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Military Electronics, Part III.
After one tour in the Marine Corps, and one tour in the Army, I went back to college and got my Bachelor’s degree, not without a lot of mental stress. Then I couldn’t find a job. My brother, who was/is a senior IT manager for one of America’s larger corporations suggested that I take an Advanced COBOL Programming course at Washington University, in St. Louis. This becomes important for several reasons.
At that time, I hated computers. I had taken two courses at the University of Missouri at Rolla, and they both, frankly, sucked. I took the courses in the late 70’s during the Hollerith card days and just didn’t like them at all. I think I got a ‘C’ for one course and dropped the other one. I said that I would never have anything to do with computers again. I agreed with some leading authorities that computers were a ‘fad’.
The COBOL course was interesting and challenging although I didn’t really like it either. COBOL is one of the older computer programming languages, but, believe it or not, there are still advertisements out for COBOL programmers because some large corporations have invested VERY large sums of money in custom programs that it would not be economically feasible to replace at this time.
Anyway, most of the people in the class were already experienced COBOL programmers. I didn’t have any programming experience at all, in any programming language. Thus the challenge. My brother, who I stayed with during the course, had some COBOL experience, and was active as a programmer, and had been for a few years, so he was a big help with some of the 15 projects that the people in the course were supposed to complete. I wasn’t fast, but I did finish every project, although some of them were done after the course was over, by special permit from the university. I was the only one that finished them all. Everyone else just left at the end of the course.
The reason why I am going through this is because I became re-acquainted with the woman who would become my second wife during this period. At the end of the course I still didn’t have a job, or any prospects, so I considered going back into the military, something I felt comfortable with. The Army wouldn’t take me back, ostensibly because I had gotten out (not re-enlisted) while I was on the promotion list for E-7 (Army SFC). So I went to the Marine Corps. (The Air Force, my first choice, didn’t take ex-Marines, under any circumstances, at that time.) There were a lot of other things going on at the time, but I would rather not stray too far from the subject.
So, in April of 1983, almost exactly 4 years after I had been discharged from the Army, I was enlisted in the Marine Corps as a Sergeant, to train as an Anti-Tank Guided Weapons crewman. At that time, the TOW (Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided anti-tank weapon) units were the most frequently deployed units in the Marine Corps. (I was told.)
I spent more than three years in TOWs in one unit or position or another, and they were not the best years of my life. Once again I ended up making use of my previous special knowledge of radios and appurtenances, on occasion, to good benefit.
Finally, I was having some health problems that made continued service in the infantry undesireable, but then I got an opportunity to FAP out again. FAP is the Fleet Augmentation Program and provides warm bodies to do things that are not combat oriented. The Marine Corps needs the FAP to continue to convince Congress that it has a larger percentage of ‘war-fighting’ personnel than any of the other services. As an infantryman FAPed out to work as the administrative chief of the 2nd Marine Division Career Planner’s office, I was still on the books as an infantryman.
Once again, you may be wondering what this has to do with any kind of electronics, but I got my first real experience with personal computers during this assignment, I was enticed to re-enlist and go back to the electronics field during this assignment, and, through correspondence courses, learned a lot about military communications during this assignment. I would also meet some of the people I worked with at other duty stations later.
After a particularly successful piece of work at the 2nd MARDIV CARPLAN office I was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal and my boss talked me into re-enlisting for another occupational specialty. My choices were not limited except that there could only be five.
Guess what the fifth one was, and then guess where I ended up. Aviation Radio Repairman would work for either guess. Kind of like being transported back 15 years to when I told the career advisor that I wanted to be a tank crewman, and he told me that was nice, but the Marine Corps needed Aviation Radio Repairmen more than they needed tank crewmen. Trust me, there is no escape from fate/karma/whatever.
I was married then, and my wife didn’t like to move. My orders said that I would spend a year in school at MCB 29 Palms, California, and then at least three years with 3rd MAW in California. My wife and I discussed it and decided that she would stay in North Carolina, no matter what, so it would be best if I volunteered for a one year, un-accompanied, tour on Okinawa, rather than endure the outrageous prices for housing in Orange County, California. I guess I could have stayed in the barracks, but it would have been as a ‘geographical bachelor’, which, I found out, sucks.
