Visualization of Soviet fighters intercepting KAL 902
I’m still in the early chapters of the book, but a few days ago I came across Matlock’s retelling of the impact on U.S.-Soviet relations of the Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air flight 007 (New York to Seoul via Anchorage) on September 1, 1983, near Sakhalin Island off the USSR’s Pacific coast. Reading about that tragedy brought to mind an earlier Soviet shoot-down of a Korean Airliner, flight 902 (Paris to Seoul via Anchorage), near Finland, on April 20, 1978.1 I had a peculiar sort of eyewitness view of that event.
The attack by a Soviet interceptor on flight 902 took place just as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was in Moscow, at the request of President Jimmy Carter, for a discussion of arms control with the Soviet leadership. At the time, I was posted at the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad (today, St. Petersburg), and I’d been sent to Moscow to help out at the U.S. embassy, which was in an “all hands on deck” footing for Vance’s visit.2 Interestingly (from the perspective of my present immersion in his book), Jack Matlock was, at the time, serving as deputy chief of mission, the No. 2 position on our embassy staff.
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, left, with President Carter
What did the embassy need my help for? Probably at the request of Vance’s staff, the embassy had been asked to produce a special little “newspaper” every two hours, day and night, for the Secretary of State (and, presumably, key members of his entourage). For 12 hours every day while Vance was in town, I was responsible for putting together six “editions” of this newspaper.3 I had the night shift. When it ended, someone else took over till I came back the next evening, refreshed.
What sort of a “newspaper” did Secretary Vance want at his fingertips, day and night? One unlike any paper you’ve ever read. My job was to keep watch on two constantly clattering news tickers — the newswires of the Associated Press (AP) and of TASS (Telegrafnoye agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza, Телеграфное агентство Советского Союза, Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union). The secretary of state wanted to see world and U.S. news as it was being reported in real time by two entirely different sources. The AP was — and remains — the most important U.S. news service and could be expected to report the news without editorial bias. TASS, the mouthpiece of the Soviet government, would routinely spin the news — including choice of stories to cover or ignore — to present the USSR’s official viewpoint.
I had only two tools: a pair of scissors and a manual typewriter. Plus a stack of blank 3- by 5-inch cards. This is how I was asked to prepare each edition of my little newspaper: I would watch both tickers as the news was typed out by unseen fingers thousands (in the AP’s case) of miles away. As stories poured out of the machines, printed on big rolls of paper (which I would periodically reload), I would cut them apart so that each story appeared on one or two sheets, anywhere from five or six inches to perhaps a foot or longer, depending on the length of the story.
Some stories I knew would be of no interest to Secretary Vance, others of greater interest. Reports of his activities in Moscow were the highest priority, of course. Baseball stories (the season had just begun), bad weather, and the like were of no interest, and I would discard them.
I had to employ not only my scissors, however. I’d been asked to summarize, in two or three sentences that would fit on a single 3- by 5-inch card, each significant story, then staple the card to the “tear sheets” (as the ticker paper was called). Quite an unusual newspaper format for an exceedingly limited readership.
Flight 902 was attacked at night, while I was on my shift. Fortunately, only two people were killed by the interceptor’s missile, which ripped through the fuselage and clipped off a piece of wing but did not cripple the plane. The airliner made a forced landing on a frozen lake about 90 miles from the Soviet border with Finland.
KAL 902 at rest on the ice (Courtesy Wikipedia)
News of the plane’s going missing and, as the story developed, wandering thousands of miles off course, and eventually, being shot down started appearing on the AP wire in mid-evening. TASS reported nothing. As the night wore on, more details emerged and were duly reported by the AP. By the time morning rolled around, I had quite a story to tell the guy who arrived to take the next shift. TASS had yet to print a single syllable about the events of the previous night.
I never got (or would have expected) any feedback from Secretary Vance, my “readership.” But I felt it had been useful to show him a significant story, almost first-hand and unfolding in real time, that, in its way, painted a vivid picture of the closed, secretive, ruthless regime with which he was negotiating.
1. Flight 902 had gone badly off course near northern Greenland, turning almost completely around and heading southeast, toward the USSR. The cause of this catastrophic error was, according to the Wikipedia summary of the incident, the aircrew’s dependence on a navigation system that went haywire due to its proximity to Earth’s north magnetic pole.
One detail the Wikipedia article does not include is how the pilot and co-pilot were released from Soviet custody after a week of interrogation. In 1978, the USSR had no diplomatic relations with South Korea, and the U.S. embassy in Moscow represented South Korean interests in the Soviet Union. The U.S. consulate in Leningrad was therefore very quietly involved in the crew’s release, which began with a flight (or perhaps train ride; my memory of this is now dim) from Leningrad to Helsinki. My friend and consulate colleague Oscar Clyatt handled this and kept everything very low-key and out of sight of the media (UPI had an American reporter, Emil Sveilis, based in Leningrad at the time, but as I recall he was not informed of the aircrew’s release and departure from the USSR).
2. Basically, whenever the president or secretary of state visits a foreign country, the U.S. embassy goes into overdrive to ensure that everything, down to the last detail, goes smoothly.
3. My only previous journalism experience had been my work on the staff, eventually as editor, of my weekly high school newspaper.