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Basic Training oriented the new inductee to Army life. Advanced Individual Training (AIT) taught him a specialized military profession.
Although that seems easy enough to understand, many enlistees like myself knew nothing about how military training schools were set up or how to plan our careers closer to our abilities and desires until we were well into AIT and it was too late to start over. Because of my ignorance, and because the Recruiting Sergeant who signed me up was more concerned with making his monthly mission (or quota) than a recruits career, my enlistment was a classic example of a enlistee being bull----ted by his recruiter.
Before taking the Army's Oath of Allegiance my only training request on paper was to go to jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia and become a paratrooper. My Recruiting Sergeant didn't tell me that one week of parachute training was a "supplemental course" and not a military profession. He also didn't tell me there were more than 100 Army MOS's to choose from. Nor did he take the time to recommend a school my pre-enlistment test scores would have qualified me for. He probably felt he didn't have to, I walked into his office, he didn't have to talk me into joining. I was what military recruiters called a dream kid. I never had any trouble with the law, never did drugs, and compared to the liberal attitude common among guys my age during the late 60's, I was unquestionably conservative.
Of course, after the oath was administered, I didn't get a chance to change my training request. and it turned out, with nothing but a blank space on my enlistment contract, my career path in the Army was left solely to the discretion of some unknown government clerk who eked out a living on a minimum-wage Civil Service pay.
To evaluate the massive battery of examinations given inductees after arriving at their Basic Training posts, the Army hired civilian clerks whose only job was to match military aptitude tests with military jobs. Throughout the testing process those clerks were my greatest worry. Their evaluation of your scores could either make or break you. I was afraid they would interpret my test performance as being so bad they would slot me as a supply clerk who did nothing but count and re-count inventory all day, or a paper-pushing administration clerk whose skill level was based on his knowledge of forms and filing, or even worse, a breakfast cook who had to get up at 4 o'clock every morning.
But today, if I could find the clerk who analyzed my test results I'd kiss her for noticing my affinity for learning the Morse code and recommending me for Signal Corps training. The Signal Corps is the Army's communications department.
The Morse test was difficult for most people to pass because the speeded-up tones flashed over the loudspeaker in the examination room sounded completely different than the slow-pause tones our Boy Scout toy oscillators made. "Kiddie" Morse code was taught in dots and dashes. Army Morse code was taught in dits and dahs. For example, in the Boy Scouts "SOS" sounded like "dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot." In the Army, SOS sounded like, "dididit-dahdahdah-dididit."
Passing the Morse code test at Fort Ord slotted me into Radio Operator's School (ROC). The ROC program gave remedial instruction in Morse Code, frequency calibration, antenna trim, mobile and fixed radio operation, introduction to teletype and security equipment operation, and the military phonetic alphabet (Alpha for A, Bravo for B, Charlie for C, and so on). Abbreviated codes were also taught. For example, FCY for "facility," URSTA for "your station," FREQ for "frequency," and of course, QFA for "quit ----ing around."
It was while learning the military alphabet that I discovered why the VC were called Charlie. When I learned that Victor stood for V, it was obvious we couldn't give the VC that name. It would be labeling him the winner. That left Charlie as the only other choice. The name Charlie, like the Army's view of the VC, was short, simple, and undignified.
"Our biggest challenge," the instructors told us, "is not learning the Morse code or radio operation," but correcting certain "bad habits" we learned as civilians. One bad habit was referring to number 0 as "oh". The correct way was "zero". We were also told to make a vertical slash down its middle to differentiate it from the capital letter "O". The correct way of writing the number 7 was to slash it horizontally across its middle to differentiate it from a poorly written number 1. Another bad habit was never terminating a radio conversation with the phrase "Over and Out." The correct way to "turn the handle over" to the other party was to say "Over." The correct way to terminate a conversation was simply to say "Out." To use "Over and Out" would confuse the other party who might automatically "key-up his transmitter" just after you said "over" thinking you were expecting a reply.
Upon completing ROC, graduates could either end their Signal Corps training and be assigned to a professional position on that level or go on to a higher skill level at the US Army Southeastern Signal School Center (USASESS), at Fort Gordon, just outside Augusta, Georgia. I chose to continue. For me, ROC led to the Radio Teletype/Telegraph (RTT) course. Learning cryptographic operation was a requirement for graduating RTT, and being certified for crypto access facilitated my receiving a high security clearance.
USASESS picked up where ROC left off. Providing more detailed instruction in Army communications, the center functioned somewhat like a huge university having separate colleges teaching specific skills. The Center operated 3 RTT company's, each a week apart in training schedules. From USASESS career directions could eventually lead to any of the civilian technical-intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), the technical branches of the FBI or CIA, or the Army's own Security Agency (ASA).
Army training schools were separated into increasing skill levels. Acquiring higher levels of training enabled you to obtain more prestigious job assignments and higher rank. By separating skill levels the Army was able to filter out students who, for one reason or another, lacked the incentive, capacity, or desire to proceed to a higher level. Although the cost of operating separate schools that often overlapped instruction was greater, dividing them up complimented the Army's rank-grading system by permitting its trainees progression from one level to the next.
