NSA and Orson Wells

Me and the National Security Agency and, what the hell, Orson Welles

The National Security Agency has taken some recent hits, so I might as well shove a pie in their face while they’re staggering around.
My brush with the erstwhile electronic spy organization was with the Army Security Agency. Each branch of the military had its own tentacle of the NSA from 1945 until they were disbanded in 1976. The ASA was in full bloom 50 years ago when I bumbled into it, fresh out of college.
I joined up, having been promised by the recruiting sergeant that I’d waltz through basic training and officer candidate school, and then enjoy the college-like atmosphereof language school at the Presidio in San Francisco before sailing to Europe to work in some cool embassy in a country of my choice.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Basic training was annoyingly tedious and I met several guys who had washed out of OCS because it was 100 times worse, so I didn’t go there. Neither did I go to the language school because I had bad eyesight. The guy sitting next to me when we were both told that we would be ditty boppers (I’ll explain that later) had majored in Russian and minored in Chinese at some Ivy League school, but he too had bad eyes, so he couldn’t take the test to see if he could qualify for language school and San Francisco, either.
We both stayed at Ft. Devins, outside of Boston and learned to listen to Morse code relentlessly pumped into our ears and tapped out through our fingers into a weird typewriter called a mill. Instead of an embassy in Europe, I ended up at an outpost about 60 miles south of Seoul, Korea.
Our little band of “soldiers” had been banished to the Korean hinterlands after numerous incidents of drunken ASA hooligans being chased back to the safety of their post on the outskirts of Seoul by frustrated MPs who could not follow their jeep onto the restricted post. I put soldiers in quote marks because our unofficial motto was: “We won’t fight and you can’t make us.”
I arrived at the new post six months after it had been installed on an unused part of a huge area assigned to some secret missile silo group who had the most bizarre, vicious looking dogs I’d ever seen. Their heads and jaws were so enormous and out of proportion, you could hear their jaws slam shut a full second after their strangely shrill bark had pierced the air. We didn’t need all the top secret restrictions to keep clear of those creeps.
Where we worked, that is, did our various forms of electronic eavesdropping, was just over two miles from where we ate and slept, so everyone had to have an army drivers license because we took turns driving the deuce-and –a half (Armyspeak for two and a half ton truck)from the mess hall to our work compound.
My bad eyes had also precluded me from taking the driving test in the States, but all of us were “tested” as part of our processing into Korea. My group consisted of 15 guys with a sergeant in charge. We started off from the motor pool with one guy driving, the sergeant riding shotgun and the rest of us in back. The first guy drove about 200 yards, stopped the truck, jumped out, ran to the back and signaled the next guy to take his place. Each of us drove about 200 yards, never turning the engine off between drivers and ended up 20 minutes later back at the motor pool, where the guy in charge there yelled at us to get out of his vehicle and out of his motor pool.
Motor pool guys didn’t like anyone messing with their vehicles.
Once on our remote post we began the boring cycle that would last for the next 13 months. We had four platoons consisting of about 20 guys usually and we worked three shifts, rotating through the clock from 8AM to 4PM to Midnight and back to 8AM. Of course it was “1600 hours” and whatever midnight was called in Armyspeak, but that was one of the minor things I never got the hang of while proudly serving my country.
The first time I got the honor of being the driver, I sauntered over to the motor pool from the mess hall, rang the bell at the gate—the motor pool remained locked at all times, except when a vehicle entered or exited.
The motor pool guy came to the gate eyeing me irritably and demanded to see my driver’s license. He studied it without comment, opened the gate and pointed to the truck parked 50 feet away. I walked to it confidently, eager for my first chance to drive the truck. The best part of being the driver on the swing shift, four to midnight, was that you got to take everyone’s order for a snack, drive back to the little enlisted man’s grill and hang out there as the bologna sandwiches were grilled.
I settled into the truck and looked for the key in the ignition. I saw no key, nor a place for a key. I could feel the motor pool guy’s growing irritation with me, and searched more frantically for a key. I finally gave up, decided it was his fault for not giving me the key in the first place and when he yelled at me to get the damn vehicle moving and out of there, I opened the door and yelled back at him that he forgot to give me the key.
