The daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, a US Navy Veteran herself, recently wrote a college thesis about communications during our war and how it affected the families of those deployed. It’s a great read that caused me to reflect on my own tour of duty and how it may have affected those back home.
By: Djinni Southworth Yancey
I was first contacted by Djinni in the early fall when she requested permission to share some of the stories from my website and to quote me a couple of times in a term paper she was writing for her Bachelor Degree in Communications from the University of Utah. Her topic was about communications from Nam between US soldiers and their loved ones. Her father served in Vietnam and some of what she’s written is from her personal experience. Djinni is a US Navy veteran, married, and has three incredible kids.
Djinni recently graduated and sent me a copy of her completed term paper to read. It’s long, twelve pages, but every point she makes brought back memories of my own. It is a fantastic read and I have her permission to share it here with you – posted below in its entirety. Enjoy!
University of Utah
Communications Technology & Culture
Conversations from ‘Nam
An analysis of distant family relations and its effect
My father was deployed to Vietnam as a civilian safety officer working for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Vietnam War. I remember getting letters occasionally from my Dad; and they were usually written very simply with a lot of pictograms and text, often saying something like, “How are you? I am fine,” and ending with “I love you” written with drawings of an eye, a heart, and a letter “U,” My mother would get personal letters and cassette tapes. My mother shared many of the cassette tapes with our family, so we could hear our father’s voice and know what my Dad was doing. I only know what I remember my Dad sharing with us, and it was possibly sugar-coated. Inspired by my experience at home and communicating with my Dad during the Vietnam War. I have a desire to know how the experience my family had compares with other family’s experiences. This research was conducted by interviewing Vietnam veterans, family, some of which were corresponded through email and messaging, and researching military websites. Throughout this document, I will refer to all genders of enlisted US Armed Forces as GI’s and service members since that is what they were called during the Vietnam era, except sailors in the Navy. The quality of communication increases the odds of success in family relationships.
The Effects of Separation from Family
In 1972 my Dad left Utah and was deployed to Vietnam as a civilian. My mother was about 39 and had six children living at home, one married and one on an LDS mission in Austria. The youngest child at home was only between three and four. My mom had to manage the entire household with some help from her teenage kids. The most challenging thing I imagine for her was missing her husband and the chance that he would not return. My oldest sister Christine was about 21, and she was living in Kamloops, British Columbia. Christine said Canadians hated Americans in the early ‘70s since so many Americans were moving to Canada to escape being drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam. Christine says she was confronted in church for trying to avoid the war and defended herself by saying that her Dad was serving in Vietnam. She identifies as a Pro-Hawk, believing we needed to be there, but understood that there was no way to win this kind of war. Christine was proud of her Dad for going to Vietnam. She also says the war was unpopular, so guys her age would lie about being in the service when they came back so that they could get hired.
My brother Kerry said he talked to our father in October 1971 about the Vietnam war and how they were unclear what the United States was going to accomplish. Kerry was active in the anti-war movement, although he was not opposed to serving. Kerry even signed up for the draft, although his number did not come up. Kerry says that our Dad was more concerned about Kerry serving an LDS mission. Kerry left to serve his mission in the winter of 1971 to Austria; before our Dad deployed to Vietnam. When he heard our Dad was going to Vietnam, he was surprised; and assumed our Dad volunteered to keep Kerry from going to Vietnam. Our Dad sent weekly letters to Kerry while he was on his mission. Kerry was not worried about our Dad in Vietnam because our Dad spent a lot of time away with his job. However, Kerry says he realized later that our Dad was in more danger than he ever expected.
