Story 7 - Spooks and Secret Stuff


 By Peter Brown, 110 Sig Sqn, South Vietnam
(18 Dec 1967 - 19 Dec 1968)

Peter 'PJ' Brown


110 Sig Sqn, Vung TauThe night was dark and stormy, no really it was, it gets stormy in the tropics and that is a vital part of the story in addition to that it was nasty year in 1968 for ionosphere’s (not as bad as next year but that’s another story). The crux of the matter was that for High Frequency (HF) Telegraphic transmissions, reception of messages was difficult to impossible on some days and not much better during the night, when one would have normally expected a quieter more agreeable time.  

During the day the sun creates a natural noise line and a transmitted signal must overcome this noise line to get through to a receiver.  Any spurious noise natural (lightning) or otherwise causes the signal to be distorted and the message to be garbled.  Strangely enough there was no known jamming of our signals although this would have been easy enough.

The result of the above conditions is that the operators at each relay point routinely read messages to ascertain if they are suitable for onwards transmission.  The Saigon / Melbourne link was a high priority circuit and most traffic was monitored in this way and usually all messages were monitored off the HF circuit.  Whereas only a portion of the traffic was needed to be monitored on internal VHF/UHF Radio Relay links, they being less prone to noise induced problems.  As a result of expected garbles in transmissions operators would look at the traffic and if an obvious word or phrase was garbled then it was permitted to be changed to reflect the intention of the sentence.  Other wise no changes is permitted to an originators message at all.  Any message with obvious faulty text was `rerun’ from the last transmitting station by request of the receiving station. This led to some; quite reasonable but unquestionably wrong changes made to messages in transmission and some confusion as to the depth and breadth of the operator’s responsibilities. 

And so the stage is set and that’s a good word for it. Your hero (me) plays a pivotal role as always.  Well perhaps a few characters need introduction.  The Communication Centre (COMMCEN) shift was divided into three trades as was usual in those days.

The Switchboard Operator, who had a separate room for his example of modern electronic wizardry, the manual switchboard that had the codename “EMU”.

The Operator Shift comprising a Corporal and three Signalmen.  All Operators or Operators Keyboard and Cipher.  

The Duty Technician whose ranks were usually either Signalman or Corporal.  That's me - Blownie!

110 Sig Sqn, Commcem, 1ALSG, Vung Tau

We were all dressed in long greens sleeves rolled down in mortal combat with the duty mosquito.  And as it happened, a pulloverbecause the air-conditioning was working and just keeping pace with all the heat producing electron valves used by most of the equipment of that era.  It was late but pre code change time when `Bloss’ the Operator shift supervisor came in to see me.  I was diligently studying the printing on the log book pencil. “Brownie” he said.

 “huh” I replied reaching for my glasses.      

“The boys in Saigon said to give you a look at this as you’re the most experienced bloke on duty tonight” I felt quiet honoured until I realised that our total experience didn’t amount to much and I probably was.  He handed me a punched baudot tape section with the characters printed on the side.  I had a quick look and although the address group was ok but the text looked a bit crook I couldn’t make out any text at all.

“Put er through the page printer and lets have another look” I said.  Whilst we were waiting for it to print Bloss explained that the supervisor in Saigon had given him a call and said he had received this message and it looked all garbled to him so he had asked for a rerun and got it and whilst it was changed it still looked suspect to him maybe a fault in the cipher equipment.  And that was the reason for calling me as I was probably the only one on that shift, in country, that had experience working all of the current cipher machines.  We both had a good look at the message it was three pages long the address groups at the head of the message looked good, a few minor garbles but substantially correct strangely it was addressed to a unit in Nui Dat that we hadn’t heard of nor could we find it in communicators lists of address so that was probably a garble as well.

The page printer clunked into life and we all looked at the resulting print.  The line feeds and carriage returns were in the right places and the whole header group looked good.  The text contained no heading and simply launched into what appeared to be continuous figures and lots of brackets and a few dispersed characters.  There were enough carriage returns without line feeds to make us suspect that this was simply a badly garble message.  I explained to Bloss that on the types of equipment that we were using the more likely answer was the HF link to Melbourne was having a difficult time. He said that he would tell the supervisor in Saigon and they would try another rerun.  Shortly after that I heard the K Phone wind up and the night alarm in the switch go off.  Then I could hear the ring converters start up in the line equipment located in the racks behind me. Hmmn hourly checks completed so noted in the log book and the pencil looked to be a bit of a puzzle I think I’ll inspect closer

Buzzzz. Bugger, the  SB-22 Switchboard in front of me dropped an eyeball and the audible alarm went off.  What now!   Hmmm I look up without raising my head, it’s the switch I plug the operators line cord into the appropriate jack indicated by the eyeball and answer “system control” - no harm in letting them know whose boss. “Emu here Brownie” replied the insubordinate bloody switchie “the Saigon SCO wants to talk to you”.  Click, as he puts me straight through.  I wonder why he uses the switch and not the direct line but leave that to the god `Jimmy’ to work out.

