TOPOGRAPHIC TRAINING TEAM
I was assigned to Blackjack Base Camp as NCOIC under Chief of Operations, Ltc. Wm. (Wild Bill) Sherman. My duties were to coordinate the efforts of the field parties in establishing 3d Order control lines and establishing vertical picture point control. I also acted as Chief Reconnaissance NCO.
Base Camp: Note the doublet antenna (referred to as a cobra head) coming out of the Commo Van. Such a long wire antenna was very effective if oriented in a satisfactory direction. That required moving the poles that supported the longwire time and time again until the reception was clear. This method of communication was very effective (This is the site where we were when the earthquake hit in 1963)
I set and marked survey lines, selected photo control points, pricked photos, and wrote "to reach" descriptions for the survey teams to follow, using aerial support when required. Additional duties included supervision of vehicle maintenance, re-supply and communications between Base Camp, Tehran Hqs., aircraft. Embassy links and field parties. Supporting classification efforts by identifying towns, roads and bridges; submitting monthly operational reports to define progress made and to outline foreseen needs that were required to maintain progress were also additional duties.
Names of members of the unit seem to evade me, but I do recall a Specialist Regehr from somewhere in the Midwest (a young farm boy) that was assigned to Base Camp as a first echelon motor mechanic. As long as I kept him supplied with Pepsi Colas he would work all day and night to repair anything that was brought to him. He re-built engines, changed engines, beefed up spring and suspension systems, even manufactured his own parts when he could find a village with a machine shop or a metal lathe and drill press. Cannibalization was not a word in his vocabulary, but without his untiring efforts there would have been many progress reports that failed to meet projected goals. Somehow, as if by magic, he kept all the field parties running. I never asked how. A team would bring one truck in and he would send them out with another. There was also another team member that remains vivid in my mind. We called him "Cowboy". I do not recall his real name but he was a Topo surveyor that we assigned as a radio operator during an earthquake that hit the eastern edge of the Dasht Kavir. We were located in a small town called Tobat-Hedaria on the eastern edge of the desert not far from the epicenter of the quake. Our only radios were the old "Angry Nines". At Base Camp we maintained exceptional reception using a long wire doublet antenna. Our training team had better communication with both military and civilian aircraft than any other operation and assumed radio traffic control throughout the relief efforts. Cowboy maintained radio contact for all relief efforts for a period in excess of 36 hours without relief. He was commended for his work and upon discharge from the service went on to become and air controller at Leesburg, Virginia. He was of great credit to our topo mission, the Army and our country for his devotion to duty. Civilian and military pilots credited the success of the relief efforts to his tireless performance.
Our mission would have been extremely difficult without the support of our Flight line. Most of our pilots were dual qualified and flew both fixed and rotary wing aircrafts. They were all good but one stands out as exceptional. I first knew him as an Engineer Captain, and later as a LTC. His last name was Radu. We affectionately called him Capt. Midnight at Base Camp. This came
from his often times long overdue returns from re-supplying the spike teams outside of Base Camp. On a few occasions we had to line our makeshift desert runway with VA ton trucks and whatever else was available with headlights to shine down the runway so he could put down in the late twilight. It seemed he would get caught up in a game of tag football, or volleyball, or something of that nature with the guys in those spike camps and lose track of the time it would take to get back to Base Camp. Darkness had a way of going from full daylight to near complete darkness in a matter of a few minutes. The morale of those troops in the field was always lifted when he showed up. They loved him. He was not just another pilot, he was one of them. He was Capt. Midnight. They even painted his helmet black with white lightning bolts on the sides.
Our Base Camp was designed to be a jumping off point for our spike leveling crews. They received a set of aerial photos and a description of the picture points that were located along their line. They also received detailed descriptions of the route they were to follow to reach those points. These teams were made up of two American surveyors and two Iranian privates.