Arriving in January of '69, Georgia was going through one of its worst winters on record. This was distressing for those of us arriving from sunny California. Our travel orders listed "required dress" as being "fatigue shirts and trousers." We weren't told to expect below freezing temperatures and field jackets were recommended.
After landing by commercial carrier at a small airfield used by commercial airline pilots for takeoff and landing practice, we were given a Spartan breakfast in the banquet room of a nearby restaurant. Breakfast consisted of powdered eggs, 2 strips of bacon, a half piece of toast, and a small glass of grapefruit juice. We would later learn our cost-saving starvation breakfast was only a small sample of things to come.
When arriving at our new home (Foxtrot Company, 1st Battalion, School Brigade) for the next 11 weeks, we were issued dining cards that had to be displayed at every meal. Any student who lost his card or had it stolen by another starving student was not permitted to enter the mess hall even if the Sergeant guarding the door recognized him. It was no surprise to anyone that the mess hall Sergeant was later replaced for "administrative reasons." He was caught stealing food. Backing his car up to the mess hall after evening chow, one of his kids would help him carry boxes filled with cans to the trunk of his car. Most of the students believed that it was only because he was black, (as were most of the service-related NCO's), that the Army took its time catching him. When I arrived in V'nam I found out that black Sergeants and their white officers worked together for their mutual profit. (More on that later.)
Barrack heating was another area where the Army allowed unscrupulous NCO's to skimp on. The RTT barracks were 2-story, pre-WWII, wood-frame structures. Senior students, having preferential choice where they wanted to sleep, usually bunked on the top floor because heat rising from the bottom floor kept the upstairs warmer. Our heater consisted of a 4-foot pot-belly coal burner. The stove was located in a tiny boiler room under the barrack. Access to the boiler room was made through a small 2-foot square porthole located on the side of the building. It wasn't until mid-March before we discovered the boiler room while trying to retrieve a class ring that had slipped through a crack in the floor above it. No one knew about the boiler room before because with the rapid turnover in personnel all classes currently in session had recently arrived. The NCO's who ran the barracks and signed the coal delivery manifests never bothered to tell us how to heat the water or barracks. and the CO, whose job it was to manage the barracks, didn't seem to care whether we froze or not.
After getting the stove running, our next problem was finding enough coal to keep it burning around the clock. It took several trips to Battalion headquarters to get regular coal deliveries made weekly. Naturally, we wondered what was happening to the money that was supposed to already have been spent on coal.
Foxtrot company was run by a squat-legged First Lieutenant who stood about 5'2" and wore wire-rimmed pop-bottle eyeglasses. Because of his persecuting nature, his Dorkish frame that made him walk with a goose step, and his love for Viennese Waltz music which could often be heard blaring from his office, the CO was given the nickname "Harpsichord Himmler", after the former Nazi SS chief, Heinrich Himmler.
Himmler was a freaked-out psychology major who graduated from the University of Southern California. Unable to find academic-related work after leaving school he enlisted in the Army. His degree automatically qualified him for OCS and a commission. It was said that Himmler became so depressed after being rejected in the civilian job market he joined the Army. Then after receiving a command he decided to take out his frustrations on the men under him.
Himmler made no secret of the fact that his only goal before completing his current 3-year hitch was to issue at least 200 Article Fifteen's. When I arrived he had already issued close to a 100 and probably held the all-time Army record for penalizing his troops for the most ridiculous offenses.
It was said Himmler once gave an Article 15 to a GI for taking off his raincoat during a rainstorm and giving it to a woman. The GI was charged with being out of uniform since wearing a raincoat during rainy weather was required military dress. For punishment he was fined $35, which was probably 3 times what the plastic raincoat was worth. and although the charge of being out of uniform seemed a valid one, the facts behind it would have made the charge ridiculous.
Omitted from the official record was the fact that the woman was the GI's wife, and that at the time the CO caught him "violating Army regulations" he was escorting her home from a pre-natal checkup at the base hospital. The conviction was later reversed after the Battalion Commander ordered all Himmer's Article 15's re-investigated.
It was said Harpsichord Himmler had developed the habit of playing loud music after reading news reports that President Nixon occasionally relaxed after a long days work by playing classical records with the volume all the way up. Even Himmler himself would often say during his many long-winded lectures at company formations that he had re-enlisted in the Army solely to serve President Nixon, not the country. He informed us that if nothing else was accomplished during the length of our "worthless service," he was determined to guarantee our obedience to "his" Commander-In-Chief.
In 1969 the military was loaded with psycho-type characters like Himmler. Because of the war there was a greater need for people than there was for talent. All 4 branches had to accept anyone they could fit a uniform on.
When discovering it was far too easy to discipline enlisted men at will, Himmler developed psychological interrogations during Article 15 hearings that would make him appear intellectually superior. On several occasions he found so much self-gratifying pleasure in manipulating students to recognize his self-imposed superiority that he sometimes forgot all about his 200 goal and didn't issue formal charges when the UCMJ would have endorsed it.
The only buffers between Himmler and the students was his assistant, the Executive Officer [XO], who often refused to carry out his orders to persecute us. and his chief NCO, the First Sergeant, who often lied to protect us.
When the Battalion CO finally heard about Himmler's Article 15 campaign Himmler was relieved so quickly we were without a CO for several weeks until one could be appointed. In the meantime the XO was placed in charge. Among the group of students who complained to the Battalion CO, one was his nephew and another was a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) plant assigned to sniff out Congressional spies or anti-war supporters.
