"Kagnew in the 70s" by Robert Hill

As a youngster, fresh out of Radioman "A" School and new to the ways of the world, I arrived in Asmara September of 1972. I proudly wore my new uniform on the trip over, a mistake as it turned out, when we overnighted in Athens where American sailors weren't that popular. Strolling down Athenian sidewalks with my mates (who were in civilian attire), I was cursed and spat upon by motorist and passerby. This was not as nearly alarming to me as the large number of Athenian ladies who apparently knew me in some other life.

As a "new guy" at the Naval Communications Station (NCS) I was naturally subject to a number of pranks. Fetching a "bucket of line feeds" [for the teletypes] was popular, along with suiting out a newbie with a Garand, helmet etc. to deliver some "top secret" message somewhere. My favorite was when they told me that the Captain liked to see his goats when he came to work in the mornings, so I was to "herd" the goats over to that side of the compound. Quite a crowd gathered at the fence to see if the new guy would get butted by an angry goat. While these were all pretty obvious gags, I felt that not participating in these initiation rituals would probably brand you forever in the eyes of your colleagues, so I went along with everything.

Duty in the comm center was pretty strenuous. The Vietnam war was still raging (albeit soon to be over) and various Middle East crises kept us hopping with large quantities of high priority teletype traffic. The room where I worked fleet broadcast and shore-to-ship circuits was not very large and held at least one hundred clattering teletypes and paper tape punch machines. The noise level and never ending message handling was enough to drive a person batty, indeed, many times I awoke from dreams [nightmares?] tearing invisible paper tape from tireless ghostly machines. It was in this environment that I "witnessed" the end of the Vietnam War, at least in the form of a FLASH message informing everyone of that fact [accompanied by a cheer from the sailors on duty]. My favourite job, as it turned out, was guard duty in a bunker on top of the Comm-center, a quiet respite from the frenetic activity inside.

In March of 1973, the Army's Stratcom facility was being shutdown and Navy communicators were being OJT'd to handle their responsibilities. The Army teletypes were older, slower and louder than the Navy's! I remember one machine that had a very low serial number (00018 or something like that) being sent to the manufacturer to add to their museum. Fortunately, I was picked, along with three other Radiomen ("Wild Bill" Clark, "Buzz" Bronner, Tom Jenkins are you out there??) to train on the National Command Authority (NCA) station that was a part of the Stratcom facility. This was a, then, state-of-the-art communications system consisting of three satellite lines and four 10KW HF radio sets. Our primary mission was to supply high priority communications links to "Air Force One" and other high profile government operations in the area. We were kept particularly busy while Henry Kissinger performed his "shuttle diplomacy" that finally resulted in an uneasy Middle East peace. Andrews AFB could enter our system and "dial up" operation of any of our radio sets so we were seldom forced to actually talk to anyone. Later, an "Autovon" (automatic voice network) terminal was added to our equipment. The neat thing was that when there were no missions active, we had little to do and access to international telephone circuits. This was powerful stuff in a remote duty station. I remember calling the AFRTS radio station and trading telephone calls for favourite song selections (a deal that everyone was happy to make).

Off Duty
As you and your other roster members know, Asmara and the surrounding countryside offered many recreational opportunities. I owned a 350 Ducati motorcycle (bored out to a 405cc) that provided me many hours of on and off road riding thrills and spills. On four wheels, I tooled around in a 1963 Corvair Spider, a real screamer after I paid $25 USD downtown to have the clutch repaired (they pulled the engine and transmission to install a new pressure plate turned out of aluminium). Nogfa, my blue-eyed retired police horse provided me many hours of riding pleasure. The freedom we enjoyed (whether on horses or motorbikes) to "pick a direction and turn around when you run [half way] out of gas or time" was something impossible to match in any time since then. Several friends and co-workers owned and managed to operate a variety of vehicles, a '64 Chevy Impala, a '60 Willys Jeep, a '63 Ford Fairlane 500. One of my most unusual rides was a 1960 vintage BMW 500 Coupe, powered by a screaming 500cc twin motorcycle engine that went pretty fast down hills. I wish I'd kept a hub cap from that one. One of the rubber "u-joints" that coupled the transmission to the drive train broke and proved impossible to replace. That was $200 down the drain but fun while it lasted. My Corvair met it's end after a drunken display of driving skills in front of the NCO club. I ran over a sizeable tree in front of the mess hall that wrecked the engine. (Purists are probably saying that the engine should have been un-harmed since it was in back, but, the passage over the de-rooted tree must have stopped the engine somehow, a bit later on a rod blew). The old girl ran well enough to get me off base un-caught however. Very fortunately, no one was hurt in that display of "skill".

