During the Vietnam War a small number of Marines,
all licensed ham radio operators (sometimes known as radio geeks) in civilian
life, were given civilian amateur radio equipment and told to use their ham
radio skills to run phone patches, or telephone calls home for their fellow
Marines. The operation was called the Military Affiliate Radio System. Most of
the operators lived in their radio stations, which were known by their callsigns.
November zero echo foxtrot alpha (N0EFA) was the first operating station.
Eventually there were stations Alpha through Zebra (N0EFZ) in Vietnam and on
hospital ships off the coast. They had their own chain of command, as no other
Marine Corps unit wanted any thing to do with them, they seldom wore rank
insignia, went by only first names (even on the radio) and answered only to
other MARS personnel. Their counterparts in the United States placed collect
telephone calls to the families and friends of the Marines in the field and
patched the calls through on frequencies near the ham bands.
MY TRIBUTE TO MY FELLOW MARS OPERATORS IN VIETNAM
(the old station)
Left to right, Standing: Ray Gross, Barry Weathersby,
Gunny Harry Boggs
(a founding father of Marine Corps MARS)
Kneeling: Bill Biggs,
United States Marine Corps MARS
Operations In Vietnam
Early in the Vietnam war there was no such thing
as a MARS operator MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) in the Marine Corps.
Operators came from infantry,
recon, tanks, artillery, motor
transport, engineers, helicopters,
air wing and just about every other job in the Marine Corps. A few even came
from communications. The one thing they had in common was ham radio. Some
had been members of their high school amateur radio clubs just a few short
months before and few had the money to invest in a real store-bought radio.
Many had built their own or converted old WWII military surplus radios. But
the Marine Corps handed them fifty to a hundred thousand dollars worth of
state-of-the-art ham radio equipment and said, "Go play".
The original N0EFA on the hill in Da Nang,
a young ham radio operator's dream. Collins KWM-2A transceiver, complete
Collins 'S' Line, i.e., 32S-3 Transmitter, 75S-3A Receiver, phone patch
consoles and a Henry 2K-2 linear amplifier.
John Haw runs phone patches at N0EFL
('The Lizard') at Red Beach in Da Nang.
And play they did. The Marine Corps MARS operators
ran hundreds of thousands of phone calls from Marines to their loved
ones back in 'The World'. Many seasoned veterans, before email or cell
phones were even dreamed of, simply didn't believe it would work. There
was no way some kid with a civilian radio, often under horrendous enemy
fire, was going to figure out when the peak of the sunspot cycle would
ionize the 'E' layer of the ionosphere, point an antenna at exactly the
right spot a hundred miles out in space at the right time and reflect a
high frequency radio signal off the ionized layer, over the curve of the
earth into a similar station in the United States, much less hook it
all up to a telephone line to their family.
But these 'kids' knew how to do exactly
that. They had learned it to pass the Federal Communications
Commission's test to get their licenses, some when they were 13 or 14
years old. Then they had (mostly) wished for the opportunity to own a
radio to practice what they had learned.
Then, for whatever reasons, they became
United States Marines. By the time they got to Vietnam, most had shelved
their ham radio knowledge somewhere in the back of their minds and
concentrated on doing their assigned jobs and staying alive. But by
various means their talents were discovered and they were taken from
their units, from combat infantrymen to cooks, and reassigned to MARS
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. Another skill
they had acquired to get their 'ticket'. Many had only managed to pass a
5 word per minute test to get an entry level (novice) license and some
of them were now working traffic at 30 to 50 words per minute. Practice
ALPHA'S MIGRATION NORTH
Alpha was born at 3rd Marine Division
Headquarters in Da Nang. 3rd Mar Div FWD (Forward) HQ was created in Phu Bai
and N0EFJuliet was activated there. In early 1967, 3rd Mar Div moved it's HQ
north to Phu Bai and Alpha was moved north with 3rd Mar Div FWD to Dong Ha,
within range of the big NVA guns in North Vietnam, and the station down in
Da Nang got a new call sign.
But by early 1968, the old Alpha in Dong Ha was
badly damaged (more holes than walls and roof) and wounded operators and
destroyed equipment were taking their toll on the phone patch count. Harry
Boggs convinced the Seabees (using phone calls home and other bribes) to
build a new station on the other side of the combat base. So Alpha moved
north again. The new station was a beauty:
"Our Turn in the Barrel!" Alpha at it's
northern most point, as far north as it could go and still be in South
Vietnam. Although full authorization was never granted for 'cross-patching',
Harry Boggs considered it critical to run calls for the grunts in the field
who deserved it the most. A portable station was assembled and taken to Con
Thien, affectionately known as "The Meat Grinder", a few hundred meters
south of the DMZ. Calls were run from Con Thien on the 'in country net'
frequency and cross patched to the United States through N0EFA in Dong Ha.
Barry ran over 500 patches from Con Thien in about two weeks, Christmas of
These former MARS members have checked
in. Please let me know if you worked in MARS during the Vietnam War. If you
would like to email any of these operators, please contact me. I am still in
the process of developing this page and would welcome any and all comments,
corrections, criticisms, pictures, stories (true or otherwise) about MARS in
Vietnam to improve this site.
(This Original Roster has been replaced and is now tracked on
|| John Haw
|David Lee Foster
||Rush 'Jack' Williams
To all of you who made it back from
Vietnam, "Welcome Home!". To those who didn't, Semper Fi.
"Some people spend an entire lifetime
wondering if they made a difference. Marines don't have that problem."
President Ronald Reagan, 1983.
"I don't know what happened. We were
winning when I left." Barry Weathersby, 1999.
Thanks for all the help, guys. Keep it up.
USMC MARS in Vietnam is a member of