The XO was a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant whose quiet and introverted manner was completely opposite that of Himmler. He was said to have an articulate command of 6 languages and held a Masters Degree in chemistry. He could often be seen strolling the company area with his head facing the ground. His eyes burning in deep thought and his hands clasped behind his back as he walked through the orange Georgia dust, he appeared to be a young Albert Einstein contemplating the molecular displacement of the dust particles as they clouded the air around his feet.
Seeing the XO in deep thought made me wonder about the claims made by military physicians of both WW I and II who patronizingly stated that greater strides in medicine were made during wartime because the massive amount of torn and broken bodies required newer and innovative medical techniques to treat and rebuild them. But on the other hand, the deaths of extraordinarily bright young men in combat could setback mankind's chances of making greater accomplishments in every science, if not ruin them completely. Even the men who went into combat prior to attending college and getting degrees held the potential of great wisdom and benefit for America.
Neither Himmler or the XO taught at the RTT school. As CO, Himmler's job was more or less that of a hotel manager. Foxtrot Company was responsible for billeting, feeding, and administrative management of approximately 150 students. The company served 5 classes, each working on various levels of instruction. As one class arrived to begin their training, another class was graduating and heading off to attend another communications school or ending their MOS training and beginning their duty as full-fledged professionals. Regular classes operated Monday through Friday from 7am to 5pm. Special classes were available on Saturday's for students who were close to their graduation date, but behind in their grades.
To give the students a chance to devote most of their mental energy to the assimilation of their technical studies, military protocol and strict adherence to regimentation was kept at a minimum. Because of the post-adolescent age of the average student a good many pranks and mischievousness occurred during classes as well as on our free time. Leeway was granted during class because a bright students prank with a radio occasionally lead to an application that could enhance its use or be incorporated into a new design. Although the college grads in the company were older, they too had their "little games." Those who came from Ivy League schools, and later went on to pure intelligence work, wore suspenders attached to their Army-issue underwear. This was their "fraternity trademark."
Although leeway was granted when it came to tinkering with the mechanics of a radio, on-the-air foolery was verboten. Both the FCC and ASA were vehemently opposed to any unauthorized live communications and regularly monitored our training frequencies to catch renegade transmitters. The primary reason for this was to prevent prank messages like phony nuclear strikes to be picked up by SAC, who had to initially "interpret everything with possible credulity."
To prevent a negative pre-conception to what new inductees were to expect during Basic Training, trainees were kept away from the "tarnished stories" of upper-classmen who were about to complete Basic Training. The Army knew it was easier to maintain a high energy level and control the way new information was perceived when Basic trainees didn't know when to expect something they might be afraid of. However, with the large amount of technical instruction students had to assimilate in RTT, it was to the Army's advantage to allow contact between senior and freshman students. Open contact permitted a free flow of information. Learning techniques discovered and practiced by innovative students could immediately be passed up or down to anyone having difficulty.
Lasting several months, the RTT course was divided into 2 phases. Phase 1, or general instruction. and Phase 2, or classified instruction. Phase 2 classes were taken in a special security area called "The Cage."
Required courses for both phases were advanced Morse code, radio teletype operations, speed typing, calibration, antenna trim, network concatenation, map and coordinate reading, oscilloscope analysis, meteorology, emergency power utilization, jamming, and first echelon maintenance and repair. Phase 2 handled Top Secret cryptographic operation.
The first thing RTT students were taught was that the size of a radio had nothing to do with its communication parameters or transmission range. Some radios were as small as cigar boxes, others as big as refrigerators. Although the larger radios used more power, some of the smaller radios had greater range. One in particular could transmit coded signals from a densely forested area in V'nam "all the way to a sub-basement of the Pentagon."
Because of the tremendous amount of RF power generated by the behemoth radios, great care had to be taken in their handling and operation. At USASESS insulated boots and gloves were required dress. But later on, after arriving in Vietnam, insulation gear was ignored because of the climate and because it was impossible to fire an M-16 if Charlie showed up unexpectedly.
Most of the insulation gear, like everything else we shipped over to 'Nam but never used, eventually found its way to the Saigon black market. While in Phu Loi a year later I noticed a middle-aged woman outside her house milking a large Labrador Retriever into one of the gloves. After getting as much milk as she could out of the dog, I watched as she tied off the top of the glove with a ribbon pulled from her hair. She then bit a small hole in one of the fingers. She then stuck the finger into the mouth of an infant crying at her feet. For me that glove would have been an inconvenience. For that young V'namese it found a happy owner.
With V'nam being a "hot war," and RTT being a combat MOS, all RTT students were pretty much assured of being assigned duty in 'Nam at some point or another during their 3-year tour. Because of that, everyone hoped to get stationed in one of Vietnam's so-called "secure zones." All over USASESS, as well as on just about every other training post, the "life expectancies" of every MOS was passed around with enough Kleenex to cry into.
For example, the 72Bravo (72B) Communication Center Specialist had a life expectancy of a full 12 months. Oppositely, the Wire-Lineman, being highly susceptible to sniper fire, had a life expectancy of 3 to 5 days. The wireman's job was soon replaced by the microwave beam. Not just because Charlie was wasting a lot of poleclimbers in the early days of the war but because it was relatively easy for him to break up lines of communication simply by cutting down a few wires.
