Charles Coleman not only helped to develop intelligence technology for the Vietnam era; at the dawn of the computer age he was also assigned to dream up future technology for the armed forces, much of which is now a reality four decades later.
In 1969, near the end of his 22 years of service, Coleman worked on research and development for instruments that sounded like science fiction at the time. “We were looking at the Army of 2000,” Coleman said. “We laughed at a lot of things we thought of, like being able to communicate with each individual soldier; that was something out of ‘Flash Gordon.’ We thought of everyone being able to see at night, or being able to communicate like Dick Tracy did with his two-way wristwatch, or being able to see the front line while being way back from it and having eyes on the battlefield, like television cameras. Of course all of these things came to be, but these were just dreams that they wanted; dreams as far-fetched as you could dream.”
Coleman was born in 1936 in Weleetka, Oklahoma and is a member of the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town. He was attending the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas when he first joined the Kansas National Guard. “I told them my birthday was not until November and they said ‘That’s okay, we’ll put down July 20th,’” Coleman said. “I didn’t tell them that it was going to be my 16th birthday. I was in the National Guard when I was 15. When the company commander found out about it he made me the guide on barrier. It worked out pretty good, I enjoyed the summer camp.” He was in charge of carrying the flag during all parades.
Coleman went on to Bacone College. His career in military intelligence began after he graduated in 1957 and enlisted in the Army Security Agency at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. His duties included electronic intelligence and intercepting Morse code. “Used to be radios, but now it’s gone into computers and satellites,” he said.
After Fort Devens, Coleman headed to Korea in 1958. “The war was over then and there was a truce, I guess, but we still had signal intelligence units there listening to the other side.” While he was stationed in Korea Coleman was involved in a lot of experiments in intelligence. He recalled one experiment when the 1st Special Forces unit from Okinawa went to Korea for an exercise in 1960. “They wanted our team to see if we could find them using signal intelligence radio direction finding, and electronic warfare techniques,” Coleman said. “After the exercise was over, at the briefing, the Colonel said ‘the intelligence people didn’t have much luck because we didn’t see them.’ We looked at each other, smiled, and opened our chart and there was a picture of their camp, their transmitter, and their people. We had their transmission schedule, and we knew the frequencies they were transmitting on. It resulted in the first Special Forces changing its communication system; if we could find them so could the enemy.”
Coleman’s intelligence unit was on the ground in Laos in 1963 as the U.S. military buildup began in Southeast Asia. These events foreshadowed the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. “We set up a listening post there within Laos, but it was a political stick of dynamite; we weren’t supposed to be there,” Coleman said. In military intelligence, if there is a lot of communication coming from one area it becomes obvious that there is a military buildup there. “Say you hear a transmitter in China, at their headquarters, and later you hear the same transmitter –they all have fingerprints –and it’s moving across Laos, then you can pretty much be assured that they are moving people and units from China, or from North Vietnam, to South Vietnam.” Using this basic technique U.S. intelligence was able to pinpoint a lot of targets during Operation Rolling Thunder, the aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam from 1965-1968.
“We took pride in some of those things that we did,” Coleman noted, “but some of the Army Security Agency people said ‘You know, I don’t really feel right in wearing one of the service medals because we really weren’t in the fight.’” He points out that information and intelligence were what Army operations were based on, which kept the army from bombing blindly.
Coleman returned to the U.S. as a 2nd Lieutenant and toured the country to talk to soldiers about Vietnam. After a brief stop at Fort Devens as the war was heating up in 1964, he accepted an assignment in Malta at a NATO Naval Command Post. As the only U.S. Army Officer on the island he took up polo to battle the monotony and fill the time between gathering intelligence in the Mediterranean. His polo team was headed by the British war hero General John Frost, whose exploits were immortalized in the book and movie A Bride Too Far. Coleman used a horse owned by Lord Mountbatten and also had the honor of playing against Prince Philip when he visited.
Coleman’s endeavors into the future of warfare technology continued in 1968 when he worked on research and development in Arlington, Virginia. While they were dreaming up goals to work toward, his unit got to see an early version of the modern microchip while visiting the National Security Agency at Fort Meade. “There were 9,000 configurations in the military radios at that time; different kinds of radios and different frequencies,” Coleman said. “One day they called us all together and had us look into a microscope. There we saw the MOSFET (metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistor) chip that would replace the transistors and the tubes in radios. With that MOSFET chip you could configure a radio to any shape or size. That helped clear up a lot of things. The idea was to make it less costly because you wouldn’t have to have so many different radios, and so many spare parts, and so much training to repair all of them.”
Coleman had coached football and baseball at the American School in Japan and he coached in Malta. After returning from the army in 1973, he finished his graduate work and coached at Central State University (now the University of Central Oklahoma). With a degree in social studies and psychology, along with a minor in physical education, Coleman left for Arcadia, California where he accepted a coaching position. He briefly returned to Oklahoma for a stint as Dean of Students at Bacone College, but returned to the West Coast to pursue his doctorate in comparative cultures at the University of California, Irvine.
Coleman was married and had two daughters, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife passed away 15 years ago.
He worked with street gang kids through a ministry while in California and when he moved back to Oklahoma in 1997, one of the kids moved with him. Coleman gave him five acres on his farm to start his own family. Coleman has worked with his tribe on historical preservation since his retirement.
“It has been and continues to be an interesting life,” Coleman said.