MARS - Military Affiliate Radio System - provided free, real time contact with families back in the land of the BIG PX during the Vietnam war, as it continues to do today for other servicemen and women overseas.
This was pre-Internet days and used HF radio to run "Phone Patches" where the serviceman in Vietnam could 'connect' through a MARS radio station with a MARS station in the U.S., who would then make the connection through a phone line to the family. Thus, 'Phone Patch'.
This Army MARS radio station at Phu Bai, on the 8thRRFS compound, was designated AB8AQ and staffed by personnel from the 8thRRFS. The station equipment and antenna field were maintained by technical members of the 8thRRFS and station personnel.
Equipment - The Rig
Front Room: 2 ea. Collins S-Line, Henry 2k linear amp, 13-30Mhz Log Periodic antennas, 2 ea. 65ft towers with rotors.
Being a MARS operator gave you relatively great powers of barter and influence. It was quite amazing what someone will give you to get a call back to 'The World'.
Once we traded a month of priority placement on the call list to the local SEABEES for a concrete patio and BBQ grill pit right next to the station. You should have seen the MPs faces when this concrete truck with a bunch of SEABEES pulls up to the main gate and gives our name at the MARS station to be let in! <G> So much for security!
We also cultivated a "symbiotic" relationship with "Advisory Team 5" down the road. The back of the card says, "This EM is authorized free steak on Saturdays with MACV Team 5." We DID have some steak down there, and a few beverages if memory serves!
And yet these stories are not meant to celebrate those few excesses, but to celebrate the dedication of operators on both sides of the 'water' who provided the link between servicemen and families, and to give a flavor to the time and circumstances in which we found ourselves.
We had, by comparison with other MARS installations across Vietnam, a luxurious radio shack and living quarters. Being attached to a unit who's only job was to listen and listen well afforded us material and expertise to get calls through when the frequencies were less than ideal, and we DID THAT.
(Antenna crew putting up a 65ft tower)
USS Sanctuary MARS (N0EFW) Visit
We also made friends on the water. One day I took a chopper flight to the USS Sanctuary hospital ship off Da Nang to meet the Navy MARS ops (N0EFW) I'd met on-line. Gotta say, the NAVY eats LOTS better than the Army!
Check out my Sanctuary Photo Gallery page for a bunch of photos of the ship and rig.
Mail Call - David's Dad
David's (Sternberg) dad was a big-wig at Seagrams and he'd get these plastic baby bottles, filled with select Seagrams 'adult beverages', with the nipples inverted, all packed in popcorn. Hey,... good insulation and you can eat it after! I've seen ops just invert the nipple on the bottle and start sucking! THANKS, David's dad!
'Traffic Yellow' - Our new fashion sense for '69
One week someone from Ops finally came over to 'inspect' the station and we got gigged for a couple things. One, was the shoddy look of the walls inside the station. (We didn't do much preventive maintenance on the shack decor <G>)
So, off we went to find some paint. Only problem was that all we could get was some REAL crazy stuff that I'll describe as 'Traffic Yellow'. I wasn't CHOP at the time so I didn't have a say. We painted the 'mother' ALL Traffic Yellow inside! It looked real nuts and I kind of think the CHOP just decided to piss off the Ops weenie who gigged us. <G>
My only problem with it --never let it be said that I can't go along with a joke -- was that I was working the evening shift and I'd not seen the walls in JUST fluorescent lighting. (when we'd painted in the daytime we had the windows open) --- Well, I stepped foot in the front door for my shift and BAMMMM, my eyeballs started going round and round, my stomach started to revolt and my knees got weak. A wave of nausea crashed over me. -- I had to sit down and cover my face. --- Man, them fluorescent lights were pulsing from our poorly regulated generator power and my eyes were picking up that pulsing bouncing off those Traffic Yellow walls, accented, I might add, by our stylish dark green taped countertops. I finally was able to rise and go work my shift, but the same thing happened every night for the better part of a week. <G>
I think we discovered a new interrogation technique!
The Horny Spouses
Even though we were required to monitor each call, for stuff folks weren't supposed to say, and more importantly flip the transmit/receive switch, you get in a routine where you seldom listened to what anybody said. You'd just hear, "OVER" and flip the switch. Watching the 3 minute time limit, or translating if the freq was going "down", was more the focus of the call.
There was ONE Captain though that called each week, and I'll NEVER forget how he and his wife started each call. I must first relate that I'd remind him EVERY time to not say THAT phrase! Still, he'd get on the call and the first words out of his mouth were, "HONEY, I'M HORNY!". She'd reply that "HONEY, I'M HORNY TOO!" --- Just their way of assuring each other that they were being faithful. <G> --- Hope that bastard made it!
The Traffic Ticket
One day, we bummed a ride in a jeep with our Air Force buddies to visit the PX next door. There were five of us so we put one guy between us in the front seat of the jeep. Going the gate to the compound we got stopped by a PFC MP, who was VERY aggressive in the performance of his duties. --- Apparently just arrived in-country.
