An Interview With Lt. Col. Mario Perez USAFSS Ret.
November 2003 Newsletter - Section II

by Victor Keithley (61-63)

A few months ago, Berliner Phil proposed that I interview our own Mario Perez. The purpose being to recount Mario’s most notable achievement at the 6912th during his tour from March, 1960 to September, 1963. Said notable achievement being; determining the need for, and  setting up the “remote site” at Marienfelde. In those days, he was Capt. Mario Perez.

I gladly accepted the job since my time in Berlin coincided with Mario’s. My own  link to Marienfelde was to be among the several drivers who made deliveries to the site as it was developing. I drove one of those old VW half pickups. Had some hairy adventures in the snow, winding my way to the top of that old rubble heap. The hill consists of rubble that was gathered during the clean-up of Berlin after WWll.

Please note:  Some of the specifics of this story were, once, classified. The result is some less than specific language. There are pertinent details that are veiled behind inexact wording due to their probable, continuing sensitive nature. I wish it weren’t so, because it detracts from the bold adventure of the tale. You were there, so I leave it to your imagination and memory to flesh out any vague references.  I’ve done my best to tell Mario’s story as completely as possible while avoiding potential pitfalls.  

At the reunion in San Antonio, Mario was inducted into the BIA Hall of Fame. He was ops boss when the Wall went up, when the tanks faced off at the Wall,  and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His Marienfelde coup, alone, would have sufficed to get him into the Hall of Fame. But with all that history going on, he managed a few other chores as well. To understand Marienfelde’s  genesis, one needs a sense of the man, Mario Perez, aka The Mad Mexican. His was a daring and risky enterprise that had an enormous impact on the history of the 6912th and its mission.

Mario’s military career began when, driven by a desire to serve, he dropped out of high school in 1943 at age seventeen, forged his parents’ signatures, and joined the Navy. He served during WWll in the Pacific. He came out of the Navy in 1946. Did two years at Fullerton JC to catch up on his college entrance requirements. On to Loyola University. He joined the Air Force ROTC because it paid him 28 bucks a month while in college. He graduated  in 1951 with a BA in business administration, a commission as a 2nd Louie, and orders to report to March AFB and the 98th Bomb Wing. The 98th was deployed to Yokota, Japan. From there, the Air Force sent him to Korea with the First Marine Division. He did two tours in Viet Nam; 1969 and 1971. In there, somewhere, we had him in Berlin for awhile. In time, he went on to retire, in 1972, as a Lt. Col. He got into politics and, currently, serves on the school board in his home town of Moreno Valley in southern California.    

Over time, I recorded several phone conversations with Mario.  And that’s what they were. Conversations. What follows is not in the usual interview construct. Rather, it is in narrative form, with quotes where appropriate. Time and memories being what they are, there may be some errors in chronology or elsewhere. 

Ah, well. So be it. On to Berlin 

It was the early ’60s - - - The Soviets were harassing our corridor flights, accusing us of violating altitude restrictions, and claiming that our aircraft were straying out of the corridors. Soviet fighter aircraft came dangerously close to some of our aircraft. All of this resulting in the airport at Tempelhof being modernized with more and more high powered navigational aids for corridor flights. The proximity of all that equipment to Head Building East created enough interference to, in Mario’s words, “. . . almost amount to jamming of our receivers.”

Word had come down from NSA (National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland)  that the 6912th was going to lose the largest part of its mission because we were recovering less and less critical information. The plan was to send people to Hof to be trained to take over that part of the 12th’s mission.

>>>A little historical aside, here. While all this was going on, the Berlin Wall was started on August 13, 1961. Mario recalls the date because it’s his birthday.<<<

It was  in the fall of 1961 that Sgt. Al Roncari, who was in charge of analysis, went to Mario with his concerns about that crucial part of our mission being in jeopardy.

After Roncari’s report of his concerns, Mario went to Maj. Hugh McCall, our CO at the time. He told McCall that he wanted to conduct a “hearability study around Berlin.” 

McCall’s response was, “Oh, shit. No wonder they call you the Mad Mexican.” “You’re on your own. I haven’t heard a thing.” To which Mario replied, “Oh, shit.” He had hoped for McCall’s overt support in this adventure. The reality was that McCall’s tacit backing was there from the gitgo.  

Mario had been McCall’s ops officer at the 6939th in Trabzon, Turkey. Their relationship was firmly established there, and that’s how McCall came to bring Mario to Berlin.

Without further ado, Mario rounded up his assistant ops officer, Lt. Paul Nikulla, employed a little GI chicanery and snagged a weapons carrier under the guise of needing a vehicle to “pick up some supplies.” He added a power system (batteries or generator, he doesn’t recall), two receivers, “a Rube Goldberg VHF antenna system,” a couple dash ones, and they hit the Strasse.

