Tuesday, November 12, 2013

From Screen Saver: A Couple of Follow-Ons to Itazuke

But leaving Itazuke wasn’t so easy. And that was good.

The Operational Readiness Inspection had been nearly over when the Colonel and Ernie had run out of gas – it was conjectured – or had run out of altitude – it was certain - on final. The exercise would probably have had another day to run, at which time the inspection team would have declared it over. As it was, they declared it over the night that the Colonel’s F4 had landed between the second and third floors of the unfinished building on the campus of Kyushu University. Any doubts about fuel having something to do with the double engine flame out should have been put to rest by the fact that the only damage done to the building had been as the result of an extremely large piece of metal entering it with great force. There was no fire. But since that

evaluation was anecdotal and unofficial, and since the Japanese wouldn’t return the plane for official inspection, the prudent course of action from the ORI Team’s viewpoint apparently had been to declare the operation successfully completed, with the evaluation to follow. At least that was what they actually did. A day later the squadron was called together for the ORI debriefing. Unlike a usual squadron briefing, we were all wearing class A summer uniforms instead of fatigues and flight suits. Even the guys who showed up at the coat and tie party without shirts looked respectable. This, it turned out, was serious shit. Careers were made or broken based upon what this team was about to say in the next two hours. The Cotton Pickers didn’t seem like the same group.

The debriefing was going to consist of two components. First, and most lengthy, was to be the narrative of events from start to finish. Second was to be a discussion of any commendable items. The entire presentation would be formalized with a document submitted to Headquarters USAF.

As the team leader started his presentation my mind wandered.

A recurring sub-current of discussion in the squadron from my first day with them had been the possibility of an ORI. Before the Pueblo Crisis, when they were at Kadena they had become overdue for inspection. After they got to Itazuke they became even more overdue. By the time I got there a constant topic of discussion was how overdue they were for an ORI. That topic had even become a discussion item in the daily squadron briefings. I had written off even the remotest possibility of an Operational Readiness Inspection because of the very nature of an ORI. An ORI’s purpose was to demonstrate under peacetime conditions that a unit could operate at wartime efficiency. How could a unit be any closer to executing a wartime mission than the Cotton Pickers were executing daily, I reasoned? We were flying photo intelligence missions every day over North Korea in response to an act of war by North Korea. I had put the thought of an ORI out of my head.

So it was with feeling of total surprise to me and a feeling of relief to everybody else that word went out one day that the ORI team had arrived. Now that the team was on site all the Cotton Pickers had to do was perform. And I had been expected to perform along with them.

The morning of the first day was to be kicked off with a situation briefing as the centerpiece of the squadron meeting. I had found out late in the afternoon of the day before that I was in charge of giving the situation briefing. I was in charge of the intelligence shop and I was a briefing officer by Air Force Specialty Code. That briefing shouldn’t have been a problem. Time magazine and I had regaled some fairly demanding consumers of intelligence at the numbered air force level in Saigon. I ought to be able to blow something by a squadron and a few interloping inspectors. Hadn’t the RF Trio taught me anything? Briefing and entertainment had a lot in common.

But to play a song in front of a screaming crowd I had needed to know the words. The problem with the ORI situation briefing, was that I didn’t know what the situation was. Nor did I have any idea about what a reasonable person might suppose the situation to be. We had a mission to conduct and I understood that – go take pictures of the enemy – but I hadn’t a clue what the “situation” might be. The premise of an ORI was that there was a war on, not a series of daily intelligence gathering photo sorties. Underpinning my lack of any idea about what to say that the situation might be was the assumption that getting up and re-counting the actual events that had put us in our actual situation would not be acceptable. I had assumed that the inspection team would want some plausible description of a plausible, actual war that had brought us to our situation, and hence the briefing on that situation. Presumably that war had started and had caused us to go into action. That assumption and the fact that I was going to have to give the situation briefing in the morning were pretty much all that I had to go on.

The enlisted men were extremely professional and competent. I figured they must know what the situation was. They didn’t know what the situation was either, though. And I had the distinct feeling that they were glad that the Captain was the guy on point for the deal. Joe, the other officer, my barroom friend, didn’t know what the situation was, and I sensed that his vague attitude of displeasure at being supplanted by the interloper from Omaha – that I had sensed to persist in spite of the fact that we had become friends - had departed the scene. I had the distinct feeling that he was glad that Noel was the guy on point for the deal. So I got out a big map of Northeast and Southeast Asia and started looking at it. As I looked I invented the war I would like to have seen; it would have been an interesting, creative war, complete with sinister leaders with sinister personalities. In those days Lee Kwan Yew fell into the sinister category, as did Sukarno. I used them as models for the personality driven war that would be the situation in the briefing that I had begun to concoct. By cocktail time I was as ready as I was likely to be. So I took the bus back to the residence base and joined the Cotton Pickers in the bar at the Club. I was quite worried about looking like an idiot. Worse yet, I was worried about performing so badly that I would be censured. Two drinks into the festivities I remembered Operation Sunrise.

