RTO - The Radio Telephone Operator

 

When I became a radio-telephone operator, or RTO, I traded my M-60 machine gun ammo for a 25-pound steel box on my back.  Each combat platoon had at least three radios, or one per squad.  A company sized group also had radios for battalion communications and for the artillery forward observer.

PRC-25 RadioThe PRC-25 radio was battery-operated.  The battery lasted about one day of continuous use, so I always carried a spare strapped to the bottom of the case - another five or six pounds.  The radio had two large knobs on top which let us change the radio frequency.  When we operated near the Cambodian border we would change radio frequencies every day so that enemy listening posts would not pick up our transmissions.   On one three-day mission we even attached encryption devices to scramble our radio calls - boxes almost as big as the radios themselves, but very lightweightSmoke Grenades - Green, Yellow, Red

To add to the load, the RTO also carried signaling devices.  The most common type was the smoke grenade, about the size of a soda-pop can.  The smoke grenade had a five-second grenade-type firing mechanism on top and emitted billowing clouds of colored smoke when ignited.  The smoke helped mark our location to gunships, and showed the Huey pilots where to land.  We used them often, so each RTO usually carried four or five.  Sometimes they were handy for finding tunnels - we'd throw one down what looked like an air hole and watch to see where the smoke came out!

Signal FlaresI also strapped three or four aluminum tube flares to my radio for night signaling.   They gave off a bright, colored light that could illuminate a hundred-yard circle for almost half a minute.  Each flare was about the size of a portable bicycle pump.   To fire the flare you removed a top cap and placed it over the bottom end of the tube.  There was a steel spike inside of the cap, and when the cap was slapped against the bottom of the tube it fired a detonator built into the bottom.  The flare took off in the direction the tube was pointing.

Radio HandsetWhile the radio was primarily a tool for communicating with other units, it could also be used to keep us up-to-date on events in the world beyond.  After a long midnight chase close behind Charlie, through tall grass in the inky darkness of another cloudy night, I stood watch at 3:00 a.m. wishing my shift was over.  The war was the only thing on my mind when I heard the rasp of someone breaking radio silence by pressing the transmit button twice, so I placed the handset to my ear to listen.   After a hurried call sign was relayed, an excited voice said "Alpha Papa Eagle is down green".  Then another voice broke in to confirm, "We've got men on the moon and its made of green cheese!".  I turned my eyes upward and at that moment, through a break in the clouds, the moon appeared, glowing yellowish-white against the black sky.  I forgot the war for a while as I gazed up, in wonder, imaging that at that very moment,  they must also be looking up at us.

 

Notes I wrote down during communications training  classes while in Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk:

AN/PRC-25 Radio, FM modulation, voice emissions, low band is 30 to 52.95 megahertz, high band is 53 to 75.95 megahertz, 920 channels available (with 2 preset channels).  Operating range is three to five miles (line-of-sight only).  Weighs 24.7 pounds.

The Phonetic Alphabet  -  Used To Ensure Clear Radio Communications

A - Alpha J - Juliet S - Sierra
B - Bravo K - Kilo T - Tango
C - Charlie L - Lima U - Uniform
D - Delta M - Mike V - Victor
E - Echo N - November W - Whiskey
F - Foxtrot O - Oscar X - Xray
G - Golf P - Papa Y - Yankee
H - Hotel Q - Quebec Z - Zulu
I - India R - Romeo

This phonetic alphabet was the source of many of the war's acronyms, such as Victor Charlie for VC or Viet Cong.  It could also be carried to the extreme such as the time we received a radio call requesting an emergency resupply of Tango Papa.   Tango Papa wasn't one of our regular codes, so we finally had to ask them to just tell us what they needed.  They had run out of toilet paper!

 

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RTO - The Radio Telephone Operator:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Pictures Copyright 1995 Bob Lindgren
Last modified: March 02, 1995