MY ARMY EXPERIENCES, PART VI: The Big Move:
It's May 1958 and we were closing down Camp Oji and heading for our new home at North Camp Drake, on the outskirts of Tokyo. I sat in the rear of a staff car, squeezed between armed guards and clutching the heart of an encryption machine that until moments ago was busy handling coded messages to and from listening posts around the Pacific. As soon as we arrived, it was immediately plugged into the new circuits, and its mission continued.
So the new communications center (in the Little Pentagon Building, photo above) was up and running, but what about us? Back at Oji we had a fairly comfortable life. Here we were distraught to discover that we had no quarters of our own, but were put in with a regular army unit that lived in barracks. BARRACKS! This would never do. After the first few days Major Meares, our commander, asked me to come with him, bringing a notebook and pen. At the corner of the post was a fenced off compound, and in that stood a three-story steel and concrete building that was about a block long. AND IT WAS EMPTY! Apparently this was built during the Korean War for the Counter Intelligence Corps, but since abandoned. The major had keys, so we entered and explored the room layouts. I made notes. This was perfect! It could not have been designed better for our needs. After about a week of negotiating, the major got permission for us to move in. Hallelujah!
First, a word about our organization. Our new outfit was called the Joint Communications Relay Center Japan, or JCRC-J. It was a part of the Army Security Agency (ASA), which was a secretive military arm of the NSA. As conceived, we were to provide joint operations with the Air Force Security Service and the Naval Security Group, but this never worked out very well although for a while we had both Air Force and Navy personnel assigned to us. About a year or so after I left, in the early 60s, it became a strictly ASA unit and the name was changed to USASACU-J (U.S. Army Security Agency Communications Unit Japan).
What was unusual about the ASA was that, although it was a part of the U.S. Army, it was also highly independent and did not come under the normal chain of command. As a result, it was an attractive alternative for guys who were about to be drafted, did not want to be "real" soldiers, could meet the qualifications for a top-secret security clearance, had a fairly high IQ, and were willing to sign up for three years instead of the two that the draft entailed. The reward was a much more comfortable and interesting life. The ASA was founded in 1945 to intercept enemy communications, crack codes, and provide secure data transmission for the intelligence community. It was disbanded in 1977 after much of its function was taken over by computers.
I worked at a desk in the orderly room, just off the main entrance. Sharing the room with me was First Sergeant Wells and Mary Ann, our secretary. Adjacent to this was another office used by Sam, the personnel clerk, and Edmund, the security chief. The first office across the hall was used by Lt. Hutchins, our adjutant. Next to that was the Japanese employees' office headed by a local man called Gus who also served as our translator. And his secretary. A mail room was next to this, then the commander's office. Down the hall the other way was the arms room, staffed by Charlie, and the supply room, staffed by Sergeant Hicks and John, the supply clerk, plus their secretary. Rest rooms, storage rooms, and an unused mess hall accounted for the remainder of the first floor.
We lived upstairs. The second and third floors were divided into six sections, separated by soundproof fire doors. Each section had its own staircase, so people working one shift wouldn't disturb those of other shifts. Did I mention that our operations were continuous, 24/7/365? Without letup.
I was on the third floor, sharing a room with one or two other guys. This was the day workers' section, made up of administrative and equipment maintenance personnel. I worked Monday through Friday, 8 to 4. The photo on the right shows a corner of our room, with my stereo setup. I soon replaced the turntable with a much better one. The shirt on the right is mine, and that fan kept us cool.
My roommate for most of my stay was named Boylan. Oddly enough, he was not a member of the ASA, but was a Russian linguist assigned to a tiny intelligence unit about which I know nothing. My lips are sealed. He had been staying with the outfit in whose barracks we first bunked, and when we moved to these relatively luxurious quarters he sort of tagged along. Anyway, Boylan was a fun guy who played popular Russian music and subscribed to Pravda. Also, he had an MG-TD to toot around Tokyo with. That's him in the photo on the left, fixing the car, which always seemed to need repairs. Anyone familiar with those TDs knows about the wooden body frame that rotted and the strange Lucas electrical system. But it usually worked, and got us downtown a few times a week. More about those little adventures later.
I also had a car, but it was not as much fun to drive. At the time, in the 1950s, all Japanese cars were tiny little things. Rich businessmen wanted something better, namely European or American full-size sedans. To protect their own industry, Japan put an incredible import duty of 200% on cars, making American cars cost two or three times what they would in America. But there was a loophole. Service personnel could buy cars with no tax and no shipping charges — and resell them tax-free a year later as used vehicles for twice what they paid. The trick was to pick a model that was in demand, use it for at least a year, and then find a buyer. So I got this 1958 Plymouth 4-door (photo, right) for $2,000 and in late 1959 disposed of it for over $4,000. Of course, I had to share the profit with the officer who loaned me the money in the first place. But I still made a nice bit of change and had a car to drive all that time.
Interested in photography? Check out my "Assisting Avedon" blog.