On Nov. 6, 1951, Soviet fighters downed a Navy P2V surveillance plane over the Sea of Japan, off the Soviet Pacific Coast, leaving ten men missing.
US analysts believed the plane was attacked to send a Soviet message regarding spy flights along its borders. Because the plane’s mission was linked to UN operations, the State Department decided to downplay the case, upsetting at least one Pentagon official who recommended “something be done to show the Soviets they cannot get away with it.”
Little was done, either to threaten the Soviets or account for the missing crewmen. They were soon declared dead.
There the case remained until more than 40 years later, when a former Soviet soldier named Vladimir Trotsenko contacted US investigators in Russia.
In November 1951 Sgt. Trotsenko hurt his leg during a training exercise and was sent to Hospital 404 in the town of Novosysoyevka in the Primorskiy Krai of Russia near the Pacific Coast. A special hospital for air crews and officers, the hospital was crowded when he arrived, so Trotsenko was given a bed in a second floor corridor. He soon realized there was something unusual about the room nearby. A guard sat at a desk outside it.
When the guard needed to use the restroom, he turned to Trotsenko and asked him “to keep an eye on the Americans.” Inside the room, he could see four patients. “Patient Number 1 had an injured back and cast on his left arm, but could walk and speak. He was slender, 22 to 27 years old, about 5’ 6’’ with light hair and blue eyes. “Although unable to speak each other's language, the American still managed to communicate,” according to a US report. “Based on random words he recognized as well as gestures, Sergeant Trotsenko believes that the American was from Cleveland and had two children.”
Patient Number 2 was in traction, his arms suspended above his head. He was older, at least 40, heavyset and with a dark complexion. Patient Number 3 was in the bed next to the wall, his face bandaged and able to move slightly. Patient 4, by the window, was burned and also had face bandages. The last American had already died and been buried near the hospital.
Trotsenko stayed in the hospital for more than two weeks, watching the Americans and their visitors. He would later give US investigators a detailed description of the facility and its inhabitants.
The Americans were well cared for, treated by the facility’s best doctors. They ate the same food as the Soviet patients. And they were regularly interrogated by a Soviet lieutenant colonel and captain, both in Air Force uniforms. Trotsenko provided the last name for at least one of them.
One day a Soviet colonel arrived and "approached the second bed where the burnt older man was lying, and he pulled something out from under the sheet from around the neck of this patient. At first, I thought it was a cross. I did not really know what it was. It was some kind of medallion -a round medallion. He pulled it out, looked at it, and then stuck it back under the sheet. He went around to all of the other patients and did the same thing. He looked at the medallion on the neck of each patient. He did not make any comments or say anything. He simply looked and stuck them back under the sheet."
The story of these circular medallions had a powerful effect on the investigation of Trotsenko’s story. US investigators thought the former sergeant was trying to describe a dog tag, which all American veterans knew was rectangle shaped. Then they consulted a US Navy Artifacts Historian, who revealed that between 1940 and about 1956, Navy dog tags were round.
The US-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs arranged for Trotsenko to visit the old hospital. There they found his descriptions were stunningly accurate. Even Russian members of the Commission, who often disputed information the Americans found convincing, concluded Trotsenko was telling the truth.
But there the investigation ended, because Moscow still refuses to release sensitive files on foreign prisoners held by its intelligence service.