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Think of how family members of the victims of a shoot-down of a commercial airliner 30 years ago today feel.

On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007 took off from New York’s JFK airport, destined for Seoul, South Korea, with a refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska. After the aircraft left on the last leg of its journey, it was subsequently shot down by Soviet aircraft.

The shoot-down of the aircraft, which carried 269 passengers, including 61 Americans, becomes even more intriguing when one considers KAL 007 had a very distinguished passenger. Rep. Larry McDonald, a Democrat from Georgia who was the chairman of the John Birch Society as well as one of the fiercest anti-Communist in the House of Representatives, was flying to Seoul as part of a conservative delegation led by Sen. Jesse Helms for the 30th anniversary of the signing of the United States-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, which was intended to be a thumb in the eye of the Soviets.

In the days following the attack President Ronald Reagan issued a scathing rebuke against the Soviet Union calling the attack a “crime against humanity” and decrying “the savagery of their crime.” Reagan noted the attack was far from an isolated incident.

“This is not the first time the Soviet Union has shot at and hit a civilian airliner when it over flew its territory. In another tragic incident in 1978, the Soviets also shot down an unarmed civilian airliner after having positively identified it as such,” Reagan said. “In that instance, the Soviet interceptor pilot clearly identified the civilian markings on the side of the aircraft, repeatedly questioned the order to fire on a civilian airliner, and was ordered to shoot it down anyway. The aircraft was hit with a missile and made a crash landing. Several innocent people lost their lives in this attack, killed by shrapnel from the blast of a Soviet missile.”

It did appear the attack was indeed a brutal act by the Communist government of the Soviet Union. The Russians had tracked the 747, which had some of the most sophisticated navigational instruments in the world, for 2 1/2 hours prior to giving the order to shoot down the aircraft.

While what happened may seem to be a simple cut-and-dry case of Soviet aggression, there is more to the incident than meets the eye.

The initial news of the incident reported the aircraft had not been destroyed, but rather was forced to land on Sakhalin, a Russian occupied island north of Japan. The Sept. 1 front page of the Rocky Mountain News featured the headline, “Congressman’s flight reportedly forced to Soviet isle.” The story noted “the CIA had informed the Seoul government of the landing on the Soviet-occupied island.”

Several other sources, including the Japanese Self-Defense Force, reported they had tracked the flight on radar to a safe landing inside Russian territory.

Bert Schlossberg, founder of the International Committee for the Rescue of KAL 007 Survivors and whose father-in-law and cousin were on the flight, confirmed they were told by officials the plane had landed safely.

“That evening we had an official come to our door who reassured us that although the plane had been fired upon, it landed safely and our loved ones would soon be released,” he said. “By the next morning that account had completely changed.”

While the later explanation the aircraft was destroyed is largely accepted, there remain key unanswered questions that have left the families perplexed to this day.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia released additional information about the incident, which shed doubt on the official theory.

Moneron Island

A transcript between the Russian pilots and General Anatoli Kornukov, who was the commander of Sokol Air Force Base at Sakhalin, revealed that although the Russians obeyed orders and fired two missiles at the aircraft, it was not destroyed. The pilot of one of the aircraft reported the target was able to easily turn to the north. The pilot conversations went on to reveal that the aircraft began a descent until it fell off the radar screen near the island of Moneron.

In 1991, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported eyewitness accounts, including those of Japanese fishermen, stating that the aircraft made several turns around the island in a spiral descent, which would suggest the aircraft was preparing to make a landing at sea.

The Izvestia articles interviewed Russian divers who had located the wreck in the weeks following the incident. One of the divers reported “the plane was filled with all kinds of stuff, but there were no bodies. Why? I didn’t see any human remains. There was no luggage, not even a handbag.”

Following the revelations about the location of the wreck, Sens. Bill Bradley, Edward Kennedy, Carl Levin and Sam Nunn fired off a letter to President Mikhail Gorbachev in June 1991 demanding an explanation for the divers’ reports. However, Gorbachev was overthrown and forced to step down before he could reply.

Rep. Larry McDonald

Schlossberg told WND he initially believed the government’s official story that the aircraft was destroyed. But, in 1991, while living in Israel, he discovered that Avraham Shifrin, who directed the Israeli Research Center for Prisons, Psych-prisons, and Forced Labor Concentration Camps of the USSR, interviewed Soviet immigrants who were in the military and acquired information that McDonald had survived the crash and was taken to Sakhalin and then to Moscow.

Schlossberg presented this information to the late Sen. Jesse Helms, who, following the election of Boris Yeltsin, fired off a similar letter asking for information on KAL 007. Helms was on another Korean Air Lines flight that departed Anchorage 15 minutes after McDonald’s flight.

The following year, Russia 1 TV admitted that, contrary to earlier assertions, the Soviet Defense Ministry did actually have the aircraft’s black boxes. While the Russians only released 104 seconds of the cockpit voice recorder, the information during this time span confirms the information in the Izvestia and fighter pilot transcripts that the aircraft survived the missile and the crew was in control of the aircraft at all times.

In the years following the attacks, survivors have attempted to find out what truly happened on that day.

“There is a lot that can be pieced together from the different sources we have available to us — notably the transcripts of the Soviet ground-to-ground and ground-to-air communications from the time of the shoot down, the audio from the cockpit voice recorder recording, and the data from the digital flight-data recorder,” reported Charisma LaFleur, who had two family members aboard, including her grandfather Alfredo Cruz. “By putting it all together we can paint a pretty good picture of what happened, and that picture is very different from the popular view of what happened.”

Schlossberg said with all of these questions still surrounding what actually happened to KAL 007 on that fateful day, the government owes it to the families to get to the bottom of the matter.

“The evidence points to the aircraft making a water landing and, if there’s any possibility of survivors, including Congressman McDonald, our government owes it to them to do everything in its power to find out what truly happened on that day.”

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