"The Untold Story of Baron 52"
Their flight was supposed to be a secret. Their fate was not.
By Alfred Lubrano
Alfred Lubrano is an inquirer staff writer.
The Vietnam War had been over for a week.
But top-secret U.S. spy planes continued to fly covert missions over
countries President Richard Nixon never talked about. So, at 11:05 p.m.
on Feb. 4, 1973, "Baron 52" lumbered down the runway and lifted off
from a U.S. Air Force base in Ubon, Thailand, with eight men aboard.
Over Laos. specialists from the (6994th Security Squadron eavesdropped
on a convoy of North Vietnamese tanks snaking along the Ho Chi Minh
Trail into Cambodia.
Baron 52 blipped onto North Vietnamese radar at 1.25 a.m., Feb. 5.
Suddenly, 37mm antiaircraft artillery blistered the sky around the
converted cargo plane, an EC-47Q. The slow-trying plane was being
chewed up by an asteroid storm of flak. The crew's last contact with
Ubon was at 1:40 a.m.
A search team reached the aircraft four days later and found it lying
upside down on the side of a jungle mountain, its fuselage burned down
to an 18-inch tube. Searchers reported seeing three or four bodies in
the forward section of the plane, the so-called front-enders: pilot.
What happened to the back-enders, the other four men aboard the last
American military plane to be shot down over Southeast Asia, has been
the focus of 25 years of rage and discontent, a slow-motion nightmare.
Families of the four men in the back of the plane insist they parachuted
out and were captured. But the government decreed all on board crashed
and burned. Its proof: an excavation of the site in 1993; that yielded
half a tooth, identified as belonging to one of the back-enders, Sgt.
Peter Cressman. So powerful is the family obsession to learn the truth
about "Baron 52", that Cressman's brothers have spent their lives
trekking from the mountain military camps of Afghanistan, to the Mekong
River, to the paper wilderness of the Library of Congress. to the living
room of a man in Texas who said his conscience forced him to end two
decades of silence on secrets that had burned him from within.
The families' fixations on "Baron 52" ended a marriage and deepened a
father's withdrawal into alcohol. It triggered a mother's heart attack,
bankrupted a brother - twice - and derailed joy and stunted growth among
people whose lives hardened and cracked.
Two of the families are convinced the government lied to them to protect
what they say was the war's most unpalatable legacy: that the United
States abandoned its own in the rice paddies and jungles after April 12,
1973 - the date by which Nixon said all American POWs were returned.
The families of Cressman, then a 21-year-old from Bergen County, N.J.,
and Sgt. Joseph Matejov, a 20-year-old from Long Island, have joined a
restless and bitter community of a few hundred Americans who make up the
so-called "Bamboo Pipeline". True disbelievers, they are a corps of
ragged, nearly broken people who maintain that the U.S. government has
buried men in the wrong graves and declared men dead, while hiding
evidence that they may have been alive.
The war is long over, and polls show that most Americans care little
about POW issues or the 2,109 men still listed as missing in action.
But "Bamboo Pipeline" activity continues.
Near Fort Wayne, Ind., the Marine Corps is in a bizarre standoff with a
76-year-old widow over bones that may or may not be those of her son.
And as U.S.-Vietnamese relations warm, the Cressman brothers and Mary
Matejov, Joseph's mother, curse the diplomats and President Clinton for,
in their eyes, entombing the truth by removing the former enemy's
incentive to provide vital information.
"You know," says Matejov, "my late husband used to say,`They don't do
this in America.' But you learn the hard way: They sure do. There isn't
anything my country wouldn't do. "We're just as dirty as any other
nation. It breaks your heart."
Within hours of the "Baron 52" downing, analysts in Room 7A119 of the
National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Md., were on alert. Four NSA
listening posts near Laos - "flying antenna" spy planes, as well as
on-ground spooks with big electronic ears - had intercepted North
Vietnamese communications about the crash.
According to declassified NSA reports. North Vietnamese officers were
saying, in code, that their soldiers were "holding four pilots captive"
soon after the downing, in the vicinity of the crash. Then, there were
references to "four pirates" being moved north, and another message that
read, "The people involved in the south Laotian campaign have shot down
one aircraft and captured the pilots." Intelligence officers say the North
Vietnamese interchangeably used the terms pilots and pirates to
characterize fliers of any rank.
