Brian Kanof was commissioned as a reserve officer through the ROTC program at the University of Texas at El Paso in 1971. He served as a signal corps officer and was eventually asked to become part of the MASSTER (Modern Army Selected Service Systems Test Evaluation and Review) program. While part of this program, he tested systems that would ultimately be deployed in Vietnam including night vision goggles and unattended ground sensors. As a reserve officer, he had the opportunity to do two three-week deployments to Korea in 1978 and 1985. During his 1978 deployment, he helped build and operate a petroleum pipeline in South Korea. During his 1985 deployment, this time as a Green Beret, he was sent to assist in training the Korean Special Operations Forces as part of Operation Full Eagle. His experiences offer an interesting vantage point into the cooperation between the US Army, the South Korean Army, and the South Korean people.
Running a Petroleum Pipeline
Brian Kanof explains his role in leading a specialist group in the running of the oil pipeline which was built, maintained, and manned by the US Army. He shares this South-to-North pipeline helped supply petroleum to Seoul. He describes his role in operations and his battalion's interactions with the local South Korean people through cooking a meal to rival the spiciness of local cuisine.
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An Appreciation for South Korea
Brian Kanof shares some of his thoughts about Korea and Korean culture. He recalls his first encounter with a Hyundai automobile and the driving habits during his visit in 1978. He speaks about the progress, including a reforestation project, he saw in Korea as a member of the U.S. Special Forces.
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Operation Full Eagle
Brian Kanof qualified as a Green Beret in November 1985. He notes his second deployment to Korea was to train Korean Special Operations Forces in a mountainous area south of Seoul. In addition to details on this training opportunity, he shares how his unit, largely from the South Texas area, was able to show the Koreans they could handle the hot and spicy food that came their way.
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[Beginning of Transcribed Material]
B: I’m Brian Kanof. And I was born in Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia May 18, 1949. My dad was an active-duty Army officer at the time. The Coast Artillery, which was his branch, they were in all the naval bases. So, he and my mom had three children, and all three were born in three different naval hospitals. But I lived in El Paso, Texas.
And I am a career photojournalist. I was a commissioned officer. My entire time on active duty and reserve was as a commissioned officer. I was commissioned out of ROTC in 1971. I was in ROTC at the University of Texas at El Paso, and I was in the commissioning class in May of 1971.
I: What made you choose to go that route?
B: Well, my father was an Army officer. I thought I’d give the family business a try. Dad was a 30-year man.
The reason we were in El Paso was because Fort Bliss is in El Paso, and Coast Artillery became Air Defense Artillery. So that’s where all the missiles were. And many of them still are as Fort Bliss. So, dad was stationed at Fort Bliss three different times in his career. So, El Paso’s home. So, I went to the University of Texas El Paso because it was the hometown university. That was fine with me. I figured I was okay with going to the local, you know, the state university. It was okay.
I: Can you describe what the ROTC program was?
B: Well, the ROTC program is Reserve Officer Training Corp. And what it does is that you learn, it’s also called Military Science in universities and colleges. And it’s the Military Science Department. Junior ROTC is the high school level where you put on a uniform once a week and learn your basic military schooling.
When you’re in ROTC in college or university, you learn the basics of military. You learn logistics and you learn the structure of the military, also drilling and ceremonies, the old 22-5 which is the field magnum for all of those things, you know. You learn how to salute and properly stand at attention and do all of the basic things that every soldier needs to know before actually picking out a career course in the military.
You do that in your last couple of years in ROTC, and I, because I was a journalism student, a journalism major and a photographer, the reason I was a journalism major is because the Journalism Department is where the darkrooms were. So, I didn’t care so much about journalism as I did photography because I had been a photographer since I was 15 years old. I learned my photography early when my father was stationed in Rome, Italy at the Embassy.
Dad was a military attaché, and I learned photography from one of those crazy Italian paparazzi that you heard so much about, the old LaDolce Deta years in the ‘60’s. That’s how I learned my photography, a guy named Mal Ricotta. I just took a job, a menial job as an assistant to schlep this and schlep that and learned by watching what he did. That’s how I learned my photography basically. And of course, it clicked. It worked for me. It was something that I was just made to do. Unlike almost everything else in my life, I took to it immediately.
