The gate at Kagnew Station
I spent the Christmas of 1964 and ‘65 at Kagnew Station.
Where you ask is Kagnew Station?
Kagnew was the 4th U.S. Army Security Agency Field Station in Asmara, Eritrea.
Yes. We had and still have troops just about everywhere.
The A.S.A. doesn’t exist as an independent military unit anymore.”The Agency existed between 1945 and 1976 and was the successor to Army signal intelligence operations dating back to World War I. ASA was under the operational control of the Director of the National Security Agency located at Fort Meade, Maryland; yes – that NSA. The Agency had its own tactical commander at Headquarters, ASA, Arlington Hall Station, VA.
Besides intelligence gathering, we had responsibility for the security of Army communications and for electronic countermeasures operations. In 1977, the ASA was merged with the US Army’s Military Intelligence component to create the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command.
We liked to call ourselves “snoops”. Asmara was located on a plateau some 7,600 feet high and we could listen to everyone’s regional communications. We covered most of Africa, the mid-east, southern Europe and Russian missle launches. The ASA had bases all over the world.
We also called ourselves the “ten percenters.” The Army told us we were selected from the brightest ten percent in the military. Right.
We spent months at Fort Devens, in Ayer, Massachusetts learning our craft before receiving our first assignments overseas – learning everything from the ability to copy manual morse code to highly technical skills (for the time) and interpretive “traffic analysis.”
Those of us who were to be linguists were sent to Monterey, California to learn a foreign language, usually the one most useful for their future assignments. Those who came to Asmara were Arabic linguists predominantly.
I could look at a message I could not read and easily determine whether it was Egyptian diplomatic traffic or Turkish military or if it was Greek maritime. Anything encoded was sent off to our Washington bosses. Anything in a local language was read by linguists. Traffic analysts plotted and recorded it all.
It’s been 50 years since my tours; much has changed. Kagnew is no more nor is the A.S.A. The N.S.A. goes on.
I received orders while at Devens to go into Boston to get a passport. Where, mulls Toritto, was I going requiring a passport? Normally the military travels on an Army I.D. card. I got my passport. A diplomatic, red one. Cool. I traveled on T.W.A. to Eritrea. I didn’t have to wait in lines. “This way sir”. Nice.
I arrived in Asmara in September 1964. When you were sent overseas in 1964 you left your family and your girlfriend. There was no internet; no iphone, no Skypef. There was no talking regularly from Africa to the folks back home. You were on your own.
A telephone call had to be “booked” 24 hours in advance and cost a month’s pay for a few minutes. And you could not reverse the charges. It was by radio to London and then a phone line to the states. You couldn’t hear them very well anyway. I never called.
Asmara airport – 1965
In the sixties you wrote letters. My wife kept them all. They are stored in a duffel bag in my garage. My kids insist I keep them on the condition they won’t read them until I am dead.
Now you all know I have a very Italian last name. Asmara is in Eritrea (now the capital) and was once the capital city of the Italian Fascist Empire in Africa. There were thousands of Italians still living there I the 1960s.. They ran the restaurants, the garages, the movie theaters, the clubs. They grew coffee. They sent their kids to Rome for education. I fit in fine. I think that is why I was sent there.
The Emperor Haile Selassie visiting Kagnew
Eritreans wanted to be free. After the defeat of Italy, the U.N. gave Ethiopia a mandate over Eritrea. Haile Selassie would visit Asmara once or twice a year as a show of control. Ethiopia wanted to hold onto Eritrea as it was it’s only outlet to the sea. Eventually Eritrea would wrest it’s freedom after a long insurgency. Unfortunately today it is one of the most repressive countries in the world. All however was relatively quiet in 1964.
The U.S. made a deal with Ethiopia which allowed the base in Eritrea.
It’s not like we were soldiers. ASA guys rarely if ever considered themselves “soldiers”. Once a year, going through the motions, we would go out to the “rifle range” to qualify with our weapons. Most of us couldn’t hit the side of a barn. On duty out at the guarded field “sites” we wore fatigues but the rest of the time it was civilian clothes.
Toritto (the cute one) on the left, then Francis, Tim and Jim – 1965. Francis, my roomie, passed away several years ago, the first of us to go.
It wasn’t tough duty. We had three clubs (enlisted, NCO and Officers), where we could get credit till the end of the month, decent food in the mess when we were broke, a bowling alley, swimming pool, a 24 hour movie theater, a lounge to write letters (free paper and envelopes!), a full PX for cheap smokes. Hashish was plentiful from the locals if you were into that sort of thing.
Local Eritreans did your laundry and shined your shoes for a few bucks a month. The barracks were modern and we lived four to a room, kind of like college. A few guys I knew lived off post, renting apartments from Italian landlords.
It’s just that after six weeks you had done everything there was to do – save for drinking and whoring. Less if you weren’t into that sort of thing. And you missed home. So you sucked it up. You went down the mountains to the beach on the Red Sea at Massaua. You toured Axum and Lalibela. You kept busy. I saved my money. My wife and I bought our first house before I was out of the service.
Duty was on “trick”. One worked on a heavily guarded “site” for 6 “days”, then got two days off. Next you worked 6 “swings” and after a couple of days off you worked 6 “mids”. Days were from 8am – 4pm; swings 4 pm till midnight; mids from midnight to 8 am.
Guys were sleeping at all hours as well as drinking or going to the movies. Each “trick” had its own barracks.
This schedule required 4 “tricks” in order to maintain 24 hour snooping coverage; I was on “D” Trick. We were the best. And we knew it.
The Oasis Club where I spent two Christmases
I served my time – got drunk two Christmases in a row. I don’t remember whether or not I worked those days. The first Christmas was especially bad; I knew I would be sitting in the Oasis Club the next Christmas as well. Lordy.
After Asmara, I was assigned to Fort Wolters,Texas. It was a helicopter school and an ASA jumping off base. We were loading flat cars for Vietnam.
I didn’t go. My mom died suddently (she was 43), my dad was ill and my brother was already in the war zone. He had been drafted. My dad bitched to a local Congressman and I spent the rest of my enlistment close to home making notifications to the next of kin of K.I.A.s But that’s another post I’ve already written.
ASA guys turned out to be good soldiers with a splendid record of supporting combat units with vital, immediate intelligence. There are several books about ASA exploits in Vietnam. An Asmara buddy died there.
So as Christmas approaches this year I am thinking about the only Christmases I was away – drinking at the club and knowing I would be sitting in the same spot next year.
I sent my wife an Omega watch and a salad bowl set made of olive wood. I still have it. My eldest has the watch. I received gifts, cards and a tape recording from her. I heard her voice for the first time in months. Mom sent me a care package of goodies.
D trick early sixties has a reunion at J.B.s place in Indiana every September. J.B. knows who he is. There are fewer and fewer of us to invite. We are all getting very old.
Best wishes for Christmas and 2020.