Closing a curious chapter of Korean War history, the Pentagon announced Friday it had identified the remains of an Air Force pilot whose jet crashed on Chinese territory after being shot down during a dogfight with a Russian flying for North Korea.
The case puts a spotlight on a Russian role in the 1950-53 Korean War that was kept quiet for decades and helped feed speculation inside the American government that the Russians had attempted — and perhaps managed — to capture U.S. pilots to exploit them for intelligence purposes.
Capt. Troy "Gordie" Cope, of Norfork, Ark., was piloting what was then the Air Force's best fighter, the F-86 Sabre, on Sept. 16, 1952, when he encountered MiG-15 fighters — purportedly North Korean but flown by Russians — over the Yalu River that separates North Korea from China.
Cope, 28, was shot down and never seen again.
One of the Soviet Union's highest intelligence collection priorities at the time was U.S. Air Force technology.
Cope was among 31 F-86 pilots lost and unaccounted for during the Korean War whom the Pentagon had suspected may have been captured alive and secretly smuggled into the Soviet Union. Not all of those cases have been resolved, and Cope's may not have been if not for a string of unusual fortune.
In 1995, a U.S. businessman spotted Cope's name on a U.S. dog tag on display in a military museum in the Yalu River city of Dandong, China.
In 1999, during a search by Pentagon analysts of Russia's Podolsk military archives, documents describing Cope's shootdown were discovered. They included statements and drawings by Russian pilots who had flown the MiG-15s for the North Koreans in combat against the U.S. Air Force.
Also in the Russian documents were detailed reports on a search of the crash site by Russian and Chinese officials. That gave the Pentagon enough detail about the site to ask the Chinese government for permission to send a a team of U.S. specialists to investigate. The site was excavated by U.S. officials last May, recovering aircraft debris and human remains.
The remains were identified in October. In announcing the identification Friday, the Pentagon did not explain the delay in making it public. It is the first time remains of a U.S. military pilot from the Korean War have been recovered from Chinese territory, although there have been other recent cases involving World War II and CIA missions.
Chinese soldiers fought on the North Koreans' side against the U.S. and South Korean forces, and the communist government in Beijing has balked at U.S. inquiries about the fate of missing U.S. servicemen.
Chris Cope of Plano, Texas, a nephew of the deceased pilot, said in a telephone interview Friday that his uncle will be buried with full military honors on May 31.
"It's been a long, hard road," he said. "I'm elated that we were able to get closure."
Carl P. Cope, a brother of Troy's and a World War II veteran, said in a telephone interview from his home in Ennis, Texas, that the burial will be at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery. He said that for years he held out hope that his brother had survived the crash and been taken prisoner.
"We never really knew," he said, until the Pentagon finally found and identified the remains.
In 1988, the surviving relatives held a memorial service for Troy Cope in his hometown of Norfork "not knowing that we would ever be able to recover his remains," Chris Cope said.
The Pentagon official in charge of POW/MIA affairs, Jerry Jennings, traveled to China this week to thank the Chinese for their cooperation in the case.