I’m writing this article because Phil Adams asked me for it. I guess he thought I might put something interesting together that would give you a better understanding of how things were in the 6912th during the early 80s. When I started writing, I didn’t intend to continue beyond 1982, when I left Berlin for the last time. The story really didn’t end there though, so I explained how my experiences in the 6912th helped me successfully cope with challenges I faced later on.
Over twenty-five years have passed since I last left Berlin in June 1982, but it doesn’t seem nearly so long. I still recall how excited I was in early 1979 to learn I would soon return to Berlin. I’d completed a 4 ˝ year tour with the 6912th Security Squadron some five years earlier, so it seemed almost as if I were going back home.
Memories of my first Berlin tour (1970-74) remain vivid even today, largely because that was the most interesting and challenging tour of my USAF career from an operational standpoint. I arrived in January 1970 as a young SSgt with over three years in grade. I’d already served almost eight years as a Russian 203x1, including five years in other overseas assignments, mostly in analytic/reporting jobs. I was delighted to learn I’d been picked for product reporting duty on Able Flight at Marienfelde.
When I joined the flight on a first “mid,” the night was cold and little was happening mission wise. I remember being surprised that a young MSgt named Robert Womack seemed so excited to welcome me aboard, but I soon figured it out. Bob was the acting Able Flight product reporter and I was there to replace him as soon as he could certify me as a competent reporter. Doing that was apparently the only obstacle between him and a nice, soft day job. So, as soon as the welcome dust settled, he took me to a desk with what appeared to be an entire library stacked on top of it. I’d worked straight days for the previous two years, so you can imagine just how much fun trying to absorb all that reading material during a set of mids was for me.
All kidding aside, I was truly fortunate that Bob Womack was my trainer and mentor. He taught me well to do what I soon discovered was as challenging a job as there was for a Russian 20371 at Marienfelde in those days. Thanks to what I learned from Bob Womack, I was particularly successful in the Able Flight Surveillance & Warning Center. In fact, I spent my entire 4 ˝ year tour there, was promoted to TSgt, and eventually advanced to the level of S&W Supervisor. I’m still prouder of having done well in that job than of any other achievement during my 26 year USAF career.
When I learned I was returning to Berlin in 1979, I immediately envisioned myself working in the Marienfelde S&W Center again. What a thrill it would be to once again face the enemy head on in that same, familiar role. Honestly, I was quite disappointed when my sponsor, CMSgt Stewart Engbretson, told me I was going to be the Operations Superintendent, formerly known as “Operations NCOIC”. Considering those who’d gone before me in the job, I wasn’t at all sure I was up to the challenge as a brand new SMSgt. The names of CMSgts Willy Peer, Jerry Polansky, and John Sinnard, and others rushed through my mind. How would I, a technically oriented NCO, be able to fill such big shoes in such an important organization?
I certainly wasted no time coming up with some alternative recommendations. First I tried convincing Stu to swap places with me. After all, he was CMSgt and, therefore, seemed to be the right person for the CMSgt job in the front office. Besides, analyzing and reporting on tactics and stuff in the Exploitation Branch would have been right down my alley. Oh well, if you knew Stu Engbretson at all, you can imagine how swiftly that idea went down the drain. Then I learned SMSgt Ken Hehn was already in the job in question. Could I possibly convince him I really belonged in a flight S&W Center? Well, Ken did agree the S&W Supervisor jobs were still SMSgt slots, but that was all he’d concede. As he pointed out, the 6912th Electronic Security Group was short of us 203xx seniors and chiefs. I also learned Ken was anxiously awaiting my arrival so he could assume the role of Superintendent, Group Operations Division, at Tempelhof. Just about then, I realized I had no recourse but to accept the inevitable and hit the ground running, despite my lack of experience in administration.
