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Candidate John M. Collins, Class 12-42

-  From an eMail Exchange in March 2011  -


Sent: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 8:55 AM

Subject: Re: Signal OCS Association


Richard, the new website is great. We exchanged some snail mail correspondence in 2005 when your “found list” found me in Class 12, 1942, where I graduated as the “goat” behind everyone else. More than 90% now are deceased. I am 90 years old. Most of my military service involved branch immaterial assignments. I served in two Signal Corps outfits during the next 30 years, the most important of which was command of the 50th Signal Battalion (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, 1962-63. Bryan Foley, my successor nearly five decades later and now a National War College student, invited me to regale members of that no-longer-airborne battalion at a formal banquet almost five decades later. The text is attached for your possible entertainment. Attachment 2# depicts me shortly before retirement on 31 May 1972. Attachment 3# reveals Geriatric John today.    JOHN COLLINS



       50th Signal Battalion (Airborne)      

Early Growing Pains

Candidate John Martin Collins, Signal OCS Class 12-42My sainted mother wrote that introduction, but she omitted the most important point. Not many people realize it, but Colonel Foley appointed ME as his personal adviser when he took command of the 50th Signal Battalion. Well, what he actually said was, “John, when I want your advice, I’ll ask for it.” I thought he’d never ask, but he’s finally invited me to compare this battalion with its predecessor 48 years ago.

First, let me introduce myself, so you understand how poorly I’m equipped to tackle that task.

The United States Marine Corps and Navy turned me down on 8 December 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, because my eyesight wasn’t perfect, but a buddy with a high sugar content in his blood used my urine sample to become a rear rank Marine, then made three amphibious landings on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. I thereupon signed on as a switchboard installer with Western Electric, lasted six weeks, failed miserably, quit, and joined the Army as a private. I fancied myself as a parachute infantryman, but (you guessed it) the Signal Corps welcomed me with open arms.   

I was a two time high school dropout, but KP duty in a consolidated mess from 0300 until midnight soon convinced me I was officer material.  I applied for OCS in the summer of 1942, when quickie courses churned out “Ninety Day Wonders,” graduated last in my class, then landed in the Provisional 859th Signal Service Company, which had no mission, no authorized personnel, no weapons, or equipment. I was the Unit Supply Officer (although the unit couldn’t requisition anything) and Motor Transport Officer (although the unit had no vehicles). After that useless outfit disintegrated in October 1943 I hop-scotched across England, France (beginning in Normandy), Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany for 26 months as a IX Air Force traffic controller aboard a ton-and-a-half truck with a plastic turret tacked on top for observation.  

Fast forward 17 years, during which my only connection with crossed flags was as commander of a 14-man signal intelligence detachment in Thule, Greenland. Newly-minted Lieutenant Colonel Collins, promoted en route from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Bragg on 25 June 1962, took charge of XVIII Airborne Corps’ 800-man (no women) 50th Signal Battalion, an assignment that gave previous commanders gas pains, because its disciplinary record was lousy.  

The Good Lord fortunately blessed me with classy executive officers, company commanders, and NCOs who ran communication-electronic shows while I kicked asses and took names. Best of all, my immediate predecessor, Vincent J. McGrath, had just started to point the 50th in the right direction. He plastered the battalion area with replicas of a pony, to illustrate the story he repeatedly told formations about two little boys locked up for 24 hours, one in a roomful of toys, the other in a roomful of horse manure. The boy in the roomful of toys was in tears when released the next day, because too much wasn't enough. The other boy was laughing and playfully throwing turds in the air because, "With this much horseshit there must be a pony nearby."

This battalion was quartered in World War II wooden buildings that featured coal-burning stoves and furnaces. We lived in a different world than you do today, because the All-Volunteer Force was a decade away. Your forthcoming mission is to provide signal support for widely scattered elements of U.S. Central Command, whereas ours was to connect the headquarters of Strategic Army Corps (code-named STRAC) with four divisions, corps artillery, a flock of cats and dogs including other Services, and anyone else the three-star commander wanted to contact. Insurgency and terrorism are the main threats you face, whereas we prepared for a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union, Communist China, or both.

Colonel “Bourbon Bob” Sink traveled light when he commanded the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment throughout World War II, but three-star XVIII Airborne Corps commander Sink and his staff luxuriated in humongous expandable metal vans when they ventured into the field during the mid-1950s. Dragon Main, which seldom displaced, did so only after advance parties prepared positions well in advance. Small tactical CPs, if established at all, were rooted in concrete. That lash-up simplified signal support, but invited disaster in the Nuclear Age.

Enter Lieutenant General Hamilton Hawkins Howze, an armor officer punching promotion tickets, first in the 82d Airborne Division (where I was his Assistant G-2), then XVIII Airborne Corps. He lightened the load almost immediately by junking all vans in favor of tents and tasked the 50th Signal Battalion to support six echelons simultaneously: a parachute assault element, two tactical command posts that played musical chairs, Dragon Forward, Dragon Main, and a rear echelon near departure airfields.

