The First Casualty

A Downed 1991 Gulf War Flier Still Missing

On Jan. 17, 1991, the first night of the Gulf War, Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher was shot down over Iraq. He became the conflict's first American casualty.

When 60 Minutes II started working on this story more than two years ago, Speicher was listed as Killed in Action despite the fact that the U.S. military had never looked for him, and that there was no evidence that he ever died. In January 2001, Speicher made history again. The Navy changed his status from Killed in Action to Missing in Action.

The U.S. military has never done that before - not in the Civil War or the World Wars and not in Korea or in Vietnam. The Navy did it because it finally admitted that it doesn't know whether Scott Speicher is dead or alive.

Correspondent Bob Simon provides an update of the story that 60 Minutes II first reported in 2000.

Click here to read the two-part report:
  • May 2000 Report
  • January 2001 Update

  • May 2000 Report

    Somewhere in the arid, desolate desert of western Iraq, Speicher's F-18 crashed in darkness two hours after the war began.

    Speicher was one of the best pilots on the aircraft carrier Saratoga. He wasn't supposed to fly on the first mission of the war but he refused to be left behind. "When it just came down to flying the airplane, there was nobody like Spike," says Barry Hull, another pilot in Speicher's squadron.

    On Jan. 17, Hull, Speicher, and 32 other pilots took off at 1:30 a.m. from the USS Saratoga in the Red Sea. They were supposed to suppress enemy air defenses west of Baghdad. It was a very dangerous mission.

    "The closer we got to Baghdad, the more impressive the light show over Baghdad became," recalls Bob Stumpf, who was flying two planes away from Speicher. "It was just an incredible anti-aircraft barrage."

    Eight minutes from the target, Stumpf was startled by a huge flash in the sky. He assumed the blast was a missile, but he didn't think that any planes had been hit.

    The fighters continued toward the target and dropped their bombs. As they turned back toward the Saratoga, the pilots checked in over the radio. Speicher didn't check in. The pilots returned to the Saratoga just before dawn without him.

    During their intelligence debriefings on the ship, Dave Renaud, who had been the closest pilot to Speicher, reported seeing explosions five miles away, in Speicher's direction, at the same time that Stumpf had witnessed that large flash in the sky. Renaud reported the plane had been blown to bits. He even drew a little circle on his map where he thought he had seen the fireball.

    "The first report was 'airplane disintegrated on impact; no contact with the pilot; we really don't believe that anyone was able to survive the impact,'" says Admira Stan Arthur, commander of all Allied Naval Forces in the Persian Gulf.

    A few hours after the first mission had returned to the ships, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney held a press conference in Washington. On the basis of one account of a flash in the night sky and 12 hours of radio silence, Secretary Cheney declared Speicher dead.

    To Stumpf, the pronouncement seemed premature.

    On March 7, 1991, right after the war, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams assured Americans the military would continue to look for every missing soldier and flier.

    When the POWs were released at the end of the war, Tony Albano, who was Speicher's roommate, was sent to Saudi Arabia in case Speicher was among the prisoners being freed. He didn't see Speicher.

    The Navy told Joanne Speicher all search efforts had been exhausted and the time ha dcome to declared him killed in action. She agreed. A year later, convinced she was a widow, she remarried.

    While most of the country was celebrating its victory, a private memorial service was being held in Arlington National Cemetery. There was no body.

    Speicher's case was closed. Then in December 1993, an Army general from Qatar came to the western Iraqi desert, 150 miles southwest of Baghdad. He and his party were hunting for rare falcons when they stumbled across an American F-18.

    The condition of the nose suggested the plane had not disintegrated in the air. The Qatari took pictures, and pieces of the plane, to the American Embassy in Doha, the Qatari capital. The photos and a piece of radar equipment were sent to Washington, where a check was run on the serial numbers. The results stirred the Pentagon. Nearly three years after the Gulf War, Speicher's jet had been located in the western desert of Iraq.

    The pictures showed that the canopy had come down away from the plane; this indicated that the pilot had tried to eject.

    The Pentagon went back and checked the satellite imagery it used to track Scud launches during the war. It found a crash site, with the outlines of a jet in the sand - Speicher's F-18. The crash spot was right where his fellow pilot had said it was. But despite three years of assurances, no one in the U.S. government or the military had ever bothered to look for Speicher's plane.

    Says Arthur: "You get this sinking feeling that there's something really wrong here, that you missed something."