My MOS, 05Charlie (05C), could anticipate 4 to 5 months. For those of us who were accepted into Phase 2 training our life expectancy improved slightly. Our high-security clearances required that we be assigned to large, secure, rear bases in 'Nam.
The instrument guaranteeing that safety was called the "KL-7." Top Secret, it was the most widely used crypto device used in Vietnam. Just knowing they couldn't be located in a high-risk area made us feel a tenth of a degree safer. What we weren't told was that if it became necessary for us to set up shop in an unsecured area we'd simply operate our equipment without a KL-7.
During Phase 2 we were told the Navy lost several KL-7's when North Korea captured the U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968 and the Pentagon was very concerned about losing any more. We were told the CIA had been unable to verify whether or not Commander Lloyd Bucher's men were able to melt their 6 units before the Pueblo was boarded. The CIA's worst possible scenario estimated that If the KL-7's were captured intact they were probably on the first train to Moscow for analysis, dismantling, and pre-fabrication. Several of our instructors believed the KL-7's were not only captured intact, but that the Soviet Union had cracked its random code and supplied Top Secret communications data to General Giap, encouraging North V'nam to stage their enormous TET '68 offensive. It was feared that any more KL-7 losses would add information learned from data siphoned off the Pueblo's machines to the data used in current machines and the results producing a master code-key that could decipher any future code changes.
As mentioned earlier, KL-7 training was given in a special security area called the Cage. The Cage was given that name because the cryptography buildings were fenced in with 8-foot "Cyclone" mesh steel. Small red signs periodically attached to the fence warned intruders away with a message indicating it was charged with 10,000 volts of high-intensity electricity. During class hours, of course, the juice was turned off.
During our 5 days of crypto training we were moved out of our regular barracks and temporarily transferred to another barrack located several blocks from Foxtrot Company's main compound. While there, we were under standing orders not to talk to anyone, even among ourselves, about anything we saw, heard, or read inside the Cage.
A week prior to being locked in the Cage, students were ordered to include a special paragraph in their next letter home informing our families that during the next 2 weeks we would neither be receiving or sending mail. We were told, "Special notice must be made to let (our families) know they shouldn't worry about not hearing from you."
In the past, because DOA had received complaints from parents and wives of students who failed to mention they would be incommunicado, every letter had to be checked by a school instructor to make sure the special paragraph was enclosed before it was sealed and handed over to be mailed. "And if you don't want us to read the whole letter," they warned us, "put the notice on the bottom of the last page and draw a big, red circle around it." Although our actual location hadn't changed we were instructed to inform our families if they found it necessary to write us they could do so by addressing our letters to a special Pentagon post office box pre-designated for high-security mail delivery. The address was listed as "classified" in the post office's inter-office directory so postal employees were unable to determine its actual location.
Of all the different blocks of RTT training, students claimed improving their Morse code proficiency the most difficult. Many students found having their heads sandwiched by headphones pouring out continuous, high shrilled streams of dits and dahs for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, extremely fatiguing.
Some students would say they were unable to distinguish one series of tones from the next after the first 1/2-hour. Others could still hear the monotonous tones ringing in their ears hours after class ended. It was especially bad for those who said the code was incorporated into their dreams and at times took the place of words people spoke.
Having to quickly scribble out the coded messages rapidly fired at us also meant learning how to write all over again. Each letter of the alphabet had to be written in a way that didn't require double hand strokes or lifting the pen off the paper too often. Letters with multiple cross strokes like A, F, T, and H, were tricky at first, but there had been enough different techniques devised by former students that offered an easily adaptable system for everyone.
It was common for one or 2% of each class to voluntarily drop out of the course favoring to spend the remainder of their hitch as cooks or supply clerks. The Army used those 2 professions as our only alternatives to becoming the highly skilled communication technicians they felt we were capably suited for. The threat that we would be transferred to those jobs, should we decide to bail out of RTT, was not a bluff.
To graduate, a student had to fulfill several prerequisites. He had to be able to send and receive 90 Morse code characters words per minute. He had to be able to fire up a radio ensemble, send and receive 3 messages within 5 minutes, pass Phase 2, and be able to handle the control of a self-contained RTT rig, all on his own. (1)
We were told that some secret operations might require a rig be set up on top of a mountain, hidden in the middle of a village, or buried underground. Although 90 characters per minute was considered extremely fast, some veteran RTT jocks could handle 200 while drinking coffee.
While the communications specialists of other MOS's were trained to work in large, fixed, multi-personnel stations well behind combat lines, the RTT graduate was trained to operate solely on his own as a primary or backup source of communications support for any level of command operations. Though most RTT men were trained to provide communications support for Brigade level, in V'nam they were assigned to all levels, from Company up. This was to guarantee that round-the-clock communications went undisturbed between all field-to-base units.
Because of the occasional tactical necessity to "bury a rig in the boonies," far from technical support or spare parts, the single-most important factor emphasized in RTT training was that each student develop an instinctive ability to get his rig back up to full operation if anything went wrong. and being alone in a rig surrounded by fragile technology, anything and everything was expected to go wrong, most of the time.
