TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --
As Veterans Day approaches I find myself thinking about my Uncle Mike. His military service was not very long -- one three-year hitch in the Army. As far as I can tell, almost the entirety of his first two years were spent in training and schools. It is the last year of his service that is both interesting and mysterious.
First, a little background. Uncle Mike was born Harvey Buell Couch in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1942. He attended first and second grades in Santa Monica, California, before the family settled down for a while in Ukiah, California. According to my grandmother, at about age 10 or 11, Uncle Mike decided he hated the name Harvey and would only answer to whatever name he had picked for himself each day. My grandmother, being the practical woman she was, quickly tired of this and told him she would call him whatever he wanted, but insisted he pick one name and stick to it. He decided he wanted to be called Mike and that’s what I knew him as my entire life.
Uncle Mike’s hero was John Wayne.
Uncle Mike graduated from high school in June and joined the Army in December 1960. I was just a month old. My first exposure to him was when he returned home from the Army in December 1963, just after I turned 3.
By this time, the family had returned to Southern California, in Thousand Oaks. My father was a long-haul trucker who was on the road most of the time. My mom, brother and I lived with our grandparents (my father’s parents).
I don’t remember much about this time. I have a vague recollection of seeing him in his uniform once. I have a much clearer recollection of an incident that occurred shortly after he returned home.
The entire family went camping in the Mojave Desert. We slept outside under the stars. My mom, brother and I slept in the bed of a pickup. Uncle Mike slept on a cot. In the middle of the night, we all awoke to gunfire as he was shooting frantically into the air. Apparently one of the many local bats had flown too close and startled him. Forgetting where he was, he immediately pulled out the pistol he always slept with under his pillow and opened fire on the offending bat.
As time went on, I got older and the Vietnam War grew into a major conflict. For the first time in history, we saw soldiers fighting and dying on our television screens every evening on the news. I slowly picked up pieces of Uncle Mike’s story from my dad and grandfather.
I was told that Uncle Mike was a Green Beret. My grandmother told a story about when Uncle Mike was sent to Vietnam. Army officers came to my grandparents’ house and notified them that their son was doing something highly classified and that if anything happened to him, the Army would deny all knowledge of him or his mission. They didn’t know at the time that he was heading to Vietnam. They found that out after he returned. I also found out that he had been in combat in Vietnam and had returned home, all before the U.S. was supposed to have any combat troops there at all.
As I became a teenager, the war grew even bigger. I was now somewhat curious about my uncle’s part in the war, but he didn’t speak of it and no one else in the family would tell me, if they knew, any details regarding his service. To my brother and me, he was always the “cool” uncle who taught us how to ride dirt bikes and took us places.
I should mention that Uncle Mike was by no means the first family member to serve in the military nor the first to go to war. His father, my grandfather, Otis Buell Couch, joined the Marines during World War II and saw combat in Guam, Saipan, Tinian and eventually participated in the Battle of Okinawa.
Many years later, after I spent time in Okinawa, I described my experience there to my grandfather, Otis, the Marine. I described the beautiful green jungle, the crystal-clear waters and the fascinating coral reefs. He told me that, when he was there, most of the jungle had been blown away by naval fire and everything was just choked with mud. He choked up a bit as he described the last days of the battle there and how the Marines used flamethrowers to clear the remaining enemy forces from the caves in the mountains high up on the island.
My grandfather on my mother’s side, Harry Berton Thomas, joined the Navy during WWII and became a Navy SeaBee. He also saw heavy combat and ended up at the Battle of Okinawa. Both of these men survived the war and went on to lead long, productive lives.
The Vietnam War ended April 30, 1975. In 1978, my last year of high school, I took the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery because it got me out of class for a while. I hadn’t given any real thought to joining the military, but I soon found out I scored well and had recruiters from all services calling me. I considered joining the Army, like Uncle Mike, or the Marines, like Grandpa Otis.
Hearing this, my dad and Uncle Mike took me out to lunch one day and seriously discouraged me from joining either one. They insisted that, if I was serious about joining the military, I should join the Air Force or Navy. Their rationale was that, for the most part, these two services have the best facilities, the best food and, if nothing else, I would never have to sleep in the jungle or in a frozen, water-soaked foxhole. I took their advice and joined the Air Force in July 1978, when I was just 17 years old.
Over my 20 year Air Force career, I often spoke with Uncle Mike whenever I got back home. I found out a few more details about his service, but not much. What I did manage to learn just sparked more curiosity. I found out he served in the Army Security Agency and was attached to a Special Forces unit during his time in Vietnam. He said that they were originally sent to Vietnam as advisers and training instructors. He added that as soon as they were “in-country” they took off the white “adviser” bands they wore around their caps and many of them went into the jungle to, as he put it, “blow (expletive) up!”
