Listen To The NCOs

By Lee Dixon


After I got my commission my dad said, "Lee, listen to the NCOs. They know what's happening; and if you take care of them, they'll take care of you."

I don't know how he knew so much about it. Because of his flat feet and rhumatic fever as a child, he flunked his WWII physical for the draft. As it turned out, it was some of the best advice he ever gave me.

I was fortunate to work with a lot of truly outstanding NCOs, but one that really stands out was a TSgt named Otis Surret. He was older than most of his contemporaries, so he must have started a little late. He was a black man of average height, chiseled in the shape of a wedge, and as hard as a rock. He was the Senior Director Technician (SDT) on our crew; but to understand that, and understand TSgt Surret, requires some background on activities in the darkroom.

The darkroom was where it happened. It was where the operational element of the island (a Control and Reporting Post) met the outside world. We were Portcall. The other sites around us were Paris (a Control and Reporting Center and our bosses) at Tan Son Nhut, Peacock at Pleiku, Panama at Monkey Mountain, and Pyrimid at Bam Me Thout.

The darkroom, as at all the sites, consisted of a huge back-lit, plexiglass plotting board that was about 10 to 12 feet high and 30 feet wide. Airmen stood behind the board with headsets on and plotted tracks, posted the weather, and updated the status of all the missions in our area. This required knowing how to write backwards--a skill I learned from the airmen by going back there late at night many, many times; and a skill which I can still do to this day.

In front of the plotting board was the surveillance section, where the airmen watching radar scopes would tell those behind the plotting boards what to post.

A twenty foot long dais was next consisting of a raised plywood platform with a permanently attached desk or podium that was covered with plexiglass. You could sit at this structure, which had banks and banks of ten-line boxes. A ten-line box was two rows of five switches and tiny lamps with a handset connected to it. When the phone rang, the lamp glowed white; when you answered it, the lamp glowed red. With the switch up, you could patch two callers together to talk to each other.

This table was the Senior Director (SD) and the Senior Director Technician's (SDT) domain. If you were sitting in the SD's chair and he came in, you were expected to get up. If you didn't, he'd probably say, "You're in my seat."

All of the ten-line boxes and telephones were the link to the outside world. Here was where you could talk direct with other radar sites; airfields from Phan Rhang to Phu Cat; the Direct Air Support Center (DASC), which controlled the Forward Air Controllers; and many other people.

There were two more levels, behind the SD, where the radar scopes were that the lowly weapons controllers and their technicians sat. That was where I hung my hat.

We worked ten hour days and fourteen hour nights. Nights were slower but never stagnant; days were hours of assholes and elbows.

"Listen To The NCOs"

The first day I walked into the darkroom, I saw a TSgt sitting at a scope with a headset on. He was talking with airlift airplanes (or trashhaulers) and helicopters. He wasn't trying to follow them on the scope, just log them in where they were going and log them out when they left.

He had about three pages of single line entries open at once. It was constant talking by him or the people on his frequency. I listened to this for about ten minutes and turned to the guy next to me. I told him he might as well send me home now because there was no way I could learn to do that. It was unbelievable.

Well, as you've probably figured out, I did learn and even kept track of a few of them on the radar scope. But, not all of us could.

We had a 1/Lt arrive from the Philippines to assist us when we were overloaded. He tried and tried but never was allowed to control without supervision. When he went home early, they sent him to Wallace Air Station, Hawaii, for more training. We all asked ourselves, "What's wrong with this picture?"

Needless to say, there were days that the darkroom was nothing short of controlled pandemonium. Most of the individuals had learned to cope with the turmoil of several phones ringing at once, controllers yelling at people who were slow in responding, and people sorting out whose crisis was most important.

Sometimes it was like triage on the airways. For example, we might have multiple flights returning to Phan Rang, Cam Rhan, and Tuy Hoa all at the same time. Each flight would consist of four aircraft, requiring three to five miles in-trail separation, arriving at a particular point in space before being handed off to the Ground Control Approach people at the bases. To hand them off, the lead fighter was told to "flash" his transponder; and the fighter's position was relayed to GCA. You also had to keep the airplanes out of areas where artillery was firing.

