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Decades Later, Tales of Americans in Soviet Jails
By JAMES BROOKE
July 19, 1996, The New
Khabarovsk, Russia -- Time
has stooped Vladimir Trotsenko's shoulders, but his memories are as clear as his
cobalt blue eyes: the American flyer, his
right arm in a new cast, in a Soviet military hospital ward.
The American, he recalled, would slowly repeat, "America -- San Francisco,
Cleveland, Los Angeles, Chicago." Curious, Trotsenko, a
paratrooper recovering from a knee injury, would hobble down the third-floor
hospital corridor to gaze at the four
imprisoned Americans. The airman with the broken arm would point to a crewman in
a body cast and would make cradling motions with his arms, indicating that the
man had left two small children back home. The year was 1951, and the
place was Military Hospital 404 in Novosysoyevka, 300 miles south of here.
Stalin was in his last years, the Korean War was raging, and the Cold War with
the United States was on.
"I did not talk about this
for 43 years," Trotsenko, spry at 68, said as his wife, Nina, served blini and
borscht at their wooden dacha outside this city, the largest industrial center
of Russia's Far East. In 1994, he noticed a small advertisement in a local
newspaper placed by a new group, a Russian-American commission on prisoners of
war. Admitting that he was "tortured" about whether "to call or not to call," he
As fears of official
retribution ease, more and more Russians are following Trotsenko's lead and are
talking to American government researchers seeking traces of Americans who
vanished into the gulag during seven decades of communism. Responding to advertisements for information, calls and letters trickle in to the U.S. Embassy in
Moscow and the new consulate in Vladivostok.
A woman calls saying she
knows the Russian widow, children, and grandchildren of a former American
prisoner of war. A former camp guard recalls hearing about an American prisoner
from the Korean War held under maximum security in 1983. An Estonian remembers
meeting a black American pilot in a labor camp in 1955.
A retired military
driver reports seeing an American prisoner -- "robust and taller than average"
-- in an Arctic camp in 1970. A former inmate says that while working in a
forced labor gold mine in 1979 he witnessed the death of
Philip V. Mandra, a U.S. Marine sergeant from Queens
County, N.Y., who was reported missing in
action in Korea in 1952.
Numbering in the thousands,
the list of Americans sent to Soviet labor camps is long and varied. They
include left-wing Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the 1930s only
to be arrested as spies during Stalin's xenophobic sweeps; hundreds of dual
nationals sent to Siberian labor camps after Stalin annexed Latvia, Lithuania,
and Estonia in 1940; about 500 American military prisoners kept after World War
II by Stalin as bargaining chips; about 30
F-86 pilots and crewmen captured during the Korean War and transferred to the
Soviet Union in a secret aircraft industry intelligence operation;
and as many as 100 American airmen who survived downing of spy planes over
Soviet territory during the Cold War.
"Clearly, there were a lot
of Americans washing around the gulag, but it is unimaginable that any of the
World War II prisoners are still alive," said Paul M. Cole, who wrote a
three-volume report for the Rand Corp. in 1994 on American prisoners from World
War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War who were held in the Soviet Union.
Family members of Americans
missing in Korea and in the Cold War downing are increasingly demanding answers
from the bilateral research group, the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on
POW/MIAs. "I definitely believe that some survived," said Patricia Lively
Dickinson, a Delaware resident, who believes that her brother, Jack D. Lively, a
Navy airman who was shot down in 1951, was one of the four Americans that Trotsenko saw at the military hospital. "I feel that Jack's files are in the KGB
Bruce Sanderson, a North
Dakota steelworker, also believes that his father, Lt. Warren Sanderson,
survived the shooting down of his reconnaissance plane near Vladivostok in 1953. "In 1955, a repatriated
Japanese POW identified a picture of my dad," said Sanderson, who was born a few
months after his father was shot down. "He could still be alive. It was just in
1992 that the Russians freed the last 80 Japanese POW's from World War II."
