I arrived at Karamürsel Air Station, Turkey, early in the summer of 1964, (Here is a YouTube video of Karamursel in 1964 that brings back many memories) I was finally going to work for the Air Force with almost half of my four-year enlistment already behind me. After Basic Training, I had gone to Indiana University for nine months of intensive Russian language school. That finished my first year. Then I went to Radio Intercept School at Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas. Halfway through the class at Goodfellow, Bruce was born in Vallejo, California. My first born was almost three months old when we finally met.
By the time I finished at Goodfellow AFB, another half year was gone. After Goodfellow, most Russian radio intercept specialists were sent overseas to a duty station. Happily for me, after relaxing through my first two years of college, I had joined the Air Force, married Marilynn, and immediately and miraculously was transformed from a lazy fun-lover into a hard-working student. At Indiana University I finished third in a class of eighty of the brightest guys I ever met, then first in my class at Goodfellow.
Unbeknownst to me, that earned me a selection to attend a specialized radio intercept school at the National Security Agency (NSA), Fort Meade, Maryland, called J-School. There they taught us about copying Russian missile test activity. Upon completion of J-School, we had only four possible base assignments: Karamürsel, Trabzon, and Samsun Air Stations in Turkey, and Peshawar Air Station, Pakistan. I finished top of my class again, and I knew that earned me the prized first choice of assignment. I chose Karamürsel, at that time the only one of the four where I possibly could have Marilynn and Bruce join me.
Traveling in civilian clothes (called Category Z), required at that time when going to a base in Turkey, I waved goodbye to Marilynn and Bruce and boarded a Boeing 707 (I think it was Trans World Airlines – TWA) at San Francisco International Airport. It was a passage to unknowns, my first experiences of living in a foreign land. I was leaving Marilynn and Bruce behind, after our three months together in Maryland, probably not to see them again for six months or more. Still I wasn’t sad, and I wasn’t worried. I had this sense of happy adventuring, of impatience to see what came next.
The flights I took to get from San Francisco to Istanbul were adventures in themselves. First stop was New York, to change to legendary Pan American flight 002 that went from New York eastward around the world to San Francisco, while Pan American flight 001 flew the reverse route.
That Pan American flight was my most memorable. None since have been better. The meals were especially good, served by young, pretty stewardesses, who at that time thought they had glamorous, exciting jobs. Stewardesses then were the envy of young ladies because they traveled to interesting, exotic places, they were very poised and professional doing their jobs, and, oh yeah, they attracted the attention of men of all ages. For their poise, their bearing, their beauty, they deserved it. Although a pale imitation, Singapore Air is the closest of the modern carriers to the good old days.
Enroute we had a short stop at Heathrow Airport, London, and then at Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In those days passengers went to their aircraft by bus or walking, and then went up portable stairs into the plane. At Belgrade my plane parked on the apron about 200 yards from the terminal, and a cabin door was opened and the portable stairs were placed to allow some passengers to disembark, and others to come aboard.
We had been warned that the Yugoslav government was very sensitive about their airport security, because the Yugoslav Air Force shared the Belgrade airport with commercial aviation, and for that reason no photo taking was allowed. After passengers left, and new ones boarded, I went out onto the top of the stairs to stretch – and surreptitiously take some photos with my 35mm camera.
I snapped a couple, and then noticed near the terminal doors that a plump woman in a frumpy brown uniform saw me taking pictures. She raised her arms to signal me to stop, and then started trotting across the apron from the terminal towards my plane, all the while waving her arms in an “X” pattern as she ran.
I ducked back into the plane, went to my seat and ditched my camera in the overhead bin, pulled a blanket around me, and pretended to sleep. I have no idea what the uniformed woman did, whether she climbed the stairs, whether she entered the plane, whether she talked to anyone. I kept my eyes shut, and didn’t hear anything unusual.
Soon we started on the last leg of my journey, to Yesilkoy Airport, on the north shore of the Sea of Marmara about ten miles west of Istanbul. After picking up my suitcase and duffel bag from the baggage claim, I went to a transportation desk operated by the US Navy, and a Navy van took me to the ferry landing at the Galata Bridge, in the heart of Istanbul. The Galata Bridge I saw was built on pontoons in 1912, and connected downtown Istanbul to the area where the Great Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Mosque, and Topkapi are located (and the area where Alice and I stayed for a week in 2008, including a day trip to Yalova. I didn't recognize anything in Yalova; the house we had lived in was torn down and replaced by a multi-story apartments building.)
