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radar guidance data. The assistant secretary of the Air Force called it
"the most significant contribution to electronic reconnaissance in the
past twenty years."
Above even the drones flew the U-2, the Dragon Lady of espionage.
Following the shootdown of Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union in
1960 and Eisenhower's declaration that the U.S. would never again
overfly Russia, the U-2 had been reduced to air sampling missions for
nuclear-test detection and to peripheral missions; its glory days were
seemingly behind it. Eventually, intelligence officials began to nickname
the plane the "Useless Deuce." The Cuban missile crisis was only a brief
shot in the arm, but after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, the U-2
was drafted into service for the Vietnam War. Although the aircraft



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started out performing the job it was most famous for”high-altitude
photography”that soon changed. Because of the growing numbers of
SA-2 missile sites”the U-2's weak spot”in North Vietnam, the planes
were soon assigned exclusively to Sigint.
Based initially in Bien Hoa Air Base near Saigon, and later moved to
Thailand, the U-2s in Indochina were now the responsibility of the
Strategic Air Command, not the CIA. Although happy with the new
responsibility, the Air Force pilots found eavesdropping far more tedious
than snapping pictures over hostile territory. "All I had to do was throw a
switch and recorders on board would collect the bad guy's radar
frequencies and signals, and monitor everything," said former U-2 pilot
Buddy Brown. The Armed Forces Courier Service would then ship the
tapes to NSA.
The missions called for the planes to circle for a dozen or more hours
in areas over the Gulf or Laos, listening primarily to Chinese
communications targets. As more and more antenna blades were stuck
to its skin, the once-graceful U-2 was beginning to resemble a porcupine.
On board, the receivers were becoming increasingly automated. All the
pilot had to do was to stay awake. The antennas would pick up the
preprogrammed signals, and the onboard receivers would automatically
transmit them down to Sigint analysts in South Vietnam, who could then
retransmit them via satellite in near real time right to NSA. There,
computers and cryptanalysts could immediately begin attacking them.
"The pilot did not operate the receivers, as they were either automatic
or remotely controlled," recalled Bruce Bailey. "He sat there boring holes
in the sky for hours with very little to do or see. The only relief came from
tuning in on the war, listening to radio calls from strike aircraft and
rescue attempts. That helped keep him awake."
As the systems became ever more automated, Sigint analysts on the
ground were able to remotely switch from target to target via the U-2's
electronics. "Those systems enabled the specialists to select signals of the
most interest," said Bailey, "search for suspected emitters, operate the
equipment as if they were aboard the U-2 and to relay their intelligence
to users around the world via satellite and other communications."
Eventually, the main thing keeping the pilots awake, according to Bailey,
was simple discomfort. "Twelve hours is agonizingly long to wear a
pressure suit, sit in one position, endure extremes in heat and cold,
control your bowels, and feel your body dehydrating from the extremely
dry air and the oxygen they had to breathe constantly." Nevertheless, he
said, the aircraft's ability to linger in one area for extended periods,
capturing thousands of conversations, made it "the king of Comint."
"Throttles to Max A/B," said Air Force Major Jerry O'Malley just before
his SR-71 nosed into the sky over Kadena Air Base. From Okinawa, just



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after noon on Thursday, March 21, 1968, the Blackbird set out on its
very first operational mission: to penetrate North Vietnamese airspace,
record enemy radar signals, photograph missile sites, and be back in
time for dinner.
As the Blackbird sped at more than three times the speed of sound
toward the hot war in Vietnam, it left behind a bureaucratic war in
Washington. For nearly a decade the CIA and the Air Force had been
secretly at war with each other over whose aircraft would become
America's premier spy plane”the CIA's A-12 or the Air Force SR-71.
They were virtually the same aircraft except that the A-12 was a single-
seater, covert (that is, its very existence was secret), and a bit smaller
and older; and the SR-71 was overt and had room for a pilot and a
reconnaissance systems officer. President Johnson decided to go with the
Air Force version and, eventually, the CIA was forced out of the spy-plane
business entirely.
One step above the U-2 and one step below the Sigint satellites, the
bullet-fast SR-71 Blackbird could penetrate hostile territory with
impunity. It flew sixteen miles above the earth, several miles higher than
the U-2, at more than 2,000 miles per hour; no missile had a chance
against it.
As Major O'Malley approached the Gulf of Tonkin at a speed of Mach
3.17 and an altitude of 78,000 feet, the top of his Blackbird was
brushing against outer space. Outside, the air temperature was about
minus 65 degrees Fahrenheit, yet the leading edges of the plane were
beginning to glow cherry red at 600 degrees and the exhaust-gas
temperatures exceeded 3,400 degrees. Above 80,000 feet, the curvature
of the earth had a deep purple hue. In the strange daylight darkness
above, stars were permanently visible.
The Comint and Elint sensor-recorders were already running when
O'Malley prepared to coast in for a "front-door" entry into North Vietnam
at two miles a second. As the Blackbird followed a heading of 284
degrees, the onboard defensive systems indicated that the North
Vietnamese clearly had them in their Fan Song radar, one of the types
used by SA-2 missile batteries. Behind O'Malley, Captain Ed Payne, the
reconnaissance systems officer, flipped a few switches and the
Blackbird's electronic countermeasures prevented the radars from
locking on as they passed over Haiphong harbor near Hanoi.
"The SR-71 was excellent for 'stimulating' the enemy's electronic
environment," said retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Richard H. Graham, a
former SR-71 pilot. "Every time [they] flew in a sensitive area, all kinds of
radars and other electronic wizardry were turned on to see if they could
find out what was flying so quickly through their airspace. In fact, our
missions were generally not Elint productive unless 'they' were looking



