RP: “I still didn’t know much about the organization that I was in, but the one word that nobody used was ‘spy’.”

What is your birth year?

1933. I am 86 years old. 

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

Army.

What city did you grow up in?

Southern California- a small town south of San Diego. 

Can you tell me any specific memories you have from your childhood? You would’ve been in your teens during WWII. 

That’s right. The end of WWII, depending on how old you were and how much of the war you had spent- the war began, for us, in 1941, in December. I was 9 years old the next month. Very young, very impressionable. It had an incredible impact on me, and my thinking. 

I know that the United States had a very Isolationist attitude before WWII. Did you notice this during your childhood?

Oh, yes. Very definitely. I can remember when I was with my cousin and my grandfather and WWII began; it’s just crazy. At that time, I thought, “What does this mean?” At the end of WWII, I was 13. It wasn’t until 6, 7 years later that I went into the military. We had relatives that were in action, and my best friend in high school was killed in Korea. Oh, man. I thought that guy was just the most terrific person. He was the company commander in my ROTC group. One more term in ROTC, and I could’ve gone into the military as an officer. It actually did, by far, because once you accepted that officer, you are automatically eligible for recall until you are 65 years old. I avoided that. I had friends that didn’t avoid it. 

Do you recall hearing about Pearl Harbor? 

Oh, I remember it. I can tell you who were all of the people that I was with at the time, and the time of day- we got the message over the radio about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was at my home, and of course very young- 9 years old. My cousin, one of my favorite cousins, was visiting us. My grandfather was living with us at the time. My cousin and I were on our back porch, and my grandfather came out of his apartment- which was on the same property, but separate- and said, “We’re at war.” Both my cousin Robert and I laughed. “We’re at war! What are we going to war about?” He said, “No, I’m serious. Come listen.” We went to his apartment, and we listened for probably two or three hours of all the reports coming in. It started very early, but the Hawaiian islands are behind us in time. We were baffled, and my cousin Ralph was right at the point where he would be drafted, and he was. He was drafted, and my other cousin was drafted- there were really five cousins that I knew, and only one did not get drafted. He failed the physical test, and he was very happy about that. That was the beginning of the war for me, and then of course at the end of the war they kept the draft, and that was a surprise. I had been in an ROTC program- I was in it for three years of high school, and I had two years of college before not going to college anymore because I was such a horrible student.

On his college experience at Cal Poly:

I was at Cal Poly for two years- when I went there, it was men only, and about 4,000 students. It was basically a land grant college, and land grant colleges were usually called A&M- they had other names for them- because they had to offer engineering in order to get the free land. In San Luis Obispo, the college is right at the base of a range, and so there were still steamed trains in those days. We used to hop the freight every now and then and go up to the top. Sometimes, we would get friendly with the train crew, so they’d take us back. They’d either put us in an empty box car, or a couple of times I got to ride in the cab of the locomotive.

Why did you decide to enlist?

I’d had two years of college ROTC at Cal Poly, and I had three years in high school, and so I was tuned into military. I had good thoughts about it; I felt like, “Well, I’m not doing well in college, don’t want to waste my time in college- get out, get life experiences.” I even counsel high school kids that are due for graduation, and I tell them, “Don’t go to college right after high school, go get life experiences.” The military was one of my life experiences. So, I enlisted for three years. I spent almost a year of that in language school.

On his basic training and language school training:

The entrance into the military- part of it was that you were lined up with hundreds of other people, and you were going through this long line of getting shots, of getting all of these tests. I fought the test for the blood pressure- mine was really elevated. But, the doctor fixed that. Of course, I was very excited.

In basic training, I was in the sixth division. I enlisted for an organization called the Army Security Agency. We didn’t have anything much like that until, oh, the mid-1950’s. I enlisted in the Army in 1954. I enlisted specifically for this organization; I had intended to enlist for CID, which was criminal investigation division, and a recruiter convinced me. First of all, I was too young to get into CID- you had to be 23, I guess, and I was 21. I knew nothing about this organization, and the recruiter didn’t know anything about it either! {Laughs} He said, “Well, to be honest with you, I’ve ever heard of it.” He just had a flyer [that] said to recruit people for this! So, after I became active, and in uniform, I was sent back to Fort Devens, Massachutes, and that’s where this organization was just beginning. They hadn’t really defined it as much, and I didn’t know whether that was a good thing or a bad thing! {Laughs} As it turned out, it couldn’t have been better for me, because I took a whole battery of tests, one on the universal language they tried to pass- it was very much Latin-based, and I took two years of Latin when I was in high school. Everybody said I was nuts, nobody spoke Latin! The so-called universal language that they were promoting at that time was pretty much based on Latin, and that’s what they were testing us with. I did really well on it, and that was a big surprise to me because my language skills in high school had been really difficult. I did well on the test, and so I had several options; I still didn’t know much about the organization that I was in, but the one word that nobody used was ‘spy’. But that’s what we were- there was no question about it. We were communications spies, and what we actually did was we spent long hours with headphones on, listening. We tuned in on Russian military. At that time, it didn’t seem very intelligent- it wasn’t very well defined. Eventually, after going through basic training and going back to Fort Devens and going through weeks more of what was kind of an advanced basic training, they said to come back- because of my success on the language portion, they wanted to send me to language school. I said, “Well, wonderful! Can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.” Language school was on Monterey Peninsula, near Fort Ord. {Laughs} I thought I was some choice in selecting the language I wanted, but they told me that at the moment, the only thing they had available was Russian. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know. When would I ever use that?” What they taught us was not conversational Russian- it was all military language. To this day, I know that a machine gun is called a pulemet. It’s really kind of funny, the things that stick with you. 

