Both movies, produced by RKO Pictures, begin with the company’s standard logo: a tall radio tower on a rotating globe, transmitting a message in code.
Lofton can read the code. (The message, in Morse code, is “VVV. A RKO Radio Picture. VVVVV”)
That’s because, during the Vietnam War, he was what was known in the Army as a “ditty bopper.”
“I was at a top-secret base in Hakata, Japan,” he remembers. “Of course, there wasn’t much secret about it, because it was a small building surrounded my acres and acres of radio antennas.”
A ditty bopper was a person trained to listen and decipher high-speed messages transmitted in Morse code by the North Vietnamese and Chinese military.
IN 1968, to avoid the draft—which almost always meant being deployed to Vietnam—Lofton agreed to a four-year stint with the Army Security Agency (ASA).
After basic training, he spent the first year in radio intercept school, learning code, learning to type, learning the intricacies of a shortwave radio receiver.
“I spent 10 hours a day with earphones on,” he says. “At the end of the year, I could read the code at 25 to 30 words per minute. It’s amazing how a country boy can learn to type that fast. Today, I can only type about 10 words per minute.”
When he enlisted, his recruiter said that if he signed up for ASA, “I can almost guarantee you won’t go to Vietnam.”
Lofton spent his three years on a narrow peninsula north of Hakata on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. To the south was Hakata Bay; to the north, the Sea of Genkai.
He lived off-base with his wife, Patsy, in a dwelling that realtors today would describe as...rustic.
“We lived in the middle of a rice paddy,” he chuckles. “We didn’t have running water, no air conditioning, the bathroom had a hole in the floor. It was an inside outhouse.”
The home didn’t have a door, so Lofton found one, installed it and painted it yellow.
“All the time we lived there, our Japanese neighbors called it ‘the house with the yellow door.’”
When he was off, the couple would spend time on the beach, a five-minute walk. While the Japanese would swim and sunbathe on Hakata Bay, they left the north shore of the peninsula alone. “There were only about four American couples who used it. It was as if we had our private beach.”
However, the couple valued their privacy, Lofton’s task was to eavesdrop on the privacy of radio messages when he was at work.
“There were about 20 of us in four rooms. For 12 hours a day, for seven days straight—we were young; we could take it—we would sit at a console with four main receivers, tuning around the band, hunting for signals,” he says.
Those who have never learned to listen to Morse code have a difficult time understanding what ditty boppers mean when they say they learned to recognize individuals who were transmitting. It is known as learning their “key.”
The best way to explain it is that in a crowded room, filled with people talking, people can recognize the individual voice of someone they know.
“How they send a message is their personality, their fingerprint,” he explains.
Armed with this technique, Lofton learned to recognize the “key” of numerous people sending signals from North Vietnam and China.
“Eventually, I could listen to three or four signals simultaneously. I got to know the unit and where they were.” With direction-finding equipment, other ASA men—known as “duffys”—could pinpoint a transmitter sometimes as close as 100 yards.
A high degree of accuracy, considering the Hakata base was 1,700 miles from Hanoi and 890 miles from Beijing.
“I remember listening to one guy, he had to be a kid, sending coded messages back to his main base,” Lofton recalls. “I could tell from the terseness of his answers that he was really unhappy.” The interchange continued for minutes, the operator in the field continually interrupting the messages from his command base.
“Funny thing,” Lofton says, “he just disappeared. I never heard that field operator again.”
His timing was lucky. He began his tour of duty after the Tet Offensive and finished before the South Vietnamese surrender.
“Sometimes, you would intercept a message and think you had found the golden egg,” he says. Even now, four decades removed, he can’t talk about some of his “golden eggs” of intelligence.
If his ability to read code has diminished over the years, his memories of his time in the house with the yellow door remain brilliant.
“There was a middle school nearby, and every afternoon all these students, all dressed in the same uniforms, would come to our house to practice their English.”
The students returned the favor, teaching the Loftons Japanese.
“At first, I thought they were swearing at me, saying ‘damn it.’ But they were saying ‘da-me,’ which means ‘don’t do that’ or ‘no, that’s not right.’”
Lofton says he considers his time spent in Hakata as priceless, admitting that he wishes the United States would adopt some kind of mandatory service time for high school graduates.
“What they would experience would be invaluable,” he says, noting how so many people enlist as youngsters but return to civilian life as adults.
At the end of his time in Hakata, facing a long flight on Flying Tiger Airlines back to stateside, Lofton mentioned to his commanding officer that when she flew to Japan to meet him, Patsy was airsick.
“Oh, we can take care of that,” the commander promised.
The couple returned by Presidential Shipping Lines.
“The first week was from Yokohama to Hawaii,” Lofton says, “the second was from Hawaii to San Francisco.
“We went under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was...emotional.”
Lofton keeps up with some of his former ASA buddies by Facebook. “Funny, but we’ve never had a reunion,” he says, somewhat sadly, adding that he has never returned to Japan, except by computer.
“I look on Google Earth where I used to live,” he says. “The base has been turned into a recreation park. Where I used to live, way out in the country, is a strip mall.”
This January, at 68, Lofton will retire after 14 years in the banking business in Beeville.
Pausing for a moment to lean back in his chair and to gaze out his office window, he answers a question before it is asked.
“It was a part of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m not sure I would want to do the military part again, but I would.”
“You would have to be young to do it. But, I still could handle that beach.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.