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Memories of K1AIR at Otis AFB, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

I arrived at Otis Air Force Base (AFB) in March 1963 fresh out of Keesler AFB, Mississippi ground radio operator school. I had spent the past 14 weeks of my life learning how to tune a transmitter, receiver, and being able to send and receive 14 words per minute in Morse code.

I was immediately assigned to the 551 Air Base Squadron which was part of the 551 Air Early Warning Group. From there I was assigned to the base MARS radio station which was located in an old wing of the base hospital. With me were Don Skinner and Doug Dowell who had gone through radio school with me at Keesler and who were also assigned to the MARS radio station.

For those of you not familiar with MARS radio, it was a place military men and women could send messages (much like Western Union telegrams) to their friends, family, and loved ones. It also acted as an emergency back-up communications support and as a recreational vehicle for military amateur radio operators.

The hospital was built prior to WW II and served as a stopping off point for many of the wounded men brought back from the fighting in Europe, and also as a final resting place for some of them. Many of the doors and corridors were boarded up and no longer in use as the roofs and floors were bucking or rotting away. We used to walk to work from the old wooden barracks which were located about 2 miles away from the radio station. One particularly cold day Don and I decided to find a short cut through the old boarded up part of the hospital and through the winding corridors. Needless to say we got lost as it was like trying to find your way through a maze. One particular corridor was much darker and colder than the others and I got the uncanny feeling we were being watched. We never looked for any more shortcuts after that.

The wing we occupied was next to the road and across the street from the emergency entrance to the base hospital. It consisted of 3 small rooms, 1 larger room, and an open ward like you would expect to see if you entered a barracks. It was used as a room for wounded soldiers, and the smaller rooms were probably rooms for nurses and supplies. We used the larger room for our main operating room and 2 of the smaller rooms for other gear as described below.

The MARS radio station had 3 radio rooms. One room had a SP600 receiver and a BC610 transmitter, which was used primarily as a CW room. From that room we transmitted MARS-grams to "AIR" at the Pentagon, and Dover AFB in Delaware. It was the room that Don and I used to increase our code speed as the operator at the Pentagon was very fast! Many are the times when we asked the operator at the Pentagon to QRS as we were ZZO's (junior operators).

After Don and I had increased our speed to 20 WPM using a J38 hand key we realized we needed something that could go faster. Don went out and bought a Bencher keyer, and by the time I left, I had my code speed up to 35 WPM.

The main operating room consisted of a KW1 transmitter with a R390A receiver, and a Collins KWS1 transmitter and receiver. The KW1 transmitter was put on the air only when we need to use the K1AIR call to pass MARS-grams to amateur radio operators who were approved MARS members. They in turn would get the message as close as possible to its destination before a call or MARS-gram was sent to the receiving part. The KWS1 was used for our military call, which was "AG1BT." From time to time we had military amateur radio operators come in to pass traffic over the amateur frequencies, or call CQ for general contacts. We had a QSL card, of which I still have an original. We never sent out many of those cards as it was the person's responsibility who operated K1AIR to send out the cards, and they were usually too lazy to do so.

Westover AFB was net control of all MARS Radio Traffic on the East Coast. We would contact them daily to receive and transmit messages either for military purposes or for MARS purposes. We kept a logbook on all traffic sent and received.

The final radio room was actually a storage room until Major Minot Guild arrived on the scene in 1964. Major Guild was put in charge of the MARS radio station because they claimed he was no longer medically fit to fly. Major Guild had logged a million miles in aircraft and we heard he was a survivor of the Battan Death March.

Major Guild knew how to procure military surplus gear! By the time I left he had so much military surplus gear in that wing of the hospital that the floors were buckling from the weight! The military amateur radio operators were free to come in and fill up on whatever they wanted. We had every type of tube, resistors, capacitors, chokes, meters, and you name it, we had it! Major Guild's knowledge of how to obtain military surplus was amazing, and many are the times we would pick up a 2 1/2 ton truck from the motor pool and trek up to Boston to the Naval Shipyard to pick up radios, receivers, tubes, binoculars, rifles (yes rifles) and other military gear we brought back to the radio station. What happened to the binoculars and rifles only Major Guild knows, but the radio gear remained at the station. In fact, recently I ran across a fellow, Rick Mish from Miltronics in Toledo, Ohio, who claims he purchased much of that surplus gear from Otis AFB. Rick is one of the foremost experts at fixing and restoring R390A's.

Well, Major Guild decided we needed some UHF gear to set up in that third room and keep in contact with the tower as emergency back-up system. So he sent Doug, Don, and I up to the Boston Naval Shipyard to pick up radio equipment from the Navy free of charge. He had us set up racks to mount the radio equipment into and the day finally came he called the tower for a radio check. The tower acknowledged his radio check and thought it was a good idea that there was a back-up system on the base.

Then came that fateful day when Air Force One was flying in from Andrews AFB with President Kennedy aboard. Major Guild knew AF1 was coming and made sure he was at the radio station prior to the aircraft arriving. We all listened when AF1 called the tower and was given instructions for landing. Then Major Guild decided he would call AF1 for a radio check. BIG MISTAKE! Air Force One ripped him up one side and down the other for making unauthorized transmissions to the presidential aircraft and was told not to call AF1 unless he was called first! We were all stunned. Visions of our impending court martial and Leavenworth prison danced in our heads. Shortly after that the Major had the radios taken down and put into surplus.

