|Tuesday, 11 August 2020|
Transcript - Adm. Smith - 22 Sep 95
From: Franco Veltri <firstname.lastname@example.org>
ADMIRAL LEIGHTON SMITH COMMANDER IN CHIEF ALLIED FORCES SOUTHERN EUROPE
PRESS CONFERENCE AFSOUTH HEADQUARTERS, NAPLES 1700 (Naples time) 22 Sept 95
You probably now know that NATO forces did in fact conduct reconnaissance missions on 6, 7, and 8 Sept. in attempts to fix the location of and rescue the two French aviators that were shot down on the 30th of Aug. These forces were operating out of Italian bases and off the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Adriatic. Let me first point out the difference between a reconnaissance mission and a rescue mission. A pickup or rescue mission is similar to that which was conducted for Capt. Scott O'Grady. You will recall that we had voice communications with Capt. O'Grady, he had authenticated his call sign, we knew his precise location and we knew that he was physically well enough to get to a helicopter if we got into the area. For this mission we did not have any voice communications, but we did have other convincing evidence to include a photograph which showed what appeared to be a 3 with the outline of a Mirage aircraft, another 3, followed by the letters E,B, and something beyond that which I was not personally able to make out. The call sign of the aircraft that was shot down was EBRO -33. There was an individual photographed standing on the road adjacent to this sign, pointing to it. This photograph was taken by a German reconnaissance aircraft and a very sharp photograph interpreter spotted this and reported it up the line. At about 1 o'clock in the morning on the 6th of Sept, Gen. Ryan called me having just viewed this photograph. He expressed his confidence that this was worth an effort to send a reconnaissance team and I concurred with that, and called Gen. George Joulwan, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and asked for and got his permission to carry out this mission. Now the reason we were able to do this is, earlier, we had been briefed by some young men from the combat search and rescue organization on board the Theodore Roosevelt as well as our operation forces out of Brindisi, and I was convinced that they had done some very good planning to navigate to this objective area to conduct reconnaissance in the area and to egress out of the area. So we knew that there had been considerable work done and that's why Gen. Ryan and I elected to go up our chain of command and recommend that we conduct the mission. In the very early morning hours on the 6th, we launched two HH 60 helicopters from the Roosevelt; they were backed up by H-53 helicopters out of Brindisi, close air support aircraft, suppression of enemy air defense aircraft, combat air patrol, NATO AWACs, airborne command and control, the entire package. The HH 60s were not able to reach the objective area, they were unfortunately turned back by weather. They were engaged -- one of the aircraft took a hit, no one was hurt, they landed safely back aboard the Roosevelt. Early on the 7th, we launched the second attempt out of Brindisi, this time using assets from the Joint Special Operations Task Force down there. It consisted of MH-53Js, a series of 130-type aircraft -- tankers, airborne command and control, the AC-130. They were accompanied by a second package of MH53Js to back up the first. The two helicopters that went into the objective area traveled in, got to the objective area, spent a considerable amount of time in the area searching, but unfortunately very dense ground fog prevented them from locating the individuals that they were searching for. So they contemplated going back in, but aircraft that had remained in the area reported that the weather was in fact getting worse, and so we agreed to terminate this mission and they proceeded home. They were engaged with rather fulsome small arms fire as they were exiting the area, but none of the aircraft on that mission were hit. Late the night of the 7th, early the morning of the 8th, we launched our third mission. This mission went in to the same objective area. The weather was clear, it had the same package that I briefed you earlier. Included in this entire package were all of the NATO aircraft; again, this was a NATO operation. We had in the aircraft roughly 15 or 16 individuals in each of the MH53Js that went in. They consisted of the crew of the helicopter, special operations forces, both US Air Force and Army. And we had with them special representatives from the French Air Force. These aircraft went into the area, the weather was good, they spent almost 30 minutes in the area, again, conducting reconnaissance over specific points where we thought we had the best opportunity to locate the pilots. Shortly after arriving in the area, one of the helicopters received one small arms hit. They elected to remain. Towards the end of the time in the area, they were engaged by additional small arms. They considered this to be fairly heavy fire. At this point, one of the helicopters was hit with at least one round, and two of the crewmen were injured or wounded as a result of shrapnel. These were not life- threatening wounds, in fact the two crewmen continued to man their stations and carry out their duties throughout the remainder of the mission. These helicopters exited and as they were leaving the objective area, they were brought under fire; that fire was engaged in self defense by overhead fixed-wing aircraft specifically F-18s and A-10s. As they began further egressing, they were again engaged and that fire was engaged by an overhead AC-130. The aircraft then departed, refueled, and returned to Brindisi, their home base. The two individuals who were injured have been returned to the United States; one of them has been returned to duty, the other is on convalescent leave. We are extraordinarily proud of what these young men did in all three of these missions. I would clearly not classify them as failures. These were reconnaissance missions, they were done professionally, and they did exactly what they set out to do -- unfortunately we did not locate the French pilots and the search continues. Before I take your questions, let me express my very deep appreciation to the news media who had knowledge of these events, and at our request, did not report them. I have the greatest respect for those news media who chose not to report these details, because they knew, as I had asked them to withhold reporting, that by doing so would have potential for compromising future missions of this nature. Again, my hat's off, I very much appreciate that. With that, I'd be happy to take any questions you might have.