Nobody envied the 50th’s haggard heroes who had to rip out by the roots all communication in both tac CPs and reinstall it somewhere else every 24 to 48 hours. Moving ponderous Dragon Main took two or three days under ideal conditions before General Howze abandoned it. That Stone Age relic thereupon ceased to be a command post and became a support base destined to remain indefinitely in staging areas far distant from any combat zone.  

Our abilities to perform essential feats resided with a headquarters company, command operations company A, and field operations company B. The TO&E in each case lumped all radios in one platoon, all wire ops equipment in another, and all communication center gear in another, but we permanently task organized all three companies to support the corps commander’s demands without reshuffling.

Communication equipment was primitive in 1962. Military computers were nonexistent. Twelve-channel line-of-sight radio relay sets, which reached 25 miles at best, provided the backbone. Positioning relay sites on high ground every 20 miles or so theoretically could   triple or quadruple that range, but proper terrain and working reserves of personnel and equipment weren’t always available. Single-sideband radio circuits deteriorated after dark. FM relays aboard fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters extended their range from 15 to 50, 60, even 75 miles, but life expectancy in the real world would have been low and the Law of Diminishing Returns further limited utility. Three overworked pilots in the 50th’s private air force, for example, logged 166 hours in less than a week during one field exercise.

All wires in each CP led to a patch panel, the nerve center of signal operations that interconnected radio relays, radios, telephones, and 200-pound teletypewriters that now are as defunct as dinosaurs. Patch panels, which routed, rerouted, monitored, and tested all circuits, were like pianos in one important respect: even one sour note could reverberate throughout the corps.

Superb maintenance of more than 2,400 pieces of signal equipment and a slew of trucks was essential, because system failures at any point would cause communication to collapse. The battalion, for example, woulda been out of business if many of its 190 generators failed to work. Maintenance problems were doubly demanding, given personnel turnover that approximated 100 percent every year because junior enlisted men were mainly draftees.
Even more importantly, the 50th  was almost as flightless as a gooney bird in 1962, because founding fathers who converted it from straight-leg to the world’s only airborne corps signal battalion five years earlier saddled it with 2,000 tons of paraphernalia. Results reminded me of Mark Twain’s fictional Jumping Frog of Calaveras Country, who couldn’t get off the ground, because some city slicker had filled him to the chin with quail shot.

The principal villains were something like 230 trucks and 200 trailers, including more deuce and a halves than an entire airborne division. Those pachyderms,   which were too heavy or too bulky to fit into C-119 and C-123 tactical transport aircraft, sopped up much larger C-130s, C-124s, and C-133s like a sponge when loaded with ponderous shelters and equipment. Modern mainstays like C-141 Starlifters and C-5 Galaxies, which now are older than most pilots, were still experimental or on drawing boards. 

The 50th Signal Battalion’s heavy drop capabilities vested the three-star corps commander with initial communications no better than airborne battle group colonels enjoyed. Even tactical CPs depended on air-landed serials, which the uncertain availability of suitable airlift, the scarcity of suitably located airstrips, and time constraints made STRAC’s slogan “Any war, any time, any place in the world” an impractical boast. 

Ways to lighten loads consequently deserved a high priority. Major General Earle Cook, then the Chief Signal Officer, recommended Spartan rationing, but torrents of telephone chatter continued. The 50th Signal Battalion accordingly became an experimental organization in many respects. Civilian single sideband radios, purchased off-the-shelf on the open market, captivated prospective beneficiaries when we packed ‘em into parachute-deliverable jeeps, but our first attempt to helicopter a heavy communications shelter onto high ground flopped when a snap unfastened at 500 feet. “Wow!” wailed the lieutenant in charge when he viewed the wreckage. “Do you think I oughta tell the colonel?” His platoon sergeant, tongue in cheek, said, “Sir, you probably can’t keep it a secret.” I concealed such boo boos from superiors as best I could, but Army magazine published my article entitled “The Artful Dodging of STRAC’s CPs” in October 1963.

A few special occasions during my tenure as battalion commander merit special mention.

Bits of the  battalion furnished communications when 82d and 101st Airborne Division troopers helped James Merideth become the first negro to matriculate at the University of Mississippi in September 1962, after rioters killed one man and injured many others.

Advance elements of this battalion were scheduled to parachute onto Los Baños Airfield in October 1962, then head for Sloppy Joe’s Bar in Havana during the Cuban missile crisis. A second echelon prepared to air-land, while a third increment loaded aboard landing craft at Mayport, Florida. My staff and I assembled in our small, smoke-filled conference room immediately after warning orders arrived, then used paper templates cut to scale to determine how many troops and equipment we could shoehorn into the mix of allocated aircraft. It took all night, because allocations changed five times between dusk and dawn so, bleary-eyed, we repeatedly had to restart from scratch. General Howze returned from the Pentagon a few days later with news that the operation was 99 percent GO! Monstrous morale problems ensued when the crisis subsided and the battalion stood down, because all hands were hot to trot.

