Listening In: Lonnie Frampton and the Army Security Agency

Lonnie Frampton’s twenty years of Army service as a member of the Army Security Agency included a tour in Vietnam, where his skills at electronics repairs helped make the Army’s signal intelligence program, sometimes referred to as Radio Research, possible.

Frampton joined the Army after high school, to get his military obligation out of the way. “At that time in Somerset, a guy graduating from high school was sometimes hard pressed to get a job. They were reluctant to hire somebody they might lose to the draft in a couple of years. So in December of 1954, I joined the Army.”

As for his tour in Vietnam: “Every story has to have a beginning somewhere. Mine begins in Berlin Germany in 1966. The day before Thanksgiving I got a phone call from the personnel office at headquarters in Frankfort. I got on the phone and this captain got on the line. He said ‘SGT Frampton, you’re due to make Warrant Officer on 1 December, however, in order for you to get it you have to accept assignment to the 509th Group. Do you know where that is?’

“I assured him I sure didn’t. He asked “Do you still want your promotion?” I said yes. So he said “In order to get your Warrant you’ve got to be in country by the 20th of January.” That’s how I got to Vietnam.”

“That wasn’t my first time there. I’d been there in May of 1961 as part of a team that travelled all over the Pacific installing electronic gear in our operational buildings. And one of our assignments was to go to Saigon in 1961 and set up this equipment. The had us travel in civilian clothes, and our medical records had a note in them that said if anything happened to us it was to be reported as a training accident in the Philippines. What did we know? All we knew was we were going to get $300 to buy civilian clothes, and we couldn’t buy anything even semi-military like black shoes. We felt kind of special, in the military but traveling in civilian clothes.”

“When I got to Vietnam for my tour of duty in 1967, I was assigned to the 156th Aviation Company (Radio Research) in Can Tho. I had never previously been assigned to an aviation unit of any sort, so that was all brand new to me. When I went to in-process at the supply shop, I got the usual type of stuff, but I didn’t see any firearms. So I asked the captain “What about a weapon?” He said: “You’re going to have to wait until someone goes home because we don’t have enough to go around.”

Lonnie laughs. “I thought that was crazy. It was nothing like what I expected. You grow up watching a lot of World War II movies, Korean War movies, and you get a different picture from the movies about what war is like versus reality. I thought I’d get the traditional steel pot and a weapon, and instead I had to wait until someone went home. And then it was a .45 [pistol]. Eventually I got a rifle, M-14, but it was just strange. Looking back on it I laugh. I suppose in reality, at the time, it wasn’t a laughing matter.”

“After that, I got my orientation on the aircraft. I was an electronics equipment repair officer. My job was to take care of what we called the mission equipment on the aircraft, which is different from the electronics for navigation and communication.  We had twelve RU-6A Beaver aircraft and three RU-8 Beechcraft aircraft. They were very good aircraft, solid, good aircraft.”

U 6A Beaver 2

450px Beechcraft U 8D Seminole US Army in flight

“It was exciting and daunting because it was my first job as a Warrant Officer, it was a strange environment I’d never been in before, and I just didn’t want to screw up.   I think that’s a fear of most people who are conscientious about the job or into a new job they just don’t want to screw up. Because, as they say, first impressions are the lasting ones. So if you mess up the first time that might stick with them better than something good you did.”

Lonnie is straightforward about having a relatively safe assignment: “The whole year over there I know for a fact I never shot at anyone. And if anyone ever shot at me, evidently they missed.”

“I think the airfield was attacked once during my year. Some sappers came in and walked down the flight line tossing satchel charges in the aircraft then went back out the gate. They didn’t hit the airfield heavier than that until Tet. And for some reason, nobody knows why, they never touched our aircraft. We had 15 of them sitting there, they never touched them. I often wonder why. Possible because they figured we weren’t of any harm to them, cause we never shot at them.”

sappers

“We only ever took one round through an aircraft.  The only person who got killed in our company was a captain who went to the Philippines for jungle warfare training.  A truck overturned and he was killed.”

But the whole time he knew he was in a war zone:  “The enemy was everywhere.  In the Second World War, it was won by taking ground and keeping it.  Vietnam wasn’t that way.  You took it today and turned it loose tomorrow.  Which, I guess, I know I wondered “What’s going on?  Why?  Why do you get all those people killed then turn around and walk off it.  Hamburger Hill was an example of that.”

