NAF Naha, Okinawa
By: Jerry Blackerby
When I enlisted in the Navy, I wanted to be a radio operator, but also to fly in flight crews. The Navy had a job for aviation electronics technicians and aviation radio operators. The Navy merged the two jobs into one and everyone became aviation electronics technicians, known as AT, with the school near Memphis.
My first duty assignment after school was NAF Naha, Okinawa. When I arrived at Okinawa, I found out there were too many of us who were ATs. Three other ATs were working as technicians at the Communications Center.
The Communications Center always tried to have a shift supervisor, at least two teletype operators and a radio operator on duty, except during a mid-watch. Although, I was trained as a technician, I worked as an operator and later a shift supervisor because the Communications Center had an excess of technicians and I could type and also copy Morse code.
The first shift was from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., called the day watch. We then had eight hours to rest before going back for the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, called the mid-watch. After getting off at 8 a.m., we had another eight hours rest before working the third shift from 5 p.m. until midnight, called the evening watch. We were then off for 56 hours before starting the cycle again.
When our staffing was low, we worked three-section duty and had only 32 hours off instead of 56 following the evening watch. We worked this way around the clock, seven days a week.
The day watch was fairly routine, with a lot of people working in the Communications Center. The maintenance people normally worked days only and all of the officers were in during the day.
The most hectic watch was the evening watch. In 1952/53, when the supply department ordered anything, each line item had to be ordered in a separate teletype message. Some days, we would have 500 or more supply messages to send out during the evening watch. Each message had to be typed, cutting a teletype tape. After a tape containing several messages was ready, a person would start transmitting the tape. We tried to always complete all supply messages before the end of the evening watch.
The mid-watch was usually quite. Once an hour, around the clock, we would check with all stations on our net, either teletype or radio, to confirm that all traffic either direction had been received. Some mid-watches, this would be almost all of the actual work, the once an hour messages.
Many times on a really slack mid-watch, we only kept one teletype operator, one radio operator and the supervisor on duty and gave anyone else a break. Sometimes the shift supervisor would also cover for the teletype operator or the radio operator, if they could copy Morse code, which would be only two people on duty during a mid. Some of the shift supervisors could not copy Morse code, so the radio operators had to work most of the mids.
Sometimes an operator could nap on a mid-watch. A good radio operator can be napping and when they hear their call sign coming in, will wake up and respond.
Our old teletypes in 1952/53 had keys like a typewriter. An operator could open the top of the teletype and let their fingers hang over inside the teletype. If a message began coming in, the teletype operator would feel the keys striking their fingers on the way to the paper, in addition to a bell indicating an incoming message. We used that method, because the hourly confirmation messages usually did not come in ringing any bells.
I was assigned to work for a 2nd Class Petty Officer as an operator. Our barracks (Quonset hut) had a continual poker game going of people who were off duty. I decided to try my hand at poker and began losing.
My supervisor was one of the best poker players I have ever met. When he discovered that I did not know much about poker, he began teaching me during our mid-watch (midnight to 8 a.m.) After a couple of months, I became a pretty good poker player and began making a little money at the game.
As a teletype operator, my typing speed increased dramatically. I could copy code adequately. I learned the procedures of the communications center and became the assistant shift supervisor.
A Radioman coming out of the Navyís Radioman school had to qualify at 18 words per minute copying code and most new graduates could barely copy at 18 wpm. The class I had as an Aviation Electronics Technician, I only had to qualify at eight wpm, although I could copy better than that.
We had a couple of old-time radio operators who could copy 20 to 30 wpm. One had started out in his younger days copying blinking signal lights, which cannot be copied as fast as sound can. We had a neon bulb above the transmitter, connected to show that an RF signal is going to the antenna. When the old timer would begin to catch sight of the blinker in his vision, he would slow down his sending to get to a speed that could be read visually. He would slow down for a few moments, then remember and speed back up. He would repeat that process periodically. It was funny to watch him get frustrated.
The old timer enjoyed bugging the new people who came on board, fresh from school. When newcomers would be introduced, he would turn a speaker on and send a little code, slowly at first to see what response he could get from them. He would start asking them questions with Morse code and would gradually speed up until they could not copy.
One time as he speeded up, a newcomer kept replying orally to his questions until he finally asked him how fast he could copy. The newcomer replied that he was out of practice, but could probably copy 50 wpm. The supervisor and everyone just laughed, but the old-time radio operator quickly told them that the newcomer was copying faster than he could send.
It turned out the newcomer had been a Ham operator (W4TFR at that time) since he got his license as a young teenager. He had learned Morse code when about eight years old, because most of his family were commercial radio operators in the Norfolk area. He could consistently copy above 50 wpm. Press stations sent at just above 40 wpm and he coasted while copying press for the fun of it. He helped me get my Ham license.
We had a bunch of nuts working over there. One of the guys was called Ski because of his long, unpronounceable name. We had what is called Cinderella liberty. We had to be back or at least on the road back by eleven at night. One night after partying late in our Quonset, Ski decided that we should all go to the village.
We knew that we could not go out the gate because of Cinderella liberty, but could cut across the rice paddies. There was only a native guard on that route. The unarmed native guard refused to let us come across. Ski went back and took the rifle from our local guard, who worked for him, and fired a shot in the air. This was during the Korean conflict, so the weapons carried on guard duty were loaded. The native guard allowed the group to cross the rice paddies.
