Personal recollections by Bobby Mack

Bobby W. Mack, Msgt USAF (Ret)

My first experience with the Radio Operator Maintainer and Driver (ROMAD) job was in January 1967. I had transferred from the 351st Comm. Squadron, Whiteman AFB, Missouri to Ton Son Nut Air Base, Saigon, RVN on December 25, 1966. "Merry Christmas. Welcome to Vietnam" were the first words I heard at Ton Son Nut. It may have been Christmas but there was precious little Christmas spirit in the muggy heat of Saigon. I processed into the base Comm. Squadron as a radio maintenance troop and discovered the next day that the radio shop was overmanned by about 200 percent. When I returned to CBPO to see if there were any other radio jobs open, I was told that I had been sidelined to the Comm. Squadron by mistake. The only units that really needed radio maintenance troops were Tactical Air Support Squadrons (TASS), and I should have been assigned to one of the four in country. The assignments NCO told me that most TASS radio maintenance troops were with the Army out in the field. They worked with Air Liaison Officers (ALOs) and Forward Air Controllers (FACs), were radio operators on army and air force radio nets, requested airstrikes and recce missions , assisted ALOs and FACs with airstrikes, and maintained a radio jeep. When asked if I wanted to go to a TASS or stay in Saigon, I immediately said "Go". A question burned in me, maybe in all who wear the uniform from fighter pilot to supply troop: "How would I act in combat?" I wanted my own personal answer, and I was sure I could find it at the TASS. After a couple of weeks I was on my way to the 21st TASS at Nha Trang, a beautiful city on the coast of Vietnam. I processed into the TASS and was sent, after a day or two, carrying an unbelievable amount of field gear to the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) at Ahn Khe in the Central Highlands. The 1st Cav Base at Ahn Khe was very impressive. The base sprawled out in all directions from the shadow of "Hong Kong" Mountain (I'm not sure of that name.). The mountain, really a large hill, dominated the surrounding territory, and a huge Cav patch painted on PSP just below the summit set off the mountain. Army radio relay and observation outfits covered the top. I found out later the relay and observation units were considered great duty by the GIs because you could spy on the Red Cross nurses who resided and showered at the base of the mountain. Ahn Khe had an air strip, but it had a terrible reputation. Large chunks of wrecked C130s lined either side to remind landing pilots that the reputation was justified. The strip was short and had a slight roll to it and was nicknamed the "Golf Course". Why, I'm not sure. Maybe because of all the "traps." One enterprising group of GIs had moved the aft portion of a wrecked C130 to their area and converted it into part of an enlisted club. Later, C130 use of the "Golf Course" was curtailed by a new long strip with all the amenities. It handled the C130s easily. But occasionally the old course would have to be used. I remember some landings there that had a high pucker factor. The course claimed another C130 while I was there. An awful lot of used U.S metal was scattered around the countryside of RVN. The air force troops lived in an area known as "Zoomie Village". It was pretty good living there and offered real tropical-style barracks with bunks, clean sheets, a well-stocked fridge, hot showers at the community bathroom, and free beer and steaks at a regular cookout. Also, there was a nice service for the field troops; the barracks chief kept a "hot locker" for you while you were gone. The locker had a light bulb in it to keep the mildew from destroying uniforms and clothes. There was a small radio maintenance shop at Ahn Khe, but I was not assigned there, nor did I want to be. My time at Ahn Khe was short and was spent being trained (barely) as a radio operator (ROMAD was an unknown term) at the ALO area in the underground Division-Rear TOC (Division Forward was at Phu Cat Air Base.). A MRC-108 radio jeep was remoted to a plywood console in a CONX which connected to the G-3 area. In addition to the radios, there was a small switchboard. The 1st Cav Tactical Air Control Party (TACP; again, an unknown term then) was structured thus: Company or Battalion: ROMADs and FACs were only occasionally assigned this low. Brigade: ROMAD and ALO/FAC; normally, a dawn to dusk operation. Division-Rear: ROMADs, ALOs, FACs, Air-Lift Troops, Maintenance, Admin, 24-hour operation. Division-Forward: ROMADs, ALOs, FACs; 24-hour operation Equipment: MRC-108s, M-151s, O-1s, I think radio maintenance had a maintenance shelter, maybe a S-280 shelter. TACP operating procedures were quite different then: The Direct Air Support Center, DASC-ALPHA, was located in Nha Trang. Air requests or other traffic was via HF