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Sad times on the icebreaking front

While the U.S. Navy ordered a class of 8 heavily-armed polar icebreakers in WWII (the Wind-class, which carried twin 5″/38 DP mounts, 40mm Bofors, 20mm Oerlikons, depth charges, seaplanes and an ASW mortar), as well as the larger single-vessel USS Glacier (AGB-4) by 1955, just a decade later the Navy left the ice biz to the realm of the sparsely-funded Coast Guard.

Since then, all nine of these breakers have been sent to the scrapper, replaced in the 1970s by just two (relatively unarmed) Polar-class icebreakers of which only one was still operational by 2010.

Now 43-years young, the country’s sole polar icebreaker, USCGC Polar Star (WAGB-10), just reached Antarctica on her annual Operation Deep Freeze resupply mission to McMurdo Station– while her crew went unpaid due to the current lapse in funding.

The voyage wasn’t pretty.

U.S. Coast Guard scuba divers work to repair a leak in the shaft seal of the Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star

From the Coast Guard:

During this year’s deployment, one of the ship’s electrical systems began to smoke, causing damage to wiring in an electrical switchboard, and one of the ship’s two evaporators used to make drinkable water failed.

The ship also experienced a leak from the shaft that drives the ship’s propeller, which halted icebreaking operations in order to send scuba divers in the water to repair the seal around the shaft. A hyperbaric chamber on loan from the U.S. Navy aboard the ship allows Coast Guard divers to make external emergency repairs and inspections of the ship’s hull.

The Polar Star also experienced ship-wide power outages while breaking ice. Crew members spent nine hours shutting down the ship’s power plant and rebooting the electrical system in order to remedy the outages.

If a catastrophic event, such as getting stuck in the ice, were to happen to the Healy in the Arctic or to the Polar Star near Antarctica, the U.S. Coast Guard is left without a self-rescue capability.

Yikes.

Can you imagine being a young Coastie E-4 on that ship right now?

In Antarctica?

While your old lady (or man) sends you emails that the light bill is due and check on the 15th was for $0.00?

Politics aside, be sure, if you are able, to contribute to your local efforts to take care of USCG families in your area, and keep those deployed in your thoughts.

Semper Paratus

Navy continues to experiment with expeditionary packages

A few years ago the Navy put together a Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) built around just 250 Marines with a quartet of four CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. Deployed to Central America in a series of joint exercises and nation-building projects under Southern Command, they spent six months underway.

In recent months, a few additional pages in the same book have been added.

Sailors and Marines assigned to Littoral Combat Group One (LCG-1) just returned to Hawaii after spending six months in the Eastern Pacific– an area that sees few USN deployments. Consisting of just two-three vessels– USS Somerset (LPD 25) and USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108), along with the occasional support of the oiler USNS Yukon (T-AO 202) — they embarked the 300~ Marine SPMAGTF-Peru augmented by Coast Guard LEDETs, the latter to perform stops on narco subs prone to the region. They conducted ops and exercises with partners in Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 22, 2018) – USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) and Cuenca (LM27), an Ecuadorian naval vessel, perform a passing exercise in the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 22, 2018 as part of an exercise with the Ecuadorian navy to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing in the Pacific. Cuenca is a German-made Lürssen TNC 45 Seawolf-class fast attack craft. (U.S. Navy Photo by Littoral Combat Group 1 Public Affairs/Released)

Air assets on Somerset included at least two CH-53Es, assigned to the “Heavy Haulers” of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 462 and a couple UH-1Y Hueys assigned to the “Vipers” of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 169.

A member of the Peruvian marines watches as a CH-53E Super Stallion assigned to the “Heavy Haulers” of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 462 flies by the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD 25) Nov. 19, 2018, in the Pacific Ocean. USS Somerset is part of Littoral Combat Group One, which is deployed in support of the Enduring Promise Initiative to reaffirm U.S. Southern Command’s longstanding commitment to the nations of the Western Hemisphere. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom)

Moving past the LSG and SPMAGTF’s, there was the single-vessel Task Force Koa Moana 2018.