"The first message was heard immediately after the incident," according
to Jerry Mooney, a former National Security Agency analyst who was in
Room 7A119 when "Baron 52" went down. In a recent telephone interview,
Mooney explained that he was one of several analysts who read the
messages. While none of the North Vietnamese reports made reference
specifically to "Baron 52", Mooney said, "There was no other plane shot d
own that day, and the code systems they were using pertained only to that
area." Mooney's report of the messages was signed off by other analysts,
and sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the White House,
In the days following the crash, congressional documents show, 6994th
Security Squadron communique read: "Believe ... crew members could have
bailed out and possibly been carried north by the winds...." A message
to Washington from Air Force headquarters in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand,
read, "There is a chance that ... crew members ... bailed out and landed
safely on the ground. . There is not conclusive evidence of death."
On May 24, 1973, Roger Shields, assistant to the assistant secretary of
defense, and Henry Kissinger's point man on the POW-MIA issue for the
recently signed Paris peace accords, wrote an internal memo that reads,
"DIA ... feels there is some reason to believe that the four may actually
have been captured."
Finally, according to Robert Wilhelm, a former security analyst with the
6994th, members of the squadron received a message from a "usually
reliable" Laotian "friendly," who had reported seeing "four, clean-shaven
Americans in flight suits" being led through the Laotian jungle by North
Vietnamese soldiers one day after the crash. The families of the crewmen
were not told any of this.
At 5:40 p.m. on Feb. 22, 1973, a priest and an Air Force officer in a
van pulled up to the St. Petersburg, Fla., home of the Cressmans, who had
moved south from Oakland, N.J. "We have conclusively established that
your son Peter could not have survived," the Air Force officer told them.
"There is no reasonable doubt." Cressman's father, George, a World War II
veteran, punched an oak beam in the living room and screamed to his other
sons, "That's it. I'm gonna kill the[North Vietnamese] bastards. Who's
The Matejovs received similar word. Joseph's father, Stephen, was a West
Point graduate and former lieutenant colonel who won the Silver Star,
third-highest honor for bravery in action, for saving the lives of his
men in a battle during the Korean War. He had worked for military
intelligence during the Cold War, rescuing people from behind the Iron
Curtain. Matejov quietly told his wife and nine remaining children that
such things happen in war. You must be brave, he told them. He would cry
at midnight, when he thought his wife couldn't hear him.
For five years, there was not doubt, just grief. "From 1973 to 1978, we
believed the men were dead," says Pat Cressman, one of Peter's four
brothers. "Then, one day, a light comes on," says brother Steve. A
whistleblower - unknown to the families to this day - had contacted a
New York attorney, who in turn called the families in July 1978 and told
them about the security intercepts. Just as the Cressmans were absorbing
this, an Air Force officer called to say, "There's a possibility they
were captured." "It all opened up after that," Steve says. Pat nods his
head, remembering: "The entire family became obsessed from that day on."
Pat Cressman is sweating. He lowers the air-conditioner temperature in a
meeting room in his suburban Tampa apartment complex. On the table in
front of him is a huge black binder that holds hundreds of pages of
documents about the Vietnam War. In his apartment are stacks of boxes
bulging with thousands more slices of the story. His brother Steve, a
deputy sheriff, joins him in the cooling room.
"Baron 52" has been Pat's life work, his quest, his downfall. "This thing
has consumed and whittled away the family," his wife, Robin, confides.
"My wife married into a mess," Pat concedes. "I've been wrapped around
this pretty tight," he continues. "For me, the day it occurred is like
right now. It's a snapshot in time. The music I listen to, the movies I
watch, the people I'm most comfortable with - are all in that era.
Everything relates back to this. This one picture: The U.S. government
flat out killed my brother.
"On paper," Steve joins in."Administrative homicide." Pat concludes.
Thirty-seven years old, heavyset with graying hair, Pat also works for
the sheriffs department, manning the radio. He was 12 when Baron 52 went
down in1973. For the next five years, he planned on attending the Air
Force Academy, took flying lessons, dreamed of becoming an aviator.
Then the phone rang in 1978. "That's when the bottom dropped out, man,"
Fat says. Sickened by the military, he became a POW-MIA researcher,
haunting libraries. "I could've made a lot more money if not for this.
