First to Communicate


"Reflections of an Old Soldier"

MG (Ret.) Robert D. Terry

September 4, 2004

Old friends, at the head table and where ever you are seated, General Boutelle,  ladies and gentlemen:

Before making a few remarks tonight, I want to thank Emmett Paige for his work to create the 1st Signal Brigade Association. This Association is already off to a good start. It can:

a. preserve the history of a unique signal organization,

b. provide a bond between the people who made it great, and

c. record the accomplishments that, in the pages of history, will speak for themselves.

I also want to thank Roy Busdiecker and Merv Norton who, have worked together to create a fine web site for the Signal Brigade. This can be an effective instrument for the association and a suitable reference for the Army Historical Center at Carlisle.

We are greatly indebted to the three of them for the leadership and work that led to this reunion. I think that they deserve a standing ovation.

In July after being invited to speak tonight, my mind wandered back through many memories, then turned to the present. Our army, fully deployed and perhaps over extended, fights the war on terrorism whose outcome will define our future.  General Boutelle must have this fight constantly in his mind.

The costs of war permeate the budget and the wounded quietly recover in the wards of Walter Reed. We have not yet seen the devastation and human losses that the Civil War, World War I and World War II produced. Perhaps they may come. War is a very uncertain thing.

The press,in many cases,distorts the news from areas of combat and makes difficult the analysis by the general reader that could provide a clear understanding of the issues, goals and progress. Letters from soldiers and junior officers that I have read indicate that they understand the importance of this war, believe that they are succeeding, and have confidence in their leaders. Once again the individual soldier in our army has met the call of duty and humbled each of us in respect for the sacrifices made.

Concurrently, we are in the midst of a heated, political campaign. The overblown rhetoric and partisan views are as old as the republic itself. Here tonight, I expect there are those who support each of the major parties. One development, which is not new, showcases senior officers supporting one candidate or another. In my view at least, this practice tends to politicize the Officer Corps.  Many polls continue to indicate that the public respects the integrity of our Officer Corps to a very high degree. We cannot afford to lose that respect and with it the trust of the American people.  General George C. Marshall set the example. The Officer Corps swears to uphold the constitution. That is it; nothing less and nothing more.

 Am I saying we should not vote? No, we certainly have the right and the obligation of every citizen to vote. You may say General Marshall refrained from voting. His biographer states that. This was a practice carried over from the old army of the early part of the century. He was certainly effective dealing with congressional delegations of both parties and he took no actions that politicized the army whether on active duty or after he retired.

In the midst of these major developments, we are all old soldiers gathered together in reunion. we have heard our share of inspirational speeches, marched up many gangplanks and on to many aircraft, thrived on K or C rations, then shared a bottle of Jack Daniels, checked our soldiers, cleaned our weapons and snatched time to write a quick letter home... does that sound familiar?       

Tonight, let’s focus on the past.  Can you think of a better time to tell a few war stories?  I plan to tell a few.  I will focus on the Signal Brigade, perhaps not as you knew it, but certainly as I knew it. Maybe afterwards, you will have some of your own stories you will want to share. Fortunately there are enough of us here, that all of our stories are apt to have witnesses present. That should keep us all reasonably honest.

Thirty eight years ago, we were building up our forces to preserve South Vietnam and defeat the North Vietnamese effort to take over the country. Without rehashing those troubled years, you all know the results, the United States withdrew and North Vietnam took over. Our military forces met the challenge; our civilian leadership and the congress did not.

Many books have been written about that period from almost every viewpoint. General Bruce Palmer’s book, The 25-year War, America’s Military role in Vietnam, I found excellent, comprehensive and balanced.  Colonel John Bergen’s book, Military Communications, a Test for Technology, published by the Army Center for Military History treats the Signal Brigade and the overall electronic battlefield in a comprehensive, integrated and detailed manner. John Bergen did a fine job. I hope that he is here tonight.

Let’s go back to 1965. After deploying to the Dominican Republic with the XVIIIth Airborne Corp as the Corps Signal Officer, and a brief tour of a few months as Chief of Staff at Fort Monmouth, I received orders to go to Vietnam. The Army Staff, DCA and STRATCOM provided briefings. I flew to Vietnam in early January 1966 with the mission to establish a Signal Brigade and to take command of it. Some of you here tonight remember those days.

