LORAN for Dummies

By Pat Glesner

 

 

 

“It’s the best kept secret in the Coast Guard!”  The detailers always say that, whenever the locale you have indicated in the “Least Desired Area” box on your Dream Sheet matches your new duty station.  They said that when they sent me to Governors Island.  They said it when I went to St. Louis instead of the West Coast cutter I had asked for.  They even had the audacity to say it when they sent me back to Governors Island for the second time.  And now they were saying it again.  A CWO PERS who had probably never been close to LORAN, except perhaps on a boondoggle, was sending me off to what he termed “one of the Coast Guard’s best duty stations,” LORAN Station Hokkaido, Japan.

All ETs carried the moniker “Twidget;” however, I believed it really only applied to those on a “LORAN Track.”  That track ruined lives, turned good men bad.  Innocent and self-confident young men would go off and returned a year later as chain-smoking, beer-guzzling whoremongers.  Their nerves were generally so shot that they could hardly get a full cup of coffee to their lips.  It imparted no skills for those who went back to civilian life after their tour, unless their career aspiration was Pool Shark.  For those that stayed on it promised nothing beyond more of the same. 

Up to then I had spent my career successfully avoiding all this.  I was not happy having it thrust upon me at this stage in my life.  And this wasn’t just LORAN; it was isolated duty, in Japan—then considered one of the most expensive places on the planet.  Unfortunately, I no longer had the clout once accorded a CWO4, when a man of my stature dictated his own orders.  A new Guard was being ushered in then, and to expedite this, they were phasing out old timers such as myself.  The orders had already induced several other CWO4s to retire, before they were passed on to me.  With nineteen years in service, I did not have the same option.  That did not keep me from trying to wiggle out of them though: “Send me to any cutter,” I pleaded, “send me anywhere, sent me to Governors Island!”

“Sorry,” the detailer replied, “It’s your turn in the barrel.”

There were many others who thought LORAN was wonderful, and that LORAN Station Hokkaido was truly one of the Coast Guard’s best duty stations.  Among them were a couple of fellow warrants at MLCPAC who had once served as Executive Officers and Senior Technical Officers at Hokkaido.  “Japan is great and LORAN is low key,” they said—a year long vacation in an exotic land.  “Your main job,” one said, “will be to keep the beer cold and the firewood dry.”  I phoned CWO4 Marc Johnson, a trusted old friend and shipmate who had also served on Hokkaido, and he also praised it.  So I not only resigned myself, I even began to look forward to it. 

Technically, I knew little about LORAN.  It was a navigational device that sat on the bridge.  I’d worked on everything else—communications, crypto, Radar, EW—but I had avoided that box like the plague.  Now, as a perspective STO, I would have to know more than just how to spell LORAN.

So they sent me off for several weeks to LORAN School at Governors Island, for the extensive training that would instill me with the skills and knowledge of the average LORAN Track SNET.  Most of my classmates were SNETs or ET3s, recently graduated for ET “A” School.  There was one other warrant, a newly appointed CWO2, destined for St. Paul Island, AK, LORAN Station, and two German nationals who would be operating and maintaining the former Coast Guard LORAN Station in Sylt, Germany.  Together, we learned LORAN.

The acronym LORAN stands for LOng Range Aid to Navigation.  By definition, it's a hyperbolic form of radio-navigation; a hyperbola being, as the reader probably well knows, “a curve generated by a line so moving that the difference between the distance between two fixed points remains a constant.”  It’s been fifteen years, but I still remember that almost as well as I remember my old service number.  It may be the final phrase to pass my lips. 

In practice, LORAN uses that theorem, and a “chain” consisting of one master and at least two secondary stations, each transmitting a high powered 100Khz T‑squared pulse, to set up a radio grid that allows mariners at sea (and aviators) to “fix” their exact position.  Each secondary, with its master, forms a “baseline” (or the two fixed points in the hyperbolic theorem).

Time's the essence of LORAN, time measured in picoseconds.  Distances between a master and secondary are measured in time, and each secondary must transmit its signal in an exact instant after it receives the master signal.  By electronic triangulation, measuring the difference in the arrival time of signals from two baselines, a navigator within the coverage area can fix his position to within a few yards.  And timing, extremely accurate, pin-point timing is the key to that accuracy.  LORAN’s watchwords, “On air and in tolerance,” were just another way of saying “on time.” 

The Coast Guard did not expect to transmit perfectly accurate signals, only nearly perfect; in fact they guaranteed that LORAN signals would be usable 99.9% of the time.  That worked out to one tolerable day of “bad time” per year.  And that was only tolerable if the station “blinked”—electronically informed the user that it was out-of-tolerance.  “Out‑of‑tolerance without blink,” the mortal sin in LORAN, could lead to letters-of-reprimand, court-martials, and ruined careers. 

Or so they told us in the classroom.  Informally we heard differently: The equipment was over two decades old, was suffering from age and sometime plain neglect, and was generally incapable of performing as it once had.  So relax, we were told, and do the best you can with what you’ve got.  

