By Fr. Vazken Movsesian
(Photos courtesy of Pat Morrow)
“Kahanayk yev joghovort” are the first words of the requiem service of the Armenian Church. The words translate to “the priests and people” referring to a gathering of those who remember the dead in prayer. And there we were, the priest and people, in solemn remembrance of 17 men who perished 60 years ago to the day. I was singing the hymn but this gathering was not in any Armenian church. Far from one, we were standing in the middle of America in Bellevue, Nebraska, near the Offutt Air Force Base. The gathering? Sixty years ago, in the height of the Cold War, a United States Air Force C-130 was shot out of the sky by the Soviet Union. The plane crashed in the village of Nerkin Sasnashen, Armenia (about 60km Northwest of Yerevan).
It was interesting that I sang the hymn in Armenian and no one in the audience understood the language, yet everyone knew very well what was happening. We were connecting as people. We were uniting the remote village of Sasnashen with Bellevue. Armenia was uniting with Nebraska and all of this to attest that a group of men were united with eternity.
Like many Armenians, or many people in general, I had not heard of this shoot-down incident. We grew up in the Cold War fearing the worst, with duck-and-cover drills executed in our school hallways on a regular basis. But who knew that the Cold War was being played out with a shoot-down in Armenia? We should have known for in fact, this major international incident was the most publicized confrontation between the Soviet Union and the U.S. military during the Cold War!
On September 2, 1958, four Soviet MiG-17 pilots attacked and shot down an unarmed US reconnaissance aircraft after its crew inadvertently flew into Soviet airspace over Armenia. Seventeen United States Air Force airmen were killed in the crash at Sasnashen. The incident was covered up until the break up of the Soviet Union – and then some – when the remains of the C-130 60528 Crew were excavated from the crash site and interred on the 40th anniversary of the shoot-down, with a headstone identifying the members of the Crew* at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.
Fortunately, the details of the incident, the cover-up, the years of denial, the reconciling with the facts up to the present day have been meticulously documented by Larry Tart and have been published in his book, “The Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights” (2001 with Robert Keefe). The book and detailed information can be found at Mr. Tart’s website, www.LarryTart.com. He has also prepared a short briefing video (which was shown at the Bellevue gathering) where the main details of the incident are outlined: https://youtu.be/RDqjaKCln_4
One of the eye-witnesses to the event was a young man, Martin Kakosian, a college student on a field trip in 1958. Kakosian, a skilled sculptor, later collaborated with the villagers to create a memorial — a khatchkar— honoring an unknown American crew that had died unceremoniously at the edge of their village. In late August 1993, Sasnashen village commemorated the 35th anniversary of the shoot-down during the unveiling of the khachkar.
Mr. Tart, on behalf of the Prop Wash Gang, the organizers of this gathering, wrote to both the Eastern and Western Dioceses of the Armenian Church asking for a priest to offer the requiem prayer at this 60th anniversary. Archbishop Hovnan Derderian assigned me to this event. As mentioned, the incident was news to me; however, not for long. I was engaged in the story from my first reading of the account. After a few conversations with Mr. Tart, the PWG asked me to offer the Keynote Address for the Commemoration.
This invitation was a true honor for me on many levels. As a priest I was there to offer the prayer and even to reflect, but it was a personal experience at the time of my father’s death over 25 years ago that connected me directly to the story that was unfolding before me. My father was a veteran of the Korean War. I remember vividly to this day the overwhelming emotions that surged in me when at his funeral military personnel presented the flag of the United States to my mother, and said, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your husband’s honorable and faithful service.” I remember being moved to tears when realizing that great men are defined by the sacrifice they make. People in service to others truly define greatness. In the church we speak of martyrdom as an expression of sacrifice. As a priest I share the Gospel of Christ, and His words, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13) While Jesus refers to his own death in this passage, he also gives an opportunity for us to understand our service and sacrifice to others. It was the expression of that devotion and sacrifice that was moving the direction of the message I wanted to share.