I would have stayed in school. I'm a dumpy old dude now. You look in
the mirror and wonder, Where did the time go? It sucks, but this needs
to be done. This is my blood." Maybe he's just making excuses for not
achieving more. But Steve says he isn't. "Something like this changes
the natural progression of life," he says, adjusting the silver POW-MIA
Peter Cressman bracelet he wears on his right wrist. Powerfully built
with white hair and a white mustache, the 43-year-old looks every macho
inch the lawman. "Things seem stifled. You don't move on and do things
quickly, because you feel like you're leaving someone behind. You're
not happy. You are obsessed."
Another Cressman brother. Bob, who had stepped on a land mine in South
Vietnam in 1969, but was not seriously wounded, worked hardest on the
issue at first. His fixation may have cost him his marriage, his brothers
say. Bob and Steve traveled to the Mekong River to meet with Laotian
resistance fighters to learn about POWs. They brought back six sets of
remains of men killed in action, but never saw any live prisoners. Steve
sold his beloved Harley-Davidson to finance the trip.
Pat, meantime, hooked up with some big-money types who'd hatched a
bizarre scheme to travel to Afghanistan to enlist Muslim mujaheddin
fighters in their cause. At the time, the Russians were fighting the
Afghanis. Because it was believed, but never proved, that the North
Vietnamese had sent POWs to the Soviet Union, Pat's friends thought
they could convince the mujaheddin to swap Russian prisoners for
American POWs. Nothing ever came of his quixotic trip.Still, Pat
continued to travel around America, learning what he could about
Baron 52. He wracked up $30,000 in bills, and declared bankruptcy in
1986 and again in 1993.
"You could say,`Enough is enough, get on with your life,"' Steve says,
as the air conditioning finally turns the room cold. "But you can't. It
wouldn't be right. There's a chance he could be alive. Or that others
are. If my family can't feel closure, maybe another could.
"People say we can't handle death. Garbage. I've put my hand on 100 dead
bodies. We're not a boo-hoo, candy-assed family unable to deal with
reality. What you can't handle is knowing that the government left them
behind." In 1991, the brothers got a tip about a former Air Force man
who had examined the crash site days after the plane was shot down. Pat
and Steve travelled to the Texas home of Chief Master Sgt. Ronald
Schofield, aching for news. "I've been waiting for you guys for 18
years," Pat recalls Schofield saying. Schofield began to cry. The
brothers misted up. Then Schofield said something that caused both
Cressmans to clutch their chests and stare at each other: "The parachute
door was missing. Those men got out of the plane alive. I knew it from
Schofield could not be reached for this story. The brothers said his
silence had eaten at him, but Schofield believed he had a duty not to
reveal secret information. Apparently, though, Schofield decided the
right thing to do was to speak out.
In a sworn deposition for the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs
in November 1992, Schofield testified that the plane's parachute door
was missing. "It was nagging in my mind," said Schofield in his
deposition. Schofield didn't think the back-ender bodies burned up in
the crash because he recognized the bodies of the front-enders. "They
were wearing Nomex (fire-retardant flight) suits," he testified. That
meant that if there were other bodies there, "they should have been
recognizable" because "the Nomex did its job," preserving the bodies.
Schofield testified that he believed that the men kicked out the door
and bailed out before the plane crashed. "I think some of them got out,"
Schofield testified. "That parachute door should have been there, and
it wasn't." A dashing figure with a shoulder holster and a penchant for
leaving three weeks at a time on hush-hush, military-intelligence
forays, Lt. Col. Stephen Matejov was proud when his son was accepted
into the ranks of the eyes-only/need-to-know types of the Air Force
security service. He and his wife, Mary, thrilled to see Joe between
assignments, jetting into LaGuardia Airport, a briefcase of secrets
handcuffed to his wrist.
"The last time I saw him, at the airport in New York, I had a bad
feeling," Mary Matejov says. "It was a strange premonition. He only had
56 days left. But my gut told me he wouldn't complete his tour."
A former USO hostess with a restless woman's yen for adventure, Mary
Matejov has camped in the California wilderness and shot Class 6 rapids.