So I went back to Comm-Elect Schools Battalion, but the whole thing was at 29 Palms this time instead of in friendly San Diego. The first time I had gone through this only the final phase of the RADAR course had been at 29 Palms.
I wasn’t required to take Basic Electronics again because of my previous education, so I joined my class for Radio Fundamentals. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a challenge, but they had changed the radios on me. These had transistors and unfamiliar things like that in them. It wasn’t easy but it was good training for the actual Aviation Radio Repair part of the course. (In less than two years I would be back for the Aviation Radio Technician’s course, another year as a geographical bachelor, and had many of the same instructors.)
We finally graduated, and I think I came out at the top of the class, but it didn’t matter. Several of us from that class were on our way to Okinawa, which was kind of a part of Japan, an island, and has the MOST beautiful sunrises and sunsets anywhere.
After in-processing in Okinawa I was assigned to the H&HS-18 TACC Center. (Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron 18, Tactical Air Command and Control Center, 1st Marine Air Wing.) I was a senior Sergeant due for promotion to Staff Sergeant within a year and a half, but I was only a repairman and not a technician. This made things a little awkward because the unit’s Aviation Radio Technician was a junior Sergeant and was on a long deployment when I got there. I don’t think he came back from the Phillipines until three or four months after I got there. But I was assigned to his room in the barracks, so I had it to myself until he did finally show up.
H&HS-18 was OK. I still had physical problems, soon to get much worse, and lived in fear of physical fitness tests (PFTs). It never really got very cold there, and when it was hot it was really hot. The humidity stayed around 95% because it was basically a small island in a large ocean. We had a few typhoons and I think one of our guys would have set the world record for a Frisbee flight during one of them if anyone had ever found the Frisbee. (The Military Police caught us and spoke to us harshly.) The roof blew off of our barracks once but we didn’t know until the weather got better. Okinawa was trying to free itself from Japan at the time and we had a few periods of political unrest when we had to provide armed guards for the barracks.
I’ll never forget the ‘grass ninjas’ there. Possibly as a sop to the locals, we were required to hire local crews to maintain the grass on the base. (This happens at every military base where I have been. In order to keep the local contractors alive the military people are severely restricted in what they can do to keep the base operational.) The ‘grass ninjas’ were trucked on to the base early in the morning, and, as far as I know, were never required to show their faces. They could have been anyone. They wore padded clothing and head wraps that left a slit less than half an inch wide to see through. They roamed the base freely with their ‘weed whackers’ and no one, to my knowledge, ever challenged any of them. Some of the more paranoid people had the theory that the grass ninjas were just trying to get enough left over weed whacker cutter cords on the ground out near the runway to make it likely that the P3-Cs running ‘touch and go’s there would suck enough up into the engines to bring one down.
As far as I am concerned, that wasn’t necessary. After a year of walking around the end of the flight line to get to work, I saw a lot of instances of skid marks on the side of the road away from the runway. I suppose that is why an officer stopped a group of us one day and yelled that we were supposed to scatter if an aircraft was landing. I thought it was funny at the time.
So far, this hasn’t had much to do with electronics, and I apologize for that. So let’s get to it.
At this time, (mid 1980’s) the Marine Corps was still firmly attached to Collins Radio, but the Aviation Radio people had finally received some radios that were designed to talk to radios in airplanes, rather than being the same radio that the planes actually used. Airplanes and ships have strange electrical systems. Airplanes use a lot of 24/28 volt DC stuff and ships use weird things like 110 volt 400 Hz. (Be very careful using a commercial hair dryer on a US Navy warship.) Some bright soul finally realized that it didn’t make sense for the ground controllers to have to conform to the eccentricities of the ships and planes because our normal power was provided by generators, that could produce 400 Hz if necessary, but were not good at it, and didn’t produce DC at all. The sheer mass of the equipment that we needed to make radios work that were not designed to use 110 VAC, 60 Hz, was a considerable percentage of our air lift load. (The weight of stuff that would have to be air lifted with us if we were ever air lifted.)