Uncle Mike died from pancreatic cancer in 2013. I visited him about a year prior and asked him for more details regarding what he did in Vietnam. He told me it was classified Top Secret and that he signed a statement saying he would never speak of it. All he would tell me was that he spent a lot of time listening to radio communications.
Sensing that I wasn’t quite satisfied with that, he did recall one story where he was monitoring such communications from a mobile radio truck in the middle of the night. He heard the latch to the door of the compartment being quietly tried and saw the latch wiggle a little. He said he was pretty sure no one was supposed to be there at that time so he fired a shot from his M-1 carbine rifle through the door of the compartment. He said he never knew what happened to whomever or whatever was at that door that night, but that his sergeant was upset the next day and threatened to charge him with destruction of government property.
This past summer I visited Aunt Kathy, Uncle Mike’s wife, as she had told me she had some things to show me from his time in the Army. When I got there I was shocked; she had his separation papers, a citation, a story he wrote during Special Forces training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and most surprising, a journal he kept during his training at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and Fort Bragg. He kept this journal through his first six days in Korea, until his first day arriving at Camp Red Cloud. This journal provides insight into Uncle Mike’s motivation to join the Army as well as his decision to volunteer for duty with the ASA. It details his cramped and tedious journey from San Francisco to Korea, via Yokohama, on the USS Breckinridge. From this journal I learned that he was counting the days he had remaining in the Army. From the story he wrote, I learned that it was his desire to live a life with meaning that kept him going and probably led him to the ASA.
The ASA was created Sept. 15, 1945. It grew out of the Army Signal Corps which, in turn, grew from various Army signal intelligence gathering agencies all the way back to WWI. The ASA reported both to the Armed Forces Security Agency and the National Security Agency, which had been formed by President Roosevelt in 1952.
ASA operators were trained at Fort Devens. Their work was classified top secret. To this end, their personnel deployed to Vietnam under the cover name of Radio Research Units. Their actual classified designation was Special Operations Detachment. During the Vietnam War, they were trained into three different military occupational specialty codes.
One was the Morse code operators, often referred to as “Ditty Boppers.” They sent and received coded messages. Next were the radio direction finders and communication monitors. They used a variety of in-place and mobile radio direction finding equipment to triangulate and find enemy forces in an otherwise impenetrable jungle. Later during the war this equipment was often installed on aircraft to increase the accuracy of locating enemy positions. Finally, some of these operators were sent to train with Special Forces. In this case, that meant the Green Berets. In Vietnam, these operators were attached to Green Beret combat units and went into the jungle with them. They provided enhanced intelligence on enemy positions, unit size, strength and weaponry. They were assigned to the 1st Special Operations Forces at the time.
Uncle Mike was assigned to the 321st ASA at Camp Red Cloud, Korea, for a short time before deploying to Vietnam where he was attached to the 23rd RCT, 1st Special Forces Group. He received Morse code and communications monitoring training before his special operations training.
My aunt relayed a story he had told her of surveilling an enemy unit in the jungle. They hid in dense foliage and remained undetected as the entire enemy unit passed by within feet of them. Because they had completed Special Forces training and were respected by Special Forces operators, they accompanied the ASA soldiers, were recognized as Green Berets themselves and were subsequently authorized to wear the distinctive headgear. My aunt also said that Uncle Mike had been shot and stabbed but there was never a Purple Heart awarded, as at that time, the U.S. was not officially in combat in Vietnam. She also gave me a citation he was awarded Feb. 23, 1963.
Uncle Mike kept the ASA’s secrets until his death, not caring that most of these actions have now been declassified and live on in several books. Two of the best are “The Sentinel and the Shooter,” by Douglas W. Bonnot and “Top Secret Missions Performed by Elite Commo and Intel Specialists,” by John E. Malone.
Another surprise that came from my aunt was the discovery that Uncle Mike could write. He wrote the following while in Special Forces training at Fort Bragg between April and August 1962. I have transcribed the original document here:
There is no tension in the face of my fellow jumpers but I know it is there. No tension shows on my face either but I can feel it. This is a peculiar form of fear and easy to fight because I know all the time there is no rational reason for it.
Parachuting is a relatively safe way to make a living. The equipment is good, the Air Force is good, and looking around I know the jumpers are good. They are old troopers from the 1st Special Forces group on Okinawa. Most of them have been jumping for years.
So, rationally, there is no reason to be afraid. True, there is a slight risk of breaking a leg and sprains are common.
But the fear is still there building. Not a rational fear but man’s oldest fear, fear of falling. So I can fight it and overcome it. But it will never go away completely. Not in a thousand jumps, not in a million, and certainly not in the paltry 26 that I have racked up since I left jump school.
