MARS station

Soldiers waiting for their turn to call home. AB8AAP is the MARS station located at Vinh Long, South Vietnam, home to the Army’s 1st Air Calvery and the 164th Aviation Group.

My generation has seen many new developments of technology. From the outhouse to the porcelain bowl, the Victrola to the transistor radio, from the radio to television we have witnessed the industrial age. We have seen “Ma Bell” communications grow from, in West Virginia, a string and two soup cans to the 5G network of phones of today that will fit in your pocket.

The telephone has been one of the biggest changes that allows people to communicate around the world. The “Cell” phone that everyone uses today was invented in the late forties. The first units were as big as shoe boxes and the technology took decades to set up the towers and systems that could reach far distances. It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that it would be marketed for consumers.

For all of us who were world travelers in the 60s and 70s, we relied on “land-lines” which were impossible to find when we visited other countries like Vietnam. While we were in Vietnam we heard from our loved ones through letters, and for a few there were the cassette tapes. Lucky for the troops in Vietnam there was a way to reach home to hear the voices just like they were on the other end of a phone.

Talking to people, who are not in the same room as you takes some form of an alternative device to get your message across. If they are next door, you can just holler. If they are further than your voice will carry you can use a megaphone. The next clear way to communicate across distances led to the development of the telephone. People could talk with each other but were subject to using a device connected by wire and having operators to make their long-distance calls.


While the telephone was being developed and the first call being made in 1886 another way to communicate with out using wire was being tested. In St. Louis, in 1893 Nikolai Tesla demonstrated the first wireless communication radio. It was Guglielmo Marconi, who in 1886, got the first British patent for his design of the radio. In 1901 Marconi, with the use of giant antennas, communicated a Morse code letter “S” from Newfoundland to England, over 2,000 miles.

The development began using Morse code to send messages to ships at sea, and in 1906 the first vocal message was heard. The radio quickly became one of the most important tools of communication during World War I. After the end of the war, it was apparent that communications were critical and in America the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) was founded in 1914. (In 1912 the government started requiring operators to be licensed and provided a number for them to use for identification when broadcasting).

In 1925, the Army’s Signal Corps’ created the Auxiliary Amateur Radio System (AARS) that was composed mostly of civilian amateurs, to provide a pool of trained operators. These operators used their skills to support not only the military but also to federal, state and local agencies needing help in times of disasters. The AARS continued working until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, amateur radio operators were denied the use of the airwaves for national security.


After the end of World War II amateur operators were again allowed to use the airwaves. In 1948, the AARS was reborn by the Army and Air Force and in 1952 the name was change to the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS). The Navy-Marine Corp did not join the MARS program until 1962, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. MARS became an important tool for those serving since Korea and especially for those in Vietnam. The “Marsgram” provided “phone patches” between those in the battle zone and their families at home.

It was this week, fifty-three years ago that, for the first time, I heard words spoken by my fourteen-month-old daughter. (She was just three months old when I had left for Vietnam.) I had waited three hours outside a little “shack” over at the 5th Special Forces Camp at Nha Trang, Vietnam. There was a sign above the door that read “AB8AW”. AB8AW is the identification call sign for a Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) station. Each station has its own call sign just as today’s AM and FM radio stations. In Vietnam, the MARS station was used by thousands of American service members to hear the real-time voices of their loved ones.

My Blackbird unit provided support and transportation for the Army’s 5th Special Forces (Speedy Forces) had their own MARS station, but it was always backed up with guys coming in from missions wanting to call home. I had waited many times for my turn.

In most cases I would hear one of the guys who I felt needed to hear a voice from home more than I and would let them have my place. It was not until a special mission came up that I would get my chance for the call.

Just after Thanksgiving, in 1968, a critical supply did not make it to Nha Trang. The bases supply of alcohol, coming in by ship, had been held up by storms. It would be several weeks before the shipment arrived, and all the hard stuff was disappearing. With the holidays coming and no chance for alcohol caused an emergency situation. Our “Top Secret” organization was called into action.

I flew on C-123’s and our “sister” outfit flew C-130’s that would “snatch” soldiers out of the jungles after snagging a big balloon to which they were attached. The C-130 had a bigger cargo ability and a longer flight range. An important training mission was called and six of us were sent on a Temporary Duty assignment (TDY) to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. When we got to Clark four of us were given “light duty” and were told to be back to the plane four days later for our return trip.


After getting our temporary living space we were able to explore the base where I found the MARS station (I can’t remember their call sign) and made an appointment to call home. I was given a time to come back the next day as it was not a simple process to use the MARS system to contact someone. On my end they used my home’s, where my family was in West Virginia, area code to find a radio operator in between (middle man) that could handle my “call”.

The way this “call” works is that I would use a radio microphone to talk with my family who would use the home phone. When I got to my appointment, I spoke the radio operator who described how the whole thing worked. The local MARS station had found a HAM (A nickname given to amateur radio operators by Commercial operators) operator in Ohio that would handle the transfer of my message.

The Ohio operator would use his home phone to make the long-distance call to my home. He gave my family instructions that only one person, one each end of the phone, could only talk at a time. When they were finished saying something they would have to say “over”.

I had been given the same instructions, but my wife and I were so excited to hear each other, we both forgot to say “over” the first time. This caused a loss of precious seconds for the maximum 10-minute time limit (This was only 5 minutes in Vietnam). The call was clear and felt like I could almost touch the children I had spent so little time with because of Vietnam. Before I knew it the radio operator with me held up ten fingers and began the countdown, it was the shortest ten-minutes of my life.

Two days later we met back at the plane for the return trip to Vietnam, the plane’s loadmaster had been busy. Just before leaving on our “mission” orders had been taken from every unit on the airbase, the Civil Engineers, the 5th Speedy Forces, and the Army’s food distribution unit. The orders were for a supply of alcohol. The airplane’s cargo bay was filled from top to bottom throughout the length of the plane. There were only enough seats left down for each crew member and very little room to even strengthen our legs. It was a long trip back.

I had the opportunity to feel what hearing the voices of my loved ones had meant. A bright 10-minutes in the hours, days and months spent away from them, each second could have been the last.

When I had originally tried to call from the 5th Special Forces’ MARS station, I had found that many standing were assigned to base and never left. I knew that we faced the possibility of attack at any time, but it was the ones I saw coming back from the field that I felt for.

For my time left, before coming back to the states, I went twice a week and stood in the line for a MARS call. I worked the night shifts so come morning I could be at the MARS station when it opened, and I was usually in the top ten there. I could tell who were just back to camp and I would give them my place in line.

It was the least I could do to bring the feeling I had had on my call home to someone who was really facing an enemy and their destiny. I know the lines were long at Nha Trang and there were over 50 MARS stations throughout Vietnam that thousands of troops who got their 5-minutes hearing the voices from home.


Disabled American Veterans Chapter 102 – Will not be having a meeting the month of December. The hall at 148 Pine Street is open on Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to noon, there will be doughnuts, coffee, and drinks available. Service officers will be available to help with claims or any questions. Any donations for replacing the roof can be made at the hall or contacting the Commander. You can call the Hall at (423) 532-8130 (Please leave a message) or Commander Larry Hartsell at 423-623-5112.

Rob Watkins is a totally disabled, Air Force, Vietnam combat veteran. He has worked with Veterans for over 40 years. As a member of local organizations, he continues his path to help others. Please send information, and dates for events, two weeks in advance, questions or suggestion; by mail to 565 Caney Creek Road Cosby, TN 37722 or c/o Newport Plain Talk, email;, Facebook/View from the Bunker, or call 423-721-8918, please leave a message.

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