During the Vietnam conflict, there were no individual personal cellular or landline telephones available for soldiers or sailors to use for calling family members back home. To address this, United States MARS (Military Affiliate Radio Service) stations from all branches of the service, Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, were deployed throughout Vietnam. The MARS system offered soldiers and sailors a way to personally communicate with loved ones back home via the use of a “phone-patch” telephone connection over short-wave radio. MARS stations would allow each soldier a free 5-minute personal radio telephone call home to the United States.
The Navy-Marine Corps MARS program was established officially on 17 August 1962, and began operations on 1 January 1963. This follows the Cuban Missile Crisis and President Kennedy’s concern for viable and extended communications capabilities. Each military service had it own MARS program, networks, frequencies, operators and stations. A ham could apply for MARS membership and help service members call home.
One of the operators explains the process in making a patch. First the band would have to be open to patch quality conditions. Then a MARS operator would call the MARS station in Vietnam for a “Listing” of service members who wanted to make a call, to whom and what phone number. The only cost was a collect call charge the family had to accept from the ham’s location. The HAM operator in the states would then get a telephone company operator on their home phone line and have the collect call placed. Once the charge was accepted and the family member was on the line, the operator would instruct the family member that only one person could talk at a time and they had to say “over” when they were finished talking and not start talking until after the service member said “over.” Then the operator would call Vietnam for the service member to come on line. The call then proceeded.
When using this system, soldiers were required to follow a certain protocol. Since this was a non-secure band, we were not to mention anything about where we were or what we were doing in Vietnam. The time limit was also strictly enforced – the crew member would hold up his hands and count down from 10 before terminating the call.
The most difficult part of the conversation was in remembering to say “over” when completing your comment, this was required for the ham radio operators listening in to switch back and forth. I remember speaking with my mother once when she forgot to say “over” after her comment and there was a longer than usual silent pause. I hollered into the handset several times for her to say “over” but she couldn’t hear me until the circuit was switched. Finally, after what seemed to be almost a full minute of silence, I heard her gulp and quickly respond, “oh, over,” which then allowed the switch to take place so I could talk again. In just about all cases, MARS was the only way soldiers could call home from Vietnam. In other words, “MARS was the soldiers’ Telephone Company.”
When wanting to place a call, there was a sign-up list for your name, the name of the party you’re trying to reach and that phone number. For us grunts, sometime. we weren’t able to use the system because of an exceptionally long waiting list or the MARS group was unable to get a decent connection. Both required time, a luxury that grunts on stand down did not have. I should mention that in any location where field hospitals were present, a patient wanting to place a call always got to skip to the front of the line.
The process was a science! Operators on both ends had to know:
- when the peak of the sunspot cycle would ionize the ‘E’ layer of the ionosphere
- when to point an antenna at exactly the right spot a hundred miles out in space
- how to reflect a high frequency radio signal off the ionized layer, over the curve of the earth, and into a similar station in the United States
- how to hook it all up to a telephone line for the call to take place.
Sometimes, when the signals became too weak to be ‘phone patch quality’, they sent and received written messages for the troops in the form of MARSGRAMS by ‘CW’, or Morse Code, that could blast through the interference.
Photo courtesy of Gardina-mars7-454
A network of more than 80 Army, Air Force and Navy/Marine MARS stations in Vietnam transmitted more than 2.5 million phone patches and handled more than 1 million MARSgram messages to several hundred stateside MARS stations, some in the homes of volunteer ham radio operators and the others on military bases.
|AB8AB||Qui Nhon||HHD, QNH Sub-Area Command||66-72|
|AB8AC||Cam Rahn Bay||C Co 41st signal||67-68|
|AB8AD||Di An||121st Signal Battalion, 1st Infantry Division||66-70|
|Kontum||Task Force #2, ADV||70-72|
|AB8AE||An Khe||509th Signal Battalion||66-67|
|An Khe||41st Signal Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Division||67-70|
|AB8AF||Soc Trang||52nd Signal Battalion||67-70|
|Long Binh||USARV Headquarters||70-73|
|AB8AG||Nha Trang||54th Signal Battalion||66-73|
|AB8AH||Phuoc Vinh||1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division||66-69|
