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Military Electronics Part IV.
My last few years in the Marine Corps were kind of interesting. I had been sent to the Aviation Radio Technician Course at MCB 29 Palms, California. In 1988 or ’89 and there were a number of things that happened during my time at that course that I have mentioned elsewhere. After I graduated, 2nd or third in the class, I was given orders back to MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina. I was a Staff Sergeant at the time. Naturally I was re-assigned to H&HS-28, the TACC Center. I’m not sure if anyone except the Maintenance Officer was happy to see me back, but . . .
When I got back I found out that my wife hadn’t changed her ways, which wasn’t surprising, and I was the junior AvnRadTech in the unit, which was a surprise. The last AvnRadTech that I had worked for in Okinawa had impressed me, and, just before I went to school, he rotated back and became available, so I talked the maintenance officer into grabbing him for us. Let’s just say that he had a pair of tie-dyed Converse sneakers and leave it at that. The second senior AvnRadTech was fresh off the drill field and had been an evaluator there. In other words, he evaluated other drill instructors. He didn’t have much of a sense of humor, but drove a ¾ ton Chevrolet Suburban that was known as ‘The Starship’. As the junior, I didn’t really have a lot to do in the AvnRad section, so I was re-distributed.
I was soon assigned as the MIMMS clerk for the TACC Center. That was interesting work. MIMMS is the Marine corps Integrated Maintenance Management System and is all about getting replacement parts and ‘float’ gear that is necessary to keep the unit operational. It was all paperwork, and I had some trouble with it at the beginning. That’s when I really got into the habit of leaving home at 0430 to get to work at 0530, and leaving work at 1730, or later. I was not a good husband/father because I spent my time at home maintaining my computer bulletin board. I usually didn’t go to bed before 0200 and often slept on the floor of my computer room. I don’t think I had a big effect on the unit’s operational readiness, but I learned a lot.
One of the things I learned was that the TA-312 field telephones that the unit provided for the TACC operators didn’t have anyone assigned to maintain them. Field phones definitely aren’t things that TACC or TDCC techs are trained to maintain, but AvnRad people aren’t really trained to maintain them either, because they aren’t radios. The point was that no one was assigned to maintain them, but they were essential equipment, especially before the TA-838s were in use, and most of the ones that we had didn’t work. Fortunately, I had a friend at the large repair unit on Camp Lejeune that was a telephone tech. I took a truck load of TA-312’s over one day and looked him up. He had been moved to the section of his unit that repaired personal computers, which the Marine Corps was suddenly finding indispensable, and all he could give me was a set of maintenance manuals and some advice.
So I decided to go on another crusade. I would personally, or with volunteer help, fix those field phones. Since TA-312s are designed to be ‘Marine proof’ they aren’t very complicated, but we had a lot of them, and some of them had not worked for years. At least one had been sitting around, partially filled with water, for most of those years. There were some challenges.
Consider the ‘binding posts’ that the two strands of telephone wire connect to. (These were definitely not switchboard type telephones in the modern sense of the term.) In order to inform someone on the circuit that you want to talk, you crank a handle connected to a magneto that should (according to the manuals) produce at least 100 volts AC. If you try to connect the phone wire (WD-1) to the terminals when someone is trying to place a call, it usually produces a local free flow of urine. The solution is to make sure that the little gray rubber prophylactics designed to protect you from those binding posts are in place and serviceable. I had to order about 40 sets of binding post covers. The response was a message from the local supply unit asking if I was sure of what I was ordering because no one had ordered that many binding post covers in one order, for years.
I got the post covers and was over the first hurdle. At least the phones were safer.
All of these items had serial numbers, but, due to corrosion, it was difficult to read many of them. It kind of made me wonder how we had been maintaining our inventory over the years. Keep in mind that maintenance officers do not ever have the time to do a full inventory of the equipment that they receive when they assume command of a unit like this. A complete and thorough inventory would take months. So the officers accept the inventories that their section leaders provide. The section leaders are also busy so they accept the inventories that their trusted people provide. But the trusted people are also busy, since they are usually the best people in the section, so they assign the inventory to someone who has proven to be useless for any real task. Consequently, the inventories are frequently not exactly exact.
So I had 30 – 40 field phones in various states of dis-assembly and a few others missing. No problem. I had learned how to handle the missing ones when I was a young pup in the Army. Just order all the parts, including the serial number plate, and make a new field phone. The one which had been full of water for so long didn’t have any useful pieces left, so I had to do it with that one anyway.
Pretty soon, with considerable help, I had a full set of field phones for the unit. It was a proud day.
Next task was a day when the maintenance officer brought in a piece of equipment that I had certainly never seen before, and wanted it fixed. It turned out that he had a friend that had a friend that worked at the ‘dunk tank’. (Since this was an Marine Corps air station it had to have a facility that would allow pilots to practice escaping from aircraft that had ditched in large bodies of water.) This facility was operated by Navy personnel trained in both diving and medicine. The device was the ‘underwater public address system’ for this facility.) I made big points with the maintenance officer by having it fixed in less than an hour. I don’t remember what was wrong with it but it was something simple.
The next challenge I took on was Calibration NCO. We had a big inspection coming up and the WM who had been assigned as calibration NCO, who has appeared elsewhere in my articles, was either on maternity leave or was assigned to the 2nd MAW guard detachment. Whichever, she had been gone for a while and the calibration program was a mess. Since our unit used a lot of electronic equipment, and a lot of weird non-electronic equipment, and it requires precisely calibrated test equipment to maintain this equipment, the calibration process is essential. Unfortunately, it is also usually frustrating. Each piece of equipment has to have a record in the calibration file. The record has to include all of the important information about the piece of equipment as well as its calibration schedule and a record of past calibrations successfully completed. DO NOT try to stand an inspection with even a single piece of equipment that has passed its scheduled calibration date unless you have a mound of paperwork explaining why the calibration was not done on schedule. (Death of a calibration NCO is not an acceptable excuse but deployment of the piece of equipment is.)