When I arrived, I was truly impressed with the welcoming party: Col. Lewis Chapman, Group Commander; Lt. Col. Donald Smith, Group Operations Officer; and Major Paul Sheffler, Marienfelde Operations Officer; and several others. They all went out of the way to make me feel as welcome as I ever felt in my initial hours with any military organization. And as we talked, I noticed they all emphasized a common theme: My most important function would be taking care of the Marienfelde enlisted force. I specifically recall Col. Chapman advising me not to be shy about sticking my nose into anything that could potentially affect the enlisted force. He then underscored his advice by pointing out that nothing ever happened in the 6912th ESG without some impact on the Marienfelde workforce. In time, I realized all the advice they offered was right on the mark.
6912th Security Group Seniors and Chiefs - 1981
Perhaps the most serious issue facing the 6912th at the time was retention of experienced NCOs in the operational career fields. I’m sure similar situations existed throughout the Electronic Security Command, but I’d just come from four years at NSA and was not exactly up to date on things affecting field operations. Marienfelde manning statistics certainly didn’t look good on paper, but thank goodness we were blessed with some truly outstanding young NCOs and airmen who rose to the occasion. Where there had been an abundance of TSgts and MSgts vying for the more challenging jobs when I left Berlin in 1974, I found first-term airmen in some of those key roles five years later. In fact, a young E-4 Sgt was temporarily cast into the role of S&W Supervisor on one flight. Needless to say, he amazed us all with how well he executed his responsibilities.
Prompted by something I read—perhaps a HQ ESC bulletin—I started a “Retention Workshop.” We were just beginning that effort to better document what was needed to keep more of our outstanding technicians in the Air Force when MSgt David Sullivan at Teufelsberg was selected for promotion to SMSgt. Because there was no SMSgt vacancy for him at T-berg, we were able to transfer him to Marienfelde as Supervisor, Operations Support. Dave quickly offered to take the reins of our new Retention Workshop. As much as this project helped us and HQ ESC to understand what retention priorities should be, it also helped to reassure our younger airmen and NCOs of our sincere concern for their needs and preferences.
In the spring of 1981, about the time I was beginning to enjoy some self-confidence in the Marienfelde Operations Office, something unexpected changed everything. In retrospect, I must admit it was my most memorable experience of this 3 year tour. At our 6912th ESG Dining-In, I was caught in total surprise when our new Group Commander, Col. Alton Elliott, read a HQ ESC message naming me as one of three 6912th SMSgts selected for promotion to CMSgt. Others named were Ken Hehn and First Sergeant Smith. Try to imagine the celebration that night turned into!
A month or so after those promotions were announced, the Group Senior Enlisted Advisor, CMSgt Paul Kelly, retired. Col. Elliott quickly announced that CMSgt (sel) Hehn would succeed Chief Kelly in the SEA role, and I would become Superintendent, Group Operations Division. My responsibilities consequently expanded to include Marienfelde, Teufelsburg, the collateral element at Tempelhof, and a remote operating location at Wobeck. Suddenly I had even more reason to wonder if I hadn’t just exceeded my potential.
Many of my new responsibilities were not unlike those I’d become accustomed to at Marienfelde, but others were new. I still supervised the administrative staff, still served as senior Operations NCO on site, and still managed the Operations Command Center in emergency situations. Of course, taking care of the Operations enlisted force was still at the top of the list of my responsibilities. From this new perspective, however, I had to remain fully versed on just those matters requiring the attention of the Division Operations Officer and the Group Commander. The branch superintendents and the operating location NCOIC did most of the real work. It was particularly comforting to know things would transition well at Marienfelde because newly promoted SMSgt David Sullivan replaced me there.
Under the new Division Operations Officer, Lt. Col. Ben Hardaway, I was charged with some unexpected responsibilities. Without an assistant Operations Officer, per se, he expected me to function as his chief of staff. Specifically, I was to ensure all members of his immediate staff satisfied operational requirements within established deadlines. Along with those responsibilities, he tasked me with managing self-inspections and the Management Inspection Guide (MIG) for the entire Operations Division. I also inherited cost-center manager responsibilities for the Operations Budget and became contract monitor for the Operations cleaning contracts at Tempelhof and Marienfelde. As if that wasn’t enough, I frequently chaired Group recognition and below-the-zone promotion boards and regularly visited the other Operations Division sites.