So Collins Radio designed a radio that was capable of talking to aircraft but worked on 110/220 at 45-85 Hz. What a concept. But you know what? They weighed about 85 pounds and the faceplate, except for the number of knobs and thingies, looked just like the faceplate of those radios I worked on at MCAS Beaufort that had been discarded by the Air Force in 1957, Hmmmm . . . Well I guess that 30 years is an awfully short time when it comes to progress.
Remember the TYA-11 van that I had so much trouble with in Aviation Radio Repair Course in 1969? Guess what type of van I was responsible for now. If you didn’t guess TYA-11, smack yourself in the back of the head.
I now had two TYA-11(mod) vans to care for. You see, the original TYA-11 van was equipped with three(?) 2000 watt UHF radios. (You may wonder what a 2000 watt radio that can only transmit ‘line-of-sight’ might be used for. You don’t want to know the answer, but I will tell you anyway. TADIL-C. TADIL-C was supposed to allow a ground controller to take control of the aircraft and fly it, for whatever purposes. Would you have wanted to be riding in that plane? Needless to say, TADIL-C was not popular with pilots. Having a 2000 watt transmitter meant that the local atmospheric conditions and the plane itself would have had to be in pretty extreme shape before the controller on the ground lost whatever control they thought they had. The new radios, which might have had as much as 200 watts of power, still had TADIL-C in 1992 although I only met one person that had ever even been involved in testing where it was used.)
So the TYA-11 vans became what were known as ‘war-wagons’. The operational units couldn’t do without the UHF capability, but the Marine Corps took several years to come up with a standard for how the TYA-11 vans should be modified. This may have been partly because the Marine Corps was expecting the OE-334 vans to become available before the TYA-11 van modifications became an issue. That didn’t happen.
Every unit that had TYA-11 vans also had a local electronics ‘guru’ who had a plan for making the TYA-11’s even more effective than the proposed OE-334 would be. Unfortunately, I had the opportunity to see what all four MAWs decided to do with their TYA-11s. Some instances were prettier than others, but none were pretty, and none had significant merit.
Let’s start with a 3rd MAW TYA-11 van at Black Mountain, Arizona, in 1990. It had 10 UHF radios in it. The interior was finished in wood paneling. The interface units were the infamous UIUs (I’ll call them that because I know the designer would be embarrassed if I mentioned his name) made out of plastic plumbing fixtures and Radio Shack parts. No air conditioning. It’s 135 degrees F outside and the radio operators that actually have to live with their radios are using dry ice to keep the power amplifier units from self-destructing, so I ask, “Why don’t you have an air conditioner on that van?” The response is “The book says they can go up to 140 F.” Hmmmm . . . It might have been 135 F outside that van but it was painted OD Green and I haven’t had an experience like the one when I opened the door of that van until a day when I lit off a large gas burner in Nebraska several years later.
I suppose I should put these in order, but I won’t. My next experience with a non-organic TYA-11 van was at Yuma, again. This time it was with one of the 4th MAW TYA-11s. 4th MAW is a reserve unit stationed near the naval recruit training center at Great Lakes, Illinois. I’d been hearing rumors about the AvnRadRep Chief their for years. It appears that the AvnRadRep Chief that I replaced at MCAS Cherry Point, 2nd MAW, and this other AvnRadRep Chief had been instructors together at Comm-Elect Schools at MCB 29 Palms, and one of them had stolen the other’s sweetheart away. I never figured that out because they both had long term marriages.
Anyway, 4th MAW showed up at Yuma with a couple of characters that I would see again, and the AvnRadRep Chief. The TDCC van we had was from 2nd MAW, my unit, and operated by one of my favorite WMs of all time. (Woman Marine. I really don’t think that woman ever took a step backwards in her whole life even though she had to fight constantly to meet the Marine Corps’ minimum weight requirement for her height.)
