I was a captive of communism!
By ANDREW MCGINN
After 50 years, the stubby, silver jet fighter captured mid-air at speeds pushing 600 mph in a hazy color photo taken by a $12 Instamatic camera looks fake.
Like, Godzilla-movie fake.
It honestly looks like any one of countless toy jets sent to do battle with a Japanese actor encased in a rubber monster suit, only to be batted away like a gnat on a muggy summer evening.
Fifty years ago, though, everything about the Soviet MiG on the port side of Seaboard World Airlines Flight 253 was real. Same for the MiG on the starboard side.
Their 23mm cannons would have made short work of the DC-8 as it passed over a section of the North Pacific with a depth of more than six and a half miles.
Nancy Cuddy’s life was entirely in the hands of a Soviet fighter pilot, and like any kind of bear, the Russian bear was poised to attack.
How many other former Jefferson residents can make that claim?
In fact, the words “former Jefferson resident” and “international incident” have hardly, if ever, been used in the same sentence.
But on July 1, 1968, Cuddy abruptly found herself on the front lines of the Cold War when the jetliner she was on meandered off course and ventured into Russian airspace near the Kuril Islands.
Forced to land on the island of Iturup, Cuddy, 25, and the seven other stewardesses aboard Flight 253 — three of them named Nancy — quite possibly earned a place for themselves in history by becoming the only captives of the Soviet Union in mustard-colored minidresses.
“We had no idea what they were going to do,” Nancy (Cuddy) Pennell, now 75, recalled recently, revisiting the incident that ultimately became a footnote in the century-defining struggle between democracy and communism.
For 60 hours 50 years ago, Tokyo-bound Flight 253 and its 214 passengers were reluctant guests of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — the USSR — at a time when the U.S. could scant afford an international incident.
Sailors from the USS Pueblo were already being held captive in communist North Korea after their ship was caught in the act of spying. The men would endure 11 months of brutal treatment in North Korean prison camps.
Unbeknownst to the crew or passengers, Flight 253 would ultimately be spared an extended stay thanks to a landmark arms control agreement being signed the exact day of their capture.
In the words of a partially declassified CIA memo, dated July 2, 1968, “Moscow seems to have decided to handle the Kurile plane incident quietly.”
“God was taking care of us,” Pennell said.
The passage of time has largely reduced the Cold War to something akin to a carnival haunted house — now that we’re through it, we can laugh it off.
We look back and chuckle at the thought of schoolkids crouched under their desks, told they could survive a radioactive fireball hotter than the sun itself.
But just because the world avoided full-scale war doesn’t mean good people didn’t die — in proxy wars, while gathering intelligence, and in making and testing nuclear munitions.
There’s no other way to say it: Nancy Pennell is lucky to be alive.
In fact, 15 years later, on Sept. 1, 1983, the incident began playing out all over again when Korean Air Lines Flight 007, off course near the same area, was met by a Soviet Su-15 fighter jet.
Just like in 1968, the fighter jet flew alongside the airliner. Only this time, it dropped back and fired two air-to-air missiles, killing all 269 people on board.
KAL 007 was a mere 20 to 25 seconds from returning to international airspace.
Speaking in 1996 to The New York Times, the former Soviet pilot still insisted the airliner was there to spy.
“I knew this was a civilian plane,” he admitted. “But for me this meant nothing. It is easy to turn a civilian type of plane into one for military use.”
By then, Pennell was working as a nurse in the Bay Area of California, where she still resides.
“I heard it on the radio on my way to work,” she said.
The sudden realization that Flight 253 could have shared the fate of KAL 007 was too much.
“I pulled over and threw up,” Pennell said.
“Oh my God,” she remembers thinking, “that almost happened.”
Cam Ranh Bay or bust
Pennell may very well have never taken to the skies if not for her dad’s allergies.
The Cuddy family has deep roots in Greene County, but Pennell’s dad, Cooper native Raymond Cuddy, eventually concluded his sinuses would fare better in a different climate.