The early 1980s were particularly exciting times in Berlin. Many equipment and tactical improvements were being introduced in the air forces on both sides of the fence, making it a time of particular vigilance on the part of us all. Several instances of serious excitement came from a number of Polish aircraft being hijacked to Tempelhof as well. It was also a good time for celebrities to tour the Island City. Maj. Gen. Doyle Larson, Reserve Brig. Gen. James Stewart, and even our new Commander-in-Chief, President Ronald Reagan, were among those who came to call. Perhaps the most talked-about episode occurred when President Reagan stood at the Wall near Potsdamer Platz, picked up a stone and tossed it over the wall, daring the commies to throw it back. I’ve always wished I’d been there to witness the President’s symbolic gesture of strength and defiance, but since I wasn’t, I just enjoyed hearing others describing it over and over.
Major General Larson with Bobby Hughes - 1981
Because my oldest son would graduate from the Berlin American High School in the spring of 1982 and attend college in Texas, I’d decided not to extend my Berlin tour. If I had any lingering thoughts on that decision, they were put to rest in late 1981 when Lt. Col. Nikolauk of the 3480 Technical Training Group at Goodfellow AFB visited the 6912th. I first met him at the weekly Operations staff meeting one afternoon and was stunned when, shortly after that meeting, he stepped into my office, shut the door behind him, and offered me the job of Superintendent, Cryptologic Language Training, at Goodfellow. Fearing he’d made some mistake, I advised him I’d had no earlier instructor duty and might not be fully prepared for a CMSgt job in a training department. What I said didn’t seem to faze him; he just told me to proceed to the Consolidated Base Personnel Office (CBPO), submit a request for a training duty, and let him take care of the rest. Nothing like that had happened to me before, so I was cautiously skeptical about the outcome. A real surprise came a week later when HQ ESC confirmed my next assignment.
Goodfellow Air Force Base - 2007
I arrived at Goodfellow in August 1982 and soon understood why I’d been picked for the TTG opening, despite my lack of instructor experience. About two years earlier, Goodfellow was removed from the list of bases being considered for closure. Shortly thereafter, the base and its mission were re-subordinated from ESC to the Air Training Command. Then, in 1981, the TTG was rated marginal during its first ATC Management Effectiveness Inspection (MEI). The Cryptologic Language Branch, which ATC didn’t understand at all, had received some particularly low marks. HQ ATC interpreted those IG Team findings as indications our instructors were resisting the ATC way of doing things out of loyalty to ESC. It was easy to see my first priority was making sure the language branch would be rated satisfactory when the ATC IG returned for a follow-up MEI some six months after I arrived. Once more, I had the sinking feeling I could be slipping into something over my head.
Nevertheless, with the help and guidance of many highly skilled technical instructors and training managers, I was soon able to understand where we were and what was needed to get us back on track. We worked long and hard to redeem ourselves in the eyes of our new command and, as a result, came through the MEI smelling like roses.
Shortly thereafter, ATC announced plans for Col Chalmers Carr to replace retiring Colonel Charlie Powell as Commander, 3480 Tech Training Wing. Part of Col Carr’s preparations for assuming command included interviewing CMSgts for the Wing Senior Enlisted Advisor job. As a relatively junior CMSgt, applying for such a job hadn’t seriously crossed my mind when the 3480 TTG Commander, Col Glenn Dishman, nominated me for an interview. Since I’d spent almost all my career as a USAFSS/ESC NCO, I interviewed mainly to please my current commander, never thinking I was seriously in the running. A week later, Col Carr called to congratulate me.
