Search Under Way for Remains Of Finnish Plane Sunk in 1940

TALLINN, Estonia -- U.S. naval experts began searching Friday for the wreckage of a Finnish airliner that crashed into the Baltic Sea in June 1940, just days before the Soviet Union annexed Estonia.

Nine people were on board the aircraft when it disappeared, including a diplomatic courier now seen as one of the first U.S. casualties of World War II.

Most Estonian and Finnish experts agree the small plane -- named Kaleva -- was shot down by two Soviet fighter bombers on June 14, 1940, a mere 10 minutes after taking off from Tallinn en route to Helsinki, Finland.

The wreckage is believed to lie 90 meters underwater near the island of Keri, 30 kilometers northeast of Tallinn.

"If the aircraft is in the area where we're searching, I'm highly confident we'll find it," said Martin Ammond, senior surveyor aboard the USNS Pathfinder, one of the U.S. Navy's oceanographic survey vessels.

The vessel was sent to Tallinn following a request by Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo to his U.S. colleague, Robert Gates, in January. The Estonians hope to learn the fate of Kaleva, a German-made Junkers Ju-52 that was operated by Finland's Aero, later renamed Finnair.

Neither the Soviet Union nor Russia acknowledged shooting down Kaleva.

Kaleva's mystery remained unsolved, and the wreckage was not found despite intense efforts after Estonia regained independence in 1991.

Finnish authorities kept silent about Kaleva for decades, saying only the plane crashed due to technical failure. In March 1940 the country had just signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union after a costly war and did not want to provoke Moscow.