Raymond Cuddy had farmed off and on, “but he was very allergic to the pollen in the air,” Pennell said.
So in 1955, he uprooted his family and left the area for San Antonio, where he went to work as a mechanic for Saturn Airways, a charter airline.
Graduating from high school in Texas in 1960, Pennell wanted to go to college to be a nurse.
“But we couldn’t exactly afford for me to do that,” she said.
Instead, she became a stewardess for Saturn.
In 1962, there was no such thing as a “flight attendant.” And a male flight attendant? Good one. That’s like a male nurse.
The jet age had dawned, and most often the stewardesses were expected to be equally sleek.
“I turned 21 on a trip to Vegas,” Pennell said.
By 1969, one airline, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA), sponsor of TV’s “The Dating Game,” issued a call for “girls to fill a cute orange mini-uniform.”
Within a few years, PSA stewardesses were even rocking hotpants.
“There are a lot of wild and crazy people out there, I’ll tell you that,” Pennell said.
Pennell was out of the industry by that point, leaving the friendly skies in 1972 to realize her dream of becoming a nurse. She retired in 1991 as director of critical care at St. Rose Hospital in Hayward, Calif.
Then again, during Pennell’s 11-year career as a stewardess, the skies weren’t all that friendly. In fact, they were downright hostile.
The need for more and more young men to try to keep communism at bay in a remote place known as Vietnam led the U.S. government to contract with commercial airlines to ferry troops in and out of the country.
Seaboard World Airlines — just one of many airlines lost to time — had performed a similar task during the Korean War, ferrying 34,000 troops as far as Japan for the fight in nearby Korea.
But the war in Vietnam required the airlines to fly straight into places like Da Nang, Saigon and Cam Ranh Bay.
They weren’t just aiding the war effort — they were in it.
“You could see the tracers,” Pennell said.
Takeoffs and landings were always steep to avoid being hit by groundfire.
Braniff (which eventually ceased operations in 1982) was easily the most fashion-forward of the airlines at that time. Braniff “hostesses” — who were forced to “retire” at age 32 — sported space-age, plastic bubble helmets to keep the elements off their bouffants.
But Braniff’s fabulously colored planes — painted orange, turquoise, lemon yellow and all sorts of other groovy colors — ostensibly screamed, “Shoot me,” to any man, woman or child in the vicinity with a Kalashnikov.
Bullet holes in planes weren’t uncommon, according to Pennell.
Pennell, who still enjoys traveling, returned to Vietnam six years ago.
“It looked beautiful flying in and out,” she said. “I wanted to see it when I wasn’t being shot at.”
Pennell initially began ferrying troops to Vietnam during her four years with Saturn Airways.
Joining Seaboard World Airlines in the fall of 1967, Pennell was the last friendly face many of them would ever see.
“We knew some of them wouldn’t come back,” she explained. “The way they ran the war, it felt like we were donating boys.”
On flights home, the stewardesses found they had to gingerly ask passengers — many of whom were fresh from the jungle — how they wanted their coffee.
“You had to be careful how you woke them up,” Pennell said, describing instances when a startled soldier would lunge.
“A lot of them,” she added, “were just flat exhausted.”
Plucking troops out of a warzone meant being confronted with some uncomfortable truths.
Occasionally, Pennell said, soldiers would share disturbing stories. A few others wanted to show snapshots of desecrated bodies.
“I knew they were killing our boys,” Pennell said, “but you’re disappointed when our boys do that, too.”
Drug abuse was taking a toll as well.
“Sometimes we’d have a doctor on the radio for hours at a time,” she said. “We didn’t have anything to calm them down.”
For the better part of three years, Pennell’s mom was none the wiser.
“I didn’t actually tell my mom I was flying to Vietnam,” she said.
As far as Elizabeth Cuddy knew, her daughter was only going as far as Tokyo, or to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
Little could she imagine her daughter was at times sitting in a bunker in Vietnam, biding time as the Viet Cong shelled the airfield.