 “B B Blue is that you” I recognise the dulcet tones of Grahame Old.

Yep” I answer

“have you had a chance to look at that message?” he asks


“I‘ve talked to receivers and they say the link sounds good not much fade and good clear signal and it should be ok”

“that’s a bit odd ” I say “the text is total crap, what’s the channel check look like?”  

“good” he replies “five by five”

 “what about engineering channel quality  tests?”  I ask

 “good as well about one garble in twenty lines”

Well that just about proves all our equipment at this end both the HF link and the telegraph equipment are proven good. “send a couple of long tests on the operators channel and then all we can do is wait for the rerun” I suggest to Grahame.

“yep will try that see you later after the change?”

“oh shit I had better get the safe open” I say looking at the time and noting that we have fifteen minutes to go till the allocated time for code changes. All stations will be off the air till then and there is nothing more we can do.     

“I’ll get started” I say “see you afterwards”

“Roger” Grahame rings off and so do.

I looking forlornly at the safe containing the codes these things are the bane of my life had a new bum reamed not long ago when I couldn’t open the safe and was late for the changes.  Bugger Bugger Bum.  Hope the bloody thing works tonight. I sit on the chair in front of the little safe containing the current codes and start twisting the dial. Five turns left and stop on the first number four turns to the right and stop on the second number three turns to the left stop on the third twice right past sero and then turn to the left to unlock.  Bloody hell missed five minutes to go to QRT (close) and then the clocks starts ticking my new bum.

Got the bloody thing.  Out with the code books check the right month check the right circuits one for us and one for the yanks.  Get the keys start pulling down all the circuits, the Operators have already closed the circuits and are waiting for the code books.  We are allowed a short period of grace if things go wrong and they occasionally do but that’s another story.

Three quarters of an hour later all circuits have been tested and fives sent all backed up traffic generated over the outage period is now starting to come through.  The operators start to clear that and I fill in the log books lock the codes away and do a few hourly meter readings.  There is no sign of the message and as it was only a routine message there was a 24 hour delivery time on the message and it hadn’t expired as yet.  All three trade groups cleaned up for the oncoming shifts and since there was very little happening the weird message got a mention by itself and would probably been passed onto the COMMCEN  Supervisor when he came on duty at 0700.   We the unwashed dismounted and headed to the mess for breakfast then to bed before the tropical sun made it too hot to sleep.  Back on duty at 1800 we were interested to see what had happened.   The straight answer was,  nothing much the day shift had had a heavy day and the message had been put on the back burner although the rerun had come through but as yet no action had been taken.

The time period for delivery had definitely run out so I called the System controller in Saigon and asked what had happened.  He said that things were too busy to worry about it at the moment as he was in the COMMCEN helping to push tape.  Hearing this I had a word with Bloss and since we were not yet at full speed I suggested that we get all three copies sent down to us and we would try and make a complete copy from all three by comparing the common elements in each message.  Bloss got hold of the shift supervisor and the other two copies were sent down and we set about comparing the copies.  We started out by putting the three tapes together and looking through the punched holes this in effect wasted half an hour and proved pretty useless.  So we decided to run off three page copies and compare them all by giving one to each person.  We then each read a line a half line at a time and the text that appeared three times was pretty near going to be the original.

Baudot Code

This proceeded with some difficulty as we had not seen any thing like this before and I mean any of us.  Although the comparison was relatively easy as most of the text was appearing the same three time running it was just that we could not make head or tail of it.  There were groups of numbers almost like off line encryption and then there was plain text saying things like sum result and divide by following then further long figures and then there were trigametric symbols that were spelled out.  (There is no provision for mathematical symbols in baudot code nor in the print head characters.)   We completed the task ands all of us started to smell a rat.  This was beginning to look as though the text was correct or at least as the originator had intended it to be.  We however had grave doubts as to which was correct there were a number of possibilities; either the originator had intended it to be this way, as we now suspected, and a private code was being used, or we had an unusual fault or a transposed message.  A transposed message was not unusual as the computer message switch (STRAD) quite often dropped the memory core down a track or two and messages occasionally got tagged onto unintended addresses.  Or it was still just a common garbled message from further down the stream also not an unusual occurrence.

