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opsec_1In an earlier diary, I promised to write about our resident spy at Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands.

His name was Jack van B___. We called him Jack the Clock. I honestly don't know that he was our resident spy, but everyone knew there was a resident spy, and most of us suspected Jack.

By way of background, I was an F-15 pilot with the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron at Soesterberg AB from late 1978 to early 1982. The 32nd TFS was part of United States Air Forces Europe, but we flew air defense alert over northern Europe under direct tasking from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The 32nd TFS was a tenant unit on a Dutch air base; the only American fighter unit in the 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force, the NATO air defense sector covering the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern Germany eastward to what was then East Germany. In our USAFE role, we flew daily training missions over the North Sea, but whenever something was up in East Germany, NATO would scramble us to defend the airspace of 2ATAF. As you can tell, I spoke almost exclusively in acronyms in those days.

Back to Jack. The 32nd TFS had been at Soesterberg AB since the mid-1950s, and over the years had acquired a number of Dutch friends and supporters. Some of these had access to the base and our officers' club, an old farmhouse in the woods between the runways. Jack was a fixture at the officers' club bar and could be found there almost every night after flying, as could all the F-15 pilots, a hard-drinking bunch. In fact, Jack had been there so long he had his own stool at the bar and no one would think of sitting on it. At the time I knew him, he was in his late 40s, considerably older than any of us.

Jack was a clock guy. He built precision lab instruments at the University of Utrecht; his hobby was collecting and fixing up old clocks. Every year he'd take a month off and drive his diesel Mercedes sedan into Eastern Europe ... the DDR, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary ... in search of antique clocks, which he'd ship back home. Warsaw Pact nations, except for closely supervised military tours of East Berlin sponsored by USAFE, were off limits to American servicemen, but Jack, being a Dutch citizen, could go wherever he wanted.

Nearly every Soesterberg pilot bought clocks from Jack. I have four: a grandfather clock, a "Prince Henry" wall clock with Westminster chimes, and two regulator-style railroad station clocks. They are treasures, as are many of my memories of Jack.

Jack knew us all well, the pilots and other officers, our wives, even our kids. Once a year he'd throw a party for us at his flat in Utrecht. He was always friendly and jolly and slightly tipsy ... he drank a lot. He never talked politics, never talked about his trips to Eastern Europe. One night at the bar he confided to me that he'd woken up in his Mercedes covered in vomit, with no memory of driving home. I had the impression his marriage was not a happy one, but that's another thing Jack never talked about.

We were an elite unit in Europe and NATO, flying the newest and most sophisticated fighter on the planet. Halfway through my tour, we swapped out our still-almost-brand-new F-15As for factory-fresh F-15Cs, a greatly upgraded aircraft with improved radar and electronic countermeasures capabilities.

The very day we put the first C model on air defense alert, we were scrambled to the East German border ... I remember the mission well because I was the pilot of that F-15C ... where we set up a racetrack orbit, searching the airspace a hundred miles or so into the DDR each time we flew an eastbound leg. There was nothing there, so after we orbited for an hour, the controllers sent us home.

The next day our squadron intel officer told us we'd been scrambled because NATO and 2ATAF radar controllers had picked up several airborne targets over the DDR, headed west toward the NATO border at high speed. By the time we set up our orbit, the targets had turned back ... but a special Soviet electronic intel unit was on the ground just over the border inside the DDR, collecting and analyzing radar and ECM emissions from our new F-15C.

Our first thought, to a man, was "Jack the Clock." If anyone was in a position to glean operational information, even military secrets, from casual bar talk, it was Jack the Clock. If anyone had Warsaw Pact connections, it was Jack the Clock. But of course we didn't know that for sure. And so we reminded ourselves once again not to talk shop at the club, especially around Jack.

In March of 1982 I left Soesterberg to fly F-15s in Alaska. A year or two later, another former Soesterberg pilot told me Jack had committed suicide. Dutch police found what was left of Jack in his burnt-out Mercedes, along with two or three gas cans. He had doused himself and lit a match. Jesus. No one knows why. No one ever will.

I hope Jack wasn't supplying information to the Warsaw Pact. I really hope it was someone else. And I think of Jack every day ... the clocks are a constant reminder.

Originally posted to pwoodford on Thu Jan 03, 2013 at 09:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force.

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