My van was kind of in support and we were supposed to provide support, on call, for the 4th MAW TACC van.
Well I thought I kind of hit it off with the 4th MAW TACC chief because he and his side-kick were both computer geeks, as I was at the time. (Their ‘work’ computer had 64 k of ANALOG memory and had been designed in the 50’s. The one time I saw it get a virus it was actually a fungus, developed by H&HS-18 during a deployment to either the Phillipines or Thailand. This thing was really nasty. In order to stay operational the 4 units had to share memory units and eventually they all got it. Can you imagine killing a computer virus with fungicide? I’m still not sure that the ‘float’ modules are OK.) Anyway, we talked computers (non-work) for a while and then went on about our business.
I got a look at their TYA-11 the next day and was pleasantly surprised. They had some nice racks for the UHF sets, although there were so many that I knew they didn’t have enough to equip two vans, which they were supposed to be able to. They also had a VHF set in a mount on their work table. Not a bad idea. We hadn’t done that . . . and wouldn’t.
The problem was the interface. You see, we had brought one other piece of gear to the exercise and it was very new. It was the replacement for the ‘bubble’, the inflatable shelter that the controllers worked out of during the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. This van, and I am ashamed that I can’t remember the nomenclature because it was my responsibility at the time, was transportable, barely, on a standard 5 ton truck, but folded out to more than 16 feet in width. It had positions for at least 14 controllers with intercom to anyone else in the van, telephone, either plain text or encrypted, to anyone who had a phone and full access to any radio that was connected to the van. Every radio had an encryption device. We had UHF, VHF and HF.
But the interface didn’t work. I won’t go into the nomenclature but the wire/line adaptors that were supposed to replace the UIUs, didn’t work from the 4th MAW van. It actually only took two days to figure out the problem but it was frustrating. It seems that the people who designed the WLAs never talked to the people who built the control van. (I actually talked to some of them, and, on both sides, and the main question was, “What do they know that I need to know?”) The WLA control signals were sent as DC signals and the connector plug into the van blocked DC signals, until they burnt out. First problem, without the control signals, a radio didn’t know that it was supposed to be transmitting when the audio got there. Consequently, no transmission. Second problem, as we burnt the circuits out of the connector to the control van, communications became increasingly ‘iffy’. Guess how much a replacement plug cost? Try $16,000. The rationale was that they were not supposed to lose enough channels to become unusable for at least 15 years . . . or the designer retired. Well, we proved that we could blow out five a day and I think there were only 50 to start with.
I keep getting off-track. H&HS-18 didn’t really build a ‘war-wagon’ from their TYA-11s. Part of that may have been my fault. At the time I got there the ‘super-tech’ was in the Phillipines and the ‘super-repairman’ had rotated. (Gone back to the US. I would meet him again later, to the sorrow of both of us.) So I was there a few days and the section was really short of people due to deployments. Then we got hit by lightning. What a surprise. The TYA-11 vans we had had been modified to accept the new radios very gently. No wood paneling. No butchery. Things looked a little strange but not that bad. Things worked, which was a very good thing for someone in my shoes. We had five UHF radios operational in each van and that made the controllers very happy. Since the Squadron Commander was a Senior Controller, he was happy, too.
Then the ‘great blue bolt’ dropped down for a visit. The next morning I had two channels left out of 10, and one was ‘iffy’. Well, I guessed that it was time to see if the millions that the American taxpayers had spent on my education was well spent or not.
The lightning blew out most of the cards in the 5-channel audio amplifiers in both vans but that was about all that had been damaged. Each card in a 5 channel audio amp controls one radio, and not just the audio. I had been trained to troubleshoot these cards twice, although nearly 20 years apart (And I failed the course the first time.). But troubleshooting for a repairman goes to a certain limit, and then you call the technician . . . who was in the Phillipines and whom I had never met.
The 5 channel audio amp was right inside the door of the van and low down. The only comfortable way I ever found to work on them was lying on my back on the van floor with my legs sticking out the van door. The problem with that was that it let the ambient air in. 115 degrees F at the time and 99% humidity. The first thing they teach you in radio repair is “Don’t sweat, it can be dangerous.” Oh well.
