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Lodi’s Cold War secret

Military communications center off Turner Road played vital role for U.S.

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Ron Russell/Courtesy photograph

Technicians Ronald Russell, front, and David Denham work on the customer service switchboard at the Lodi AUTOVON station, receiving calls for network assistance from military users in 1978.

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Lodi was once home to a secret communications center that played a key role for the U.S. military during the Cold War and the Vietnam War.

Nestled near vineyards next to the Woodbridge Irrigation Canal, the building was fortified to withstand a possible nuclear attack and equipped to provide worldwide military communications, according to local residents who once worked there.

In the mid-1960s to the late 1990s, it was a critical link between the United States government and their men in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. It was largely unknown, save for the men who worked there during its 20 years of operation.

A small group of those former employees still meet weekly, and decided to come forward with their contribution to national security.

Today, the location serves as a support center for AT&T. Neither AT&T nor military officials returned calls seeking comment for this story.

But one of the men who worked there, Lodi resident Ron Russell, says the center played a major role in his career, and is something truly unique that people in Lodi just don’t know about.

An unusual workplace

In 1967, Russell was hired by AT&T as a microwave radio maintenance technician. Quickly, the job turned into much more. The day-to-day work was almost identical: Drive a green van out 30 miles to a radio signal repeater, repair it, and return back to a base tucked away on Turner Road among the vineyards.

But that base was built to withstand a nuclear missile blast. The basement and first story were built with walls several feet thick. Emergency supplies like food, blankets, cots and devices to measure radiation levels made it possible to live in a contained environment for up to one month.

The telephone customer was like any other in their eagerness to keep services running. But instead of a business or home, it was the American military.

Russell was employed at Lodi 02, one of 52 stations fortified by the military in 1968 to create a telephone network just for the armed forces. Called AUTOVON — for automatic voice network — it enabled secure voice calls as well as a “red phone” direct communication to major defense installations.

The station was equipped with an Electronic Switching Station. It was state-of-the-art technology at the time, a completely transistorized telephone network. With this network, military leaders could reach Europe, the Pacific and Southeast Asia with a phone line in the United States.

Russell is retired from the Navy Reserve after 23 years. His military background, focusing on communications, gave him an appreciation for the importance of the connection.

“There was no waiting. The system had to work 100 percent of the time,” he said. “If a breakdown got in the way, you fixed it now. Even at three in the morning.”

The sites were equipped with multiple lines. Even if several broke, there would be no interruption in the connection. Even if an entire ESS station were destroyed, perhaps by a Russian missile, automatic controls guaranteed that the calls would be routed to another military site. The zone required a key card and video ID confirmation upon entry.

The perfect location

But why Lodi? What is eye-catching to a military mind about a small town circled by vineyards?

Nothing.

That’s what made the location perfect, Russell said. Part of the network’s survival strategy depended on sites far away from potential blast targets. Lodi was far enough from big cities like San Francisco and potential enemy targets like the B-52 bombers in Merced.

Before the military got to it in 1968, Lodi 02 was a small microwave radio repeater site. It was expanded tenfold, with a huge basement to hold two 12-cylinder diesel engines powerful enough to run two 500-kilowatt generators. That was enough power to run the whole base for 30 days if civilian power should fail.

Batteries the size of a tall man were stored as backup, if the engines needed repairs.

Construction was completed in June 1986. The station served McClellan, Mather and Castle Air Force bases, Fort Ord, and NCS Stockton, the Navy’s communication base on Rough and Ready Island.

Aside from the domestic connections, the Lodi station was special. It was one of only two connections out over the ocean, called the Pacific Gateways.

Due to unique digital code keys for scrambling voice calls, Lodi was the only path for the military’s secure voice communications.

If the Cold War turned hot, the military would need this key communication point more than ever.

“They knew we were here, and pretty much what we were doing,” said Russell.

The communication lines were put to work relaying troop movements, confirming orders, and keeping the U.S. government connected to its deployed troops.

It’s not clear how much the Soviet Union knew about the Lodi location. While new underground cables were laid, the Russians had time to learn even more.

Did that make Lodi a target? Perhaps.

Even if Lodi wasn’t in the sights of a Russian missile, the NCS in Stockton likely was, Russell said. That’s close enough that residents and Lodi 02 would feel all the repercussions of a direct hit.

Men at work

Raymond Porteous, a switching machine technician, started working at the center at age 25. He spent 19 weeks learning how to use the ESS, the first in Northern California, plus another month in the Mojave Desert.

The training was to prepare for a nuclear hit. Workers practiced entering a contained area of the building, removing their clothes for a special shower, then donning a rough pullover.

He was never worried for his safety. Instead, he concentrated on following orders to set up switching configurations and make sure calls went through.

“No, it never did scare me,” he said. “It was just a lot of demands the government put on us.”

Ernie Lucero is another of the old gang.

Lucero worked at Lodi 02 for 2 1/2 years in the early ‘70s, right after his Army discharge. He specialized in avionics communications in Vietnam, and expected to get his old job back at Sharpe Army Depot in Stockton. But they wouldn’t take back a temporary worker. Instead, he was hired by the phone company as a motorized messenger and was scooped up by Ray Porteous for AUTOVON.

He says it was the best thing to happen to him after the Army.

“Being a young kid — I was 24 — it was very exciting to know you’re on this AUTOVON circuit,” Lucero said, adding that he still had buddies serving in Vietnam while he was working at home. “We had to keep that radio going, and the switching machine. You’re responsible for the security of the country, for making sure those calls went through. It was something to really be proud of, I guess.”

Lucero worked on the switching machine side, trading out cards when they went bad and maintaining the electronics. His evening shift ran from 4 p.m. to midnight. He tried to learn how to run the microwave radio transmitters, but that side of the building was in a different union and wouldn’t teach him.

Ending an era

Lodi 02 ran for 20 years. Downsizing began in the 1980s, when new technology and fiber optic cables outpaced the microwave radio transmission speeds. Now it’s a normal AT&T center, where trucks rumble in and out on their way to service calls.

Lucero was there the day in 1998 when electricians came and tore out the switching machine. It was transformed into a vacant frame, with cables, wires and electrical panels in boxes for recycling.

“It left a big old footprint in the building,” he said.

Today, six of the guys meet once a week at Panera for coffee. They don’t talk too much about their old days. Knowing they’re with men who remember it, too, is enough.

“Now it’s an anachronism, a giant buggy whip from an earlier age,” said Russell. “But we were really quite good at what we did.”

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

6 images

Ron Russell/Courtesy photograph

Technicians Ronald Russell, front, and David Denham work on the customer service switchboard at the Lodi AUTOVON station, receiving calls for network assistance from military users in 1978.

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