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This site is dedicated to ALL those who served in THE SIGINT SERVICES OF usafss, the united states air force SECURITY service,AND ASA, THE ARMY SECURITY AGENCY, on the nsa comint intelligence team, during the cold-war years

VIVA USAFSS and asa!

While this site'S name, VIVA USAFSS, suggests it is an exclusive site, such is not the case. In fact, all military SIGINT services (ASA, NSG and USAFSS) were under the direction of NSA and we shared common ops facilities at many of our collection sites. Thus we held many traits and experiences in common during the Cold War years. All SIGINT services are invited to list here.

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Administrator Note:  This piece was presented by T.H.E. Hill in response to a request for former SIGINT folks from all agencies to share their experiences for posterity's sake.  He is a former Army Security Agency linguist.


A Call to Pens

I am pleased to make a contribution to Viva USAFSS, because the mission statement for the site recalls the dedication for my novel Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, which tries to distill a sort of literary truth from the Army Security Agency (ASA) experience. The novel is dedicated to all the countless Kevins and Gabbies, Fast Eddies and Megs (characters in the novel) who fought the Secret Cold War for one tour and went home to do something else. The characters are not based on actual people I knew, but are rather stereotypes, amalgams of various people I met or heard about at different times, and of assorted incarnations of myself.

I wanted to record what fighting the Secret Cold War was like for the generations of people like Kevin and Fast Eddie who are sworn to silence, before they move on to the undiscovered country. When their (grand)children ask "What did you do in the Cold War?," most Secret Cold War veterans have to say something trite, like "If I told you, I'd have to shoot you." I wanted to give voice to some of their stories so that the stories would not disappear when the people who lived them shuffle off this mortal coil. Voices Under Berlin may not be exactly the story that each and every one of them lived and would like to tell, but it is close enough so that people who fought the Secret Cold War in places other than Berlin say that they felt right at home while reading it. I wanted Secret Cold War vets to be able to answer their children and grandchildren with: "I can't tell you exactly, but why don't you read Voices Under Berlin?"

Mine is a big plan, in the sense of Burnham's Law of Planning:

"Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big."

-- Daniel Burnham, Chicago architect. (1846-1912)

 

What brought me to ASA was not a plan. It was an accident. A recruiting sergeant with an ASA quota to fill saw my test scores at the Army induction station, and knew which buttons to push to stir my blood and get me to sign up for an extra year to go to language school. Even after I arrived at DLI I did not realize that I had become part of a 'noble logical diagram' that, following Burnham's Law of Planning, had escaped the control of its creators and begun 'asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.'

ASA (and USAFSS) were indeed living things. Collections of intelligences that sparkled in their brilliance, and shaped the individuals who were temporarily a part of them, challenging us all to 'think big,' and to imagine an existence outside the boxes in which the armed services tried to cage us. That is why the attrition rates were so high. The people who drove what we called "the great green machine," made little plans, but the "cogs in the machine" were capable of more, and resented the restrictions on them, so they left after one or two tours to find a way to do more. The system's loss, however, was society's gain, because we took the new vision that ASA (and USAFSS) had given us back into society, and tried to make it a better place, but that conclusion only became clear to me with the 20/20 perspective of hindsight.

The truth of the third part of Burnham's Law of Planning--the part played by our sons, grandsons, and today, granddaughters--was brought home to me after I finished writing Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary. I was reading a discussion of the novel on a thread on the Military.com Discussion Boards, in which the poster said:

"I thought it was hilarious how some of the SIGINT/linguist jokes and eccentricities have virtually remained unchanged in sixty years, be it linguist vs analyst clashes, clueless LTs, oversensitive OPSEC folks who throw out the "need to know" card at every single turn, reclassed soldiers deriding "overeducated" DLIers for not being "real soldiers," etc. I can assure you the same situations are being played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as I type this. :-)

I encourage anyone currently in SIGINT to read up on this stuff. It will make you smile a bit knowing that people have been going through the same crap you did as a SIGINTer for the past 60 years!"

This statement shows that the spirit of ASA (USAFSS) is alive and well today, and I trust that the inheritors of that spirit are indeed doing things that "would stagger us," if we were still cleared to know about them.

The Cold War and I grew up together. I was born during the Berlin Airlift, and came of age inside the confines of the Berlin Wall. I was a direct participant in some events, and an indirect participant in others. I watched the Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia and of Afghanistan, and the rise of Solidarity in Poland from afar. I saw Havel and Dubcek raise their clasped hands in victory on a balcony overlooking a crowded Wenceslas Square in Prague. I watched in awe as the East Germans cowed the border guards into opening the wall by chanting "Wir sind das Volk!" (We are the People!)

Alas, poor Cold War. I knew it well. It was a war of infinite jest and most excellent fancy, fought more often in the shadows of the mind than to the death, yet the lives of millions hung in the balance. It is a war without monuments, but not without casualties. 136 people were confirmed killed while trying to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin. Major Arthur D. Nicholson, the last casualty of the Cold War, was a classmate. That makes it very personal.

In all the years that I and others like me fought the Secret Cold War, it was under the motto of "Peace is our most important product," because the alternative was unthinkable. We accomplished our mission. The Iron Curtain came down without the Cold War turning hot. To paraphrase Burnham, our watchword was peace and our beacon individual liberty.

On a recent visit to Berlin, we met an old German couple, who, when they discovered that I am an American, thanked me for the food and coal brought in on the Airlift that kept them and their newborn son alive that very cold winter, and for keeping them out of the clutches of the Russians. They also apologized that the younger generation has forgotten those things, and does not like America anymore.

A friend who still teaches Russian at DLIWC put their apology into perspective when he pointed out that almost all his students these days were born after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Cold War is history to his students, but not to me. The Cold War and I grew up together.

While history may not repeat itself word for word, it does rhyme a lot. It is, therefore, for this reason that the lessons we learned in the Secret Cold War should not be consigned to Trotsky's "dustbin of history," but should rather be recorded as a part of the collective memory of the "living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency" that ASA and USAFSS have become in the environment of the hot war on Terrorism. It behooves us all to "think big" about how to preserve the memories of the organizations that shaped our lives by teaching us how to think.

There is a page on Amazon.com where you can find a list of books that have been tagged with "Army Security Agency". As of this writing, there are 16 of them, while there is only one book on Amazon.com tagged "USAFSS". If the readers of Viva USAFSS know of others, they should tag them so that the rest of us can find them. If there are not any more, then it is up to the USAFSS veterans who read this essay to record some of their own stories in book form for posterity.

T.H.E. Hill

the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary and The Day Before the Berlin Wall.

ADMINISTRATOR NOTE: Hill's recent release, The Day Before the Berlin Wall, is another outstanding spy novel.  Any field analyst (SIGINT or otherwise) will be quite familiar with the book's two alternative endings--the real and the fictional.  These were the first to see, analyze and report the unvarnished intelligence; however, what we saw and reported was not necessarily what the public got after it had been put through the National Policy filter.

The book is available on Amazon or directly from Hill.