Family Stories · "The Ring of Truth", a Gripping Story of a Warfield Descendant, Published in the Reader's Digest
"The Ring of Truth", a Gripping Story of a Warfield Descendant, Published in the Reader's Digest

Printed in the February 1996 issue of The Reader's Digest .

"After 40 years Mary still didn't know exactly what had happened to her missing airman husband. She needed something with a final.

Ring of Truth

Bright tracer bullets spat across the cold blue sky, slicing into the left wing of the Sunbonnet King, a U.S. B-29 Superfortress. Moments later a second Soviet fighter sent a volley into the plane's tail, blasting it away. Shooting flames and black smoke, the crippled aircraft nosed hard left and began a downward spiral.

Four miles below, Vasily Saiko, a 24-year-old sergeant in the Soviet Maritime Border Guards, stood on the deck of his patrol vessel, watching the grim ballet above. Seconds later the Sunbonnet King crashed and exploded in soviet waters near the tiny Japanese island of Yuri.

The date was October 7, 1952, and the world was focused on the Korean War. The eight American airmen abroad the U.S. reconnaissance plane had been photo-mapping several miles from one of the Cold War's most hotly disputed zones - the Kuril Islands between Japan and the Soviet Union.

Saiko and the two other Soviet sailors were ordered to take a small boat and begin collecting what debris they could find. The waves were choppy, and from their vantage point little was visible except gas and oil floating on the surface and a rubber tire bobbing aimlessly amid the flotsam. Suddenly the men spotted a partially submerged parachute. Attached to its cords was a man floating face down in the oily, dark waters.

'He might be alive!' Saiko shouted. The three sailors managed to pull the American into the boat only to make a gruesome discovery: the front and top of the airman's head had been sheared off, leaving no vestige of a face. The men grimaced and looked away. Solemnly they returned to the patrol vessel, where the American's body was wrapped in a tarpaulin and stowed.

The next day Saiko was instructed to escort the body to Yuri Island and wait until it was picked up for examination and burial. At the docking point, alone with the body, Saiko wondered about the American. He was someone's son - perhaps a husband, even a father. This man has people who love him, Saiko thought.

On impulse Saiko pulled the tarp away. On the man's right was the most extraordinary ring he had ever seen. Large and heavy, it seemed to be made of the purest gold.

Slipping the ring from the man's finger, Saiko furtively studied the engraving inside. A name, he supposed, but the Roman letters were strange to his eye. Saiko then dropped the ring into his pocket.

I could go to prison for this, he thought. Some Soviet naval officer or KGB agent would surely think such a treasure should be his own. Saiko assured himself that, if necessary, he could flip the ring into the sea.

Soon a burial detail arrived to take the body. Saiko watched as the men placed the America 's body on a litter. Then, as Saiko's boat shoved off from the dock, they were lost in the fog. Saiko slipped a hand deep into his pocket and rolled the heavy ring between his fingers.

Dressed in an organdy-white gown, her blond hair gleaming, Mary watched as her fiancé, John Dunham, removed his class ring from a small box. The date was May 28, 1949, and the occasion was the Mid-shipman's Ring Dance at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. With a big grin he placed a blue ribbon through the ring and hung it around Mary's neck. She would wear the ring until a special ceremony during the dance. Then Mary would slip it onto John's right hand - where it was to remain for the rest of his life. This was one of the Naval Academy 's proudest traditions.

Mary and John had known each other since they were 17. She was charmed by this tall man with friendly brown eyes who was known to everyone as "Chute." He had earned the nickname because of the way he pronounced "choo-choo" as a child.

In June 1950, on the day Chute graduated, he and Mary were married at the Naval Academy chapel. In those days, before the Air Force Academy was established, one-quarter of Annapolis graduates each year were given the option of joining the Air Force. Chute volunteered and began training as a navigator for aerial reconnaissance.