She was attracted to military types and married an officer. All three of
Mary and Stephen's sons volunteered for duty in Vietnam. Their daughter,
Theresa, is a West Point graduate, same as dad. During the Vietnam War,
Matejov would picket Joan Baez antiwar concerts, little Joseph and her
other kids in tow. "We believed in duty-honor-country,'' Matejov says.
"But what they teach at West Point, they don't practice."
Matejov's brick-and-frame house outside Norfolk, Va., is filled with
photos of children in uniforms. After the family learned that the
government had evidence Joseph Matejov might have survived the crash,
Stephen vowed: "I'm going to get answers."
Using his Pentagon contacts, the retired lieutenant colonel eventually
learned about the intercepts and other classified information the Air
Force never told the family. He came to believe that the United States
did not want to admit to the world that it was dispatching spy planes to
Laos when the war was over. Also, he told his wife, Baron 52 was shot
down right before the North Vietnamese were about to release 591 POWs.
The American government, he believed, did not want to endanger the
release by asking Vietnam for four more.
Matejov arranged a meeting in New York City with Roger Shields,
Kissinger's POW-MIA man. Mary remembers. "He told us there was no doubt
these four men were captured. He said he had always meant to go back to
get our men, but that he dropped the ball." I'I1 never forget that. He
said, 'I'm sorry, I dropped the ball.' "
Shields, now a managing director of Chase Manhattan Bank, says that he
doesn't remember the meeting quite that way. "I never said I dropped the
ball," he explains. "I did say it was striking to hear the intercepts
that `pirates had been captured' on the heels of the downing of our
aircraft. There were sufficient questions in my mind that if had been
making the determinations, I would not have [labelled] the men KIA
[killed in action]. I'm sorry we didn't get back in to investigate."
Shields says the government would never knowingly leave men behind.
Angry that the government for which he'd risked his life had apparently
withheld vital facts about his lost son, Matejov grew withdrawn and began
to drink more heavily, Mary says. He died tragically in 1984, falling
off the roof while doing routine repairs. Soon after, Mary began a life
of speaking about MIAs around the country. Recently, she suffered a
heart attack at an appearance while telling the story of Baron 52, and
has since slowed her activities.
Now feeling old, she says the government is "trying to wait me out,"
until she dies. But she says, with a wan smile, "I hope I irritate the
government for the rest of my life."
On Nov. 2, 1992, a team of Americans and Laotians reached the Baron 52
crash site near Ban Tang Pong in Xekong Province, Laos. During a
preliminary two-hour search, the men found dogtags stamped with Joseph
Matejov's name lying uncovered on the ground, according to a
congressional report. Later excavations at the site in 1993 produced 20
unidentifiable bone fragments, 22 rings associated with parachutes and
one half of a premolar tooth said to belong to Peter Cressman.
According to the government. the rings proved the men did not use their
parachutes to jump out of Baron 52 before it crashed: The rings would
have been needed to hold together the straps on a parachute harness; if
only rings were found, that meant they were the remnants of parachutes
that had burned up in the crash.
The tags and the tooth fragment show that Matejov and Cressman were
aboard when the plane hit, and proved that the other backenders, Todd
Melton and Dale Brandenburg, were dead, the government said. "The team
... collected a wealth of forensic evidence from the site," wrote James
Weld, deputy assistant secretary of defense with the department's
POW-Missing Personnel Office, in a March 1996 letter to Sen. Robert
Smith (R.-N.H.), vice chairman of the Senate committee looking into
POW-MIA affairs. The evidence, Weld wrote, "confirms that all eight
members of the crew were onboard the aircraft when it crashed." He added
that "early speculation and uncorroborated theories have unfortunately
given false hope to the family members."
One such theory relates to the intercepts about captured "pirates." In a
Senate hearing, Robert DeStatte, senior analyst for the DIA, decried the
intelligence as "long-standing misinterpretations" having nothing to do
with Baron 52. Unfortunately, he testified, "an erroneous impression of
survivors was preserved. Yet, the reports do not relate to the loss of
the EC-47Q." DeStatte did not handle the intercepts at the time NSA
personnel received them in February and May of 1973.
Nevertheless, in 1986, he wrote an analysis saying the intercepts
originated in a city 240 miles from the crash. DeStatte blamed Jerry
Mooney, the NSA analyst at the time of the incident, for putting his own
spin on things through "unwarranted and arbitrary personal speculation."