|Bien Hoa||HQ, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment||69-70|
|New Port (Saigon)||USS LTC Page||70-72|
|AB8AI||Bac Lieu||MACV Advisory Team 51||66-69|
|Ca Mau||MACV Advisory Team 51||69-72|
|AB8AJ||Cu Chi||125th Signal Battalion, 25th Infantry Division||66-71|
|AB8AK||Phan Rang||3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division||67-68|
|Camp Eagle (Hue)||HQ, 1st Brigade. 101st Airborne Div.||68-71|
|Song Be||MACV Advisory Team 28||71-73|
|AB8AL||Lai Khe/Thu Dau Mot||MACV Advisory Team 70||66-71|
|AB8AM||Bien Hoa||173rd Airborne Brigade||66-68|
|Due Pho (LZ English)||173rd Airborne Brigade||68-71|
|AB8AN||Can Tho||13th Aviation Battalion||66-72|
|AB8AO||Xuan Loc||MACV Advisory Team 95||66-71|
|Cao Lanh||MACV Advisory Team 84||71-72|
|AB8AP||Hue City||Special Forces Advisory Group||66-70|
|Camp Eagle||MACV Advisory Team 3||71 -72|
|AB8AQ||Phu Bai||8th Radio Research Field Station||66-73|
|AB8AR||Cam Ranh Bay||1st Trans Battalion, USNS Corpus Christi||66-68|
|Off of Vung Tau||1st Trans Battalion, USNS Corpus Christi||68-72|
|AB8AS||Pleiku||4th Infantry Division||66-70|
|AB8AT||Co A 53d Signal Bn, II Field Force Vietnam||66-68|
|Long Binh (north) The Plantation||Units of the 25th Infantry Division||68-70|
|AB8AU||Camp Bear Cat / Dong Tam||9th Signal Battalion, 9th Infantry Division||66-69|
|Bien Hoa||HQ, II Field Force, USARV||69-71|
|AB8AU/AZ||MOBILE Unit Traveled throughout AOR||9th Signal Battalion, 9th Infantry Division||68-69|
|AB8AV||Vung Tau||369th Signal Battalion 36th Evacuation Hospital||68-71|
|AB8AW||Nha Trang||HQ, 5th Special Forces Group||66-71|
|AB8AX||Hoi An (Hawk Hill)||196th Light Infantry Brigade||68-70|
|AB8AY||Phan Thiet (LZ Betty)||MACV Advisory Team 37||67-68|
|Phan Thiet (LZ Betty)||3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division||69-70|
|Tan Son Nhut (Saigon)||224th Aviation Battalion||70-73|
|AB8AZ||Dong Tam||9th Signal Battalion, 9th Infantry Division||67-69|
|Phu Bai||501st Signal Battalion, 101st Airborne Division||69-71|
|AB8AAA||Long Binh||1st Logistical Command||68-70|
|AB8AAB||Bien Hoa||3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division||68-70|
|Bao Loc||MAC V Advisory Group||70-71|
|AB8AAC||Bear Cat Mountain||4th Infantry Division||68-70|
|Dau Tieng / Phuoc Vinh||587th Signal Company for 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry 1968
13th Signal Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Division
|AB8AAD||Chu Lai||523rd Signal Battalion & 27th Evacuation Hosp & Americal Division||67-72|
|AB8AAE||Camp Eagle (Hue)||501st Signal Company, 101st Airborne Division||68-71|
|AB8AAF||Tuy Hoa||261st Signal Company||68-71|
|AB8AAG||Camp Evans (north of Hue)||1st Air Cavalry Division||67-68|
|AB8AAH||Duc Pho||11th Infantry Brigade||67-71|
|AB8AAI||Dong Ha (near DMZ)||Units of 101st Airborne Division & 5th Mech||69-71|
|AB8AAJ||Pleiku||43rd Signal Battalion & 71st Evacuation Hospital||68-71|
|AB8AAK||Camp Red Devil (Quang Tri)||1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized)||69-71|
|AB8AAL||Phu Loi||520th Transportation Battalion||69-72|
|AB8AAM||Pleiku (Camp Frank Jones)||146th Signal Company||70-73|
|AB8AAN||Dalat||5th Special Forces Advisory Team||69-72|
|AB8AAO||Dong Ba Thin||Co. D, 43rd Signal Battalion||69-72|
|AB8AAP||Vinh Long||7th of the 1st Air Cavalry & 164th Aviation Group||68-71|
|AB8AAQ||Camp Evans||3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division||69-72|
|AB8AAR||Firebase Mace||199th Light Infantry Brigade||69-70|
|AB8AAS||Phu Bai||XXIV Corps HQ & 101st Airborne Division||69-71|
|AB8AAT||Da Nang||37th Signal Bn Compound 69-70 China Beach 71-73||68-73|
|AB8AAU||Phu Lam (near Saigon)||Stratcom HQ, USARV/MACV||69-73|
|AB8AAV||Song Be (Phan Rang)||MACV Advisory Team||69-71|
|AB8AAW||Cat Lai||MACV Advisory Team||68-71|
|AB8USA||Long Binh||Headquarters, USARV||65-72|
|Tan Son Nhut (Saigon)||69th Signal Battalion, USARV||72-73|
The last MARS facility to go off the air was probably AB8SG located in the American Embassy in Saigon during the evacuation of the Embassy in 1975. Just about every Army unit in the field had a MARS station, including Airborne Brigades, Special Forces Advisory Groups, Infantry Divisions, Transportation Battalions, Medical Units, Aviation Battalions, and of course most Signal Corps units.
The traditional land or sea band MARS Radio Phone Patch is largely a thing of the past because land and sea based MARS stations have been dismantled in favor of Satellite Phones. However, modern military aircraft are still equipped with HF radios, and many military aircrews still use MARS Phone Patches as a backup or substitute to Satellite Communications. The USAF MARS Phone Patch Net provides 24/7 HF Radio Phone service to all branches of U.S. military aircraft worldwide.
Today, satellite phones and using Skype with a laptop makes it much easier for soldiers around the world to keep in touch with families.
I think I used the MARS system twice during my tour in Vietnam. Anybody else?
I did receive an email (11/11/21) from a former officer of one of the MARS stations with some history and a funny story which I’m including here:
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