In researching this story, I learned the old pontoon bridge was replaced with a modern bridge in 1992.
When I got out of the Navy van, a Turk came to me and indicated he would carry my bags for two Turkish lira (a few pennies less than a quarter). I agreed, and followed him to the ferry ticket booth. There I quickly purchased a ticket, and turned to get my bags and board the ferry. The Turk and my bags were no where to be seen!
I started to panic, and looked around me, and noticed arms waving from the ferry. It was the Turk, with my bags, already on the ferry, and having the bags checked into the storage compartment of the ferry. When I got on board, my Turkish porter greeted me with a big smile and handed me my claim check.
I paid him two Turkish lira, then two more as a tip – and out of relief. I had just begun learning something that was of great value for me during my year in Turkey: that Turks were very friendly and honest, even though at first impression they seemed dour and rough. Invariably, after a few moments of exchanging broken Turkish and some simple English words and phrases with a Turk, we would both be smiling and laughing, and the Turk would invite me to sit and have a cup of chai with him.
The trip by ferry to Yalova, on the shore of the Sea of Marmara directly south of Istanbul, took about three hours with a stop at Büyükada (Big Island) on the way, where cars are banned and transportation is by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage.
I found a seat in the ferry’s passenger cabin, where there were long wooden benches with backs like the pews of a church. Across from and facing me were two pretty young ladies sitting on an identical pew bench. They both sported form fitting knee length skirts, and high heels. I was surprised to see such modern, and even daring attire, on young ladies in Turkey, and I smiled at them politely when we made eye contact. They had quite an effect on the Turkish men sitting next to me, and next to them. The men couldn’t keep their eyes off the young ladies’ crossed legs, and they kept nudging each other with their elbows and chatting amongst themselves as they stared.
That’s when I learned another side of Turkish males. If a woman didn’t look like a demure mother, wife, or sister, she would be the subject of constant stares and rude remarks and gestures. American women in Turkey soon discovered this for themselves, if not from another American wife at the base, and for the most part gave up wearing jeans and shorts.
The ferry docked at a pier adjacent to Atatürk Plaza (Atatürk is revered as the modern Turkey “Father of his Country”). After a short wait, a Turkish bus under contract to the US Air Force picked me up and transported me to about fifteen miles east of Yalova to Karamürsel Air Station.
“Welcome to TUSLOG Detachment 3” the sign at the main gate informed me. I took in the newness and the strangeness of entering a base guarded by Turkish soldiers and passing flagpoles flying the American and Turkish flags. I reported for duty at Building 101, Base Headquarters, presented my orders, and found I was assigned to Baker Flight, and my room was on the second floor of Dormitory 502.
(Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I found a copy of the brochure I received upon my arrival and linked to it here, here, and here.)
Radio intercept duty at Karamürsel Air Station was conducted on a 24 hours a day, seven days a week schedule of rotating shifts covered by Able, Baker, Charlie, and Dog Flights. Each flight would begin the cycle by working three swing shifts (5-12 pm), 24-hour break, three mid shifts (12-9 am), 24-hour break, three day shifts (9am – 5 pm), a 72-hour break, then start the cycle all over again.
I checked into my room and found I it contained four beds (two double bunk beds), four metal lockers, and two roommates. One roommate was an average height, thin, very friendly Stump Jumper from West Virginia, Don Bennett. The other roommate was a bit shorter and heavier than Don, wore glasses, also very friendly, but quieter than Don. I think his name was Joe Cook. In a few weeks we were joined by The Kid from Altoona (Pennsylvania), who was short, muscular, also friendly, and very brash. They were all “Ditty Bops” (Morse code intercept specialists, Air Force Specialty Code [AFSC] 202’s), and I was the only “Squirrel” (Russian language intercept specialist [AFSC 203X1]. I couldn’t have had nicer, more agreeable roommates.
I didn’t get to start in Operations (radio intercept) immediately. The first several weeks for each new arrival was spent doing odd jobs while waiting for our security clearance paperwork to arrive and get processed through Personnel. My first job while waiting was “Turk guard.” The Operations building was being expanded, and two Turks were laying bricks – slowly – to build the new addition. My job was to sit and watch them to make sure they didn’t go where they weren’t supposed to, and to make sure the loudspeaker carrying the programs of the base radio station was playing loudly in the work area to drown out any noise from inside Operations.
