CWO4 John Thomas Wise, USN
September 12, 1939 – March 4, 2015
Born September 12, 1939 in Woodville, Texas; after graduation from high school John joined the Navy in September of 1957 at the age of 17 on what was then called a “kiddie cruise” . After basic training he was selected to go to Communications Technician School at Imperial Beach, California . . Upon arrival at Imperial Beach John was designated as a CTO Seaman Apprentice. While in training to become a CTO, John took the Foreign Language Aptitude Test (FLAT) and was selected for language training at the Army Language School at Monterey, California to study Vietnamese.
Everybody in Admin in Imperial Beach looked through the atlas and couldn’t find anyplace labeled Vietnam. Someone told John that Vietnam was somewhere around India and that he probably would be stationed at an embassy in Asia wearing civilian clothing. “Whoa! Gimme some of that action!” was John’s response. Upon completion of CTO “A” School in April of 1958, John was transferred to the Army Language School, still a CTSA.
Shortly after arriving at Monterey he was promoted to CT Seaman (E-3), so six months later he was eligible to take the test for Third Class. Since the test was classified, he had to travel (with about ten to twelve others) to the nearest Naval Security Group Activity, located at Skaggs Island, north of San Francisco in the Napa Valley near Sonoma. John passed the test and was selected for promotion, but not before graduation from language school in June of 1959.
From Monterey John was transferred to the Naval Radio Facility, Philippines (often referred to as San Miguel). When he got there in the summer of 1959 the base was about two years old and almost everything was brand new. Very few buildings were air conditioned. John was assigned to the Processing and Reporting Division at the Receivers Building, located about a mile north of the base proper. Three other Vietnamese linguists were already there, and at least two were temporarily assigned to ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, typically destroyers. While at sea they monitored North Vietnamese communications and provided general translation services in support of attempts to prevent movement of supplies from the North to the South. During this tour he was promoted to CTI2.
After completing his tour in the Philippines in late 1960, John returned to language school, arriving at Monterey in January 1961 to study Russian. Upon completion of the year-long course, he was assigned to the Naval Security Group at Kamiseya, Japan as a newly promoted CTI1. When he reported in January of 1962 he was assigned to Division 215, which was unofficially called the “Spook’s Division”. Consisting of about 20-25 Russian linguists and five or so support personnel, the personnel of the division supported various fleet units. After three weeks of training and transcribing, he was put on flight status and began flying a couple of missions a week with Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron ONE (VQ-1) out of Atsugi, flying in the EC-121M aircraft, a modified version of the Lockheed Super Constellation. At that time few people in VQ-1 were cleared to know about communications intelligence, and so the CTs who flew were called ‘Spooks’ or ‘Big Look Spooks’ . Flight crew were issued flight jackets, boots and orange flight suits, but with typical Navy logic were told not to let anyone know (including family) that they were assigned to flight duty. Unofficially, they referred to flying as ‘playing ball,’ in part so that some limited discussion could occur over non-secure telephone lines. On one occasion, it became necessary to recall one of the CTs who had left Kamiseya to fly. The Division Officer at Kamiseya called the Duty Officer at VQ-1 in Atsugi and asked for the CT in question, but the VQ-1 Duty Officer, who had little interaction with the CTs, had no idea who the individual in question even was. After a confusing exchange, the Kamiseya end told the Atsugi end that the individual in question was one of those ‘playing ball’, and the VQ-1 duty officer replied “Sorry, Bud, the ball field just took off.”
After two to three months of flying, John was asked to volunteer for submarine duty, but his wife was expecting so he postponed that until after the baby was born in early June of 1962. Submarine duty was different, until this point in his career John had never been to sea on any sort of ship. After the six week well baby checkup, he agreed to go, and during his three year tour in Kamiseya he made six submarine patrols.
John’s first patrol was on the USS Tunny (SSG-282) (24 August – 29 October 62). The team on board consisted of an Officer in Charge, two CTR operators, and one linguist (John). John made three of his six patrols on the Tunny, and in 1964 was able to qualify in submarines, earning his enlisted submarine pin, or ‘dolphins’. His patrols on the Tunny qualified him for membership in the unofficial ‘North Pacific Yacht Club,’ reserved for those who made patrols on the SSGs. As an additional testament to his skill John was presented with his first Navy Commendation Medal for this service.
1965 found John back on flight duty with VQ-1, and during this stint he was able to qualify as a Naval Aircrewman, one of the first CTs to do so . After being instructed on safety and emergency procedures for the EC-121M, John attended sea survival school in May 1965 at the Air Force training school in Numazu, Japan, and was awarded his wings shortly thereafter.
After John’s tour in Kamiseya he was reassigned to Naval Communications Station Philippines as a CTI1, arriving in mid-January of 1966. Almost immediately he was sent to Da Nang for flight duty with VQ-1, and by the 4th of March had flown enough to qualify for his first Air Medal. He continued to fly for another month and then returned to San Miguel, and about this time was promoted to Chief Petty Officer. As a newly promoted Chief he took charge of the in-house training division for newly reported linguists. Several of his students remember him as a serious professional, well equipped to educate them on the specifics they would need to know later on.
In November of 1967 John was selected for Warrant Officer (W-1) and assigned as Assistant Officer-in Charge of the Naval Technical Training Center Detachment at Goodfellow AFB, San Angelo, TX, responsible for the technical training of all Cryptologic Technicians (Interpretive) in the Navy.