net or a secure phone line from DTOCs to the DASC switchboard. Immediates were called in the clear directly to the FDO. The DASC radio operator copied only if the FDO was busy. Later, toward the end of 1967, this began to change to the more conventional procedure. The call sign for DASC-ALPHA was Ragged Scooper (no kidding). All TACPs on the net used that call sign plus a numerical suffix. Each division or independent brigade used its own numbers; i.e., 1st Cav Rear was Ragged Scooper 20, Forward was 20A, 1st Brigade of the 1st Cav was 23, 4th Infantry Division was 40. FAC call signs differed for each division or independent unit. The 1st Cav FAC/ALO callsigns were RASH followed by a numerical suffix indicating TACP position; i.e., RASH 01 was the Division ALO, RASH 10 was the 1st Brigade ALO. An immediate was handled: Company or Battalion would request close air over FM from the Brigade ALO. The Brigade ROMAD would either pass the request to the Division ROMAD via FM for relay or would call the DASC Fighter Duty Officer (FDO) directly via HF and Division would copy, coordinate, and approve. The former method was the standard in early `67 but the request procedure changed to the latter by mid-year. Division was in charge of the FACs and would assign one to the target. The FDO or DASC radio operator would call the frag back to the requestor. Usually the aircraft were at the target within 30 minutes. After the strike, the FAC would pass the bomb damage assessment (BDA) to the flight, army requestor, and Division. Division would forward the BDA to Division G-2 and G-3 and A.F. Intel at the DASC. Recce missions involved target clearance and fire advisories. Bad weather or night strikes were handled by radar (Combat Sky-spot). We provided an encoded eight-digit coordinate for the request and cleared the flight into the target area. U.S. sky-spot missions were notorious for target misses (hundreds of meters). The Australian Canberra's were the best. Some real friendly-fire tragedies were associated with sky-spots. A Special Forces LRRP was wiped out when, because of bad weather, their target had to be hit by a sky-spot mission. No FAC could get airborne to confirm friendly location, and the LRRP Lt. had misread the map. He gave his coordinates as the target , and the F-100s were on target. Also, an Vietnamese Army command Post had some MK 82, 500 lb. bombs dribbled through it one night. The pilots and the ground troops did not like sky-spots. Flare/gunship support (Spookys) was requested as an immediate or preplan through the DASC. We called the B-52 strike (aka Arclight, Heavy Artillery) warning on UHF guard 10 minutes before bombs away: "Attention all aircraft. Attention all aircraft. This is RASH Control (most aircraft were familiar with the RASH call sign), on Uniform Guard, with a heavy artillery warning, 10-kilometer radius, BR 0742. All aircraft should leave the area immediately. I repeat........" I always had a mental picture of some chopper pilot scrambling through his maps when he heard the warning. ROMADs, particularly at Division, occasionally rode in the backseat of the 0-1. Most of the time, it was just a ride. Other times, we checked in fighters, talked to the ground troops, relayed information from Division or Brigade to the ALO/FAC. It was a real morale booster for us but was really frowned on by the TASS commander. After some very minimal training at Ahn Khe, I was sent to Division Forward at Phu Cat. Within a few weeks, Division was moving north to take over an abandoned 5th Special Forces camp near the village of Bong Son. LZ Two Bits, as it was named, was a decapitated red clay hill just north of the Song Be (?) River. Quickly, this blood-red stump of a hill was studded with green tents and bristling with antennas. Helicopters swarmed over it, alighting at the short asphalt strip and dropping off or picking up troops, ammo or cargo before lifting off. Some, gunships and light of troops but heavy with lethal potential, slid down slope to skim the treetops before dropping to within a few feet of the river and racing down river looking for the enemy, any enemy. Others, laden with troops and cargo, used the length of the runway like an airplane, the chopper's skids a few inches off the asphalt strip and its blades straining with a heavy whump-whump-whump as they tried to pull the choper into the heat-thinned air. The Cav had arrived. The Cav was gunship heavy and bad ass tough. It almost had its own air force and loved to show it off. The "Go-Go" birds (CH-47s with 40 mm grenade launcher, mini-guns, .50 cal, and 20 mm cannon) were impressive in a low threat area. Some even carried 55-gallon drums of home-brew napalm which were rolled out the back to explode about 100 feet in the air, not too nice for guys in a trench. LZ Two Bits was real combat plush for us. We had a GP Medium