The time that I spent in the Army Language School, which by the way is called the Defense Language Insitutite- not longer part of the Army, a completely separate entity- very important, and very in-depth. The time that I was in, it was 46 weeks. Boy, I ever worked harder in school, anywhere. I have a master’s degree, and almost a PhD. 

What other skills were you learning in language school besides Russian?

It was Russian for 47 weeks. The first, oh, 7 or 8 weeks was really probably what you would get in a high school language course. It focused entirely on one language. I never worked harder in my life to get through; I got 18 semester credits when I came out of the Army and I went back to college. That was wonderful! I didn’t need any other language. 

After language school:

After that, they began to tell us more about what the Army Security Agency was all about. It was, on occasion, intelligence. We were supposed to know what that meant- what it meant was that we were tapping into things that in normal times, we’d have no right to. I got sent overseas, I went to specialized training in communications, and that was at Fort Devens. It seems crazy- I got sent all the way to Massachutes, spent four weeks there, and then got sent all the way back to the West Coast to go to language school, and then when I came out of language school I got sent back to Fort Devens! {Laughs} It was really silly- I spent so much time flying back and forth! After I got out of language school and I had an introduction to the process, they started talking about overseas. Of course, everybody who was in language school was hoping- the principal place everybody wanted to be sent was a Russian embassy anywhere. The first place would’ve been Russian, but the second place would’ve been a Russian embassy in another country, then to go to Europe. So what happened? I got sent to Japan. I thought, “Japan? They speak Russian in Japan?” No, they don’t! I got sent to the northernmost island in Japan- Hokkaido. The northernmost point on Hokkaido, with binoculars, we could actually see the Korean Islands. We could go out and look at what passed for a beach- even though it was just rocks- and see the Russian soldiers doing maneuvers. That’s how close we were. All of the time that I was there- I was also in many other places in the Far East- that’s what I did. 

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.

We were always way short of personnel, and of course, it was taking so long to train anybody- you had a minimum eight weeks basic training, and then 47 weeks of language. {Laughs} I mean, it was kind of weird! I don’t know if I ever did use any of it in conversation because during the day, we sat and tuned in. We had to transcribe what was being said, and analyze it, and listen for accents, of all things. We also tuned into other military groups besides the Russians- the Japanese. What we would listen to with them was them to get careless, and use Russian words, indicating that there were Russains there supporting. Korea ended in September of 1953, and I went into the Army in January of 1954. I was on active duty for three years, and most of it was spent on the island of Hakkaido. I also did what they referred to as ‘missions’, where they would take two or three of us, and take us somewhere. Most of the time, we had no idea where we were going. I didn’t realize that I was at a place called Pleiku for a while- I didn’t know that was in Vietnam, and that was before we had anything going on in Vietnam. We actually had twin engines, Boeing, and it became the number one airliner- they put a lot of antennas on one of these, and then they had a blocked off section in the middle, and there’d be three or four of us in there. We’d never be allowed to get off the plane, and we couldn’t ever talk about the fact that we had done that. We would fly into various locations and spend a few hours tuned in to whatever military traffic was going on. I spent some time in China, of all places, and supposedly nobody knew we were there. Spent some time in Vietnam before there was any conflict- I was there when the French were still there. God, I can’t believe that now. I’m remembering things I had put out of my mind! 

Do you remember some of the things you overheard?

Are you kidding? Oh, my gosh! The most interesting was when the people- we’d be monitoring a connection between two operators, and when those two operators were making jokes to each other! I was trying hard to learn the words they were using. {Laughs} That was very strange. 

Did you ever wonder if the relationship between Russia and the United States would go bad?