    In April 1994, Admiral Stan Arthur, who had sent Michael Scott Speicher into battle, wanted to launch a covert mission into Iraq to check out the crash site. But some Pentagon policy officials were concerned about casualties. They wanted to ask Saddam for permission to go to the site under the Red Cross flag.

    Classified documents show that the chance of success for a secret mission was considered high. Connolly says that the area was very sparsely populated.

    At a meeting in December 1994 in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense William Perry and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, decided how to approach the site.

    Tim Connolly, who was then the deputy secretary of defense in charge of special operations as well as a Gulf War veteran with a Bronze Star, argued the case at the meeting. "I closed by saying, 'I will go out the door of this conference room and I will stand in the hall, and I will stop the first five people who walk by in military uniform, regardless of service or gender,'" Connolly recalls. "'I will explain to them what we are trying to do and ask them if they will get on the helicopter. And I will guarantee you that all five will get on the helicopter.' And then I shut my mouth. And the chairman said, 'I do not want to have to write letters home to the parents to tell them that their son or daughter died looking for old bones.'"

    The Pentagon nixed the covert mission. General Shalikashvili would not talk to 60 Minutes II about his decision.

    On March 1, 1995, Saddam agreed to allow American experts to visit the crash site. But because of what Baghdad called "unforeseen bureaucratic delays," the Americans didn't visit for nine months.

    When members of the U.S. team got there, they found the site had been tampered with. The cockpit was missing an dso was the ejection seat. The Iraqis had gotten there first.

    But the Americans found a plane that had not disintegrated in the sky. They found the canopy, which ejects with the pilot, about a mile from the aircraft. Spent flares and parts of a survival kit also were located. There was not a bone or a drop of blood or a trace of Michael Scott Speicher anywhere.

    But toward the end of their six-day search, the Americans found a tattered flight suit. Albano, who has examined the suit, thinks it is Speicher's.

    There were definite signs Speicher could have survived an ejection. But when the crash team returned, the Pentagon said that there was no evidence that Speicher had survived. In fact, the investigators reported that the crash site provided no evidence Speicher had died. The Defense Department now grudgingly acknowledges this.

    But if Speicher survived the crash, why didn't he send a rescue call on his radio? Pilots are repeatedly drilled on the importance of keeping their radios with them at all times during crashes. It is the key to getting rescued.

    Minutes before Speicher took off, the pilots had been given new radios. These radios were larger than the previous models and didn't fit in the vest pocket that had held the earlier models.

    Even before the mission, the size of the radios worried Ted Phagan, who was in charge of the pilots' radios. "As the pilots are walking out I'm telling them, 'You're going to lose this radio if you have to eject,'" he recalls. Phagan thinks Speicher lost his radio when he ejected. (By the second launch, Phagan had fixed the problem with a new flap.)

    By mid-1996 even Shalikashvili wrote to the CIA expressing his misgivings about Speicher's status.

    With mounting evidence that he survived the crash, and without any evidence that he died, U.S. intelligence agencies are launching a new search. Investigators aren't ruling out the possibility - slim though it might be - that Speicher could be alive in Iraq.

    American investigators say an Iraqi defector who had recently escaped to Jordan told them that in the first days of the war, he had driven an American pilot from the desert to Baghdad and the authorities. The pilot, he says, was alive, alert and wearing a flight suit. The defector pointed Speicher out in a photo lineup and passed two lie detector tests.

    The head of the Iraqi Air Force, General Khaldoun Khattab, says that Iraq freed all the prisoners after the war. "It's possible he was seriously injured after he ejected from the plane, and there are lots of wolves in the area," Khattab says.

    The case may never be solved. Admiral Arthur is tormented by the question of what happened to the flier.

    January 2001 Update

    After 60 Minutes II reported this in May of 2000, the Navy took the extraordinary step of changing Speicher's status from Killed In Acion to Missing In Action.

    After 12 years, much of the plane has been lost to the desert, to the Iraqis, to the Americans who came with their shovels seven years ago. But enough remains to pose a number of haunting questions. If he survived, could he move? Which way did he walk? Was he found? Where is he? Most haunting of all is the fact that for nearly five years no American came looking.

    Admiral Arthur, the only high-ranking American official who agreed to be interviewed about the Speicher case, is still tormented by the case.

    Asked if he thought the military may have left someone behind in Iraq in 1991, he said, "We could have, yes."

    • Mary-Jayne McKay

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