He could see the war from his quarters:  “At night, we could go on top of the roof and look across the river and see Spooky come in and turn their miniguns loose on an area.  So it was that close.  We were constantly aware if we came down somewhere we had to be ready to be combat troops.”

 AC 47 gunship 2

“I was not aviator qualified, but sometime around 5-6 months there, the Battalion declared that officers and NCOs who were not pilots could fly in the copilot seat and do the map work. So suddenly, I became airborne and went out on the missions. But it wasn’t anything that made you cringe in fear in the corner.”

“We had a pilot, his name was Bailey. You know what we called him? He gave people nicknames. If there was anything different about your name or how you talked or anything like that, you got a nickname from “Beetle” Bailey. One guy named McNoo, ‘Beetle’ Bailey started calling him ‘Magoo’, and it stuck. Then there was my roommate, his name was Marpole. ‘Beetle’ hung Maypole on him. Me, because I had more time in the Army Security Agency than anyone else there, I became ‘Spook’. Another pilot, because of his penchant for being unsure of himself, was called ‘Magellan’. Nobody ever called me by my name or rank, I was ‘Spook’. I kind of liked that.”

The pilots would let me fly once in a while. I was up with Magoo, and he said ‘This here’s a pretty good airplane. Even if the engine quits we can still reach that airbase over there.’ So he killed the engine and started gliding and said ‘See, we can make it’. After a while he started it back up and said ‘Hey, Spook, why don’t you drive for a while, I’m going to catch some Z’s.” Just like that.”

“Once I was up with Magellan in a thunderstorm. He asked me ‘Do you think we ought to go lower’.   I’m sitting over there reading a book in the co-pilot’s seat. And I say ‘Well, if we want to see where we are going that’d be a good idea.’ After a while he asks again: ‘Think I ought to go a little lower?’ ‘Well, yeah, a little bit maybe.’ Then he asks again and I say “Well you know our flight altitude is supposed to be 1,500 feet. You get too low we might get our ass shot off.’ He stopped asking. Of course we made it back without incident, and as we got out I said ‘Magellan, how come you were asking me what we ought to do in those storm clouds?’ He looked at me, my crew member wings, and said: ‘Aren’t you a pilot?’ I said “No!’ and his face turned white. Vietnam was a different time and a different place. But the camaraderie was so thick you could cut it with a knife. It’s hard to explain.”

One of the highlights from Lonnie’s tour involved the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS), a civilian system staffed by amateur radio operators who assist the military. They had the ability to interface their radios with the phone system: “I was between assignments and didn’t have a mailing address, but my wife was pregnant, and I wanted to know if the baby had come yet. So my roommate took me over to the MARS station. The operator asked for the phone number for our apartment, and got through, but there was no answer. We tried my mother, and got through, but she couldn’t get the hang of saying ‘over’. But she finally understood, and she said ‘Oh, Fay’s in the hospital’.   The operator got the number, called the hospital, and explained to the nurse that he had a Soldier on the line from Vietnam calling about his wife.   She’d had the baby and was sleeping, and the operator said “Go wake her up!” So the nurse went to my wife and said “Wake up, you got a call from Vietnam”. I reckon that not that many wives get a call like that. I get very sentimental about family, because in reality it’s all any of us really have.”

Lonnie had a smooth homecoming: “I never had any interactions with war protestors. I never had anything to do with anybody protesting. It’s a shame that they protested the G.I.s. The G.I. is not the one who started the war; he’s not the one that said ‘Go to war’.”

His opinion on war and the military is straightforward: “Nothing’s ever solved by war, you know that? Just a lot of people die.”

“All in all, my Vietnam tour was positive memories. I have absolutely no regrets that I went, and if the circumstances were exactly the same I would do it again. I admit in later years, when I got to ponder the whole situation, I had some guilty feelings. And I know I shouldn’t, because it’s not my choosing that I got assigned where I was and that it was a relatively safe area.”

“I think the military is a good experience. Sometimes I think it wouldn’t hurt if every one of our young people had to go for two years.   Some of them, it seems like they have no direction.”

Lonnie retired from the Army in 1975 and lives in the Carlisle area.