This is part of a series of nodes tentatively titled Sixteen Years Before The (Antenna) Mast: My Life In The Bush With SIGINT. The previous node in the series is no death for you. Your understanding of what the heck is going on in here will be increased if you read Army Security Agency.
After the silliness of my first week in Germany, arriving at the 331st ASA Company (Ops Fwd) in Karlsruhe was a relief. Now I had somewhere to call home, with classmates who already knew what was up and who was who. I made the rounds of various offices in the Karlsruhe Military Community, found the main PX, drew my field gear and weapon, and settled into my new job as part of Second ComEx1 platoon's intercept teams. In-processing also included a week-long course in basic German, which equipped us new troops with a small arsenal of useful words and phrases such as "Where is the train station?" "How much does this cost?" and "May I have a beer, please?" This class inspired me to go buy a Berlitz phrasebook and basic German text, and I practiced enough with both of them to qualify as a German linguist before I left active duty (and Germany) two and a half years later.
It was a good summer, that summer of 1980. 2nd Comex spent a lot of time in the Back Forty, a stretch of undeveloped land behind the kaserne, learning how to do fundamental tactical EW work: how to set up, tear down, operate and camouflage (not necessarily in that order) the AN/TRQ-32 "Turkey 32" intercept/DF system, which was basically four VHF radios, two cassette recorders, a DF scope, and a bunch of cables jammed into an air-conditioned metal box that sat in the bed of a Dodge 5/4-ton pickup. We also learned to operate the truck, and the 5-kilowatt gasoline-powered generators towed behind the truck, to say nothing of the razor wire we were given to keep inquisitive strangers away from the sooper-sekrit SIGINT gear. We ate cold C-rations, drank tepid water from plastic jugs, and enjoyed the hell out of the whole deal, since it was pretty much a 9-5 gig. We were preparing for REFORGER2, and since the 331st was a fairly new unit with a lot of new equipment and untrained soldiers, we needed a lot of time to train. Fortunately, I arrived in early July and REFORGER didn't happen until late August.
I was also pleased that if I wasn't going to have a ringside seat for Armageddon with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment's ASA company, I'd at least still get a piece of the action. The 331st was part of the 302nd ASA Battalion, based in Frankfurt and assigned to V Corps. V Corps also happened to be the parent unit of the 11th ACR. The 331st's mission was to reinforce the EW assets of the 3rd Armored Division, 4th Infantry Division (Forward), 8th Infantry Division, or 11th ACR in much the same way that the corps artillery was to do fire missions for whichever unit the corps commander thought needed it most. So the 331st would be somewhere along the E5 autobahn from Fulda to Frankfurt, which I took to calling the Highway To Hell.
REFORGER came, and we drove up to the vicinity of Wolfsburg, where we were part of the aggressor force attacking the British Army of the Rhine and sundry (West) Germans. Much sleep deprivation, driving around the countryside at odd hours of the night with our lights off, panicked refueling of generators in the middle of the night, and far too occasional de-scunging in village bathhouses (no homo) ensued. I got fairly good at shaving out of my helmet after being loudly bitched out by my team chief for not shaving, and also quickly mastered other, more significant tasks as well. Coming out of the field wasn't nearly so fun. A brigade's worth of tankers had drawn their gear from Karlsruhe, and while they were returning it, they were camped out in the Back Forty, eating in our mess hall, and making the limited recreational opportunities of Gerszewki Kaserne even more so thanks to overcrowding. Didn't bother me all that much, really, except for the long lines at breakfast. I'd already found a watering hole downtown at the Moninger Brauhaus, which served a particularly tasty dark beer, and was only about twenty minutes away from the kaserne by streetcar. Since I'd recently been promoted from PFC to Specialist 4, and had no real expenses except for occasional uniform repairs (mess hall food was free, and so were the barracks) I had pretty close to 100% disposable income. Good times, good times.
The winter exercise in December wasn't nearly as much fun. Cold, wet, snow was everywhere, the air mattresses we'd been issued were all defective, and I got frostbite in my fingers and toes, which would come back to haunt me years later. On the last jump, though, we found a deer stand large enough for the whole team to spread out our sleeping bags in, and for a few days it was almost as good as having a room at the gasthaus.