Intelligence training at Lowry had turned out to be my second ego breaking experience in a row. The first had been Officer Training School. At Officer Training School my myriad previously unrecognized shortcomings had become glaringly obvious. I couldn’t march. I couldn’t understand, let alone manifest, military bearing. The military view of world history and world politics seemed to me to be a possible worldview only if you were half crazy and all stupid. One of my OTS classmates who had a degree in Political Science told me once that it was fun watching my facial expressions during lectures. He said he had never seen such a look of utter disbelief on a human face. But I had gotten through it and had moved on. At Goodfellow, with the exception of a make work French class taught by a fellow officer who was on his way out of the Air Force because he was suspected of being gay, I didn’t have any academic exposure, unless trying to make French sounds could pass for academics. In the Goodfellow days I didn’t count French sounds as academic, leaving that ego buster to a later time and place. But Lowry in various forms was all academics; pseudo though they may have actually been, the ruling powers said they were academics. And I wasn’t good at any of them. In one form or another, most of the course content was photo intelligence and interpretation of photo intelligence. We used amazingly detailed photographs. We used photographic exposures of amazingly high resolution radarscopes. The radar was so high resolution that I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t looking at a traditional photograph. We used stereoscopic photographs. For those we needed to use little two lensed foldable stereoscopes. You could identify a real photo intelligence officer by the folded stereoscope he carried peeking out of his shirt pocket. It was sort of like the pocket protector full of pens of a later time and place. We looked at missile sites, both defensive and offensive. We looked at ships and shipyards. We looked at boats and boatyards. We looked at radar and radar sites. We looked at railroads. We looked at steel mills. We looked at whole cities. And out of all of this looking we were taught endless types and categories of things to see and to be able to identify. And we had exercises to test how much we had learned to be able to see and identify. And I hadn’t been able to see or identify much.

We learned conventional weaponeering. We learned nuclear weaponeering. Out of all the tons of classified paper I saw in four years in the Air Force there were only three things I wouldn’t have learned about anywhere else, or that were even remotely interesting. The Air Force Eyes Only document describing the morning of the start of the Pueblo Crisis was one of them. Nuclear weaponeering was another of them. Weaponeering required target knowledge so that one could choose the right type, size and fusing of weapon. All the looking at and identifying of things was supposed to provide us the basis for that aspect of weaponeering. Single targets like buildings or air fields or bridges were conventional weapon targets. Knowing their characteristics as classes of things was pre-requisite for successful bomb destruction of them. For example if one were going after a bridge one wanted a high tonnage bomb with a lot of lateral pressure, and a fuse that would detonate the bomb the moment it made contact with the bridge or just above it so it would take down as much of the fragile bridge deck as possible. There was a bridge in Hanoi that had experienced a direct hit the first time an American plane had gone after it. Unfortunately the fuse was a delay type fuse. The bomb went off in the mud of the river bottom attacking with great ineffectiveness the most durable part of the bridge. We never got that close again. On the other hand, if one were going after a whole city one wanted a high mega-tonnage nuclear weapon with a fuse that would set the device off in the air causing maximum heat and pressure destruction. Both conventional and nuclear weaponeering employed a circular calculator specifically designed to assist in type, size and fusing decisions. And we had exercises to test how much we had learned about being able calculate and destroy. And I hadn’t been able to calculate and destroy much. But the nuclear type of mayhem was at least interesting.

We had learned briefing. We were given situation papers and assigned the task of telling our peers what they needed to know about the situations, and what effect what they needed to know had on their missions. I wasn’t too bad at that.

On balance I had been struggling, but learning enough to avoid being sent to Supply School. Although my ego was not well served by being a slow member of the class I had kept slogging along and the end – poetically described as graduation – had been in sight. The only thing standing between me and it was Operation Sunrise. Operation Sunrise was an exercise consisting of teams that had been chosen by the instructors. Each team got a day – including, it was assumed, the entire night before – to prepare and present a complete intelligence briefing covering all the components we had been taught.

Our team divided out the various functions. I got the situation. This was, I was sure, a tacit recognition that I wouldn’t be able to do an adequate job on any of the major functions. So they gave the weak link the fluff subject. It was a lot like when I was always chosen last for football at recess in grade school. Actually, I was appreciative.

But I hadn’t been willing to deliver a fluff briefing. As we had organized the presentation, I was going to kick it off with a detailed situation briefing. Then everybody else did the real work. Then I was to summarize and tie back all the other stuff to the detailed situation. It sounded easier than it actually was. There was a massive amount of information to remember and to put in the context of the war situation. It was really dry. Since I had nothing but time during that night that we were getting ready for our sunrise presentation, I was able to not only assimilate and organize the information I was responsible for, I was able to think about it and try to put myself into a real situation and try to figure out what the various people, military units and political entities might be thinking, and how they might be thinking their adversaries were thinking.

By the time I was wrapping up for our multi-hour presentation it was obvious to everyone that we had aced it. Several of our classmates made a point of telling me that my approach to the subject matter had made a major difference. One even asked me part way through the summary if I was trying to make it impossible for any subsequent team to look good. I was feeling pretty good about myself until, after it was over, our team leader, a Navy Lieutenant Commander said to me “I could sure tell you are from the West Coast. You kept saying ‘is apt to’ when you should have been saying ‘is likely to’”. I guess that was more in keeping with my six months experience at Lowry than “good job” would have been. I was consoled a few days later when he got his duty assignment to a seal team in Vietnam.

It wouldn’t be until a few years into the next century that I would notice when reading The Small House at Allington that Trollope used “apt” identically.

Nonetheless, as it was to turn out, Operation Sunrise had actually prepared me for the future, although I wasn’t going to know that fact until the ORI at Itazuke.

That thought had passed fleetingly through my mind as I socialized with the Cotton Pickers the night before we commenced the ORI with my situation briefing. It was obvious to me that everything I had done with that Operation Sunrise pretend situation, in the absence of any real hard information to go on, had been right. I thought to myself, “act like you know what you’re talking about. Tell a story. Pretend to yourself that you have read some Time Magazine stories to support what you are saying. No matter what, be sure you give them a show”.

That had always been my philosophy, but I had not had many opportunities in my life to deliver based on that belief. One other event did stand out as I sat in Japan, scotch in hand, pondering those words.

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