Using a company-sized force of Marines embarked aboard USNS GySgt Fred W. Stockham (T-AK-3017), an MSC-manned Shughart-class container & roll-on roll-off support vessel, the 55,000-ton prepositioned supply ship sailed around the Pacific, stopping at a string of islands from Tahiti to Palau, Tinian and Guam, performing joint operations with local governments and French military assets (Tahiti is still a Paris-controlled colony, after all.)

Some 130-ish TFKM Marines and Sailors called the civilian-manned Stockman home for two months last year, in humanitarian assistance missions across Oceania.

As described by the USNI, “TF Koa Moana included 130 members from the West Coast-based I Marine Expeditionary Force, officials said, plus fly-in detachments of Marines and Navy personnel from Okinawa, Japan, and Guam.”

Sure, they aren’t units capable of forcing a beach against a top-tier enemy, but, besides disaster response, LE support, training, and humanitarian missions, groups such as these–if needed– could probably pull off TRAP recoveries, non-combatant evacuations, and FAST-team style legation reinforcements, which in the end, can help take up the slack from overworked Amphibious Ready Groups and Carrier Task Forces.

Just keep them out of harm’s way in contested areas as this could be a way to get a handful of guys in a lot of trouble, fast.

Operation STAGE: The FBI sleeper agent plan in case Alaska was invaded

A Colt Detective, a copy of a selected pulp novel from an NYC magazine rack, a J-41 telegraph key, 1950s map of Alaska…yup, all you needed to be a stay-behind for the FBI in case the Russians set up shop in Anchorage (Photos by Chris Eger)

Just a half-decade after the end of WWII, it was thought that the Soviets could soon make a push to reclaim their lost North American colony, and the U.S. government turned to Hoover’s “G-men” to establish a plan to continue to generate clandestine intelligence from “somewhere in occupied Alaska” in that event.

The program started in January 1950 when a U.S. Navy Captain, Minor Heine, who held the position of director of intelligence for the service’s Alaskan Command, called FBI Special Agent in Charge John H. Williams at Anchorage– the new state’s largest city, which held about a third of Alaska’s 135,000-person population– to see how the Bureau could fit into the intel game in the event of a Soviet invasion or occupation. By the end of the month, Williams was meeting with Heine; Col. Wallis Perry, the U.S. Army’s top intelligence officer in Alaska; Lt. Col. Donald Springer, Perry’s corresponding representative with the U.S. Air Force; and other top military intelligence officers in the state. The subject of the meeting, which had been cleared by Heine with Gen. Nathan Farragut Twining– one of top commanders of the USAF and just a few years later appointed by President Eisenhower to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff– was to enlist the FBI in establishing a network of sleeper agents from among the local Alaskans that would be trained and placed in stasis during peacetime, then activated in the event of a potential future occupation. The role performed would be two-fold: to spy on the Soviets, sending back information of tactical and strategic importance to U.S. forces; and provide a system of safe houses for shot down U.S. and friendly aircrews or other military personnel behind the lines.

The local FBI went for the idea, then contacted Washington where the military’s Interdepartmental Intelligence Conference committee at the Pentagon– where the Bureau had a seat on the table due to their traditional role in counter-intelligence– hashed out some behind the scenes details over the next several months, the minutia of which are still classified. This small and very select chamber predated the efforts of today’s Defense Intelligence Agency, which was only formed in 1961. The newly-formed CIA was deliberately kept out of the loop in the discussion, with one FBI memo on the subject openly saying, “The principal advantage to the FBI’s assuming joint responsibility in these two programs is that it will preclude any other intelligence agency, such as the CIA, getting into the intelligence field in Alaska at this time.”

