Confessions of a 3rd Armored Division POW & Saboteur
By James L. Martin, Company D, 3/12th Cavalry
By way of introduction and background: I was in the 3rd Armored Division's 12th Cavalry from February 1964 to June 1966, stationed in Budingen, Germany, at Armstrong Barracks. My unit, the Delta Helicopter Company, had ten Huey UH1-B's, two Sikorsky CH-34's, four Bell OH-13's and a few fixed-wing observation aircraft. Starting in 1965, Delta Company's main mission was to provide a real-world (live ammo) training environment for pilots (officers and warrant officers) on their way to Vietnam.
Pilot training included practice at evasive maneuvers, low-altitude (tree-top) skills development, emergency flight operations (for example: controlled crashes using no power and auto-rotation), and weapons training using two side-mounted cannons and/or two machine guns or other weapons on the UH1-Bs. My duties included avionics repair (radio, gyroscopes, transponders, cockpit gauges/instrumentation, etc.) and data processing (parts replacement for all aircraft). When not in flight training with the pilots, I had the opportunity to see a lot of Germany from the air as we shuttled the "brass" between locations like Hanau Air Field, Stuttgart Air Field, Frankfurt HQ, and several other U.S. bases scattered around the country.
Captured After Making Wrong Turn
Certainly the most interesting and bizarre experience of my 3-year Army career happened during January of 1966, when my Company was included in Silver Talon, a massive field training exercise (FTX) in which 22,000 soldiers participated. It was a very cold winter in Germany. I recall eating C-rations warmed in a pot of boiling water -- one of our few sources of warmth. I also recall sleeping through the freezing nights on the bed of a three-quarter-ton truck with a few others guys. We'd all curl up around the 50-caliber machine-gun and its huge stand -- more steel to keep us from getting too comfortable! I was one of the lucky few not to have to spend those nights on the frozen and snowy ground in an almost-large-enough pup tent.
During the mock battle portion of the exercise, which lasted four days, our helicopters were running low on JP4 fuel. As a SP5 acting NCO, I had the necessary rank to chaperone an unlucky PFC in a deuce-and-a-half tanker to a fuel storage depot. As misfortune would have it, at one point we turned the wrong way driving through a small village and got "captured." We gave the "enemy" our names, ranks, serial numbers and dates of birth, and were promptly escorted to what appeared to be an HQ or Command and Control facility. Many "enemy" officers were there and they seemed to be controlling the movements of units participating in the exercise.
Taking Stock as a POW
Our captors parked us within full view of a large, open, heated tent, in which several radio operators were transmitting information and orders to officers in the field. My driver was frightened. We were told to stay in the tanker. Our captors would get back to us. I recall seeing a large grease-board in the big tent; on it were displayed the locations of units participating in the exercise with indications as to where they were going to be re-deployed. The place was a veritable beehive of activity, with officers barking orders at the radio operators and continually updating the information on the grease-board. No one paid attention to us. If we hadn't been boxed in between a jeep and the trees, we could have just driven away.
Taking stock of my new situation as a "prisoner of war" who was virtually unguarded, I decided the best thing for me to do was to reconnoiter the area. I got out of the truck -- leaving my less enterprising driver alone in the cabin -- and strolled into the Command Center tent. I wanted to see if my first impression was correct. It was indeed a strategic Command and Control center, where the deployment of units was being managed by some very big brass. These officers were so busy with their duty that they never noticed me in their midst. I went back to the tanker, got a pen and paper, and returned to the tent. Very casually, I wandered around among the Command-and-Control people and wrote down the number of every "secret" wavelength the radio operators were using. When I got back to the tanker, my driver had a fit. Didn't I know that what I was doing was not authorized, that I could get us both in trouble!
Since we were a helicopter unit, all our vehicles carried back-pack style radios to enable us to stay in touch at all times with pilots who might need fuel or emergency maintenance. As our company's avionics guy, I knew the active frequencies employed by our UH1-B aircraft by heart. I dialed in a few of our standard frequencies in an attempt to contact one of our pilots. My idea was to pass on the frequencies I had just pilfered to our pilots. They could then use them to monitor the "enemy's" operational conversations, and in that way get the upper-hand on the bad guys. Unfortunately, it turned out that because this was only an exercise, none of the standard frequencies could connect me with any of our good-guy chiefs in the field or elsewhere.
Sabotage and Resulting Panic
After giving half a second's consideration to the risk I would be running, I determined to show some initiative and take matters into my own hands. When I turned on the radio hidden behind my seat, my driver went ballistic! Ignoring him, I tuned into one of the "enemy's" command post frequencies and started eavesdropping on what was happening. After a few minutes I was ready to do what I could to be disruptive. At first I merely diddled with my radio's "transmit" button, causing intermittent noise at the other end; then I used my pen to scratch the microphone.
