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Spokane Valley woman fighting her battle decades after war

Sun., Oct. 2, 2011

Woman hopes to solve the mystery of what happened to her cousin in Korea

After spending the past 25 years cutting through military bureaucracy and secrecy, Amy Berger has found hope that one day she will know what happened to her cousin, a crewman on a U.S. Air Force reconnaissance plane shot down in the Korean War on July 4, 1952.

“It is possible that (Airman 1st Class) Clifford H. Mast bailed out, and was subsequently captured by the enemy,” a recently declassified intelligence document revealed.

This year, the federal Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office enlisted the help of Russian archivists in researching the cases of 10 missing U.S. servicemen, including Mast, who is listed by the military as presumed dead.

If the airman’s fate is ever known, both a former U.S. senator and a noted former New York Times reporter credit Berger’s persistence in getting to the bottom of a nearly 60-year-old Cold War mystery.

The 42-year-old Spokane Valley woman has been dogging Mast’s trail since she was 17 years old, filing numerous Freedom of Information Act requests and relentlessly scouring the Internet for clues the government apparently tried to suppress.

“Everyone must have a purpose in life, and Clifford is mine,” said Berger, Mast’s official primary next of kin. “I will keep pursuing it until he comes home or his death is rectified.”

Reconnaissance mission attacked

Last year, Berger and officials from Fairchild Air Force Base attended a memorial service for Mast at Riverside Memorial Park, where the ashes of his Spokane parents rest in urns next to an empty urn for their son. Washington Mast, a retired Air Force officer, and Ida Mast died in the early 1970s, never having given up hope for him.

Berger first took an interest in POW/MIAs as a teenager at Rogers High School. After she obtained a Vietnam-era POW/MIA bracelet, her mother told the girl about her own relative missing in the Korean War. Since then Berger has pieced together her cousin’s story with self-taught research skills she acquired along her quest.

Clifford Henry Mast was born April 25, 1927, and enlisted in the Navy after graduating from North Central High School. Following World War II, he studied at Whitworth College (now Whitworth University). But Mast had difficulty adjusting to civilian life and on Oct. 8, 1951, he enlisted in the Air Force at Fairchild, where he served with the 92nd Bomb Wing.

In May 1952, the Air Force granted his request to join the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, known as “the Demon Chasers,” and he shipped out for Japan, where his unit was attached to the 15th Air Force, Far East Air Forces in support of the Korean War.

One night, he volunteered to fly in the nose gunner position of an RB-29, a Superfortress bomber modified for photo reconnaissance. The plane departed from Yokota Air Base on a mission designated “So Tired.” It was not his regular crew.

Over North Korea, the plane was attacked by MiG 15 fighters. Of the 13-man crew, one was killed in the attack. Eleven were captured by the enemy, interrogated for months and eventually repatriated in the 1953 prisoner exchange known as Big Switch. The fate of Mast, who was promoted to staff sergeant after his disappearance, remains unclear.

‘No record found’

According to Defense Department documents, the co-pilot, Lt. Francis A. Strieby, stated that he tried to push Mast out of the nose hatch, but that Mast refused and “took a swing” at the officer. One version of events states that Strieby last saw Mast standing next to the aircraft commander’s seat. But another air intelligence report says, “Mast was last seen bailing out of the aircraft over Sinanju by Lt. Strieby.”

A document declassified in July provided further information about Mast. It states that a naval lieutenant named Marvin Broomhead, a former POW, reported that Mast’s name was “vaguely recognized” by a fellow prisoner on a list of other POWs held by the Koreans.

Yet Broomhead felt so confident about the information that he contacted Mast’s father from his hospital room after being repatriated in 1953. When Washington Mast asked the Air Force about the new information concerning his son, he received a letter from the director of military personnel stating “no record found.”

Confidential notations on an Air Force copy of the 1953 letter sent to Mast’s father indicate that the Air Force considered putting the father in contact with Broomhead, who was still recovering in a hospital. However, the Air Force wrote the father that it had no record of the officer.

To this day Berger can’t understand what interest the Air Force had in suppressing the matter.

Perhaps the answer lies in a deciphered Soviet telegram turned over to the U.S. government by the Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union. The declassified document details information allegedly gleaned from the interrogation of the 11 “So Tired” crew members while they were imprisoned in China.

