Oct 26

Alfa Foxtrot 586: Reunion with the Russian Fishing Trawler Captain Who Saved Them

Friday, October 26, 2018 12:01 AM


The 'Mys Synyavin' Soviet fishing trawler. (Archive Photo)

The ‘Mys Synyavin’ Soviet fishing trawler. (Archive Photo)

Forty years ago, at 14:30 on 26 October 1978, a U.S. Navy P-3C Orion aircraft was forced to ditch at sea west of the Aleutian Islands in the north Pacific. The mission—Alfa Foxtrot 586—was a Cold War antisubmarine warfare patrol off the Kamchatka Peninsula. A propeller overspeed problem cascaded into a series of emergencies that forced the pilots to ditch the aircraft in heavy seas. Of the 15-man crew, 13 survived the ditching, but only 10 endured the frigid ordeal of nearly 20 hours in life rafts in the frigid open ocean. They were rescued by a Soviet fishing trawler, the Mys Sinyavin on 27 October, which brought them to Petropavlovsk in the Soviet Union on the 28th. After stops in Khabarovsk and Japan, the survivors arrived back in the United States on 4 November. The mission, ditching, and rescue are detailed in the book Adak: The Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586 by Captain Andy Jampoler, U.S. Navy (Retired) (Naval Institute Press: 2003).

Years later, in the spring of 2004, I was assigned as a naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. A few days after I reported for duty, the Defense Attaché, Rear Admiral Ben Wachendorf, U.S. Navy, handed me a “message to Garcia” task. Wachendorf had received a letter from his Naval Academy classmate, Ed Caylor, one of the surviving pilots from AF586. In 2004, Caylor was a United Airlines pilot and he was organizing a reunion of the surviving P-3 crew. He and other members of the crew wanted to invite the captain of the Soviet fishing trawler that had rescued them. Caylor had learned that his classmate was in Moscow, serving as the defense attaché, so he sent him a letter asking for help finding, contacting, and inviting the captain to the reunion, which was planned for that summer in Las Vegas.

Wachendorf handed me the letter and said, “I’d like you to take this for action.” The task was a bit daunting, but also fun. The trawler captain’s name was Alexander Arbuzov. The name made me chuckle because “arbuz” is the Russian word for watermelon. So he was “Sergey of Watermelons.” Perhaps one of his ancestors had been a watermelon farmer. (Surprisingly, the streets of Moscow are lined with watermelon kiosks in the summers, selling some of the most delicious watermelons I’ve ever tasted.)

With the help of the U.S. Consulate in Vladivostok, I was able to locate Captain Arbuzov. He lived in the city of Yuzhnosakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island, a large Russian island that is part of the Kuril Island chain, north of Japan. He was retired from his seagoing days but still worked for the Russian Bureau of Fisheries.

Armed with his name and phone number, I called Captain Arbuzov one day in April. My Russian language skills were decent after 10 months of training at the State Department’s language school in Arlington, Virginia; but talking on the phone, with a stranger, in a foreign language is a challenging linguistic task. I was nervous as I dialed the phone. The call went through with lots of clicks and other noise on the line. I was sure the Russian intelligence services were monitoring the call—probably both in Moscow and on Captain Arbuzov’s end of the line. A woman in the fisheries bureau answered the phone. I said, “Gavaryu Bill Hamblet iz Amerikanskovo posolstvo v Moskve. Mozhna gavorit s kapitanom Arbuzovim, pozholsta?” (This is Bill Hamblet from the American embassy in Moscow. May I speak with Captain Arbuzov, please?)

The woman transferred me to Arbuzov who picked up the phone gruffly. “Da?” I did my best to explain who I was and why I was calling.

“I’m the U.S. naval attaché calling from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (at which he probably thought “spy”). In 1978, were you the captain of a fishing trawler that rescued the crew of an American Navy airplane?”

“Da.” He was curt. In my mind I pictured him scowling. He was likely nervous getting a call from the U.S. Embassy. Quickly I tried to explain that I had been asked to extend an invitation from the crew for him and his wife to attend their reunion. He didn’t understand. I asked him if he had a fax. “Da.” He gave me the number. I said I would fax him a copy of the letter, in English and in Russian, and I would call him back the next day.

The Defense Attaché Office had a full-time professional translator who handled all official correspondence between the DAO and the Russian Ministry of Defense. He translated the letter for me and I faxed it to Arbuzov. The letter invited Arbuzov and his wife to the reunion and explained that the surviving U.S. Navy crew would pay all their expenses, including airfare, hotel, visa fees, and some spending money in Las Vegas. The next morning I called Arbuzov again. This time his tone was friendlier. He excitedly said he and his wife would accept the invitation.

I was happy to email Ed Caylor that I had reached Captain Arbuzov and he had accepted the invitation. Over the next month I had numerous email exchanges with Ed about the travel details for the Arbuzovs. Part of my job was to serve as their intermediary or agent. The Arbuzovs traveled to Vladivostok to get their visas at the U.S. Consulate. They made their flight reservations using vouchers that Ed provided from United Airlines. And when the week of the reunion arrived, they flew from Sakhalin to Korea to Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

The meeting in Las Vegas, 2004. Edward Caylor (first left), Alexander Arbuzov (third right) and the 'Mys Synyavin' crew. (Edward Caylor)

The meeting in Las Vegas, 2004. Edward Caylor (first left), Alexander Arbuzov (third right) and the ‘Mys Synyavin’ crew. (Edward Caylor)

After the reunion was complete, Ed emailed me several pictures of Captain and Mrs. Arbuzov smiling with members of the crew amid the glitz of Las Vegas. Their adult daughter had also accompanied them on the trip. She spoke English fairly well, according to Ed. They all looked very happy.

My tour as the naval attaché in Russia was the most interesting job of my career. That year, 2004, was probably the high point of U.S.–Russia relations since the end of World War II. President Vladimir Putin and President George W. Bush were getting along well. The first U.S. and Russian navy bilateral exercise took place in September 2004 in the North Sea, and I was part of the planning team for that event. I arranged and oversaw U.S. Navy ship visits to St. Petersburg and Vladivostok that summer. The overall tone of the military-to-military relationship was positive and opening. Of all the work I did that year and the next, connecting Captain Arbuzov with the U.S. Navy servicemen he had rescued at sea in 1978 was one of the most satisfying. It was a reminder that the U.S. and Russia, and especially the sailors and airmen of those two great nations, had more in common than what separated them. Fourteen years later, despite the terrible state of relations between Moscow and Washington today, I still believe that is true.