Mary and Chute said good-bye to each other in May 1952, when he was about to be shipped out to Japan with his air-reconnaissance unit. Their first child was due in three months. Smiling and patting Mary's stomach, Chute promised he would see them both at Thanksgiving.

Then, during a Red Cross telephone call, when their baby was a week old, Mary and Chute were giddy in their joy over Suzanne's birth. She was a magnificent affirmation of their love and their dreams of a long and happy life together. Even though they wrote almost every day, that one rare phone call was the only time they spoke after their daughter's birth.

And they never spoke again.

Vasily Saiko was mustered out of the Soviet navy at the end of 1952. After marrying, he moved to Rostov-on-Don and went to work as a riverboat captain.

The ring was always in a safe place near him - stashed in a little box with his navy medal for bravery. Frequently Saiko found himself looking at the ring and thinking about the man he had pulled from the sea.

Mary Dunham had just tucked six-week-old Suzanne into bed when she heard a knock at the front door. Mary and the baby were spending a few weeks with her husband's widowed mother, Anna Dunham, in their hometown of Easton, Md., while John was in the service.

Answering the knock, Mary stared with uncertainty at the two Air Force officers who filled the doorway. One handed her a telegram: " It is with deep regret that I officially inform you that your husband, 1 st Lt. John R. Dunham, [is] missing in flight. Extensive search is now being conducted."

In the months that followed, a stream of telegrams and letters arrived. Finally Mary was told that the Soviet government admitted firing upon Dunham's plane - but denied any knowledge of the crew's fate.

One year later the Air Force reiterated Chute's missing status. But the letter contained an eerie sentence that would blink in Mary's mind for decades: "The accident apparently occurred at a point where survivors could have been rescued by foreign personnel and removed from the area."

For Mary this was almost worse than knowing Chute was dead. Was he in a Soviet prison? Was he being tortured?

Three years after the shoot-down, in 1955, Mary received word that Chute had been routinely promoted to the rank of captain. A month later she was informed that Captain Dunham "can no longer reasonably be presumed to be alive." To Mary's ear, this language allowed a spark of hope to glow amid her terrible distress. But she tried not to speak of her agony - to contain it all in her own heart. Friends begged her to get on with her life. But no matter how hard she tried, she continued to sense Chute's presence every waking hour.

Mary's towering commitment as a young mother was to Suzanne - a girl growing up never having set eyes on her father. Mary needed to give her enough care and love to make up for the terrible void that would always be with her.

One night in 1987, Vasily Saiko did something he had rarely done outside of his family. He told a new friend - a man for whom he was hauling a cargo of lumber on his riverboat - about his experience 35 years earlier. He explained that he had always wished he could return the ring to the airmen's family and that over the years he had resisted many temptations to sell it.

Saiko went to the vessel's safe and removed the ring. His friend was transfixed as he held the heavy gold ring. Immediately the friend offered to swap his white Volga - a car Vasily had seen and admired - for the ring.

There was nothing Saiko yearned for more than an automobile. His life on the waterways didn't allow such luxuries. "I will have to talk to my wife," Saiko told him.

For the rest of the trip, Vasily's thoughts were on the ring. Surely the American had a family that still had no idea what had happened to him. But what could Saiko do? If he turned the ring over to a Soviet official, it would go into that man's pocket. And what was served by that?

Back home, Vasily told his wife, Lyuba, about the extraordinary offer. Her reaction was instantaneous. 'The ring belongs to the man's family,' she said firmly. 'Someday you will find a way to return it.'

Suzanne Dunham was a happy ten-year-old with flaxen hair, blue eyes and tapered fingers that reminded Mary of Chute's. Mary wanted Suzanne to know her father, but it was so very hard to talk to a child about a man who went away and never came back.

One day Mary found a way. She handed the girl a gold charm bracelet adorned with medals and keepsakes. Included was a fraternity pin from the house where they first met while Chute was attending Johns Hopkins University before he joined the Navy. There was also a gold replica of Suzanne's birth certificate and, most poignant of all, Mary's gold wedding ring.

