A Veteran’s Day Tale

Pretty, no?
From 1986 to 1989, I was stationed at Kadena Air Force Base, smack in the middle of Okinawa. Which wasn’t hard. Being in the middle, I mean. The island is small, about 60 miles long, a long string bean with an outgrowth in the north, the whole floating in the East China Sea.

I was with the 1962nd Communications Group. We fixed telephone lines, teletype machines, and (me) cryptographic whoozits. But since some of those scramblers and descramblers had to go over telephone lines, I had to fix those, too.

We spent endless hours “running lines.” Two guys at one remote location with an “o-scope” and two guys somewhere else shooting a tone down the line. We’d fiddle with some doodads and ensure the impedance of the wire was just so (the crypto stuff was finicky). Mostly it wasn’t. The wires had been run right after World War II in a hurry. The Okinawan telephone company had just begun to replace them.

At least the phone lines were buried, which means they weren’t snapping off in the frequent typhoons the island experienced.1 But since many of them ran shallow, every time it rained, which was always, and the cables were leaky, out we’d go and readjust.

We could only adjust so much, and if this wasn’t enough we’d have to swap out pairs of lines. Meaning we’d have to search the thick trunk (a cable) for unused telephone numbers with our “butt-sets”, a portable part rotary, part DTMF phone with alligator clips which we could use to listen in on calls, or even make them. Sometimes there weren’t any free pairs. Oh well, some colonel’s wife would have to do without a second line.

Sometimes even this wasn’t enough and we’d have to call to the switch, then still mechanical, a building-sized tangle of wires and relays, and have the Japanese phone company swap out the carbon block at a line’s termination. Think of these like charcoal filters which eliminated noise. Since the Japanese didn’t speak English and only Airman Enos (guess what his nickname was) could speak Japanese, things did not always go as planned.

So it was a relief to volunteer for temporary duty as NCOIC of Correctional Custody. Six weeks of guarding mostly minor offenders and a few of those being “PCSed out”, i.e. booted dishonorably. The bulk of inmates committed Article 15 offenses. It sounds grand to call these petty offenders “inmates” since the brig was just another building on base which was less well guarded than my ordinary station

Article 15 covered infractions such as failing to show up to duty, passing bad checks at the BX, insubordination, reckless driving and the like. These were people who were being rehabilitated, i.e. punished, and who would go back to their units after serving their time, usually three to six weeks, and maybe loosing a stripe or two. Those engaged in large-scale blackmarketing—usually buying booze from the Class VI store and reselling it to Okinawans—were kicked out or held waiting their courts martial. Blackmarketing was tempting because, say, a bottle of American whiskey bought on base for a few bucks could fetch ten times that amount off base.

Anyway, the crew had light duties. Marching from paperwork appointment to paperwork appointment or policing the grounds for stray bits of paperwork. I would daily mark down on paperwork that the inmates had completed their paperwork.

There was a TV in the barracks which inmates would be allowed to use for an hour or two at night if they had behaved. People looked forward to this time, but it’s not clear why. We only had AFRTS (pronounced A-farts) which ran ten-year-old sitcoms, some sports, and old movies. Like all TV, the level of programming was aimed at the lowest common denominator, i.e. marines.

One afternoon we couldn’t located Airman Jones. He was supposed to go out with the rest of the crew and march from A to B. The tangle nearby was searched, the toilets were searched, a nearby building was searched. But no Airman Jones. This was bad because if we couldn’t find him we’d have to fill out more paperwork.

Finally, another sergeant called me to the TV room. There was Airman Jones, crouched behind the TV in corner, holding a pair of rabbit ears above his head hoping we would mistake him for the base of the antenna. He didn’t want to miss his soap opera.


1Most of the island, unlike the P.I., is built in concrete and rebar, so typhoons were only a problem for the water supply. We liked typhoons because all the planes took off for Guam and we got the day off.


  1. Shawn A. Cole

    Ah the memories you bring back. I had forgotten about Mike Enos and his love of the Japanese language. You are making me feel old, haha.

  2. Briggs

    Popcorn Sean,

    That’s because you are old.

    To others: Shawn was unlucky enough to be stationed at Kadena with me. Ask him about wire stretch measurements.

  3. An Engineer

    Only passed through Kadena in route to nastier places that smelled bad, looked bad, and were dangerous. But even in these places, the boredom of service was a burden, and all that served understand mind-numbing boredom. Most of us also understand fear. Sadly, few today, understand any of this. Happy Veterans Day and thank you!

  4. David L. Hagen

    Thanks for standing up for us against Japan on one of those “unsinkable aircraft carriers”.

  5. La Longue Carabine

    the level of programming was aimed at the lowest common denominator, i.e. marines.

    The Marines get a bad rap as being dumb. You know why? Because they have rarely taken conscripts, and then only a few. (1,900 during Vietnam, for example.)

    That means they are almost exclusively volunteers, which in a time of war, would be considered not too bright by the conscripts.

  6. John Moore

    Ah, memories… I only spent one night at Kadena, in a Quonset hut, on the way home from South Vietnam.

    Briggs… nice hit on the Marines 😉

    Happy Veterans’ Day.

    From an ex-USN airdale.

  7. Ray

    Your story of Airman jones brought back memories. I was stationed on a ship at Pearl Harbor and we had a sailor disappear. After he was UA (unauthorized absence) for a month we turned the matter over to the naval base. The sailor was finally located about 3 months later in the Midwest USA. Claimed he got lost. Alas, he had thrown away his Navy ID card. That’s considered Prima-facie evidence of intent to desert.

  8. Shawn A. Cole

    I was not unlucky to be stationed with you Mr. Briggs. It gained me a several friends, you among them.

    I remember sitting in that hut along the highway running lines for Camp Kinser and Futenma. I remember “adjusting” those lines and often not being able to get them fully within specs.

  9. aGrimm

    Ah, the joy and fun of inter-service rivalry. A rare commenter here, but I cannot pass up the chance to bash Air Force and Army weenies. Being a corpsman, I got to experience both Navy and Marines. Some of the best chess games I’ve ever had were against Marines. I found few decent competitors amongst my Navy brethren, beat the pants off a number of Air Force weenies, and soundly trounced every Army clown I played. Yeah the jar heads are gung-ho and willing to get themselves in perilous situations, but they understand war and war games very well. Intelligent and smart is how you apply it in the situation. Anyway, a belated happy Veterans Day to ALL of my fellow servicemen and women.

  10. Ron Luther

    Hmmm; 2063RD Comm Gp; Det 1. Ie Shima. I was 19-20. Young and didn’t appreciate living on a 2×5 mile tropical island at the time.

    Now? Wouldn’t it be great to be paid a salary, room and board for THAT.

    Thanks for the memories.

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