The 50th Signal Battalion shortly thereafter held its first prop blast in response to orders dated 23 November 1962. Stick 1, led by Captain Enos, initiated eight neophytes. Stick 2, with Captain Oelberg in charge, put seven more through the ordeal. A grand time was had by all, except the blastees. They received laminated prop blast cards signed by me as President of the Board only after a rowdy evening during which inebriated “novices” in fatigues made repeated exits and landings from a mock aircraft door until they pleased previously blasted jumpers clad in Class A uniforms. Initiates also answered a slew of facetious questions (one of S-3 Major Jesse Wang’s requirements was to explain Chinese fire drills). Each applicant finally had to drain our ripcord-handled Dixie Cup filled with an evil, alcoholic mixture while colleagues slowly chanted "One Thousand, Two Thousand, Three Thousand, Four Thousand,” the time it took a properly packed T-10 parachute to open.

The battalion’s silver punch bowl and personalized silver cups inscribed with each owner’s name appeared about that time and still occupy an honored spot outside Colonel Foley’s office. Those beauties were the focal point of attention during each formal party that featured dress blues or white mess uniforms for officers and cocktail dresses for their ladies. A warning sign by the bowl read PANTHURPIS some nights and TIGURPIS on others.    

Finally, we periodically conducted a bells and whistles demonstration that helped sell the battalion’s capabilities to potentates, beginning with then Major General William Childs Westmoreland and his staff shortly after Westy succeeded General Howze as corps commander. My pitch opened with these words: “Congress makes generals, but it takes communications to make commanding generals, because flag officers who operate in a vacuum only command their aides.” Country boy General Sink put it best when he said, “If you ain’t got communications, you ain’t got nothin’.”

A dazzling display of crisscrossing trucks slammed on brakes in front of the bleachers at that moment and began to set up shop, while I explained at length why this unique battalion was the corps’ most important asset. The demonstration ended when I told the assembled multitude:

“If you’ve ever watched the Untouchables on TV you know that Al Capone’s enforcer Frank Nitti used to say, ‘Al ain’t sellin’ excuses, Al’s sellin’ whiskey!’ Well, we ain’t sellin’ excuses either. Nearly 100,000 men in this corps depend on us. Either we’re professional or they’re up Ess Creek without a paddle. We’ve put these complex systems in from scratch before your very eyes. They’ll work. You can bet your life on it.

“The music goes into the phone on your right,” I crooned, “bounces in and out, round and about through a relay in the 82d Airborne area, then back to the telephone on your left. Step up,” I told the senior officer present, “and call Champion Six, the 82d’s CG. The sergeant will show you the drill.” Another hot shot took the phone marked Champion Six to complete the circuit. I made the sign of the cross at that point, which always got a good laugh - - but, thank God, connections never failed.

Relationships with the Corps Signal Officer were perennially sour, but that brittle-boned chicken colonel pleased me twice, because he broke his left leg during a prop blast ceremony, then broke the right one when he leaped with the battalion one frigid morning. 

50th Signal Battalion officers and men whom I was privileged to command for 15 months evoke much happier memories with one exception. Larry Zietlow, the battalion sergeant major, who later became Lieutenant General Bill Rosson’s top enlisted Soldier at I Field Force in Vietnam, died of grievous wounds early in 1968 after Viet Cong guerrillas hit the headquarters at night. Larry’s name is eternally enshrined on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC.

John Collins, Signal OCS Class 12-42The Signal Corps and I parted company permanently while I was Director of Military Strategy Studies at the National War College. Displeased personnel managers told me, "No more branch immaterial assignments. Return to Vietnam, command a signal group, and we promise that you’ll become a brigadier general." I thereupon bid the United States Army "Bye Bye” and retired on May 31, 1972 as a bird colonel with 30 year’s service.   

I spent the next 24 years on Capitol Hill as Senior Specialist in National Defense at the Congressional Research Service, authored 12 books about military matters, then recruited and steered the Warlord Loop, an email net devoted to national security. Its roster, which spans the public opinion spectrum, counts more than 460 heavy hitters, including a former Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The words that President   Kennedy uttered on 29 April 1962 at a dinner party honoring Nobel Prize winners equally well describe the Warlord Loop's overachievers: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent that has ever been gathered together, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."   That’s the end of my trip down memory lane. I wish you well during your forthcoming deployments across CENTCOM’s AOR and will cheer your accomplishments from the sidelines.  

Good luck and God bless. I salute all of you.



This page originally posted 15 August, 2011 

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