After an uneventful week as Turk guard, I was assigned to Site 6, the radio direction finding installation located about five miles west of the base near the runway where a C-130 aircraft would land almost daily to deliver and pick up mail and handle other time-sensitive things. My job there was not as exciting as guarding Turks. My sole function was to listen to any frequency carrying voice for which radio direction finding was requested, and all I had to do was determine whether or not the speakers were Russian.
In the two weeks (about 80 hours) I “worked” there, only one request for an identification came in, and my part only took about a minute. However, I read about one Mike Hammer novel a night from the pile of paperback books at Site 6, and I wrote Marilynn a six to ten page letter every day.
I also had a lot of time to read her letters, which she also wrote daily and which were invariably longer than mine. There were many reasons hers were longer. She just naturally wrote long letters, and had written me daily when I was off at college the two years before we got married. She also had more to write about, like how baby Bruce was growing, what he was doing, what a sweet baby he was. Then there was news about her family, and my family in Point Arena. Also, Marilynn had taken a Heald’s Business School class to be a key-punch operator, and immediately after completion she got a job working for the telephone company. Since she was living with her parents, she was able to save almost all her earnings to buy the airline tickets for her and Bruce to join me before Christmas, 1964.
For my part, I was saving a large portion of my small Air Force pay to rent and furnish a house for us in Yalova, and to have it ready for Marilynn and Bruce when they joined me.
After almost a month of mind-numbing time wasting “jobs,” my security clearance completed processing and I reported to work in Base Operations. I started on a mid shift, midnight to 0800. The first stop was the security check point at Base Ops. A Turkish guard handed me my security badge, a 2x3 inch metal plate with my picture, name and rank etched in it, which was hung around the neck and displayed at all times while in Base Ops. My next stop was the radio intercept room, which was dominated by three rows of radio receivers (an R-390 for HF, and an SP-600 for VHF/UHF) and reel-to-reel tape recorders. At the top of the three rows was the command section, where the officer-in-charge and his senior non-commissioned officer had their desks. At the other end was the transcriber area, where the Russian voice tapes were placed on reel-to-reel recorders and typed in Russian “transliteration” by two of the senior voice intercept operators.
In the middle of the back row were the desks of the trick chief (TSgt Ed Mathias) and his A1C assistant, Dick Weeks.
Due to the poor quality of reception, and the low state of the recording art at that time, the transcribers were alternately squeezing their headsets against their ears, reaching up and manually spinning the reel back a turn or two, then typing what was heard (or at least what they thought they heard) with crashing strokes on the manual typewriters to make legible copies on the five-ply, inserted-carbon rolls of paper.The chattering sound the tape made when it was manually reversed back through the recorder heads gave rise to the nickname of Air Force linguists worldwide, “Squirrels.” The guys who nicknamed us Squirrels were the “Ditty-bops,” the Morse Code intercept specialists. Because of the workload and peculiarities of Air Force manning requirements, the Ditty-bops always outnumbered and outranked the Squirrels they were stationed with.
That part of being outranked seemed odd. We Squirrels were trained a full year more than the Ditty-bops, at a far greater expense because of the nine-month period in Indiana, Syracuse, or Yale. However, because of that longer period in training, Squirrels usually weren’t eligible for a program the Air Force called “Two-T,” which stood for two consecutive remote-duty overseas tours, because they were either married or didn’t have enough time left on a four-year enlistment to complete a second remote tour.
A remote tour was one to a smallish base that lacked many family support facilities, so remote tours were generally only twelve to eighteen months long. Because of the expense and difficulty of manning short or remote tours, the Air Force had devised the Two-T program. If an individual was accepted to the Two-T program during their first remote tour, they would get an immediate promotion to Airman First Class (E-4), finish that remote tour, go Stateside on thirty days leave, and then go to their second remote assignment. When they reached three years time-in-service, they were then spot promoted to Staff Sergeant (E-5). Because of the hardships to families due to consecutive remote overseas assignments, only single airmen were eligible for Two-T.
