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Irving Shaknov: A Singular Life

By the age of 28, Irving Shaknov already had more honors than most men could ever hope for: a Bronze Star for Valor in World War II, a Ph.D. in physics from Columbia University, and a paper published in the prestigious Physical Review, describing an experiment he and his professor had conducted that would become known as one of the seminal tests of quantum physics. Another honor lay ahead, one that could never be wished upon such a promising young man.

Soon after completing his dissertation in 1951, Shaknov joined the Operations Evaluation Group, the organization that would become CNA. By the next year, he was on his way to join other OEG analysts supporting U.S. forces in the Korean War. The civilian scientists had already played a key role by developing mathematical models that disproved the assumption that North Korean troops were largely being resupplied by sea. Now Shaknov and others were collecting and interpreting data on the most effective methods of cutting off supply routes on land.

The OEG analysts had calculated that Marine Corps night-fighters flying at extremely low altitude were very effective at hitting supply trucks, but the squadrons had a difficult time finding enough targets. To gather the data needed to address this problem, the physicist, known to his colleagues as “Spike,” flew on a mission deep into North Korea on the night of May 14, 1952. He took the radar operator’s position in the two-seater.

As the black Tigercat fighter strafed a North Korean truck convoy, an antiaircraft shell hit one of the plane’s engines. The OEG analyst was unable to eject before the plane crashed. Though CNA analysts have served in forward deployment in every major conflict involving U.S. troops since World War II, Irving Shaknov remains the only CNA analyst to be killed in action. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom, and his family accepted his final honor. Today, his portrait hangs in the Irving Shaknov Conference Center at CNA’s headquarters.