Each mission flown by an Air Force plane was wrapped in an envelope of paper known cumulatively as OPREPs. I first encountered this fact in Saigon. The intelligence shop that I had been assigned to - 7AFDITD – after my brief brush with Briefing Officer fame, had consisted of a Lieutenant Colonel, two Majors, several Captains, a number of Lieutenants and a variably uncountable number of enlisted men, Sergeants through Airmen. The mission of this organization was varied and seemed to have a great deal to do with whatever happened to be the crisis du jour. The one backbone mission, however, was gathering results from the nearly infinite number of combat missions that were flown every day. The mission results were gleaned from a mimeographed piece of paper called an OPREP4. The OPREP4 was the mission summary, which was gathered by intelligence personnel at the operational air bases where the missions were flown. Presumably there were OPREP1s, 2s, and 3s, but I was never able to verify that fact. Actually I think I had once verified the fact, but had gone to sleep during the description of what they were. I had also heard that there was an OPREP5; it had something to do with fuel usage I had heard. I never knew whether that was true. OPREP4s were significant enough in their own right that it had never seemed very important to me whether there were others in the OPREP clan.
There was a wide variety of information that could be extracted from an OPREP4. What one extracted depended upon the mission of one’s organization. The mission of 7AF DITD was to supply higher-level intelligence organizations, those closer to McNamara and Johnson, the data necessary to prove that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Being that close to the people who talked to God had its advantages and its disadvantages. At any moment of any day or night there might suddenly be a need to come up with unobtainable information about unknowable statistics and to compare them, this period this year to this period last year. It was possible to tell when someone really important was in town by the level of hysteria that suddenly rose up and engulfed us in a spontaneously sudden and seemingly endless stream of unanswerable questions. LBJ had come to Saigon once under an impenetrable cloak of secrecy. But we all knew he must be there. For thirty-six hours we worked a never-ending stream of impossible to provide, completely irrational requests for information.
Our staple product however was trucks. More specifically, it was trucks destroyed and damaged. We were the sole source of that data element which was being gathered as one of the myriad components of the Seventh Air Force Data Base. From this database, once in existence, plans to run the war like a smoothly oiled corporation were envisioned. No question would be too trivial and no question would be too grand once that database was in existence. My contribution to the “war effort” was to be part of the trucks destroyed and damaged gleaning apparatus.
There was a cautionary note we were given in relation to our gleaning. A similar gleaning exercise had existed in the Korean War. It had gleaned locomotives destroyed and damaged. All had been going well until one day in the middle of a high level briefing someone pointed out that the number of locomotives cumulatively destroyed and damaged being reported exceeded the known inventory of such machines worldwide. While we appreciated the warning we were of the opinion that trucks – being a substantially smaller piece of machinery than a locomotive - were somewhat safe from anyone really knowing how many of them might exist in the world. So, while we tried to be cautious, the treasure-trove of destruction we gleaned from the OPREP4s went pretty unchecked into the database.
At 7AFDITD we had unfathomable quantities of OPREP4s. After a period of time there were so many of them that we needed to destroy them. OPREP4s were classified “Secret” so they needed to be so destroyed. Classified documents that had been destroyed needed to have their destruction documented by the existence of a CD, a Certificate of Destruction. CDs needed to be signed by an officer. I was the classified document control officer for 7AFDITD so I was the signer of the CDs for OPREP4s that had been destroyed.
After several thousand signatures, one day I remembered Yosarrian’s approach to signing censored letters to soldier’s families in Catch 22. I asked Doug, one of the sergeants who worked with me, if he thought it was OK to sign the CDs with the name John Milton. He said he thought it was OK as long as John Milton was an officer.
Working with intelligent and creative people was extremely liberating.
So I set about signing John Milton’s name to the CDs. Even though I was sure that John Milton was an officer, I couldn’t completely suppress a squeamish feeling. What if I was wrong? What if John Milton wasn’t an officer? So I switched to George Washington. I was sure he was an officer. But several thousand George Washingtons became tiring. So I switched to Douglas MacArthur and then to Harry Truman. I knew Harry had been a Captain in World War One. Finally, I switched with a flourish to “Who’s in the John, Milton?” After several thousand “Who’s in the Johns” I really did begin to worry about what might happen to me if a higher authority audited the CDs. I could see the articles of court martial: “Lieutenant McKeehan, in the face of the enemy, did sign, or allow to be signed, unfathomable quantities of Certificates of Destruction by John Milton, George Washington, Harry Truman, Douglas MacArthur and Who’s in the John, Milton?”
As I sank into uncontrollable gales of laughter I switched to signing Ho Chi Minh.
And I wasn’t just signing paper. There was more. My signature – or George Washington’s or Who’s in the John’s, signature – meant just what it said. It certified positive testament of having witnessed the destruction of those CDs (classified documents).
And I and my cadre of signature surrogates had indeed witnessed the destruction of those documents.
Every now and then – usually when I felt the need of an entertainment break – I would choose one of the enlisted men, get a side arm issued to me (the only time I had a gun in the war effort was when I watched the CDs being burned) and go to one of the two incinerators on base. There we would put the OPREP4s in the furnace and watch the smoke drift skyward and mix with the greasy black smoke of the other incinerator – the one at the morgue.
I never knew what it was that they burned over at the morgue, but they burned a lot of it, because every day the sky was filled with its greasy black smoke floating up a way and then horizontally down the sky.
Whatever it was that they burned, they also had a lot of something else left over – presumably intact or nearly so human shells – because every day , along with the smoke, there were conveys of flatbed truck loads of coffins going to the air strip to be loaded on C41s.
So signing the CDs was a simultaneously serious and frivolous business.