A week later I knew every one of those cards by name. I knew each one’s peculiarities. I thought. I knew where it had come from, where every electron that was fed into it went. I thought. And I knew exactly what I needed to do to fix it. Notice the “I thoughts . . .” If you ever start believing that something looks relatively straight forward, I have some naked pictures of the tooth fairy that I would like to sell you.
One of the main features of these cards was a device known as a ‘Raysistor’ which was used to influence the volume of the audio that went through the card but blocked DC. Several cards had defective Raysistors. I ordered some. They had been out of production for more than 10 years. Hmmmm . . . I think that was the only piece on the card that didn’t have an immediate replacement. Keep in mind that I was in Okinawa, at the end of the supply train. Anything I wanted was not going to get there the next day. Since I had absolutely no time to spare, this was an issue.
One card was driving me crazy. There was an audio transformer on it that had DC voltage on both sides of it and should not have had. DC voltage does not ordinarily pass through transformers in any significant fashion. After scratching my head for a few hours, I got out my trusty soldering iron (I don’t think that Marine Corps electronics training, except the Micro-Min course that I never attended, teaches anything about soldering.) and removed the transformer. Guess what. Someone had soldered a jumper between the input and the output of the transformer then stuck the it back into the holes in the circuit board and e-soldered the leads. They had replaced a transformer with a piece of wire. After I removed the jumper I found out that there was nothing wrong with the transformer. Apparently someone had complained about a low audio level on that channel and a repairman had decided to crank it up a little rather than looking for the real problem.
Most of the cards were like that. So I decided to pull the ‘floats’. Float is a mechanism that the Marine Corps uses to maintain a stock of spares for immediate use. The concept is that, if something blows up really badly, and you absolutely have to have it right now to stay operational, you pull a replacement out of ‘float’ but only to give yourself enough time to fix the damaged part perfectly. WATCH MY LIPS: Nothing goes into ‘float’ that isn’t perfect in all ways.
So I pulled all the floats. There were only five. None of them worked at all. The bastard that did this to me/us worked for me a few years later at MCAS Cherry Point, and I was more than happy to escort him to the gate the day that he got out. I heard later that he fell off the roof of his house and broke his back, but didn’t die. It is very difficult for me to keep myself from saying something about that, but I’m trying to be a better person these days.
A month later I had 10 good cards in the vans and 4 in float. One died during surgery. I wasn’t qualified to do micro-min repair on circuit cards at that time, but one of the TACC techs was, and he agonized over that card, but it was nearly burnt through in several places near the card edge connectors due to lack of effective soldering training for repairmen. You have to realize that excavating on a circuit card is easy when you go in, as long as you are careful and take a lot of pictures. Coming out takes 24 hours per layer. It only takes a few minutes to re-position the runs, etc. but it takes 24 hours for the epoxy to dry enough so that you can smooth it out for the next layer. Basement repair on an 8 layer board will take 192 hours or 8 days, not counting the actual repair work. You might suggest that flipping the board would cut the time, but the bottom of the board is usually not made of the same stuff as the top.
Before I left Okinawa we received a replacement for the bad float board. It was incredible. It was BRAND NEW. The US government had contracted with someone to reproduce a 20 year old circuit board. I was impressed. The only difference, and this really impressed me, was that the new circuit board was noticeably thicker than the old ones. The reason was obvious of course. The card edge connectors in the box had had thousands of cards inserted and extracted and were worn. The new cards were actually so thick that they were hard to insert, but they worked perfectly.
I didn’t do anything else in Okinawa that was noteworthy. >From there I was assigned to 2nd MAW at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, about an hour away from where my wife lived. Needless to say, the reunion was marred by her admission that she hadn’t been wasting any time during the two years (minus 30 days) that I had been gone. Any military person that is surprised by this is a fool although it doesn’t happen in the majority of cases.