And became good at it, and that’s led me through life. That’s been my basic career is photography. I went on active duty actually; the Army allowed me to go to graduate school after college. There was a relatively obscure program that allowed you to further your education, I mean, you could have it delayed to active duty for educational purposes.
Now this was designed to get your degree if you didn’t get it in four years. Well, I got my degree in four years. But I asked them anyway. I said it doesn’t say that. It just says can I apply to, you know, there was still a shooting war going on in Viet Nam, and I thought well, you know. If I can get a master’s degree and push it, well, that’s exactly what happened. I applied for it, I got it and went to Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana and got a master’s in journalism with a photo emphasis.
By the time the Army was ready for me to go active duty and go to, I was a Signal Corp. officer. I was commissioned in the Signal Corp. That was the career branch. And by the time I was finished with graduate school in May of ’72, they weren’t ready for me until October. So, I went to Signal Officer Basic school in Fort Ord in Georgia and was done in January of ’73, and they sent me to Fort Hood, Texas for active duty, for my two years of active duty.
Where I was a Public Affairs officer for half the time, and then I was promoted to First Lieutenant, they asked me if I would be a Test officer, the Test Director called Masster, Modern Army Selected Systems Test Evaluation and Review, MASSTER. This was a facility that was set up to test all the systems that were used in Viet Nam, the Cabnab for example. That’s these goggles that can see in the dark.
You know, night vision goggles. Those were tested and developed in that directory. Also, unattended ground sensors what they use on the border now where somebody is walking between these sensors, you know. The radio will pick up the movement of the earth or the sounds and, on somebody’s computer miles and miles away, they can see oh, somebody’s walking through the moor there.
Those, UGS they were called, Unattended Ground Sensors were used in Viet Nam to detect the motion of troops. And those were, I would be writing stories about them and taking pictures of them, of all these different, you know, types of systems, the laser guided missile systems and re-arming and refueling points and run flat tires and all these things that were developed for combat. But the military would work hand-in-hand with the civilian contractors in developing these for actual use,
And we would, at Fort Hood, we’d put them through the, you know, put them through the rigorous simulations of war using the First Cavalry Division that was stationed there at the time and the Second Armored Division for manpower, driving the vehicles with these bad tires or whatever, shooting down helicopters with these laser guided missiles, simulated of course. So that’s what was going on. So, when I was on active duty, I did that for, I wrote the stories and took the pictures for the first time, and then I actually ran a test myself for the second half.
And then in 1974, I came back to El Paso and went to work for an ad agency.
I: So, all that time was spent at Fort Hood?
B: All my active duty time was at Fort Hood, Texas, yeah.
I: And then, did you have a tour in Korea?
B: Well, I was in Korea twice, both as a Reserve officer. Three weeks both times.
The first time was in 1978 when I was a member of the 383rd Quartermaster Battalion Petroleum Pipeline Operating. And that’s in Scarity Park in El Paso County, El Paso, Texas. And this battalion during the time of conflict would go to a foreign country and run a pipeline, a petroleum pipeline. It’s almost one of the rarest units in the military.
Battalion that is tasked to run a pipeline because it’s very technical stuff running a pipeline and the pumps and the lab and, this is a highly technical skill. And the members of the battalion learned that skill. And because it’s a battalion, it had a signal shop. It had radio, and back then most of it was wired or like telephone communication from one place to the other, either radio or telephone.
And the guys that did that worked for me. I also had a draftsman, an artist who, you know, the guy stenciling vehicles or doing, making signs or whatever, he worked in that shop as did the radio and telephone operators. They worked for me. And we went to Korea in 1978. And the battalion ran that pipeline.
Well, while the battalion was running the pipeline and, of course between all the stations along the pipeline, the pipeline by the way runs from Pohang Harbor in the southern part of South Korea where they offload the tankers and the product, whether it’s gasoline or diesel oil of JP4 fuel or whatever it is in that pipeline, and it went up all the way to Seoul, north of Seoul.
