ELMO SMOKES SRAGICS by Bob Houf


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Bob Houf, MT1(SS)DV

SSB(N)617 Gold 6 patrols 1969-72

Although my role on the USS Alexander Hamilton SSB(N)617 Gold crew was as a Missile Technician, I also qualified to stand Radioman of the Watch in the radio shack. I was able to copy high speed Morse Code - having been a ham radio operator for 5 years before I enlisted at age 18.

The normal radio communications for subs on patrol was to receive encrypted messages that did not require human code decryption – the machines copied the message and also decoded it for use on the boat. This type of cryptographic equipment was infamously introduced to the world when the USS Pueblo was captured by the North Koreans in 1968. The old German Enigma machines were the forerunner of the much more sophisticated devices we used on the boat.

But what would happen if there had been a nuclear attack against the US and all of the normal land-based communications equipment was destroyed outright?

How would the US send a command to the strategic forces to commence warfare?

A system was created in the early 1960’s called TACAMO (Take Charge And Move Out) that would enable secure communications to allow the President to command nuclear warfare even if the normal system was destroyed.

There is a lot of public info available describing this system but here is the wiki description:

“TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out) is a U.S. military system of survivable communications links designed to be used in nuclear war to maintain communications between the decision makers (the National Command Authority) and the triad of strategic nuclear weapon delivery systems.”

Although the system was created in the early ‘60s and I was part of it during my Navy years on the boat from 1969-1972 operating out of Rota, Spain, the system in a more refined form is very much alive and used today. The technology long go ahead retired Morse Code for digital communications but that was after I left the Navy.

So one day after my watch at launcher ended, I wandered up to the radio shack and reached up to the limit switch mounted above the door of the shack.

I briskly tapped out my personal call sign “BE” in Morse code: “Dah-di-di-dit Dit” and waited for Lucky, Bill T or Elmo to let me in.

You could not gain access to the locked radio room without having been granted prior authorization and I had that from the XO who had allowed me to get qualified as Radioman of the Watch. I was a ham radio operator and one of the RM1(SS) operators quickly hatched the idea of getting me qualified so I could relieve one of the RM’s during watch for a head call, coffee, etc. I copied high speed Morse Code at 35 words per minute and learning the basic RMoW duties was pretty straightforward with my radio background and MT electronics training.

Of course I wasn’t authorized to be in Radio when Alert One started coming over the 1MC – I was busy doing MT stuff.

I wasn’t in the radio shack long before the message came through to get ready to receive TACAMO incoming. For the real Radioman this was no big deal, but for an MT like me this was an exciting event!

I strapped on a set of headphones and got set up at one of the typewriters (RM’s called them ‘mills’) and hunkered down to copy code.

When I copied TACAMO radio messages sent to the submarine fleet (all of the subs were submerged) the messages originated from a Hercules C-130 that had been especially modified and was flying somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean in slow, tight circles with a 5 mile longwire antenna spooled out behind. Since the aircraft was flying that pattern after a while the wire antenna would hang nearly straight down over the surface of the ocean. The radio waves would penetrate a short distance into the water and the salinity of the salty water would allow the radio waves to travel enormous distances.

That flying technique had been perfected many years earlier by bush pilots in Alaska who would fly their planes in tight circles and then lower a rope with a bucket on it to pass mail back and forth to those out in the bush in places where they could not land. The bucket would come down and stay in the same spot when they flew the right circular pattern and the landsman would take out and put in the bucket mail and other small items.

With the sub’s antenna out and the receiver tuned up the TACAMO Navy Radioman sitting up in the C-130 started sending letter code groups on a telegraph hand key. The radioman in the C-130 was sitting at a steep angle with the plane banked and oftentimes his “fist” (the personal sending signature every radioman has, a result of his personal touch and feel as he sends code) left much to be desired as he sent encrypted code groups to us on the boats.

We had IBM Selectrics back then and the copy we produced might have looked like this groups of non-sensible letter combinations. All of which was gibberish until it was decoded by a decryption key into a plain language message. None of which I was cleared to see - I simply copied code and handed off the pages.

But as I pulled together the pages I reached for the stapler.

I noticed on the bottom of the stapler a small piece of paper had been taped that said,

“ELMO SMOKES SRAGICS”

Hmmm… that didn’t ring a bell but I paid no attention to it.

Until I picked up a pair of scissors and when I opened the blades, inside one side of the blade was, again, taped:

‘ELMO SMOKES SRAGICS”

What the hell?

Now I knew there was some kind of joke going on. I started finding these little messages hidden everywhere around Radio.

Elmo was a very friendly and highly competent RM2(SS) and everyone on the boat enjoyed his company and sense of humor. Elmo loved to smoke cigars in the radio shack – stinking up the little space but Bill T wasn’t a smoker.

This went on for a few days until I finally collared Bill and said,

“Bill – what in the world are you guys doing to Elmo – what’s with these little signs you have taped all over the shack?”

Bill laughed and said, “Ha! One day Elmo had his stogie sitting in an ash tray and was telling a joke. He got so excited about delivering the punch line that he picked up the cigar by the wrong end and proceeded to stick it in his mouth backwards just after he delivered the punch line!”

So Bill decided to harass Elmo by hiding little stickers everywhere reminding Elmo that he smokes cigars backwards:

CIGARS = SRAGIC!

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As a sad post script, I saw on the Facebook Submarine Radioman Group that Elmo went on Eternal Patrol last summer. We lost a fine man and shipmate when he passed…

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Here is a pencil drawing done by a submariner Paul Harden who was an ET1(SS) on board the USS Robert E Lee, SSB(N) 601.

Shown is the radio operator pounding away on his ‘mill’ copying TACAMO messages:

MT1(SS)DV Bob Houf 1970 on SSB(N)617 Missile Compartment

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