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the latakia intercept

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Chapter 1 ~ Incirlik


Thursday, 20 September 1973 — Adana, Turkey

The way the guy examined me caught my attention right away. Don't know if it was my nerves or a paranoid reflex, but his deep-set predator eyes lingered a little too long for comfort. He stood on the tarmac at Adana's civilian airport, off to the side of the portable boarding ramp. Had that look, muscular broad shoulders, thick face with a groomed mustache. Not a thug, but a tough guy nevertheless. Perhaps a security type. One thing for sure, he wasn't with the local tourist bureau.

I hustled down the stairs from the Turkish Airlines jet and avoided eye contact. His focus wasn't solely on me, he gave each passenger the same treatment, but the way he gave me a practiced once-over was disconcerting.

The afternoon flight from Frankfurt had been uneventful until we touched down in Ankara. My normal sense of caution intensified when I passed through customs and immigration. Maybe I was suspicious for no reason, but they seemed to give me an unusual level of attention. The officer at the desk called his superior over. The grim official subjected my papers to a thorough examination and waved me through without comment. A scheduled one-hour layover stretched into two before a smaller jet took flight south to Adana.

The time was 1910, an hour after sunset. I collected my baggage and headed outside. The tough-guy stood on the curb. No Air Force bus was in sight. Not wanting to hang around, I hailed a taxi. Out of the corner of my eye, I detected a flick of the man's head. A taxi moved from out of line and pulled up in front of me.

The long-haired driver, a thin man about my age, rushed around and stashed the bags in the trunk. Told him to take me to Incirlik Air Base and I slid in the back seat. Moments later, he opened the throttle and we sped away towards the city.

The driver tried to steer me to a local nightspot. "You go disco club, belly dancer, good raki." Assumed he got baksheesh for bringing in customers, especially unsuspecting American servicemen.

Been there, done that. "The airbase —I want to go to Incirlik — No club."

He gestured with his hand, trying to imitate the sensuous curves of a belly dancer. "Much good, you like," and trilled a monotonous tune replete with fake finger cymbals.

This wasn't my first time in Adana. The place was nothing special, not exotic like Istanbul. Earlier trips to the nearby facility had been on missions from NSA, the National Security Agency, flying on Air Force SIGINT aircraft. Back in the sixties, I served a year at TUSLOG Det-4 field station in Sinop on the Black Sea. Turkey was familiar territory.

Maybe it was my threads attracting so much attention: a yellow leisure suit more suited for a disco. My ex-girlfriend picked it out in a trendy shop in Frankfurt. First realized wearing the outfit was a mistake during the layover at Ankara airport. I stood out like a pimp at a church picnic. My travel orders had specified civilian attire and supplied a ticket on a civilian airline, not something I expected.

The trip itself was unexpected. Yesterday, at my Army unit in Germany, I awaited the approval of my request for an early out. I was fed-up with the Army. They screwed me over, and now they could take it and stuff it where the sun don’t shine.

I planned a six-week motorcycle tour down to the Riviera, followed by a trip home to a dream job with a civilian contractor at the Army Electronic Proving Ground at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Years of hardship and long-hours in the Army were about to pay off.

Unfortunately, with only three months to go on my enlistment, reality slapped me upside the head. Eleven years in the military, traveling the world collecting and analyzing critical electronic intelligence, meant nothing.

Captain Parker's edict still rung in my ears. "Denied."

Instead of a coveted early out, I received orders to a so-called special detachment at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Seemed too spur of the moment. Something didn't add up. Little did I realize it was the first step in the inevitable journey that awaits the unlucky.

I wasn't responding to the driver's pitch, so he offered something different. "You no like club. Go Kerhane." He raised his right hand and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. "Is good?"

"Hell no, I want to go to Incirlik airbase."

The last place I wanted to go was the Kerhane, a Turkish woman's prison where the inmates could work off their jail time in the brothel compound.

The driver continued his blather and veered off towards a seedy part of Adana. Sometimes a little voice tells you trouble is coming — an instinct, the best detector of danger. If it doesn’t feel right, it's probably not. This didn't feel right.

"Yes, yes, disco, raki, belly dancer, much good."

"Wrong way —I want to go to Incirlik — hell with your club."

Undaunted by my protestations, he cut a sharp left and slowed in the middle of a darkened side street. Three silhouettes, illuminated by his headlights, sauntered out from the curb. Appeared to be young thugs and the tallest raised a hand for the taxi to halt. The driver didn't seem surprised or concerned, but I was.

