Crews Solve Mystery of Plane Downed by Soviets in 1940

American courier aboard was one of the first US casualties of World War II
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 15, 2024 5:05 PM CDT
Crews Solve Mystery of Plane Downed by Soviets in 1940
This photo shows US diplomat Henry W. Antheil Jr., dated 1940.   (Library of Congress via AP)

The World War II mystery of what happened to a Finnish passenger plane after it was shot down over the Baltic Sea by Soviet bombers appears to finally be solved more than eight decades later. The plane was carrying American and French diplomatic couriers in June 1940 when it was downed just days before Moscow annexed the Baltic states, the AP reports. The seven passengers—an American diplomat, two French, two Germans, a Swede, and a dual Estonian-Finnish national—and two crew members were all killed.

A diving and salvage team in Estonia said this week that it had located well-preserved parts and debris from the Junkers Ju 52 plane operated by Finnish airline Aero, which is now Finnair. It was found off the tiny island of Keri near Estonia's capital, Tallinn, at a depth of around 230 feet. The downing of the civilian plane, named Kaleva, en route from Tallinn to Helsinki happened on June 14, 1940—three months after Finland had signed a peace treaty with Moscow following the 1939-40 Winter War. The news about the fate of the plane was met with disbelief and anger by authorities in Helsinki, per the AP, who were informed that it was shot down by two Soviet DB-3 bombers 10 minutes after taking off from Tallinn's Ulemiste airport.

"It was unique that a passenger plane was shot down during peacetime on a normal scheduled flight," said Finnish aviation historian Carl-Fredrik Geust, who has investigated the case since the 1980s. Finland kept silent for years about the details of the aircraft's destruction, saying publicly only that a "mysterious crash" had taken place over the Baltic Sea, because it didn't want to provoke Moscow. The Soviet Union occupied Estonia on June 17, 1940, and Kaleva's was the last flight out of Tallinn. American diplomat Henry W. Antheil Jr., who is now considered one of the first US casualties of World War II, was aboard the plane. The 27-year-old was on a rushed government mission evacuating sensitive diplomatic pouches from US missions in Tallinn and Riga, Latvia, as it had become clear that Moscow was preparing to swallow Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

(More Finland stories.)

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