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77th Special Forces Group Audition

May 23, 2005

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I enlisted in the United States Army for the specific purpose of joining Special Forces Group, Airborne.

I had picked up a brochure from an Army recruiting table at a county fair which described 'behind enemy lines' parachute jumping, mountain training, ski training and overall guerilla training. I couldn't wait.

My recruiter couldn't guarantee Special Forces Group for me because of the requirements to qualify: special  Military Occupational Specialty, security clearance, advanced rank and graduation from the Basic Airborne School. 

After basic training at Ft. Jackson, SC, I went to advanced training at Ft. Gordon, GA where I received certification as a radio teletype operator. Graduation requirements were typing ability and the ability to copy Morse code. I soon learned that being able to copy Morse code well was both very good for my Army career as well as quite stressful and tiring.

It was good because I my talents were always needed. It was bad because many radio nets and communications took place in the wee hours of the morning and I was always the one to stay up to copy the incoming Morse messages. Most operators weren't very good at copying Morse radio traffic.

After radio school I was sent to the 82nd Airborne Division and assigned to Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division Artillery. I went through Basic Airborne Course training in March, 1960  at Ft. Bragg. I began advanced freefall and skydiving with XVIII Airborne Corps SPC in June of 1960.

Because of the Special Forces Group requirements of advanced rank for Group participation, I was forced to stay with the 82nd Airborne Division for many months before earning the rank of E-4--as well as receiving 'proficiency pay' for my MOS--and finally meeting the basic requirements to 'apply' at the 77th Special Forces Group at Ft. Bragg, NC. During that "waiting" time I also was granted a Secret Clearance which was another Group requirement.

In addition to the security, personal and military qualifications, I had to "audition" with the Group Signals officer by showing my code sending and receiving ability. Because I passed the Federal Communications Commission test for a radio amateur's  license at age 12, I was damned good with Morse code.

My favorite mode of communicating on the amateur frequencies was with Morse code. I knew from my research that all Special Forces teams were hurting for good Morse operators. The Teams in Viet-Nam needed radio operators who could send and receive Morse because nothing else was continually reliable in the mountains of Viet-Nam and Cambodia. I knew I had a talent that the Special Forces wanted.

After finally getting a secret clearance and the rank of E-4, I visited the 77th Special Forces Group Headquarters on Smoke Bomb Hill at Ft. Bragg. I was told to report to the signal officer at the Group communications headquarters. Ultimately, I was face to face with a nasty old Major who clearly had an attitude about being stuck in the barracks when he really wanted to be out in the jungle kicking butt.

During my interview with the Major I was asked how fast I could send Morse, I answered "About 30 words a minute."

The Major says "That's crap! No way! Maybe with a bug you could send 30, but you can't do it with a 'straight' key like we use."

"Yes, I can." I replied.

"Bull Shit! You gotta show me." he said. "And ya better not be shittin' me or you won't be training with this unit."

He took me into a training classroom where about 15 guys were sitting with headphones on copying Morse code. He gave the men the 'take 'em off' command and all the men removed their 'phones.

The Major said, "'This smart-ass' airborne trooper from Division says he can send 30 words a minute. And I gotta see it!" The Major and all the guys guffawed and laughed loudly.

I shrugged.

The Major wheeled over a platform with a Morse key placed in such a way that the operator could rest his forearm on the platform and send while standing up. He handed me a code practice book with many tables of five-letter coded groups. "Here," he said, "send from this."

"Cake!" I thought to myself. 30 WPM is quite fast for Team operators who have to bang out letters bent over in a jungle hooch or copy with pencil and paper while standing in a ditch filled with water up to their knees. Send and receiving in excess of 40 word per minutes is nothing for a shipboard radio operator, rail train operator or a ham operator. I knew it would be easy for me.

I said, "I have to make key adjustments and send a few practice sets."

"Not gonna matter; you can't do it," the Major laughed.

"Watch me."

I reduced the gap between the contact points to almost nothing and then released the tension on the spring just enough to keep the key contacts from touching. All Morse keys have a button-like section which the operator holds with his fingers and thumb and taps up and down to make dots and dashes.

I was going to do what commercial radio operators called 'nerve sending' which meant I'd be using the very short gap and the non-existent upward pressure of the spring to minimize key movement. Without the spring tension moving the key I could totally control the key by pulling it up with my fingers and move back down over a very, very minimum gap. Nerve sending takes lots of practice.

As I made changes to the spring tension and the contact gap I kept sending the letter "V" in groups of faster and faster groups of three. The letter "V" is formed with three dots and a dash and sounds like di-di-di-dah. VVV is the International 'test' signal for Morse operators. The 'di-di-di-dah' sound is the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

I had what I wanted in a minute or so of taping out the Vs. I picked up the code practice book and looked at the Major. "Say when," I said.