Most of the time, there were thunderstorms in the afternoon. When this happened, the F-100s at Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa, and Phu Cat needed additional assistance because they had no airborne radar to see the best way to fly around the storms. At the same time, you would send fighters outbound to contact airborne Forward Air Controllers (FAC) in little O-1 Birddogs or O-2 Skymasters. Often you would send the fighters over to the FAC's radio frequency; and in a minute, they would be back with you because the FAC didn't answer. Your job wasn't over until you got them talking to each other.

At one time, our Operations Officer was a fellow nicknamed "Boom Boom." He was a major that had been promoted above his level of competence, and he tried to get qualified to control unsupervised-- but I'm not sure whether he ever succeeded. We knew we were in trouble the first time an aircraft checked in on his frequency and he said, "Squawk flash. State your present position at the current time."

I mean, shit, where else would they say they were?

"Oh, we're over here; but a half an hour ago we were down there."

Sometimes Boom Boom would take the place of the Senior Director. That was a sight because, when the SDT, like TSgt Surret, was busy on the phone, the SD would answer incoming calls. I remember seeing Boom Boom with a telephone to each ear and trying to figure out where to put a third one. We had suggestions but didn't make them.

I don't know if Boom Boom was working when we got this call from down at Paris from someone we couldn't understand. That wasn't uncommon. We didn't have any Vietnamese Air Force personnel at our radar site, but most of the other ones did. When it was important and you couldn't understand the guy on the other end of the line, you always said, "Put a GI on, put a GI on."

Well, this day, the guy on the other end of the line was a full Colonel in the U.S. Army that was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He didn't think it was funny. He was so mad, I thought he was going to climb through the phone and destroy everyone's ass in the room.

When Otis Surret was born, the Lord must have put his hand on his shoulder and said, "This man will be a calming influence wherever he goes."

I've never seen anyone that could do so many things right at the same time amid chaos and never get excited. His job included keeping a written log with everything that happened. When all hell was breaking loose, the log might fall behind; but, when things calmed down, you could look back, and it would all be included in the log. This included the initials of the person on the other end.

Most of us had learned that the most common initials were DGT. Months before, I had asked someone why so many people had the same name. That's when I learned that DGT was "Didn't Get Them."

Late at night, it would get pretty quiet; and we'd sit there and tell each other things from our past lives. Otis told me a story I've never forgotten.

When he was a young airman, one of his first assignments was at a radar site on a Texas Tower. Anybody ever heard of a Texas Tower? When the cold war started, the U.S. needed as much warning as possible from the impending bomber attack from the Soviets. These platforms, called Texas Towers, sat on the edge of the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean. Air Force personnel stayed out there for days at a time, working and sleeping. Then another group took their place.

Otis had been out there for a few months; but when he wasn't working, he stayed with his sister. One night, on his time off, he sat straight up on the couch, awakened by a nightmare. He had seen the tower fall into the Ocean. At that moment, he made up his mind he would not go back. And he didn't.

When he didn't show up for work, they told him they were going to court martial him. He said fine, but he wouldn't go back because of his dream. The rest of the crew went back, and I'm sure you've guessed what happened. The tower fell into the Ocean, and everyone was killed.

He said the Air Force Office of Special Investigation spent hours with him trying to find out how he "really" knew about this. His story never changed from the nightmare. Shortly after this tragedy, they abandoned all of the towers because they were unsafe.

Otis Surret had a spiritual quality about him that I sensed he'd had all his life. Maybe this is what kept him "steady" when others about him were falling apart or were incompetent. I can't really say. I do know, however, that due to his professional manner and sense of duty, crews and aircraft made it safely to their destinations.

I don't know where Otis Surret is now or if he's even alive. But here's a toast to TSgt Surret. He did a hell of a job in Vietnam.


copyright 1995 all rights reserved