Furthermore, as an Armenian, I wanted to also emphasize the diverse set of circumstance which have contributed to Armenian history and to the events of the shoot down. As history will attest, Armenia and Armenians are often caught in the middle of battles not by our choosing. The US Air Force plane took off from bases in Eastern Turkey, that is, occupied Armenia. The plane was shot down over Armenia, occupied by the Soviets. (And yes, the plane was shot down by a Mig-17, named after Migoyan.) In every way Armenians are the by-standers to this particular history; nevertheless, Armenian have a message to share that can lead to healing.
The day arrived and we met with people from throughout the United States. They had all come to commemorate, to remember, to re-connect with a story and with others who shared the same values and understanding of the sacrifice made by these 17 men.
The acting President of the Prop Wash Gang, Chief Lonnie Henderson, emceed the program. He had set up a “Missing Man Table” at the center of the banquet hall. The table was set on a white tablecloth, containing 17 red roses in vases and a place setting for one – one representing them all. A shaker of salt next to the setting was a bitter reminder of what had transpired. There, the names of the 17 men were written along with the poem “We See the Eagles Fly.”
Tom Giroir, offered the invocation and introduced me as an Armenian priest. In referencing to my background he pointed to our ministry of “In His Shoes,” that is, those who have suffered evil have a unique responsibility to take action against injustice to others. It was on this premise that I shared my thoughts for the evening with the group.
With a quick look at history, I spoke of the rich story of the Armenian people and the land. I spoke of the Armenian Genocide as an event but also as a spring-board to addressing the despicable reality of Genocide that continues to take place in our world. Most especially, I shared with the group the need to stay ever-vigilant in their resolve to remember the sacrifices of their fallen brothers. Vigilance and remembrance must have manifestations today in our actions to combat evil on all fronts.
After I offered the ancient requiem prayer of the Armenian Church and remembered all 17 of the fallen servicemen by name, Chief Lonnie honored me in a manner I will forever remember. On behalf of the Prop Wash Gang he presented a shadow box with an actual piece of the downed-plane. Here I would have a tangible reminder of the sacrifice made by these men and the ever-essential necessity to stay vigilant against injustice. He also gifted me Larry Tart’s book, “The Price of Vigilance” signed by the author. These are the treasures, coupled with the stories I heard, that I return to the Diocese to share with Armenian men and women of all ages.
I confessed that in all my travels to Armenia I have never been to Sasnashen. Now, I don’t think I can go back to Armenian without visiting Sasnashen. I hope to do so in October of this year. There, I promised the group, I will take the spirit and the energy that was brewing in this room on September 2, 2018. It was a powerful and moving spirit.
Finally, with the recitation of the poem, “We See the Eagles” the Commemoration on the 60th Anniversary of the Shoot Down came to an end.
A plaque with the names of the 17 men and this poem was presented to me.
This evening we connected on a human level. We were there to honor sacrifice – the expression of love by these 17 men. We connected Bellevue Nebraska mystically to Sasnashen, Armenia. This evening we understood that the most fundamental of all human expressions – to extend ourselves to others, to love and share is essential. It is the legacy that has been left to us by the 17 men who were shot down giving themselves for something greater than themselves, for our country and ultimately for humanity. And we accept the challenge to perpetuate and share this legacy beyond this evening.
WE SEE THE EAGLES FLY
We see the eagles fly...
toward the Caucasus Mountains
‘bout nine in the morning
Warm September day
We see the eagles fly...
riding the currents
Soaring above all
We see the eagles fly...
...and those eagles
look a lot like
The Prop Wash Gang
September 2, 1997
The 17 services men of US Air Force C-130 60528 who were shot down on September 2, 1958 in Sasnashen, Armenia were A2C Joel H. Fields, A2C Gerald H. Medeiros, A2C James E. Ferguson, Jr., A2C Gerald C. Maggiacomo, Capt Paul E. Duncan, SSgt Laroy Price, 1Lt John E. Simpson, TSgt Arthur L. Mello, A2C Robert H. Moore, Capt Edward J. Jeruss, MSgt George P. Petrochilos, A2C Clement O. Mankins, 1Lt Ricardo M. Villarreal, A1C Robert J. Oshinskie, Capt Rudy J. Swiestra, A2C Harold T. Kamps, A2C Archie T. Bourg, Jr.