Flying Along Dangerous Lines

Long before he retired to Annapolis, Freeman “Bruce” Olmstead spent nearly seven months in a Soviet prison on multiple charges, including espionage

Story by Jennifer Piegols
Photography courtesy Nabb Research Center, Salisbury University

July 3, 1960:

“Dear Mrs. Olmstead: You have received official notification that your husband, First Lieutenant Freeman B. Olmstead, is missing in flight since 1 July 1960.... An extensive air-sea rescue search is in progress. Every effort is being made to locate Freeman.”

Exactly two months after Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 plane was shot down in Soviet Union airspace, an RB-47 bomber with a crew of three reconnaissance officers, a navigator and two pilots flew over the Barents Sea, near the Kola Peninsula. Sixty years later, an archival collection
at Salisbury University’s Nabb Research Center reveals personal details from the harrowing story of the 25-year-old copilot, First Lieutenant Freeman “Bruce” Olmstead (pictured to the right on the Time cover above).

The RB-47 bomber was shot down by a Soviet MiG-19, killing four of the crewmembers and sending copilot 1st Lt. Olmstead and navigator 1st Lt. John R. McKane into the Arctic waters for nearly six hours. The men were rescued by Soviet fishing trawlers and sent to Lubyanka prison
in Moscow on charges of espionage and illegally entering Soviet airspace.

Over the next 208 days, Olmstead was held in solitary confinement and interrogated by the Soviet Union. He sent letters to his family, many of which were chemically tested for invisible ink, and read an extensive amount of literature. Secretly, he maintained a book list and hand-drawn calendar on which he marked dates he wrote letters, received letters, and other events that occurred during his

On January 24, 1961, after a lengthy trial and discussion at the United Nations Security Council, the men were proved innocent of infringing on USSR airspace and had in fact been flying north of USSR territory. Olmstead and McKane were released from prison and returned home. Waiting for them on the U.S. airstrip were their wives and the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy.

Olmstead was eventually promoted to colonel and continued to serve in the military for 22 years, at numerous bases and the Pentagon. He taught young servicemen and served as the air attaché in Copenhagen, Denmark, before retiring to Annapolis in 1983. Colonel Olmstead passed away in 2016 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

While this event is not quite as famous as Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 espionage, the story of Olmstead and McKane is one of bravery. Had the plane flown over Soviet Union airspace, the peace between the USSR and USA may have shattered and ignited a hostility that would have inflamed the Cold War.

CHEMICAL WARFARE Personal letters written by 1st Lt. Olmstead to his family from prison, like this one, were chemically tested for invisible ink by the Soviets.

DOCUMENTING HISTORY Above is the map used by United Nations Security Council to determine the RB-47’s location, 1960. At left, the front of a calendar created and hid by First Lieutenant Olmstead in his Moscow cell, 1960-1961.

In 2019, the personal papers and collection of ephemera documenting then-1st Lt. Olmstead’s ordeal in the USSR were donated to the Nabb Research Center’s Special Collections. Included in the collection are letters, reports and maps presented to the United Nations Security Council, newspaper clippings, photographs, telegrams and a copy of The Little Toy Dog, a publication about the RB-47’s story. This collection is open to researchers but is not available online.

HEROIC HOMECOMING  First Lieutenant Freeman Olmstead, second from left, and First Lieutenant John McKane with their wives, Gail and Connie, respectively, at Andrews Air Force Base upon their return home on January 27, 1961. The welcoming party included President John F. Kennedy. middle right extending handshake.

Editor’s note: Jennifer Piegols is the university archivist and special collections librarian at the Nabb Research Center at Salisbury University. She graduated from Salisbury University in 2016 with her BA in history and English and earned her MLIS from University of Maryland College Park in 2019. 

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