So that pipeline ran the entire length of the country, a small 8” pipeline owned by the South Koreans and run by the South Koreans and co-run by the U.S. Army. And for three weeks, we ran this pipeline. And my guys ran the switchboard in Taegu, the guys that actually worked for me. They were the switchboard operators giving the guys at Norway did that. I don’t know, they could go on vacation, I guess. I don’t know, whatever they were doing. But we were on a shift,
A switchboard is run 24 hours a day, and our guys, the three or four guys I had took a shift. So, in, this was 1978. So, the entire battalion went. The mess hall went, everybody, that cooked food. The mess hall didn’t cook just for us while we were there. They were cooking for Taegu, the military post at Taegu, Korea. That’s what they were doing. They were integrated with the other guys that were there all the time, spelling them and learning and doing and teaching them how to make enchiladas actually.
So, the best mess hall in the Army was the 383rd Quartermaster. I’ll tell you. They loved to see us coming because at the last meal of our deployment was an enchilada dinner, and we brought the stuff with us. We brought the jalapenos and the cheese and everything with us from the United States to Korea so we could, the mess hall could cook the proper Mexican meal for the locals. So, it was a great deal.
So, for that time, we just ran the pipeline. And it was the only time really that I ever carried a loaded weapon because as an additional duty, they made me the Paymaster. So, when the paymaster, they hand you all this cash and a loaded 45. So, you’re in downtown Seoul in a military vehicle carrying a loaded 45. And that was the only time I really ever carried a loaded weapon, whether it was active duty or training, well training you carry one. But I mean not, you know, real ammunition or real gun was as the paymaster.
So, you could defend the money if somebody tried to steal it. So, the government’s really bad about that. They don’t want people taking their hard-earned taxpayer money. So that was the three weeks that I was in South Korea the first time. I can tell you my second deployment was in November of 1985. By then, I was no longer a member of the 383rdQuartermaster Battalion Petroleum Pipeline Operating. I was a Green Beret.
I joined the 12th Special Forces Group in winter of 1978 and went through Special Forces training, Airborne School, I became Airborne qualified. And then in 1980 became Special Forces qualified and became a fully qualified Special Forces officer also known as a Green Beret. And I served as a Staff officer in several different staff positions in the seven years and one month that I was in the 12th group.
Starting off as the S2 which is the Security and Intelligence Officer. And I served as the S2, the S1 and the Executive Officer at different times. And also, I was the interim commander on two different occasions in between commanders. Now back then, Special Forces has their own branch today. There is a Special Forces branch.
Back then, there wasn’t a Special Forces branch. It was called Branch Immaterial. In other words, when you were in Special Forces, you were only there a couple of years as an officer, and then you were something else. The NCO’s and the Warrant Officers, this was a career for them. But it’s so highly specialized. Training is so expensive and takes such long to be a fully proficient medic for example
Or engineer in Special Forces that those that operate on the team, the NCO’s, enlisted NCO’s and Warrant Officers that are actually on operational detachments or teams, very highly specialized. You don’t want them showing up for two years then going somewhere else. But it was perceived at the time of the deception that an officer is an officer, and you can come in, you know. You learn the skill of commanding troops,
And then, you know, you can command those guys and then you go and do something else. But the Army learned eventually that that didn’t make sense, that it was a good idea to have Special Forces as a career so that you could go through the different Special Forces specialties in command and stay with Special Forces your whole career. And that’s the way it is today. But then because I was not a combat branch officer, I was not in the artillery, the armor, or the infantry,
I was, so they would not make me a commander. I was in the Signal Corps. So anyway, combat support and combat surface support were not looked upon as being that, you know, hardcore combat. I mean, it was not true. But I mean, that was the perception at the time. So, they certainly weren’t going to allow a Signal officer to be the commander of a Green Beret company. Fine.
That’s okay. But that was then. And when the time came to transition, most of the officers in Reserves that wanted to stay in Special Forces did transition into the branch. So, in 1985, B Company Second Battalion 12th Special Forces headquartered in El Paso, Texas on Fort Bliss was sent to Korea to train the Korean Special Operations Forces.
This was in mountains below Seoul where the Airborne school is and the Special. Their equivalent of the Special Forces, their equivalent of the Green Berets where they’re headquartered. And it was a joint operation called Operation Full Eagle, and we ran a segment of that operation for three weeks.
And we were involved in the actual hands-on training of the South Korean Special Operations Forces. The Korean experience was a unique experience for us. And it was even more so for the Koreans. I was tasked with the information usually given to an executive officer or the S2. If you’re gonna go do something and go somewhere, you need to kind of find out what to anticipate and what to expect.