By May 1950, Washington, with the blessing of infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, decided to greenlight the effort in Alaska, to be headed by the Anchorage FBI office, using local contacts that had already been vetted by the agency– confidential informants and local sources who the Bureau was already using to keep tabs on possible Communist agitators in dockworkers unions, movie theater operators who showed Russian-language films, and the like. This latter suggestion was rebuffed by the agents on the ground in Alaska, who cabled back via coded radiogram in June, “Anchorage informants presently prevailing not believed to be the type suitable for this project, although office has contacts who possibly could function in such a program.”

Among those the G-Men thought would work as stay behind operatives were the sort of hard, frontier men who had proven themselves in the unforgiving region and had established ties that would keep them there in the event of a foreign invasion. In fact, most of the proposed stay-behinds had previously weathered WWII in the territory, a conflict that saw Japanese troops occupy several islands in the Western part of the state.

One of the proposed operatives was a 45-year-old hunting guide in Anchorage. Another was a native-born Alaskan who was a medical doctor and avid outdoorsman who had helped the local agents in cases from time to time. A third was a 69-year-old Italian immigrant who had come to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush as a teenager and was considered something of a local legend. Another immigrant, a Croatian who the FBI noted was rumored to have been a bootlegger during the Prohibition-era, owned an area bar and hotel. In all, the youngest considered was 29-years of age, while the bulk were over age 35. A third were big game hunters and guides, with the famous Holger Larsen, the bush-pilot head of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the state, instrumental in helping the Bureau with its recruiting efforts.

The men selected by the local FBI agents were typically older, seasoned outdoors-men, familiar with the privatizations of Alaska after decades of hunting, mining and other pursuits. Some were local legends.

Many of the men owned boats or small airplanes and were skilled in their use in the poorly-mapped state. Others had dog teams. About a third already had experience using radios. All were known to the Bureau as dependable and had –mostly– clean records. Most had occupations and pursuits that had required them to travel across broad swaths of Alaska and knew the vast and rugged territory like the back of their hand after a lifetime of adventures. Some were employed by local and state governments in survey, conservation and road work. The skillset was unlike any that could be taught.

What had to be explained to the planned 75-100 operatives across the state to be recruited, was a crash course in being a hidden agent. Initially each man– there were no women– was to be given about two weeks of intense training in the Washington D.C area by and FBI subject matter experts in aircraft and ship recognition, Russian language, firearms, first aid, bacteriological and nuclear warfare and, most importantly, sending and receiving coded messages via hidden radios.

When it came to codes and ciphers, each was trained in the use of pocket-sized Diana Cryptosystem one-time pads, double meaning words to signal distress, and issued a common paperback novel– for example the 25-cent pulp “Trouble on the Border” by Gordon Young– as an emergency key.

This would later be expanded to include the use of secret writing to include “damp pressure” and “aniline pencil” methods. They were also prepped in techniques known to be used by the Soviets in the past to ferret out espionage agents.

The FBI was prepared to lose a lot of stay behinds…

Finally, each trainee was given courses in selecting and training subagents and informants, close in use of knives, and defensive tactics such as disarming assailants.

The Remington PAL RH36 knife was common with outdoorsmen at the time. Shown against a handout from FBI knife training lesson for stay-behinds

Although each candidate was approached quietly by the FBI to gauge their willingness to participate in the program– which was voluntary– they were to be paid for training ($150 per week plus $11 per diem for expenses, about $1,500 and $100, respectively, in today’s greenbacks) and, naturally, in the event of their activation in standby periods and full-scale invasion. To hide the fact from local bankers who may talk in small communities and blow the operative’s cover, each had a bank account established at a bank in the lower 48 to which their payments were made. The recruit was vetted locally before they were recruited, then given a more extensive background check prior to their travel to Washington. A cursory medical exam by an Army doctor at Fort Richardson “for deformity” was also part of the onboarding process.

