Imagrey Interpretation and the Tactical Imagery Interpretation Facility (TIIF)

by Roger Houglan Det B, 6/67 - 1/69

My memory wasn't too hot on whether I was trained at "The Bird"(Ft. Holabird), Ft. Myers or Bragg. My training certificate from Ft Bragg (and don't ask why I still have that) cleared that up: Bragg. Looking back, it did seem a little curious that we weren't trained on the thing at 'Bird. My training took place in 1967 at a time when computers were more or less unheard of and certainly not very common ("UNIVAC" was a big name then). The James Bond movies were just starting to show up and all the gadgets and my little-town mentality made this thing feel like it was sent down from the Gods.
In concept it was a cool idea: One would place a transparency on the light table and with a reticle spotter one could determine the length of a bridge, height of a building, etc. The problem was that moving the reticle was very cumbersome as it was controlled by left-right, up-down buttons which seemed to have a life of their own. Moving in those directions wasn't too much of a problem, but any other angled direction and you were constantly having to fiddle with the control buttons to get things lined up. We have become totally spoiled by common-place things like the computer mouse which would have made the TIIF far more practical. Once the two reference points (each end of a bridge, for example) were established it was possible to get a measurement within .01 feet of accuracy. Of course, that depended on the mission pilot correctly entering the altitude and the TIIF user doing the same. And this accuracy was compromised quite a bit if the ground surface wasn't reasonably level. Any hill or valley would change the scale and the measurements would not be as good.

Det B Imagery Interpretation Section. photo by Bill Smedley

I suppose the primary function of the TIIF was aimed more at conventional warfare and the Eastern Bloc nations such as East Germany, Russia and the Soviet Union in general. It was logically explained that our job as TIIF users would be to catalog such things as bridges, roads and various cities and towns in order to determine whether or not a vehicle such as a tank might be able to pass over or through an area (could the bridge hold it, was the road wide enough or structurally sound enough, etc). A major weakness of the TIIF at that time was a lack of memory. As an example, after the analysis of all the roads and bridges it wasn't possible to have the TIIF provide the best route to take, say from Berlin to Moscow that would be able to accommodate a 40 ton tank. That information would have to be hand cataloged in files, generally with an aerial photo, for every potential road block and an analyst would have to compile a route by hand. Other applications included determining what type of industry was at a given location based on the shade (we generally used only black and white film) of raw materials, how it piled up in a yard. I was told that certain things like coal, for example, would produce a different height and ground spread than something like sand. I suppose there's some truth to that.
Also, using the reticle on the film it would be possible to determine the speed of a vehicle on a road, which would help determine the worthiness of the foundation.

It didn't take very long for us to realize that the TIIF computer wasn't a very efficient tool. Just about everything it could do we could do ten times faster with accurate measuring devices. We were trained at the 'Bird to use a special type of slide rule (remember those?) that was a standard slide rule on one side and a photo interpretation rule on the other that would give you the speed of vehicles, help calculate scales and all the rest of the stuff the TIIF could do.
In Vietnam I believe every detachment had a TIIF unit. At Det B the computer never worked during my entire tour and no effort was ever made, to my knowledge, to get it up and running. I seriously doubt it would have been used in any event. It was just too slow and the type of warfare we dealt with there wasn't really applicable to its capabilities. The VC moved around too much and didn't have any of the facilities or war toys that would make using it worth the trouble.

The function of a photo interpreter in Vietnam was fairly straight forward: Find anything that looked like it might have something to do with the war and figure out what and where it was. The Air Force provided roughly 80% of our workload (I'm guessing) with Army Mohawks giving us the rest. The hand-held stuff wasn't really given to the everyday IIs; it was pretty much taken care of by the guys that flew the missions. I have no idea who ever actually ordered the missions, but typically it was bomb damage assessments (which would be mostly Air Force related) and ground planning.
Almost everything we did came from "dup-poss's" (duplicate positive images) in a transparency form and it was in 9" x 18" format with the exception of the Army stuff which I believe was 5" x 5", give or take. We nicknamed them "Little Lookers". In either case I was always amazed at the sharp resolution of the photos, although as time went on I more or less took that for granted. We hardly ever worked with negatives or photo printouts. Generally, the only time we used photos was when we needed to make a mosaic and that didn't happen very often. I made a lot of them and I think "Z" (Gene Zwarycz) made a few. When making mosaics I only used scissors to trim the edges; otherwise I tore the photos to help eliminate the tell-tale cut lines. I remember helping Ken Curry to get more comfortable and familiar with that technique and I thought he was going to have heart failure every time I ripped a piece of the photos.
Once in a while we'd see camouflage detection film. What a beautiful sight to behold with the brilliant blues on the water and deep, rich greens. After B/W transparencies it was like looking at art. But that film was very expensive to use and didn't give too many positive results. The function of the film was to detect dead foliage since the lack of chlorophyll in the leaves would yield a different color from the standard green. We probably didn't see that type of film more than a half dozen times, if that.
One other type of film that I personally saw a lot of when I was in Phu Bai but not very often at Det B was infrared film which was supposed to detect the difference between hot and cold. The more heat something gave off the whiter the imprint. At the altitude the missions were flown usually all that was detected was little dots, very similar to looking at the night sky. I personally felt that the image output was about as useful as looking at the night sky.

Our workload came to us from Saigon on the Air Force "Scatback" (I think that's the name). It was basically a Lear Jet style plane that could carry supplies and/or passengers and we would make a run to the air base during the early night to pick up whatever was there. We never knew until we got there whether it would be nothing or a ton of work. During the rainy season we could go several days with nothing. In the dry months we usually towed a trailer because of the load. Once in a while we had to stack it on the roof of the jeep.

Scat Back at Danang. photo by Don Skinner

After the missions got logged in by the operations section the II's would have at it. The task at hand was pretty straight forward: Look for the stuff and figure out where it was (as mentioned earlier). This involved someone reading out the mission and someone else plotting it. As team chief I never set a verbal or written policy, but I tried to arrange the work in such a way that it got read out first and the reader didn't also do the plotting. My thinking was that the plotter could kind of double check on potential missing stuff. Unfortunately, if we were real busy it didn't always work out that way. In addition to plotting the mission the plotter was also responsible for checking previous overlays to see if the item was new or previously reported and he would take the notes from the reader to coordinate the photos, which were numbered, to the new stuff. Guys that had been in country for a while got to know the various areas and would know if it was new or not from memory, but we still double checked stuff.
Plotting was sometimes a challenge, especially when flown over the jungles or along the west border. It was almost solid trees and sometimes you couldn't find any landmarks at all. The Air Force usually supplied a rough sketch of the subject area, but that didn't always help. We were supplied with a plastic measuring tool that looked like two "L" shapes. I can't remember what the heck we called the things, but the plotter would configure the gizmo to the size/scale of the photograph and trace the inside to show the location of the various photos. On easier missions we might trace every tenth photo or so, but if the mission was one of those jungle jobs we might have to go over a hundred photos between landmarks and using the SWAG (Scientific Wild Ass Guess) system, try to fill in the middle as best we could. Once the mission was finished the notes were sent to the next room where operations would type them up on that wonderful copy paper for running through the mimeograph machine. The results would then get sent out to the units on our distribution list. Depending on what and where it was helped determine who got what, but for the most part we sent the stuff to everybody.

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