The contents of 1st Lt. Robert Niemann’s wallet — including family photos, a lottery ticket, driver’s license and other ID cards — were listed on a document in a Russian archive in Moscow.
Retired Soviet Col. Viktor Bushuyev, in 1993, recalled interrogating the tight-lipped U.S. fighter pilot from New Ulm, Minn., at the end of the Korean War 40 years earlier — only to later tell investigators he must have mixed up Niemann with another prisoner.
For years now, Niemann’s brother and daughter have taken turns attending annual meetings with military officials in Washington, D.C. — trying to answer gnawing questions about just what happened to Bob.
Did the enemy pluck his wallet from his dead body amid the wreckage of his fighter jet — shot out of a cloudy sky over North Korea on April 12, 1953? Or did he survive the crash and face questioning as a prisoner three months before the end of the Korean War?
Unlike most of the 54,246 Americans killed in the Korean conflict, Niemann’s remains have never been recovered.
“Well, it was a long time ago — you kind of get used to it,” said Richard Niemann, 86, of Hopkins — the lost flier’s younger brother.
“Nothing is conclusive,” added Ann Bakkensen, who was 11 months old when her father disappeared. She turns 66 on Monday.
Bakkensen’s quest for closure has taken her from her home in Oregon to the 1995 dedication of the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. She wound up under a tree that day, talking with other Korean War families far from the crowded ceremony on the National Mall.
“When we started asking, ‘How old were you when you lost your dad?’ it struck me: This was the first time ... I realized I grew up without my father. I was so young, I didn’t know I missed him.”
Her mother, Thelma, was pregnant when her father’s plane went down. Ann’s younger brother, Bobby, was born two months later. He now lives in Stillwater. Their father was presumed dead one year after the crash when no new information surfaced. Their mother remarried in the late-1950s and the family moved to Arizona.
By 1993, as the Soviet Union collapsed and Russian President Boris Yeltsin sought to thaw Cold War tensions, the superpowers agreed to cooperate and try to resolve missing-in-action cases from 20th-century wars. That’s when a government report surfaced, listing the contents of Niemann’s wallet and the translated comments from the retired Soviet colonel.
The report quoted Bushuyev saying an F-86 pilot named “Neiman or Naiman” refused to answer questions. The colonel later changed his story and said he meant Maj. William Baumer — whose plane was shot down three months before Niemann’s while dropping leaflets over North Korea. Baumer survived, was captured, confined in China and released in 1955.
“It’s reasonable but inconclusive,” Bakkensen said. “As we seek closure, it’s easy to say there’s a good possibility that happened, but I don’t want to write off the less likely scenario.” Namely, that her father survived the crash.
The wallet’s inventory and colonel’s interview rekindled the family’s curiosity in the 1990s. They’d long assumed the pilot, just 25, had been shot down over a mountainous area.
In 1998, Bakkensen joined a Defense Department delegation that traveled to North Korea, viewing a site where remains were being recovered.
Now, after 20 more years of unresolved questions about her father’s death, Bakkensen is returning to where his life began: New Ulm.
After a 9 a.m. memorial service May 12 at the New Ulm City Cemetery and a 10 a.m. Air Force flyover salute, Niemann’s daughter will deliver the keynote address as the Brown County Historical Society opens a new Niemann exhibit at 1 p.m.
The oldest of three kids, Robert Niemann was born in New Ulm on March 20, 1928. His father, Frank, was a descendant of brewer August Schell and ran an auto electric shop. His mother, Laura, was 90 when revelations about Niemann’s wallet surfaced in 1993.
“He always wanted to fly, fly fly,” his brother, Richard, recalled. “I remember working on a road crew one summer while he was refueling planes at the airfield.”
Robert Niemann earned his pilot’s license as a senior at New Ulm High School in 1946. He received a military commission to West Point — his quickest route to becoming a pilot. He was married in 1951 and was last seen two years later, banking his jet in heavy clouds, engaging with enemy pilots over North Korea.
More than 65 years later, as U.S. relations with Russia and North Korea careen in different directions, Niemann’s family continues to hope for answers.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.