Col. Bruce Olmstead was assigned to the 55th Wing when his RB-47B reconnaissance jet was shot down on July 1, 1960
Fifty-seven years after he was shot down by the Soviet Union and later imprisoned for seven months, Col. Bruce Olmstead will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Jul. 27. The former RB-47 co-pilot died last October.
Olmstead was assigned to the 55th Wing when his RB-47B reconnaissance aircraft was shot down on Jul. 1, 1960. He had to eject from this stricken aircraft over the Arctic Ocean. Only he and the navigator John McKone survived the attack by a Russian fighter that killed their other four fellow crew members.
According to Omaha Wolrd-Herald after surviving the shot down of his plane the KGB shipped Olmstead to Moscow’s feared Lubyanka prison and charged him with espionage. He was held alone in a freezing cell with little food or sleep, subjected to around-the-clock interrogation.
The young co-pilot in fact knew plenty of secrets. But neither Olmstead nor McKone, gave up a thing to the KGB during seven months of solitary confinement.
“They continued to fulfill the Airman’s Creed, to never surrender,” explained retired Brig. Gen. Reg Urschler of Bellevue, a squadron mate of Olmstead’s who later commanded the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW). “None of us can imagine what they went through.”
Noteworthy a RC-135 from the 55th Wing will make a flyover during the burial, while Olmstead’s widow, Gail, will receive the folded American flag that drapes his casket.
After his release, Gail joined Olmstead and McKone at the White House for tea with President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Years later the pilot would describe the couple as “very charming.”
Olmstead never flew again for the 55th, but he became a test pilot and, later, an air attaché in Denmark and he retired as a colonel in 1983. Post-military, he became a home-remodeling contractor. He visited Russia and hosted Russian military veterans in his home.
But those months of imprisonment stayed with him for the rest of his life.
“You can’t sit in a cell for 211 days without it affecting you,” he told the Washington Post in 1978. “You don’t forgive and forget. You forgive, and you live with it.”
In his later years, Olmstead joined friends at 55th Wing Association reunions, including numerous visits to Omaha.
Olmstead and McKone (who died in 2013) belatedly received their Silver Star medals in 2004, after Cold War veterans were made eligible for combat medals. Two years later Olmstead donated his to the 55th Wing.
The RB-47 reconnaissance aircraft was developed from the B-47 bomber to gather information about Soviet air defense radar systems, including details like their location, range and coverage during the early part of the Cold War.
The RB-47 first entered service in August 1955. Over the next decade, RB-47 crews of the 55th SRW flew thousands of dangerous “ferret” missions. Flying in radio silence at night along – and sometimes over – the border of the Soviet Union and other communist nations, RB-47s collected essential intelligence about the size and capability of Soviet air defense radar networks. The need for this information and the relatively small number of RB-47s forced crews to spend much of their time deployed to places around the world, away from their homes at Forbes Air Force Base (AFB), Kan. The RB-47 continued in service until the more capable RC-135 replaced it in the mid-1960s.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Additional source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force