The Radar Tower


Our intrepid genius leaders back at our base camp got a wild hair up their ass one day and decided that the height of our radar antenna was inadequate (never mind that we had been detecting lots of targets). As a result, they issued us a tower, hand-delivered by the engineers. The engineers gave us a crash-course on how to set up the beast, but somehow neglected to say much about taking the beast down. The “crash-course” ended up being quite prophetic.

The tower was issued to us in August, 1969 while were based at ATSB (Advanced Tactical Support Base) Ben Keo. I was 5 months into my tour, so I had to deal with this contraption for 7 months. We were initially issued 10 tower sections which resulted in a new antenna height of 60 feet; 45 feet higher than the standard 3-section antenna mast. Later, we were issued 6 more sections, bringing the total height to 84 feet. 84 feet at a forward combat base. Can you imagine that?

While our genius leaders were somewhat correct that increasing the height of the antenna would increase range, they neglected to mention a couple of little details. One, obviously, was the tower ushered in a dramatic increase in our vulnerability. Anyone on the tower was an enemy sniper’s dream. I often wonder if our “brave” leaders considered this very real hazard while sipping their cocktails in the officers club, back at the relatively safe base camp. Note: we did not enjoy or even have access to “after hours” at the EM club, or anything else.

Secondly, disassembly, transportation and reassembly dramatically added to our work load. But that didn’t deter our genius leaders. They still insisted that we have the radar system on the air the same day of a move. This order was highly unrealistic. In fact, it was impossible. Sure, we’d work until 2:00 AM and actually get the tower erected and the radar system powered up. But, we could not perform the last, critical setup procedure. That was the orientation of the antenna.

Antenna orientation required two of us to venture a minimum of 1/4 mile outside our camp and then setup a survey tool called an Aiming Circle. From there, we’d shoot an azimuth back to the radar antenna. Once we relayed that information to the operator sitting in the van, we’d start swinging one of our helmets. After the operator detected our movement, he could calibrate and lock the azimuth read-out in the radar console. The problem here of course was that no idiot was going to go outside the wire in the dark. It would be pure suicide. But that didn’t prevent our weenie leaders back in their comfy, safe bunker from whining at us. You just have to love those desk-bound, ticket-punching lifers.

During our first move with the tower, we had an accident. Recalling that the tower was initially built to 60 feet, then later increased to 84 feet, we had to move the 3 sets of guy-wires to evenly support the tower. This left the lower set of guy-wires at the 24 foot level. As we disassembled the tower and got to the 24 foot level, we disconnected the guy-wires and dropped them to the ground. Now, the tower was very level, sitting on large board pads. But, when I swung the 5th section above me over the side to be lowered by rope, the imbalance caused the tower to tip over. There were two of us on the tower. We crashed right into some tower sections sitting on the ground. One of my buddies told me later that the back of my head hit a tubing cross piece, breaking it. I wouldn’t know. I don’t remember anything after the first moment we began to tip. The other guy pranged his knee pretty bad. We were damned lucky we weren’t injured any worse (see St. Elmo’s Fire).

About 6 months after I returned home, one of my former teammates stopped by my workplace.  He still had 5 months left on his tour when I left. He gave me an update on the team and what transpired after I left.  Sadly, he told me that the new guy who came on the team 2 weeks before I left was killed by a sniper – shot while climbing the tower.  I think it was inevitable.

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