Again, this took me directly back to my Army days as the Night Observation Device NCO. I had done well then and expected no less this time. Well, it wasn’t that easy. There were some pieces that had to be shipped to the West coast for calibration, and were overdue. We actually even had a device that was used to determine the tension in the steel cable guy wires for the large HF antenna that TDCC used, and the civilian company that had provided calibration services for it for the 20 years since the system had been first fielded, had gone out of business. We also had one piece of equipment that we were not supposed to have, and it had the unit designation from the unit that it had come from painted on the outside.
I think I was ready about an hour before the inspection started, and I got an Outstanding as usual. That extra piece? Well I still have it and it works very well although it hasn’t been calibrated for about 15 years. The problem was that the unit that had marked it didn’t exist anymore.
All of a sudden, Desert Shield/Desert Storm happened, and a lot of other strange things happened at about the same time. First thing was that I didn’t get to go. Then, as the most experienced AvnRad Staff NCO left, I became the maintenance chief even though I was three pay grades too low in rank for the position.
Then the computer bug hit the Marine Corps in a big way. We had been using personal computers for at least five years that I knew of, but, suddenly, everyone had to have one in order to be able to function at all. Since a lot of our gear was deployed someone apparently thought that we had a lot of spare time, and some of us did, but suddenly the TACC Center even became responsible for the militarized personal computers used by the Navy medical detachment a few miles down the road.
At the time, I felt fairly comfortable with personal computers, but some of the ideas for their utilization that were coming out at the time made me really uneasy. Consider using Banyan Vines as your network operating system and that your are connected to the ‘server’ by a 1200 baud modem, and you want to use a word processing program that resides on that server and not on your local computer. Then consider waiting a day and a half for the program to load. Apparently, spontaneity was not felt to be an issue.
Anyway, one day the war was over and the gear started coming back. Most of the people who had gone were immediately re-assigned. One of them was our maintenance officer who had decided to take some pieces of equipment along that belonged to other people. (I really did try to cover that up, but it wasn’t possible.) There had also been some irregularities related to cryptographic material, which is a very serious thing, and a piece of experimental equipment that shouldn’t have been deployed and ended up being totally destroyed during a rather feckless experiment. I always felt that he was a good maintenance officer and am not sure that I would not have made the same decisions he did, if I had been in his place.
So we got a new maintenance officer, and things changed. There was a big push on to get our rather dingy and disreputable gear ready to go again. I understand how the gear got into the condition it was in, but it took a LOT of work to get it fully operational again. The AvnRad section had received some new people in the mean time, most of them mentioned elsewhere, and we managed to put together a few convincing demonstrations of our capabilities for some people that obviously had high expectations. So we were back in business. But I was getting a bad attitude. Partly because my marriage was falling apart and my two sons kept asking me who I was on the rare occasions when I saw them.
Suddenly, we had the RIF. The Reduction In Force mandated by congress because it was just too expensive too keep so many people in uniform, with the possibility of eventual retirement and becoming a burden on the tax payers until death. (Some people forget that we paid taxes too.)
My MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty, was 5939, Aviation Radio Technician. The Marine Corps decided (I think this was after the Air Force had shown them the light) that, there was no longer a need for people who were trained to repair electronics down to the component level when they usually had so much rank that they spent most of their time performing administrative duties, and since component level repair was not as cost effective as replacing circuit cards. (How I would have loved to take advantage of that way of thinking during my dark days in Okinawa)
I was in an especially bad situation because I hadn’t expected to receive permission to re-enlist for 6 years at my last request, so I had done it without counting the years I had left to retirement. At the end of the six years I would still have been at least 18 months short of retiring after 20 years on active duty. Master Sergeant Purcell had told me, when I was working at the 2nd MARDIV CARPLAN office, that I should watch out for that, because if I managed to get within a year of retirement, the Marine Corps could not legally refuse an extension/re-enlistment request that would take me over the edge.
I guess I wasn’t thinking at the time. So, in July or August of 1982 I was informed that I was eligible for a substantial monetary bonus if I would accept discharge from the Marines in September. (It seems that congress expected to see a lot of leeches and hangers-on disappear before the end of the fiscal year, which was 30 October.) After some thought, I accepted the offer to get out. The option was to have my MOS changed to ‘Bulk Fuel’. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Anyway, I took the offer and received a lump sum payment in order to pay my wife off for allowing me to live in the house I had been paying for, for the last 5 years, while our separation proceeded. She got a little more than half of what I got.
There’s a funny thing about ‘Bulk Fuel’ in the Marine Corps. I don’t know anyone who ever met anyone from ‘Bulk Fuel’ but the images that the job description provides didn’t seem appetizing. The funny thing is that, from the rumors I have heard, there are two barracks complexes in one area, away from the main post part of Camp Lejeune, that are in the Force Service Support Group area. Force Recon, similar to the Navy Seals, lives in one, and, supposedly, the ‘Bulk Fuel’ people live in the other. I have also heard that the duty personnel at 2nd Force Recon often answer the phone by saying ‘Bulk Fuel’. Maybe as a joke.
That’s just a minor mystery. If it was true and I was being invited to make a try for Force Recon, there’s no way that I would have ever made it. It may not be as tough as the British SAS selection process, but they try to keep the difference as small as possible. And afterwards, the really lucky, or unlucky, ones might get a chance to attempt something like Navy UDT training, Navy SEAL training, Army Ranger training, or even the real British SAS selection process. I think that, even when I was 18, I wasn’t ready, or capable of getting ready, for any of those.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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