'Spooks and Spies' -- Local ASA vets tell stories of combat, intel collection

By Capt. Kevin Sandell, 504th Military Intelligence Brigade Public AffairsNovember 13, 2017

Sharing Their Stories
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Mike Price and Tom Nutgrass pose for a photo at Papa's Café in Harker Heights, Texas. The two were veterans of the U.S. Army Security Agency and served in Vietnam and Korea respectively. The ASA was the predecessor to the Army's modern-day Mil... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Army Security Agency emblem
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Codenamed Unit in Turkey
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT HOOD, Texas (Nov. 13, 2017) -- The two unassuming Army veterans sit in the local café eating a meal and wearing hats among a sea of other veterans also wearing their own veteran's caps. Emblazoned on the front of the duo's hats is a patch with an eagle's claw clutching a pair of lightning bolts, adjacent to an intriguing slogan -- "In God We Trust, All Others We Monitor."

For Tom Nutgrass and Mike Price, veterans of the U.S. Army Security Agency - predecessor to today's Military Intelligence Corps - their experience working at strategic and tactical intelligence levels was a meaningful experience; one the two men raised in a rural upbringing will never forget.

"I was working at my uncle's filling station in Iowa, and the (local Army) recruiter was a customer," Mike Price, a native of Fairbury, Nebraska said. "He saw sucker when he saw me. In 1963, unless you had joined the Army, you weren't going to find a job. So I thought why not, do my four years and get out and come back. That didn't work."

Price says the recruiter made a job with the Army Security Agency sound "mysterious," and on the forefront of emerging Army technologies. Upon signing his contract in 1963, Price was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training. Within the 250-man basic training company were upwards of 50 Soldiers destined for assignment to the ASA. After eight weeks of rigor and training, he was shipped to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, to earn his specialty at the ASA Training Center and School.

Mike Price said earning his job specialty -- 05K -- known as an Electronic Warfare/Signal Intelligence Non-Morse Interceptor, came at a steep price during the nine-month school.

"We started off my case in Morse Code. They trained us and trained us, and it's tough," Price said. "You put those ear sets on, and for eight hours a day, five days a week: dash, dash, dot, dot."

Of the 63 Soldiers in Price's class, only 13 graduated, a number he says he still remembers to this day. Many of the Soldiers transferred into other intelligence specialties, or in some cases, completely different skills needed by the Army.

"They couldn't handle Morse code, and a lot of people couldn't get a security clearance," Price said.

Established on Sept. 15, 1945, the U.S. Army Security Agency reported directly to the War Department. Comprising all signals intelligence and communication security establishments, the ASA built a worldwide chain of field "listening stations" in global hotspots. In 1955, the Agency took over electronic intelligence and electronic warfare functions previously carried out by the Army's Signal Corps. The Soldiers' mission was to intercept and analyze enemy communication over the airwaves.

Mike Price and his 12 co-graduates of 05K school were shipped to Sinop, Turkey for their first assignment in June 1964. Tom Nutgrass would also serve at Sinop about four years later. Operating under the alias, "Turkish U.S. Logistics Group Detachment 4," or TUSLOG Det 4, the ASA unit intercepted near-peer adversaries' communications on the eastern front.

"We didn't do a thing with logistics," Price said. "We were spying."

The duty location was less than ideal, but the Soldiers there were committed to their jobs, he said. A lot of Soldiers often worked overtime to fulfill their duties and beat the base's boredom.

"It was never a question of working overtime," Price said. "So many people volunteered (for the daily shifts), they'd often send some back to the barracks."

During their duty day, the Soldiers of TUSLOG Det 4 sat at listening stations looking for enemy radio signals and recorded all transmissions coming over the airwaves. In pictures of the Sinop base publically available online on the ASA Veterans website, there are large spherical radio antennas located amongst a sprawling installation that is surrounded by lush, green countryside.

Nearly two years later, Mike Price was transferred to Clark Airbase in the Philippines for another ASA assignment. In 1945, the base served as a stronghold for the combined Filipino and American forces, and as a logistical hub during the Vietnam War. However, it soon closed down after Price's arrival in 1965. He was told after serving a "hardship tour" in Turkey, that he could choose any follow-on assignment. The choice was easy -- Chitose Airbase in Japan.

The airbase served as another ASA listening station for activities along the South China Sea, including the raging war in Vietnam. Volunteering for deployment to Vietnam, Price was shipped to Phubai, Vietnam with another 12 ASA Soldiers.

"There wasn't a shower for 10 miles near our outpost, and we had (U.S.) Marines for security and it was a great assignment," Price said.

Like his Turkish assignment, Price served with a military unit codenamed to protect the unit's true mission. A Radio Research Unit was the most common designator. The Soldiers there used Airborne Radio Direction Finding equipment to identify, triangulate and analyze enemy radio communications. According to author, William LeGro, the ARDF was the "single most valuable intelligence resource available to American and Allied forces during the war in Vietnam."

The 509th Radio Research Group, which commanded three battalions and company-size units, had over 6,000 ASA personnel in country.

Serving in Phubai for 10 months, Mike Price was then transferred back to Chitose Airbase for two years, and volunteered once again for a second deployment to Vietnam.

"They were getting ready to send me back to the States, and I enjoyed overseas," Price said.

