01 March 2012


It was on this day in 1956 that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) adopted the NATO phonetic alphabet as a world standard for spelling and pronunciation, now almost universally used in civilian and military aviation.  If you click on the link, it will take you to the Wikipedia entry, which happens to include not only letters and their phonic pronunciation, but also the Morse code keystrokes assigned to each letter and number.  Morse is familiar to all ham radio operators, and at one time was required knowledge for military operators as well.  

In 1967-68 when I was in Army radio school (Fort Huachuca, AZ) and radioteletype (RTT) school (Fort Gordon, GA), I had to become fluent in the phonetic alphabet and in Morse code, and later at typing.  Fluency was measured in both accuracy and speed.  My best Morse code speed (using a standard handset similar to the one shown above) was around 40 words per minute (wpm), while my best typing speed was 85 wpm, both with no errors.  Those are some smoking times, given the archaic equipment we had.  More often than not, in RTT I was typing faster than the keyboard could manage, and the machine would continue to clatter for half a minute after I'd finished.

Here are links to a few examples ~ 

  • the PRC-25 portable radio, used by small infantry units in the field.
  • the AN/GRC-26 mobile RTT rig, used by larger infantry and artillery units in the field.
  • the AN/GRC-46 base RTT rig, used in secure rear areas.
I was most intimately familiar with the AN/GRC-26, or "Angry 26" in typical military hawkish parlance.  I leave it to your imagination to conjure up the nickname for the PRC-25.  The RTT units required a long and intricate number of steps just to tune the various components (including a cryptographic unit) before use, and they had to be performed in order, from memory.  The 46 had something approaching 150 tuning steps.  But since we operated 24 hours a day, the tune-up was rarely required.

Thankfully my training wasn't limited to radio, or my life expectancy in Vietnam might have been much shorter.  Four classes of soldiers had standing bounties on their heads by the VC and the NVA ~ commanding officers, radio operators, heavy automatic weapons (machine guns) operators, and medics.  During my year in country, I spent two 2-month periods in the field, assigned to several roving batteries of 155mm self-propelled howitzers.  We fell under rocket and mortar attacks often when we were set up for firing, and were the targets of snipers as well.  During my remaining time in country I was in base camp at Phu Loi, working 12 hours a night, 7 nights a week ~ the time when rocket and mortar attacks were most frequent.  But at least I was able to shower daily.  In the field, not so much.  Like, once a month.

Times and technology are light years removed from forty years ago.  Satellite communications, computer networks, individual laptop computers, and GPS have rendered radioteletype obsolete.  Radio sets are more sophisticated and versatile.  I wonder if they still have to learn Morse Code in radio school?

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