'This is the life of your father and me,' Mary said. Suzanne took the bracelet and held it with wonderment. She had always loved to look at her parents' wedding album and gazed long and hard at pictures of the smiling man who stood beside her mother. Now she had something more to help her create memories.

But as she held the bracelet, Suzanne respected her mother's feelings. She had learned early on that questions about her father were painful for her mother.

Thirteen years after Chute disappeared, Mary Dunham, then 39, married Donald Nichols, a World War II veteran. By then she was convinced that Suzanne was on the right path - an excellent student, outgoing and well-adjusted. A few years later Suzanne graduated from Wellesley College, married a man she had met at Harvard and later went on to law school.

Now that Suzanne was married and settled, her attention turned increasingly to her lifelong desire to know more about her father. Slowly she came to realize that it was possible for her and her mother to pursue the truth in the cold terms of his 'missing' status - thus avoiding the emotional aspects of it.

Convinced that the Soviet government knew what had happened to the crew of the Sunbonnet King. Mary and Suzanne joined other MIA families in the quest for information about their loved ones. 'I know,' Mary told a reporter, 'that somewhere in the Soviet Union, someone knows what happened to my husband. Someone knows the truth.'

Dunham family members were gratified in 1992 when Russians, in a burst of openness, stated that no crew members had survived the shoot-down. Mary, however, needed something more than a fresh declaration by government that had lied about the matter since the first day.

Mary needed something that had a greater ring of truth.

One evening in late 1993, the Saikos were watching television. Astonishing changes were taking place in their world - including the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. What would this new atmosphere mean in terms of the American's ring? Suddenly they were electrified to hear a TV report saying that a Joint Commission on POW-MIA Affairs was asking Russians with information about missing Americans to come forward.

The next day Lyuba telephoned the Moscow number given on TV. 'Vasily!' she cried that evening. 'The time has come. You must go to Moscow and take the ring.' She then explained that in her conversation with the Russians at the Joint Commission, she said that her husband had information about a U.S. airman shot down near the Kuril Islands in 1952. She'd said nothing about the ring.

The official offered to travel to their home to talk, but Lyuba demurred - saying that her husband would go to them. She and Vasily feared a scheme of some sort - perhaps the so-called commission really did not exist.

'I will not give the ring to a Russian official,' Vasily told his wife.

A few days later Saiko set off on the train to Moscow. Again and again he found his hand in his front trouser pocket, furtively checking on the ring, which Lyuba had stitched in a secret pouch.

During the 24-hour journey Saiko had time to ponder how he had come to this point. Descended from Russian peasants, he had been blessed always with a strong and loving family. His grandmother had enriched his life by telling him about the Scriptures and the importance of a belief in God. Throughout his life Vasily had tried to deal with others in the fashion taught him by his family.

When he finally made his way to the Joint Commission headquarters, Russian members were highly impressed with his report of what he had seen on October 7, 1952. An hour later he was taken before the Joint Commission, where Russians and Americans sat facing one another at a long table. Never had Vasily Saiko dreamed of standing before such an august assembly. As he told of recovering an American's body from the ocean 41 years earlier, Saiko fumbled in his pocket, struggling to break Lyuba's strong stitches.

'This,' he said, holding up the ring, 'was on the finger of the American I pulled from the water. His name is engraved inside.' A gasp of astonishment swept the room. Saiko then handed the ring to the American chairing the meeting, who examined it. 'It is a class ring from the Naval Academy,' he said. 'And the name engraved inside is that of John Robertson Dunham.'

Saiko could sense an enormous rush of amazement and respect from those around the table. It was the proudest moment of his life.

But Saiko said he would only give the ring to the airmen's family. The next day, however, in a ceremony attended by the entire Joint Commission, Vasily Saiko placed the ring in the hands of former U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon, the chairman of the Joint Commission, who solemnly promised that it would be given to the family of John Dunham.

