Quonset Hut Redemption

Another one of my less grisly memories from the Vietnam war came from an assignment when I was working with a squad of military signals intelligence specialists in support of an army combat unit. As usual, I did everything I could to get the guys to accept me as one of them. This group, used to working in combat situations, was more resistant than most to accepting a civilian in their midst.

Working in Quonset huts hastily assembled to hide what we were doing, we were intercepting the communications of the North Vietnamese unit preparing to attack the Americans. Once I had broken the combat cipher used by the enemy, we perfected a system of operation whereby I would decrypt an intercepted North Vietnamese message while the intercept operator, listening to the enemy transmission, was still writing down the cipher text. As soon as the transmission was complete, I’d translate the message. Next came writing a report based on the message text—we had to do that because the North Vietnamese used cover terms in their text, and the originator and recipient had cover names. A direct translation would be meaningless to the supported unit.

One afternoon we intercepted a message about preparations for an attack on the U.S. unit we were supporting. It would begin, the intercepted message said, with an artillery barrage. The message gave time the barrage was to commence, only a few minutes from the time we began intercepting the message. Immediately after intercept, decoding, and translation, I hurriedly typed the report onto a paper tape that would be used to transmit our warning to the combat unit.

While I was typing, the artillery barrage began. All my military partners rushed to their battle stations. I was a civilian. I had no battle station. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. So I continued to poke away, grabbed the resulting tape, and transmitted it while the shells rained down on us. The GI assigned to guard the Quonset I was in watched in amazement.

The soldiers I was working with were enormously impressed. I didn’t tell them that I went on working on the report because I didn’t know what else to do. After that I was one of them, and our work together was among the most successful and effective of all I did during those years.

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