Maj. Dick Napolitano was Air Force spy for 20 years, then he spied for NSA 20 more years

Dick Napolitano of Oyster Creek subdivision in Englewood, Fla. was a spy during most of his 20 years in the Air Force and for an additional 20 years he worked as a civilian spy for the National Security Agency.

“I loved every minute of it,” he said.

After graduating from college in 1954 with a degree in philosophy he decided he wanted to be a pilot. He signed up for four years of Air Force pilot training that same year.

Napolitano soloed in a Piper Cub. Then he transferred to a T-6 “Texan,” began instrument training and washed out.

The young recruit still owed the Air Force years of service, so if he wasn’t going to be a pilot he decided the next best thing was to get into guided missile training. It was a perfect fit for him at that stage of his military career.

“I went to missile school in Denver, Colo. where we studied the MGM-1 ‘Matador’,” Napolitano recalled.

“This was 1954 and the MGM-1 was the Air Force’s very first missile. It was built with both a conventional and an atomic warhead. The missile was launched from a truck. It was deployed to the 38th TAC Missile Wing.

“After graduation from school I relocated to Orlando and from there we took a MGM-1 to what would become Cape Canaveral and we actually launched that missile from a truck there. At the time I was the launch assembly officer who was in charge of getting the missile ready on the pad and I was also in charge of launching it.

“The Air Force deployed these missiles to Germany, along the border of the Soviet Union, and to Formosa against the Chinese. However, I never deployed. I wanted to become an electronic warfare officer. It was at this point I decided I also wanted to make the military my career.

“To be an electronics warfare officer you first had to become a navigator. I took navigator training and immediately upon graduation enrolled in electronics warfare school. For three years I trained at Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Miss.

“I was a captain by then and after graduation I stayed at the school and became an instructor in electronic warfare. I spent the rest of my military life spying on the Russians and the Chinese for the U.S. Air Force. It was something I really enjoyed.

“My next assignment was Japan. I was station at the Electronic Intelligence Center at Fuchu Air Force Base outside of Tokyo. I flew with the Navy on intelligence gathering missions. My job on the flight was to listen to the enemy’s RADAR signals. This information could tell us who the enemy was and what it was using for equipment.

“Occasionally, during one of these flights, the Chinese would send up fighters to harass us. They didn’t shoot at us, but they would fly very close to us,” he said. “If they made us too nervous we would go home.

“One time I got to go out on a submarine and spy. There were four of us guys on this old World War II sub, the USS Tang (SS-306), off the coast of Russia. We would sail close to the enemy coast line, put up our periscope and listen to their RADAR traffic.

“After I left Japan I had an assignment with the Military Air Transport Command. The Air Force realized that pilots needed more serious training in electronic warfare. They sent 22 of us electronic warfare guys to MATS. It was our job to train pilots to work on authenticating their radio communications.

“This was the only time I was actually shot at by the enemy during my 20 years of service in the Air Force. We flew in an out of various bases in Vietnam delivering cargo in a C-124.

This is the crew of a Lockheed EC-121 spy plane flying out of Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand over Vietnam in 1968. Napolitano is the fifth crewman squatting from the left. Photo provided

“We would keep our lunches in the nose of the plane because it was cool. One day while we were flying in and out of one of these small bases in Vietnam our flight engineer went down to get our lunches. When he returned he told us, ‘I’m sorry, your lunch got shot up by enemy ground fire.’

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara decided he was going to build an electronic barrier between North and South Vietnam using censors shot out of our airplane that stuck in the ground and looked like weeds to someone walking by. They were actually listening devices that recorded enemy troops and machinery as well as our G.I.s as they passed.

“We could tell when enemy trucks were coming down from North Vietnam and when enemy troops were passing by,” Napolitano said. “At that point we would call in airplane strikes to take out the enemy.

My job aboard the plane was to protet it from the enemy’s SAM missiles. We had state of the art elecronic jamming euipmet aboard . If the enemy shot a  SAM our way I could stop it from hiting our plane and then we’d get out of there in a hurry.

Dick and his missile crew at Cape Canaveral getting ready to fire an MGM-1 missile in 1954 in this damaged picture. It was the U.S. Air Force’s first guided missile. He’s the fellow squatting at the far left. Photo provided

Dick and his missile crew at Cape Canaveral getting ready to fire an MGM-1 missile in 1954 in this damaged picture. It was the U.S. Air Force’s first guided missile. He’s the fellow squating at the far left. Photo provided

“After my year in Vietnam in 1968, where I received 700 hours of combat time, I decided where I really wanted to end up was working for the National Security Agency after my military service. If you were a spy the NSA was the place to be.

“To accomplish that I went to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho where I studied aerial photography. After a year there learning photo reconnaissance I was sent back to Fort Meade, Maryland where I was assigned to technical electronic analysis. I was going back to spying on the Russians.

“I was involved in working with high altitude satellites that monitored all sorts of things. At that point I was still in the Air Force working for the NSA.”

In 1974 Napolitano retired from the Air Force as a major. He immediately went to work with the NSA.

“I became the NSA’s first representative to the Navy. The Navy wanted to put up a bunch of satellites so they could watch every ship in the world. I was the NSA’s representative on that program. I always enjoyed working with the Navy.

“I spent the next 20 years as a civilian NSA worker. It was a great career. Every day was interesting and challenging.”

He and his wife Louise moved to Englewood, Fla. in 1996 after retiring from the NSA in 1994. They have five children: Richard, Stephen, Daniel, Christopher and Alicia.

Napolitano’s File

This is Dick today at 83 at his home in Englewood, Fla. Sun photo by Don Moore
Name: Richard Napolitano
D.O.B: 16 Jan 1933
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 8 Sept. 1954
Discharged: 30 Sept. 1974
Rank: Major
Commendations: Air Medal w/3 Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Air Force Resrve Service Medal, Air Force Reserve Service Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award w/1 Oak Leaf Cluster, Air Force Longevity Service Award w/4 Oak Leaf Clusters, Small Arms Marksmanship Medal

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, August 29, 2016 and is republished with permission.

Click here to view Napolitano’s collection in alphabetical order in the Library of Congress.

Click here to view the War Tales fan page on FaceBook.

Click here to search Veterans Records and to obtain information on retrieving lost commendations.

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be republished without permission. Links are encouraged.

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