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for us with electronic signals." To capture the signals, the SR-71 used a
piece of equipment known as the electro-magnetic reconnaissance (EMR)
system. At first, said Graham, "the EMR would literally sit there and
record signals from hundreds of miles around the aircraft. It had no
discretion on what signals it received, and made it very difficult to find
specific frequencies out of the thousands recorded on one mission."
But after an upgrade, known as the EMR Improvement Program (EIP),
the SR-71 's Sigint capability improved considerably. "The EIP
continuously recorded signals from horizon to horizon along our flight
path," said Graham, "a distance of around 1,200 nautical miles. If the
system recorded a specific frequency for a short period of time,
computers could plot the precise position of the transmitter on the
ground within approximately one half mile, at a distance of three
hundred miles from the SR-71. . . . The EIP was very efficient at its job,
at times often recording over five hundred emitters on a single
operational sortie. ... It was a Star Wars version of eavesdropping."
As the Blackbird entered North Vietnam's "front door," each of its two
Pratt & Whitney J-58 engines was generating as much power as all four
of the enormous engines on the Queen Mary. Just twelve minutes after
entering, the Blackbird had crossed the country and was about to exit
through the "back door." Passing over the Red River, O'Malley flicked the
Inlet Guide Vane switches to the "Lockout" position and eased the
throttles out of afterburner. After a second in-flight refueling from a
"boomer"”a tanker”over Thailand, the Blackbird headed back to
Vietnam. This time it passed over the DMZ in search of the heavy guns
that had been assaulting Khe Sanh. In its few minutes over North
Vietnam, analysts later discovered, it located virtually every missile site.


For all the sophisticated ships, planes, and foreign listening posts,
there were many who fought the Sigint war in the muddy swamps and
steamy jungles, right alongside the combat troops.
"As a member of the Army Security Agency you will never end up in a
war zone," the reddish-haired Army recruiter in the neatly creased
uniform confidently assured Dave Parks. "The ASA, because of the high
level of security clearance, is not allowed to serve in a combat zone." That
made sense, thought Parks as he walked out of the Atlanta recruiting
station in 1965, having just signed up for four years.
Two years later Parks, now an Army intercept operator, arrived in
Saigon for a one-year tour in Vietnam. The recruiter had kept his
promise, but Parks had volunteered. "I wanted to see a war," he said,
"and Vietnam was the only one we had." Assigned to the 303rd Radio
Research Unit at Long Binh, near Saigon, Parks quickly became aware of
the dangers involved in the assignment. "In the event that you are


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severely wounded would you like your next of kin notified?" a clerk
casually asked him without ever looking up from the form. "Okay, in the
event you are severely wounded do you want the Last Rites
administered? We will need to make arrangements in case of your dying
over here." Finally Parks asked what kind of a unit he was in. "Infantry,"
he was told. "A unit called the 199th Infantry." Parks gulped.
"I had spent my six months of Advanced Individual Training at Fort
Devens being threatened by the ASA instructors that if we students
washed out of the course we would get a one-way ticket to the 196th
Light Infantry," Parks recalled. "Now here I was eighteen months later
being assigned to its sister unit. This might be more adventure than I'd
bargained for. Volunteer for Vietnam, I should have known better."
Parks's Sigint unit, the 856th Radio Research Detachment of the
199th Light Infantry Brigade, was made up of about fifty troops,
headquartered at Long Binh. "Light infantry" meant light and mobile. The
troops were equipped with only the most basic armament, such as rifles,
machine guns, and grenade launchers. The largest caliber of weapon
carried in the field was a 90mm hand-held recoilless rifle.
The men were housed in a two-story wood-frame barracks surrounded
by several layers of protective sandbags and topped with a corrugated-tin
roof. The Sigint operations compound was encircled by a tall barbed-wire
fence with coils of razor wire on top and to either side. Cover music
blared from speakers to hide escaping signals; loud, rasping generators
ran twenty-four hours a day; and there was a sandbagged guard shack
at the only entrance. Intercept operations were conducted from two
windowless vans that were parked backed up to the building.
Parks, however, would spend little time in the operations compound.
The mission of the 199th in November 1967 was to patrol, with South
Vietnamese rangers, the vast rice bowl known as the Mekong River Delta.
Spreading south of Saigon like a soggy sponge, the area was a maze of
swamps, rice paddies, and waterways. Soldiers called walking in it
"wading in oatmeal." In places it was covered by triple-canopy jungle,
sometimes so dense that light had difficulty getting through. The map
gave areas such descriptive names as Parrot's Beak, the Iron Triangle,
and the Rung Sat Special Zone. The 199th's orders were to seek out and
destroy Communist guerrilla infiltrators, mostly from Cambodia, and to
act as a sort of quick reaction force in the event of a firefight.
Operations were based at Cat Lai, a small village on the banks of the
Song Nha Be River, a winding snake fed by a lacework of muddy canals
and narrow streams. Like a liquid highway, the river carried countless
cargo ships to the docks of Saigon, where they unloaded heavy tractors
and foodstuffs and filled up with dusty bags of rice. As they lined up,
bow to stern, waiting for their turn at the docks, the lightly protected