Personal resourcefulness and improvisation were stressed as the 2 qualities absolutely necessary to make it as a successful RTT man. The unofficial RTT motto was, "Improvise, or Die."
To orient the RTT technician to the many ways disaster might occur he was taken through an exhausting battery of scenarios on the possible things that could go wrong and what options he had in correcting them.
For example, "What if a lightning bolt hit your rig and fried your crypto gear?" or, "What if a tank ran over your power generator?" or, "What if your frequency adjuster rusted stuck?"
One test question the instructors found fun to quiz us on was, "What if your girlfriend's husband poured coffee into your transmitter then pushed your head in and made you lick it out?"
Although some of the scenarios were meant to be absurd, most were serious, even though the possibility of them occurring seemed extremely remote. But the point in stretching the challenges to near-absurdity was not so much to give us a laugh as it was to condition us to respond calmly during a crisis.
One student who took the "girlfriend" scenario seriously answered it that way. He stated the first thing he would do is shoot the husband in the head and slow-roast his carcass over a napalm fire. He'd then remove the radios casing and let it dry outside near an ant colony. After allowing the ants to devour the coffee and its sugary sediment down to the metal he'd then re-assemble it, get it back on the air, and resume business as usual. For that response I received a weekend pass.
The best illustration of our improvisation training was a 5-minute film shown to us on our last day in class. Shot with an 8 millimeter camera (no sound track), the film was made on a sandy field in Arizona. The tree-lined background resembled South Vietnam.
The film began with a tall, blonde soldier standing in a 55 gallon barrel taking a bath. On the ground next to the barrel was his M-16. Behind him was an RTT rig with a 60-foot antenna sticking out of its roof.
As the RTT man leisurely rinsed his hair using an empty beer can, the camera panned toward a bushy area where 2 VC wearing black silk pajamas slowly crept up on him. In an instant they were upon him. First kicking away his M-16, the VC taunted the GI by jabbing his ribs with the muzzles of their AK-47's. After calling him a variety of bad names, the VC further humiliated him by ordering him to scoop a can of bath water from the barrel and drink it. Then as one of the VC kept an eye on the RTT man, the other walked over to the rig. Tugging on the door several times, he discovered it was locked. Walking back to the RTT man, he snarled a vicious growl and demanded the RTT man hand over the key attached to his dogtag chain.
When the RTT man refused the other VC shot a few holes in the water tank barely missing his legs. Realizing he had no choice he reluctantly reached up to unhook his dogtag chain then intentionally let it fall into the barrel making it look like an accident.
Snarling a few more times, the VC ordered him to go under water to get it. Lowering himself, the RTT man's head disappeared under water. An instant later he jumped back up, blasting away with 2 .45 automatic pistols wrapped in sealed, plastics bags. Shooting both VC in the head, the RTT man's face widened in a broad smile. Reaching down into the water again, he pulled out a handwritten sign and held it toward the camera. It read, "Improvise, or Die."
Maximizing our resourcefulness by remembering the options taught in school, and thinking up new one's in the field when we arrived at our permanent duty stations, was the most important rule a technician could learn. To be psychologically prepared to anticipate an emergency, and try to view it as a temporary inconvenience rather than a situation to panic over, reduced the possibility we would fail to provide necessary communications when needed. Or worse, abandon our rig and allow its sensitive high-security equipment to be captured.
Naturally, it was the Army's implied suggestion that we regard the destruction of our equipment as priority over our own escape. I found that rationale reasonable and necessary because although we might escape with our own life, the capture of our rig, its equipment, and information, might enable an enemy to use it to kill 100's of other GI's.
To make it easy for an operator to quickly destroy his radios and secret cryptogear, each rig contained several beer-can shaped incendiary charges. All an operator had to do was sit the demolition charge on top of the crypto unit then twist the cap. The charge would automatically ignite to a bright flash and burn at 2,000 degrees. Melting straight down the middle, no salvageable parts would be left for Charlie to make a splinter bomb or one of his other ingenious weapons. If the charge failed to ignite an operator could simply burst-off a magazine of M-16 rounds into it. The metal casing surrounding the KL-7 was designed to resist a strong concussion but allow penetration by small arms fire. To destroy classified messages each rig also contained a canister of chemical de-composer that dissolved paper products in seconds.
During training we were taught to destroy sensitive equipment in a certain order. For example, if we were going to destroy multiple items of the same type, say 2 jeeps, we were told to destroy both fuel pumps, not a fuel pump in one jeep and a condenser in the other. This way if the same items were destroyed the enemy wouldn't be able to take a part from one to get the other running.
One of the things that most impressed me about the communications equipment the Army selected for its use was the tremendous amount of practical planning that went into their design. The amount of work that had to be completed to produce a perfectly working model justified, in my mind, the high cost of research and development that went into every piece. For example, the crypto unit was composed of 2 major components. The smaller of which was designed to neatly fit into the larger. In the event of an emergency, both components could be destroyed at once instead of separately.
Although the technical aspects of RTT training were intense for some, they were a piece of cake for others. Of those who found the training a breeze only a few were able to go on for more complex training in other areas. A variety of reasons prevented those who didn't, or couldn't, continue.
