Robert Elbon Stalnaker
|Robert Elbon Stalnaker was born March 4, 1922, the youngest son of Randall H. and Lula [Elbon] Stalnaker of Webster Springs, West Virginia. Randall, a schoolteacher in Webster County, and Lula were divorced in 1923 and Lula found work as the matron of the IOOF Home in Elkins, West Virginia, where she met A. J. Wilkinson of Huntington. A. J. and Lula were married about 1925, and they had a daughter Mary.|
Robert graduated from Huntington High School in 1939. He attended West Virginia Business College in Huntington, and after graduation worked as a clerk for the West Virginia State Road Commission in Huntington.
|On January 7, 1942, Robert enlisted as a private in the Army Air Corps at Fort Thomas, Kentucky. He received his commission as lieutenant at Deming Officer Training School in Deming, New Mexico, in January 1943, where he also received training in navigation. In May 1944 Robert transferred to Hunter Army Air Field near Savannah, Georgia, for training aboard a B-17G and was assigned to Crew 122 as a bombardier. Robert went to England with the 8th Air Force in June 1944.|
|On July 16, 1944, Robert was a bombardier/navigator of a B-17 that participated in a bombing mission over Germany. Failing to return, he was declared missing in action. According to his sister Mary Childers, the plane was shot down over Germany and Robert was captured. He was among a group of prisoners being transported by truck to a POW camp when they were rescued by German partisans and helped across the French border. With the aid of the French underground they crossed the Swiss border, where they stayed until they were freed in an exchange of German POWs. On August 11, 1944, Robert's parents were notified that he was alive and safe. After his ordeal, Robert received a 21-day leave to visit home before returning to England, where he continued his service with the 8th Air Force until the war was over.|
|Robert left the Air Force after WWII and returned home. After attending Marshall University for a year or so, in January 1948, Robert re-enlisted in the Air Force as a captain. He updated his previous training at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas, and went to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana for further training in reconnaissance and surveillance. Robert was stationed at Biloxi, Mississippi in July 1950, where he received radar training.|
|On December 29, 1951, Robert married Betty [James] Frazier, a girl he had known since high school. They got married in Pikeville, Kentucky, and traveled throughout southern Kentucky on their honeymoon. After the trip, Robert returned to Biloxi and was then transferred to Forbes Air base near Topeka, Kansas.|
|At Forbes, he received training as an electronics specialist and became a crew member of a US RB-50G with the 343rd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, which was attached to the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron based at Yokota Air Base, Japan.|
|On July 29, 1953, Robert Stalnaker was one of a 17-member crew on a US RB-50G that was given a special assignment over the Sea of Japan. Another West Virginian, Airman 2nd Class James E. Woods from Upshur County, was also a member of the crew. Robert and five other crewmen were electronics specialists known as Ravens, and on that day one of their assignments was to investigate radar facilities along the Soviet border. The best way to do that was to provoke the Russians into turning on their search and control radar, which was usually done only when the early warning radar detected a potential threat. This risky maneuver was known as ferreting because the goal was to ferret out information about the capabilities of the Soviet equipment. The Russians understood the game and tried not to be lured into turning on their equipment, which would expose the capabilities of their system to the United States.|
|After completing the mission at about 6:15 AM, the US RB-50G was returning to the base at Yokota when it was intercepted and unexpectedly fired upon from the rear by two Russian MiG-17 fighter planes. The gunfire from the MiG-17 at the rear disabled the RB-50G’s No. 1 engine and set the No. 4 engine on fire. The attack also tore off part of the tail section and destroyed the wing. The tail gunner, James E. Woods, was able to return a brief burst of fire at the MiG-17, but to no avail, and commander Captain Stanley O'Kelley ordered the crew to bail out. The plane lost altitude quickly and crashed into the sea. The attack occurred two days after the armistice ending the Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953.|
|The US conducted a thorough search of the area by air and sea, and was assisted by an Australian ship near the crash site. Halted due to dense fog and approaching darkness, the search was resumed on the morning of July 30, 1953. Captain John Roche, co-pilot of the plane, was wounded but survived the crash by holding onto pieces of the wreckage. He was picked up by the Navy ship USS Picking in the early morning hours of July 30, 1953 after floating in the Sea of Japan for about 22 hours. No other survivors were found. The bodies of Captain Stanley O'Kelley and Master Sergeant Francis Brown were later recovered along the coast of Japan. The remaining 14 members of the crew, which included Robert Stalnaker, were never accounted for.|
The United States State Department officially released information that the US RB-50G was the victim of an unprovoked attack by two Russian MiG-17 fighters while on a routine navigational training exercise in international airspace over the Sea of Japan. In fact, the US RB-50G was involved in a ferreting operation, and in order to provoke the Russians, had flown into the danger zone of the harbor at Vladivostok, which was home to the Soviet's Pacific fleet.
The Soviet government maintained that about 6:00 AM on the morning of July 29, 1953, a US Air Force RB-50G aircraft violated the boundary of the USSR in the region of Cape Gamov and flew through their airspace to the area of Ajton Island near Vladivostok. The Soviets claimed that two Russian MiG-17 fighter aircraft approached the US RB-50G with the intention of showing the crew that they were within the boundaries of the USSR and urging them to leave Soviet airspace. The Soviets stated that the US RB-50G aircraft was last seen flying out to sea and they had no further knowledge of the fate of the plane or its crew. However, according to Captain Roche, several Russian boats were in the area immediately after the crash, and crew members of the rescue planes searching the site also reported sightings of Russian boats and planes in the area that may have picked up other possible survivors or remains.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the US government made repeated requests to the Soviet Foreign Ministry for information regarding the July 29, 1953 attack on the US Air Force RB-50G plane but received little no response. In June 1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the Soviets had shot down nine US planes during the 1950s and held twelve of the survivors prisoner. It is not know whether any of these prisoners were crew members aboard the US RB-50G which was shot down in 1953. In November 1955, Robert Stalnaker was officially pronounced dead by the US Air Force.
|Robert Stalnaker is survived by his sister Mary Childers. His mother Lula [Stalnaker] Wilkinson passed away in 1966. His older brother Randall Harold had died in 1939, and his father passed away in 1934. At the time he was shot down, Robert Stalnaker left his wife Betty [James] Frazier and a stepson James Frazier.|
West Virginia Archives and History welcomes any additional information that can be provided about these veterans, including photographs, family names, letters and other relevant personal history. For more information contact Constance Baston at (304) 558-0230.
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