By keeping this up, I caused any simultaneous conversation to become completely garbled and totally useless to both the officers in the command post and the personnel in the field. Then I skipped around among the various "enemy" frequencies. Whenever I heard someone attempting to transmit orders, I would recommence scratching the microphone. After doing this is for some time, I stopped to listen in again. To my surprise and delight, I had created quite a stir -- indeed a panic! Officers were grabbing microphones and saying things like "Whoever in transmitting over U.S. Army bandwidths must stop immediately! You are tampering with U.S. Government frequencies! You must cease your interference immediately, or there will be severe consequences!" As I listened I could see what was going on in the tent. The officers were frantic!
My position as I saw it was that, as a prisoner of war, I should do whatever I could to make life miserable for my captors. So I continued with the scratching, occasionally listening in to my victims' ever more desperate attempts to get "whoever is doing this" to "stop immediately!!" I became bolder and bolder. I stopped the scratching and began redirecting units. I believe the nastiest thing I did was to allow a command post transmission to be completed and then, after a short silence, to send my own message to the receiving unit, annulling the message they had just received: "Disregard that last order", I would tell them peremptorily.
Getting Caught and Resisting
After I had been carrying on like this for a while, it was clear the officers were extremely upset. I was making a real mess for them -- and I continued doing so for about two hours. Eventually I got caught. The command post officers gave me several direct orders to open the tanker truck door, which was now locked, and to hand over my radio. Each time I refused. Finally the officers present summoned some other officers who were wearing red arm-bands. They announced that they were "judges" who were scoring the exercise, and demanded that I exit the truck. But I still refused. I took the truck's red emergency flag, which looked like one of their arm-bands, and wrapped it around my arm, to show them that anyone could masquerade like that. "Why should I believe that you're judges?" was my implied message. I refused to do anything but repeat my name, rank, serial number, and date of birth.
After half an hour or so, some "enemy" mechanics showed up and literally wrenched the door off my vehicle. The officers took away my radio and told me I was heading for a court martial and was likely to be spending a lot of time in the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth. They were extremely mad. They seemed to want to see me punished in the worst way possible.
Appearance at JAG in Heidelberg
I don't recall exactly what happened next, or what happened immediately after the exercise was completed, but I do recall being back with my unit and explaining to my CO, Lt Col H. R. Fuller, Jr., what I had done. He took down my description and told me to go back to work at the Budingen Air Field. After a few weeks I was told to go to our base HQ and see Lt Col Fuller again. The CO announced that he and I would be going to Heidelberg for a meeting with a few senior JAG officers. I recall getting spit-shined, boot-bloused, and smartly done up with my yellow neck scarf, and driving Lt Col Fuller to USAREUR HQ in Heidelberg. He told me the purpose of the meeting was for me to explain to the JAG brass "just what I thought I was doing and why I was doing it". He said it was viewed as "poor judgment," and that I might have to face a court martial and possible imprisonment. Needless to say, I was very worried.
At 21 my future looked decidedly grim. At Heidelberg we were escorted to what looked like a basketball court in a gymnasium. There were about eight chairs set out for the JAG panel with two additional chairs facing them, one for me and one for Lt Col Fuller. The JAG officers arrived and the inquiry began. Lt Col Fuller introduced me to the board, who then asked him to remain silent while they questioned me. I recall that the meeting did not last long, and that my interrogators were not harsh in any way. They asked the obvious questions; they wanted to know exactly what happened, how I got "captured," how I came to be left alone in the truck, how I obtained the radio frequencies, why I did what I did, etc. I told them the story as it is described above. The board members were calm and polite and stuck very much to the point. They seemed very well prepared; they knew all about the background of the case, my refusal to obey several direct orders, etc. (Incidentally, to my knowledge the tanker truck driver was never questioned.)
A Surprise Ending
The drive back to Armstrong Barracks, Budingen, was long and silent. Lt Col Fuller did not discuss the matter, but his attitude was supportive. A few weeks later I was called back to HQ. When I arrived I found Lt Col Fuller and several other senior officers waiting for me. To my relief, they didn't clap me in irons; instead they congratulated me for the boldness of my actions, and presented me with The Order of The Silver Talon!
I never heard a word regarding the fate of the Command Post officers who had blithely allowed a POW to sabotage their mission and communications. I did eventually learn -- privately and quietly -- just how costly and disruptive my actions had been, and that, but for the intervention of some intelligent JAG officers, I might have finished my Army career in the Ft. Leavenworth prison.
Best wishes to all,
James L. Martin
Jim is now retired from IBM after a career that included marketing/sales, engineering, and management. His framed Silver Talon Award hung in his office for years on the top row of his civilian professional awards.
Source: Used with permission from the 3rd Armored Division History Foundation web site