DeStatte added, "There is no intelligence whatsoever to indicate any of
the crew survived." The North Vietnamese were probably referring to four
other prisoners when they talked about "captured pirates," DeStatte said.
It is DeStatte's memo and subsequent testimony - along with the
excavation evidence - that form the basis for the government's position
on Baron 52. DeStatte, who still works for the government, declined
numerous requests for interviews, as did several other government and
military personnel involved in POW-MIA affairs.
DeStatte has never publicly explained why he believes the intercepts
don't refer to the Baron crew. Mooney - who calls DeStatte "a bald-faced
liar" - says that it would have been a physical impossibility for the
radio spies who eavesdropped on North Vietnamese conversations after
the plane was shot down to have heard a message originating from 240
miles away. It was simply too far, he says.
In a phone interview, Sen. Smith says DeStatte was being dishonest when
he testified and that he had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to "go
after DeStatte for perjury." Nothing came of it. But, Smith adds, he
thought it "bizarre that DeStatte was so aggressive talking about the
intercepts when he wasn't even there. Who was he to deny them? No one
has ever disproven this intelligence."
Regarding the Cressman tooth and Matejov dogtags, Smith is equally
skeptical. "They very conveniently found these right on the ground,"
he says. Bill Bell, President Bush's chief of the U.S. Office of
POW-MIA Affairs in Hanoi, says finding a dogtag just lying around after
supposedly being intriple-canopy jungle for 20 years is "bizarre. and a
slap in the face from the Vietnamese. I found that insulting that they
would stoop that low." Vietnamese traders have been known to create
phony dogtags of GIs who served in Vietnam in the hopes of selling them.
In Matejov's case, Bell claims the Vietnamese salted the crash site with
fake dogtags to end speculation on the case to remove potential
impediments to ongoing trade talks with the United States. Mary Matejov
believed the tags were phony and had them tested, but the results were
To this day, Smith remains incredulous about the premolar: "They buried
half the crew on the basis of finding half a tooth." The Cressmans say
preliminary DNA testing they've had done is inconclusive. Regardless,
Steve adds, a tooth is not proof of death.
As for the parachute rings, Robert Wilhelm - the former security man
from the back-ender's squad - says every plane carried extra parachutes
and parachute rings. Thus, the discovery of rings at the crash site
doesn't prove the men were unable to jump to safety. "A lot of guys
wore their chutes during night missions," he says in a phone interview.
"It took a minute to get out."
In November 1972, Col. Thomas Hart was in a helicopter gunship shot down
over Pak Se, Laos. The Air Force sent Hart's wife, Ann, 12 pieces of
bone in July 1985, saying they belonged to him. If she didn't accept
them, they would be buried in a mass grave in Arlington National
Cemetery, they told her. Wanting to be sure, Hart had two private,
forensic anthropologists examine the fragments. All that anyone could
know from these remains, they reported, was that the bits were human,
and not necessarily from the same person. Hart sued the government, then
learned something startling during the discovery process: At the crash
site, military intelligence had found five open parachutes, a pile of
bloody bandages and the initials "TH" stamped out in nearby elephant
grass. She won her suit, and the government had to retract its
identification. "The military was lying over what they saw, trying to
clear up the books on the war," charges Michael Charney. a Colorado
forensic anthropologist who examined the remains identified as Hart's
Sam Dunlap, a physical anthropologist who worked at the Army Central
Identification Laboratory in Honolulu during the 1980s, says the lab
made impossible extrapolations about a man's identity from dime-sized
fragments ofmatter. "There probably should be exhumations of remains"
now buried, he says. Since the mid-1980s, though, the lab has improved.
"What comes out of there now is impeccable," says Lowell Levine, a
dentist who works for the government. "The lab has made quantum leaps."
The people of the Bamboo Pipeline recite the Thomas Hart story the way
televangelists invoke the Bible.