At 6 A.M. on December 7, 1993, the telephone rang in Mary Dunham Nichols's house near Baltimore. Kaye Whitley, a Pentagon official, was calling from the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

'Mary,' she said, 'I have some news for you. We have your husband's Annapolis class ring. It's just been turned over to us by a Soviet sailor who recovered your husband's body in 1952. He kept the ring and has given it to us to return to you.' Mary was so stunned that she was completely silent.

A few minutes later Mary called Suzanne in Michigan and told her the extraordinary news. 'It has taken 41 years,' she said quietly. 'What does this mean?' 'It's over, Mom,' Suzanne said. 'It means it's finally over.'

A few weeks later in a brief ceremony at the Pentagon, Mary, now 67 years old, was presented with Chute's ring. She was overcome with a joy more poignant and inexplicable than anything she'd ever known.

'To think,' Mary said to Suzanne, 'all these years we've sought truth, and the whole Soviet system denied it to us. Then it turns out that in a single act, one lone man's honor and decency overshadowed all we've been through.'

Mary and Suzanne were left with two overpowering desires - to locate John Dunham's remains and find a way to thank the Saikos.

Friends and family filled the stone Christ Episcopal Church in Easton where Chute Dunham had been baptized. On that hot day last July, the people who loved him most could finally say their farewells. Mary looked forward to seeing old friends, but there were some new friends - very special friends - who awaited her in the church rectory.

Vasily Saiko sprang to his feet as Mary entered, his broad face in an exuberant smile. They flung their arms around each other in a joyous embrace that transcended any need for a common language. It was the first day of a week-long U.S. visit that family members had arranged for Vasily and Lyuba.

Then Mary spoke to those in the room: 'All those years I felt so alone, so isolated, so sure that no one cared. But all that time this man and this woman - on the other side of the world - cared so much that they held on to this precious symbol of my husband.'

In the sanctuary Chute's coffin rested at the altar beneath a pall Mary had given the church in his memory four decades earlier. With Vasily Saiko's help, Captain Dunham's remains had been located and returned to the United States for DNA testing and burial. As the service began, Suzanne spoke of her father:

'He disappeared from our lives 43 years ago. He was missing, and the missing are different from the dead. The dead come back to us in the stories we tell about them, but you don't tell stories about the missing. It would be a kind of betrayal. In his short life he touched many lives, weaving the webs of friendship and memory that bring you here tonight. He loved deeply, and he was deeply loved in return.'

The next day at Arlington National Cemetery, a horse-drawn caisson carried Captain Dunham's coffin from the chapel to the grave site. Seated there were Mary and her husband, Don Nichols, as well as Suzanne and her husband and two sons. Vasily and Lyuba Saiko stood behind them. Hanging from Mary's neck, glittering in the bright sunlight for all to see, was the ring that had made it all possible.

Before the chaplain began his final words, the assemblage heard in the distance a deep sound of over-whelming power. A dark gray B-52 bomber passed slowly over them in a final salute to John Dunham.

As memories cascaded through Mary's mind, she thought of those flying the B-52 - young men probably much like her beloved Chute. Were it not for them, and all the men like Chute and his crew mates, there would be no freedom. There would be no truth.

Mary hugged her grandsons to her as an honor guard fired the traditional salute to a fallen soldier. The soulful sound of taps wafted from a nearby hillside. Gently Mary touched her fingers to the ring. With Capt. John Dunham now laid to rest, the stories and proud memories could begin.


This story was brought to us by Richard Faber, a Warfield descendant. Attached to the story was the following message from Rich:

"During my trip to Maryland this past April I was honored to meet a WARFIELD descendant, named Mary Gordon (CRAPSTER) DUNHAM NICHOLS. The attached text document is a 1996 Reader's Digest story about Mary and her 1st husband, Capt. John Robertson "Chute" Dunham. I remember reading the article when it originally appeared in the Reader's Digest in February 1996. At the time I did not know that Mary was a WARFIELD descendant."

  Back To Family Stories

Acknowledgements | Mission

©2005 George A. Scheele MD