By the end of June 1951, three operatives had been trained and another 75 were in the recruiting pipeline. Four dedicated FBI agents in Anchorage were detailed to the run the top-secret program, which had become known by that time as Operation STAGE.

Earnest efforts were made to maintain the secrecy of the sleepers’ identity. All the stay-behinds were given a cover name. At no time during the recruitment or training process did any operative learn about the identity of others in the program. Candidates were never told about other stay-behinds, always met with controlling agents one-on-one, and traveled to training alone. Classes, staggered to begin every three days, were attended by only a single student and the instructors. Stay-behinds were forbidden to talk about the program or their new job to anyone outside of their handler, including their family, and were coached to provide cover stories about their travel, for which the FBI would help provide receipts and items such as postcards and fake documents to support.

Correspondence for the program was directed to a Post Office Box secured at the Anchorage Post Office in the name of Alfred Burr. The program was handled from Room #1533 in the Anchorage FBI office on a strict “need-to-know” compartmentalized basis. When the balloon went up, the six personnel at the office familiar with STAGE were to be evacuated from the state after destroying their files, with a backup set of files maintained in Washington.

Once the stay-behinds returned to Alaska from training, they were encouraged to become civilian “ham” radio operators to provide cover for their regular practice sending and receiving coded transmissions from an FBI agent in the Anchorage office that had been given 45-hours of radio training in Washington for that purpose. In the event of activation, pre-planned radio call signs, protocols and frequencies were established.

Still, the program plodded along. By late July 1951, the first dedicated escape and evasion stay behinds, with orders to help shepherd downed aircrew to “Free America” or Canada, were sent off for training.

At times, typical Washington bureaucracy reared its head in Kafkaesque ways. One memo, ordering 504 pencils for the use of the stay-behinds, specified that the writing instruments should logically not be stamped “property of the U.S. Government” and that “we do not want all the pencils to look alike.”

Another round of memos debated the value of planned parachute training for operatives, with the main issue being increased per diem costs to Uncle Sam at a time of tight budgets. Still another urgent radiogram requested a cash increase of $1,000 to the Anchorage office as two trainees were scheduled to come and get $500 advances and the office was low on funds.

Further, to protect the carefully manicured persona of the suit-wearing college-degreed FBI special agents that Hoover had spent decades nurturing, it was specifically ordered that the stay-behinds, characteristically flannel and wool-clad backwoodsmen, should never be termed “agents,” and instead be referred to only as “contacts” or “informants.” Similarly, use of the word “spy” was forbidden.

By August 1951, an effort was made to scout out hidden cache locations for the stay-behinds at abandoned mines, cabins and ghost towns, each to include a full year’s worth of food, survival gear, radios, generators, and other supplies sealed in weatherproof packaging along with shelter for the operative and a guest. The list of recommended supplies was immense for each location, to include as many as 5,000 gallons of gas, a tractor, three tons of fuel oil for heating, 150 pounds of canned meats, 400 pounds of dried fruits and vegetables, extensive fishing kits and lockers full of clothes. It was estimated that each location would take a team of six men a period of 10-days to install and cost some $2,800 to complete. When you multiply this by 75-100 planned stay-behinds, it was a small fortune.

This drew fire from Hoover, who penciled on one memo on the cache proposal, “What about this? Are we left holding the bag with no assistance?”

Then, on Sept. 17, 1951, the rug was pulled out from under the feet of the STAGE program with Hoover personally firing off an order to shutter the operation and for agents in Anchorage to tell stay-behinds that the FBI was pulling out of the operation– although redacted documents infer that other unnamed agencies or services had expressed interest in stepping into the Bureau’s now-vacated spot. By November, the program had been wound down as far as the FBI was involved, although the Anchorage office would continue to process background checks on stay-behinds for several additional months, possibly in support of whatever “unnamed agency” or service had poked its nose into the program. In all, just 20 stay-behinds completed FBI training of the 78 selected and cleared. Some 140 individuals were considered. According to meticulous records, the law enforcement agency spent $10,260.62 on the program– about $100K in today’s dollars, which was a bargain for what was accomplished.