The Iranians were the rodmen with one American, the instrument operator and the other, the recorder. Most of the level lines were double rodded. That is, an "A" line and a "B" line were observed simultaneously by setting two turning points about one or two meters apart. One pin was painted red, the other blue. A single backsight would be observed on a starting bench mark and then both front rods would be read, one observation on red and another on blue. By maintaining two lines simultaneously the loop could be closed between benchmarks without returning to the starting bench by mathematically computing the elevations out through the red line and closing through the blue line. Of course, if a bust was detected upon closure, an additional hasty re-run could be made to determine the location of the error. Such a party could run approximately 5 miles every day. Permanent Bench Marks were set every five miles and temporary benches were set every mile. A team was considered to be running at maximum efficiency with twenty percent re-runs. If they busted more than twenty percent they were either in extremely difficult terrain or they were being careless. On the other hand, if they seldom busted any lines they were probably not operating at their top productive capabilities. The Bench marks and TBM's were set by a reconnaissance team consisting of a senior NCO and another junior NCO accompanied by two Iranian soldiers. This team acquired the monuments in villages along the routes of survey or manufactured them on site if water was available. The team attempted to maintain at least five miles of progress in front of each leveling team. This meant miles and miles of jumping back and forth from one line to the next. The spike teams and the reconnaissance teams lived and operated out the back of their ton trucks, using hex tents at night if the weather warranted it, as it often did. Most of the computing was done as the lines were run, with the recorder doing the computations and the instrument man doing the checking. All the lines were closed at each TBM before setting out on the next section of the line. The spike teams stayed away from Base Camp for days at a time in order to save time and fuel. If their lines were running in a north-south direction, they would begin on the north side of the Base Camp and run toward Base Camp, then re-supply at Base Camp and continue running south away from Base Camp. When all the teams were far enough forward to require re-supply again, the Base camp would leap frog past the teams and re-establish a new base Camp. The responsibilities of the Base Camp were to provide maintenance, communications, and direction of efforts. All completed lines were consolidated at Base Camp and all computations were again checked before being submitted to Hqs. in Tehran for delivery to AMS.
Base Camp also maintained radio contact between the spike parties and Hqs. Tehran. The camp was always located at a spot where a suitable improvised runway could be established, this enabled supplies to be airlifted to the teams and provide a means for receiving mail and being paid. Mail was one of the largest contributors to low morale. Often the only aircraft to visit the base camp was the monthly pay plane, this plane also carried the accumulated mail held in Tehran until an aircraft was assigned to go to Base Camp. The pay plane accomplished its mission when all mail and supplies were unloaded, and all personnel were paid. They immediately returned to home base. This meant that team members had little or no time to read their mail and write a reply before the plane took off for home. The results are obvious. A letter would arrive in Tehran and sit waiting for a flight to the field. Then the personnel would read their mail, write their responses and wait for another plane to return and pick it up. Sometimes two months or more would pass before a line of communication could be established between a soldier and a loved one back home. I believe this was one of the contributing factors to the high divorce rate among Topo personnel. As I said before, the flight line was a great support to the field mission when the aircraft were in the field, but too often, the aircraft were not available. An example of this was equipping the mission with Hiller "D" model choppers that had an operational ceiling rated at 6500 feet at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The elevation of the airport in Tehran was higher than that and our field parties were conducting work in the surrounding mountains, often at elevations above 10,000 feet and temperatures in the high nineties. Eventually we did receive a few aircraft from the Ethiopia mission that were "E" model Hillers.
During both assignments that I participated in, I do not recall anyone ever receiving R&R. Soldiers came, and if they were Topo surveyors, they were assigned as a replacement for another member coming out of the field. They stayed out in the field until they rotated unless they were considered sick enough to return to Tehran for treatment. The field parties even celebrated Christmas in the field. Every one of the spike teams returned to Base Camp for a couple of days over Christmas, otherwise the teams worked seven days a week with a break once in a while to get paid or to re-supply. There were very few places the soldiers would have cared to go anyway. They preferred to keep busy to make the time go faster. Base Camp was designed to make things a bit better for the field parties when they did stop for new assignments or to get paid. The camp was set up in a semi-permanent fashion with three large wall tents arranged in line and several small wall tents for officers and visiting pilots positioned in a rectangle with an open space in the center. The west large wall tent housed the Base Camp personnel. The middle large wall was the mess tent with tables set on one end and a kitchen set on the other end. The east tent was provided for the field parties to use when they stopped by. This provided them a place to sleep together without having to unload all their gear from their trucks and set up their own tents. When the troops came in for Christmas, a list of shopping requests were taken from all the guys that wanted to send presents or souvenirs home. In order to make things a bit easier to handle, and to get a good price, Persian hats were decided upon as the gift for everyone. Men or women could wear them and they were plentiful and came in black, brown, and several shades of gray. They were soft and easy to ship. So a list of colors and sizes was made and I was elected to go to Mashed to buy the hats at one of the largest bazaars in Iran. I do not recall the exact number of hats I was to purchase but it was enough to sink the battleship Missouri. I entered the bazaar and looked for the shop that appeared to have the most hats. I found one with several hundred stacked up in piles from floor to ceiling. Without much talk involved, I began to search through the piles looking for the colors and sizes on my extensive list. Imagine if you will, I had hats I did not want beginning to pile up in one stack and those I did want in another. Soon the shop was in total disarray. It was early in the morning with very few people in the bazaar. The shop keepers always wanted to make a sale with the first person to enter the shop. I finally decided I had filled my list's requirements and asked the merchant how much he wanted for the hats. He quoted me the price for one hat. I told him no, I wanted a price for all the hats on the pile in front of me. I could see him mentally trying to count all the hats without making a physical count. He gave me a figure and I told him it was too much. Then the tea drinking ceremony began. Next came the tea and cookies debate. I finally said I would go to the store next store where I was sure to get a better price. More tea and cookies. When my bladder could not hold another drop I finally agreed to a price and began to gather up the hats. I think my count amounted to between thirty and forty hats. The price, in US Dollars, amounted to about $2.50 per hat. All the hats were pure Persian wool, handmade. It was probably the largest first sale that merchant had ever made in his whole lifetime. My troops were tickled pink when I returned nearly half of all the money that they had given me to spend. The mess hall was decorated with a couple of desert bushes wrapped in aluminum foil and hung with cardboard stars that were also wrapped in foil. Our Iranian cook took extra pains in turning out a feast fit for the Shah himself.
