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Plane's 1951 disappearance still a mystery

Mar. 26, 2011 - 02:16PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 26, 2011 - 02:16PM  |  
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Little remains today to mark the life of Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Thomas Cullen. A quiet park on the East Reservation of Barksdale Air Force Base bears his name, and for about 40 years the 2nd Air Force of Strategic Air Command awarded a trophy in his name, but that ended in 1992 when SAC closed its shop. The official biographies page on the Air Force website does not list his name or share his life story.

A senior general officer at 2nd Air Force headquarters at Barksdale Air Force Base, he boarded a C-124 transport, tail number 49-0244, the afternoon of March 22, 1951, along with a handful of his senior staff officers. After a refueling stop in Maine, the transport that left Walker Air Force Base at Roswell, N.M., with 48 top pilots, bombardiers and weapons technicians from the service's nuclear 509th Bomb Group, flew east toward the British Isles.

The airplane never arrived. It disappeared into the Atlantic gales, and into the annals of mystery, on March 23, 1951, Good Friday.

Just under 60 of the nation's top nuclear military personnel had vanished, while the Cold War was starting and this nation was in combat in Korea.

"I think they [Cullen and his companions] would have been a very lucrative target" of the Russians, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Peyton Cole, a former 2nd Bomb Wing commander whose late father, also an Air Force general, shut down Walker Air Force Base in the 1960s.

His opinion is shared by former 2nd Bomb Wing historian Shawn Bohannon, now an archivist at LSU Shreveport.

"It would have been a coup if they [the Soviets] had got their hands on that bunch of guys," Bohannon said. "No doubt about it."

Cullen had command experience in World War II, but a broken back and prolonged recovery shifted him into a field in which he excelled: photo-reconnaissance. He became the service's leading expert, handling photography at the top-secret Crossroads atom bomb tests in the late 1940s. He adapted the first jet airplanes for spy photography over North Korea and Russia, where he had been assigned briefly during World War II.

At the time of his death, he was a past commander and current vice commander of 2nd Air Force, and his mission to England was to form the Strategic Air Command's 7th Air Division, which would be the speartip of any U.S. strategic actions in Europe.

That was the assignment Cullen was headed to when he and the hand-picked men with him disappeared.

Early March 23, about 800 miles southwest of Ireland, the C-124 issued a Mayday call, reporting a fire in the cargo hold.

According to the Walker Air Force Base Museum website, "the aircraft was intact when it touched down on the ocean. All hands exited the aircraft wearing life preservers and climbed into the inflated 5 man life rafts. The rafts were equipped with cold weather gear, food, water, flares and Gibson Girl hand-crank(ed) emergency radios."

According to contemporary reports, a B-29 from England saw several flares fired and life rafts. But the B-29 was not carrying any rescue equipment. It radioed the coordinates of the survivors and circled until it reached critical low fuel and was forced to return to base.

As soon as daylight and weather conditions permitted, rescue ships, eventually including dozens of airplanes, weather ships, a British submarine and several Navy warships, including the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, scoured thousands of square miles of ocean in what has been called the greatest sea-search in history, to no avail.

"Ships and planes continued searching for the next several days but not a single body was found," the page says. "The men of C-124 No. 49-0244 had quite simply disappeared. ... It is a fact that Soviet submarines and surface vessels were active in this area and that the Soviets had no qualms about capturing and holding American servicemen, particularly aviators. We do not know what fate befell these men."

Freedom of Information Act requests were sent to the State Department, CIA, FBI and other agencies, all of whom directed queries to the Air Force. The Air Force provided a 140-page accident report that can be summarized in one sentence: The C-124 ditched in one piece, but nothing, including human remains, was found aside, from some charred plywood and a single briefcase.

Cullen and his wife, Edith Virginia Sinnott Cullen, had no children. Attempts to locate any of Cullen's family were unsuccessful.

Retired naval aviator Don Wagner, who was 3 years old when his father, decorated World War II pilot Capt. Walter Wagner, disappeared with Cullen on that flight, believes the men were taken to Russia on one or more submarines to have their brains picked. Thanks to service in Russia during World War II, Cullen would have been known and valued to Soviet intelligence.

Wagner thinks that after failing to find the missing men, and lacking any good explanation of what happened to them, the military "covered it up. I was looking up the history of each of the airmen who were aboard the flight. Most have been deleted or hidden or are non-existent."

The accident report notes that the Office of Special Investigations looked into reports of sabotage but found no evidence, something Wagner finds hard to believe.

"There was one civilian that boarded the plane, [and] was on the flight either through Barksdale or [Maine] then got off," he said. He thinks that civilian, who knew when to get off the airplane, is the key to the mystery.

That U.S. military personnel were captured by Eastern bloc nations during the Cold War is a fact, noted in the web pages of the Defense Prisoner of War and Missing Personnel Office, which notes "the numerous accounts of Americans sighted in the Stalin-era GULag prison camp system and the Soviet correctional labor colony system for political prisoners that succeeded the GULag."

Though the loss of Cullen and the other men is hardly remembered by the Air Force today, it was shattering at the time.

"I remember the incident vividly and the last time I saw my father and his buddies," Wagner said. "This accident devastated the Walker Air Force Base community and had a horrible impact on SAC and the U.S. Air Force. ... I still remember the huge commemorative services held at Walker for the missing officers and crewmen."

Ralph Ambrose lost a brother, George Ambrose, and a cousin, Sterling Ambrose. All were from Brunswick, Md.

"I was 15 at the time it happened," Ralph Ambrose said. The military "sent us a few telegrams saying they were searching, that they found just a couple of pieces [of debris]," but were not told the investigation determined the airplane likely belly-landed intact, since cargo that would have survived and floated, like empty B-29 fuel tanks and spare aircraft tires, were never recovered.

"We didn't hear any of that," he said.

Cole said he remains "astounded the slowness of the [search] response. Today that just wouldn't happen. It's astounding to me [rescuers] waited two days while they knew these men were in the water. They should have launched another airplane to relieve the first B-29. They should have ‘held hands' with those guys until surface craft arrived."

Bohannon wonders if the Soviets could have snatched the men from under the eyes of a searching armada.

"All the [Soviets] had were modified German Type IX U-boats at that time. I don't know."

Cole also has doubts.

"If you are going to capture 53 souls, that's pretty difficult to hide," he said.

But these were U.S. military personnel left behind on a field of battle of the Cold War, and whose families deserve answers to this day.

"A tremendous question begs to be answered," Cole said. "What happened to these men?"

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