For those not eligible for early spot promotions, the normal promotion cycles in the early 1960s were farcical. One E-4 stripe would come down every six months for a field of 200 eligible E-3s. The lucky recipient of the promotion would not necessarily be the best performer, but would be the best performer who had opted for re-enlistment.
Pre-Vietnam, the Air Force and the other services were still laboring under the Korean War personnel “hump.” Military manpower had been increased rapidly during the Korean War, promotions were equally rapid, then came the draw-down period following signing of the Armistice Agreement in 1953. Many first-term, low-ranking military returned to civilian life, leaving the military top-heavy with sergeants and officers. Unlike the officer corps, where excess officers could be given the choice of resigning their commissions and entering enlisted service, the excess sergeants could continue in service until retirement.
Many did, and it was not unusual for a top performing enlisted man to have almost twenty years of service completed while still an E-4 (Airman First Class).
My first day on the job actually was a night, the beginning of the cycle of three consecutive mid- or graveyard shifts lasting from midnight until nine in the morning. I passed through gate security into base operations, and reported to my Non-Commissioned Officer-in-Charge, Technical Sergeant Mathias. He gave me a friendly welcome, and introduced me to the other Squirrels on Baker Flight and briefly described their duties.
Then he introduced me to our Second Lieutenant Officer-in-Charge, who also greeted me warmly. I wish I remembered his name (I had confused his name with Captain Pribyl, our Detachment 3 commander at the Indiana University language school). He and his wife were very nice, very friendly, and he had absolutely nothing to do with the technical operation of Baker Flight. He wasn’t a linguist, had no experience doing any of our radio intercept tasks – in short, he was charged with administering us, not supervising our work.
Naturally the guys nicknamed him, quite unfairly as “Lieutenant Zero,” after the hapless Private Zero of Beetle Bailey cartoon fame.
Not long after introductions, our Assistant NCOIC, the chubby A1C mentioned earlier, came to me with my first assignment, to coordinate the LEHOR by having everyone on Baker Flight review it and sign off on it. Unfortunately, I was not cleared for LEHOR, not even to know what its initials meant, so I couldn’t read it, just take it around for signatures.
The point was emphasized, and reemphasized, that this report was highly classified, and that it was very important for me to have everyone sign off on it before the end of the shift. I took my job seriously, and began immediately to get it reviewed and signed off.
However, each guy I took the report to seemed more interested in chatting with me about his experiences, my experiences, sports and other items in the latest Stars & Stripes newspaper, and only reluctantly would review the report and sign it.
Usually with a comment like, “Not yet, but I’m sure it will soon,” or “It’s been so long, I can’t remember the last time,” or “Right now, it’s happening right now.”
I didn’t have the slightest idea what they were talking about, and I was getting concerned about finishing before the shift ended. I felt greatly relieved when I got the last signature and comment, “Damn, I lost it an hour ago,” with about fifteen minutes to spare.
I hustled over to report completion to TSgt Mathias and his assistant, and he said, “This is really unusual, we better show it to the lieutenant.”
“Sir, Airman Combs has something you should know about,” and he handed the lieutenant the LEHOR.
“This is very interesting,” said the lieutenant, and handed the LEHOR to me.“You’re new, but I think you can add to the report too.”
I was bewildered, but with them all looking at me expectantly, I opened the LEHOR, and found I had spent the evening getting acquainted with all the guys on Baker Flight by coordinating the Late Evening Hard-On Report.
Now I understood their comments. And smiled weakly while everyone laughed, and shook my hand, and told me how glad they were that I was now one of them.
And as my embarrassment faded, I felt myself relaxing and I soon went to one of the guys I had hurried to get to sign off, Airman Second Class (like me) Patrick Murphy, who seemed to be the guy I would eventually be replacing.
Patrick told me that was right, that he would finish his four-year enlistment and be leaving for discharge in about four months. I also found out that Patrick lived in Yalova with his wife Midge and their young son.
I mentioned that I planned to find a house and bring Marilynn and Bruce over as soon as we could afford the airline tickets. At that point Patrick invited me to visit his house, talk to his landlord about renting it, and suggested that I might also want to buy his household goods when he moved out. It sounded like I was getting off to a good start to bring Marilynn and Bruce to Turkey.
(I'll be adding more. Please be patient. Although this all happened only half a century ago, it still takes a bit to bring it back.)