My sister Alaine graduated from high school in 1972 and joined the Army in the Spring of 1973. She worked in military intelligence and in analyzing satellite and aerial photography. She said the Vietnam war had no influence on her joining the Army, and the reason our Dad volunteered to go to Vietnam, was so he could afford to send Kerry on a mission. The only thing that impacted her having our Dad gone on deployments was the responsibility she carried in being the oldest child at home. Shortly after joining the Army Alaine married a GI named Dan Green. Her husband spent over twenty years in the Army transitioning to where he worked in Special Forces as a Chief Warrant Officer (CWO) and continued to assist the military as a civilian after he retired. Currently, CWO Green is retired and lives in Washington state with his new wife Christina. He talked to me through email and Facebook messenger to share what he remembered from his Vietnam experience. The first time he met my Dad was in Vietnam before he knew my sister Alaine.
My brother Andre was about 14 when our father went to Vietnam. He has not been able to tell me how he was impacted when our father was deployed to Vietnam because Andre passed away in 2001. However, I believe Andre and our father had a close relationship that was impacted during our Dad’s absence. Approximately a year after our Dad returned from Vietnam, Andre and our Dad went to Seoul Korea to set up living arrangements for our family to move to Seoul a few months ahead of the rest of our family.
My sister Yvonne was 12 when our Dad went to Vietnam. Yvonne said she mostly remembers how much she missed our Dad and that she hardly knew anything about Vietnam. Occasionally she would watch the news and see that there were a lot of men dying every day and a lot of protests. She did not realize our Dad was in a dangerous place. She was fascinated with the stories our Dad would tell us through cassette tapes, such as the Vietnamese cowboys that would hop on to Jeeps and grab watches right off his wrist. She also enjoyed hearing him tell stories about Vietnamese culture, like how they would eat betel nuts and that monkey brains were a delicacy. Yvonne enjoyed looking through the PACEX catalog and the many exotic things from Asia she saw in it, as well as some of the cool gifts we received from that catalog.
My brother Sean was 10 when our father was in Vietnam. He says he was so used to our Dad away awayon deployments that it didn’t affect him. Sean later joined the Marines in 1980.
My youngest sister Jan was only four years old, so she does not remember how she was affected by our Dad being deployed, although I vaguely remember that she had to get to know his face again. Since Jan was a toddler, it must have been difficult for our Dad to miss many of Jan’s milestones.
In summary, the adverse effects deployment separation had on my family was burdens of unusual stress, sacrifice, loneliness, uncertainty, missed milestones, anxiety, and depression. The positive effects included patriotism, pride, extra money, individual growth, appreciation, optimistic perspective, and stability. I feel fortunate that my family survived this trial, which could have ended tragically. The potential for disaster was indeed a significant risk.
In 1969 and 1970, divorce rates sharply increased. This statistic alone shows the separation of couples due to the Vietnam war put a lot of strain on marriages and relationships. Studies show that older men who were involved with religion had lower divorce rates. Numerous studies have demonstrated the absence of a father affects cognitive, social, and emotional development. Some of the problem was that women were drawn into the workforce because men were going to war. Because of this, women had to compete with men when men returned from the war, to prove they were competent in doing the job they learned while the men were away. Many families were dealing with grief due to the many war-related deaths. A British researcher that reviewed 50 studies regarding childhood bereavement found increased risks of drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, and depression in relation to absence or death of a father (pg. 715717 Lieberman). Although the odds were against many American families, my family stayed strong through frequent high-quality communication. We were fortunate that my mother did not have to work outside the home at any time while we were growing up.
It seems quite common that servicemen and women take unpleasant facts and turn them into more acceptable information. They do this so their families will worry less and possibly have more positive thoughts.
My sister Christine says she remembers receiving audio cassette tapes from our Dad. Christine said, “He told me he was in a safe foxhole, and that was an accurate description because you could hear bombs in the background.” It is interesting that she says what he told her was accurate. Kerry said, “I think Dad and Mom deliberately kept a lot of the details away from me so that I could concentrate on the work I had been called to do.”