tent, cots, lots of sandbags, and a shower bag to hang from a pole. Of course, Charles was around to keep us on our toes. I spent most of my time in Vietnam at Two Bits, but I did make excursions to various disputed hilltops with different units of the Cav. Some were "can do easy, GI." Others were " did that sign say Little Big Horn?" Once, I went with the 1st Brigade to the northern end of the Song Re Valley (?) to support the 101st. As I drove my MRC-108 off a Chinook on the saddle of the mountain tops, an F-4 went past about 200 yards to my left and dropped down into the valley. Two cans of napalm were coming off as I watched him pull out of the run. Number two was a little farther away as he dropped down the mountain side, two more cans tumbling off. He disappeared from sight as the smoke from the first napalm rose between us. I knew this trip was not going to be your basic R and R. It wasn't. Mr. Charles, there he deserved being called "mister," was there in force and every inch of that valley was fought over. Helicopters were knocked down everywhere. Air strikes continued around the clock. Several night FAC missions were flown; one of the very few times I saw that done. All day long, the sky was filled with fighters, loaded with anything the FDO could get his hands on. We dropped everything but the beer cooler from the crew recovery truck. The larger portion of a mountain side collapsed when some heavy stuff with delayed fusing was used on a tunnel complex, but the bad guys were dug in good and kept shooting at everything U.S. We were only there a few days when Gen. Westmoreland came for a briefing. The Cav left a couple of days later. We had gotten our nose pretty well bloodied, and it was not a nice feeling. A lot of "above and beyond the call" stuff was done in those few days. A big chunk came from a short little captain, P. B. Davis, from Lubbock, Tex was a great FAC with big brass ones. I left Vietnam just before Christmas, 1967. I had been deeply affected on several levels, personally and professionally, by my experiences in Vietnam. Professionally, I saw the need for the job I had done but not as a radio maintenance man. My radio maintenance had been limited to replacing blown fuses, bad mikes, and broken radios. I thought the job could be handled by a good, gung-ho, radio operator. I also saw the desperate need for training for new ROMADs. This was such a unique job it needed a dedicated training effort in air-delivered munitions, general artillery, aircraft and aircraft capabilities, close-air-support tactics, radio operation, etc. I had devised a small training course at Ahn Khe as I prepared to leave, but it did not survive the Tet Offensive and the Cav's move north to I Corp. Personally, I had a hard time justifying to my self the cost in young lives. We were trading lives for a few hours of holding real estate then we gave it back. Some hills were captured and returned several times, each time at a terrible cost. There seemed to be no clear mission for us. I came back to the states with some doubts about the war. They were terrible baggage and I still carry them. My assignment out of Vietnam was the Photo Mapping Wing at Forbes Air Force Base, Topeka, Kansas. Forbes was a disaster for me. I really felt out of place there. It was a great shop, the latest in technology, but I could not easily make the transition back to 8 to 5 maintenance. It was boring being stuck at a bench all day. I had enjoyed radio maintenance at Whiteman, but I didn't enjoy it anymore. I also found it was difficult to relate my Vietnam experiences to the troops there. After a few months, I heard from an old friend who was assigned to a TACP in Germany. He said if I volunteered for Germany, I'd probably end up at a TACP. I did and I did. About Easter, 1970, I left the states for the Division TACP, 3rd Infantry Division, Wurzburg, West Germany. The 3rd ID TACP consisted of a Division Fighter ALO, a Division Recce ALO, two ROMADs, two MRC-107s, and a M-151 Admin Jeep. It was the first time I heard the term; ROMAD. There were three Brigade TACPs; each had an ALO and Brigade ROMAD. The Battalions were assigned ROMADs with MRCs, and they were housed at the Brigade TACP. FACs came from Fighter Bases in England to support monthly training requirements and exercises. The DASC was at VII Corp HQs, Kelly Barracks, Stuttgart. Our primary net, the Immediate Air Request Net (IARN), was HF, and each TACP passed a personnel and equipment status report every day at 0800 and 1300 hrs. Once a month we had simulated traffic day, and each TACP would pass close air and recce requests and copy the frags from the DASC. Requests on the IARN were handled in pretty much the conventional way for those days. Immediates were given in the clear. Division copied, coordinated, and approved Battalion/Brigade's requests. Silence was approval. But