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German village remembers downed American pilots

A newspaper clipping from January 1964 tells the story of how three pilots were shot down after flying into Soviet airspace while on a routine training mission in Germany. (Courtesy photo)

A newspaper clipping from January 1964 tells the story of how three pilots were shot down after flying into Soviet airspace while on a routine training mission in Germany. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Monty Hand (center kneeling), U.S. Air Forces in Europe, meets with the brothers who discovered the crash site in Vogelsberg, Germany. Now retired, Mr. Monty Hand returned to the memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the crash.  (Courtesy Photo)

Lt. Col. Monty Hand (center kneeling), U.S. Air Forces in Europe, meets with the brothers who discovered the crash site in Vogelsberg, Germany. Now retired, Mr. Monty Hand returned to the memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the crash. (Courtesy Photo)

Lt. Col. Monty Hand, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, laid a wreath at a memorial in Vogelsberg, Germany, Jan. 28, 1998, to commemorate the loss of three pilots during the Cold War. Now retired, Mr. Monty Hand returned to the memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the crash.  (Courtesy Photo)

Lt. Col. Monty Hand, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, laid a wreath at a memorial in Vogelsberg, Germany, Jan. 28, 1998, to commemorate the loss of three pilots during the Cold War. Now retired, Mr. Monty Hand returned to the memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the crash. (Courtesy Photo)

A T-39 Sabreliner is the type of aircraft that was shot down during the Cold War by the Soviet Union when it flew into enemy airspace Jan. 28, 1964. Now retired, Mr. Monty Hand returned to the memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the crash.  (DoD photo)

A T-39 Sabreliner is the type of aircraft that was shot down during the Cold War by the Soviet Union when it flew into enemy airspace Jan. 28, 1964. Now retired, Mr. Monty Hand returned to the memorial to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the crash. (DoD photo)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Three downed American pilots assigned to U.S. Air Forces in Europe were honored during the 50th anniversary memorial ceremony in Vogelsberg, Germany Feb. 2.

In 1998, when the current monument was unveiled at the crash site, Lt. Col. Monty Hand was asked to represent USAFE at the ceremony. Almost 16 years later, now retired, Mr. Hand, program analyst for USAFE operations, travelled back to the historic site to pay respect to the fallen American Airmen and to lay a wreath commemorating the event.
The history of the downed pilots and the subsequent monument has been 50 years in the making and is an important part of USAFE and Cold War history.

It was a typical cloudy German winter afternoon on Jan. 29, 1964, when three pilots took off on a routine training mission in a T-39 Sabreliner executive jet from Wiesbaden Air Base, West Germany. Shortly after take-off, ground control noticed the jet was off course and headed toward East Germany, well known as enemy air space. After numerous failed attempts by controllers to redirect the aircraft, they were over East Germany.

In a report released by the Soviet Union the aircraft ignored their requests to turn around or land. They also disregarded warning shots by the Soviets, who were "compelled to take measures that brought down the aircraft." The three pilots on board, Lt. Col. Gerald Hannaford, Capt. John Lorraine and Capt. Donald Millard were all killed when the plane crash landed near Vogelsberg, Germany.

It is unclear to anyone involved in the investigation why the pilots flew into East German air space or why they ignored radio communication directing them to turn around.

When the plane impacted the rural country side of the quiet village, it caught the attention of two brothers, Manfred Grosch and Dieter Grosch, as well as their cousin, Gerhard Rothe. The boys were in school at the time but rushed to the crash site as quickly as possible.

Seeing the wreckage of the airplane left a lasting impression on the boys, who built a monument to the pilots shortly after the crash. It was a white cross with pieces of the wreckage at its base. More than 30 years later, in 1998, the brothers wanted to honor the pilots with a more permanent monument, sparking USAFE's initial involvement with the memorial.

"They realized that while living under the rule of the Soviets that there were other people out there," Hand said. "It wasn't a good guy, bad guy thing to them. They just felt that it was very important to commemorate the loss of life as the result of the Cold War."

Besides this being the 50th anniversary of the shoot-down, this day was extra special due to the fact that the brothers reached out and invited the family members of the downed pilots to the ceremony.

"They contacted the family," Hand said, "because not only haven't the Americans forgotten, but the Germans haven't either. It is important to them that the families know that not everybody on the other side of the wall was a bad guy. People cared and felt their loss. There was an impact to their family. Three husbands and fathers were killed."

This is the first time any of the family members have traveled to Germany, and it was their first time meeting the brothers who cared so much about those three Airmen they never met.

Mr. Hand explained that this event is important to USAFE history because this is the most prevalent event for USAFE that was directly tied to the Soviet Union after the Berlin Airlift.

"These were USAFE assigned pilots in a USAFE airplane, who were lost in combat action," said Hand. "Our history demands that we remember these people."