Two years later (October 1969) John was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer (W-2), and was reassigned to the Philippines for a third tour, again at San Miguel. After several months to settle his family, he returned to flight duty; flying for nearly four months as an airborne evaluator from Da Nang. For this service he received two additional Air Medals. Afterwards he returned to San Miguel and served as the Naval Security Group Department’s Technical Support Officer. Again in early 1972 John returned to Da Nang for another stint as an evaluator. While on this deployment to Da Nang, he returned to Cubi Point Naval Air Station in the Philippines for about two weeks in February when VQ-1 aircraft were repositioned due to a perceived Tet Offensive and Nixon’s visit to China. Nothing happened and the crews returned to Da Nang.
As the Vietnam War concluded, John left San Miguel in December 1972 for duty as the Naval Security Group liaison officer to VQ-1, then based at Agana Naval Air Station in Guam.
During this tour he spent time in California helping to develop a new electronic system for installation in the Navy’s EP-3E aircraft, the successor to the venerable EC-121M. The system, called the AN/ALR-60 and given the cover name DEEPWELL, was officially accepted and installed on ten EP-3E aircraft assigned to both Navy VQ squadrons.
America’s involvement in Vietnam ended in April 1975 with Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of the remaining presence in Vietnam, mostly personnel assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon. During this operation VQ-1 flew missions in support, staging from NAS Cubi Point. Vietnamese linguists were supplied by the Naval Security Group Activity located at Clark AB, and the communications evaluator was John Wise. For this final involvement with Vietnam he was awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal.
In August of 1976 John, now a Chief Warrant Officer (W-4), was reassigned to the Naval Security Group Activity at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, collocated with the National Security Agency. This was his final tour, and he retired September 30, 1979 with 22 years of service.
As a postscript, nearly eighteen months after he had retired, John was called by Washington and offered the opportunity to return to active duty to head a Naval Security Group Detachment in Turkey, but by this time his life had taken other paths, so he declined.
John left us March 4, 2015 and was buried at sea. Rest in Peace.
Editor’s note: Throughout his career John Wise’s service centered around the United States involvement in Vietnam, beginning long before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and ending with Operation Frequent Wind, the final evacuation of the American Embassy in Saigon. He was truly there “before the beginning and after the end.”
Much of the content of this short biography was provided by John during a phone interview in 2013 and a subsequent exchange of several e-mails.
Finally, a personal note. In February of 1972 while flying from Cubi CWO2 Wise took one of his crewmen to a corner of the hanger and provided some firm and needed counseling to the young Petty Officer. I was that young CTI3, and thanks to John I went on to a successful Navy career. Fortunately I was able to reconnect with him in 2013, and almost the first words from me were to thank him for what he had done. He didn’t remember it of course, but I did, and that made all the difference.
By LCDR Robert E. Morrison, USN, Ret
22 February 2021 at 01:16
Wonderful article! I always want to know about the people that died in the line of duty while serving our Nation, but it is very refreshing to read about someone who spent many years serving our country, but then was able to retire & basically live happily ever-after until finally taken by “old age.” I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but it is always frustrating to hear about service dates, promotions, service locations, etc. but *not* get a lot of ‘war stories’ and/or operational details –even sanitized ones– so that all the readers can get a decent, relatively specific understanding of what the person actually did, how it resulted in specific benefits, etc. I know that’s the nature of SIGINT/SIGSEC, but I’d like to think that 50 (& in this case, 70+) years later, plenty of interesting details could *and should* be revealed.
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22 February 2021 at 12:59
You’re correct about 50 years after the fact, much has been declassified and more information is declassified every year. From the historian’s perspective, problem is finding the material, since much of the information on day-to-day operations was never officially retained. WRT this bio, I was fortunate to be able to interview John before he passed, and he provided much of the detail herein. That’s not always the case, however; and so we are always interested in comments from anyone, but especially any who knew the individual profiled. I’m always interested in copies of photos and documents relating to NSG operations in Vietnam, since in most cases these are the only information available with which to record history.
Glad you enjoyed the article.
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23 February 2021 at 13:12
I must have known John Wise when I too was stationed at San Miguel. I got there in March of 1960 and then left in August of 1961, and worked as an “O” brancher at the Receiver Building where I “poked” messages that were brought from the Processing and Reporting personnel for sending back to the states and other area commands. Much of my time as a CT paralleled what John experienced in that I started out as an “O” and converted to “I” branch as a Hebrew and Russian linguist. I also got more than a few hours flying EC-121M flights out of Athens with VQ-2 following the attack on the USS Liberty from mid June to August in 1967. I then got orders to the Washington-Moscow Hotline at the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In June of 1970, I then went back to Nicosia, Cyprus for my second tour there and left the Navy in June of 1972 to become a minister. I reentered the military in 1979 as an Army Reserve Chaplain in Kentucky, and then became a Navy Chaplain in December of that year and retired on March 1, 1994. I had served in five decades and 28 years. I would loved to have stayed longer, but was told with my rank and years of service that I needed to go home. As a Navy Chaplain, I got into military intelligence in different ways than what CTs did.
24 February 2021 at 11:40
Very interesting reading.
Well done to both Mario and Bob.
I have finished my memoir and sent it to the publisher last Sunday.
Have cut it into 2 books.
First deals with my 30+ years with the Navy and Air Force in and out of uniform, and my short but eventful time with the FBI.
Also added how satellite AIS came to be.
Second is my 20 years in the unclassified world working on Matitime Awareness from space.
6 October 2022 at 23:19
I served as a CT-A in 1966 &67 at San Miguel, PI. I too was in the Receiver Building with a desk across from two of the best Chiefs I had the privilege of working for, Chief Wise and Chief Patrick. These two Chiefs could have been a stand-up comic duo Both had a great sense of humor.
I cannot remember Chief Patrick’s first name. I am sad that I had not found this notice of CWO Wise’s passing until now.
Fifty five years ago I had the privilege of knowing a gentleman and one “Squared Away” Sailor, CWO JOHN WISE.