USAFE had some new twists that I had not seen in Vietnam: FACs were grounded for the most part by the threat so FAC/ROMAD/Army Unit interface became very important (actually life-and-death important); all requests were authenticated; medium- and high-threat missions were the rule; radio jamming was common; "smart" ordinance was requested; airspace coordination was increasingly important; recce missions were a hot commodity and were requested by lower levels than I had seen before; Armor was king. ROMADs also knew that, given the unsecured radio equipment available, the life expectancy of a ROMAD/FAC didn't lend much credence to career plans. But then, the war in Vietnam was still raging on and was a black hole for military goodies. During and for some years after the war, the air force and army in Europe were relegated to the military equipment's generic section. Radio maintenance was performed at your local, friendly FACP or the DASC. Again, ROMAD radio maintenance was minimal, mostly PMIs and remove and replace. We stored our jeeps at an old, much-used maintenance shelter at a local FACP. Vehicle and dc generator maintenance were just as important to the ROMAD as radio maintenance, and the army motor pool did the majority of the work. Real training for ROMAD duty in USAFE was non-existent except through unit level OJT. USAFE had an AGOS, but the majority of the school was directed at the ALO, DASC, TACC troops. My ALO and I set up a training course for ROMADs and FACs at the 3rd ID, using army and air force assets. It was a fair school that trained FACs and ROMADs as teams. I was pleased with it, but I knew it needed to be expanded to encompass all the TACPs and cover more subjects. A well trained man is more comfortable in his job. And God knows, ROMADs in those days needed all the comfort they could get. ROMADs constantly griped about the negatives of ROMAD duty. They tested as radio maintenance troops without being able to work as radio maintenance. They lived with the army and that life, which many considered substandard, was forced on their family. Their duties were at the whims of the ALOs and, to a certain extent, the army. They pulled too much field duty. The job offered no future for civilian life. They had joined the air force, not the army, to work on radios,not just talk on them. The list was long and reflected real anger and disillusionment with the job and the air force. Personally, I really enjoyed ROMAD duty, but it was hurting my promotion record. Also, my family was missing the type of life I had promised them - the United States Air Force and air force bases. Many times, I had some second thoughts about the direction of my career. I understood the anguish and frustration of the Mad-ROs, the mad ROMADs. One thing I began to hear as I prepared to leave the 3rd ID was that ROMAD duty needed to be either a shred-out of the radio maintenance or operator career fields. Either solution would have been fine with me. It recognized the job and ensured fair promotions. I arrived at Bergstrom Air Force Base in early June 1974 and was assigned to the radio maintenance at the big holding TACP, the infamous 23rd TASS. I soon left the radio maintenance shop and was placed in charge of the ROMAD teams. Later, I took over the TACP. Again, I found the training inadequate for ROMADs. The Field Training School was moved down to the squadron and some good troops were installed as instructors. In 1975, a serious move was made to do something about the "ROMAD problem." After some months of talk and preparation, a Staff Study was instituted to find the solution/solutions to the problem. A female captain (disinterested party) ran the study and did an excellent job. The Staff Study group met a few times at the 12th A.F."donut", and the participants included Ft. Bragg personnel, 507th personnel, 602nd personnel, and some AFSC (as in career fields) troops from Randolph AFB. I don't remember everyone who participated and the participants changed as the meetings progressed and the focus tightened. Some were Larry Davis, Col. Ruman, Lacey Foley, Capt. Garrison, Al Mayott, and Suarez. (Sorry I don't remember all.) The Ft. Bragg solution was to make ROMAD duty a shred-out of combat control. Ft. Bragg was manned with jumpers, and many had been in combat control. The 602nd solution favored a new career field or career field shred-out OUT of the radio maintenance area. The 602nd solution was formulated at previous meetings with Wing and TASS personnel and was based on the agreement by the parties that the duties of a ROMAD were too far removed from 304X4 duties to support a shred-out of 304X4. I don't remember the 507th position other than it addressed the jumper issue more forcefully than the 602nd position. The AFSC troops (a Chief "Bones"?? plus ....sorry, I forget the others) outlined the approach the study