. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ghosts of Cold War Elude U.S. Search Team

KALININGRAD, Western Russia -- On April 8, 1950, a U.S. Navy Privateer airplane stuffed with the latest electronic monitoring equipment took off from Wiesbaden, West Germany, with 10 people aboard.

Its mission: to spy on the Soviet Union.

Sometime in midafternoon, Soviet reconnaissance spotted the plane over Liepaja, Latvia. Fighters scrambled and caught the U.S. plane over the Baltic Sea. The Privateer turned away; the Soviet pilots opened fire.

They watched as the plane caught fire and dived burning into the clouds below -- the first known shoot-down of a U.S. plane in the Cold War.

On a snowy, blustery day this fall, 47 years later, five U.S. investigators, flanked by three Russian colleagues, stood in a veterans hall in Kaliningrad, headquarters of the Russian Baltic Fleet. Red flags adorned the wall, recalling the glory days of the Soviet navy.

A dozen old men stood stiffly before them.

The old men, wearing clusters of military medals on the jackets of their gray suits, were questioned: What did they know about the plane's disappearance? Was it ever found? Could anyone have survived?

Warily, the men -- Soviet naval veterans, all -- opened up to tell secrets once reserved for the ears of Stalin and very few others.

It was a typical day's work for the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POWs-MIAs: A few new details on missing Americans, but nothing substantial.

For five years now, a small group of Americans and Russians have crisscrossed the vastness of the former Soviet Union looking for the slightest evidence that might resolve the fate of dozens of U.S. servicemen. The missing men include the crews of at least 10 planes that were shot down in the Cold War. Perhaps more tantalizing, they also include U.S. prisoners from the Korean War who might have been brought to the Soviet Union for interrogation.

Investigators initially were driven by the spine-tingling possibility that they might discover a U.S. veteran alive in some labor camp or remote village.

Five years, millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of air kilometers later, they can point to one triumph: the discovery and return of the remains of Captain John Robertson Dunham, an Air Force spy pilot who was shot down in the Soviet Far East in 1952.

As for finding someone alive, the hope lingers -- but barely.

"You can't rule out the possibility," said A. Denis Clift, president of the Joint Military Intelligence College and a member of the Joint U.S.-Russian Commission.

Still, he added, the investigators have found nothing to contradict the words of President Boris Yeltsin, who said in 1992: "One may conclude that today there are no American citizens held against their will on the territory of Russia."

The case that brought Clift from his home in Annapolis, Maryland, to the amiable meeting hall in Kaliningrad is one of the most intriguing in the commission's files.

When the Privateer vanished in the Baltic in 1950, the Navy told the families of the crew that it had been lost on a routine training mission. It was not until 1975 that the United States admitted the plane had been spying.

At that point, the public learned another long-held secret. In 1955, two Americans released from Soviet prison camps quietly revealed a remarkable rumor -- that eight Americans shot down over the Baltic in 1950 had been seen in the Vorkuta prison camp.

In 1956, the U.S. State Department sent a cable to the Soviet government saying it was "compelled to believe that the Soviet government has had or continues to have under detention" members of the Privateer crew. The Soviets denied it.

In 1991, with relations between the United States and the Soviet Union at their warmest in decades, the issue was revived.

In July of that year, a Wisconsin woman, Jane Reynolds Howard, read an article in the Los Angeles Times that explored the possibility Americans might have been held in Soviet prisons. Among those cited was the crew of the Privateer.

Howard had a special interest. Her first husband, Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Robert Reynolds, was the navigator aboard the doomed flight.

"It was like a light bulb exploding in my brain," Howard recalled. "Bob could still be alive!"

Howard began lobbying the U.S. government to investigate, convinced that her husband, who would by this time be in his 70s, might have survived.

By March 1992, the United States and Russia established the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POWs-MIAs.

Investigators have traveled all over Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine conducting interviews with military officials, veterans and former prison inmates.

There was some excitement in late 1992 when a Lithuanian man recalled seeing an American named Robert in a Soviet prison in Irkutsk in 1950.

But, shown a photo lineup, the Lithuanian was unable to identify Robert Reynolds.

So what did happen to the Privateer?

Immediately after the shoot down, Stalin had ordered a huge search for wreckage of the plane and its spy equipment.

Ultimately, the admiral in charge wrote Stalin: "Despite the great effort and considerable resources devoted to the search for the American airplane, no parts of it were found."

At the veterans hall in Kaliningrad, the investigators interviewed 12 veterans who had participated in the search. They did little to advance the case.

Later, the panel interviewed another veteran outside his home.

Leonid Zurilenko, a short, ruddy, gray-haired man in a black leather jacket, remembered something interesting. After the search had ended, "I heard talk that they had found an airplane. They raised the tail section and covered it with a tarp. On the order of Stalin, everything was packaged, sealed and sent to Moscow."

Another tantalizing tip -- and so far, nothing more.