At that time all three services had communication troops deployed there doing their individual missions. Some of you will recall that COMUSMACV, in October 1965, sent a memo to the Army Chief of Staff pointing out the disorganized nature of the communication situation and making recommendations. As a result, the JCS sent General Starbird, as head of the DCA to survey the situation and recommend what should be done. At the same time the Army Chief of Staff sent a team headed by Major General J.C.F. Tillson to review internal army communication organizations in Vietnam. Based on General Starbird’s recommendations the JCS directed the Army to put in place a theater system to serve all services and the DCA to create an expanded control center. Navy and Air Force communications unique to their missions were kept in place. As a result of General Tillson’s report, the Chief of Staff directed the organization of what became the 1st Signal Brigade.

Before continuing, let me digress for a moment. The build up in Vietnam started in the early 60’s. Various elements of the Signal Corps, responding to theater requirements, had planned diligently for major communication systems that would be needed. The Integrated Wideband Communication System was under construction, Thailand and Vietnam were connected by a tropospheric scatter link. There were other major projects completed or underway. I entered the picture in the midst of a buildup in communications already started by some of you in this room.

When I arrived in January of 1966, the Army had the 69th Signal Battalion spread all over Vietnam providing tactical communications and elements of the 2nd Signal Group, 11th Signal Group and 39th Signal Battalion deployed to handle the strategic communications. The major relay station at Phu Lam was in place and functioning. Bob Myer commanded the 69th. I never saw our signal troops spread more thinly and still get the job done. He did an outstanding job then and he only got better as more stars came his way.

The whole communications picture was fragmented and had to be put into some kind of focus. The task of forming a Signal Brigade had to get started. I saw no suitable officers to pull into the process without hurting our efforts to provide communications. Then, I saw orders for the Executive Officer of the 50th Airborne Signal Battalion to come into theater. He was ordered to MACV. I saw General Lotz, the MACV   J-6, made my case and got then Major Bodman diverted to join me in the effort to create the Brigade. Later we were joined by others. Bodman and I had worked together in the XVIIIth Airborne Corps and in the Dominican Republic. We made a good team and the job got done. After 6 months of the most intensive kind of staff work, and the Brigade well started, I arranged for Major Bodman to go to the 1st Cav Div as Assistant Division Signal Officer. He had been indispensable.

During this period many key issues arose. Progress with the IWCS seemed slow and the then, civilian General Manager for Page Communications seemed not up to the task. We needed badly the IWCS to provide the circuits to control combat activities in a timely manner. The Air Force depended on frag orders.  Something had to be done. Merv Norton formed a project office in the Brigade. Emmitt Paige drove the project in the Electronics Command. I stepped in. Shortly thereafter, Doug Carter arrived to become the Page General Manager and progress accelerated.  People are key to getting things done.

Talking about the IWCS, many of you remember the sites associated with that system. One of many worries that occupied our minds from the date I arrived was the possibility that the NVA or VC would understand their importance and take them out. Pr’line up near Dalat provides a classic example but it was not the only one. It was carefully fortified and dug in. an ARVN rifle company was deployed on site as local security. Supporting artillery fires were preplanned to provide additional assistance in case of attack. But, it was vulnerable. The first time I visited Dalat I slept over night in the local hotel. It was very comfortable but I slept little with my pistol near my hand. About 6 months later, we had 8 civilian employees and one soldier from the 362nd Signal Company killed in an ambush on the road between Pr’line and Dalat. Two soldiers were decorated for their efforts to defend the convoy. Security being a real priority, early on General Palmer assigned an Infantry Lt. Col. that I made the Brigade Security Officer to ensure we had the best defense arrangements possible at these isolated sites. It appears that these early preparations paid off at the time of the Tet offensive.

Being old soldiers you all are well aware of the kinds of problems that had to be overcome. STRATCOM, under General Meyer had been given the mission for strategic communications and, like any good soldier; he was determined to carry it out. On the other hand US Army Vietnam had a war to fight and General Engler as General Westmoreland deputy, and charged with supporting the combat effort intended to do just that. A host of issues were overcome. Backchannel messages worked very well in those days. We finally came to an issue that had been a back burner issue for some time and that repeated discussions with both commanders failed to resolve. General Meyer insisted that the Brigade wear the STRATCOM patch and General Engler and General Norton insisted it wear the USARV patch. A War Department team came to USARV to resolve a large number of unit designation issues and as they closed out their meetings, the team chief came to see me and we talked the situation over. Between us we worked out the design that the Brigade wears today. He agreed to approve it for DA and I approved it for USARV & STRATCOM. Neither of the commanders ever discussed the decision with me after that and the issue was resolved.  You know you always run the chance of getting fired with those type decisions.