Well, I believe it was either the 5th or the 7th group had done this training the year before. I believe at the time it was an annual, it was an exercise maybe, I don’t know if it happened every year, but it had happened before and it happened after. They’re all into the psychology business where, you know, like we showed up, and the food is exotic to us, you know.
And we started eating the food and it was really hot and spicy. And so, the guys would say oh no, I ate on the plane. And then for three weeks, they had our ass because, you know, here they’d laugh and they’d point and they’d point at our stomach, you know, and laugh and stuff like that because we couldn’t take the food. And we basically embarrassed ourselves because here they put out this entire banquet for us after we got off the plane, and nobody ate anything cause it was too hot and it was too spicy, and it was just stuff they weren’t used to eating.
Well, using that information, I briefed the guys. I said look, here’s what’s gonna happen. They eat old mess hall style, World War II Army mess hall style where they put the bowls of food on the table. And you’re gonna sit there. They’re gonna sit you down, and they’re gonna expect you to eat with them, and you better eat that stuff they put in front of you because if not, you’re gonna be embarrassed, and we’re gonna be embarrassed. And for the next three weeks, they’re gonna own you because they’ll tease you about the fact that you did not respond to their hospitality.
You dissed them. Well, we had two big things going for us. First of all, everybody in our unit, not everybody to the man but almost everybody is from the neighborhood. We’re talking about Mexican Americans, guys that you know, eat hot food on a daily basis. And also, I was, at that time, I worked for an advertising agency, and one of our clients was Bruce Foods. They’re the makers of Louisianna Hot Sauce.
And a friend of mine that worked in my same department at the ad agency, her husband was the manager of the plant here in El Paso. And you could get these little 3-ounce bottles of Louisianna Hot Sauce to throw in your ruck sack. He gave me a case of them, 144 bottles of Louisianna Hot Sauce. So, when our guys arrived at the mess hall, getting in off the plane, everybody sat down, these guys were pulling the Louisianna Hot Sauce, jars of jalapeno peppers out of their rucksacks and eating everything in sight.
Well, from the year before, the Koreans knew we weren’t gonna eat anything, so they didn’t prepare as much food as they normally would have. So, we ate all our food and said we’re hungry. Where’s the rest? So, for the next three weeks, we had them. But it was a learning experience for both sides because all of the operations now being in Special Forces, the maneuver element,
It’s a team concept where you put a team in the field. And each one of the teams that went into the field in this operation were split teams. Half of each team were Koreans, and half of each team was Americans. The situation was such that each of these split teams was either commanded by a Korean and the second in command, the Executive Officer, was an American or vice versa.
Half the teams were commanded by Koreans, and half the teams were commanded by Americans. And they maneuvered, they went on basically 10-day field exercises and given missions and that sort of thing. But the Koreans didn’t speak any English, and the Americans didn’t speak any Korean, at least that’s the way it was told to us. As it turns out, we found out right away that the Koreans all took English in school.
So, they may have not been able to converse in English well, but if you’re talking to one another, they probably understood exactly what you were saying. And we knew that. So, we were very careful not to, you know, we told our guys don’t say anything because you don’t think that they’re gonna understand. So, once again this is just a matter of preparing to go into the field under simulated if not real conditions. And we say the real condition is that we were also told ahead of time that it’s very possible that one or more of the members of those teams was actually a North Korean.
The infiltration is there. And you could wake up dead. So, there was always that possibility. And precautions were taken in case of there being an incident. And that’s about as specific as I can get. Everybody was conscious about the scenarios that might happen in this type of training. So, everybody was thoroughly briefed on what to do, rally points and certain things that were done.
So, it was real training, as real a training in peace time can be. But as you know, Korea is still a war zone. They never did sign that, you know, final paperwork that ceased the War to exist. It’s still in a state of limbo so to speak. And that’s why I was asked to come here. I was told that if you did anything in Korea for any length of time, you were in the Korean War basically.