Some of us stayed in the barracks area because we were afraid to go with them after that. When the duty officer arrived to find out about the rifle shot, we were lucky. The duty officer was our Communications Officer. Ski got reamed out good the next day, but no actual disciplinary action.
If we were in the village and wanted to stay longer, we hid out when the AP's and SP's checked the tea houses (bars). Several of us knew the paths through the rice paddies between the villages of Oroku and New Suji and would sometimes run from the AP's across the rice paddies. We could lose them doing that.
The rice paddies were fertilized with human dung and there were Binjo ditches around the paddies that were full of dung. Boards were across the Binjo ditches along the paths. One night four of us took off in a dead run ahead of two AP's and an SP. Two of us were in the lead. As we neared one Binjo ditch, the two behind us yelled but we kept going. The boards were not there. We ended up knee-deep in the ditch. The other two had moved the boards to try and cause the AP's to fall in. We told them to keep going, so they got away.
The AP's showed up and shined a flashlight on us. They took us back to our base sitting on the back of their vehicle. They dropped us next to the head (bathroom) Quonset hut. They told us that we should probably just take a shower with our uniforms on to get cleaned up. They did not put us on report, because they said we had been punished enough. Of course, they also warned us to never try and set them up again or they would make life miserable. The things we did in our youth!!
One time, three of us were off in a remote area of Oroku village. Around 10 PM we decided to head back. It was a long walk. As a flat-bed truck passed us, we decided to hitch a ride. One guy caught up with the truck and jumped on the bed. The other two of us didn't make it to the truck. The truck was going downhill and getting further away. Our friend was sitting on the back facing the rear. When he saw that we could not catch up, he just launched himself off with his hands, forgetting that he was facing backwards. His feet hit the ground but his momentum flipped him up in the air. He turned a flip in the air and landed flat on his stomach and face. His uniform was torn and he had road rash all over himself. He was so drunk he did not feel anything at the time, but he sure did the next day.
One time, three of us were off in a remote area of Oroku village. Around 10 p.m., we decided to head back. It was a long walk and we were all half drunk. As a flat-bed truck passed us, we decided to hitch a ride. One guy caught up with the truck and jumped on the bed. The other two of us didn't make it to the truck. The truck was going downhill and getting further away. Our friend was sitting on the back facing the rear.
When he saw that we could not catch up, he just launched himself off with his hands, forgetting that he was facing backwards. His feet hit the ground but his momentum flipped him up in the air. He turned a flip in the air and landed flat on his stomach and face. His uniform was torn and he had road rash all over himself. He was so drunk he did not feel anything at the time, but he sure did the next day.
Dad had told me to always take an upper bunk, because others would not come by and just sit on my bunk. He had seen a person sitting in their shorts on someone elseís bunk and scratching their crabs. Some of the crabs migrated to the other personís bunk.
We had a man who contracted crabs and did not go to sick bay to take care of them. He scratched all the time. Once while he was sleeping, after a mid-watch, several of us got ready to dose him with DDT. Several men grabbed his arms and legs and spread-eagled him. One stripped his boxers down and I sprayed him with a DDT bug bomb. He finally broke loose and ran to the Quonset hut head or latrine to wash it off. He came back fighting mad. Everyone stood together and told him that if he ever did it again, we would repeat the process. We never had to.
We moved the communications center and our barracks location a few months after I arrived at Okinawa. The day of the move, I took over at the new location while my supervisor was in charge at the old location. Just after the old location went off the air, I received a priority message that one of our planes had been shot down. I delivered the message and did everything the supervisor should have done.
A few weeks later, I was assigned the job of shift supervisor when my supervisor was transferred back to the States. We lost airplanes twice during my shifts and I delivered the messages. I also was on duty when the cease fire in Korea message came in and delivered that message to the commanding officer.
We went through several typhoons during my tour at Okinawa. I was on duty for the duration during every one of them.. We lived in Quonset huts, which were designed to withstand typhoons. Being on duty at the communications center was actually good, because we had auxiliary power so never had to live through a typhoon without power.
Once, communications lines were down and we needed to get teletype messages from the relay center about 30 miles away. The Chief and I went in his personal car to deliver and pick up message traffic. That was an experience, being on the road in that typhoon.
After a little over a year, I was transferred back to the States to join Patrol Squadron 57 (VP-57), which was at Whidbey Island, Washington.
I left Okinawa on a flight to Tokyo. I had a few hours layover before my flight to San Francisco. I called an Air Force Ham operator I had met on the air. He invited me to his ham shack., which was the second floor of a garage building with stairs up the side of the building. We visited a while and he contacted my old crew back on Okinawa at KR6LX.
I was talking to my buddies when the floor seemed to undulate like a wave in the ocean. The other ham hit a main breaker, grabbed me, causing me to drop the mike. He dragged me out the door and down the stairs. When we got to the ground, I asked him what was wrong.
He said we had just felt an earthquake. We stood around for a few minutes and did not feel any more tremors. After a little while we went back upstairs and turned everything back on. Then he called the guys at KR6LX on Okinawa and told them what had happened. They were a little worried because I had been in mid-sentence when the power was cut.
That was the first earthquake I had ever felt. A few hours later, I left Tokyo on a flight to San Francisco.
Copyright © Jerry Blackerby 2008, 2009, 2010