A Vietnam veteran named Randy Barnes wrote to his friends in a letter quite frankly, giving examples of some of the things he encountered in Vietnam as a medic and at the end of the letter said, “If you see my mom don’t say anything about my being in any kind of dangerous area. She thinks I’m just going to sit it out over here & I don’t want her to know different. I am hoping I will just sit it out.” I imagine many servicemen and women altered the truth to their loved ones to make it easier to accept. (Dphepner)
Propaganda is just one way the US government sugar-coated the effects of war, starting with World War II, continuing throughout the Vietnam War. They worked hard to persuade the American public that the war was just a war, and it deserved support. The US government also dropped propaganda brochures on North Vietnam to convince the soldiers that what they were doing was good (Dphepner).
Involvement of Ham Radio and MARS
The Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) is a US Department of Defense sponsored program run by civilians and active-duty military personnel. MARS provides two-way radio emergency communication worldwide, which can reach outside the bands of HAM radio. Thousands of amateur radio operators provide much of this service. During the Vietnam War, servicemen were allowed to contact their families through “phone patches” live phone calls and “Marsgram” written messages. MARS radio is still in operation currently. One of its missions is to boost the morale of servicemen and women as well as other US government employees, although less frequent now than in previous decades. MARS also supports other government agencies such as The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Mars is available on both land and sea. However, the Navy-Marine Corps MARS shut down in September 2015. (Pg. 3 MARS a Brief History.pdf)
The “phone patches” worked with Hertz-Armstrong-Marconi (HAM) radio operators in the United States who would connect it to a phone which would call the family member on the phone. For the Ham operator and MARS operator to make the conversation work, the GI and family member involved would have to say “over” when the conversation switched to the other person so the operators could know when to hit the transmit switch. Personal MARS calls for morale were limited to five minutes (Green). Phone patches are no longer used due to cell phone technology.
According to several Vietnam era Army GIs, MARS radio for morale purposes was for married personnel. US. Navy radioman, Petty Officer Eric Richhart operated MARS radio aboard ship during the Vietnam era. He says the MARS radio was available to all service personnel. However, married service members used it more due to their situations. Petty Officer Larry Gibson was a gunners-mate; he had no knowledge of MARS radio being available to sailors at all. It was not common for sailors to have contact through MARS radio during the Vietnam era. At that time, MARS radio was mainly the only way GIs could call home. Radio was a very impersonal way to talk to someone. There was always a middleman listening in; the sound was low quality and overall uncomfortable. The main benefit was real-time communication.
MARS radio stations on military installations have been operated by both government professionals as well as civilian amateurs, some of which have been volunteers. HAM radio requires a bit of knowledge and skill to function. Different levels of licensing provide operators with different rights, such as how far an operator can transmit. Some of the equipment required to start is a transceiver, power supply, antenna, tuner, microphone, and cables. Operators not only have to learn how to operate equipment, they also have to learn communication codes that are made up of letters and numbers. Some of the relevant social groups include the operator, the receiver, the FCC, Repeaters, The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), various repairmen, and manufacturers. For the radio transmission to be successful, it requires heterogeneous engineers. The combination of skills, people, artifacts, and nature creates balance in a successful system. If just one-part malfunctions, the communication technology can be disastrous. For example, if someone used the wrong code in an emergency, the wrong kind of assistance could be sent, and with possibly less urgency, or a navigational mistake could send someone off course. Other failures in the network could be with the equipment such as the power supply or any other part. The most challenging thing to control in this network is the natural phenomena, such as a technician having a panic attack when hearing details of an emergency, or a hurricane interfering with the quality of transmission (Law).
USS Mauna Kea Photo Credit: http://www.history.navy.mil
Sailor Communications with loved ones at shore
Petty Officer Larry Gibson joined the Navy in 1969 right after graduation. He was on a US Navy destroyer ship during the Vietnam War. Gibson was single and said when he went out to sea, he was so busy working long hours that he forgot about family because his mind was occupied with his job as a Gunners Mate. Gibson says that mail took about three weeks to receive letters from port. He says that he was not aware of any sailors having phone calls to or from the ship, and letters were the only communication with the outside world. Ships would stay out to sea
for several months at a time and only go to a port for a very short time. When sailors were on shore, they could make phone calls home, although for only a few minutes and it was not common.
