Japan, Part 1

My introduction to Japan started back on the Oxford when we were laid up in Sasebo for engine repairs.  I loved it then, even though it was the dead of winter, so I was really looking forward in anticipation to this tour.  I was going to be here for a complete tour – three years.  I was determined to make the best of it.

I landed at Tachikawa Air Base in the middle of Tokyo and was bused over to the Security Group area at Kamiseya.  What I didn’t know at the time was this whole operation (which had suffered a huge fire in September of 1965 that killed 12 men) was to be moved northward to Misawa Air Base way up near the tip of Honshu Island.  I had only enough time to check in before I was hustled over to a plane headed to Misawa.

Misawa Air Base is a sprawling base run and maintained by the Air Force.  By our nature and for the most part, the Security Group used already existing facilities and the Air Force had a very nice Security Service installation out on a peninsula attached to the air base proper.  There was a huge circular antenna used for direction finding.

The same reason for existence of direction finding used in the Azores operation applied here.  The Sea of Japan and the portion of the Pacific surrounding Japanese waters could be extremely dangerous.  Our equipment was used for a variety of reasons; navigation and rescue were near the top of the list.  Being in such proximity with the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China we had loads of other tasking.  We always like to joke that Vladivostok was closer to us than Tokyo (which was true).

I was assigned a watch section, but since I was now an E-6 (CTR-1) I was made a supervisor of the section.  I was replacing CPO (E-7) this time.  The first E-6 to do so at this base.  Talk about being under the guns.  My performance had to be perfect now.

Any base housing (on or off base) was unavailable at the time I received my orders so I was forced to proceed to Misawa without my wife.  We took leave and I brought her back home to Colorado and left her and my daughter there.  She would remain there for just over a year before being allowed to come and join me.

As I said, base housing was very scarce.  I could have lived off-base, or “on the economy” as it was known, but these houses were typically Japanese – thin walls, very small, kerosene heaters, primitive kitchens and the like.  Very snug however, but just not what I was prepared to go for.  Monthly rental contracts were also made, but, curiously, in U.S. Dollars instead of Japanese Yen.  At the time, the conversion rate was fixed at exactly 360 Yen to the dollar.  A typical rental unit would cost maybe $150 a month.  When the big monetary upheaval came and the Japanese Yen was allowed to float, the conversion rate went down to around 180 Yen to the dollar.  The contracts written in dollars really stung the landlords.

I put my name down on the list for on-base housing and settled in for an extended wait.  Meanwhile, I was assigned to the Navy barracks as a barracks chief.  This was in addition to my normal watchstanding duties and involved making sure that all the Japanese workers did their jobs.  The particular building we were given by the Air Force was in fairly good condition.  It also allowed everyone to have an individual room.

The guy’s rooms quickly filled up with locally crafted Japanese furniture and stereo equipment.  High quality woodworkers in the town of Misawa could be commissioned to make some really breathtaking items.  Normally, all you had to do was show them a picture of what you wanted and they made it.  As for the electronics, there was a store right outside the gate, called Ebina’s, which sold electronic equipment.  Everything from small self-contained units to speaker enclosures you could park a car in were available.

Winter arrived with a whoosh of wind and snow directly from the Kamchatka Peninsula, frigid, hard, and penetrating.  It dumped almost two feet of snow virtually overnight.  The air base snow crews were very good.  The road running to the DF site was, back in October, lined with bamboo stakes over eight feet tall.  I wondered at the time if that was really necessary.  Yes, it was.  That winter, we received a total of around six feet of snow, drifting to twelve feet.  The snow, which made driving hazardous, was really welcome the year the Winter Olympics were held in Sapporo.

On our days off, we were pretty much free to go our own way and do things.  Being an Amateur Radio enthusiast and a member of Navy MARS, I ended up over at the radio shack set up by the Air Force.  The current chief (and only) operator was a friendly sort named Red, and we got along well.  I began filling in for him in some of the AF traffic nets.  These nets were set up to facilitate communications to and from their host countries and typically consisted of stations in Vietnam, Korea, Guam, Philippines, and Okinawa.

Although their primary mission was as back-up to other comms, their secondary mission was to assist in making telephone “patches” back to the States for all hands on the base.  In a typical day’s operation, we might make as many as twenty or thirty patches back home for base personnel.  There were always regular operators (mostly on the US West Coast) standing by with their radios to make these patches into the telephone system.  These were the real unsung heroes of the airwaves.  On one of their typical days they might run as many as a hundred patches for us.  One operator, in the Seattle area, would have as many as five telephone operators standing by with several pre-arranged patches ready to go.  As always, patches from Vietnam took precedence, but the vagaries of atmospherics would force them to drop out about the time Misawa became stronger.

I spent a lot of time hanging out at that station.  Several of my watch section buddies began spending their time there also.  One in particular was as proficient in Morse code as I was.  We would spend a lot of time with our little code machine sending jokes from Playboy to each other.  Red wasn’t as good as we were so when we came to the punch line we’d speed way up and he’d have to struggle to catch it.

We were also licensed to get down on the ham bands and did so at every occasion.  Our call sign, KA8FY, was very rare.  Whenever we were present on any frequency we would be besieged with calls from hams all over the world for a contact.  One memorable situation, just before a typical ham band contest, we were adjusting transmitter power and gave our call.  There was an immediate return from another ham with a similar call sign (containing an “8”) who stated he was in Chicago and wanted to know if we were near him since we were so loud.  We said that no, we weren’t, and added that we were in northern Japan.  There was dead silence for perhaps fifteen seconds and then he started laughing.  He was convinced that we were kidding him and that we were in the next building or something.  It was only when he looked us up in the call sign directory that the laughing stopped.  He was our first contact of the contest.

I operated primarily in CW (Morse code).  When I started calling for any contacts, I was usually kept busy for at least an hour before I could stop due to our rare location.  We were the only American station in our part of Japan and considered a very rare catch.

Finally, the second winter arrived and I was assigned an on-base house.  It was a bit drafty due to the cracks in the wall (more on that later), but surprisingly cozy.  My family was due to show up in about three weeks.  I could hardly wait until they did.