The Coast Guard was also phasing out most of its overseas LORAN operations, turning the stations over to foreign governments.  When that was the case the mission was to keep the stations going until they became someone else’s headache.  Other stations were being downsizing, with a skeleton maintenance crew and remotely monitored and operated equipment.  In those cases, new state-of-the-art equipment would ease the burden of operating and maintaining the station.

In addition, LORAN just wasn’t very important anymore.  At one time it had strategic importance, but by then the military has moved on to bigger and better things, satellite navigation for instance (GPS was still a few years off).  It was mostly commercial fishermen (and pleasure boaters) who used it then.  For them, it had a couple of advantages.  First, LORAN receivers were dirt cheap.  And second, LORAN provided a constant reference, independent of inertia (as opposed to SatNav, which relied on electronic dead reckoning between periodic passes of a satellite), that would allow a navigator to consistently return to the most productive fishing grounds.  In the grand scheme of things, a few less fish was far less important than a misguided missile.

This eased some of my concerns, but not all of them.  Japan was still the most expensive place on earth.  I was frequently reminded of this, by those destined for less costly locales.  As a warrant, I did not endure the same ribbing fellow students heaped on our classmate, ET3 Keith Nolakowski, who had also been assigned to Hokkaido.  Ski’s parents even rubbed it in, with a column clipped for their local newspaper, entitled, “Japan, Land of the $60 Melon.” 

There were also reminders outside the classroom.  I recall one late afternoon, sitting in the CPO Club with a beer, taking a break from the books, when Captain Robert E. Hammond II walked in.  Captain Hammond, who had been my CO on the Glacier, was a man with a particular vision for the Coast Guard.  Among other thing he envisioned a bone-dry Coast Guard.  So it seemed kind of strange, to learn that he had been assigned to oversee the operation of all of the Coast Guard’s service clubs.  Then perhaps it wasn’t so strange.  I now think he may have been leading us into a future envisioned by another dry sailor, Admiral Paul Yost.  In any case, he sat down beside me, ordered a soda, and asked how I was doing.  When I told him I was going to Japan he said, “Man, you better take lots of money!”

So I took his advice, purchased several thousand dollars in traveler’s checks, and canceled my direct deposit.  I wound up my business affairs on Coast Guard Island, had my household goods put into storage (four years would pass before I saw them again) and shipped my essentials off to Japan.  I then said final goodbyes to my MLCPAC and Alameda friends and headed off to the San Francisco airport.  I waited for my flight in the lounge, trying to get used to the idea of way overpriced beer.  Sitting next to me, nursing a Manhattan, was another, recently phased out old Coastie, retired Vice Admiral John Costello.  We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to board the big bird for Japan.  His last words to me were “I hope you’re taking lots of money.”

After a transpacific flight that lasted way too long, a four hour bus trip across Tokyo, and eight hours crashed in the Yokota Air Base guest house, I report in at the Far East Section office.  Personnel matters and obtaining a drivers license took up most of the day.  I briefly met with the FESEC Commander, Captain J, R. Sproat, and his XO, LCDR Lee Gazley.  Both seemed primarily concerned about maintaining good relations with the locals.  For a discussion of LORAN ops, they turned me over to CWO Gus MacFeeney.  “You’ve undoubtedly heard it,” Gus said.  “Operate out-of-tolerance and heads will roll.  Forget it . . . heads won’t roll.  Nobody cares about LORAN anymore.”

Thus, once again reassured, I ventured outside the gate to test the local economy.  I visited a fruit market, where the prices were not noticeable different than those in the states—I did not find a single $60 melon in the bins.  In a nearby tavern, I found that the beer was expensive, but not outrageously so.

The next morning I boarded the plane for the hop to Obihiro, Hokkaido.  As the plane taxied to the runway, I could see the ground controllers standing at rigid attention, wands at their sides, hands touching the brims of their hats in crisp military salutes.  Next to them several mechanics repeatedly flung their arms in the air.  I could almost hear their shouts, “Banzai.”  I had seen similar displays in WWII documentaries, showing Kamikaze pilots taking off on their final missions. 

The Obihiro airport stood in the middle of nowhere, with only a few farmhouses situated near the horizon.  Barren tamarack forests and snow covered mountain stood out further on.  The airport’s one shop contained shrink-wrapped octopus tentacles, freeze dried fish and other delicacies.  A long wooden bench stretched the length of the terminal, advertising Obihiro’s big attraction, the world’s longest park bench.  Along with an old bearded Ainu, I was a celebrity of sorts: several Japanese indicated that they wanted to pose with us.

Soon another Gijin arrived, clad in jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and hiking boots, CWO Jim Judd’s preferred attire.  Jim took the long way back to the station, showed me some of the scenery and points-of-interest.  He said very little about LORAN.  Instead he talked about fishing, bow hunting in nearby forests, trapping fox in the antenna field.  Although he had clearly enjoyed his tour here, he was counting down the last days of his career, and was anxious to get back to Oregon in time for the fall hunting season.  “Show me the beer cooler and the woodshed,” I said, “and as far as I’m concerned you can go.”

 

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