I didn’t even know that until relatively recently. When I was there in 1978, I took a taxicab ride in a Hyundai. I never even heard of a Hyundai. Now it’s the sponsor of the Sun Bowl in El Paso. It’s the Hyundai Sun Bowl. I mean, it’s as common to drive a Hyundai as it is a Datsun, a Nissan I should say, a Honda or a Toyota. Back then, they didn’t exist in the United States.
They were not imported. So, I found out what the Korean automobile. I rode in a Hyundai, a Daewoo. There were several different manufacturers of automobiles in Korea. I’m a car guy. And I was interested. I didn’t even know these things existed. And I was able to, this is the first time in ’78. Never even saw a civilian vehicle when I was there in ’85. But the way that they operated was completely different. Because of the situation in Seoul for example.
When you drive a car, you drive with the inside, back then anyway, you drove with the dome light on inside. And at night when you came to a stop light or stop sign, you turned your headlights on. I mean, they certainly didn’t want an airplane to be able to spot you or shoot you. I guess. I don’t know. But let’s just say that they were still sensitized to the Korean War and did things differently than they did. I don’t think it’s that way any longer.
But at that time, in the mid-70’s, it was. So, I mean the culture was different. I loved the food. I loved the people. It’s a beautiful country, just a beautiful country. Every chance I got, I went out, you know. I walked, you know, and took in the culture. The Japanese during World War II completed dewooded and deforested that country, took all of the wood, all the trees out of that country.
Used them for their own purposes. And so there was a huge reforestation. It seems like they were planting trees all the time. And it was a big deal, you know, to plant trees. And we were involved in that, you know. So, you know, whenever you go into a foreign country, you know, unlike certain people that go, when you’re in Special Forces, you try to absorb the culture. You try to become part of it. You try to understand. If you can’t understand the day-to-day life of a person you’re trying to help, how can you help them?
You have to understand their motivations and what makes them tick and what, you know, who they are and what they are rather than just being an out, you’re never gonna be an insider. But you can be sensitized to their plight and who they are so that you can help these people because that’s what Special Forces is. It’s not, you know, you just don’t go break things and kill people. You’re frequently tasked upon doing things like teaching them how to cultivate their land or how to purify their water or sanitize or help with things like this.
So, the second time I went, the perspective was different from the first time I went.
I: When did you retire from the military?
B: Ninety-one. I exited the military in 1991. I had a bad parachute accident in ’85 in training. We were in another exercise called Ocean Venture.
This was strictly Americans, Navy, Air Force, Marines, all of them, an Ocean Venture in Florida. And I had a parachute accident. And I had to have surgery for it. And I recovered but, you know, I just, I aged out of Special Forces. In other words, in a company-sized unit, the commander of the Special Forces unknit is a Major.
There’s only one Major. There’s only one commander. And when I was promoted to Major and I was still a Signal Officer, not a Special Forces officer, I couldn’t become a commander. And I didn’t want to go, there was nothing else for me in El Paso except being an instructor in the USAR school or something. I just, and being self-employed, I just didn’t like being out of town a lot, and I had a young family at the time.
I just thought you know what? That’s fine. I’ll just retire. And at 20 years after my commissioning date in ’91, I retired officially as a major.
I: And what have you done since?
B: Well, the same thing I’ve always done. I have a couple of businesses. I have a photography company here in El Paso. I do all kinds of commercial photography and air photography.
And I also own a Tequilla company. I would suggest and even urge young people, women and men both, to consider the military as a place, as a continuation of their education. They’re doing something important for their country, whether you go to comb at. I’m not talking about having to go to combat or anything. You’re filling a need, and you’re learning a skill.
And the educational, I mean the computer skills that are learned in the military side are amazing compared to what you learn as a civilian. You can take those computer skills that you learn in the military, I mean, how do you think they fly those drones for example. Everything’s computerized. And you learn these computer skills, these specific computer skills that you can translate into the civilian world instantly and make really good money at it. And instead of paying for your education, you’re getting paid for your education.
So, it’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned to give the military a try. And like I say, you don’t have to put paint on your face and carry a gun to be in the military. Such a small fraction of those who are in the military are in any kind of a combat situation. And I urge those that haven’t really set a course in life yet to give the military a try. It’s amazing what percentage of those that do are really, really grateful that they did. And you’re not signing your life away. You’re signing relatively brief contract for your time and your energy, and you’re getting paid for it.
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