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The First American Covert Overflights of the Soviet Union

Flights over the Soviet Union ramped up quickly after WWII concluded. (Wikipedia)

Overflights started way before the U-2…

The introduction of nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War had a profound influence in many combat doctrines and none nowhere else as much as that of airborne reconnaissance. In November 1945, General Henry “Hap” Arnold of the US Army Air Forces warned the US government that in the future, American leaders would require “continuous knowledge of potential enemies, including all aspects of their political, social, industrial, scientific and military life” if the United States was to avoid a surprise attack with nuclear weapons.

Traditional reconnaissance doctrines had the use of airborne assets in support of ongoing combat operations. General Arnold and many of his contemporaries at the dawn of the Cold War recognized that airborne reconnaissance was needed to provide an assessment and early warning of potential enemies, namely the Soviet Union that was rapidly tightening its grip on Eastern Europe. The start of the Berlin Blockade in June 1948 pressed the issue further that up-to-date reconnaissance was needed of the Soviet Union should tensions escalate to an all-out conflict. Interestingly while the highest levels of the US government tried to determine the best way to make such an assessment, the United States Far East Air Forces (FEAF) based in Japan took the initiative to begin its own assessment of Soviet forces in their region in response to the rising tensions during the Berlin Blockade.

The commander in chief of the US FEAF, Major General George Stratemeyer, ordered the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron and its Lockheed RF-80 Shooting Stars to begin a series of covert overflights of the Soviet Far East. Based at Yokota Air Base, Stratemeyer ordered the 8th TRS to deploy to Misawa AB on the northern Japanese home island of Hokkaido. Two pilots were selected with 1st Lieutenant Bryce Poe as the primary pilot for the secret missions to assess Soviet air strength in the region. The RF-80s were modified with larger wingtip tanks for longer range. Poe was instructed that if the coastline was free of clouds, dash into Soviet airspace, photograph the targets and dash back out and head back to Misawa as fast as possible.

Flights began just three years after the war

The first reconnaissance overflight (and USAF jet reconnaissance mission) of the Soviet Union took place on 10 May 1948 with 1Lt. Poe departing Misawa AB to overfly targets on Kuril Islands. Missions were flown to photograph targets on Sakhalin Island as well further to the north. The first overflight of the Soviet mainland took place on 10 March 1950 to photograph bases around the port of Vladivostok. Most of the airfields Poe had photographed were full of not just only Lend-Lease Bell P-39 Airacobras and P-63 Kingcobras, but also late model Lavochkin piston fighters like the La-9 and La-11. Although jet powered, the RF-80s had increased drag and lower speeds with the larger external tanks needed for the recon missions which cut down on the performance margin over the Lavochkin fighters which often tried to give chase to the missions.
Lockheed RF-80 with the enlarged camera nose section (Wikipedia)
What was impressive about these first overflights is that they were done at the initiative and discretion of General Stratemeyer without any prior clearance from Washington and they were done in the face of significant technical and logistical obstacles. The reconnaissance cameras used on the RF-80 were designed for piston-engined aircraft and lacked the capability to do stereo images in a high speed aircraft like the RF-80. Spare parts were in constant short supply and given that Misawa at the time was on the far northern part of a still rebuilding Japan, insuring even basic food rations for the 8th TRS personnel deployed north proved challenging. Many F-80 units based in Japan at the time found themselves the subject of “moonlight parts acquisitions” so the secret overflights could continue.
Despite the failure of the Berlin Blockade which was finally lifted on 11 May 1949 and the formation of NATO, tensions remained high with the first detonation of a Soviet atomic bomb on 29 August 1949 followed by Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist victory in China on 1 October 1949 over the Nationalists.
With Stalin feeling more confident about the Soviet posture on the world stage, on 25 June 1950, the North Korean Army smashed across the DMZ on the Korean Peninsula, igniting the Korean War. In order to prevent further escalation the conflict, American reconnaissance pilots were instructed to avoid Chinese and Russian air space, however, the advance of North Korean forces meant that 1st Lt. Bryce Poe was called upon again by General Stratemeyer to begin a new set of secret overflights. In August 1950, he was called to FEAF HQ to again deploy out of Misawa and fly a series of missions against Soviet airfields in the region. While Soviet fighters tried more aggressively to intercept the RF-80s, none came close to getting shot down. By this point, the intelligence from Poe’s flights was deemed critical by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and on 28 July 1950, the JCS requested official permission from the Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, for overflights of Chinese bases on the coasts adjacent to the Korea.
Just four days later, President Truman gave his approval and again, because of his prior expertise, 1st Lt. Bryce Poe flew the missions against Chinese coastal targets and additional missions by other pilots were flown against Chinese ports opposite of Taiwan to make sure no amphibious assault preparations were underway to move against Taiwan.

More capable platforms became necessary

By the summer of 1950 discussions had been taking place at the Pentagon about using the more-capable North American RB-45 Tornado for overflight missions of Chinese and Soviet targets, but the aircraft being a bomber, it was felt at the time to be too politically risky, particularly as the Pentagon was seeking authority for overflights of Soviet targets in Europe as well as in the Far East. By this point Allied fortunes in the Korean War had improved following the landings at Inchon. Poe was once again called to FEAF HQ for a third set of covert overflights but the other pilot that he had been working with on the prior sets of overflights had been killed in action, so for this next set of missions, Bryce Poe would be the only pilot flying. Due to the secrecy of the missions, Poe did all his own flight planning. He was told by General Douglas MacArthur and General Stratemeyer what information they needed and Poe himself figured out the targets, routes, photographic equipment, times and altitudes. Despite the ongoing war in Korea, Poe found that the defensive posture of the Soviet airfields had only modestly increased, but as a precaution, F-80 Shooting Star fighters would meet Poe on his outbound leg to make sure no Soviet fighters were trying to tail him.

Major General Bryce Poe II before retirement

Once he landed, the film was developed by one warrant officer and Poe himself did all the photo interpretation work and then hand carried the imagery to brief General MacArthur as well as General Stratemeyer and his FEAF deputy. It was a remarkable degree of authority given to a 1st lieutenant! Stratemeyer felt only barest minimum of individuals needed to be involved in the secret overflights. Bryce Poe rotated back to the United States in January 1951 after making nineteen secret overflights of Chinese and Soviet territory as well as 90 unclassified tactical reconnaissance missions in support of operations in Korea. After Korea, Poe flew as an exchange pilot with several NATO nations before serving as the executive officer to General Bernard Schriever at the Western Development Division where ICBM development was taking place. He then served as an Atlas ICBM missile officer with the Strategic Air Command before returning to reconnaissance in time for Vietnam. As vice-commander of the 460th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, he flew 213 recon missions in the RF-4C Phantom in Vietnam. He later commanded the 26th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing with the United States Air Forces Europe. Following his USAFE assignments, he assumed command positions with the Ogden Air Logistics Center in Utah and at Wright Patterson AFB in Ohio. He retired in 1981 as a very decorated four-star general and veteran of two wars, flying west on 20 November 2000.

Sources: Shadow Flights: America’s Secret Air War Against the Soviet Union by Curtis Peebles. Presidio Press, 2000, pp 4-39

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Written by JP Santiago

Husband, Father, Physician, Artist, Photographer, and Aviation Über Geek...

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