Navy hopes to solve WWII plane mystery
May 29, 2008

Story Highlights

Death of passenger considered one of U.S.’s first in World War II

Experts believe Soviets shot down plane days before annexing Estonia

Search begins Friday in Baltic Sea

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Naval experts will begin searching Friday for an airliner that crashed into the Baltic in June 1940 with nine people on board, including a U.S. diplomatic courier considered one of the first American casualties of World War II.

The oceanographic survey ship Pathfinder will join the Baltic Sea search for an airplane that crashed in 1940.

The mystery of the plane’s fate has since remained unsolved, despite Estonia’s efforts to locate the wreckage believed to be lying 300 feet underwater near the tiny island of Keri, some 20 miles northeast of Tallinn.

“If the aircraft is in the area where we’re searching, I’m highly confident we’ll find it,” said Martin Ammond, senior surveyor aboard the USNS Pathfinder, one of the U.S. Navy’s oceanographic survey vessels dispatched to help in the hunt for the missing plane.

Nine people were on board the plane, the Kaleva, when it disappeared in the frantic days before the Soviet Union annexed the small neighboring Baltic nation.

Most Estonian and Finnish experts agree that two Soviet fighter bombers shot down the small plane June 14, 1940, minutes after it took off from Tallinn for Helsinki, Finland. The Soviet Union annexed Estonia three days later.

One of the Kaleva’s passengers was Henry Antheil, a 27-year-old diplomatic courier at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki.

Antheil, based in Moscow from 1933 to 1939, had been rushed to Tallinn once it had become evident that the Soviet Union was preparing to swallow up Estonia and its Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania.

“Henry came here to help evacuate materials from U.S. Legation in Tallinn,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Eric A. Johnson, who has done research and written articles on Antheil and the Kaleva case.

“It was feared that Soviets would come anytime, so all the sensitive materials had to be removed. He was doing a job for his country,” he said.

Carrying several diplomatic pouches, including material from the U.S. Embassy in Riga, the capital of Latvia, Antheil boarded Kaleva along with six other passengers. They never reached their destination.

Neither the Soviet Union nor Russia acknowledged shooting down the Kaleva.

Estonia has been unable to find the Kaleva despite intense efforts after regaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Navy vessel was sent to Tallinn after a request by Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo to his U.S. counterpart, Robert Gates, in January.

The Estonians hope to learn the fate of the Kaleva, a German-made Junkers Ju-52 that was operated by Finland’s Aero, later renamed Finnair.

“This is a unique mission,” Ammond said Thursday. “We’re not in the business of looking for aircraft or sunken ships, so this is very exciting for my surveyors.”

If the plane is found, it will be up to the Estonian and Finnish governments whether to organize a salvage mission, Johnson said.

Finnish authorities kept silent about the Kaleva for decades, saying only that the plane crashed due to technical failure. In March 1940, the country had just signed a peace treaty with the Soviet Union after a costly war and did not want to provoke Moscow.

Max Jakobson, a veteran Finnish diplomat, says he recalls Kaleva’s case “vividly.”

“It was a dramatic situation when this plane went missing,” Jakobson, a former envoy to the United Nations, told The Associated Press. “There was plenty of talk about it in Finland. Hopefully, the Americans will help solve this case.”

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