I got that old funny feeling up my spine the other day when that Russian airliner went down in Egypt. Just some familiar place names brought back memories from 30 years ago. Sharm Al-Sheikh. The Sinai. Cairo.
It was December, 1985 and a bunch of American GIs were on their way home from an assignment in the Sinai. They had been assigned to a Multinational force — they basically patrolled the desert between Egypt and Israel, to enforce an uneasy peace.
Of their year-long assignment, much was simply boring for these 248 members of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles out of Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
What WAS remarkable was what was going on in the world around them. This was the era of the Iran Contra wheeling and dealing, when Col. Oliver North was attempting to buy freedom for Americans held hostage in Iran by selling Iran weapons that, well, didn’t work.
There had been threats. No one connected with the Screaming Eagles was paying attention to them, I guess, when plans were made to charter a plane and send the soldiers back to Fort Campbell — just in time for Christmas, it turned out.
In hind sight, things were kinky about the trip. Is that the right word? Yes, I think so.
The soldiers were told to fly unarmed. Their weapons were packed away. There were a couple of times the plane sat unguarded in dark parts of the Cairo airport — anyone could have put anything on board then.
There were supposedly some civilians with suspicious briefcases aboard the flight. There were six casket-sized crates on the plane.
The reason I know this stuff is that, after the plane made a stop over in Gander, Newfoundland, it crashed on takeoff. Killing all souls aboard. At the time, there was some confusion about how many people actually were on the plane. The first number was scaled down by a handful.
One of the soldiers on the plane that night was Tommy Davis, from Woodbury, the son of Donnell “Digger” Davis and his wife, Jane.
Digger and I eventually went to Congressional hearings on the crash, run by Congressman Bill Hughes. Despite all the testimony here and in Canada that this appeared to be an act of terrorism, it was considered an accident.
Wind shear. That’s what five of the nine members of the Canadian equivalent to the National Transportation Safety Board concluded after a long investigation. The other four issued a dissenting opinion saying they believed the crash was caused by something like a bomb.
A group connected with Hezbollah claimed credit for the destruction of the airplane. The six crates disappeared. (There were rumors that they might have been special forces operators killed in a failed and unannounced attempt to free our hostages.) The guys and their briefcases disappeared. An American general raced to the crash scene and attempted to have it bulldozed before forensic evidence could be collected. Several emergency workers who responded to the scene contracted a mysterious ailment and died.
Experts pointed out that damage to the plane could have been caused only by an explosion on board and not wind shear.
So that’s why my skin is crawling right now.