OAK HARBOR, Wash. — On Day 1 of their captivity, the crew of the crippled Navy surveillance plane stepped onto Chinese soil to find startled soldiers wielding weapons. By Day 11, the crew's anxiety had given way to tedium. In between stretched long hours of interrogations and uncertainty relieved by card games and skits to keep up morale.
Still sleep-deprived and wrung out from Saturday's welcome home celebrations at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, members of the EP-3 electronic monitoring plane on Sunday detailed their captivity on China's Hainan island and what information their captors attempted to extract from them.
The plane, one of only a dozen such craft in the U.S. fleet, is a great prize that the 24-member crew sought to keep from the Chinese. Even as the pilots were struggling to land the sophisticated craft, there was concern that the Chinese might dispatch fighters to shoot it down.
The crew sent more than a dozen mayday calls on the international distress frequency.
"We were letting them know, 'We have a major emergency, and we need to land right away,' " Lt. Patrick Honeck told reporters Sunday. The Chinese maintain that they received no such calls, but Honeck said, "We sort of think they did--they had a pretty large group of people to meet us."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 17, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Surveillance plane--A story Monday about the crippled U.S. surveillance plane forced to land in China made an incorrect reference to the type of aircraft. The Navy EP-3 is a turboprop plane.
Once on the ground, Lt. Shane Osborn, the mission commander, was first off the plane.
"They told us not to move and not to touch anything," he said of the military personnel who met the plane.
"It wasn't a time to make a stand. We were unarmed. They're armed. So they have the advantage," Osborn recalled Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week."
The crew followed Osborn off the $80-million Navy jet, which remains in Chinese custody, and they were herded onto a bus parked on the tarmac. They waited there while Chinese military officials milled around the plane and talked on cell phones. Crew members said their impression was that the Chinese were as startled to be in possession of an American spy plane and its crew as the Navy fliers were shocked to be standing on Chinese soil.
"I'm not sure they knew what to do with us," Osborn told ABC. "We sat on the bus, and they let four people go at a time to the restroom, and then we just kept requesting to be able to talk to our ambassador or chain of command so we could let everyone know we were safe."
The Americans were given water and cigarettes, fed and then taken to officers barracks. Osborn described the conditions as being the best the Chinese had to offer but said the quarters were hot and buzzing with mosquitoes and other insects.
On the first night, all 24 were kept together and spoke freely with one another. After that, Osborn was isolated from the rest and only saw his crew at mealtimes until the final two days. Asked how he passed the time, Osborn smiled wryly and said, "On self-reflection and interrogation."
The crew commander was singled out for the most intensive and extensive questioning.
He often was woken up in the middle of the night, at times for questioning that might last as long as five hours.
"I thought it was harassing. They would have some excuse to wake me up, every time, you know? Some type of reason . . . checking the air conditioner or just anything. . . .
"I wasn't sleeping much anyway because I wanted to hear down the hallway if anybody was being taken" to be interviewed, he told ABC.
The crew was questioned individually, and all the sessions were videotaped.
"They went through different phases of what they wanted from us," Honeck said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
"Initially, they wanted information regarding the accident. They also wanted further information that we weren't willing to give them, and then later on . . . their attention turned more toward an apology, again which we weren't going to give them."
The crew members have been instructed by the Navy not to give details about the interrogations, but Osborn said, "Obviously, they were very interested in the equipment."
Honeck said his interrogators attempted to get him to take responsibility for the accident.
"These were definitely not aviation people," he said, suggesting that the questions betrayed ignorance of how airplanes work.
Osborn, a former high school linebacker from Nebraska, said that at the beginning he thought that his captors might "get physical."
"Initially, of course, everyone felt threatened," he said. But as time went on, that fear abated and gave way to a more general vigilance. The crew members assumed their rooms were bugged, for example.
After two days, the group was moved to the city of Haikou and more spacious quarters in a military guest lodge. The 24 Americans were housed on two floors. The three women in the crew were placed in one room on the fourth floor, and Honeck and Lt. jg. Jeffrey Vignery roomed across the hall. The remaining crew members were placed two to a room on the fifth floor. Osborn was kept apart.
Osborn and others said that their guards, who spoke English, were not armed and that some were friendly.