The end of a PONY EXPRESS mission generally came when the SMRIS headed back to port. The DEs would then head back to Pearl Harbor. On the way back, we would prepare summaries of our collection, make backups of the tapes and clean up the Telemetry room. Once the chores were done, the CTs and I would catch up on sleep to the degree allowed by the ship’s motion and the need to maintain a communications watch.
On the return trip in November of 1973, we discovered that we were missing a used key card from one of our KW38 crypto units. These key cards were carefully inventoried, and loss of a key card was considered a major security breach. With the capture of the USS PUEBLO in 1968, the Soviets gained access to US KW38 crypto machines and could potentially decode any intercepted communications for which they could obtain the key card.
We practically disassembled the Telemetry room looking for that key card. The search was to no avail and we returned to Pearl Harbor without the card. We finally decided that the key card must have been inadvertently included with classified teletype printouts which had been dumped overboard. A long PONY EXPRESS mission would consume dozens of rolls of teletype paper. When ashore, the burn bags would go to an incinerator. At sea on the USNS WHEELING, we shredded the paper and kept it in bags in a large unused compartment. The DEs had neither a shredder nor a secure storage area, so the classified printouts were stuffed into weighted bags and dumped overboard in deep water out of sight of the SMRIS.
On the way back to Pearl Harbor I wrote a report detailing the loss and search for the card. The NSG staff must have been convinced that there was no potential compromise, as no disciplinary actions were forthcoming. I later found out that the Walker spy ring (a searchable term) had been copying Navy key data and turning it over to the Soviets for almost 18 years.
One of the most satisfying moments of my naval career occurred after we returned from a PONY EXPRESS mission on the CLAUD JONES in March of 1974. We had collected almost five minutes of good telemetry signals. The VANDENBERG was also in the area, but had some trouble acquiring the warhead with its high-gain antennas in the rough seas. As a result, our data was the best collected for that mission, and we generously sent a copy of our tape to the VANDENBERG by small boat. They had specialists in telemetry analysis who could do a quick-look analysis of the data. The CLAUD JONES then headed back to Pearl Harbor with our original tape.
A day or so after we returned, I got a call requesting my presence at NAVSECGRUDET headquarters for a post-mission briefing. This had never happened before. I checked with the Chief and he said that such meetings usually happened when something had gone wrong. Congratulations usually arrived in the form of a BRAVO ZULU message. Dissatisfaction was expressed in-person.
I arrived at headquarters and was shown to the desk of a staff Lieutenant Commander. He asked, “How do you explain your team’s performance on the last mission?”
I replied, “Well, I think we did the best we could with our omnidirectional antennas.”
“So you couldn’t collect any data because your high-gain antenna wasn’t working?”
“Well we might have gotten more if it had worked,” I said.
By now the LCDR was in full snit mode. “The only telemetry I’ve seen from this mission is this tape from VANDENBERG. I don’t like getting my data from the Air Force!” He then waved a large routing envelope containing a magnetic tape. It was the same envelope in which we’d transferred our tape to VANDENBERG, which had just arrived in Pearl Harbor. The people on VANDENBERG had made a copy of the tape and returned ours in the same envelope—just blacking out our TO and FROM blocks and adding their own.
I politely said “Sir, if you look closely, you’ll see that the tape you’re holding originated on the CLAUD JONES. We sent a copy to the VANDENBERG for analysis. The routing message in the envelope should make that clear.”
After a few seconds, during which the LCDR had nothing to say, I asked, “Is that all sir?” and departed quietly.
TGU CINCPACFLT and the CLAUD JONES later received congratulatory messages from CINCPAC and NSA for our significant contribution to the PONY EXPRESS operation. NSG also got a thank- you note from the Air Force for allowing them early access to the telemetry data from the CLAUD JONES. I would love to have been looking over the LCDR’s shoulder when he read those messages. About a week later the Chief told me I should steer clear of headquarters for a while. The CPO network reported that a certain LCDR had been forced to eat crow over his premature criticism of the CLAUD JONES detachment. It’s never good to put a superior officer in an embarrassing position.
I was just weeks from my release from active duty at that point. I spent most of that time working the CTs at TGU to document the training simulations we had developed.