Eric Richhart joined the Navy in 1969 when he was 17 years old as a Radioman. He was single and stationed on the USS Mauna Kea. The Mauna Kea was an ammunition ship that supplied other warships. The ship would go out to sea for about nine months at a time and sometimes stop in Hawaii or the Philippines. Richhart worked with the MARS radio. He says mail would take a long time to get to family in the United States because it would have to stop several military bases on the way such as Hawaii and the Philippines before it reached the ship from the Fleet Post Office (FPO). Sometimes mail would come from an aircraft carrier. Richhart says the American Red Cross would contact sailors through the MARS station if there was an urgent message such as a fatality or a birth.
GI happily puts several letters he received in his pocket. Photo Credit: Stars & Stripes news archive.
Vietnam Veteran Barry Romo says mail was more important than food or pay (History.com). Being connected to people was important. Green said Mail Call each day atthe unit was the highlight of the day. All military Company sized organizations had a designated Mail Clerk. That Mail Clerk would drive up to the military post office and get all the mail for the Company. Then the mail was distributed one of three ways; the GI attended a designated Mail Call, and the Mail Clerk would pull mail from a bag, call out the recipient name and hand it or toss it to the recipient. Method two was that someone from the platoon would get everybody’s mail for that platoon and then distribute it at the platoon level. Method three was for GIs who were remotely located out on a firebase, in that case, the Mail Clerk would make a bundle for the firebase and it would be either taken out by helicopter or driven out depending on which method was safer. Every GI lived for Mail Call and lived for that mail. “To this very day, 46 years later, I still get a stir of excitement when I check the mail-box.”
Paper letters were the primary source of communication between families and servicemen and women. Since many Vietnam soldiers were literally just kids, much of their time revolved around receiving and writing letters and this is how they would cope with reality (Dphepner). Petty Officer Gibson and Richhart said letters were the primary connection they had with family and loved ones. Mail on ship had many delays in the process. Many GI’s had free mail service as long as they printed “FREE” in place of a stamp (Podlaski).
My Dad would frequently send cassette tapes, then my mom would use the same tape and record over the top of the previous one. We commonly sent tapes back and forth to my Dad so we could hear one another’s voice. Green said, with cassette tapes, you heard the actual voice of someone who cared enough to make it and send it to you. When GIs listened to a tape from home they did not just listen to the voice of the person sending it, they listened carefully to hear background ambient noise such as the TV, children playing, cooking sounds, nature, or anything that could help create a more perfect vision in their mind of being back home. GIs were also aware that when they made a tape in Vietnam to send home that it might be the very last chance to talk to their family in their whole life. Some tapes were the “final tape,” the last audio recording of their life. Often GIs in combat arms going outside the wire on patrol would deliberately make a tape just before going out with the understanding that might be the final communication of his life.
In an online Vietnam veteran forum, I read a discussion regarding favorite items in care packages, a guy that identifies as 2nd Lt. MoonPie46 said the high-tech instrument of the day was the cassette player. He would borrow one from a buddy to listen to a tape from his wife. He says the interesting thing was that it required “C” or “AA” batteries instead of “D” batteries, which were much easier to get as standard military supply. A member of the armchair forum identified as DeltaOne said his wife would record his first son babbling and saying some of his first words, which made him really miss his family terribly (DeltaOne).
In the online veteran forum, DeltaOne said, his wife would send him photos of her and the kids. However, it made the separation more difficult, especially when she sent private photos of herself, it would “drive him nuts.” CWO Green said letters and cassettes from rather racy
girlfriends, were most highly prized and often shared with good buddies for entertainment. Although, if they were from wives, they never got shared.
