Navy-Marine Corps MARS in Vietnam

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Amateur Radio's Best Kept Secret:

The Story of the Vietnam War Phone Patches

 Hugh Tinley K0GHK / N0HFO

One of amateur radios most interesting projects is also one of its best kept secrets. It's a story of the successful Vietnam war-time partnership between the military and the countries radio amateurs.

In looking back/ it's hard to believe that in the 1950's and 60's, "phone patching" by amateurs was strictly forbidden. If an amateur had a "phone patch" and would occasionally run a long distance patch for a friend, the phone company could, and some times would, take out his or her phone. Before deregulation, Ma Bell was one tough old gal.  How the military, the hams and the ARRL got around this problem during Vietnam wasn't easy - and it makes quite a story. 

I joined the Military Affiliate Radio Service, or MARS, back in the early 1960s. In those days, Kennedy was President, the Cold War was at its coldest and news about the minor squabble in Vietnam was seldom mentioned on the six o'clock news. Unfortunately, this nasty little war on the other side of the world, soon turned the United States upside down, quadruple the size of the various MARS programs, and give me my first gray hair. 

MARS opened up a strange new world to amateurs. The first shock came when you cranked your rig OUT of the ham bands and timidly looked around for your MARS frequency some where out there where you had never been. When you found the frequency and keyed your rig, the response you felt SURE would be, "WHAT—are U -oo~ doing on THIS frequency???" 

Each of the military services, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force has a MARS Program. I was in Navy MARS and during the 1960’s and 70’s, was running phone patches into the States for Marines serving in Vietnam. 

Amateurs in those early days in MARS were doing a great job handling WRITTEN traffic but phone patches were still a ways down the pike. A few of the amateurs in MARS however, felt that "sideband", the new mode of voice communication on the ham bands, had the potential of adding an interesting new dimension to the MARS programs. The unique capability of long haul sideband phone patches seemed made to order for MARS. 

In MARS, these amateurs who were experimenting with sideband phone patches were the new kids on the block and the results of their test were impressive. Those peace time years before Vietnam erupted gave them the opportunity to show the military just how effective sideband phone patches could be from any part of the world. By the time the military turned up the wick in Vietnam, phone patches with excellent audio, were coming through the 9,000 mile radio link from Asia ~ and the military was VERY impressed. 

Before we could get on with the war in Vietnam, MARS, the ARRL and the amateurs had first to win the war with the telephone company. As it turned out, no one WON this "Telephone War" but after a great deal of maneuvering - and some strong language, a settlement was reached.  It wasn't a good settlement, in fact, it was a BAD settlement, but it was the ONLY settlement that would end the hassle. Nothing was put in writing, but the phone company agreed to look the other way on Vietnam phone patches, PROVIDING, that QST and other amateur publications soft pedaled articles on these patches. 

The ARRL didn’t like this at all, but neither did the military OR the hams as it had the potential of leaving untold the story of one of amateur radios finest achievements ~ and that's EXACTLY what happened. 

After the war, our Omaha "phone patch" project with the Marines, OPERATION HELLO was read into the Congressional Record as one of the finest humanitarian projects to come out of the Vietnam conflict. This gave us fifteen minuets of fame, but there were dozens of other MARS phone patch projects that were doing as much or more than were we. The story of the MARS phone patch projects were never publicized, and it's a shame as today, few amateurs are aware of one of amateur radios finest public services. 

One final on Ma Bell. 

In any big organization, there is always some nut who doesn't get the "message" and one of these characters with the phone company and. hadn't heard of the "phone patch agreement". This clown called me one day and said it had come to his attention that I was running phone patches. "IF this was true" he said, "and IF I continued, it would become necessary for him to have my phone removed." He made it sound as if -- God — had just spoken. 

I told him that yes, I WAS running phone patches and planned to continue but it would be interesting if he and his people came to take out my phone. If they did, I would alert the press and a Marine general would be on hand to handle the news briefing. I suggested that when he and his gun slingers showed up, that they wear decent clothes as their pictures would be all over the evening news. 

You guessed it, no one showed up and Ma Bell and I got along happily for the rest of war. Today, I almost miss that old girl. Well - sort of. 

Running phone patches for service men in combat, could pump up your adrenaline. Nothing I have done before or since has generate the feeling of satisfaction that came from putting a wife or mother into voice contact with a husband or son in a hostile country some 9,000 miles away. Running those patches was heady wine. 