Q (AP): Can you tell us whether you know for certain if these two pilots are alive? A: I have no information on the pilots at this point. I certainly put them in the same category as we did with Captain O'Grady; we will continue to conduct our search missions, until such time as I have convincing evidence to the contrary, and I do not have that at this time.
Q (ANSA): Can you detail the participation of the French, and other nations, in the search for the two missing pilots? A: I can be specific to the degree that we had at least one representative of the French Air Force on each of the helicopters that went in and each of the helicopters that were backing up, on the night of the 7th and the 8th. We had NATO aircraft, and I can't tell you which NATO aircraft were directly involved, because I just simply don't have that at hand, but NATO aircraft. And this operation was conducted, it was commanded by Gen Mike Ryan, out of the Combined Air Operations Centre at Vicenza, which as you know is a NATO operation.
Q (Reuter): Can you tell us, from the reconnaissance photograph that you based your mission on, whether it was your assessment that these two airmen had become separated, and if you have any knowledge of whether they might be widely apart, on the ground? A: I really don't know the answer to that question. We had not made any assessment of that nature, and anything on that point would be pure speculation on my part.
Q (RAI): Is there still hope of finding these pilots alive, or do you believe that they have been captured? A: I am an optimist. I always think positive about these things.
Q: (ANSA) Was the release of the pilots subject to negotiations during the suspension of the air strikes? A: I have no personal knowledge of that.
Q: (AP) There are reports that a farmer captured the two pilots, and allegedly handed them to the Bosnian Serbs. Do you know anything about this? A: Yes. I read it in the paper. And I can also tell you that there were reports that Scott O'Grady was captured too.
Q: (Reuters) Mr Milan Milutinovic (Yugoslavian Foreign Minister) said in Paris today that he understood that one of the pilots had been in hospital in Bosnian Serb territory where he had treatment for a broken leg. Now he says he has no knowledge of the pilots' whereabouts at this stage. But would you care to make any appeal to the Bosnian Serbs, if they are holding those two men? A: Of course. I know nothing about this. I was honest with you and I tell you that I have no evidence to confirm or deny where these pilots might be right now. But clearly, it would be a humanitarian gesture, and certainly one that would be appropriate this time, if these pilots are alive, and captured, that the Bosnian Serbs would repatriate them as quickly as possible, and I would consider that to be like, right about now.
Q (WTN): What has happened to the No Fly Zone? Because Bosnian Serb aircraft have been bombing, which is against it, and NATO has done nothing. A: We have unconfirmed reports at this point, that there may have been two aircraft involved in some bombing up in the very area around Banja Luka, three days ago, and there's other information that might suggest that another two aircraft were there. We did investigate one of these, when we saw the fixed wing aircraft - or what we thought to be fixed wing aircraft - but our pilots were not able to visually identify the targets. so I can't confirm what the accusations and allegations are at this point. I can only tell you that we are trying to investigate those, and we are watching very closely.
Q (Stars & Stripes): There has been one news report that a super-quiet helicopter, like that shown in the movies, took part in this rescue or this reconnaissance attempt. Do you have any comment on that, is this true? A: There were two MH-53Js, and if you've ever been around an MH-53J you could define them as anything but quiet.
Q: (ANSA) Returning to the pilots. Will the search and rescue continue throughout the 24 hours day? A: Yes. we continue to conduct listening watches and the other kinds of things that we would do - and I don't want to get into the operational details of that - but we have not yet terminated the search for those pilots.
Q: (RAI) Still on the pilots; on what basis do you say that you are an optimist? A: Because I know the kind of people that fly aircraft. They're very tenacious, and if there's any way for anyone to survive, they will figure out a way to do it.
Q: (Reuters) Are these the only three reconnaissance missions you have conducted at quarters this close - the 6th, 7th and 8th? A: These are the only three helicopter-borne reconnaissance missions that we conducted into that objective area. We have conducted, obviously, fixed wing kinds of reconnaissance, rather consistently around, in the area, as well as other ways of trying to develop a location.
Q: (AP) Can you just go over again, describe the photo that you saw, used to locate the pilots? A: What I can tell you is, it was a fairly good quality photograph, there was a fairly small road, off to the side of that road was a small area that looked like it had been cleared out. There was a 3, an outline of a Mirage, another 3, and then an E, B. And there may have been something else. It was fairly evident. Across the path from this there was an individual who appeared to be pointing at the site.
Q: (S&S) Sir, the wounded, did you say they were both stationed at Vicenza? A: No, I did not, they were part of the force that's at Brindisi and they have been returned to their home base in the United States.
Q: (S&S) Can you tell me which service they were from? A: No, ma'm.
Q: (AP) Can you tell us the nationality of the two crewmen who were injured -- you said they went back to the states, I assume they were American? A: That's a good assumption.
Q: (Reuters) Could you just tell us the type of their injuries? A: As I understand it, one of them had a grazing wound to the knee area as a result of shrapnel, and the other one had a piece of shrapnel embedded in his thigh, or the area of his thigh. They're in pretty good shape, they're tough young hombres, they can take that, I guess.
Q: (ANSA) To rescue the pilots, are there just military efforts underway, or are you aware of organizations/ diplomatic ways to get them free? A: I'm involved in military operations and that's what I concentrate on, and that's what I know about, and I don't know about any other operations in that respect. Thank you very much for your interest.