One reason was time. The Army required that a GI have at least 2 years service remaining after completing extensive and expensive training. Most draftees were adamantly opposed to adding more time to their "2-year sentences."
Another reason was security. Top Secret clearances were not as "generally defined" as Secret clearances. Not being approved for one meant being restricted to your present level of training. Anyone holding a Secret clearance could view anything stamped "Secret." However, Top Secret clearances were amended with the sub-classification "Need To Know." Meaning, having a Top Secret clearance did not entitle the holder to view all Top Secret information. He was only allowed to view material he had a "need to know" about. Even a General holding a Top Secret clearance was sometimes not allowed the privilege of knowing all matters under his own command, even though a lower ranking communications or intelligence officer was allowed to. The reason for limiting access was not to restrict individuals as much as it was to restrict numbers. The more people knowing about a secret, the greater the chances it might be leaked.
Another reason was senior recommendation. If a CO like Himmler gave you a bad fitness report simply because he didn't like the way you saluted, your chances of going on to higher education were nil. Or oppositely, if you complimented him on his wife's appearance he would recommend you for advancement.
This type of irrational selection worked more against the Army than against the GI because it prevented greater utilization of students with an natural ability to easily adapt to technical training. The ingenuity some students displayed was sorely wasted because the Army didn't have people in a position to recognize it. An officer who's only job would be to seek out students with exceptional talent was needed at every major training center. When identified, the student could be interviewed, given career guidance, and directed to more specialized training. If, for some reason, an individual was against changing his or her present career course, any means could be employed to encourage him or her to change their minds. Even if it meant receiving a commission prior to attending OCS, permanent duty on a post near their homes, or receiving special discount privileges at the PX.
While attending the various USASESS schools in Georgia it was common knowledge among all the students that DOA would not send anyone to 'Nam until they were at least 19 1/2 years old. 18 was the minimal enlistment age but if a 17 year old was able to get written approval from his parents he'd be gladly accepted. and because Signal Corps training could sometimes take up to a year in progressing from one school to the next, the USASESS facility was comprised mostly of 3-year recruits. Some of them as young as 17.
Younger GI's were ideal for communications training because they usually had fewer psychological concerns that might produce a mental block to assimilating large amounts of technical information. But because there were so many guys under 19 at USASESS it was natural for us to take an interest in current news stories reporting GI's as young as 16 dying in Vietnam.
Embarrassed by these news reports the DOA ordered its personnel centers to either stop sending GI's under the official enlistment age of 18 or get a signed statement from him requesting his "personal desire" to go to 'Nam. But with the personnel bureaucracy too large to manage efficiently, a large number of GI's under 18 still managed to slip through and get wasted. The only way to guarantee men under 18 would be excluded was to officially set a minimum age standard. In March '69 a directive was posted to the company bulletin board notifying us that the new age limit for V'nam duty was 19 1/2. Anyone under that age receiving orders for RVN was ordered to go to the Main Personnel Office (MPO) and request re-assignment.
This was good news for a student who completed his AIT before 19. Because the Army would have to "hold him over" until he reached 19 1/2, he stood a good chance of getting a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) assignment to a stateside post, or if he was lucky, Europe. Assignments to Spain, the Middle East, the ski countries of Northern Europe, or the beaches of Hawaii were premium duty stations, greatly envied.
One of the guys who bailed out of RTT because of the nerve-grinding Morse code was re-assigned as a clerk at the MPO. He informed us that the Army had recently hired a civilian "age screener" whose only job was to review the 201 files of every student and verify he was old enough to go to 'Nam before cutting his orders.
The new system seemed to work well most of the time except on occasion when it appeared as though the age screener was asleep at her job. Frequently, orders for an under-aged student slipped past her desk, were cut, and delivered. The student would immediately request cancellation of his training agenda and hasten down to her office screaming bloody murder. Later that day we'd see him smiling a wide grin and clutching amended orders for Europe or Hawaii in his grubby hands.
Naturally, knowledge of the age-deferments received the excited interest of graduates who were too old to get a waiver but desperately wanted to get out of going to 'Nam. But just trying to fool the MPO Age Clerk by claiming you weren't 19 wasn't enough to obtain a waiver. She needed more than your statement, she needed proof of your birthdate. and most of the students who couldn't come up with that proof first got laughed at, then got pay cuts for "attempting to defraud the Army."
Of the dozen or so students who failed in their attempts to get waivers, 2 students did. Both had concocted the brilliant idea of having their parents mail them their original birth certificates which they amended to appear younger.
The amendments were done in stages. First they painted over their original birth years with "White-Out". Then they cruised Augusta's public libraries until they found a typewriter whose typeset closely resembled the original typeset. Typing in a new date they regressed their age 1 or 2 years. The newly dated certificate was then Xeroxed using heavy artist paper to remove the white-out stains.
The new certificate was then folded and re-folded several dozen times and a corner or 2 frayed to give the paper an aged appearance. To make their time-worn appearance more convincing, the creases were stained with urine to give them a partly-faded yellow hue. One of the students even thought of giving his art work a coffee cup stain and a few cigarette burns for added effect.
The most difficult reproduction to imitate were the official County seals embossed into the paper of the original certificates. However, having gotten this far both students were not to be dissuaded.
