D-Day Issue Preview – Larry Townsend

Larry Townsend



I joined a peace-time army. Well, O.K., Vietnam was still active, but not for very long. So although I am a Vietnam-era vet, I never saw Vietnam except in pictures.

My wife and I had decided to see the world and because of poverty, we wanted to cash in somebody else’s dime. I talked to the Air Force recruiter who offered me a “dream sheet.” That’s a piece of paper that you list the 3 places you would like to go. I asked him how many people in the 10 years he had been recruiting received their first choice.

“None,” he replied.

Second choice?

“Uh, none.”

Third choice?

“One!” He smiled brightly, and I left, reflecting that “sheet” was a misspelling. The Army was more desperate. They gave you a signed contract about the school you would go to, if you qualified. I signed up for Russian language, because Vietnamese linguists only had two countries to choose from, and one of those involved hiding in haystacks.

I took a 36 week course in Russian. One of my friends took Vietnamese and finished the week Vietnam fell. The next Monday morning his entire class began a 36 week course in Russian.
We were at that time in Army uniforms and got Army pay and benefits, but we took our orders from the National Security Agency. We were expected to complete basic Russian and then go to Germany, Japan, Turkey or some such place to use electronic means to spy on the enemy. In fact, Pravda took great pride in publishing a picture of the graduating class each year from the Defense Language Institute under the banner: Spy School Graduates.

We’re not sure how they got the picture.


My last class in language school was a class on cursing in Russian, because the Soviets have no ban on foul language on military radios. You could not understand a soldier, if you could not curse.

After graduation from language school, we were sent to advance training in signal acquisition and cold weather survival.
My father found that humorous, as the Army had sent him to Ft. Devens for cold weather survival training in WWII. Then they changed his orders from Alaska to “Sahara Desert” and off he went in his wool uniform. So at Ft. Devens they changed my orders to “Ft. Hood, Texas” and off I went. Now fully capable of killing a seal and eating it without dying from the toxic Vitamin K in its liver, I arrived in Texas where (I kid you not) I never saw a seal or a walrus. Had I known how to kill tarrantulas and scorpions I would have been better off.

It turns out that I never saw Germany and still haven’t. Maybe I should have filled out the “dream sheet.”

The Army had decided that we would be in direct support of an Armored or Infantry division. That means that we would learn how to identify the enemy with our language skill, determine his suitability for annihilation, electronically find his location, and alert the necessary tubes to destroy him. That sounded like fun until I got to the part about where we would be deployed. It said: Plus or minus two kilometers from the front edge of the battle area. Plus didn’t sound too good, but minus meant we would be “behind enemy lines.” I refreshed my language skills to make sure I had mastered the necessary phrase of “Ne otkrete! Ya znau sekrete!” That means “Don’t Shoot! I know secrets!”

Fortunately, there were a few other things we did, such as jamming the enemy communication devices. And that was how we were better known. Everyday when we had our last formation, we had a tradition that surprised a new officer one day when he gave us our end of the day briefing. He very solemnly told us what we needed to know for the next day and then dismissed us. As we did everyday, we did a curt right face and then sounded off with, “Jam it, Sir!” and then left. Fortunately another officer explained it to him before the mass courtmartial he was planning occurred.

My company, known as a Combat Electronic Warfare Intelligence company, was in support of the 2nd Armored Division, commanded by General George S. Patton, IV. CEWI excelled at so many things that we were chosen to be the Honor Company for the first visit of President Jimmy Carter to an Army base during his presidency. A few of us were chosen to brief him on our equipment and function.

The planning took weeks. Alexander Haig showed up the day before the President and informed us that we were to treat him exactly as if he were the President so he could filter what the President would be told. Yes, he was dreaming of the Presidency even then. He was less than impressive.

The next day we had the equipment in a very large field and the President came to each group, walking and shaking hands with each briefer. Behind him was a truck with news media from all over the spectrum. Magazines, networks, newspapers, you name it, they were there.

The Secret Service only allowed me and two crew members to be there on our equipment. Although we were normally a six person crew, they had taken two very lovely young ladies from other crews to represent my crew, a blonde and a brunette.

President Carter walked up in front of me and I snapped off my best salute and informed him briefly about CEWI. When I finished, he said, “Sounds like you are from my part of the country, Sgt. Townsend.” I told him, that was correct, I was from Mississippi. He smiled and shook my hand, thanked me and walked away about 10 feet. The truck behind him moved to the next position with all the cameras on it. He stopped and came back. I thought, “Oh, Lord, did I do something wrong?”
He made sure the cameras and microphones were out of range and then stepped up and said, “My, Sgt. Townsend. You certainly have a lovely crew.” My first reaction was to say, “Now, Mr. President, you must not lust in your heart.” But between the idea and the tongue, I saw a vision of myself carrying a base mortar plate in Alaska in four feet of snow. I replied, “I will pass that on to them, Mr. President.” He smiled and went on to the next position.

I spent time after my hitch in the Reserves and enjoyed many experiences. And eventually I forgave the Army for sending me to Texas instead of Germany. Peace is hell.

Larry Townsend works for the Forrest General Hospital Cancer Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and is a regular contributor to the Hattiesburg American.

Read the full D-Day issue.

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