When I entered the SEA role, I really wasn’t sure what my responsibilities would be, but I can assure you Col Carr made everything abundantly clear our first day on the job. His first, simple rule: I was obligated to please no one but him in anything I did and he expected me to please him fully in every respect. Mainly, I was to advise him on all matters with regards to the enlisted force at Goodfellow and at the subordinate squadrons in Monterrey, California, and Pensacola, Florida. He further expected me to maintain a close liaison with the entire enlisted force at Goodfellow and in the outlying squadrons to ascertain optimum compliance with provisions and intents of Air Force directives and ATC objectives. In turn, he vowed to keep me informed of his stand on all issues so I could aggressively support him at all times.
Some of my more routine duties involved overseeing the Professional Military Education selection process and conducting NCO appointments ceremonies. I often attended ceremonies and social events as representative of the enlisted force. In 1985, I presided over the Goodfellow NCO Dining-Out. Whenever possible, I attended all graduations of the ESC NCO Academy and Leadership School at Goodfellow. When members of our Goodfellow family graduated from the ATC NCO Academy at Lackland, I attended those celebrations as well. Occasionally, I was guest speaker.
Col Carr was a most accomplished pilot-instructor, a highly respected ATC officer, and a tried-and-proven administrator and leader. He knew exactly how to get the most from ATC for Goodfellow and arrived there with orders to fit the base and its mission into the ATC mold in every respect. The ATC Commander, Gen Andrew Iosue, wanted Goodfellow elevated to training center status and envisioned expanding its mission beyond the realm of only intelligence training. He knew well that was the best way to secure the funding needed to rebuild the base and to keep it off the closure list. Col Carr understood Gen Iosue’s objectives far better than did anyone else at Goodfellow, and he soon had us all on track. A year after he assumed command, Gen Iosue announced Col Carr had been selected for promotion to brigadier general and that Goodfellow was advancing to Technical Training Center status. At the same time, our mission was expanding in two ways. The Wing would be supporting the PAVE PAWS early warning site at Eldorado AFS, Texas, and would become the home of the USAF Fire Fighting School.
I won’t pretend that everything at Goodfellow was apple-pie pleasant or that all went smoothly during the transition. Changing step was sometimes awkward, even for some of the key players. As could be expected, there were occasional signs of resistance to change. Nonetheless, the experience taught me there wasn’t much an NCO coming up through the ranks of USAFSS and ESC couldn’t accomplish, even in unfamiliar roles and settings.
As far as I know, the term “Senior Enlisted Advisor” is no longer used today, but the job survives under a new designation. The Army introduced Command Sergeants Major in the 1970s, but it took the Air Force a while to eventually follow suit. Today, the top NCOs in specified USAF organizations are Command Chief Master Sergeants. The incumbents’ responsibilities are much like the ones I had as Goodfellow SEA under Brig Gen Carr, before he moved on to the USAF IG Team at the end of his Goodfellow assignment.
I retired from the Air Force in 1987 and was subsequently recruited as a configuration management consultant by a Fort Worth management firm serving the high-tech power industry. In that capacity, I further developed my skills and interests involving personal computers and network administration. In 1992, the Texas Attorney General’s office initiated an in-house system support project; I was hired as network manager for the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area. Three years later, I became statewide manager for the Information Systems field support organization and transferred to Austin, where I remained until retirement in early 2003.
My wife Merry and I now reside with our miniature schnauzer “Tallie Mae” in our retirement home in Onalaska, Texas. Onalaska is nestled on the banks of Lake Livingston, second largest lake fully inside Texas. My regular activities here include cruising and racing my two sailboats on Lake Livingston (some residue from my last three years in Berlin), writing columns for some east Texas newspapers, organizing school reunions, and spending time with friends and family, especially our grandchildren: Megan, Riley, and Cason. I’ve also become a loyal fan of the thing we know as “e-mail” because it allows me to stay in such close touch with so many dear friends, including many from those wonderful Air Force years.
© 2007, the Berlin Island Association