Four to one wasn't what I considered good odds, especially in unfamiliar surroundings on a dark street. My pulse raced in anticipation. Wasn't sure if I was on the way to a robbery, beating, or kidnapping. In any case, it wouldn't end well. I'm not a violent person, but I slipped out my switchblade and held it ready with thumb on the slide. The vehicle crawled to a stop. The thugs split up to surround the taxi.

Instinctive reactions drive the first seconds of danger: fight, flight, or freeze. In a split second, the animal instinct for survival kicked in. I decided to get the hell out of there before the thugs gained the upper hand. The driver I could deal with.

The driver flinched and froze when he heard the unmistakable click. A half-second later, I grabbed a tuft of hair and pressed five inches of fine Solingen steel against the side of his neck. He made a slight nervous jump. His halting breath reeked of cheap cigarettes.

I growled in fractured German, "Verstehen Sie? Incirlik — schnell."

That caught his attention. Lots of Turks work in Germany. For added motivation, I pressed hard, breaking the skin below his right ear, hard enough to draw blood. He recoiled in a contortion of pain. In the rearview mirror, his eyes glowed electric with panic.

The rear door opposite started to open. A silhouette appeared at the other window.

I punctuated my command, "Airbase jetzt, schnell," with an unambiguous twist of the tip of the blade.

He stomped the gas and burned rubber. The fender brushed against one of the thugs. The door slammed shut as he swung a U-turn and raced away towards the base. I shifted in the seat and gave a cautious peek through the rear window.

Back on the main street, we merged into a chaotic jumble of evening traffic: cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, pedestrians, and the occasional donkey. He slowed to keep pace. My heart continued at race speed.

"We go straight to the airbase, you understand?" He didn't respond. I upped the volume, yelling in his bleeding ear, "Verstehen Sie, Incirlik"

"Yes, yes, Incirlik schnell."

A block before the bridge, traffic ground to a halt with us beside a bus. When it began to move, he unwittingly killed the engine. I squeezed his shoulder and leaned up close. The coppery smell of blood saturated the air.

"The last thing I want to do is cut your throat. But remember this, I will if you don't get moving — schnell." Wasn't sure if he understood English, but a firm jab gave all the translation he needed.

Desperate, he cranked the motor with no results. Horns honked, pedestrians gawked at our predicament. My body tensed as I considered my limited options. At last, the motor turned over, the cabbie popped the clutch, and we accelerated away.

The ride to Incirlik was nerve-racking — particularly for the weasel-faced taxi driver — I held the blade behind his ear for the duration. I kept my eyes on his eyes in the rearview mirror, giving him a poke when he seemed to waver. A trickle of crimson blood oozed from the cut, staining the wide floppy collar on his already filthy paisley shirt.

Less than an hour on the ground and already I had been given the once-over by a security type and now this. It didn't feel like a random hijack, the driver had to be in on it. A flicker of concern crept in. Experience taught me such confrontations are unpredictable. I considered myself lucky. The encounter could have easily deteriorated into a deadly fiasco. I refocused and resolved to stay calm but alert.

The sweating driver turned towards the main entrance to the airbase. I ordered him to halt outside the gate. He hesitated, I prodded, and he skidded to a halt.

"Who paid you to set me up?"

He didn't answer. I could tell he was eyeing the gate.

We had already attracted attention from two Air Force Security Police and a Turkish guard at the main gate. I didn't want to have to deal with a bunch of questions about my encounter with the thugs. That would just delay the inevitable. Knew from personal experience, the Turkish authorities would ignore the incident, besides, I didn't want to deal with the unavoidable paperwork hassle.

"Kill the engine, get my bags, and don't try anything."

I exited and jerked the driver's door open, my switchblade concealed from view beside my leg. He complied, opened the trunk, and set my bags on the pavement. I slipped a dollar from my pocket and flipped it on the ground in front of him.

He glared at the bill and said, "Is more." He mumbled something in Turkish and glanced back towards the gate. Incredibly, he wasn't satisfied with a dollar.

"Listen here you SOB, you're lucky to get that, so pick it up and get the hell out of here. Verstehen Sie?" I added a colorful Turkish insult remembered from years past.

He understood and unleashed a stream of undecipherable Turkish invective. The car door was open, and I shoved him inside. He started the engine and left me in cloud of dust.

I folded and pocketed the switchblade, picked up the dollar bill, collected my bags, and headed for the gate.

"What was that all about?" asked the American sergeant.

"We were discussing his driving."

The sergeant examined my outfit. "Didn't know we had a disco band scheduled." He grinned and glanced back at the airman. "You heard anything?" They both laughed. The Turk, not fully understanding, joined in.