Using applaudable concentration-camp ingenuity they devised counterfeit "stamps" made from blocks of molded plaster impregnated with a ridged gear-ring taken from an old teletype motor, and printers typeset ripped-off from the Post Newspaper office.
One of the seals was easily reproduced, listing only the name of a county and a date. The other, however, was more complex. It contained an outline of a county map, a date, and a tiny clam shell-shaped drawing. The clam shell was probably the county's trademark.
To duplicate the map feature its outline was traced and cut out of heavy construction paper. With evenly applied pressure it was pressed exactly 1/ 8th-inch into a flat block of semi-dry plaster and allowed to dry. To duplicate the shell feature, Augusta's toy stores were scoured for an object that could be used to imitate it. 2 toys were selected as possible candidates, "Barbie" and "Mr. Potato Head." Both had "beach accessories" containing an object that resembled a tiny clam shell. Mr. Potato Head was given the final nod because the plastic used to make his accessories was harder and could be easily filed down to make it a perfect copy of the original.
After fitting the shell into the stamp the new certificate was placed on it and using a pencil eraser, pressed down into it. When removing the certificate, the completed map, text, and shell appeared perfect. Aging the fresh impressions was accomplished by holding them over a steam iron for a second or two.
Now artificially weathered and "certified", the finished products were then passed around to a select group of trusted students to be inspected for their official appearance. Before handling them everyone's hands were checked for machine oil from our teletypes or any indigenous dirt or grime that might make one suspect their local manufacture.
To congratulate the 2 students for their "outstanding achievement in improvisation and innovative excellence", the other students who helped in the project came up with the idea of awarding them an "RTT Students Award". To make the award official a small plaque was purchased at a local dime store and the names of the students were stenciled on the back. The prize for winning the award was a free lunch at the post cafeteria, desert not included. Later to be passed down from class to class, the RTT Students Award was kept secret from the CO and only to be given to students who displayed genius in what they called, "the face of adversity." As late as August of the next year, on my way home from Vietnam, I was told by students just arriving from USASESS that the award was still being passed on.
After their inspection the new documents were re-inserted into their original envelopes and placed in a safe place until the 2 students were ready to give them their real test. Although they were confident that their artwork's authentic appearance would go over smoothly, both were unsure about whether they would be able to maintain straight faces while sitting across from the age screeners desk. The only thing they felt that might work against them were their own guilty consciences.
To combat their fear of foul-play being suspected, it was decided they should "counsel" each other for several days before acting out the real thing. "Remember," they repeatedly told each other, "we know these are forgeries, but she doesn't. If we really believe they'll work, she'll believe they're real and we'll get over on the bitch!"
After feeling assured their performances would be believable, the documents were taken out of storage and carried, along with well-rehearsed, tearjerking stories, to the MPO.
One of the students complained that his birth date error must have occurred when he enlisted. Because of the huge number of people entering the Army after TET '68 almost everyone knew of at least 2 or 3 errors made on their 201 file.
In one case a typographical mistake of a single digit in a trainees Social Security number resulted in his being arrested by the FBI during class. His mistaken Social Security number belonged to a man wanted for bank robbery. Although he was later released the fact that he now had a record of having been arrested ruined his chances of obtaining a security clearance and higher training.
The other student "confessed" that he had intentionally lied about his age in order to enlist. He supported this with a drawn-out story meant to appeal to her emotions. He stated he felt "morally compelled" to join the Army because he "had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and wanted to have a regular income so he could send her money every month." The Age Clerk was so moved by his story she offered to put through papers so his girlfriend could get money automatically taken out of his pay. Taken off-guard by her offer he stated, "I really had to think fast and come up with a polite excuse to keep some broad I don't know from getting part of my pay."
Both students succeeded in getting new orders. Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, I received a letter from one of them. It was postmarked in Italy. Included were pictures of his "bachelor pad," his "big-titted maid," and new scuba equipment he used on weekends.
Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to come up with a similar scheme to try and get out of going to 'Nam. Besides, I still wanted to go. By this time I considered V'nam too important a social issue to pass up.
I'd completed all my communications training by 19 1/4, but other training obligations kept me involved until I turned 19 1/2. Then, exactly 6 months to the date after my 19th birthday, on June 27th, 1969, the orders for 'Nam the Army had been holding in the wings for me were processed, cut, and delivered. I received them by personal courier in a brown envelope sent directly to my room. They were handed to me with a note attached to the outside that read, "Go To 'Nam. Go Directly To 'Nam. Do not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200."
I recognized the handwriting. It was written by Himmler. After being kicked out of his CO job he was assigned to the intelligence section of Battalion Headquarters. Apparently, he still had it in for me for outwitting him during an Article 15 hearing and was determined to have the last laugh. I didn't mind his little joke. Everyone in the company would laugh at him every morning when seeing his wife drop him off for work. She was so ugly we figured his living with her was a fate worst than death in 'Nam.
Because the RTT profession was considered to be a combat MOS, instead of giving some students under 19 1/2 PCS to a regular stateside post or non-combat foreign duty, they were placed in "hold-over" status for whatever length of time it took to reach 'Nam-eligibility age. During their period as hold-overs they were assigned as supervisors to "Post incorrigibles" (men awaiting trial or convicted for minor offenses), or flunky jobs working for the Post Engineer's office or the huge central Post Exchange (PX), instead of giving them valuable OJT at the Post Radio Station or teaching at the RTT or another communications school.