1 remember riding shot gun to Capt. Radu on a re-supply run to the spike camps on the east side of the Kavir. We had made a couple of stops, dropping of supplies and picking up mail for the return to Base Camp. We left the last camp of our trip with a fifteen or twenty minute flight to return to base camp. We had only been in the air a couple of minutes when I began to smell an acrid smoky odor coming from the firewall in front of me. Capt. Radu reached in front of me and began flipping switches. He said in a rather calm voice, "We have a fire on board". By this time smoke was beginning to fill the cockpit. We opened the windows on both sides of the plane. I began to consider my first parachute jump. I was wearing a chute and sitting on it. I looked and noticed the pilot's chest chute was fastened to the firewall in back of the pilot's seat. It was then that I decided, if he makes one move for that chute, I'm out of here! He didn't, so I didn't. He picked out a spot on a salt flat and put the plane down as if nothing was wrong. Our starter had hung up on our last take off. That required us to call Base Camp for assistance. My motor mechanic showed up a couple of days later with a replacement. We changed it in the middle of the desert, the pilot, me, a repair manual, and a motor mechanic getting the job done. Just another snafu among many that had to be dealt with. AMS could never fathom our working conditions when they complained about the cost or the slowness of the project.
The enlisted personnel that were quartered in Tehran lived in a large rented house constructed of brick and marble that had eight bathrooms. I believe there were about thirty enlisted personnel living there during the time I was out in the field. The house was considered quarters provided. Troops in the field also resided in quarters provided - three to a hex tent. The "palace" in Tehran had a large enclosed lot that encompassed an entire city block. It was maintained by a gardener, his wife and children, who lived in a one room house built into a corner of the eight foot wall that surrounded the property. The grounds included the main house, a green house, swimming pool, rose garden, and orchard. Fresh flowers were cut daily to be placed about the rooms within the house. At Christmas the entire house was decorated with poinsettias raised by the gardener in the greenhouse. The personnel had houseboys to do their washing and shining of boots in addition to keeping the place clean. In the basement of the house, opening out onto a stone patio, was a bar type lounge maintained by an Iranian bartender. Refreshments in the way of food and drinks were ordered and paid for with coupon tickets that were bought and paid for on payday and used as cash at the bar. These tickets were useless to the bartender and that kept him honest. There was a senior NCO that found a way to obtain a couple of nickel slot machines from Italy through an Air Force contact in Turkey. These nickel machines were made to work using Iranian coins. The money made from the bar and the machines was used to buy things to make life more enjoyable for the troops living there. A filter was purchased for the swimming pool, a pool table was ordered from the US with all the accessories, lounge chairs for the cabana around the pool, more things than I can remember were acquired. You must remember, the Topo team worked on the mapping mission in Iran for a total of eleven years. A lot was gained during that time to make things easier for the troops when they were not in the field. The only problem was the troops in the field seldom got to enjoy them. There was also a rather unique way of obtaining food supplies through the Embassy's commissary. Upon arrival in the country, each new soldier had to put up $100.00 to be placed in a commissary fund. The holder of these funds took orders from each field party member that was sent to the field. The keeper of the funds compiled these orders and took them to the commissary, purchased and paid for the items out of the money held in the fund. Then the food and other items such as toilet articles and cigarettes would be shipped out to the field with a bill attached. The men in the field would then reimburse the fund for the amount billed, thus maintaining the $100.00 throughout his stay in the country. When he cleared to go home he was returned his $100.00. The only problem with this scheme was a lot of guys arrived without enough money to put up the $100.00. It caused some of the privates a bit of uneasiness, but someone or somehow they were helped get over the requirement laid on by the Embassy.
As I sit writing these memories, more and more things keep coming to my mind. I spent the first seven years of my military career in the Artillery where most of an enlisted man's life was cut and dried. When I changed branches of service and became a Topographic Engineer I never again experienced a day when things were cut and dried. I was challenged to be all that I could be and never regretted one day for deciding to make that change. Schooling was always made available to me and I made every effort to accept those opportunities and then pass on to others all that I had learned through USAES and later the Defense Mapping School, of which I was a charter member.
NCOIC - BLACKJACK BASE CAMP