When you joined MARS in those early days, the Marines reminded you that if you deliberately screwed up these phone patches, that in war time. Uncle Sam could have you shot, or might in some other way, spoil your day. For example... 

…IF you or the Marine operator at the other end of the radio link, let information get out on the air that gave "aid and comfort to the enemy", you could be blindfolded and stood against a wall. We knew the Marines were jerking our chain a little on this, but -- they did get our attention.


We were also told the Russians, the Chinese and the North Vietnamese had our frequencies and the State Department said the bad guys regularly monitored these phone patches.


And we were told...


... that if we got off frequency and caused interference to other United States agencies or those of friendly countries, we probably wouldn't be shot, but would be in trouble. (I assumed it was ok to caused interference to the enemy, but was afraid to ask.) 


Welcome to war time MARS.

Phone patches from Vietnam seemed to fall into four categories...


HAPPY CALLS... and that's what the majority of calls were. Often in these calls, both sides were so thrilled and excited at hearing each others voices that it was hard for either to start a conversation. 

One of the most interesting "Happy Calls" was from a young Marine who had been captured by the North Vietnamese and after being held for thirty days or so, managed to escape. 

Connie Bowen ran this call. Connie, and her husband Norval, make a great pair. They have been running patches for the military for over 30 years and are two of the most dedicated navy MARS operators in the country. I never tired of listening on the frequency when Connie was running patches. Her pleasant, friendly voice worked wonders in calming excited teen age Marines and their equally excited mothers. 

Back to this young Marine. He had not only escaped, and not been shot by the enemy, but managed to get back through his own lines with out being shot by his friends.


Though he was hungry, dirty and hadn’t shaved or bathed in a month/the first thing he wanted to do was call his mother. The MARS operator over there put him on the horn but the moment Connie told his mother she had him on the line, the mother hung up. We learned later that the boy had been missing for so long that the military felt sure he was a casualty, and sadly, the mother was convinced of it.

 It was only after Connie managed to keep the mother on the line and the boy was able to tell her the name of his last years high school English teacher, the name of his girl friend and the name of his dog, that she became convinced that it WAS her son that was calling ~ and that he WAS alive and unharmed. 

UNHAPPY CALLS... No on liked to handle these but they came with the territory and had to be run. Divorces, unfaithful wives, unfaithful husbands, jealousies, hate, money troubles, in law troubles, troubles with the military, troubles with the boss at the office. All the troubles that plague mankind were discussed over this radio - telephone link. We had to listen to all the sad tales, not because we wanted to but because the military insisted on it and because we had to know when to flip the switches on the patch. 

I often felt that running these patches would have been great for a newly ordained Catholic priest who needed practice hearing confessions. 

One of the worst experiences imaginable happened to one of our operators who was running a seemingly routine patch for a young Marine who had just received a "Dear John" letter from his new bride telling him she wanted a divorce. Very upset, the boy spent 20 minuets tried to talk her out of the divorce. When he saw he wasn't convincing her, he paused and said, "If that's the way it has to be, then that is the way it has to be". Picking up his rifle, he killed himself —— right on the air. That rifle shot sounded as loud in the radio room in Omaha as it did in Vietnam, and as it must have in the ear of the wife who seemed to have caused the suicide. 

FUNNY CALLS... If you wrote a book about the hilarious calls that went through these nets it would be a best seller.


The funniest one I ran involved two Marines.  Both by coincidence, were named Anderson and both were calling their wives. One wife was in Albany, New York and the other in Phoenix, Arizona. Well, unbeknown to the Andersons, or any one else, I got the stupid phone numbers mixed up with the result that the Anderson with a wife in Albany, New York ended up talking to the other Andersons wife in Phoenix, Arizona.  It's hard to believe, but these two talked for ten minutes and didn't know the difference. 

There was a reason for this. Radio conditions were miserable at the beginning of the patch and got worse as it went along. The two were so excited at hearing each others voices, that when they didn't understand what was said, they blamed it on the QRM — and kept right on going. 

Well, they finally found out what had happened, and when they did, the two Andersons in Vietnam climbed all over the poor MARS operator who was there and handy. You guessed it, coward that I was, I didn't mention that I was the one that goofed this up. 

Now, since over thirty years has gone by and as confession is good for the soul, if either of the Andersons --or their wives --or the MARS  operator reads this, they will learn who fouled up this call. I did but am still thankful I was 9,000 miles away when I did. 