I tried to stay calm, or at least give an impression of composure, and handed him my orders. He read them and checked a clipboard.

He eyed me with puzzled disdain. "Never heard of it. Don't have no such unit listed."

"Army Security Agency Special Detachment, Incirlik," I pointed. "Says so right there."

He shook his head. "Sorry, can't help you, like I said, never heard of it."

We were both in the same boat. I had never heard of the so-called special detachment until yesterday morning. Three minutes at the front gate of Incirlik Air Base and I was getting the run-around. My temper started to simmer. I'd had enough problems the last few days and wasn't in the mood.

"Sergeant, I suggest you get on the horn and find out."

"Listen, Buddy—"

"You listen. I've had enough of this bull, you call someone pronto." I upped the volume, "Do you understand?"

The sergeant turned to an airman and barked out an order, "Perkins, call over to squadron."

The airman dialed the phone and asked for Lieutenant Matson. Seconds later, he said, "Sir, Sergeant Miller wants to talk to you."

The sergeant grabbed the phone, glared at me, and spoke into the handset. "Lieutenant, we got some guy in civvies down here at the front gate with what he claims is orders to some Army special detachment. Says he's Sergeant First Class Ross Brannan, Army Security Agency." He listened for a moment and said, "Yes sir, I'll send him over right away."

Finally, some progress. I grinned.

"Perkins, load this guy's gear on the vehicle and run him over to squadron. Keep an eye on him, don't let him outta your sight 'till you get him inside."

Without speaking, I tossed my duffel and B-4 bag into the back of the pickup truck. For some reason, I glanced back outside the gate. The guy from the airport stood beside a green car, smoking a cigarette, staring at me without any pretense of hiding his interest. I took a seat in front. The airman joined me, and we left the front gate.

The tough guy's presence wasn't that unexpected. Not the first-time local security types had scrutinized my papers. My orders had United States Army Security Agency emblazoned at the top of the page. As a rule, orders to Turkey specified a TUSLOG detachment number. Mine did not. But the attempted hijacking did concern me. I remembered how the man flicked his head to the taxi waiting out of line and wondered if the two were connected.

Airman Perkins ushered me into the security squadron orderly room. The duty sergeant, a tall lanky man with a deep southern accent, told me to wait off to the side. He extracted a cigarette from a pack of Camels, lit up with a shiny Zippo lighter, and gave me a disparaging squint.

"You ride in on the bus?" he asked with a gruff tone.

"No, took a taxi."

He twisted his lip in a contemptuous grin. "They didn't try to take you to one of the local dives?"

"Yeah, he recommended the Kerhane."

"You didn't jump on that?" His eyebrows rose.

"No, the line was too long … too many Air Force types … mostly NCO's."

The grin faded into a scowl. A young airman sitting at a nearby desk guffawed and almost choked on his cigarette.

A young second lieutenant, with a fresh burr haircut, entered and motioned for me to take a seat beside his desk.

His quick nervous eyes revealed a hint of skepticism. Had to be my outfit. He inspected my orders and asked, "You got any ID?"

I handed him my green Army ID card.

"What's this…" the lieutenant peered down at my orders, "special detachment do?" His voice had an uneasy edge, like he was unaccustomed to being in charge.

Didn't want to tell him I didn't know either, so I resorted to an old standard. "Sorry, compartmentalized need to know. Know what I mean?"

He nodded and replied with an unconvincing, "Understand."

Incirlik was a hotbed of compartmentalized activity. Situated near the northeastern curve of the Mediterranean coast, the base had been the main staging point for U-2 flights over the Soviet Union. The facility typically operated at a high security level. This day was no exception.

He started to hand back my ID, hesitated a moment to study the photo, and said, "This picture makes you look almost like Steve McQueen."

"That's what the Fräuleins tell me." The faint resemblance proved useful with the ladies at times. Sadly, my current dismal social life proved I lacked the charismatic appeal of my near double.

The young airman, name tag said Davis, crushed his cigarette in a Cinzano ashtray. "Say lieutenant, maybe he belongs to that army crew that moved in the old hangar down at the end of the flight line."

The lieutenant's demeanor changed. With renewed confidence, he told the duty sergeant, "Get Randall and tell him to drive this man over there." He handed my papers back.

The duty sergeant snapped an order, "Grab your gear, and wait out front."

Airman Randall drove to the far end of the flight line. The blue Ford pickup rolled to a grinding halt in front of a small structure behind a Quonset shaped hanger. The building, a wooden pre-fab, as well as the hangar, had seen better days. A light was on inside.

"You sure this is it?"

"Don't know, but this here's where they told me to bring you." The unconcerned airman sounded like a short-timer, had an attitude, one I could appreciate.