I know for sure that the same feeling churns in the guts of everybody, two sticks of 18 jumpers each that line each side of the large C-130.
What is it that keeps me jumping? It’s the fear. In an age when most emotion seems compounded of jello, when love is temporary and most lives are empty of valid meaning, this fear and this risk is real. I have made myself do something and it is worthwhile. My life has meaning because I have dared to risk it for something that is worthwhile.
It’s about an hour out now and Bob Starnes who sits beside me nudges me to get into my rig. Bob is a little man and I wonder how he got here, until he smiles. It is the hard smile of a little man who has pushed himself to the utmost, and beyond, to get those parachutist wings. The smile says “I can do anything you can, buddy, and I may do it twice before you start.” It’s a friendly enough smile, just confident. That’s Bob Starnes.
“Time to chute-up,” he says. I reach down and open the heavy canvas kit bag and pull out the chute and the reserve. It takes about 10 minutes to get it on and to help bob into his. Then the jumpmaster helps us rig our rucksack under the reserve and checks the drop line, 15 feet of nylon webbing to lower the rucksack to the ground first so it doesn’t land on top of you.
My carbine is strapped under the waistband of my chute with the muzzle pointing down. The muzzle and bolt have been covered to prevent dirt from getting in. The chute and reserve weighs about 60 pounds. The rucksack weighs 55 more, the carbine six. That’s 121 pounds in all.
It is time to sit down. I look down and wonder if there is really a man under all that equipment.
The jumpmaster keeps holding up his fingers, 20 minutes out, 10 minutes out. And there is nothing to do now but sit there and let the tension build. It builds and builds until it is almost more than you can take. Only six minutes out now.
The crew chief opens the doors and the previously warm aircraft becomes suddenly cool, then chilly, then cold. The jumpmaster stands up in the rear of the aircraft. “Get ready!” he says. Ready?... I can’t wait to get out the door and end this tension. I have to jump now. It’s the only thing that will relax me.
“Stand up!” I heave myself to my feet and look around. All the light are out now except the red “no jump” light by the door and in the tail of the aircraft. Looking out the door is like looking through a time machine or into a television set showing something a thousand miles away that has nothing to do with you.
“Hook up!” I take the snap link of my static line from the top of my reserve and hook it into the anchor line cable. It locks itself into the cable automatically and then for good measure I hook in a safety wire, still thinking about the outside.
“Check static lines.” I run my hand down Bob Starnes’ static line and the guy behind me checks mine. No snags, no catches.
“Check equipment!” Nope. Everything is okay. “Sound off for equipment check!” From the back of the stick comes the count “18 okay!” “17 okay!” Working all the way to the front. Each count is accompanied by a slap on the rump of the man in front, just in case he can’t hear over the roar of the engines or his thoughts, whichever are louder.
The jumpmaster moves into the door now and looks outside to pick up the DZ markings, number 10 cans filled with burning gasoline arranged in the shape of an “l”.
With no lights in the aircraft except the red “no jump” lights the whole interior has an aura of redness. When the light changes to green “jump” you know it. The jumpmaster goes out, then the next man. The stick starts to shuffle forward like a train leaving the station. Then the man in front disappears. I don’t see him move. It is just that one moment he is standing in the door and the next he is gone.
And then! “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand.”
Even while my mind said no my body was going out the door. Faster than it can be said I feel the wind blow my body horizontal and the ties that hold my parachute together snapping to release the canopy. There is no opening shock with a T-10 chute.
I check the canopy, okay. Then I start looking for other jumpers. I have to pull on my left riser to pull away from a man on my right. I hit the quick release on my rucksack and it drops to the end of its 15-foot drop line, jerking me slightly in the harness.
The ground is coming up fast and I grab the risers, bend my knees and get my feet together. No time to enjoy the ride. Don’t look down you fool. Keep your eyes on the horizon.
Plop, the rucksack. Whap, my feet hit the ground, followed all too quickly by the rest of my body rolling automatically into a PLF (parachute landing fall).
A few bruises, but that’s all, no sprains, no breaks. I release my chute harness and roll out of it. It takes a minute or two to get the chute in the kit bag.
I pause for a moment to catch my breath. My knees are still shaking slightly, the long shuddering release from tension. I look at my watch, grasp the carbine in my hand and trudge off into the dark. There is still a long night ahead. The end.
This is the story I have been able to piece together regarding my Uncle Mike and his service to his country. This Veterans Day remember those in your family who have served. Take an interest in their story if they are willing to tell it and try to write it down if you can so that it may be passed on to future generations. The Vietnam War generation is aging and they won’t be around forever to tell us how it really was.