Pennell’s cover story was finally blown on July 1, 1968, when Flight 253 rolled to a stop at Burevestnik Air Base on Iturup.
Their final destination was to have been the U.S. Air Force base on Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam. All 214 passengers on board were servicemen.
The flight began June 30, 1968, like any other at McChord Air Force Base near Seattle, except that Flight 253 was to be a proving flight for the new DC-8-63CF, a stretch version of the DC-8, on its ability to fly nonstop from the West Coast to Japan.
“It was just a normal flight,” Pennell said.
Following the sun and crossing the International Date Line — automatically making it July 1 — Pennell wasn’t actually working the first leg of the flight. She and a few other members of the crew were “deadheading,” as they call it.
“I wasn’t working until we were brought down,” she said. “Then we all worked.”
The initial MiG-17 appeared off the port side of Flight 253, the red star on its tail the first indication something was awry.
Pennell had actually seen MiGs before, on flights in and out of Berlin, but never this close. These guys were eerily close.
“You could see their faces,” she said of the pilots, who were sending hand signals to the captain to land.
One of the other Nancys on board held her $12 Instamatic up to a window and snapped a couple of pictures that would appear later that month in Life magazine.
But when the captain briefly deviated from the desired flight path, the cannons on one MiG opened up, sending a hail of rounds over the wing as a warning.
If the Russkies hoped to find a cache of eavesdropping equipment when they finally boarded Flight 253, they were sorely mistaken.
“They weren’t equipped to take care of us,” Pennell said. “I don’t know if they had any idea how many people were on board when they brought us down.”
For her part, Pennell had no clue where they were.
“I just knew we were off the coast of Japan at a Russian MiG base,” she said.
As it turned out, they were in a place where World War II never ended.
Iturup is one of four islands in the Kurils claimed by both Russia and Japan. The islands are such a touchy subject that Moscow and Tokyo still have never signed a treaty ending the Second World War.
Accompanied by a husky local school teacher in a thick sweater with a rudimentary grasp of English, Soviet military officers soon began collecting IDs and passports from the crew and passengers.
Confined to the plane — with the shades down and door shut — it was anybody’s guess what was in store for them, the captain telling one stewardess, “We’ll be lucky if we get out of here in a month.”
Eventually, the Russians reasoned they would need to feed their new prisoners at some point, and brought aboard bread that smelled like vinegar, cans of cheese and jugs of coffee or tea.
Pennell still isn’t sure which it was — whatever it was tasted like a cross between “coffee, tea and dishwashing soap.”
The Russians were actually quite nice, Pennell remembered, and even allowed the stewardesses to get four hours of shut-eye off the plane in an unheated log building, which appeared to be some kind of sewing shop.
As fate would have it, President Lyndon B. Johnson was about to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, a landmark agreement prohibiting nations with nuclear arsenals from giving nuclear weapons to countries without. Nations without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them.
“After nearly a quarter century of danger and fear,” Johnson said in remarks the morning of July 1 from the East Room of the White House, “reason and sanity have prevailed to reduce the danger and to greatly lessen the fear. Thus, all mankind is reassured.”
The treaty was signed in Moscow and London as well.
Not wanting to be a killjoy, the USSR soon put Flight 253 on its merry way, but not until the U.S. said sorry for violating Soviet airspace.
“Now that we are out of there and safe,” Pennell wrote in her 1968 statement to the airline, “I am proud to have been on the airplane and a member of the crew.”
China, on the other hand, wasn’t terribly happy with their comrades for letting Flight 253 go, Pennell explained. After all, the plane was loaded with American servicemen bound for the war in Vietnam, whose communist insurgency China was backing.
Still, the Russians even gave their departing American prisoners a huge box of cigarettes.
“And they were all made in Hanoi,” Pennell said. “They were very strong, I’ll tell you that.”
They apparently go well with a cup of dishwashing soap.