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Surprise Marine!

Updated on January 31, 2016

April Fool!

In the spring of 1967 I was one of approximately three hundred men assigned to Marine Air Control Squadron - 4 (MACS-4) stationed at Camp Del Mar, California. We were deployable assets. Our Litton Industries designed and manufactured air control computer system with associated radar, generators, command and control, and logistic support had been placed into operation and tested to wretched excess on a bald Camp Pendleton hilltop for six months. We computer repair snuffies[1] rode deuce-and-a-half’s[2] the few miles inland from our barracks on the Pacific coast to maintain the system. The operators, as we called the air controllers, ran equally endless simulations of combat air traffic scenarios. We considered ourselves to be superior to the operators because we fixed what they broke and often showed them how to use the controls on their consoles. “My screen does not show [whatever]!” Gerald Roddy would answer the call, look over the operator’s shoulder, see the range was set at fifty miles, and dramatically push the two hundred button. “Oh. Thanks.”

Camp Del Mar was a run-down, World War II era facility. We were billeted in drafty wooden buildings with uneven asphalt tile floors and rough concrete floored latrines, or “heads” as we in the Marine Corps called these perpetually damp and impossible-to-really-clean portions of the barracks. It was increasingly obvious that my MTDS (Marine Corps Tactical Data System) classmates and I would be departing soon for Southeast Asia. In contrast to our fathers before us, we knew where we were going: Danang. Marines had landed in Viet Nam near Danang to secure the airfield as I entered the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot in March of 1965. We would replace our air control counterparts in MACS-3, with newer, better-maintained equipment and newer, more ignorant Marines. Our mission would be to control air traffic, to fill the control gap between Danang Approach Control and each aircraft’s in-country tactical employment and return. The Danang air facility was the busiest jet airport in the world in 1967.

We got the word in early March. Our heavy equipment required sea transport to Danang. We had ten days to disassemble the system and prepare it for transport to the dock of departure in San Diego harbor. During our copious free time we prepared ourselves. The few married men at our grade level[3] broke their leases, sent their wives home to their respective families in Omaha, New York, and Des Moines and moved into the Camp Del Mar barracks with us. We each packed a new seabag for storage in Okinawa with the full expectation that it would be lost. Virtually all Marines returning from Viet Nam were administratively processed through Camp Butler, Okinawa. The specially issued seabags were for our personal gear we allegedly would not need and certainly would not be authorized to have in Viet Nam. After I finished packing my hope seabag, I placed a note to myself inside, just under the flap. I congratulated my possible future self; first for surviving, and second for having less than a year remaining before separation from active duty and hypothetical return to real life.

Our days were spent in the Camp Pendleton dust, disconnecting three inch thick and hundred foot long electronic cables which connected the many “huts” of the system to each other, to the various radar, and to the noisy generators. The huts were sized to fit into the bed of a deuce-and-a-half, onto ship loading equipment, or to be slung beneath a helicopter. Each hut had an average of twenty connection points resulting in a complex snake bed of rubber-clad cables and collection reels. We straightened and cleaned and reeled and packed and loaded onto pallets. We cleaned within the radar interface, maintenance, mapping, main computer, and multiple operator huts. We dismounted and packed the many air conditioners used to cool the sensitive electronics. We performed preventative maintenance, greasing and cleaning and adjusting. We assured stockage of expendables and the most likely replacement parts, down to the transistor, capacitor, and resistor level. Finally we placed desiccant bags in the huts and sealed the hatches shut with tape against salt and humidity. While we worked packing the computer system the generator, radar, communication and support snuffies were just as hot and dirty preparing their equipment for the move.

The day came. The equipment was packed and in the custody of the truckers taking the heavy loads to the dock. The Navy would supervise loading major items onto the ship. We were then responsible for a final cleaning of the barracks. The never-to-be-seen-again, Okinawa-bound seabags were stenciled with our optimistic names and trucked away. We scrubbed, mopped, waxed and buffed the floors. We scrubbed the indoor trash cans and placed them, inverted, inside the doors. All bed linens had been turned in. Each cotton mattress was rolled at the head of the rack, each pillow placed on top of the mattress. Every wall locker was empty and clean. Only after a final inspection were the barracks doors locked. We waited outside for the cattle cars[4] that would take us to the ship. Each man had his rifle, helmet, full field pack, web gear ("782 gear"), and seabag containing an extra pair of boots, changes of utility uniform, and cleaning gear for rifle, clothes and self. Personal effects such as stationery and some pictures were allowed. Amounts of money were limited.

As was our habit, we mooed[5] while boarding the cattle cars. We struggled to find ways to sit or lean in the limited space among the seabags, rifles, helmets and body odor. The delay in boarding and the slow trip down California’s Highway One stretched patience and bladders. We saw some of the last trucks bearing our heavy equipment on the highway. We recognized the outskirts of San Diego, most of us having graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Depot there not all that long before. We entered the harbor complex, most of us for the first time. We saw the gray Landing Ship Dock (LSD). The cattle car stopped on the wharf adjacent to the ship. We sorted out our individual equipment, stood up and prepared to disembark.

April Fool!

“What the hell do you mean, ‘We’re not going’?” The drivers laboriously turned the cattle cars around in the limited space. Men cursed. Routes and steps were retraced. That afternoon I waited outside the same empty barracks I had left that morning while the key to the front door was retrieved. We slept without bed linen that night. There was a shortage of toilet paper. The barracks were nice and clean, though. The next morning we started the unpacking and reassembly of the Marine Corps Tactical Data System on the same hilltop in the same Camp Pendleton accessed by the same road by the same trucks. The radar, generator, communications and logistics personnel were similarly employed. I later estimated the before-versus-after displacement for the entire air control computer system at four feet, a considerable shortfall from the expected twelve thousand miles. The wives were not recalled from relatives’ homes because the southern California leases remained broken. The unhappy married snuffies lived in the barracks with us. The good news was that the Okinawa-bound seabags had been intercepted. I read my cheerful note to myself one day after its writing.

We packed up again a month later, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm. We knew the drill. The second time was the charm.

[1] Low ranking enlisted personnel. Presumably after ‘Snuffie Smith’, cartoon character.

[2] Vehicles named after their 2½ ton rating.

[3] Typically Corporal, E-4.

[4] Semi-trucks with enclosed trailers having narrow wooden benches.

[5] Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries would not be established as the sardonic musical theme for military stupidity until Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in 1979. After Apocalypse, military cynics whistle Wagner’s Flight when they know they are about to do something memorably ignorant.


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