A member of the Kagnew "Rod and Gun Club" I never did get the chance to go hunting or fishing. Much of our free time was spent in and around Asmara, although I remember going to Keren and Gura on "road trips". The road to Masawa was closed more often than not, but, I did get at least three trips down the hill. On one memorable journey, a bee got inside my shirt while motorcycling down the Masawa road. I was very lucky not to have joined the others who perished going over the edge on this roadway. We once visited the "bombed out Italian Fort" that I believe was near the Gura Transmitter site, by horseback. There was also a "grotto" out in the boonies we would drive to to enjoy a swim in the clear, cool water. I don't remember the name or location of that spot but it was a bit of a climb to get down to the water hole.

As I write this, in retrospect, we had a lot of fun in a country and during a time when there was much suffering. I've since learned that there was a terrible draught and much starvation in Eritrea and Ethiopia during the time that I was stationed there, matters that we rarely gave a thought to then. Kagnew Station and Asmara were indeed an oasis for the people privileged to be there. I can only describe most of our attitudes at that time as "arrogant." I still travel extensively (Syria next week, then Egypt, earlier in Oman and Columbia, etc. etc.) and I can say that the arrogance is gone. Americans move about the world as quietly and as unobtrusively as possible these days.

The End Times
With my excellent job and comfortable off duty, off base living arrange- ments, I was quite content to "extend" my tour until my 1976 EOS. This was not to be, unfortunately. Tensions and ELF activity continued to escalate until, at some point, the decision to end American military presence was made. We were all, quickly, trained on the operation of various weapons and taught how to destroy our equipment with magnesium pyrotechnics. Fortunately, we were never called upon to use our training in these matters. The evacuation proceeded calmly and (as far as I know) without incident or injury. In the weeks preceding our departure, every effort was made by the US to settle monetary claims. Our local employees were paid something like 5 (maybe 7, I forget) years of salary as severance pay. I departed on a commercial Ethiopian Airlines flight filled with American sailors. It was, if I remember correctly, the "next to the last" flight out. The last flight was to contain our Captain (CO) and his entourage. We had to pass through a corridor where off base vendors had a chance to settle accounts with individuals before they were allowed to board the plane, a (gulp) tense moment was had by all who passed that way. We got to overnight in Rome for a potential debauch, where we could put to good use the Italian learned in Asmara. [Your author took a whirlwind taxi tour of Rome, I'm afraid.]

All was not entirely peaceful, although I do not think that Americans or our facilities were ever targeted. I was at work one night when my friend and co-worker Buzz, called saying that there was machine gun fire in the streets near our apartments and that he was taking the girls (our girl friends) to a safer place on the other side of town. Our apartment bordered the [old town, off-limits, Muslim ?? area] and there were indeed evidence of bullet impacts on the buildings in that area when we went back the next day. This happened at night and we (guys on duty) went outside and could see some tracer fire (into the air) in the distance towards town. The decision was made to break out the weapons and no key could be found. We ended up hack sawing the lock off of the locker. Fortunately, our station was not attacked in any way and we did not ever have to use our weapons.

Civilian contractors were called in to take over many of the military communications tasks. I'm not sure how extensive this take-over was, but I am only certain that they were to operate the NCA station. I learned later that a truck, with civilians on board, struck a mine on the road to the Gura transmitter site. There were three fatalities in this incident and I believe that it fueled the final withdrawal of all American and contractor personnel.

Robert Hill

By the way, Buzz and I didn't abandon our "caffe latte" girl friends to their fate. In uncommon stupidity or wisdom [I'll never know which] we were unwilling to marry, instead paying an Italian national a sum to adopt our ladies and move them to Italy.


All materials, pictures, whatever, except where noted.
©Copyright Rick Fortney 1999 All Rights Reserved