Hawkish Rumsfeld's plea to China in search for friend lost in 1956 clash

HIS reputation is one of a hawkish warmonger with a crusty demeanour and a heart of steel. But Donald Rumsfeld, it seems, has a little-known softer side.

Five decades after one of his US Navy friends was shot down over China during a Cold War spy mission, the US Defence Secretary is still waging a quiet campaign to win closure for the airman's widow. In the finest military tradition, he has vowed that Lieutenant James B Deane will not be left behind.

Leaving his normally hard-line views on communist China to one side, he has persuaded General Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, to hand over once-secret papers divulging information previously unknown to the US regarding the fate of the young pilot.

Gen Boxiong ranks second only to China's president, Chairman Hu Jintao.

It was unclear yesterday exactly how much light the documents - which were handed over during a meeting at the Pentagon on Tuesday - shed on what happened to Lt Deane or whether he may even still be alive.

Defence department sources confirmed that the material was a contemporary report on the shooting down from the Chinese Air Force and that it added "a little bit more information" though much of it remained to be translated yesterday.

For Mr Rumsfeld, memories of his friend and comrade are still raw. "I remember the good times with him and I remember the sorrow of losing him," he said earlier this year after his role in the long crusade to uncover the truth first emerged.

For Lt Deane's widow, Dr Beverly Deane Shaver, who has since remarried, the mystery of her 24-year-old sweetheart's fate has been brought one step closer five decades after a military chaplain came to the door of her home at Iwakuni Naval Air Station in Japan to break the news that he was missing in action.

The pair had been married for just three months when, on 23 August, 1956, Lt Deane's Mercator aircraft was blasted out of the sky by Chinese fighter aircraft over the East China Sea, while gathering electronic intelligence on Chinese radar.

The remains of four of the 16 missing American airmen were recovered, but 12 were never found. One year after the incident, the US Navy told his widow that he was presumed dead.

Yet she later discovered that unconfirmed US military reports talked of two survivors having been picked up by the Chinese and taken to the home of a Chinese government official. Information on one of the men "appears to fit the description of Lieutenant (junior grade) James Brayton Deane, jnr", said the report, which was declassified in 1993.

In an account to the Washington Post two months ago, Katherine Shaver, Dr Deane Shaver's daughter from her second marriage, revealed how Lt Deane and Donald Rumsfeld had been close friends during training in Pensacola, Florida, in 1954.

"After her husband's shoot-down, my mother and Mr Rumsfeld stayed in touch, mostly through Christmas cards. When my mother began her search in 1992, Mr Rumsfeld was a business executive in Chicago. She addressed her letters to him as Rummy. He wrote back to Bo Bo, her college nickname," she explained.

He obtained letters to the Chinese government from former US president Gerald Ford, whom he served as a defence secretary, and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, which called on Beijing to assist in unearthing the truth. His quest was resurrected after he joined the Bush administration as Defence Secretary.

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