An American hero passed away in September; on December 30th he will be laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery. It takes time these days to arrange interment at Arlington.
Captain Harry J. Price, U.S. Navy (ret.) died at his home in Bluffton, South Carolina at the age of only 68. Harry served seven tours in Vietnam, spanning four years. In 1970, he led 94 combat patrols while in command of River Division Five Fifty Four at Song Ong Doc, during which he earned both the Silver Star and Bronze Star for gallantry and heroism in combat. Later the same year, while leading River Division Five Nine Four, he added the Navy Commendation Medal and Vietnamese Staff Service Medal for operations during the final re-supply of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Harry moved on to naval intelligence where his work contributed greatly to American understanding of the emerging Soviet threat and enabled the US to mount strategies to deal with the Soviet military build up. Along with a handful of experts at the CIA, Harry’s discoveries, insights and findings contributed greatly to the winning of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He did it in two ways. First, Harry was one of the first to recognize the importance of reverse-engineering weapons from our adversaries. Reverse engineering is often done just to learn design secrets so that a weapon or system can be copied. Today we are experiencing that sort of attack – primarily from China – targeting our national security resources, defense industries and military computers from their computers.
Harry’s collection was not intended to replicate the items but to understand how they worked, the frequencies on which they operated, and what they were made of. In fact, what they were made of – direct copies of American microchips in many cases – emerged as one of his most important discoveries.
In Harry’s day, collecting information on the weapons of an adversary was complicated, and that was his second skill. He was a master at finding Russian and Warsaw Pact equipment for exploitation. Sometimes he used contacts with friendly countries, but he also set off on various “adventures” – very secret and sometimes very risky – making deals to get his hands on Russian equipment. Harry was after the most modern items he could get hold of in his exploits.
Sometimes it was sold on the black market by a Russian airman or sailor, but sometimes it was just luck, as it was when equipment was lost at sea. In one case, a Boy Scout troop near Bangor, Washington discovered a Soviet sonobuoy on the beach. The sonobuoy was designed to record the sounds of passing U.S. nuclear submarines. The recorded hum of the propellers could be fed into Soviet torpedoes so that they could track and kill American submarines without any active sonar, which would have alerted the Americans to their presence. Harry was a key beneficiary of the Boy Scout’s find, and from it he produced important information that helped the Navy understand the threat and helped the Defense Department understand the “state of the art” of the Russian’s technology.
The sonobuoy contained a multi-track open-reel tape recorder much like the tape decks people used in the 1980’s to record music. Notwithstanding the mechanical issues of a tape deck in a sonobuoy bobbing around in rough seas, it worked.
Replaying the tapes, Harry started to hear something strange in the background. As he isolated the background sound from the sound of the submarines, he discovered that the tape had previously held a recording of Russian opera. It seems that, lacking adequate supplies at sea, the ship’s captain provided a tape of his own and pressed it into service.
Some of the electronics also were haphazardly installed. The circuit board that converted the sounds recorded into a digital format and commanded a pop up antenna, was tied down by shoelaces. The circuit board had apparently been rushed out to the Russian ship, and installed on board by sailors eager to drop off the buoy in time to listen for the latest model US ballistic missile submarines headed out to sea, probably SSBN/SSGN 726, the USS Ohio.
In the 1980s, the USSR was investing more than 25 percent of its gross domestic product into an unprecedented defense buildup. Reversing the electronics used by the Soviet Union helped tell about the network the Soviets had assembled, led by Directorate T of the KGB, to acquire American technology. Microelectronics and computers held the key. If the United States could counter the military build-up effort by using electronics and computers as a force multiplier, the gargantuan Soviet challenge would go down the drain.
Harry’s work was critical because if we knew what they had, DOD could also get a pretty good idea of where they were getting the pilfered material, and could work to shut down their sources of supply. And that is what the US did.
Thanks to Harry and many others in DOD and the CIA and a network of like-minded experts in industry, the effort did pay off and the Russians never reached the technological capacity they needed to protect their huge investment. They were unable to exercise their strategic master plan which would have forced the U.S. out of the Middle East and Asia. And the Soviet Union disintegrated.
The collapse of the Soviet Empire was not a thunderbolt from the blue – it was the result of people, including Harry Price, understanding the shaky underpinning of the communist system and pulling out the supports until the structure fell. Not very many Americans know of Captain Harry Price, but they should. He is a true American hero.