by Mary May Larmoyeux – As far as his family and the public were concerned, the top-secret mission of Lt. Col. Roy Kaden never happened. It took 50 years for the flight commander to be recognized for the mission that he and his RB-50 reconnaissance crew performed during the Cold War. Until the year 2000, their heroic service to our country had been highly classified and known to only a select number of Air Force Intelligence officials.
That changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and declassification of his mission. When Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke to a group of Cold War Reconnaissance Veterans, he said: “ … In the name of security, the story of your courage has for so long remained behind a veil of secrecy. In the name of history, America today lifts that veil and proudly honors your extraordinary contributions to the nation’s defenses. Today, you step from the shadows of the unknown and the unsung and at last assume your rightful place in the ranks of this nation’s heroes.”
Kaden, a resident of Maumelle, Arkansas, is one of those heroes. In September 2002 he joined the ranks of Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart when he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the military’s highest honors. His extraordinary aerial service was performed in 1952 when there was great concern that the Soviets were constructing an air base in the Franz Josef Land Archipelago. Such a base would have posed a critical security threat to United States.
Authorized at the highest level possible, President Harry Truman approved the sensitive intelligence mission. Its purpose was to determine if the Soviets were indeed establishing this airfield in the Arctic Islands. Kaden and his crew volunteered for the assignment, and their plane, The High and Lonesome, was ordered to fly over the “ice islands” that many feared held Soviet fighter jets and bombers.
Today, Kaden says that the long-distance flight was nothing more than a routine, armed- reconnaissance mission. However, flying at a low level into a hostile area where an unknown danger existed for Soviet fighter attacks was anything but routine.
Kaden and his crew understood there was a very real possibility that they could be shot down. They asked about the likelihood of a recovery submarine operation if they encountered problems. They were told that rescue would not be possible should a crash landing or ditching occur. “There was no recourse,” Kaden says. “There was no rescue. There was no survival.”
September 17, 1952
Having waited several days for the best forecast for photographic weather conditions, The High and Lonesome crew began its top-secret mission from Thule Air Base in Greenland in the pre-dawn hours of September 17, 1952. Kaden recalls that the base was enveloped in dense ice fog with visibility of one-eighth of a mile or less. This prevented light signals from the control tower, and there was no radio communication as the mission was under a radio silence restriction.
“After starting engines and being ready to taxi,” Kaden says, “the fog became so thick that I could not readily discern the taxi strip leading to the runway.” Finally, in the dense fog, an instrument take-off was made on the runway centerline. He still recalls the feeling of relief when the plane, while still on the runway, reached take-off speed and lift off.
That feeling, however, was short-lived. About 45-minutes into their 3000 mile round-trip flight, a booster pump failure was discovered, meaning that approximately 700 gallons of fuel couldn’t be used. After surveying the situation, Kaden decided that they had enough fuel to make the mission. He says, “If we had aborted, there would not have been another chance to make this trip. … It was a one-time thing.”
Approximately six hours into the flight, the crew neared the islands and its search for electronic radar signals produced nothing. Hoping this meant they would not be met by Soviet fire, the plane descended and reduced its speed. At the same time, the gunners were on alert and photographers were ready.
Expecting to find a Soviet base as they flew over the larger islands, to the crew’s relief, there was no evidence of an airfield or occupancy. The photographs confirmed what they saw—the islands were uninhabited.
Having kept radio silence throughout the mission, Kaden didn’t know what weather conditions to expect when The High and Lonesome returned to Thule Air Base. When it was almost over the landing field, he broke radio silence to request landing instructions.
Kaden says, “A normal GCA (Ground Controlled Approach) was made. We had been at work for nearly 24 hours. I closed our flight clearance with base operations and then advised SAC (Strategic Air Command) Headquarters of the mission’s completion.”
There had been no indication of an operating Soviet air base or active search radar in the Artic Islands of the Soviet Franz Josef Land Archipelago. This was critical information for the Commander, war planners, and intelligence officials at SAC Headquarters.
After a debriefing, the crew surrendered all records, maps, flight logs, notes, etc. They retained no evidence that the Soviet overflight had taken place. Kaden says that he and the crew assumed that all records associated with their mission had been destroyed because of the sensitivity of the assignment. He never mentioned any of the events of September 17, 1952, nor did any members of his crew—until 2000. That’s when he was informed that their mission had been declassified with other early Cold War overflights.
Some wartime heroes are never properly thanked for their courage due to the sensitivity of their missions. But because of declassification, Kaden and his crew were finally recognized. Kaden’s wife of 52 years, Gerry, was at the Pentagon in 2002 when he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. She says, “I felt proud of him. … He deserved it.”
The extraordinary service of Lt. Col. Roy Kaden during the Cold War is no longer hidden in the shadows of yesteryear. As one who has received the Distinguished Flying Cross, he has stepped forward as an American hero.
Editor’s Note: Roy Kaden retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1960. In addition to the Distinguished Flying Cross, Kaden was in the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing Hall of Fame and received numerous awards that include the Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Medal, American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and the Armed Forces Reserve Medal. He died in 2010.