Oh my heavens, yes. When people say, “What war were you in?” I was in the Cold War! It was almost a hot war. We had two events while I was in, and one involved sending Marines to Beirut. We were sure we were going to be called back to active duty, and then the surprising thing was that as Vietnam was developing, they were really worried about Russia being involved, so we spent a lot of time listening to people speaking Vietnamese. They didn’t train us at all! We were trying to pick up Russian words- we never did. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a time we picked up, but it turned out not to be Russians. What we were picking up was Chinese in Vietnam! The United States was convinced it was Russia, but it was China! {Laughs} We knew that, because we could make the difference between Vietnamese and Chinese, and certainly between Chinese and Russian. It was crazy, it really was. And yet, the Army Security Agency became the National Security Agency (NSA), and it is huge organization now. 

What did your friends and family think when you told them about the intelligence work you’d been doing overseas?

Oh, I never told anybody all of it. I thought it was important that I keep silent on some of the things. They didn’t understand any of it, they didn’t understand what was going on. When I got back to America, I couldn’t believe that the average American had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world. I thought, “Good heavens, folks! We’re an international power!” It was very strange. 

On coming home to the United States:

There were some things about it- the strangest thing for me was when they shipped me back to the states. They put me on a train, and I was on a train from Hakkaido to Tokyo. In Tokyo, I spent about two weeks- they kept telling us that they were going to fly us home. All of the sudden one day, they came, and, “Pack your duffel bag. You’ve got twenty minutes.” And what did they do? They took us down to the docks to get on a ship! Going to Japan, I had been on a ship- it was twelve days, and it was miserable! You’ve got bunks five high, oh, boy. That was really awful. The good thing was that we were coming back home. When I got back here, it was all anticlimactic, because they just pushed us through with very little. We had to have a physical exam; well, they didn’t even take our blood pressure on that go! 

Were you ever restricted on what you could talk about after your discharge?

It was 1957 when I got out. I was restricted for 12 years after I got out, and I could not travel to any of the Iron Curtain countries, and part of Europe, like Paris. They were scared to death that we’d talk about our experiences. I never told anybody about anything for the 12 years, and then after that it was really kind of weird. I got a full discharge from the military, which was a total of 8 years, 3 active duty and 5 in the active reserve. I haven’t talked this much to anybody, I guess, since then! Weird. 

How did your military service impact how you think about wars today?

If I were in power in our government, I would go to enormous lengths to avoid getting involved in any kind of conflict. Look at how many tens of thousands of our troops were killed in Vietnam, for what? Yeah, we have relations with Vietnam now, and I’ve got lots of friends who’ve visited there now, but it wasn’t until then that I discovered- and this is crazy- that Pleiku is that name of a city in Vietnam! I didn’t know that, and I spent weeks there! {Laughs} 

How did your work in military intelligence impact the way that you think about privacy and security today?

To be honest with you, the only thing that are really important in this spy business is stuff we never hear about. Our government deliberately- and I think it should be this way- doesn’t share the details. They never did share the fact that we had people in Vietnam long before we had troops in Vietnam. By the way, that was so scary. In the hidden section of the [planes]- if any of the wrong people had discovered who we were and what we were- . The planes flew under Civil Air Transport, which is a Chinese organization. So much of what went on in that time has very been made available to everybody. It’s just crazy. 

How did your service impact your life?

It did. I’m not sure I can explain how. I have a totally different attitude about international activities, and about various countries. I don’t trust anything that the military says today, or that the government organizations say. I don’t trust any of it, because there’s always a hidden agenda going on. Hundreds of hidden agendas going on. We don’t really know much. There’s been a few times that it’s been encouraging that I’ve seen somethings that have been publicized that surprised me, that I didn’t they’d ever publicize them. I think, when I see something like that, I’m happy to see it. I think much more of what goes on in the background could be shared. But, then, on the other hand, I can remember my parent’s reaction. The first thing my mother said to me when I came through the front door was, “You didn’t write.” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Well, you at least oughta be able to send your parents something at least every week.” There were times it was every month, but it was very hard to get them to understand anything- all of my mail was censored. That was disappointing. The fact was that neither of my parents really cared about what was going on in the rest of the world. Most of my friends didn’t care, and you know, they never have cared. As long as nobody’s taking shots at us, or pointing weapons at us. 

IMG_4060 (2)
This was all staged. There was nothing but old newspapers in that bag! That wasn’t even my uniform, because I hadn’t been issued that uniform yet! {Laughs} Until years later, I didn’t understand the significance of something like that! 

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

 

3 thoughts on “RP: “I still didn’t know much about the organization that I was in, but the one word that nobody used was ‘spy’.”

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