All of you know that the best results follow when a commander involves himself in the details of unit activities. The Signal Brigade was no exception. Early on I determined that I had to know how well we were performing our communications role. Fortunately Major Gust arrived and shared this goal. We built a Command Communications Control Center next to DCA and Walt Gust worked every day to measure circuit and network performance. He developed charts to show trends and these helped pin point problems. The results gave us a quantitative basis for taking action.  Once again, the job got done because of a good man, with initiative, unfettered by needless guidance.

At about the same time I organized an early morning daily briefing by operations. Gene Renzi will remember these sessions. The additional requirement that I imposed was to have group commanders available at the same time at their own operations centers. By a quick phone call any problem that appeared could be addressed promptly with the commander concerned. Only later did I find out that this set in motion a chain of briefings by commanders of battalions and smaller units for the same purpose. The technique proved effective.

Do those of you who were in Vietnam in 1966 remember the difficulties of telephone communication in Saigon?  Nothing we were able to do seem to make the system work better. In addition to problems with the switching system, the cable system absorbed water like a sponge.

I had been Exec of the XXII Corps Signal Battalion in Germany in early 1945. We made good use of the installed telephone system, most of which was underground and in good shape. Saigon and Vietnam presented an entirely different problem.

Finally we hit upon the idea of creating a Telephone Management Agency. To staff it, we went after graduates from the AT&T course that the Army Signal Corps had been using to train Signal Officers in fixed plant communications for a long time. Col Van Sandt, at DCSPER, helped greatly and soon we had a team that had the right background that could get the job done. The switching and the cable system both demanded attention. Work started on a new automatic switch. The cable system needs strained army resources. Cable repairmen were in short supply. Some one had decided we wouldn’t need many.  Cable repair parts would be ordered, shipped, and disappear into the Log Command Depot. Again and again a special order through PACFO on Okinawa followed by direct shipment, kept us going. Once again, faced with difficult problems, getting the right person, giving him full responsibility, and letting him go at it, worked. The situation got better. That was a fine day when we cut over the new automatic switchboard.

Another issue that required special attention was technical training. Soldiers arrived poorly trained for the equipment we expected them to operate. DA had said that no training schools would be established in theater. None the less we had to do something, so we set up special classes that proved successful then added more classes. Eventually we had a very much needed school supporting theater needs. Some of you may also remember that during WWII in AFWESPAC we also had a Theater Signal School. First, it trained our own soldiers; then, as demobilization thinned us units we trained Philippine soldiers and civilian employees to replace our departing soldiers. It proved to be very effective there also.

Even in those early buildup days, we could see the need to get ARVN signal units better trained so that they could meet their own needs. We paired US and ARVN Signal units and encouraged them to work together. I am not sure how successful this effort turned out. There was certainly a wide gap in training and capabilities at that time. I am aware however that our Group and Battalion Commanders made a continuing effort to help these units.

During this early period, we received fine support from the Army staff, the Electronics Command, USARV and STRATCOM. I want to emphasize, the progress that was made and the success achieved depended on many people in all those organizations.   Lt. Col Van Sandt, whom I mentioned earlier, in DCSPER, could be counted on to provide the right people to meet our key needs. Emmitt Paige at the Electronics Command could always be counted on.  We could turn to pockets of Signal Corps expertise imbedded in the new organization of the Army to produce results.

The Army had reorganized but the commanders in the field sometimes turned to the old channels to get things done. When General Depuy, at the 1st Infantry Division, fired his Signal Officer he didn’t consult me. But when he needed a new one he did. My phone rang. I found him Jim Rockwell. Rocky turned out fine and went on to wear three stars. Of course there is a sequel to this story. A few months after Rockwell had been at the 1st Division, the phone rang. Rocky was calling. General Depuy wanted new command consoles for his command group Hueys, and he wanted them now. Rocky’s message was, you put me here; now help me out. Fortunately, there was some one that could help and did. Rocky’s job was safe.

Those are all the stories I plan to tell. But, before I close, I want to salute the women who held our families together, who kept our kids on the right path, who struggled with finances, and who coped with emergencies --- while we were at war with the 1st Signal Brigade. No medals came their way to recognize their efforts, but I would like to say thank you ----- a heartfelt thank you.

You old soldiers here tonight served in the Signal Brigade at many different times and under many different circumstances. You have your own war stories and I hope you will share some of them later. It will come as no secret that as I stand here on my 84th birthday, I am immensely proud of the 1st Signal Brigade and the officers and soldiers who served with it.

May god bless you all  ---   good night. 

1st Signal Brigade Association