However, love stepped in, and the Soldier found himself heads-over-heels for a Japanese woman named Yasuko. The relationship would cost Price his job and a downgrade in his security clearance.

"We decided to get married, and I went and told my unit that I decided to marry a foreign national and I was immediately taken out of operations," Price said. "Love got the best of us."

His chain of command chastised him and called him a traitor and even a communist, he said. They downgraded his security clearance to Top Secret and assigned him to the Army's needs. Price says he knew his newfound love would lead to consequences, and yet, the two have been married for 47 years since. With a short stint as an Army truck driver behind him, Mike Price served in the signal field and then reenlisted as an Army paralegal specialist, where he served the remainder of his Army career in Germany, and retired as a Master Sergeant.

Over his 27-year Army career, Price says the assignment to ASA was unlike any other. The assignments were "enjoyable, and even with challenges, we worked together to overcome. You knew the (fellow ASA) Soldiers had your back," he said.

For Tom Nutgrass, an older veteran who was drafted into the U.S. Army 12 years before Price's enlistment, the ASA experience was no different. Nutgrass, a native of Bassett, Nebraska, was drafted in 1951 at age 19. Attending basic training at Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky, with the famed 101st Airborne Division, Nutgrass said the Army life was not his original intention.

"I had no intentions of being in the Army, I was enjoying the civilian life," Nutgrass said. "I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do in college, the military decided that for me."

The Soldiers learned about every weapon in an infantry regiment, as well as those the Chinese and Korean armies used. At the peak of the Korean War, Tom Nutgrass was molded into an infantry rifleman after basic training, and soon shipped to Japan with the 40th Infantry Division.

"We drew our field equipment and went straight to Korea. They took us to the front lines, and I pulled my first guard duty at the 'Punchbowl,'" Nutgrass said.

He said he spent his whole deployment on the front lines facing daily combat, and earned his Combat Infantryman Badge in the first 30 days he was there. He served the remainder of the deployment as an infantryman, and returned to the U.S. Transferring into the 98J MOS, Nutgrass served at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico with the 100th ASA Detachment. The transition was a sudden one, he said.

"I don't know how I got into ASA, and just like that, I was in," Nutgrass said. "I really don't know to this day why they selected me to be in ASA. When they decided to select me, it happened real fast."

Although he had top-level security clearances and was assigned as an ASA Soldier, Nutgrass served in supply and maintenance at White Sands, and again in Hawaii doing the same job.

The job bolstered Nutgrass' spirits, and he said he was hooked from then on.

"There was no way in the world I was going to get out of ASA again. Once you get inside ASA, especially inside operations, the feeling and the experience, the esprit-de-corps, the job, it's so far above anything you've done in the rest of your life that you just don't want to leave it," Nutgrass said.

Within the units, Nutgrass observed the Soldiers were well-educated and their top secret cryptologic security clearances eliminated the "riffraff" common among junior enlisted Soldiers.

Working at the strategic level of the Army Security Agency, Tom Nutgrass said their motto was, "We cover everything from (Direct Current) to Infinity." The job assignments that followed were of utmost importance and unlike most Army jobs at the time.

"When I went to '98J' school, I didn't have to worry about going to Vietnam or any other combat zone after that. We weren't allowed in a combat zone," Nutgrass said. "We had platforms -- ground based, airborne, and shipborne, and we covered everything with listening platforms to achieve the mission. We covered everything in the air."

Nutgrass also served at Vint Hill Farms Station in Virginia; a place he calls the "Country Club of the ASA." The 700-acre facility was built to house a secure location serving as a cryptography school and as a refitting station for signal units returning from combat.

As with most ASA field stations, Noncommissioned Officers ran daily operations. Mike Price said he didn't recall when he saw "my first officer," at any of the listening posts he was assigned. Once Soldiers were assigned to the Agency, their careers followed a stove-piped career track. The support personnel, such as Military Police, combat medics and even cooks, had security clearances and was assigned to the Agency.

Following his tour in Virginia, Tom Nutgrass went to telemetry school and onto Sinop in 1968. He served as a shift supervisor for one year there, and onto Chitose, Japan. While at Chitose, he served as the senior NCO for a top secret compartmentalized project. His final assignment in the Army: 303rd ASA Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas. Nutgrass would serve with the 303rd from 1970-1972, until his retirement as a Sergeant First Class.

He said the Soldiers he served alongside were dedicated to their mission, and yearned to be part of something bigger.

"You had a job to do," Nutgrass said. "I used to go to work and couldn't get the guys out of the building. They said, 'No Sarge, I might miss something!'"

In 1975, the Army Chief of Staff agreed to the reorganization of Army Intelligence. Multidisciplinary Military Intelligence organizations were created, and as a result, ASA was effectively deactivated. In 1977, the U.S. Army Security agency was re-designated as Headquarters, U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command.

Related Links:

Army Features on the Korean War

Army Features on Veterans

Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Army G-2

Devens Reserve Forces Training Area, Devens, Mass.

504th Military Intelligence Brigade on Facebook

Center of Military History

III Corps and Fort Hood

The Institute of Heraldry

Related Links:

Army Features on the Korean War

Army Features on Veterans

Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Army G-2

Devens Reserve Forces Training Area, Devens, Mass.

504th Military Intelligence Brigade on Facebook

Center of Military History

III Corps and Fort Hood

The Institute of Heraldry