A GI after receiving a “Dear John letter” Photo Credit: courtesy of http://www.CherriesWriter.com
The “Dear John”
Many GI’s agree that receiving a breakup letter (AKA: A Dear John) was the most devastating kind of letter to receive. Green said Dear John’s were more frequent that one might imagine. Many relationships did not survive the year-long absence. People could always tell when a GI got a Dear John letter. His behavior would either include a lot of swearing and stomping, or he would go completely silent and deal with it privately in an unhealthy way. People knew when somebody was in the dumps over a Dear John. The feeling of betrayal, sadness, and absolute helplessness was often overpowering. Since there was no way for a GI to call home quickly or at all and no chance to confront the situation directly. John Podlaski says that just before he left for Vietnam, he gave the girlfriend. He had been dating an engagement ring. He said the frequency of the letters decreased, until finally, after three months of being in Vietnam, he received the letter he would remember for a lifetime. She told him she joined in the anti-war protests, she was in love with another guy, and she would take the ring to his mother. He said, “My childhood notions of romance suddenly shattered! I felt helpless because she was so far away. I couldn’t call. I couldn’t visit for a face-to-face. It was a major distraction, one that might get me killed. Overnight, I developed an “I don’t give a shit attitude,” volunteered to walk point, joined spontaneous ambush teams, and took all kinds of unnecessary risks.” Soon Podlaski’s buddies in ‘Nam recognized the signs that something was wrong, then he told them what happened. At that point, the support from his brothers in arms and the support from his community saved him from utter self-destruction.
It is not clear if the social consequences would have different outcomes if cell phone technology were available at the time; each situation is different. It is possible some soldiers could have made it home alive if the “Dear John” had not arrived at the time it did, it may have just delayed the same outcome in another context. There is no easy way of knowing. Faster communication technology could have boosted morale in many ways, although it could have also interrupted everyday operations or distracted troops, putting them in danger. The Vietnam War was a confusing battle. Many people do not know what the purpose of being in Vietnam was or if we accomplished any essential goals. Some call it the Vietnam conflict.
The Care Package
Some of the favorite items in a “Care Package” were foods like presweetened Kool-Aid that could disguise the taste of the water in their canteens and condiments like hot sauce to cover the bad taste of the MRE’s. Green said he received many wonderful packages from girlfriends along with letters, Most had treats of some kind in them, including cookies, cakes, candy, packaged soups, coffee, and tea. “Anything the mess hall or the PX could not serve up to eat or drink was precious.” They often traded many items with other GI’s. Podlaski said, “if somebody in your squad got a care package from home, it was like winning “The Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes.”
Freeze-dried foods of today could have undoubtedly saved the taste buds and the health of many service members throughout the Vietnam era; other benefits include convenience, freshness, low-weight, ease of preparation, variety, and taste. Morale could have certainly been increased with freeze dried foods. However, the US Government might argue the financial cost is more than they are willing to spend. Although, the US Government has a reputation for spending big dollars on everyday items such as a toilet seat.
Communication Quality and Quantity
My mother was getting both personal and family cassette tapes weekly from my Dad, my sister Christine also received cassette tapes, Kerry received weekly letters on his mission. Most of us received occasional letters, and my mother getting them more frequent. On holidays or special occasions, we received morale calls through a phone patch with MARS radio. We also sent a few care packages. Letters were the standard method for most GI’s and their families, cassettes were rare, and phone calls were even more limited. Our family had the luxury of frequent cassettes, to add to a regular exchange of letters and occasional phone calls. With a large family, my Dad was busy writing letters, recording cassettes and received much support from family through letters and tapes.
One likely reason many of us did not feel the impact of a dangerous war situation at the time, was due to the exchange of quality communication. The success of our family network was due to communication skills of each family member, the people within the postal service, MARS service, HAM radio, the phone company, the paper company, the pen and ink companies, and many more silent partners balanced with nature. As I reflect on my research to find out how the experience my family had compared with experiences from other families, I see a correlation with the quality of communication and the success of a family. Many other families may have also had excellent communication. However, the nature of war changed the course of their success through unfortunate events. My family was blessed to have my Dad return home healthy and mentally stable. The inventors of the cassette player, HAM radio, and other communication artifacts did not likely realize the role it would have in the Vietnam War and social effects the technology would have on the actors involved.
