Military Stories #17

I had gotten used to the routine, the weekends were rarely the normal weekends, because of the six day work week and the two days off, but because of the rotating shifts, every three weeks we got off at midnight Friday and didn’t have to report until 4:00 pm on Monday. Almost a three day weekend every three weeks. 

I mentioned that there were at least three civilians that did exactly the same job that we had. I got the feeling that this was almost like a job, except we wore a uniform. We didn’t have to blouse our pants, nor did we have to starch our uniforms, a real blessing! There were times in New Jersey that my uniform stood in the corner, pants standing empty and my shirt propped on top, almost like a suit of armor without a stand on the inside. Now my uniform was soft and I could have one hand in my pocket. In fact, while working you had to have one hand in your pocket to avoid the shock of electricity from going through your heart. With one hand in your pocket it would just go down your leg to the ground. 

At some point I was telling my trick chief that this was a pretty good gig, almost like a civilian job. He responded with a nod, but then asked me to go on a break with him. 

Over coffee he asked what my primary job was. After I replied installing and repairing fixed crypto equipment, he again nodded, but added, that was my secondary mission. My first mission was to be a soldier and to succeed in every aspect of what that meant. After that, I could go on to do my secondary mission. 

A few weeks earlier we had had a formal ceremony where everyone had to wear their class A uniform. I stood there with my brass, my rank, my qualifying medals, and my ribbons. In my case, my ribbons consisted of one ribbon. I hadn’t done anything and I hadn’t been anywhere. There was a very large blank hole on my uniform chest. 

My trick chief had been in the Army almost twenty years. Because of the number of professional officers and enlisted men, I had started to recognize the different ribbons that had been awarded. My trick chief had a combat infantry badge, he also had a Purple Heart, a European theatre badge, dozens of random ribbons, and paratroopers wings. He had so much “salad” in ribbons it was a visual feast. It was obvious that he hadn’t always been an electronic repair person. He had been a combat infantryman at dozens of places around the world.

I was introduced to the concept that I was a soldier first, and that I was trained to run to the sound of battle. That I was to use issued weapons to stop the enemy from their mission. And if that failed I was to create any weapon that would help me complete my mission. Also, I was not expected to die for my country, but I was expected to cause the enemy to die while I defended the Constitution. This was serious business. Providing that the perimeter was safe, then I was required to do my specialty, to provide secure communication in time of war and in time of peace. 

I started hanging out in the various war rooms on my daily route. The officers were in casual dress but usually wore their ribbons. When I ran across one I didn’t know, I politely asked what it was for, and it generally initiated an interesting conversation about life and death in the military. It was a sobering thought, and it came more clear when I was invited to weapons qualification in order to maintain skills in marksmanship. I had shot expert in basic, and now I was invited to go up against Site R MPs. I thought perhaps it was best to keep my expert badge, rather than to try to win another one.

After several months getting to know the various War Room officers, I became convinced of their sense of dedication and honor. They were well read, intelligent, genuine, and full-on warriors. For the first time I began to understand how enlistedmen could, and would, follow officers up hill against all odds. These officers were to unleash all of the nation’s nuclear capability if necessary. They would receive the order, and then they would act and commit the weapons. My role was to make sure that the secure communication existed. I was only a specialist E-4, but I was respected as part of the essential team.

Dying for my country? I dunno. Dying for Colonel Smith? Bring it on. Wait a minute, I didn’t want to die, I was doing everything to put me in a position not to die. But here I was, buried a mile and a half under a mountain, and I was considering that I was a soldier first. This awareness came slowly.

On graveyard shift there were only a few officers on duty in the Joint Chiefs War Room, and they were in the outer office. I would go into the amphitheater to check my phones. It was a room that may have held two hundred people, the Army in that section, the Navy on the left, Marines next to them, and so forth. Dozens of clocks were on the wall, telling the actual time everywhere in the world. Something I had seen in airports, but it seemed ominous here. On the back wall, one flight above, there was the president’s box, large enough for his military advisors, and one big presidential swivel chair in the middle. That box was also my responsibility so I climbed the spiral staircase once a week, and entered the box with its bulletproof viewing glass. 

The glass was also slightly tinted so no one had a good view of what was going on in the box. Nearly every time I entered I was alone, and every time I entered, I sat in the president’s chair and surveyed the desks and chairs, the clocks, and the maps on the wall that constantly updated our readiness. This was the real throne of power. I had read of the Peacock Throne of Crete, later I saw the throne of England and Scotland. Of course I never sat on them, but here I sat… well, sometimes I even lounged. I knew that should this room ever be used, that war would come from that chair. That death and destruction would rain upon the earth, and it would come from the telephone on the arm, and the buttons on the armrest. It was the ultimate throne of power. And it was pretty darn comfy at three o’clock in the morning.