So what to?  Do decide to recommend to Saigon that they rerun the message on more time upgrading the priority to immediate. After that we organised got a special engineering patch.   I called Graham Old and asked him to meet me on the normal circuit by encrypted  means (uppers to the initiated).  This meant that we could both have a natter using the keyboard but have the safety of having the subject hidden by the ciphering machine.  This we did pretty quickly and I explained my and now our doubts as to the validity of the message.  There was one other factor that puzzled us and that was the inclusion of so many figures in the text supposedly from a Signals unit to another Signals unit.  This we knew was impossible for professional Signalers as everybody knew that you do not send streams of figures as text in a message.  There is just too much danger of an important group getting garbled.  All figures should be sent and spelt out in words to avoid the danger of misinterpretation.  Wouldn’t do to have a digger overpaid what?   We waited for about two hours and then the signal turned up like a bad penny or piaster if you please.  It was substantially the same as before so now we decided to hold the message.

We had two reasons one was that it looked like a private code and two we didn’t know the unit it was addressed to. This came at about 0400 so rather than wake everybody up we waited for the day workers, and all the nobbity nobs to come to work.  It was with some surprise that our conclusions were supported.  We then went off shift and to bed with a clear conscience.  When we came back on  there was a note to hold the signal until further notice.  The next day we had off, it was a shift change over what to normal people would be a Saturday for us working soldiers it was a work day under directing of either the duty officer or the SSM. You remember the ones?  Burning the dunnies, refurbishing sandbag walls or building new bunkers.  It was during these delightful duties that Bloss and I noticed the orderly room filling up with officers we didn’t recognise.  They seemed to be very buddy buddy with our lot,  in fact they seemed to be having a good laugh. It was Bloss that noticed the spook amongst them.

“Brownie” he said  “isn’t that the bloke that ordered all you technicians to put monitors on the telephone lines”.  I was startled and had a closer look.

“Bloody oath” I said “ the very same”.  We hadn’t been in strife for well over three days, this is not looking good for the record books.  This was the turkey that had bought an eight channel tape deck into the COMMCEN and ordered the shift technicians to randomly monitor the telephone lines that were connected by the Radio Relay links to Nui Dat and Saigon. We all refused saying that to bring a tape deck into the COMMCEN was against all COMSEC rules and only incidently breached our concerns about privacy.  The higherarchy explained that security over the radio links was suspected of being poor and that we would monitor them and report all breaches of security.  We of course had the last say in the matter and it was as usual “yes sir” if you blurr the sir bit you can regain some element of self identity.

However this bloke was thick with these unknown officers, almost as if they were in the same unit.  They disappeared towards the COMMCEN and reappeared a short time later with a secure brief case and then disappeared altogether.  We never saw them again except for spooky when he came to get his tapes and said nothing about anything as usual.   Bloss and I were summoned to the COMMCEN Supervisors office and told that the signal had been hand delivered and we were to speak no more about it.  Blosss quite correctly raised the issue of the unknown address group and was told that that would be fixed by an amendment to the relevant orders.

All of this had not gone unnoticed by the rest of the unit including some Senior NCO’s and even a few officers.  We being the central characters could only repeat what we had been told.  However nobody was going to leave it at that. Our sister unit in Nui Dat was 104 Signal Squadron and they routinely sent parties down to VungTau for rest, scrounging and general nefarious activities. The first time one of them turned up in our boozer (The Sand Bagers Inn, what else?), we resolve to pump him full of booze inwards and information outwards. Lucky for us the first one we tried was one of the guys who happened to know there were secret units out there.  He explained that we had a monitoring party operating from NuiDat and he thought the operated some non standard radios as they had been asked for parts at various times. This was not the whole story of course but we resolved to stick with it . Various parties came to rest in our boozer (no pun intended) and it took about three more weeks to eventually put the story together.

It turns out that there is a secret unit up there they are operating radio direction finders and as it happened an early type of computer to resolve the direction of the receiving antenna onto a bearing to the (enemy) transmitting station.  This bloody signal was what all computer pukes these days would recognise as a program upgrade.  We quite correctly identified it as a private code, which it was, and as a consequence delayed a very important message.  It didn’t occur to these berks to put a heading line in the text to say something to the operators like ‘the following text is to be passed unchanged’ or something like that, no that would have revealed their units identity and perhaps what they were doing, well that plan didn’t work very well did it.

Our shift started up again and we heard nothing more about the signal despite the fact that any other signal that got delayed then the offending shift was very quickly matted.  As postscript we technicians got used to the tape deck and there were some conversations that were serious breaches of security.  However I wouldn’t put it past that lot to have their mates generate some so as to keep us guessing they were that type of loveable blokes.  Maybe as a consequence of their activities and reconnaissance patrols there was a series of B52 raids on the Long Hai Hills.

PJ Brown

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