Thank you Djinni, my sister in arms, for a well-done paper. I also thank you once again for allowing me to publish your fine work. God Bless!
Primary Sources (Face-to-face, Facebook Messenger and phone)
Gibson, Larry U.S. Navy Petty Officer (Face-to-Face)
Green, Dan Chief Warrant Officer (Email)
Greiser, Alaine Sister (Messenger)
Richhart, Eric U.S. Navy Petty Officer (Phone)
Southworth, Christine Sister (Messenger)
Southworth, Kerry Brother (Messenger)
Southworth, Sean Brother (Messenger)
Ware, Yvonne Sister (Messenger)
Online Sources (Web)
“ARRL.” What Is Ham Radio, 2019, http://www.arrl.org/what-is-ham-radio.
Barnes, Randy. “Randy Barnes – Letter #5 – Nov. 22,1968.” Vietnam Soldier, 30 Jan. 2017, vietnamsoldier.com/randy-barnes-letter-5-nov-221968/.
Davis, Jeff, and Amy Davis. “How to Operate a HAM Radio.” Survival Tips, The Ready Store, 20 Jan. 2015, http://www.thereadystore.com/survival-tips/10474/how-to-operate-a-ham-radio/.
DeltaOne General of the Forums Join Date: Oct 2006 Posts: 6971, and moonpie46 Second Lieutenant Join Date: Mar 2009 Posts: 429. “Announcement.” Armchair General and History Net >> The Best Forums in History, 13 Aug. 2009, forums.armchairgeneral.com/forum/historical-events-eras/vietnam-war/69070-carepackages-what-were-your-favorite-items.
Devoldere, John, et al. “Ethics & Operating Procedures for the Radio Amateur.” Mcmc.gov, MCMC.gov, June 2010, http://www.mcmc.gov.my/skmmgovmy/media/General/pdf/AttachmentII-Ethics-and-Procedure-for-Radio-Amateur.pdf.
Dphepner. “Communication during the Vietnam War.” Families at War, WordPress, 9 Apr. 2014, familiesatwar2014.wordpress.com/2014/04/09/communication-during-the-vietnamwar/.
Essentials, Emergency. “The Advantages of Freeze-Dried Foods.” Emergency Essentials Blog, 27 Apr. 2018, http://www.beprepared.com/blog/84/the-advantages-of-freeze-dried-foods/.
Grassley, Charles. “These Toilet Seat Lids Aren’t Gold-Plated, but They Cost $14,000.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Dec. 2018, http://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/opinion/pentagon-budget-military-spending-waste.html.
MARS. “MARS a Brief History.” MARS a Brief History, 2016, http://www.mars.af.mil/.
MARS. “Military Amateur Radio System.” vietnamwar50th.Com, 2019, http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/military_amateur_radio_system/.
Martens, Michael, director. Your Questions Answered (Baofengs, MARS, & APRS) – Ham Radio Q&A. YouTube KB9VBR Your Questions Answered, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biwbPffqsVo.
Podlaski, John. “Care Packages from Home.” CherriesWriter, 18 July 2018, cherrieswriter.com/2017/11/30/care-packages-from-home/.
Podlaski, John. “Mail Call in Vietnam – Dear John…” CherriesWriter, 19 July 2018, cherrieswriter.com/2013/11/01/mail-call-in-vietnam-dear-john/.
“Remembering Vietnam: Mail Call.” History.com/ Remembering Vietnam: Mail Call, A&E Television Networks, 2019, http://www.history.com/shows/vietnam-in-hd/videos/rememberingvietnam-mail-call.
“Technology & Heterogeneous Engineering: The Case of Portuguese Expansion.” Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices, by John Law, Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 111–132.
“Vietnam Comms with Home.” Received by Dan Green, Vietnam Comms with Home, 10 Nov. 2019.
John Podlaski’s Envelope https://cherrieswriter.com/2013/11/01/mail-call-in-vietnam-dear-john/
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