WASHINGTON — The Pentagon believes it has new evidence supporting a persistent theory that American combat pilots captured during the Korean War were taken alive into the former Soviet Union.
The evidence comes from an extraordinary source: a former Marine Corps corporal who spent 33 months as a prisoner of war in northern Korea and whose tale of being interrogated by Soviet officers in 1952 was ignored for 41 years.
U.S. investigators view the new information as especially important because it is the first documented case of a returned American POW who was captured by Soviets in Korea and sent directly to a Soviet military post in China for interrogation.
The prisoner, Nick A. Flores, was returned to a POW camp in Korea after two days of questioning, apparently because his Soviet interrogators, who initially were interested in him because they thought he was a pilot, realized he was not.
U.S. investigators are pursuing the notion that the Soviet military singled out downed American F-86 pilots in Korea for interrogation and--bypassing the Chinese-run POW system in Korea--possibly transferred them to the Soviet Union.
If true, that leaves open the possibility that some of the 8,177 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for in Korea survived for years in Soviet camps.
The F-86 pilots may have been of particular interest to the Soviets because the single-seater plane was the most advanced fighter on the Korean battlefield.
"Flores puts the capstone on this theory that what happened was that the Soviets were capturing and probably transporting our F-86 pilots to at least China and probably the Soviet Union, and not returning them," said Paul M. Cole, a RAND Corp. analyst who is a leading authority on Soviet involvement in the Korean war.
Russian officials, and the Soviets before them, maintain that no American POWs were sent to the U.S.S.R. during or after the Korean conflict. The issue is under investigation by a U.S.-Russian commission on the fate of the thousands of Americans still unaccounted for from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet system has unlocked doors to once-secret records that already point to a more direct Soviet military role in Korea than ever was acknowledged by the Kremlin.
This is the first published account of Nick A. Flores' encounter with the Soviets.
Flores' story is even more remarkable because the Marine Corps failed to credit him for the time he spent as a POW and he was denied an honorable discharge when he left the service two months after he was repatriated by the Koreans on Aug. 20, 1953. He returned to his hometown of San Jose, Calif.
The record was corrected at a quiet Marine ceremony earlier this month, and now Flores has his honorable discharge and the U.S. government has intriguing testimony that its investigators believe casts a new light on the POW issue.
The Flores story does not fully substantiate the theory that American pilots captured in Korea were forcibly moved to the Soviet Union, but pieces of his story form another building block for U.S. investigators pursuing the theory.
The U.S. government for years has said it has no credible evidence that any Americans from the Korean or Vietnam wars were taken to the Soviet Union. Secondhand reports from a variety of sources over the last four decades have suggested such transfers were made, but no firsthand accounts surfaced.
That Flores came to play any role at all in the lingering mystery is purely happenstance. He wasn't taken to the Soviet Union. He wasn't even a pilot. And therein lies the origin of his strange story.
Flores and several fellow prisoners from a POW camp near the Yalu River in northeastern Korea slipped past their guards on July 22, 1952, and set out along mountain ridges with a map and stolen compass in hopes of finding friendly forces to the south.
At the time, Flores was a Marine private, a 21-year-old truck driver. He was promoted to corporal in absentia.
This was Flores' third attempted escape, and although all ended in failure, this one was different in three ways: He was wearing a borrowed Air Force uniform and flight jacket, he got separated from his fellow escapees, and he was recaptured by Soviets, not Koreans or Chinese.
Flores happened onto a Soviet anti-aircraft artillery unit that hours earlier had shot down a U.S. Air Force F-86 fighter in the same area. Because of his borrowed uniform, with a U.S. Air Force insignia on the jacket, the Soviets figured Flores was the F-86 pilot. Instead of handing him over to the Koreans, they took him directly to a site that Flores says he assumed--but could not tell for sure--was across the Yalu on Chinese territory.
The U.S. investigator who studied Flores' case said there is no doubt from Flores' description that he was taken to Andung, China, headquarters for the Soviet 64th Fighter Aviation Corps.