On 22 June 1955, Soviet MiG-15s intercepted a U.S. Navy P2V Neptune with a crew of eleven flying over the Bering Straits in international waters 30 miles west-northwest of St. Lawrence Island and 20 miles off the Soviet mainland at 8,000 feet. The P2V was flying out of Naval Air Station Kodiak on a reconnaissance mission. The aircraft commander, Lieutenant R.H. Fischer, reported he and his crew were taken entirely by surprise. The Soviet pilots made their attacks through heavy clouds and poor visibility under the control of ground radar. The one firing pass lasted four to five seconds and caught the crew completely off-guard, and no return fire was initiated.
Cannon rounds struck the left-wing and fuselage, wounding three crewmembers and setting the wing on fire. One MiG pilot had attacked while the other flew cover. Lieutenant Fischer and his crew made a wheels-up landing on the tundra five miles south of the village of Gambell. Alaskan Natives assigned the Alaska Army Guard’s Eskimo Scouts, who had observed the burning aircraft descending, reached the crash site by boat one hour later and took the crew to Gambell. A 10th Air Rescue Squadron aircraft from Ladd AFB flew the team from Gambell to JBER, where the injured were treated. The rest of the crew returned to Kodiak. The Soviets claimed the maritime reconnaissance aircraft had violated their airspace, and their pilots had only opened fire in response to fire from the Neptune.
The attack came when President Eisenhower was in New England on a speech tour, and American diplomats were in San Francisco to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was also present for the commemoration. The Big Four were scheduled to hold talks in July.
However, the shootdown resulted in a storm of protest. Lieutenant General Joseph H. Atkinson, Commander-in-Chief, Alaskan Command, called the attack “entirely unwarranted and without provocation of any kind.” Democrat and Republican leaders expressed their feelings. Senator Knowland (R-CA) labeled it “a deliberate test” of U.S. defenses. Senator Mike Mansfield (D-MT) stated there was no reason why the U.S. should participate in the Big Four meeting. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles insisted on a full explanation and reparations from Moscow. Foreign Minister Molotov handed him a note stating that while the P2V had violated Soviet air space, the Soviet Government expressed regret over the incident, which had taken place under conditions open to interpretation by both sides. The Soviets agreed to pay compensation one-half the cost of damages suffered by the Americans. The U.S. demanded $724,947.
The radar operators at Northeast Cape observed the encounter between the Neptune and MiG-15s on their scope. They tracked the Neptune flying southwest through the narrow straits between St. Lawrence Island and the Soviet mainland and observed it veer west across the International Dateline. The radar operators also followed two high-speed tracks approaching south from Providenya, Soviet Union. The communications personnel at Northeast Cape tried to warn the Neptune crew but could not make radio contact. They observed one MiG pilot attack while the other provided cover.
The International Dateline closely paralleled the 1867 line of demarcation between the U.S. and Russian, referred to as the Convention Line. The U.S. did not recognize the Convention Line as a political boundary except where the two lines overlap between Big and Little Diomede. Additionally, the U.S. considered the Bering Sea as high seas not subject to jurisdiction by any nation.
The Alaskan Air Command responded to the MiG attacks by ordering the 740th Fighter-Bomber Squadron to deploy eight F-86Fs to Nome to provide fighter escort to the Naval Air Station Kodiak based P2V Neptunes during their routine patrols over the Bering Sea.