Moments after he drove off, an Army spec-4 opened the door. He wore no name tag.

"You Sergeant Brannan?"

"Yeah. You expecting me?"

"The security police called. Come on in, the captain wants to see you."

Inside, the building was no better than the outside. The soldier ushered me through a small outer office to a large open room with a grey metal desk, a steel safe, a long table with a half-dozen chairs, and a stand with a coffee pot. Air Force motivational posters adorned the walls.

The soldier shut the door and I approached a captain sitting behind the desk. The stone-faced officer wore Army Senior Aviator wings on his fatigues with no name tag or unit patch.

"Sergeant First Class Ross Brannan reporting, sir." I passed him my orders.

He inspected my attire with and incredulous stare. "Sergeant, do you customarily report in to a new assignment wearing civilian clothes?"

"No sir. As you can see, my orders specified civilian dress and travel by civil transport. I just got here and didn't have a chance—"

He cut me off before I could finish. "I didn't ask for excuses."

I inhaled a nervous breath. The day had already turned into a goat-rope and I didn't need to make it worse by getting in to it with my new CO.

The captain, a tall thin man with a pockmarked face and a bushy black mustache, told me to stand at ease. He examined the orders with obvious care, placed them on the desk, and opened a brown cardboard folder with a red border, marked Secret. After leafing through several pages, he gave me a puzzled glare.

"Your MOS is ELINT signal analyst and you're also an intercept operator?"

"Yes sir, at least for the next three months."

"What does that mean?"

I reacted with an emphatic, "I'm not re-enlisting."

He started to respond but shoved the folder to the side without comment.

"How long is this assignment for?" I didn't want to go back to Parker's outfit in Frankfurt, nothing there that interested me. All I wanted to do was get out of uniform and report to my new civilian job in Arizona.

"No specific timeline, unit orders don't specify. Shouldn't last long, a month … two at the most."

Since he wore pilot's wings, I asked, "Will we be flying?"

"Affirmative. Any experience in a RU-8D?"

Surprised and confused by the question, I paused. "Not much. Flew a couple of times in Nam, but that wasn't my MOS. Flown in Mohawks in Germany, most of my flight time has been TDY with Air Force and Navy units when I was assigned to Meade." Fort Meade is the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

"Meade!" He let out a harrumph. "You're not one of those desk commandos, are you?"

Half expected his snarky comment, couldn't blame him, he didn't know me. "No sir, I learned my stuff in the field. Sinop, Asmara, and—"

"Okay, whatever." He canted his head towards the door. "Specialist Burns will get you situated in billets over at the Holiday Inn. We have a section assigned for our use. The cleaning staff is Turkish civilians, do not engage in any discussion with them beyond what's required for them to do their job."

Holiday Inn, some joke, the Air Force nickname for old Quonset huts used for transient aircrew quarters. Knew from personal experience, they're hotter-n-hell in summer. Maybe they'd be tolerable this time of the year. Anyhow, for a short-timer, it would do. The air base was okay. The Air Force had it easy, good beds and decent chow. Three months should be no sweat, might even be warm enough for the beach.

He leaned back in his chair. "Did you have any difficulties or unusual attention from the Turkish authorities during your trip?"

"Yes sir, in Ankara and here at the airport. A man followed me all the way out here, some sort of secret police type, if you know what I mean." I started to recount my difficulties with the taxi but decided to hold-off for now.

"I had a similar experience. So did some of the others. Not sure what it means."

"Having ASA on my orders instead of TUSLOG could something to do with it. The Turks can be sensitive about our presence sometimes."

"Could be. Have you been here before?"

"Yes sir, a few times on TDY."

"Report back here in the morning at 0800 hours for a briefing with the rest of the crew." On my way out, he said, "One other thing, we're low profile on this mission, remove your name tags and unit patches from your uniforms."

Low profile, no name tag, RU-8D — had me puzzled. The military version of the Beechcraft Twin Bonanza was being phased out. Not a platform for ELINT collection, the aircraft had been deployed in Southeast Asia for COMINT, intercepting enemy communications. Didn't make sense, my specialties were Soviet radar and telemetry, not voice. Hopes of being able to do what I do best faded. The Army had one last opportunity to screw me over. True to form they did. When you're at the bottom, you understand one thing for sure: it all rolls downhill.

At least the Middle East seemed quiet. Not too much going on, but because water's not boiling, don't mean it's not hot. I knew from reading the latest intelligence reports that tensions were building. On the other hand, no one expected a war anytime soon. Hell, tensions are always building in this part of the world.