"Talk to one family, and they sound crazed," says Kathryn Fanning, an
Oklahoma woman who exhumed her husband's remains in 1985, only to learn
they weren't his. "But when you listen to what five families have to say,
it gets scary." Adell Thompson of Pale Alto, Calif., was presented with
the tooth of her brother, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Robert Simmons,
in the mid-1980s. She says the military pressured her to accept the
tooth, and when she balked, Air Force representatives pushed, c
ommunicating with her and her family on Mother's Day, Christmas and
Thanksgiving, one day before the anniversary of Simmons' death. "They
hope to get the family so emotional, they don't ask questions," Thompson
Today in Indiana, Mary Jellison is fighting an odd skirmish with the
Marines. A Marine major told her the remains that have lain in her son
Mark Judge's grave for 30 years are not his. But she's not sure what to
believe, and wants to conduct a DNA test of her own before handing over
the remains. The Marines say the bones in the Indiana grave are actually
those of California soldier named William Berry. In Berry's California
grave, the Marine Corps says, is really Kenneth Plumadore, a man the
Marines initially said was vaporized on the battlefield. And Mark
Judge's remains are actually in a lab somewhere. Who's to say what's
true anymore? Marine Gen. C.A. Mutter has threatened to sue Jellison for
the bones she buried in Indiana. She'd welcome a public airing, although
the stress is wearing her down. "If you let it," she says, "it will
absolutely kill you."
While no officer directly involved in any case will speak, Larry Greer,
spokesman for the Department of Defense POW-Missing Personnel Office,
says, "Each family is provided total access to all information," despite
what the Cressmans, Matejovs and others say. The government does what it
can to help families, Greer says, though he adds, "None of us is about
to criticize family members who've gone through pain for many years."
Privately, though, a Pentagon official expressed another view: " Some of
these families will never be satisfied," despite whatever proof they're
shown that their loved ones are dead. That may be, says Al Santoli,
former congressional investigator of POW-MIA issues. But Bamboo Pipeline
families "are dealing with a U.S. bureaucracy whose behaviour is similar
to those of communist governments. It's the same kind of contempt for
the American public, and it becomes heartbreaking and aggravating.
People eventually bum out, and that's the bureaucracy's best defense -
obfuscate, lie, give false information, and people will throw up their
hands and go."
The government has been declaring people dead without ample evidence. No
police department would conduct missing-persons investigations the way
they do. Lately, MIA families have criticized the Clinton administration
for opening diplomatic relations with Vietnam. It means, they say, the
Vietnamese have no incentive to help clear up questions about missing
Americans. And Sen. Smith charges that no one has ever properly asked
the Vietnamese to account for Baron 52.
Bill Bell, who resigned his post as head of the U.S. Office of POW-MIA
Affairs with the Bush administration because he believed that the
government was more interested in commerce with the Vietnamese than
learning the whereabouts of MIAs, says it's "irresponsible of the
business community to push us into this situation." He adds, "I'm not
convinced men are alive. But they were after Nixon said all prisoners
were out in April 1973. And we never mounted a serious effort to find
out because we couldn't live with the truth. The Cressman case is a good
The White House would not comment. A State Department official said it
was "untrue to say we're moving ahead with trade without concern" for
missing men. The United States spends about $10 million a year in
excavating remains, and Vietnamese cooperation has "only increased".
At Arlington National Cemetery, on March 27, 1996, a cool sunny morning,
four white draft horses pulled a caisson on which a single flag-wrapped
coffin rested. Inside were 20 pieces of bone. They were probably human
bones; that's the most anyone could say for certain. A bugler played
Taps. Seven white-gloved men in blue uniforms fired rifles three times.
Three C-130 turboprop planes - similar to Baron 52 - flew overhead.
The Cressmans and the Matejovs had tried to forestall this day. They
didn't want their men's names on the headstone, but the names of the
back-enders were chiselled in anyway. The family of Second Lt. Severe
Primm, a front-ender, was angry with the Cressmans and the Matejovs for
delaying the ceremony. "But," Primm's father, Jim, says today, "you can
understand the families' feelings."
The Bamboo Pipeline families
ultimately decided to attend not to say goodbye to their own men, but
out of respect for the others. The Cressmans wore yellow armbands for
their missing airmen. When Evelyn began to cry, Pat leaned over
and whispered. "It's not him, Mom. There's nothing in the box. They're
just trimming the ends off their package." A woman handed Pat a red rose.
It would be a nice gesture, she told him: a member of one of the
outspoken families tossing a flower on the coffin. Pat shook his head
and gave back the rose.
"It was a beautiful funeral," Pat recalls. "The only thing missing was