As for Alaska, the invasion never came, but the more than 2,100-pages of documents related to STAGE were only recently declassified after some 50 years.

The above published by yours truly in last month’s Eye Spy Intelligence Journal

T’was The Night Before Christmas at 400 Feet

Remember, at any given time at least 15 Navy SSNs, SSBNs, and SSGNs are underway on patrol somewhere around the world in addition to those heroes On Eternal Patrol. So be sure to hold up your eggnog and toast for the iron men in the steel boats tonight!

Holiday lights are displayed aboard the fast attack submarine USS Tucson (SSN 770) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Dec. 22, 2012. Photo 121222-N-DB801-014 by MC2 Steven Khor

T’was The Night Before Christmas at 400 Feet

T’was the night before Christmas, and what no-one could see,
The men with the dolphins were under the sea.
Most of the crew was flat on their backs,
Snoring and dreaming all snug in their racks.

Those men on watch were making their rounds,
Some manning the planes or listening for sounds.
Back in maneuvering or down in the room,
They all hoped the oncoming watch would come soon.

I’d finished some PM’s whose time was now due,
And hoped for some sleep, even an hour or two.
Against better judgment, I took a short stroll,
And found myself wandering into control.

The Nav had the Conn, the COW was in place,
The COB had the Dive and a scowl on his face.
The helm and the planes were relaxed but aware,
The QM and ET were discussing a dare.

To comply with the orders the Nav told the Dive,
To bring the boat up with minimum rise.
The orders were given and soon they were there,
At periscope depth with a scope in the air.

The QM confirmed our position with care,
The broadcast was copied, we brought in some air.
The Nav on the scope let out a small cry,
He shook his head twice and rubbed at his eyes.

He looked once again to find what it was,
That interrupted his sweep and caused him to pause.
Try as he might there was nothing to see,
So down went the scope and us to the deep.

I asked what it was that caused his dismay,
He sheepishly said, “I’m embarrassed to say.”
It could have been Northern Lights or a cloud,
Or a meteorite he wondered aloud.

But to tell you the truth I guess I must say,
Whatever it was it looked like a sleigh.
And though it passed quickly and never was clear,
I almost believe it was pulled by reindeer.

We laughed and teased him and I got up to go,
When our moment was broken by “Conn, Radio.”
They told us a message was just coming in,
We looked at the depth gauge and started to grin.

“Radio, Conn, I feel safe to say,
Your attempt at a joke is too long delayed.
If it had been sooner it might have been neat,
But I doubt we’re receiving at four-hundred feet.”

“Conn, Radio, you can come down and see,
We’re not playing games to any degree.”
I headed aft with nothing better to do,
Surprised by the fact it was still coming through.

It stopped and was sent to control to be read,
The Nav read it slowly and scratched at his head.
Then again he began but this time aloud,
To those that now waited, a curious crowd.

“To you Denizens of the Deep and men of the sea,
Who risk your life daily so others stay free.
I rarely have seen you on this, my big night,
For far too often you are hidden from sight.

But purely by luck, I saw you tonight,
As your scope coaxed the plankton to glow in the night.
And lucky for me I’ve finally won,
The chance to say thanks for all you have done.

I know that you miss your families at home,
And sometimes you feel as if you’re alone.
But trust what I say and I’ll do what’s right,
I’ll take something special to your families tonight.

Along with the gifts I’ll take to your kin,
I’ll visit their dreams and leave word within.
They’ll hear of your love, and how you miss them,
I’ll tell them that soon you’ll be home again.