For the Post Engineers office holdovers performed the honorable function of "Gofor." The engineers would say, "Go for that hammer," or "Go for that piece of wood." Needless to say, the gofor job was bad news.
PX duty, however, was completely different. The hottest job there was the highly distinguished position of "box-boy." The box-boy job gave holdovers the opportunity to escort the horny Army housewives and their shopping carts to their cars.
The best tip a box-boy could get for loading an Army wife's groceries would be a slip of paper scribbled with an address and phone number. Also hastily scratched would be the best time to call, or even better, the best time to visit her on-post apartment. Most of the women were lonely housewives whose lifer husbands found V'nam or other lengthy foreign service more exciting than them.
By the time I left Fort Gordon in June '69 the box-boy service had evolved into a lucrative gigolo business for holdovers. The affairs had become so common some of the civilian clerks who operated the cash registers acted as commissioned steerers.
As common as the box-boy operation had become, it was no surprise that only a very small handful of holdovers would get seriously involved with a lifer wife, however tempting the sexual attraction or the money would be. The weird psychology's many of the women displayed weren't much different than the insecure and under-developed mentality of their Army husbands.
It was also no surprise that so blatant an operation went on day to day unnoticed by the Post Commander's or Provost Marshall's office. (2) But even if they were aware of it, a decision was probably made against persecuting victimless immorality by arresting and prosecuting 70-percent of the wives who resided on post. Prosecuting them would have been a low priority since violent crimes like as burglary, embezzlement, and gambling were occurring in alarming and increasing numbers. There was even a murder trial going on at the time. Just 3 days prior to my arrival in January '69, 3 serviceman had been arrested and charged with the robbery and murder of a cab driver who had driven them on Post from an Augusta bar. The net take in the heist was said to be about $40.
Although Army wives cruising for young students were on the prowl practically every day, they were a small minority when compared to the vast amount of husband hunters who roamed the base looking for a gullible 19 year-old to "------whip" into marriage. For girls who came from poor families (and who didn't particularly care to work), receiving a monthly allotment check was their best bet to secure a guaranteed income. Some of the students who escaped falling prey would say these women knew how to psych a man into marriage. "They know how to turn you on, turn you off, and turn you inside out." They were said to work on a "time-payment plan." They knew when you'd be ready for transfer to 'Nam and plan their strategy to have you hooked by the time you were ready to board the plane. By the time you realized what hit you, you were in your company Orderly Room filling out allotment papers. and if you happened to get killed in V'nam you could rest assured at least one relative mourned your loss. Your new wife would cry all the way to the bank with your $10,000 insurance check.
The most dreaded assignment for holdovers was domestic service at the officers Mess Hall (OMH). Most holdovers would do anything to avoid that assignment. The cook staff who prepared the meals for the permanently stationed bachelor officers were all senior enlisted men, some of them homosexual. Although several had wives and children, their bi-sexuality was hidden from their families as secretly as it was hidden from the Army. But to the lower enlisted men, the young holdovers they hustled after, they revealed everything.
Many of the holdovers who weren't able to avoid working at the OMH spoke about how strange it was to have a Sergeant bark orders at you all day long to "Get that pot!", "Clean that bowl!", or "Pick up that tray!" But by the time evening came and the work was done those same Sergeants went through a weird metamorphic change of personality. After apologizing for their former authoritativeness they would ask you out for a drink or treat you to a movie. Holdovers who saw through the change of personality simply said "---- you." Those who didn't, got caught. The Sergeants apparently preferred going after holdovers because they knew holdovers would eventually be leaving for another assignment.
After a few drinks the holdover would be invited to a "card game" or some other pretentious gathering with a group of other Sergeants being held at one of their off-Post apartments in Augusta. The other Sergeants attending the game were also gay.
The apartments were rented by a pool of Sergeants which made the shared rent less than cheap. The apartments were used exclusively for what the Sergeants called their "recreational delights."
The card games were just a ruse to trick an unsuspecting GI into thinking he was among a happy group of fun-loving, marijuana-smoking, down-to-earth Sergeants who were just "living off the Government until they retired."
After initiating the unsuspecting young GI into "the fold" his secrecy would be secured with money, military favors, drugs, or, an occasional prostitute taxied over from the famous Sharon Hotel. If none of the positive incentives were enough to "buy" a young enlisted man's participation, or secrecy if he opted out, then threats of physical harm were used. Once a student was let in on the secret he either had to give in to their demands or forget what he knew. He was told his life would not be worth the proverbial "plugged nickel" if he even thought about reporting on anyone. (3)
Before leaving Fort Gordon in July '69, word hadn't gotten out about the secret fraternity and during my year in 'Nam, none of the newer USASESS officers and enlisted men arriving from Fort Gordon made mention of a homosexual bust. The Sergeants there must have had their tight-knit boys club well-organized and secure. Later on in V'nam I would discover that open homosexuality, like racism and corruption, made the Sergeant's club at Fort Gordon look like a PTA. I would be forced to risk a few months in Long Bihn Jail (LBJ) by decking a senior Sergeant for making sexual advances towards me.
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