The document states that the crew was first brought together at Fairchild toward the end of 1951 and later trained in strategic reconnaissance.

According to the Russians, the crew members admitted “they dropped spies onto the territories of China, Tibet and the Soviet Union, and they dropped bacteriological bombs on China, as well as conducted radar reconnaissance of China and the southern Soviet Union.”

The document details alleged testimony by crew members that they engaged in espionage, as well as radiological, bacteriological and chemical warfare in Russia, China and North Korea.

Air Force headquarters hasn’t responded to requests for comment on the information contained in the Russian documents. However, the U.S. government has consistently denied allegations that it used weapons of mass destruction in the Korean War.

Haunted by an answer

Further word of Mast came from Bill Koski, one of the reconnaissance plane’s crew members held by the Chinese. Berger uncovered statements made by Koski to Laurence Jolidon, a journalist and author of “Last Seen Alive – The Search for POWs Missing from the Korean War.” Jolidon’s notes were turned over to the University of Texas’ Briscoe Center for American History by his family upon the writer’s death in 2002.

Koski told Jolidon that while still being held in Korea, he was interrogated by a Chinese officer who inquired of Mast’s whereabouts.

“I said, ‘How the hell would I know. Wherever you took him,’ ” Koski recalled.

The fact that Mast had not been a regular member of the RB-29 crew “would have been a mystery to the Chinese … some sergeant along as nose gunner … some kind of intelligence guy, or spy to drop behind their lines.”

Though Koski indeed had no idea what happened to Mast, it later occurred to him that if he had told his interrogator he knew Mast was alive, or that he had been seen in captivity, Mast might have been kept alive and repatriated with the other POWs.

The thought that he may have contributed to his comrade’s demise haunted Koski, who moved to Spokane to be close to Mast’s parents.

Koski told Jolidon that Ida Mast had given him her son’s Purple Heart.

Senator says information concealed

In 1992, then-U.S. Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H., who was vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, visited Russia to inquire about Americans missing in Southeast Asia.

He returned with a list of 125 American servicemen, including Mast, who appeared to have been interrogated by Soviets and possibly transferred to China during the Korean War.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Smith said the Russians told him that the Vietnamese “shut them out” as far as American POWs were concerned, “but Korea, that was a different ballgame.”

“They (the Russians) had information from other POWs that Mast may have survived his shoot-down,” Smith said.

The first U.S. senator to visit North Korea, Smith said communist officials told him that Chinese manned the Korean prison system and that some American POWs were taken to China.

“Mast could very well have been one of them,” Smith said.

He said he could never understand the U.S. government’s reluctance to reveal information about American POW/MIAs. In some cases, Smith said, the Russians have been more forthcoming.

“What happened with Broomhead was common,” Smith said of the information withheld from Mast’s family.

The former senator returned from Russia with “thousands and thousands of documents,” most of them on the downing of U.S. planes in the Korean War.

“I brought all this back and gave it to the U.S. government,” Smith said. “It was like dumping it down a rat hole.”

He said the information included “plane numbers and pilots, all kinds of stuff. To the best of my knowledge, none of them ever reached the families or the public domain.”

Answers may never come

Berger said the information Smith brought back with him from Russia was critical to her search.

“Sen. Bob Smith opened doors for me,” she said. “I have had every single door slammed in my face by the Air Force.”

Berger then turned to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, with whom she shared information she had gathered on her own, including from the Jolidon archives.

The office responded, saying it would send archivists to the University of Texas to review the documents. The DPMO official also said Russian archivists had agreed to research the cases of 10 missing American servicemen, including Mast, whose official status was changed in 1954 from “missing in action” to “killed in action by a presumptive finding of death.”

Among those to whom Berger turned for guidance in her search was former New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, author of “The Death and Life of Dith Pran,” which inspired the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.” Schanberg became a leading advocate for the notion that American prisoners remain alive in Southeast Asia.

Schanberg wrote Berger that Mast had been dishonored by government lies and a mainstream press that has turned its back on the story of America’s missing.

“Even if the answers are never provided,” Schanberg wrote Berger, “you should recognize that you have already done a great job in preserving Clifford’s memory and legacy.”

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