Published Sunday, July 19, 1998
Quest to find lost remains of Forbes flier still baffling
By ROGER MYERS
It was the most promising lead Topekan Maria Goforth McAtee had gotten in years about where the remains of her late husband might be located.
An American with the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POW/MIA had called and told her that a team planned to dig up two unmarked graves in a tiny cemetery in the far northern reaches of Russia.
"He told me there were eight graves and that British and Canadians were buried in the cemetery and that two of the graves were unmarked," McAtee said in an interview.
The small cluster of graves, called the Severomorsk Military Cemetery, wasn't too far from where a Forbes Field-based RB-47 airplane was shot down by fighters of the former Soviet Union over the Barents Sea on July 1, 1960.
McAtee's husband, Capt. Oscar Lee Goforth, was among six airmen on the plane, which had been modified into a reconnaissance aircraft. Goforth and two other officers were in the cramped modified bomb bay of the six-jet bomber working to pick up radio intercepts with their electronic eavesdropping gear when the plane was attacked. The plane was assigned to the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Forbes Air Force Base, which was a busy Strategic Air Command base during the 1960s and 1970s.
The RB-47 went into a flat spin to the left after being hit by cannon fire from a Soviet MiG fighter and reportedly blew up over the sea.
Two members of the crew, then-Capts. John R. McKone, the navigator, and Freeman B. Olmstead, the co-pilot, survived the shootdown and were picked from the frigid Barents Sea by a Russian trawler. They spent six months in Moscow's infamous Lubyanka prison before being freed in January 1961 as a Russian gesture of good will toward the new presidential administration of John F. Kennedy.
One body from the RB-47, that of Maj. Williard G. Palm, the pilot, was recovered from the sea and turned over to American authorities on July 25, 1960.
The body of another of the crewman, Capt. Eugene Posa, supposedly was recovered by the Russians in October 1960 and taken to the Severomorsk area.
But no bodies, nor any remains, of Goforth and the sixth member of the RB-47 crew, Capt. Dean Phillips, have ever been found.
Despite its promise, the Severomorsk Cemetery lead was a false alarm.
"They told me they were Russians," McAtee said last week of the two bodies that were exhumed from the cemetery. "One had been buried for 16 years and one had been there longer, and that one had on his uniform."
It was a big letdown for the Topeka woman who has waited 38 years to find out what happened to her first husband.
"I was disappointed," she said. "But I'm fine. There's nothing much I can do.
"But these people who are working for the American-Russian Commission, they're wonderful. The officer who called said there is another cemetery over there that they have people checking into. It's in the general vicinity, but on the other side of a bay.
"They are buried in Russia somewhere and I said to this guy, 'You know somebody knows,' and he said, 'I know somebody knows where they're at.' There are a lot of people who have come forward."
The widow of Capt. Phillips, Pat Phillips, reached at her home in Sacramento, Calif., said she also was disappointed at the news from the U.S-Russian Commission representative who contacted her.
"Well, you know, your hopes get up and then they go down," Phillips said. "You try to tell yourself, 'Well, don't get your hopes up on the roof.' But I'm doing all right. My daughter lives with me and we fortify each other."
Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon POW/MIA office, said: "Even when it's not always the answer you want to hear, we want people to know what we're doing, where we're going, that we're not doing anything undercover here.
"We are always hopeful, that's why we do this. The reason we went to the cemetery is because we had a lead from a Russian autopsy report that said they buried an individual who wasn't Captain Goforth."
Greer declined to identify either of the bodies that were exhumed. But Maria Goforth said she thinks they were looking specifically for the body of Eugene Posa, whose remains were reportedly sent to the Severomorsk area after it was recovered but which have never turned up.
Maria said she thinks the U.S-Russian Commission team exhumed the graves looking for Posa, hoping it would lead them to the bodies of her husband and Dean Phillips.
Greer said there was other anthropological evidence recovered from the grave that solidified the conclusion that the remains were those of Russians and not Americans.
Greer said the other cemetery across the bay from the burial plot that was exhumed "is a tenuous lead."
"Our concern is that there's not even a village left to point at. But we're going to check it out," he said. "Based on cursory observation of it, the cemetery that is allegedly there is no longer there.
"But we're not going to turn anything down."
McAtee and Phillips say that attitude gives them hope that their long wait to find out what happened to their husbands may finally be drawing to a close.
"I feel very positive about this," Phillips said. "I feel maybe we got let down this time, but there are people who are working and plugging away.
"And Maria feels the same way I do. Maria told me, 'I think something positive is going to happen.'"
Copyright 1998 The Topeka Capital-Journal