As they wandered thither and yon, Mario spotted “a mountain off in the distance.” In typical adventurer spirit, he decided to check it out. Lt. Nikulla was not keen on the idea due to the “mountain’s” proximity to the border. But, off they went. The audio reception was outstanding. 

After the recovered material had been analyzed, Roncari reported that there was information that had never been  heard at T‘hof.

During the initial foray into the Marienfelde experiment, there was considerable excitement at the 6901st at Zweibruecken and NSA about the quality of Mario’s product. There were glowing words for his good work.

His only problem was that the operation was, as he said, “illegal”. The pretense was, and had to be, that all the traffic, that his crew collected, was from Head Building East. A necessity to cover the reality of what he was doing. Col. McCall weighed in and went to the base commander to borrow a van to “store some things.” The van ended up on top of the rubble heap that was Marienfelde and became the beginning of our “remote site”.

Finally, the folks at the 6901st  and on up the line wanted more. They wanted to know how the deed had been done.

Mario said to tell them the truth, that it had come from a hill on the outskirts of Berlin. As he says, “That’s when the shit hit the fan.”

Maj. McCall got messages from the 6901st and Wing Commander Col. Erickson in Frankfurt, wanting to know about this “violation of security.” They wanted to know who had authorized the operation. Keep in mind that there were four GI’s with the highest security clearances, wandering around town in an unsecure vehicle handling highly classified material.

Orders came down from on high that he was to cease his illegal operation, in spite of the good stuff that he was intercepting. He didn’t. I heard a hint of pride in Mario’s admission that he disobeyed those orders. He did so based on his conviction that he was onto a good thing.  Mario recalls that a number of  intel firsts  came from Marienfelde. 

The wrath of Hades and senior officers was to be visited upon Mario for his sins. He was to be “fired” for disobeying orders. His clearance was to be pulled and he was to be shipped out of Berlin back to Zweibruecken to the logistics department. A secret investigation against Mario had been started.

When Maj. McCall heard about the investigation, he assured Mario that, “If they fire you, they’ll have to fire me.” McCall then went to Frankfurt to see Col. Erickson to try to save the situation. It came out that Erickson’s ops officer was doing the deal against Mario behind Erickson’s back.

As was bound to happen, the word got back to Gen. Klocko, USAFSS  commander at Kelly AFB in San Antonio. Mario had briefed the general a couple times and Klocko remembered him. With the intercession of the general and NSA, Mario’s misdeeds were deemed worthy and he was back in the saddle.

Time passed. The 6912th’s voice mission had been saved and the Marienfelde site was developing into what, Mario said, was to become the, “outstanding intelligence  collection site in Europe.”

Mario also told me that during all the hoorah, as the wall was progressing, that we were sending intel directly to the White House.

As things got hotter, the 12th was given instructions on when and how to use thermal devices to destroy; first, comm equipment, then, receiver equipment. McCall was, also, notified that when no more transmissions were being received from the  6912th, that,  “. . . we will consider your situation unviable.”  Such a comforting thought.  

As you know, it all more or less settled out and we got back to ‘normal’. That is, until the Cuban Missile Crisis arose. There’s always something!

When Mario left Berlin in ’63, he requested  Det. 1 at Cudjoe Key, Florida (near Key West). He was CO there and continued to monitor the Cuban situation. Being Mexican, it was a slam dunk for him, since he is equally comfortable in English or Spanish.

From Florida, it was on to Kelly, Goodfellow, Viet Nam (twice), and finally, in 1972, at Mrs. Perez’s urging, Mario retired from the military and began his current political career.

Mario says that in all his experience during his career in the USAFSS, that the 6912th had the best morale of all his stations.

I believe it!  We all know that Berlin was some kinda town!

Mario asked me to include the following:  “I say, with deep humility and lasting gratitude, that this chapter of my life could not have been written without the wholehearted commitment, to our mission, of every single person involved. With great recognition to the men who were ready to give their lives when we believed that the Russians would cross the line. I have never doubted that every man would have stood his ground. God bless you all.”   

He was also quite clear that this chapter is only part of the story of Marienfelde and the 6912th Radio Squadron Mobile. He wants that the story shall be continued by those who came after.

Indulge me, bitte, for a personal observation. After forty-plus years, I’m still in  genuine awe at having been in the middle of, and participating in, such astounding world altering events. I daresay many of you share that sentiment. I’ve never quite found the words to express that part of me. But, if you were there, you know.  VK

Mario and I are going to get together for a couple beers when we hit Florida. Y’all come an’ join us.

My thanks to Berliner Phil, aka Phil Adams, for the idea and many boosts when I needed them. Also to Paul Nikulla for responding to my emails asking  for the aid of his memory. Most of all, my thanks to Mario Perez for allowing me to quiz him for hours on the phone.  If any of the facts are garbled . . . time and memory, memory and time.

Lt. Col. Perez, your grace and good humor made this a most pleasant exercise.
Gracias y vaya con Dios, mi Amigo.

Victor Keithley (61-63)
11Nov 2003


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