BY DANIEL H. DAWDY
I joined the Air Force when I was seventeen, after graduating high school in 1964. I remember some news at that time about Vietnam, but it certainly wasn’t a major conflictyet. I enlisted for a selfish reason: to get some education in electronics in exchange for my service.
Very shortly after finishing Basic, the conflict in Vietnam began to look much more like a war. But the wheels were in motion for me to attend electronics school at Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Miss., so that’s where I went. By the time my electronics school had finished, many of my fellow airmen graduates were assigned duty in Southeast Asia, but not me. For some reason, I was given a Cold War assignment stateside. My duty station was North Charleston AFB in South Carolina as a ground radio equipment repairman.
All ground radio equipment supporting the 444th Fighter Interceptor Squadron was in an off-station building referred to as the GATR (Ground Air Transmit Receive) site. That’s where I was assigned. It was gated and fenced due to its critical mission in air defense. The station’s radar towers were similarly protected, but they were all on the main grounds.
Our voice equipment (receivers, transmitters, and related power supply) were all World War II vintage. That meant vacuum tubes, heat, and cooling fanslots of them. It was a noisy place to work.
We also had a more state-of-the-art (for that time) pair of transmitters that sent flight data to the aircraft. Each had a large footprint inside our site. One was always online as the master and the other was on hot standby. If the master failed, the logic knew to switch over to the standby.
It was a very loud, scary event when it happened because the controlling relays physically switched over a lot of power. The most frequent failures were the rectifier tubes, which would often glow cherry red and then fail. Replacement had to be done wearing asbestos gloves, and in a cabinet with high voltage so that the system could go back up right away. The electronics training came in very handy.
My Air Force service prepared me in many ways for life. The electronics training allowed me to get several civilian jobs. The GI Bill helped me get through college. The most valuable thing I learned was how to fend for myself and have the confidence to do it.
As time has gone by and I’ve had time to reflect and research all of this, my perspective on my service has matured as well. Since it was during the Vietnam Era, in many ways I identify with fellow veterans who were in country, even though I was safe and sound in South Carolina. I often wish I’d gotten orders for Vietnam, but I know someone up above was looking out for me. I now see the value of our nation’s Cold War program and how effective it was, and I’m proud to have been part of that.
I offer my greatest appreciation and thanks to those of you who served in Southeast Asia. I’m truly honored to be in some way in your company as an Era vet.
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