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The unspoken war

The Cold War's battlefields may have been out of sight, but they're not out of mind to that era's veterans, who now want to honor these forgotten soldiers.

By John Barry
Published May 28, 2007


The most famous Cold War veteran was:

Maybe Francis Gary Powers. He died in an accidental crash of a weather research plane after running out of oxygen. Or so his family was told. Then the Soviets produced a live Francis Gary Powers and put him on public trial. He had parachuted into their hands after they blew up his U-2 spy plane. The Francis Gary Powers affair was one big Cold War stink.

Or could be Elvis. He was drafted in 1957. He declined assignment as an Army entertainer, instead served in Germany in the 3rd Armor Division, tanks facing gun-barrel-to-gun-barrel with the Soviets. "I don't think Americans even want to know about this stuff, " Elvis said. "A lot of people back home think I'm out of my mind doin' what I'm doin'."

Either guy may have been most famous. But someone lesser known may have been more truly representative of a struggle that lasted 46 years, consumed almost 400 American lives in some of the most obscure places on Earth, then was celebrated as "the war America won without firing a shot."

"Only a handful of Americans have ever heard of Lt. Col. Seldon R. Edner, or attached much significance to his death, " Richard K. Kolb writes in his book, Cold War Clashes: Confronting Communism, 1945-1991.

Edner's Air Force AT-6 plane was shot down by guerrillas during the Greek Civil War in 1949. His misfortune was surviving the crash. Kolb writes: "He was lynched, stripped, garroted, scalped, his head crushed and body mangled."

If anybody ever earned a Cold War medal, it would be Seldon Edner. He never got one. No one ever got one.

Says Kolb, "The Cold War was the great unknown of modern American wars."

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The recognition Cold War vets have sought may soon come about. A National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House of Representatives this month, calls for a military Cold War Victory Medal. A similar bill, sponsored by Hillary Clinton, is pending in the Senate.

Until now most of the disparate efforts to honor Cold War veterans haven't involved the government. This was a mostly secret war, and most of the deaths were lonely ones in places Americans weren't supposed to be. Some families waited decades before even knowing that their son or father had died not accidentally, but fighting for his country in a place like Albania, or north China, or the Bering Strait.

Carrying flowers and a medal, Frank Tims led a delegation of Cold War aficionados to Arlington National Cemetery May 1. In the '50s, Tims had served in West Germany in "special operations research" for the Army. He's now writing a book about the Cold War at home in St. Petersburg. He helps run the Cold War Veterans Association.

The medal he and the others carried was not an official one. His was privately struck and can be had on the Internet for $24.95. Tims hopes the United States will one day issue an official "Cold War Victory Medal" and create a memorial in Washington. But he and the others wanted to start somewhere. They designated May 1 as their own remembrance day - the May Day once known for the annual display of Soviet nuclear missiles and tanks in Red Square.

As their first medal honoree, they chose a general named James A. Van Fleet, best known for leading the 8th Army in the Korean War. Except in Gator Nation, where he is best known for having coached the University of Florida football team in 1923-24. But Tims' delegation meant to honor him for a mission less remembered. In 1948, Van Fleet led 453 noncombatant military advisers into the Greek Civil War. They helped turn the tide against Communist guerrilla forces.

The ceremony was brief and modest. The group surrounded Van Fleet's grave in civilian suit and tie. As the others saluted, Tims laid upon Van Fleet's stone the $24.95 medal.

That was for saving Western Europe from Communism.

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The Powers family might have never known what really happened to their father if the Soviets hadn't exposed him, says the son of the U-2 pilot.

Francis Gary Powers Jr. was born after his father's 21-month Soviet imprisonment and heard all the stories growing up, including the government cover story about an accidental crash of a weather plane.

The son has worked more than a decade toward the opening of a Cold War Museum on the site of a former Nike missile base in Lorton, Va. He has 120, 000 square feet of missile storage space to work with. Among his artifacts are shreds of dad's plane wreckage, presented to him by the Russians during a Moscow "spy tour" he took in 1997.

After repatriation, dad was criticized for failing to stick himself with a poison pin that U-2 pilots carried on their flights. The pilot took most of it in stride. He had a stock response when asked how high he flew his U-2:

"Not high enough."

Powers had survived his shoot-down by a Soviet missile and years testing experimental aircraft only to die in 1977 in the crash of a TV traffic helicopter in Los Angeles.

Powers was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 2000.

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The stories of Cold War sacrifice and the names that go with them have come finally from veterans and their families.

"They weren't in textbooks, " says Kolb, the author of Cold War Clashes, who is also executive editor of publications for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City, Mo. "Families sent us the stories."

One included the last words of the first American soldier to die in Vietnam. He died of a machine gun bullet to the neck on Sept. 26, 1945, 14 years before Americans were supposed to have been there. Just before his death, Army Capt. Albert Peter Dewey sent a letter home.

"Now wouldn't it be stupid, " he wrote, "if I got myself knocked off in this two-bit civil war?"

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.