participants needed to take in aligning duties versus career fields. The hardest part was agreeing on what the duties were. Written procedures or duty descriptions (TACM 50-9??) were sketchy, out-of-date ("After setting up the ALO's tent, the ROMAD should prepare hot water for coffee.....". You'd think we were the U.S. equivalent of the Brit Batman), and very parochial. After some tough wring-outs, the basic duties were agreed on and a separate career field fell out. It was in the ops area and after some numbers tweaking, the 275 career field was on its way to reality. About a year later, the air force approved the new career field, and some conferences were held to address the STS and its requirements for formal training. I believe USAFE and PACAF attended those meetings. The schools were established and instructors assigned. I, of course, have some strong feelings and ties to the TAC school where I was the first NCOIC. We were for the most part - handpicked - and it was a good blend: Me, Loren Thurman, Rick Soria, Lance Heaton, Norm Moss, John O'Rourke, "Hump," Lacey Foley, and Dick Walden - the "Nasty Nine." On April 30, 1977, ROMADs became street legal. For many years, back to WW II (ever see "Flying Leathernecks" with John Wayne. There's a classic ground "FAC" controlled close air support mission.), the job had existed in different forms and had been done by different players. Now, it was a real job with a real future. It validated many dreams for those who believed in the career field. For the MAD-ROs, it was the end of the road, and the Air Force lost a bunch of good radio maintenance troops who bailed out rather than stay behind the wheel of a MRC. For a brief shining moment, it was Camelot at Hurlburt for the true believers. The school was working and the new 275s were looking good. Then, it was gone as the leveling began. ALOs and FACs were included in the field portions. Loren Thurman's suggestion to blend the ATC and TAC schools was approved. I was the TAC representative for the ATC move; it was like handing over your child to strangers. I know the name was changed, but (with apologies to Will) "A ROMAD by any other name....." As for the rest of the story, I wasn't there. In late 1982, nearly 16 years after I had picked up a mike for the first time and said: "Ragged Scooper, this is Ragged Scooper 2-0-Alpha with an immediate. Are you ready to copy?" I knew, for me: "Le guerre est fini, mon ami." ROMADs had some supporters and believers that I remember fondly. I apologize for the misspellings, the forgotten names, and those that time has hidden entirely. LTC "Pappy" Heyl - 1st Cav ALO, old-time fighter pilot, loved ROMADs. Maj. Larry (?) - 1st Cav FAC, super FAC, knew lots for a 141 driver. Capt. P.B. Davis - 1st Cav FAC, short FAC with the big _____. Sgt Mike Leonard - 1st Cav ROMAD, loved it so much he volunteered for SAG duty after the Cav. Sgt "Mac" Mc Auliffe - 1st Cav ROMAD, Rick Soria with blonde hair. Sgt "Hoppy" Hopkins - 1st Cav radio operator, last of the real radio operators with the Cav. Maj. Alan Lincoln - 3rd ID Recce ALO - If you looked up "officer and gentleman," you'd find him. LTC Joe Pizzacaroli - 3rd ID ALO - great ALO and big-time supporter, a ROMAD godfather. Maj. Wayne Zaricor - 3rd ID ALO - another great ALO and supporter. Tsgt Joe (?) - 3rd ID, 1st BDE ROMAD (early 70s) - Silver Star winner in RVN, helped to keep a fire base from being overrun, army had to push the air force very hard to give the Silver Star to Joe, a typical story about ROMADs not getting much credit for RVN work, most only got the "have-been-there" medals. Col. "Wild Bill" Gorton - A supporter at Wing level, thought ROMADs were a good deal. Gen. Carey - Supporter with a star. Col. "Rumbles" Rumon(sp) - 18th AB Corp ALO, Numbre Uno supporter, could un-ass aircraft with the best, hard act to follow at any conference. CMSgt "Shorty" Suarez - The Chief - I didn't always agree with his approach but he was the Chief. Col. Mark Barthello - Class act, changed AGOS from a country club to a dynamic training force, loved ROMADs and their "rah-rah" approach to training. Col. Jim Adams - Gentleman Jim, improved on Barthello's approach to AGOS, helped to keep the ROMAD training healthy. Maj. Tony Namlick - Heat shield and shock absorber for the ROMAD school, got things done when no one would touch them, ROMADs owe him their lives. The original ROMAD instructor cadre at AGOS - the "Nasty Nine," no round table but all wanted the best for the school. MSgt Jake Jacoby - For sentimental reasons and he was a short ROMAD who stood very tall for the uniform and duty. Born a few centuries too late, died far too soon. I miss him. There are others who gave of themselves to the career field, pre- and post-1977, but the names elude me now. I can see their faces and remember conversations about shared dreams. Thanks, guys.