Formed in 1992, the POW
commission has little to show for the millions of dollars spent, family members
and former researchers assert. It has yet to find any missing American, dead or
alive, in the former Soviet Union. On both sides, ingrained traditions of
secrecy seem to block progress. "Even as government 'insiders' with security
clearances, we had great difficulty in locating documents" from U.S. government
agencies, Col. Stuart A. Herrington of the Army, the task force's American
deputy director, wrote in an appraisal in 1994. "Once located, documents are
frequently classified -- often mindlessly."
Irene Mandra, of
Farmingdale, N.Y., is offering a $5,000 reward to any Russian or American who
provides conclusive information about her brother, the Marine sergeant. "It's still the old
cover-up," she said in a telephone interview from Long Island. "As documents are
being declassified, more and more evidence shows that these men were sent to the
Soviet Union. But, after 42 years, the CIA still keeps a lot of documents
Peter Johnson, a major in
the Army Reserve, who worked on the project in 1993, complained: "From the
American standpoint, we ran into almost as much institutional resistance as from
the Soviet side. The CIA did not want to talk to us." From the Russian side,
closed doors have met American requests to search Soviet-era archives of
military units serving in Korea, of the Border Guards and of the KGB. "Despite
Yeltsin's claims to openness, the Russians have consistently denied the American
side access to archives," Cole said. "If given proper access, competent
archivists -- and there are a lot in Moscow -- could wrap this up in two months.
But the Russians are not being open."
With impatience growing, a
hearing was held on June 20 by the House National Security subcommittee on
Military Personnel. "The Russians are holding back a lot of information," said
Al Santoli, human rights aide for Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the California
Republican who heads the panel. "A lot of Americans ended up in the deepest
recesses of the gulag, as well as in the mental asylums."
In late July, the
Russian-American commission plans to issue a 500-page report on its work. A
summary, provided by the Americans, notes that the Russians have provided more
than 12,000 pages of documents, and have allowed American investigators to
travel throughout Russia, visiting psychiatric hospitals, prisons, and prison
Russian officials, including
President Boris Yeltsin, have said that this research shows that no Americans
are being held against their will in Russia. In one sign of future cooperation,
the Russian navy may take part next year in an American project to recover from
Pacific waters near Vladivostok the remains of two American spy planes shot down
during the Cold War. Over all, about 30 American spy planes were shot down near
the Soviet Union's borders from 1950 to 1970. About half of the 252 crew members
are unaccounted for.
The report notes that
American requests to study military and border guard files remain "open." The
task of searching prison and psychiatric records has been complicated by a
Soviet practice of disguising the presence of foreign prisoners by giving them
"The security services have
been less than cooperative," Jim MacDougall, the senior analyst for the American
side, acknowledged in a recent interview. The other day, at his dacha in the Red
River district of Khabarovsk, Trotsenko sat at his dining room table and
sketched a map of the hospital corridor that he said he shared for two weeks
with the four Americans. By drilling holes in the floor and ceiling, workers had
installed bars to block off the end of the hall, improvising a detention ward.
Often asked to "keep an eye
on the Americans" by the Soviet army guard, Trotsenko said, he saw four men in
five beds. A fifth American apparently died of ejection injuries a few days
before Trotsenko was admitted. One American was so badly burned he could take
sustenance only intravenously. Two others, who seemed to have reasonable chances
of survival, were spoon-fed by a nurse. The fourth, with the broken arm, fed
himself with his good arm. At the time of Trotsenko's release, in mid-November
1951, the Americans were still in the hospital, he said.
Last March, following
Trotsenko's directions, an American military forensic team from Hawaii visited
the hospital cemetery and exhumed three bodies. None of the remains proved to be
those of an American. So far, the four Americans remain unidentified. Trotsenko
says that as normal relations grow between both nations, Russian memories will
"People used to say: 'I
don't know anything, I don't want to know anything," ' he said, recalling the
Stalinist fear still etched in the thinking of much of Russia's older
generation. "Yeltsin gave us freedom. The time will come when people will talk."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company