Our antennas consisted of dipoles attached to telephone poles at least 60 feet tall. We never had any beams or vertical antennas. We also had a large generator outside the radio station mounted on a trailer for back-up power.

When I arrived at Otis, Airman Glen Browning was the chief operator. He was responsible for our upgrade training. When he shipped out in October of 1963, Lt. Carruth assigned me as chief operator. I held that position until March of 1965 when I received orders to ship out to the Azores Islands.

We had 2 maintenance men assigned to our MARS station, Vinnie Delucca and crazy Dana Hatch. Out in the hospital area we had a number of groundhogs. They had burrows everywhere and you had to watch where you were walking when you were outside the station so you did not step in one of their holes. Well, Dana decided we needed to rid ourselves of some of those groundhogs, so he found a piece of pipe that had to be 15 feet long, filed down some nails and fashioned Styrofoam ends that fit the inside pipe diameter perfectly. It was the longest blowgun I had ever seen! To test it, we had 2 guys hold the pipe while Dana loaded one end and aimed the dart at a wooden post in the station. The dart went into the post so far we could not get it out! The hunt was on! We managed to get the pipe up on the roof and picked out a fat groundhog next to the station. Dana fired and the dart went in one ear and out the other side. The groundhog was unhurt and continued to surface weeks after he had been hit. Proof that groundhogs have no brains.

Perhaps the strangest moment came one day when I was returning from the hospital chow hall from lunch. As I was walking down the corridor, the doors burst open and 2 men dressed in business suits came in. They flashed ID's at me and said that they were Secret Service Agents and would have to detain me briefly. Then a stretcher bearing a woman who was obviously in pain was wheeled by me and after she passed by, the agents let me go on my way. When I got back to the radio station, I told the guys they would never believe what just happened to me. They said forget what happened to you, they just brought Jackie Kennedy into the hospital. I said, "Is that who that was?" I did not recognize her.

The baby Patrick died that night, and the next day, President Kennedy arrived in a limo with his 2 kids jumping around the back seat, and his press secretary Salinger was outside addressing the press. It was a moment in history I will never forget. A few months later, President Kennedy was to join his son.

The day President Kennedy was shot, our entire base was put on alert. We were sure there was going to be a war as rumors were abounding. It was a somber moment for us all, and the whole world was stunned. I was at the radio station when it happened and to this day, people can remember where they were when they first heard the news.

One particularly funny moment came in the winter of '63 or '64, I can't remember which year. We had 24 inches of snow over a 24-hour period and the snowdrifts were 10 feet tall. I remember Don and I were cleaning our rooms when Don said he couldn't take it anymore, opened the window, and jumped out from the second story. Horrified, I ran to the window to look out and could not see him anywhere. Then I noticed a hole in one of the snow banks. I called his name but got no answer. I was about the call the Air Police when Don emerged from the bottom of the snow bank covered in snow. He ran back upstairs, said that was great, and promptly jumped out the window again! Soon guys were jumping out all the windows into the snow banks surrounding the barracks. It was a crazy but fun time.

The next day, Done and I walked through the snow up to our hips the 2 miles to the radio station. It took us almost 4 hours to get to the radio station, but we made it only to find out we did not have to report. Rather than walk back, we spent the entire night at the radio station, until the snowplows could plow the roads.

In May, 1964 I received orders to fly out to Hamilton AFB in California with another guy and provide back-up communications support for a make-believe war we had going on in the Mojave Desert. On the way back, we were the only 2 people in the first class section with 3 stewardesses to wait on us. We played cards and drank a whole briefcase full of various liquors from San Francisco to Boston. When we arrived, I was feeling no pain and the car they sent for us had a flat tire with no spare! They finally picked us up in a ton-and-a-half truck and got us back to Otis at 1:30 in the morning. By that time, I was sick and was trying to get my gear up the stairs so I could get to my room and sleep forever, when I ran into Don who was on the phone with some girl he had met while I was gone. He would not let me go to my room until I promised to double-date with him and his girl the next night. I would have said anything to get to my room!. The next night, I was introduced to this young, immature, 17-year-old from New Bedford who could only say, "Hi guy," and "You'll get over it," all night. As far as I was concerned, if I never saw her again, it would have been too soon! Her name was Arleen, and we have been married for 30 years now.

In February of 1965, I got orders to ship out to Lajes Field in the Azores Islands. All the radio operators that shipped out after me got orders to go to Vietnam. I spent the balance of my Air Force career working aircraft flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Otis AFB was an Air Defense Command (ADC) base, the largest ADC base in the world. We had the old C-121 radar-domed "Connie" aircraft that would go out over the Atlantic Ocean and act as an air early-warning system for incoming aircraft or missiles. Our fighter group was the 60th fighter wing with the F-101 "Voodoo" aircraft. The base was closed in 1969 and turned over the Air National Guard in 1973. Later the Coast Guard would occupy it. The K1AIR call has not been on the air for over 30 years.

Roger Mundy, K8AIR

May, 1998

Commerce Township, MI USA

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