The alert phase usually started when I walked into the TGU office and someone would announce “The SMRIS are out”. This meant that the Soviet Missile Range Instrumentation Ships had left their home port and were headed to an impact area for a missile test. The notification might come from one or more sources:
- A surveillance aircraft flying from the Aleutian Islands, Korea, or Japan.
- SIGINT intercepts or HFDF tracking from US Navy sources.
- SIGINT from US Air Force Security Service stations or detachments on tracking ships.
- Satellite communications intercepts of increased radio traffic in the launch area.
Once the alert was formalized with orders from the Commander, Naval Security Group Pacific, we would start loading our gear aboard the designated DEs. I would try to call someone in the theater group and my girlfriend to let them know I would be out of town for a week or two. I would then return to my apartment and pack my seabag and leave a note and a rent check for my landlord. These short-notice deployments were the main reason I kept no house plants and never considered getting a cat or dog.
While I was getting ready to ship out, the ship’s crew would be busy loading last-minute supplies and preparing for sea. CTs with families ashore would be packing and saying their goodbyes. Those without families were doing the same things I did—notifying friends and postponing leisure-time activities.
One unusual aspect of the last-minute supply runs was that the officers aboard the ship were not fed from the general mess supplies, but from supplies purchased with funds from the officers’ Basic Allowance for Quarters (BAQ). The stewards working in the wardroom would purchase supplies with these funds and were responsible for the storage and cooking of the provisions. A complicating factor was that many of the ship’s officers lived ashore, in family housing or the BOQ, when the ship was in port. While in port, their food allowance went to the BOQ mess or to feed their families. As a result, only a minimum amount of non-perishable foods was kept aboard for the wardroom. As soon as we got mission orders, the ship’s supply officer would hit up each of the officers for a contribution to the wardroom mess. Most officers, particularly the married officers, were not inclined to make more than the minimum required contribution, so the initial stores purchased for the wardroom were not generally as plentiful or varied as the provisions in the crew mess. If the mission extended more than a few weeks, wardroom supplies could get a bit short and the stewards would have to purchase emergency rations from the ship’s supplies. The ship’s supply officer heard complaints about this, both from the captain and from the chief mess cook. A draw like this generated a lot of extra paperwork for the cooks, stewards, and supply officer. If the ship happened to pull into Midway Island for refueling, the chief steward would request an emergency cash draw and head to the Navy Exchange for supplies. However, this could be frustrating, as the supply situation at Midway could be almost as bad as that aboard the ship.
The CTs would bring aboard several footlockers with classified materials: key cards for the crypto gear, TECHINS, magnetic tapes, spare parts and consumable supplies such as teletype paper. Storage space in the Telemetry room was limited, and a lot of the gear was stowed behind the equipment racks.
As soon as I came aboard, I would report to the captain to make sure we had both received the same orders. After that, I dropped my sea bag in an unoccupied bunk in the JO Jungle—a berthing space with four bunks, some lockers, a desk, and a head. I would unpack later—when I was sure that we weren’t going to be recalled after a day or two. I would then head up to the Telemetry room to make sure that communications were up and running and there were no last-minute issues to resolve.
While I was reporting in and getting organized, the detachment Chief Petty Officer would supervise the assignment of the CTs to berthing areas and emergency stations. The latter part was simple: in any sort of emergency, the CTs would report to the Telemetry room. The goal, from the viewpoint of the ship’s crew was to get the riders out of the way so that they could handle the problem without tripping over bewildered CTs. The Chief would also make sure that CTs were assigned to cleaning duties in the berthing area. We would usually ask if the Radio room adjoining the Telemetry room needed any help getting ready for deployment. If they were in a crunch, they might get a CTO to help set up circuits and crypto gear. PONY EXPRESS missions often required more communications circuits and crypto gear than normal operations, so CINCPACFLT might assign a few extra Radiomen to assist the ship’s company. Working the communications required a Crypto security clearance, so they couldn’t assign random extra personnel from the ship’s company.