General Sherman said, "War is hell" and I would agree and might add that it's even true in the days of phone patches.


During the early years of Vietnam, the long distance phone charges for phone patches were "reversed" and were paid by the family or friend the Marine was calling. As these Marines were taking casualties, it seemed a shame, that inexpensive as these calls were, families or friends had to pay for them. 

On this point, my company. Farmers National of Omaha agreed and sent a letter to each of its 2,000 clients asking if they would care to pay for these calls. The response was so favorable and so great that for the rest of the war we were able to run as many free calls as the Marines cared to make. 

When the Marine Corps found they had free calls, they sent an interesting letter to the families and friends who received such a call. This letter not only told what radio amateurs were doing for the Marines, but gave the name and address of the individual company client who had paid for their call. 

Many a mother who received a free call would be so touched by a strangers generosity that she would spend twice as much calling the individual who had paid for her call to tell them how MUCH that call had meant to her. Some remarkable friendships were formed around the country by this novel arrangement and many of these friendships remain to this day. 

Back to the war. UNUSUAL CALLS 

If you would write a book about the humorous calls that went through, you could write another book about the unusual calls that were handled. 

The Bowen husband and wife team ran dozens of these calls and one of the most unusual was the calls they handled for three companies of Marines who held the TOP half of a mountain while the North Vietnam army held the BOTTOM half. The Marines were not in any particular difficulty as this was a planned operation, and they were to be relieved in about a month. 

What made these calls unusual was that the MARS station was with in ear shot of much of the combat action and families and friends at home could often hear the sounds of battle over the phone patch. 

I often thought that home folk in the States hadn't heard the sound of warfare since the Indian wars when husbands and sons were firing out of the log cabin windows while family members in the cabin were loading and handing them their rifles. 

For three months I was running calls into the States for Marines who had been wounded and were in the hospital on Okinawa, an island not far from Vietnam. 

Though there were no technical problems with these hospital calls, there were many EMOTIONAL problems.


When a Marine was wounded and in the hospital a phone patch was normally not run until the Marine was well on the road to recovery. Though the wife or mother might know that their husband or son was coming along fine, she was seldom aware that he MIGHT be calling her. The result was that when he DID call, she was taken by surprise, was often at a loss for words and occasionally became hysterical. 


This was frustrating for the hospital, the Marine, his family and for we amateurs. We agreed (reluctantly) that the only way to correct this was for us to alert the family in advance about the up coming call. 

To make these extra calls alerting the families would about double our work load and would drastically reduce the number of calls we could get through from Vietnam. We got around this in a novel way. A large Omaha company agreed to have THEIR people call the families around the country the day before the calls came through. All we would have to do was get the list of up coming calls to them from the hospital. 

This worked to perfection and it was satisfying to run those calls the next day. The wives and mothers KNEW the call was coming and were ready for it when it did. If any one ever got full satisfaction out of the phone patches, it was these families on the hospital calls. 

These hospital calls marked a turning point in the lives of both the wounded Marines and of their families. By the time the patch was run, the first shock of the wound was over and the lives of the Marine and the lives of the family would forever be marked by this major event, neither would EVER forget the wound -- or this radio call home.


Shortly after this session with the hospital, the Marine Corps asked if I would like to visit the hospital on Okinawa and meet the friends I had been working with. 

The trip sounded great, and I went, and it was and it enabled me to present a plaque to the hospital commandant from the people of Omaha, Nebraska. While there, I had the opportunity to operate the MARS station at that end for a few days, and run patches in to the States. 

In looking back, nothing could match the heart felt thanks of a wife, or parent who through a miracle they felt WE had performed, had put them in to voice contact with a husband or son on the other side of the world. We amateurs were not paid for what we did but were more than adequately compensated with the sincere thanks of these good people. For our part, we were grateful for a hobby that made this all possible. 

How well I remember the days of OPERATION HELLO.



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Hugh Tinley has been a ham since 1962. He retired as president of Farmers National of Omaha, the largest farm management company in the US, and also served as a volunteer for the US Departments of Agriculture and State, briefing overseas embassies on agricultural issues. During the Vietnam conflict, he originated Operation Hello, running phone patches for serving Marines and their families. Tinley remains active in the Service Corps of Retired Executives, Rotary Club and Amateur Radio.