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As an airman first class, Bob Russell provided key military intelligence during a classified mission of the Vietnam War. The past commander of Branford’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12106 will provide this year’s talk during Branford’s 2019 Veterans Day Ceremonies and Parade, beginning at 1 p.m. on the Town Green on Sunday, Nov. 10. (Photo by Bill O’Brien )
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On Sunday, Nov. 10, when former Branford VFW Post Commander Bob Russell heads up this year’s Branford Veterans Day Ceremony and Parade, the former U.S. airman, first class will be carrying more computer power in his smartphone than all of the technology he used to track movements of weapons and troops on the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War.
“Now, we could do the Apollo moon mission from our smartphone,” says Bob.
From 1967 to 1969, Bob was an intelligence specialist with the Strategic Air Command in Rome, New York, and Omaha, Nebraska and served a one-year tour at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand Air Base during the Vietnam conflict. There, Bob was part of a classified mission to track the movements of enemy weapons and troops from Communist North Vietnam through Eastern Laos to Cambodia.
These were the days before the likes of GPS, high-tech satellites, drones, and, of course, smartphones. Over 50 years ago, Bob’s work with what was then state-of-the-art equipment involved gathering signals intelligence by monitoring a series of sensors that had to first be dropped by aircraft.
“These things were dropped from the air into the ground in Laos along the trail, and if movement occurred in their vicinity, they would activate,” says Bob. “The signals would be sent to our detachment and we would note the coordinates, and pass this on to fighter bombers, which were circling overhead in the middle of the night.”
Field computers were also in use—each one about the size of a refrigerator.
“We didn’t have laptops back then,” he says. “We had mainframe computers in the middle of the jungle—two IBM mainframes chugging away, doing the processing.”
American Air Force fighter bombers, flying from several bases in Thailand, attacked the enemy supply convoys from the air, using coordinates supplied by Bob and other intelligence specialists. The information Bob and his detachment developed was highly classified, due in large part to where they were situated.
“This was all top secret back then,” recalls Bob. “Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia were officially neutral. The communists controlled Laos and Cambodia and used that for ferrying supplies. Because the Thais did not want to be overrun by the communists, they had seven air bases in Thailand and they offered the use of them for U.S. Air Force planes and crew.”
Bob was 24 when he enlisted and took a test that earned him the role of intelligence specialist. Two years later, coming home from Vietnam in 1969 with an honorable discharge, Bob will never forget the poor welcome some protestors created for his military team as they landed in San Francisco, California.
“We were using technology and making gains against the communists, but by then, the anti-war protestors were fed up with the war, which had been going on for 10 years,” says Bob. “It took 50 years for Vietnam veterans to gain respect.”
In addition to providing his support to veterans as a past commander of Walter Dymarczyk Post # 12106, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bob is also involved with Branford First Congregational Church’s Take a Vet Fishing Program. He’s also given talks to area groups, using digitized slides from photos he took during his service in Vietnam, to share the story of his Vietnam service with others. In addition, Bob is regular participant of the annual Branford High School Anthony “Bob” Bescher Veterans Appreciation Day program, which puts veterans from many eras, wars, and other actions together with students to talk about their time in the military.
A Branford resident since 1976, Bob and his wife Maryetta married in 1974 raised their two daughters here. Now in retirement, the two split their time between their homes in Branford and at the Villages in Florida, where they contribute to Operation Shoe Box—weekly care packages for military troops deployed overseas.
Bob grew up in Monroe and Shelton and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Salem College in Virginia in 1966, before he enlisted in the Air Force. Back in America, Bob took advantage of the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree in industrial engineering from the University of New Haven in 1979. Bob worked for 16 years at Echlin Ignition Products in Branford and also was employed for several years with Leon’s Frozen Products in Hamden as well as Honeywell Fire Systems in North Branford.
When he’s in the area, Bob also likes to fly radio-controlled model aircraft with the East Coast Swamp Flyers in North Branford.
Bob says he’s very honored to be delivering the keynote address during the 2019 Branford’s Veteran Day ceremonies. He says he plans to make mention of what it means to him and other Vietnam veterans to be appreciated for the service they provided to their country.
“I consider it a great honor, and really appreciate that people are finally giving Vietnam veterans a great response,” he says, suggesting a simple way for neighbors to help: “If you see a veteran, thank them for their service and support them.”
Bob also encourages the community come out to the parade and show their support to all veterans who will be participating. Branford’s Veterans Day Ceremonies will take place on Sunday, Nov. 10 at 1 p.m. on the Town Green, followed by the parade, which steps off at 1:30 p.m. on Main Street.
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