After I had been at the post just over a year, I was in the Joint Chiefs War Room again, I hadn’t made my way up to the throne, but delayed a little at one of my phones sitting on a desk in the middle of the room. I’m not sure if was Army or Navy, it was just one of the dozens of phones scattered here and there. For some reason, I thought to do a little extra field maintenance. I lifted the receiver, turned the phone over and loosened the cover on the main body. All it took was one screw and a quarter, pretty much the same thing on civilian desk phones. I did a quick visual inspection and was planning to replace the cover when I looked at the reed switch under a clear plastic cover. I thought I saw a bit of lint on the switch so I popped the plastic cover, then I removed the symmetrical piece of plastic that caused the reed switch to activate when the handset was lifted. It was a simple piece of plastic that pulled some contacts apart, and allowed others to connect. Simple piece, doing a complex job.

I cleaned the contacts and reinserted the plastic part. It was only then that I noticed that the piece wasn’t completely symmetrical. I was a little baffled, but then I realized that if I put it in wrong, then it wouldn’t work, and then I would flip it so that it would work. No harm, no foul. I tested the phone, and all the features, and it worked perfectly. I had a 50 percent chance and I guessed right. I told my other two guys to polish the plastic and to sterilize the mouthpieces. I then went into a secure side room that had a secure extension of the phone I was working on. Before I could even lift the receiver for cleaning I could hear quite clearly the conversation of my fellow techs in the War Room. I stared at the phone with some confusion. Apparently the microphone had turned on in the War Room without the handset being lifted. Not only that, when the phone in the secure room was lifted, the light on the War Room phone did not light. Normally if an extension was being used, the main phone would light, showing that the extension was in use. The War Room phone was dark, and it was broadcasting clear audio to the side room without anyone’s knowledge. It was a bug in the most secure room in the country. Other civilian technicians had the job of “sweeping” for electronic bugs in all areas that were meant to be secure. They swept the War Room but did not find extra electronics. All this was simply a flipped piece of plastic that could be accomplished in less than a minute with no special tools. Then flipped back again after it was used. A non-electronic bug, built into the machine.

I sat there a little stunned. I verified that I could flip the plastic tree to work as a bug, and I could flip it back again to make it normal. The same switch was designed into every phone that had an extension to another office. It worked quickly, and the quality was astonishing. It was a bug, but it was a bug designed by Bell Telephone, it was designed into the phone by designers at the factory. Was it used by foreign agents? Or was it used by our own agencies, listening to our own services? Or was it just an accident discovered by a not so careful crypto technician?

I did what I was trained to do, I reported it to my trick chief, then all hell broke loose. The “suits” descended into the shop. Men in black from the CIA or NSA were all over the place, I was interviewed three or four times and told to go to the cafeteria for the rest of the shift. I am certain if my men in black had a device to remove my memory, that I would have been zapped by every one of them. A couple of days later everything was back to normal. We were told not to speak of it, that it was a design flaw, and that there will be a new switch installed shortly.

About a week later I was told to add a modification to six different machines. All I had to do was solder a resistor and capacitor to an existing circuit board and all would be well. I didn’t realize that the six machines weren’t functioning, they seemed fine. But periodically the designers found that “mods” improved performance, even if it was a few simple parts. I could have purchased the six resistors and the six capacitors at the local Radio a Shack if I had been allowed. It probably would have costa less than $5.00. Instead I had to order the parts from the Army’s Supply catalog. Everything was in there, including the $700 toilet seat covers and the $200 hammer that everyone has heard about. I don’t know if the $5 cost rose to $500, but I would not be surprised. I didn’t care about the cost, want ever I ordered I got. Site R was the most important post in the Army. If we needed it, then fifty plus generals agreed that the order would go through. I filled out the form and waited for my parts- six resistors and six capacitors.

Some time passed, maybe a week or so, and then I got a call from the front gate. Part of my order had arrived, but I should come down to pick the first of the six. I really didn’t understand why it didn’t come through the regular parts channel. Why did I have to come down to the gate? The sergeant in charge told me that one of my diesel locomotives had arrived and that five more were on their way. Diesel locomotive switch engines! And five more are coming? Again, I couldn’t believe it, but there was my order form, there was my signature, and the authorizing signatures of trick chief, warrant officer in charge of crypto, captain of supply, and post commander. 

Everyone had said that it was unnecessary to have six locomotives and six resistors in order to improve the performance of my six machines. My trick chief had the sense of humor to suggest that I should make it work by finding the right capacitance on the railroad engine. Obviously, the five locomotives had been cancelled, and the one at the gate was returned within days, but there was an extensive investigation. 

I was told that I had reversed two of the numbers in the official parts list, and that I would be held accountable in my next promotion review. I realized then that I was not likely to make sergeant. Just a couple days later I was given orders to pack up, I was being reassigned to the Republic of Korea. Apparently I was needed overseas

In reflection, I don’t know which incident caused my move to Korea. Maybe it was both, or maybe it was neither. I thought that a soldier needed at least 13 months left in active duty to be ordered overseas. I only had eight months left in the Army. They gave me two weeks leave, and I had to fly out of San Francisco during the first week of January. 1973. Christmas at home, and then I would be overseas in someplace called Chunchon, Korea. 

It is only now that I have considered that perhaps I hadn’t switched the numbers. Perhaps it wouldn’t look good to punish the person who found a security breach, instead, create a railroad engine boondoggle. I never really checked on the actual numbers, and I never checked that the “mod” was installed on other machines.

At least I wasn’t sent to Vietnam.