274
ships were prime targets for the Vietcong, who would attempt to sink
them. It was up to Parks and his fellow troopers to prevent that.
Unlike most Sigint soldiers, who worked regular shifts at heavily
protected listening posts, most far from the action, Parks fought side by
side with the combat troops. A bandolier of ammo was strapped over one
shoulder, and an M16 hung from the other. Canteens, poncho, bayonet,
camouflage blanket, sleeping bag, and first-aid kit clung to his back or
hung from his web belt. His job, as a DF operator, was to find the
Vietcong before they found his fellow troopers.
Cat Lai was little more than a few rows of grass huts and some red
bougainvillea on the bank of a muddy river. The troops lived in tents
erected over wooden platforms that served as floors. Two olive-drab vans
were used as listening posts, with two intercept operators in each one.
Wooden walkways led to a club, constructed out of plywood, that served
Vietnamese "33" beer and mixed drinks. A short way down the road,
alongside the river at the edge of the village, was an open-sided
restaurant/bar/whorehouse patronized by the crews from ships lining
the waterway. Like the small, rusty tubs anchored nearby, the crews
came from every part of the world and the background conversations had
a musical quality. Years later, when Parks saw the bar scene in the film
Star Wars, he was reminded of the club.
The prostitutes who served the crew also came from many parts of the
world. One, a stunning woman with sparkling eyes and coal-black skin,
came from Cameroon in West Africa. Her ex-lover had recently tossed her
off one of the transports. With halting French and a little German, Parks
agreed to a price.
The work of the direction-finding teams had changed little in the
seven years since DF specialist James Davis became the first American
soldier killed in the war. It had only grown more dangerous. "Being on a
DF team was about as far forward as you could get in the ASA in
Vietnam," said Dave Parks. The Vietcong had shifted their priority targets
from the South Vietnamese to the Americans. In a nearby province, the
casualty rate for one American unit was running 40 percent. Out of
about forty men, eighteen had been killed or wounded in the field and
another had a grenade dropped on him in the shower.
After a brief break-in period, Parks was sent out to the front lines, to
an area where Highway 5A slithered out of the Vietcong-infested Delta
like a black lizard. "The whole reason for the infantry being there," said
Parks, "was to act as a checkpoint for the motor traffic coming out of the
Delta headed for Saigon." Parks's weapon would be his DF device, a
PRD-1, simply called the Purd. He kept it hidden from prying eyes, inside
an octagonal tent. "Learning the Purd was not too difficult," Parks said.
"Learning the ins and outs of staying alive was. . . . One learned to watch



275
where to place each step as you walked, for there were snakes in the
Delta that could kill you in seconds. The snakes of Vietnam were named
according to how far a victim walked before dying from a bite, beginning
with the 'three-pace snake,' the green krait, which had to chew its poison
into you." Before turning in at night, Parks would take his bayonet and
see what might have crawled into his bunk while he was at work.
"Lizards mostly," said Parks, "but sometimes snakes, including the king
cobra. We were in the Delta."
There were many more rules to live by, according to Parks. "Don't pick
up something without checking it for booby traps. Inside the bunker line,
stay on the paths; outside of it, stay off of them. Don't venture outside
the perimeter unless you were willing to die. Don't walk around at night
inside the perimeter for danger of being shot by your own troops. There
was plenty to learn and not much time to learn it."
On a typical mission, the PRD-1 would be transported by jeep to what
was thought to be a good spot from which to locate Vietcong in the Delta.
Once at the site, a tactical DF post would be established. A bunker made
of double or triple sandbags would be set up, then encircled with rolls of
barbed wire and concertina wire, perhaps fifteen feet across. A variety of

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