Eventually things fell into a more-or-less predictable routine. Up at 0500 for PT: half an hour of calisthenics and a two-mile run around the kaserne. Shower. Breakfast at the mess hall, followed by morning formation at 0800. Motor stables at the motorpool on the other side of the kaserne from the barracks. Lunch at the mess hall. Language class in the afternoon. Final formation at 1700. Dinner at the mess hall. Since this was our permanent station, there usually wasn't anything else going after final formation unless you had the duty as Charge of Quarters (CQ) or CQ runner, and since you had to be up all night with that duty you go the next day off to sleep in. This led to people cutting deals so as to avoid getting stuck with duty on Friday or Saturday nights until the first sergeant cracked down and forbade the practice. The routine was only interrupted by deployments on exercise support, which happened about once a quarter, or deployments to Mount Meissner, which happened about twice a year.
Meissner was a border post about five kilometers west of Eschwege, left over from the days of ASA's Border Command and kept open by the 302nd as a training resource and also as a source of early warning if the Soviets and their friends decided it was a good time to vacation on the English Channel. I suppose the place was all right if you were permanently stationed there, as an understrength platoon of 331st people were, but if you were just visiting, it was a pile of shit. You packed up all your gear just as if you were going to the field, because there weren't enough linens up there and you'd have to sleep in your sleeping bag; besides, if the war broke out you'd need to get the hell off the Mountain and down to wherever the V Corps commander wanted us. The antenna farm was in bad shape, and there wasn't much to hear most of the time anyway, so your time on the mountain was pretty much divided between boredom in a secure area and boredom in the mess hall until it closed (because that was the only communal space at the site) after which you could go be bored in the sleeping area. There really wasn't much to do besides drink, play cards, talk, drink, and sleep. There was nowhere to go on top of the mountain, and it usually took a couple of days for the platoon leader to get bored enough to authorize a drive down to Eschwege and its bars in a "slick" Dodge or a deuce.
So it was that Second Comex found itself on Mount Meissner late in the spring of 1981. We had already gone through the books we'd brought with us, become bored with spades and cribbage, and pillaged the vending machine in an extended (and somewhat drunken) fit of rage provoked by the machine eating someone's last fifty cents.3 We were left with nothing to do and an ample supply of alcohol to do it with, and that's where I became wary of Jaegermeister. We were sitting around on the floor talking about this and that. It was late, and we were all kind of drunk but not yet drunk enough to go to bed. It was an open-bay barracks, too, which foreclosed the other option for drunk and lonely soldiers quartered with the opposite sex.4 After a while we ran out of stuff to talk about and just sat around drinking. Eventually Sergeant B., one of the jammer operators, lifted her bottle of Jaegermeister. She stared at it owlishly for a minute, and stuck her thumb in the bottle before upending it. She then got up, shut off the lights in the bay, and wandered back to the circle of drunks, where she sat back down, pulled a lighter out of her pants, pulled her thumb out of the bottle, and lit her thumb on fire. We all watched for a minute as the Jaegermeister burned with a blue flame and then went out. "Cool," somebody said from the darkness, but nobody asked her to do it again, and after another minute we all got up and staggered off to bed.
The platoon and I would return to Meissner a number of times before I left Germany in 1982, and I narrowly escaped being permanently stationed there after the Marines' Second Radio Battalion passed through, but that's another story.
1.Communications Exploitation. A Comex platoon normally had two TRQ-32 intercept teams, one or two AN/TLQ-4 FATJAM jammer teams, an AN/TLQ-15 HF jammer, a teletype van, and sometimes an AN/MLQ-24 radar jammer. These teams were usually tasked by and reported to the company TCAC (Tactical Control & Analysis Center), which left the platoon leader and platoon sergeant with lots of time on their hands when the company went to the field.
2.REFORGER (REturn of FORces to GERmany) was an annual NATO exercise involving the mobilization of Stateside Army units for duty in Europe. This involved taking troops from Colorado (4th Infantry Division), Georgia (24th Infantry Division) Kansas (1st Infantry Division), Louisiana (5th Infantry Division), or Texas (1st Cavalry Division or 2nd Armored Dvision), putting them on planes in the States with nothing but their rucksacks, rifles, and chemical protective gear, flying them to Germany, and matching them up with equipment sets stored in places like Karlsruhe. The name changed every year, but nobody paid attention to the actual op name; everybody called it REFORGER.
3.This had earned us a collective punishment, since nobody would own up to having done it and nobody would rat out the half-dozen of us that had. We were confined to the site for the rest of our stay, which was fine with me since the local beer tasted worse than horse piss and, this being Germany, you couldn't just order something else.
4. Or the same sex. It was an open secret that one of the jammer crews was a lesbian couple, but since they were both built like fireplugs and could lift the back end of their jeep single-handed, nobody ever made an issue out of it. They were also pretty cool people, great fun to hang out with.
The next node in this series is No Promotion Board, No Armorer