by John Lowrey
During our 14th Reunion, members should watch for relatives of some of the 31 F-86 pilots who were shot down and are thought to have been captured, but were never repatriated. While the names of the relatives planning to attend are unknown at this time, we will attempt to identify them and provide nametags indicating their "MIA relative" status. Many are children of these still missing Sabre pilots. Most have no memory of their father or his personality. If you knew any of the MIA pilots, watch for their namesake(s) and introduce yourself. They thirst for information, photos and conversation with someone who knew their loved one.
Two relatives we know that will attend are Mrs. Ann (Niemann) Bakkensen and Mr. Richard Niemann. Ann is the daughter and Dick the brother of 1st Lieutenant Robert F. Niemann, 334FIS, 4th FIW. Bob, a new first lieutenant and recent West Point graduate, was downed by a Mig-15 at around 1115 on 12 April 1953. His case will give you a feel for the problems the MIA- relatives face
In a September 28, 1993, article for the now defunct Sacramento Union, writer Robert Burns wrote that the name of First Lieutenant Robert Frank Niemann appeared on a document provided by the Russians, called the "List of 59". This document, compiled in 1991 & 92 from original documents in the former Soviet military archives, identified 59 airmen who were shot down in Korea "...and who transited through a (Soviet) interrogation point." ("Last Seen Alive", by Laurence Jolidon) The report quoted retired Soviet Colonel Viktor A. Bushuyev, deputy chief of intelligence for the Soviet 64th Fighter Aviation Corps (FAC) based at Antung, China, as saying in a September '92 interview that he remembered an F-86 pilot named "Neiman or Naiman". The 64th FAC commander, General Lobov, also remembered Niemann. General Lobov recalled questioning Niemann while he was recovering from wounds in a "war zone hospital" - identified elsewhere as Antung, China. (San Francisco Chronicle, September 28, 1993.)
Both General Lobov and Colonel Bushuyev recalled that Niemarm refused to answer any of their questions. Instead he reminded them "it is a violation of international law" to interrogate a wounded POW.
Niemann's reported strict silence is consistent with the author's earlier conversations with him. He talked fervently about the necessity of resisting interrogation if we was captured. The reports from his captors, some of whom remembered Niemann specifically, after almost 40 years, show he was a man of his word. It is clear from several sources that Lt. Niemann's adamant adherence to the military code of conduct impressed his interrogators.
Colonel Bushuvev confirmed that Bob was alive in Soviet custody for some time. A later notation on the Soviet list of 59 airmen (not all Sabre pilots) noted that he had died. Given his refusal to be interrogated we can only imagine how he died. ("Last Seen Alive", Jolidon)
The 31 missing Sabre pilots are thought to have been victims of a special Soviet effort to capture F-86 pilots for intelligence exploitation. According to General Lobov, around April 1951, a secret special unit was formed, consisting of nine Mig-l 5 testpilots. Their mission was to force down an F-86, and not only capture the pilot, but to get the airplane's radar ranging gunsight, which Russian designers wanted to duplicate. Unfortunately for the Soviets several of these pilots were shot down and killed. Most of the survivors returned to Moscow. ("The Unreturned", by Ralph Wetterhahn, The Retired Officer magazine, November 2002.)
Although the special unit's mission was unsuccessful, on 6 October 1951, Col. Evgenie Pepelyayev shot down an F-86 which crash-landed on a sandbar along the Yellow Sea coast. The pilot was rescued by an SA-16, but the Sabre was recovered by the Soviets and sent to Moscow. Several of the 31 missing Sabre pilots are also thought to have been sent to Moscow.
F-86 Sabre Pilots Association members may be interested to know that until around 1994 the Russians were relatively generous with previously classified information. For example, they provided a "Summary of Combat Activities of Corps Units on 12 April 53". This was the day Lt. Niemann was downed, along with soon-to-be triple ace Captain Joe McConnell. in reading these reports, Niemann's engagement is fully described.
"Captain Lazarev, flying as wing of his pair, noticed a pair of F 86s, which were pursuing a pair of Mig-15s. He went into an attack. The pair of Mig-15s. He went into an attack. The pair of Migs, which were being attacked, went into the cloud cover while the pair of F-86s turned left and began heading for the bay. Banking left and closing to a distance of 800-900 meters, Captain Lazarev fired a short burst from an angle of 2/4. The pair of F-86s rolled over from a left into a right turn and entered a right bank. Having completed (sic.) 3 - 4 banks and descended, Captain Lazarev closed on the wing F-86 to a distance of 600 meters and on an attack angle of 1/4, fired three bursts. After a third burst the F-86 turned over onto its back and began to smoke. Captain Lazarev began to quickly close and pass above him (the F-86). He pulled out of the battle by going into the cloud cover." (Note: Sometime in May 1953, Captain Lazarev was killed in combat.)
This is but one story. The Niemann family is still trying to get documentation as to how Bob died and where he is buried. Although the Russian information flow stopped abruptly in the mid-nineties they are hopeful that today's political climate will see them resume cooperation.
We know that some of captured airmen were executed by firing squad. The execution of an entire B-29 crew in Russia was documented by at least one eyewitness. ("Last Seen Alive", Jolidon)
By now, for some, the years have dampened the emotions of war. Those of us who survived may not think as frequently about our lost comrades. But for the MIA families the story has no ending. They live continuously with images of a now-forgotten war, and the disappearance of their closest family members.
So share the good memories and photographs. Every bit of knowledge brings greater insight and is a gold mine for the MIA families.
No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.
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