It might not be much I know that is true,
To thank you for all the things that you do.
But I’ll do what I can, while you do what’s right,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

By Sean Keck

F-22 math

 

A U.S Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria, Sept. 26, 2014. These aircraft were part of a strike package that was engaging ISIL targets in Syria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Russ Scalf)

The Air Force originally wanted a bunch of F-22s– like 750 besides test airframes– but in the end, due to budgetary reasons, just 187 operational aircraft were purchased.

Of those, some 55 were stationed at Tyndall AFB outside of Panama City, Florida– right in the path of Hurricane Michael on Oct. 10th.

While each that was air-ready sortied for points North (to Langley AFB), 33 had to be left behind for one reason or another to be sheltered in place, most designated Non-Mission Capable.

Footage from the base shown immediately after exhibited destroyed hangars with F-22s in the rubble (along with CV-22s and QF-16s) and hands went up across the aviation and defense community.

Well, chill, because it only looked bad.

All of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets left behind when Michael hit Tyndall last month will be flown off the base for repairs by Monday, according to Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.

Which is great news, because the line is closed for good and each of these Raptors is almost invaluable at this point.

Tradecraft via rubber noses

Wired had this great piece where they sat with former Chief of Disguise for the CIA, Jonna Mendez, who explains how disguises are used in the Agency, and what aspects to the deception make for an effective disguise. It really reminded me of the basic old-school tradecraft used in The Americans, which, incidentally was created by Joe Weisberg, who was a former CIA officer (never say, “agent”), recruited while at Yale.

Is it 1991 again?

So three things happened over the weekend.

#1 & #2, the Navy christened two brand new Virginia-class SSN’s on the same day (Saturday) some 500 miles part when they broke bottles at Newport News for the future USS Delaware (SSN 791) at 10 a.m and at Groton for the future USS Vermont (SSN 792) at 11 a.m. Importantly, Delaware is the last of the Block III Virginia’s and Vermont is the first of the Block IVs as these boats increasingly replace the old 688s.

181020-N-LW591-159 Groton, Conn. (Oct. 20, 2018) Ship sponsor Gloria Valdez, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisitions), breaks a bottle of wine produced by a Vermont vineyard to christen the Virginia-class, fast-attack submarine Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Vermont (SSN 792), during a ceremony at Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. PCU Vermont is the third U.S. Navy vessel to be named in honor of the state of Vermont and the 19th Virginia-class, fast-attack submarine. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Steven Hoskins/Released)

And in the “welcome to Red Storm Rising, redux:”

For the first time in nearly 30 years, a U.S. aircraft carrier entered the Arctic Circle Oct. 19 to conduct operations in the Norwegian Sea.

“Accompanied by select ships from Carrier Strike Group Eight (CSG-8), the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) traveled north to demonstrate the flexibility and toughness of U.S. naval forces through high-end warfare training with regional allies and partners. USS America (CV 66) was the last ship to operate in the area, participating in NATO exercise North Star in September 1991.”

181019-N-EA818-0127 NORWEGIAN SEA (Oct. 19, 2018) An F/A-18E Super Hornet, assigned to the “Sunliners” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 81, launches from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). For the first time in nearly 30 years, a U.S. aircraft carrier has entered the Arctic Circle. Accompanied by select ships from Carrier Strike Group Eight (CSG- 8), Harry S. Truman traveled north to demonstrate the flexibility and toughness of U.S. naval forces through high-end warfare training with regional allies and partners. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Thomas Gooley/Released)

HST will be taking part in Trident Juncture, which sprawls across Norway and the surrounding areas of the North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea, including Iceland and the airspace of Finland and Sweden from Oct. 25 to Nov. 23.

More than 50,000 participants – including 14,000 U.S. service members – are expected to participate, utilizing approximately 150 aircraft, 65 ships, and more than 10,000 vehicles in support of the exercise.

Part of the surge is an amphibious landing in Iceland that includes Iwo Jima‘s Amphibious Ready Group:

Which was not lost on MCT:

Everything old is new again…I feel like I should be playing Harpoon, optimized for Windows 2.11.

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