In late 1956 at the peak of the Cold War, I had orders to report to the Headquarters, United States Air Force Security Service atop “Security Hill” at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio, Tex.
I learned that USAFSS was engaged in the “monitoring” of communications from potential Cold War enemies such as Chinese, the Soviet Union and East German air forces throughout the world.
This information was analyzed and sent to SAC, the nation’s main air offensive command, and NSA, the nation’s top intelligence gathering agency located at Ft. Meade, Md.
Mostly, USAFSS was an enlisted man’s unit with as many as 97 percent of its personnel made from enlisted Air Force volunteers, most of them chosen from the top 3 or 4 per cent of the basic training classes.
There were no pilots at USAFSS, no airplanes, grounds crews, or flight crews. Many of the volunteers were college students, some graduates and most often outstanding high school graduates. USAFSS was a new kind of military unit formed only to accomplish one mission—to prevent another Pearl Harbor-type attack on American soil.
The work involved secret and clandestine eavesdropping on aircraft, ground units, office buildings, air crews of both Soviet and Chinese nations.
But today more than 50 years after the Cold War, these are old men—many of them grey and stooped, whose memories of windowless intercept bunkers, remote site, triple “trick” shifts are alive only in the few military reunion with friends and survivors. The secrets they pledged to keep a half century ago are now found among books, the Internet, even blogs and personal writings.
Sites where once young men took “trick” after “trick” are grown over, demolished or returned to landlord governments. Korea and Here they sat in windowless bunkers or even truck trailers, collecting Morse code and telemetry messages, following countless potential enemy aircraft and crews as they flew missions beyond the Iron Curtain.
In those years, few none of us ever knew the 11 USAFSS airmen who were killed on Sept. 2, 1958 when their C-130 aircraft was shot down by four Russian fighter jets while flying an intercept mission. The plane crashed and exploded in Armenia and the names of the crewmen were never revealed to the American public or the families until years later.
Although the bodies were never recovered, a memorial was established at Ft. Meade with honors at Arlington cemetery in 1997. Most of the victims were teen-agers.
Likewise, most of us did not know an airman by the name of S/Sgt. Johnny Cash who monitored Soviet air crews whose skill and technology had not advanced beyond Morse code. Cash served in Landsburg, Germany, earning four stripes and cash enough to I buy his first guitar from the local PX.
Sgt. Cash taught himself the music and songs which would later form his career as a nationally-recognized entertainer.
But Sgt. Cash never forgot the codes he learned as a diddly-bop operator (Morse Code), often beating Morse code on his guitar during concerts.
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