He carefully closed and locked the gate and walked over to meet me halfway to the truck. His face was very tight and I couldn’t see his lips move as he demanded to see my driver’s license again.
“Where did you get this?”
“At Seoul, when I first got here.”
“God dammit!” he acknowledged. “Did you ever actually drive a deuce and a half? Have you ever been inside the cab of a fucking deuce and a half?”
“Well, I, sure, but I’ve never actually started one, much. Just, uh drove it a few hundred feet, I guess…”
He dragged me to the open door of the truck and pointed to the little olive drab lever on the olive drab dash board and screamed “THAT’S THE GODDAM IGNITION SWITCH, YOU DUMB FUCK.”
Completely abashed and feeling the fullness of my DumbFuckness, I meekly climbed back into the truck, turned the switch and nothing happened! I felt the little knob on the floor, though, stepped on it and the damned thing roared into life. He stood and watched as I shifted gears—which I managed without incident, thankful that I didn’t have to put it in reverse and moved forward slowly toward the still locked gate.
He finally moved to the gate, glared at me again before unlocking and opening it, glared at me as he stood beside it signaling me to get the hell out of his motor pool and stared at me from behind his once again locked gate as I trundled back to the mess hall, where my buddies were waiting outside for me to arrive. I decided I’d ask one of them where reverse was on a deuce and a half, in case I ever needed it.
OK, one more bit of background stuff about what we did and how and where we did it before Mr. Welles can make his grand appearance.
Our work compound was a couple of dusty miles from where we lived and no one could enter without a Top Secret clearance. Well, you couldn’t even get on the post without that, to get into our working area you had to be specifically assigned to it and have your little badge visible. The badge got you in and designated which area you could enter.
At the center of the whole thing was the REALLY secret place. Only a few worked there and they were the only ones allowed into the Inner Sanctum. It’s where they decoded shit and had access to Washington and everywhere. We had been told about these places from early on at Ft. Devins and it was reiterated all along the way. On each person’s first day in the work compound he was told to never approach that hallowed door. Any unauthorized person, no matter how high his rank or clearance would be shot if he tried to enter!
That’s an important point to remember for when the story gets interesting. I’m pretty sure it’s going to.
So, we were electronic spies, you see. We listened to an enemy in a country that will remain nameless and be referred to only as CHICOM. The elite guys had been to language school and their job was to eavesdrop on voice transmissions in the language of the CHICOMS. Down a notch from them were the guys who listened in on messages sent by machines to other machines. I never did understand that, but it wasn’t my job. Next were the duffies, or direction finders. They had a guy there with us and guys at two detachments about 10 miles out in opposite directions, forming a roughly straight line perpendicular to the line pointing to the area in the land of the CHICOM upon which we spied. The central post, where we were, and the detachments out from us had directional antennas that could be turned to pick up the best signal and thus triangulate in such a way that the location of the person or machine sending the signal could be identified.
Like all such ASA listening posts, we had a specific group of folks in a specific area of Chicomland that was our responsibility to spy on.
And the lowliest among us were the ditty boppers, of whom I was one. Our job was to listen to Morse code being sent manually by some guys tapping on Morse code keys. Well, duffies and ditty boppers were pretty much on the same level, but they worked at making the distinction.
Our setup was a long fairly narrow room, with a row of pairs of grey metal clad radios running almost its full length with the duffy station and its two radios and some other instruments and machines, at the front end. The radios were about 42 inches high with a flat top and sloping fronts each with two knobs and a screen showing the frequencies in MHz or whatever it was.
We ditty boppers sat facing front, our pair of radios on our left, a small table with our mill and its 6 ply with carbons in between continuous roll of perforated paper rising out of the cardboard box just in front of the small table and just behind the next guy and his two radios.
Someone was at each pair of radios 24 hours a day, as long as we were fully staffed which was usually. The conscientious guys, usually “lifers,” would diligently seek “good” signals coming from one radio and, once confirmed by the duffies as coming from the right place doggedly set about finding the other end of the transmission on his other radio! While still copying everything coming into his left ear! Some of them were amazing, learning to recognize individual CHICOM tappers and able to drop several seconds behind the sender and still keep up accurately.
I, on the other hand was barely adequate. I was able to find people sending Morse code, copy down accurately what they were sending, go through the duffy dance and chuck it away as XXCOM or whatever or copy away if it was coming from our target.
