The host's unusual military and homeland security career was the subject of a large article in the December 8, 2002 edition of the Providence Journal. Below you can read a transcript of the article.
Shoring up our defense
After a long Navy career, George Guy Thomas is still working to protect U.S. waters. 12/08/2002
BY RICHARD SALIT
Journal Staff Writer NEWPORT -- George Guy Thomas has spent his life watching the enemy.
In Vietnam, he served on a guided-missile cruiser helping to target and destroy MiG fighter jets. Under oceans halfway across the world, he played Cold War cat-and-mouse games with enemy subs. And on flights over the Middle East and Asia, he gathered sensitive military information during risky reconnaissance missions.
A retired Navy commander turned consultant, Thomas is now working in Newport, focusing on foes who would attack America at home. In this post-Sept. 11 world, he says, the United States coastline is far too vulnerable to terrorist threats by sea. His proposal for a maritime surveillance system has caught the attention of Navy brass and other defense experts.
Thomas commands respect not just for his ideas, but for his experience. He has served in all three venues of the Navy -- under sea, on the surface and in the air. That is a rare, if not singular, accomplishment.
"My unique claim is that I've been shot at in all three environments," says Thomas.
His 26 years of military service have proven so remarkable that the U.S. Naval Institute wants to publish a book about his career.
Not bad for someone who started out at as a grunt, a lowly Navy reservist.
THOMAS WAS BORN in Texas, but moved to California in his youth. He felt the Pacific beckoning him. First, he joined the Sea Scouts. Later, while studying history at the University of San Francisco, he enlisted in the Naval Reserves as a deck force seaman.
His career might not have taken off the way it did if he hadn't had the storybook fortune of landing on the Horne and driving for the ship's commander. It was Stansfield Turner, who would go on to become president of Newport's Naval War College, a four-star admiral and director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Thomas so impressed Turner that the commander wielded his influence to get him into officer candidate school, in Newport.
That set him on a course of developing into a signals intelligence expert for the Navy, whether aboard subs, ships or aircraft.
"I'm an electronics warrior," he says. "We called ourselves silent warriors."
For two decades, his skills took him to the far reaches of the world, as well as its heights and depths. He experienced war, both bloody and deadly and cool and clandestine.
On April 15, 1972, he was the officer in charge of the Worden, off North Vietnam, when disaster struck. A missile hit just above the bridge roof.
"I was right at the point of impact," he said. "The shrapnel was ricocheting all over."
The 14 officers in the bridge dove for cover. Thomas escaped with a minor cut to his hand, but some officers were seriously injured.
"I still think of the guy who died in my arms," he said, recalling how he tried in vain to administer first aid. "The back of his head was gone."
The crew later learned that it was the victim of Air Force friendly fire.
Thomas went back out on the Chicago, another guided-missile cruiser, as President Nixon ordered the mining of North Vietnam's major ports on May 5. The Soviet Union's response concerned Thomas enough that he was patched through to then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
In one of the highlights of Thomas's career, Kissinger replied, "Thanks, I needed that information."
Five days after the mining began, North Vietnam unleashed its first all-out air assault of the war. By the end of the campaign, Thomas had participated in more than 20 MiG engagements, helping shoot down about a dozen. Few Navy officers, if any, have had that many MiG encounters, he says.
But the MiG that got through still haunts him. There were 30 U.S. warplanes in the air that day. When Thomas finally figured out which was the target, he radioed the pilot.
"'I wondered where all of that horizontal 20 mike-mike [20-mm artillery] was coming from,' " Thomas recalled the pilot saying. "It was sad. It was his last transmission."
To this day, Thomas won't elaborate on his submarine experiences, which took place in the mid-1970s, during the Cold War.
"The specifics of a lot of what I've done are classified," he says.
A 1999 book, Blind Man's Bluff, describes how American submarines silently monitored Soviet harbors, observed missile tests, eavesdropped on conversations, tapped communication cables and shadowed subs. Thomas would only acknowledge locating adversarial submarines and maneuvering "up to them as close as you can possibly get . . . It's very real. If you're not scared, you don't understand the situation."
In an unusual move for a Navy sailor, Thomas attended flight training school, specializing in signal intelligence. He went on to fly reconnaissance missions over the world's political hot spots, including Vietnam, Korea, Russia, Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
Noting that more than 40 aircraft were shot down during the Cold War, he said, "We tried not to get shot down ourselves."
In 1976, the pilot of a Soviet MiG-25 FOXBAT defected and flew to Japan. Thomas joined a team that exploited its electronics. When the Air Force received its first EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft that same year, Thomas was invited to put it to the test.
"I was the first non-Air Force officer awarded Air Force wings," he says.
THOMAS RETIRED in 1988 and has since joined Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, which has developed some of the most advanced warfare technologies. The job brought him back to Newport in 2000 as liaison to the Navy Warfare Development Command. He works in the high-security Sims Hall, occasionally going to sea on Navy flagships to oversee fleet battle experiments.
After terrorists stunned the nation on Sept. 11, Thomas participated in war games on protecting America's shores.
"It blew me away how well not defended we are," he says. "We have no way of tracking people off our shores."
About 200 major ships arrive in U.S. waters every day. Any one of these could be a threat, says Thomas. How, he wonders, can America deter bomb-laden ships from destroying vital coastal targets?
"Al-Qaida has 55 ships," he says. "We don't have a clue where they are."
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) detects threats by air. But there is no such system to monitor the oceans. To fill that void, Thomas has developed what he calls a "maritime NORAD." It would require large vessels to carry the type of transponders found on aircraft. Any inbound vessel that didn't have one would be suspicious.
The plan would require coordination between the Navy, the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and other agencies, says Thomas. He has presented the concept to Navy admirals and a top Coast Guard official. Some have embraced the idea, but nobody "wants to do it without funding," he says. Others are cool to it, including some who don't have a thorough understanding of the technology, he says.
"There needs to be an informed debate on this," Thomas says.
Thomas's latest project doesn't surprise Frank Uhlig Jr., of Middletown.
"His mind never stops working," says Uhlig, editor emeritus of the Naval War College Review and the Naval War College Press. When it comes to technology, "He can see possibilities that most folks can't see . . . People in Washington call him down because they want to listen to him."
It was Uhlig who recommended that the Naval Institute, a private educational organization, add Thomas to its esteemed collection of 200 Naval biographies. The oral histories are transcribed from recorded interviews and are then annotated, indexed and bound.
Thomas has traveled to Annapolis for the first of several interviews. Soon, the story of his career will join those of such other notable naval figures as the legendary Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the first black naval officers and the pioneers of the Polaris ballistic missile sub program.
Reporter Richard Salit can be reached at 253-1200 or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org