He gave me a 'never gonna happen' shake of his head and a big grin and said, "Go for it!," as he hit a stop watch.

With nerve sending my hand hardly moved at all. Just the barest amount of twitching made the key sing with five letter code groups. I was flying.

I'd look up at the guys in the room and at the Major every group or two that I sent. I wasn't even pushing it and they could tell that I wasn't because I kept looking up at them as I sent.

The letters came out of the speaker like shots from a machine gun. Everyone, including the Major, looked at me in total shock and amazement. Some had that mouth hanging open. I was laughing so hard I almost couldn't send.

Finally, the major gave me a 'cut it' signal and I stopped. A couple of the guys applauded. I was pleased.

"I've never seen nor heard anything like that in my Army carrier, Sayers; that was truly amazing. You sent 28.5 words per minute."

"Well, it wasn't 30. Let me try it again," I begged with a grin.

"No, no. No reason to do that. You can certainly send. Can you copy that fast?" he asked.

"Nah, probably not at the moment I'm a bit rusty from lack of practice. I can take 20 without much effort."

"How did you learn to do that?" one guy asked. "Could you show us?"

I explained that I received my first ham license at 12 years old and spent hundreds of hours on the ham bands while contacting stations all over the world. I told them I'd show them how to send but the receiving operators copying speed determines the sending operators speed. "You guys gotta get your code copying speed up before you worry about sending faster," I told them.

The Major stepped in and said, "Sayers, we need guys with your skill here in Group. With the MOS you have I can get our HQ to transfer you over from Division in no time; I can get you over here in less than 36 hours. You can beginning teaching us that stuff immediately."

"I didn't come here for a job as a teacher, Major, I want to be on a team," I told him emphatically. "I joined the Army to be on a Team."

"No way, Sayers, you're staying in garrison and you'll be teaching. I need teachers so these guys can stay alive in the field. We are short instructors which is why I'm in here today teaching this class. I need you to be a teacher and Group needs you to be a teacher."

"But, Major, I want to be on a Team." I whined.

"No way. The only way you can be guaranteed a Team slot is if you re-enlist. Your recruiter never promised you Team status; you know that." He laughed, "Are you ready to re-enlist?"

"No way. I joined the Army to be on a Special Forces team. If I can't be on Team without re-enlisting then I'm going back to the 82nd and spend the rest of my time going to college," I told him.

"Sayers, please, listen to what you are saying. We need guys like you. We need to have the Team radio operators able to copy Morse. We need guys who know commo techniques and Morse code. You can teach all that to us." He was almost begging. "Group needs your kind."

"No deal. A-team or I stay in Division for the rest of my enlistment." I told him emphatically.

"No way the CO will approve an E-4 going on a team when the E-4 has your MOS-related skills. Never gonna happen. Group needs teachers; group needs teachers who know radio techniques and Morse. But they'll honor a re-enlistment rank bonus." he resigned himself to explain to me.

He was correct. I was certainly more valuable to the Teams as an instructor than as an operative.

Despite complaints I made at various levels of the Special Operations Command, I couldn't convince anyone to guarantee my A-team status with out re-enlistment. I was told by many that I could be in an A-team training class immediately if I re-enlisted for three more years. If I re-enlisted I'd get the rank of Sergeant, E-5, which was Group's minimum rank for Team status.

I disliked the Army experience so much that I couldn't contemplate re-enlistment in any way at all. Although I did train on a few exercises with Special Forces and I communicated with the 77th SFG Radio Section while during our weekly radio nets, I spent my final days in the Army with the Headquarters, 82nd Airborne Division Artillery, working as a reporter-photographer, radio operator and troop information instructor. 

I did, in fact, spend the remainder of my military enlistment going to college four nights a week and on Saturday mornings. I also had the good fortunate of working myself into the position of Troop Information Instructor where I taught the Army topic of the week to guys in the 82nd Airborne Division Artillery.

I spent the rest of my time in the Army teaching, but, unfortunately, I wasn't teaching Morse code and radio operating techniques to the Special Forces A-teams.

To this day, I can say that my choice to not be a teacher in the 77th Special Forces is one of my few regrets in life. Had I actually re-enlisted and become a Team member I would have shipped out to the mountains of Viet-Nam on the next rotation. Special Forces Teams and CIA operatives were dying in 'Nam and Cambodia when I was discharged 1962.

My stubbornness in refusing to accept a teaching job with Special Forces if I couldn't be a Team member probably kept me alive.

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