This was my first tour at ‘The Cherry Pit’ and I was looking forward to a more hospitable environment. I’m not sure if my expectations were met or not. I was still a Sergeant, but promotion was due at any moment. I was also drinking a lot. That bothered me and my wife wasn’t too thrilled either because her brother had just been released from a hospital in Raleigh-Durham after some severe problems with his liver.
We had a unit computer, the first that I had seen. It was a 286 with a 30 Meg hard drive. While I had been in Okinawa I had built my first computer, an 8086 with a 20 Meg hard drive, and it seemed like a rocket after the Televideo 920 that I had used at the 2nd MAW CARPLAN.
The senior AvnRadTech, at that time, was supposed to be the maintenance chief for TACC Centers, usually a slot for a Master Gunnery Sergeant. You can’t get much more rank than that in the Marine Corps and avoid being an officer.
Ours was great. The senior AVNRADREP tech, slightly different from the preceding, had been severely wounded in Vietnam and was exempt from just about everything. He had also been one of the instructors at 29 Palms when ‘things went wrong’ there. He may have poisoned the mind of the Warrant Officer that ran the shop, and if he didn’t, I’m sure that his predecessor had.
Anyway, he was already a Staff Sergeant, and had been for 15 years. He actually counseled me for showing up late for work one morning and smelling like a brewery on fire. I was horrified. We didn’t have morning formations and I wasn’t sure how to feel about someone checking my BAC, by smell, early in the morning.
Unfortunately, he disappeared soon afterwards, but he had made a real impression on me. I turned into a ghoul. I would get home at 1730 or later and spend the next 8 hours maintaining the computer bulletin board that I was running for the National Space Society. I got up at 0400 to get ready for the 1 hour drive to work and arrived before 0530 every day for a year. I was promoted during this time, to Staff Sergeant, but there really isn’t a slot in the Marine Corps for a Staff Sergeant AvnRadRepMan.
So I got orders to go back to 29 Palms for the Technicians Course. In three years I had spent much less than one year with my family, and even though my wife was not as pure as the driven snow, I still fell bad about that. Now I was looking at another year in school in California. Yes, she could have come with me, but that didn’t seem to fit into her plans, and I had none.
My second tour at 29 Palms in three years was interesting.
I was up against some young rising stars in the course. One had been an instructor at the Basic Electronics course there and one was just young and very smart. I don’t think that I was ever able to bridge the 20 year age gap with them, so most of my friends were fossils like me. Those two were my competition for ‘class ace’, though, and I took them very seriously, especially since I knew that they were both headed for Air Radio.
I don’t really remember how that competition turned out. I think that, if I had been the class ace I would remember it, but I probably came in third. Maybe I need to look at the few diplomas that wife let me keep. I know that I never saw either one of them again, or anyone else from that class.
So the final moment arrived and it was time for me to make use of my new orders re-assigning me to the Cherry Pit. I won’t even go into the drive from 29 Palms, California to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri in 31 hours, or the next five days that I spent, not at home, but trying to satisfy my wife’s greed at the same time that I was trying to combat my brother’s greed. These things happen and we just need to learn from them. I will not, however, excuse my brother for throwing all 44 of my hand painted and customized 1/35 scale models of WWII AFVs into the ‘burn barrel’.
But that is neither here nor there.
Life had changed when I got back to Cherry Point. OPSEC was the big word. Operational Security. Hmmmm . . . I knew about OPSEC from my time in Germany, ten years before. Isn’t it amazing how long it takes for things like this to trickle down from operational units to Marine Corps units?
You have to understand that Marine Corps units, other than the ones on ‘cruise’ are not ordinarily operational. They would like for everyone to think that they are capable of immediately becoming operational, but I don’t think that could happen. The float units usually have quite a span of time to prepare themselves. They weed out the weak officers and NCOs, trade equipment with units that are not going to be ‘operational’ for a while, and train, train, train, which usually leads to more weeding. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. Is that a new thing? I don’t think so. Would you feel safer if they didn’t do this? I don’t think so.
But lets talks about electrons for a change.
No. Not tonight.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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