We explained how sorry we were and were very surprised when he started to write us a ticket! I admit we MARS guys were a bit embarrassed that our Air Force buddy was going to get a ticket when he'd have not had a problem if it hadn't been for us coming along. He whispered to me that it didn't matter as his Tech Sgt would just tear it up any way.
But, we couldn't keep our mouths shut. We asked him if he knew who we were. He said he didn't care. THAT TORE IT! We wrote down his name and unit and took the ticket and went on to the PX.
Later, back at the station, we found that the commander of the MP unit was a Colonel friend of ours who called home frequently.
We called up the commander and briefly shared our story. He said, "He gave YOU a ticket???!!!! "Yes", we said. The Colonel was about to have a apoplexy. He said not to worry, that he'd fix THAT situation.
We suggested, calmly, that he not discipline the guy too harshly as he didn't know us, and would the Colonel kindly have the PFC call us at the station so we could set him up with a call that night.
An hour or so later the PFC calls up, rather sheepishly, and apologizes for the ticket. --- I'd have not wanted to be him, standing in front of the unit C.O. --- We took his parent's phone information and that night the PFC was making his first MARS call home.
Yes, I admit we abused our position but we WERE only 20 years old.
The Gas Mask
In addition to the guys that came through the gate and waited in our waiting room or on the lawn out front, we took phone reservations from anyone who could get through on the phone during a set period when we took a phone list. The guys waiting at the station got priority, and then we went to the phone list, first come, first served, until the freq went 'down'.
One day, among the phone call list was a listing from a Lance Corporal at the 3rd Mar Div down the road. He left the number of the company office as he had CQ duty that night.
After the freq cleared we started calling guys to make sure they were at the phone numbers they gave us so we wouldn't waste time when the actual call came up. I called the guy and he sounded funny. I asked him if he had a cold. He said, "No, I've got a gas mask on". I said, "WHAT?"
He told me that a couple of his buddies threw a CS grenade into the office for a joke (Ah, that Jarhead humor) and that was the only phone in the area. He said he wasn't about to miss his call so he was sitting in the CS gas waiting to talk to his Mom.
I asked him what was he going to say to his Mom when she asked why he sounded funny. He said he'd just say he had a gas mask on. I argued, weakly, that such info might be considered confidential information and that he shouldn't say that. Better to just say he had a cold.
Needless to say, when the call came up, the first thing his Mom asked was why he sounded so funny. <G> He spent half the call trying to explain that he wasn't in real danger but just putting up with a couple of jokers in his unit.
Pappy's Op - The Sting!
Waiting for the 'Freq' to clear each day was boring if you had to sit at the rig and twiddle your fingers. We found various ways to amuse ourselves though.
Some Ops would QSY up to the Ham bands to 'pound some brass' with unsuspecting Hams around the world. (SURE, we QSL!)
Others might lower themselves to the level of the classic practical joke. One day we were chatting with the other in-country stations we shared the frequency with (AB8AAC, etc) and noted a VERY GREEN operator at AB8AS. --- At the time, the CHOP at AS was a crusty old vet nicknamed 'Pappy' -- He kept us in line when he was on the rig and we'd have NEVER committed any transgression when he was in ear shot, but . . . today we decided to pull the leg of this eager beaver while Pappy was away.
First, we called a couple of the other in-country stations on the land-line to set up the joke, which was to pretend that our state side contact, A7USA in Ft. Lewis Washington, was on Freq and Lima Charlie (Loud and Clear), ready to start running patches.
Once done, I called out over the air, "A7USA, AB8AQ... Roger that, you're LIMA CHARLIE, LIMA CHARLIE here too!" --- "Alpha Alpha Charlie (AB8AAC) check in with A7 and see how he reads YOU" --- At this point AAC picked up the chant. "A7USA, AB8.Alpha..Alpha..Charlie, how do you read ME?" ... "Roger that, you're LIMA CHARLIE, LIMA CHARLIE here too!" --- (Now time to SET THE HOOK) -- "Uh, Alpha Sierra, Alpha Quebec... Check in with A7 please"... (AS:) "A7USA, AB8AS how do you read ME?" (BIG PAUSE --- No sound on the feq) -- (AQ:) "Uh, Alpha Sierra, Alpha Quebec, did you hear A7?" (AS:) "Uh, no. Did he call me?" (AQ:) "Yeah, he says you're LIMA CHARLIE, how do you hear him?" (AS:) "Let me try him again --- A7USA, AB8AS how do you read ME?" (Even BIGGER PAUSE --- We're ROTFLOAO)
Same comment from me again (AQ). A7 hears him GREAT, why doesn't AS reply to A7? The guy at AS is going NUTS. The rest of us are peeing ourselves (OK, we were easy to entertain, it's true). We've got the guy going off freq to re-tune his rig (not far enough that he didn't overload the freq though), checking his antenna connections and EVERYTHING.
