen.

American officials in 1959 released a transcript of the Russian pilots’ radio calls, to prove to the won that the Soviets had shot down an unarmed plane. “He will not get away,” one pilot radioed about th stricken American aircraft. “He is already falling. I will finish him off, boys. I will finish him off on th run.’

Later, investigators obtained photos from the Russian jets’ gun cameras that show the C-130 caught i the crosshairs of a gunsight, then falling to earth in flames.

Yesterday’s memorial was, to a large extent, the work of one man. Larry Tart, 59, a retired Air Force master sergeant who now lives in State College, did the same kind of work as Petrochilos in the sam kinds of airplanes, but about a decade later.

He recalled that a plaque honoring the men of the doomed plane hung in a squadron operations briefing room used by his later generation of back-enders.

“I’d always had a soft feeling for the fact that these guys had given their lives protecting their countr from communism, and in effect they had made it possible and safer for people like me to fly similar missions,” he said in an interview last week.

“On any given mission it could have been me rather than them, is the way I looked at it,” he said. ‘Men like that . . . had never been given any recognition. We simply couldn’t talk about it. We were really, known as silent warriors.

You’d leave. Your wife would pack your bags, and say, ‘Where are you going?’ You’d say, ‘I’m going to be gone for two weeks. You’ll see me when I get back.’”

After Tart retired in 1977, he visited the National Cryptologic Museum, adjacent to the NSA, and wondered why, amid memorials to other spy operations, there was no recognition of the men of the 1958 flight. Tart said officials told him they lacked memorabilia.

Tart said he determined to try to find some. He wound up doing much more. Not only did he gather memorabilia from across the country -- and from the crash site in Armenia -- but he also succeeded ir getting the NSA and the Air Force interested in setting up a memorial to all the Americans who performed the hazardous duty.

His work bore its final fruit yesterday under a hazy, cloudless sky.

As tearful relatives -- widows, sons and brothers of the men on the lost plane -- gathered with gray­haired Cold War veterans under a tent and in bleachers before the restored C-130, Tart stood to one side waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

“Some of these people have not known for 39 years what happened to their loved ones,” he said.

“Today, we’re going to tell them a little.”

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1 Comment

Joanne Willson Nee Sullivan
on 05.06.2008

Hi After many years of wondering what happened for sure to 'uncle George' George P Petrochilos after finding your site I now can piece it all together. Uncle Goerge was a very good friend of my mother and father and of course my brother and myself. We were only young at the time but looked forward to seeing our visitor from overseas as often as possible in the UK. As I sit here surrounded by old letters from George and photo's of good times we had and although my parents are no longer alive, I have kept his letters for the last 20yrs as my mother had also before me ... I just couldnt bring myself to throw away the correspondence between such good friends.I am so grateful that I have found your site as this has been a mystery for me all my life. If any of George Petrochilos reletives are reading this I would very much like to contact them. Thank you Jo