As for being able to find the other end of one of our “good” transmissions, most of the time it was pretty much impossible. My other radio was always set to the Armed Forces Network, so cranking the knob around listening to staticky fragments of odd signals was out of the question. Besides, doing that gave me a headache and made me very irritable.
On the October evening in question, I was not the driver, so I was stuck there for the whole eight hours. The guy on the day shift from whom I took over had been diligently searching for the other end of the guy he was copying and glared at me as he told me the range he’d “pretty well covered” in his search, knowing I was going to tune in AFN as soon as he was out the door.
Which I did.
AFN did a standard disk jockey format, news on the hour, update on the half hour and music in between. At the five o’clock news the jock talked about some interesting weather patterns scattered around the world and mentioned them again on the update.
The guy I had continued copying when I sat down finally signed off and I casually searched on my left radio for a nasty CHICOM op from our designated area, while listening to a string of Sinatra songs from AFN in my right ear. I was too conscientious to try for stereo from my left radio, doggedly turning its dial, listening to the dits and dahs in my left ear.
From six to seven there was more weather stuff, with a couple of breaks in the music segments to mention even more unusual disturbances. The driver got our orders and took off for our shakes and bologna sandwiches and chips and shit.
I’d finally managed to find someone from our target area sending a long sample message, page after page consisting of groups of 5 characters in 100 group blocks. That’s mostly what we copied, evil CHCOMS sending fake messages to each other. The sender was probably as bored as I was, but we whiled away the evening, stoically doing our jobs. Sort of.
After seven it got really hairy down at the Army radio station. Between each song there was more shit about odd atmospheric “events” with the jock’s voice getting more shrill and agitated. Eventually he was talking about losing contact with some areas and weird stuff that seemed vaguely ominous.
At eight o’clock it all came together. A new voice came on saying they’d lost contact with…then a burst of static and silence. Then another new voice came on telling us the worst and I recognized it as Orson Welles!
It was fabulous. They’d set the whole thing up in preparation for running a tape of Orson Welles radio production of War of the Worlds! It was the anniversary of his broadcast that had caused such a panic in 1939. I’d recently read Steve Allen’s first autobiography, Mark It and Strike It, in which he’d described his reaction to it as a kid in Chicago.
Then I noticed my buddy Chuck, three guys in front of me, bouncing in his chair and realized he was buying it. Just like Steve Allen and thousands of Americans more than twenty years before, he thought it was real!
I started laughing and pointing at Chuck, trying to tell the other guys to watch him. Suddenly he stood up, dumping his mill onto the back of the guy in front of him, threw down his headphones and yelled, “We’re being invaded! Goddammit, we’re being attacked.”
Everyone was looking at him and I was almost doubled over with laughter, gleefully shouting “It’s just a radio show…it’s Orson Welles” while Chuck looked at me with panic and rage on his face, shouting “you don’t understand, we’re being attacked!”
Then he headed for the Inner Sanctum, screaming “They know what’s going on! They know and they’re not telling us, GODDAMIT WE’RE BEING INVADED AND THOSE FUCKERS AREN’T TELLING US!”
Suddenly it wasn’t funny. Chuck was going to try to barge in there and they were going to shoot him because he hadn’t read Steve Allen’s book!
I rushed at Chuck, screaming “It’s Orson Welles, it’s only Orson Welles.”
I jumped on his back and knocked him to the floor, just as the guy got back with our snacks.
“You don’t understand!” We yelled in unison, struggling on the concrete floor, everyone else milling around, shouting their own confused versions of what was going on, the guy with the bag of food completely out of it.
“They know, they know and they won’t tell us” Chuck screamed trying to shove me off him and get to his feet.
“It’s War of the Worlds…Orson Welles, goddamit! IT’S JUST A FUCKING RADIO SHOW, they’ll shoot your ass, it’s fucking Orson fucking Welles you dumb shit!”
Now everyone was shouting, even the guy with the snacks, but I was getting help holding Chuck down.
We both were trying to explain our disparate versions of what was happening, when The Door opened and an officer came out, quieting everyone but Chuck with a snappy “Attenshun!”
We eventually got our snacks.

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