We play this up another 5 minutes or so when we hear this DEEP, SLOW, VERY SOUTHERN VOICE come on the freq and say, "Ah Alpha Quebec, Alpha Sierra." (Woops, Pappy's just come in the shack). (Me, trying to be professional) "Alpha Sierra, Alpha Quebec, go ahead". (Pappy) "IS A7 on freq?" (Me) "Uh, no I don't think so". (Pappy SHOUTING) "WELL QUIT PESTERING MY OP!" --- We were VERY quiet after that, but we DID have a good time for a while!
The Reverse Call
Normally it was against the rules to have a phone patch originate in the States. There would have been thousands of American households swamping the system, and having us try and track down the servicemen would have been impossible.
But, one day, just as the freq was beginning to clear, A7USA called us. They’d called as soon as we could just barely make each other out because he needed a favor.
Curt was the operator at A7 and he explained that he had an AT&T Long Distance operator on the line holding a family on a long distance line from the East coast to Ft. Lewis, at NO charge. --- Yep, in those days AT&T had a heart, and the AT&T operators we worked with every day were GREAT; real pros.
The family had just heard from the Department of Defense that their son had been severely wounded, and was not expected to live. They simply wanted to speak to him one last time. Sounded simply enough, and important enough to break some rules. Time was critical.
I took as much information as I could about where he’d been stationed and turned the rig over to another operator, who began running regular phone patches as the freq had “come up” by then. I started working the phone.
You just couldn’t pick up a phone and poke some numbers on the dial when trying to call a fire base, where the son was assigned, so I enlisted a local telephone supervisor I knew at the Phu Bai exchange.
As you probably know, phone lines to fire bases could end up with really poor connections, primarily because of the semi-permanent condition of the lines closest to the fire base. – After a considerable period of yelling down the lines, and kicking some priority traffic off the lines, (A cord or two MIGHT have gotten pulled out of it’s jack in Phu Bai in error), we got to the fire base.
We got shuffled around a bit and finally reached someone in the company CQ that told us the guy had been chopper’d out to a area medical unit (forgotten the name after all these years).
Back to square one -- my phone guy and I found where the medical unit was and elbowed our way through the phone lines once again. (This supervisor at the PB Exchange stayed with me the whole way!) --- It seemed to take forever to find out that the guy wasn’t actually at this unit, but had been transferred to Da Nang. – We’d spent close to an hour on the phones at this point.
Da Nang was a better phone connection, but it was not much easier getting through hospital bureaucracy. Understandably, they were really not set up to respond to people calling in asking EXACTLY where some guy was. But, they did come through.
The good news was that the guy was there. The bad news was that I’d have to speak to his Doctor to get approval to speak to him. Hunting the Doctor down took some time of course.
When we got the Doc on the phone he explained that the soldier was not going to die but had been badly wounded. That seemed to be good news, and I relaxed a bit knowing that I’d probably be able to get this call through.
The Doctor explained that the guy was heavily sedated but if he wanted to take the call it would be OK.
I relayed this good news to Curt at A7, telling him we’d be able to set the call up as soon as I’d briefed the patient about things he could and couldn’t say about his injuries.
Finally getting the fellow on the phone (he was a bit fuzzy), I explained that the exact extent of his injuries was considered confidential information that he was not allowed to discuss them on open radio as we were on. He said he understood.
I got Curt on the radio and put the phone on the patch. The mother, in the States, spoke first, saying hello or something similar. The son replied, and his mom said she loved him, etc. They went back and forth once or twice, and then she asked him how badly he’d been wounded. Curt broke in and told her that the son couldn’t respond, and that she should ask him something else. She said something else and the son replied that he’d be coming home soon and everything would be OK.
I admit, at this point, I was treating this as just another Red Cross kind of call and had kind of gotten into a mind-in-neutral state that we’d often get into running dozens of calls each shift.
Again, they talked back and forth a couple of times and the mother again asked how badly he’d been wounded. Curt again jumped in and again asked her to not ask that again. She simply said, “Over”, and the son, apparently not able to think of something else to say said, “I lost both arms and both legs”.
Being totally unprepared for his disclosure, I was too slow on the switch to be able to cut him off and his reply went over the air!! – I didn’t know what to do or say. I just flipped the transmit/receive switch and listened. --- I hadn’t had the smarts to ask about his condition previously.
The son was softly crying over the phone and I was too. Things got a bit confused from here on. I remember saying to the son that it was OK or something. There was no transmission from A7 so I just waited. Curt finally came back and said that the mother had collapsed and her husband had come on the phone asking what the hell had happened.
I terminated the patch, wished the young man well and said goodbye to the doctor who had been at his bedside, apparently holding the phone for him.
I’ve thought about that young man often over the years.
Added Tom Boza's site link to AB8AU/AB8AZ
This page is a tribute to the men and women in the U.S. who receive and send calls and message traffic in support of the moral of U.S. Armed Forces personal around the World.
Click here to learn more about the important work MARS performs for our Service members overseas.
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