Navy-Marine Corps MARS in Vietnam




Alpha India Eight Bravo Uniform

U-Tapao Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand

I was trained as an air/ground radio operator in Tech School at Keesler AFB, MS immediately following basic training at Amarillo AFB, TX.  I enjoyed the training and finished first in my class and looked forward to doing that job in real life.  I was disappointed when I was assigned to Altus AFB, OK to a MARS station.  None of my training other than how to work the equipment and follow procedure prepared me for the boring job of a U.S. MARS station in 1968.  Possibly because of our location and the extreme weather we ran very few phone patches and a few MARSGRAMS.  Life was very dull there.

In November of '68 I received orders to report to Task Force Alpha somewhere in Thailand and I eventually found out it was at Nakom Phanam, the infamous NKP on the Mekong River across from Laos. I was to attend survival school at Eglin AFB Florida first, but that was cancelled because my Top Secret clearance had not been completed. The Task Force Alpha orders were cancelled and I was reassigned to report in January to U-Tapao with no specific job assignment.  I was disappointed that I had lost the initial assignment because I wanted to go to survival school. I was even more disappointed that right before I left for Southeast Asia my Top Secret clearance came through, so I would have had it anyway.  Haven't forgiven the FBI to this day.

When I got to U-Tapao I was again disappointed when I found out that I was appointed to the MARS station.  I couldn't imagine spending the next year doing that. There had to be more to being a radio operator than MARS. But, I was quickly, and pleasantly surprised to find that MARS in Southeast Asia was a lot different than MARS at Altus. In fact, everything about the military was different there. It was my first experience at being a real soldier and individual within the service.  It was the best assignment of my four years.

When I first arrived at U-Tapao the station operated on three rotating shifts and the new guy got the floater assignment because he had to do a 16 hour shift on the back end of his shift tour.  I loved it because you got an extra day off and volunteered to be the permanent floater because I hated day shift.  Too much supervision and too little call action.  As you all know, we were not short on call requests, in fact, we were overwhelmed with them.  But during day shift all the rules had to be obeyed and it was tedious and non-productive.  Evening and midnight shifts were the action times and the time to really learn how to make MARS calls. In June or July '69 we changed to 12 hour shifts and Chuck and I volunteered for the 7 p.m. - 7 a.m. shift -- permanently.  There were no objections since we got no extra time off, but we did get to run our shop.  We also by this time had recruited a few MARS volunteers to help us out with the phones and the troops in the station trying to get home.  We had also made some trades for new equipment from the Army base outside our base so we had two extra brand new units to use.  Actually, Chuck and I could run all four at the same time, but with volunteers it made it easier.  We also ran renegade, that is off the assigned nets and frequencies.  We found ways to communicate with some of the civilian operators stateside and would "meet" on various frequencies and run call after call uninterrupted or shared with anyone else.  We had to have set some kind of record doing this, but it's all unrecorded because we couldn't log these calls.

We would keep one set on the official net so as not to cause suspicion and hated when we would get assigned net control duty because it would require full-time monitoring by one of us and we couldn't leave that to a volunteer.  It was also touchy sometimes when our NCOIC or commander would get glowing compliments about how many people were getting calls home through MARS.  If he ever checked the logs closely he would have figured it out.  Maybe he did and didn't care as long as no one was complaining. His exec, a Capt. Stevens, figured it out, but was cool with it because we were getting him through to his wife often.

We would hook up with our contacts stateside who would hook up with a telephone operator and we would give them as many as 20 calls at a time. We worked on a five-minute basis per call. The telephone operator would get two calls standing by at a time and we'd just go one to the other with out stopping. When that frequency would give out, we'd jump to another and keep going. Chuck and I lived in a hooch and then in a prefab barracks with electronic repairmen. They made us special headsets with coils long enough for us to walk around the entire station so we could keep calls going while doing other things. It was a very fun and rewarding and we got to where we would go nuts those times when we couldn't raise anyone in the states because of atmospheric problems. We both hated to see the disappointment on the faces of guys who would literally wait their entire off time to get a call through to someone back home. We also felt good because I was 22 and Chuck 19 and we were! doing fifty times more output than our entire crew put together, though not officially.

One part of the MARS experience that wasn't pleasant and I was unprepared for were the family and domestic problems. The first Chaplain priority request I received I assumed was for a death in the family and it turns out the marriage was dead. A Dear John for all the world to hear.  There were many more and I found that for relief I would need to volunteer for augmented duty, which I got to like even though some of the rainy duty was a bitch.  But, I got to learn how to shoot an M-60 and did some perimeter patrols and other such duty.

I remember this young guy named Allen who had a terrible domestic problem. He was about my age and we really liked him.  He had a blanket priority from the Chaplain.  His wife was giving him all kinds of grief and she was seeing some other guy, really terrible stuff.  We started having problems reaching her at their home number and he gives us another number.  Yes, it's the guy's house and he doesn't have the decency to lie that she's not there, hands the phone over to her. By that time Allen's so good at the radio,  I just walk away and let him just use the mike and headsets, I don't want to hear anymore of this situation. Unfortunately, there would be more Allens.

There were a lot of edgy calls too when the Vietnamese started shooting the SAMs at the B-52's. They had previously been pretty free from enemy fire because of their altitude, etc. We had to be careful about what could be said about that over the air, but you can imagine a terrified wife back home who has read something in the paper about SAMs.

The majority of the calls were happy ones and thousands of "I love yous" and "please be careful" dominated the airways.  We were pretty disciplined about not abusing it for our own use to call our loved ones, limiting ourselves to once a week. We did fudge some for those we could deal with for on and off base comforts, though. We had a supply staff sergeant who was Pilipino and married to a gal in the Philippines.  We had a direct phone line to the Philippines so we'd let him come in everyday and call his wife, they were fairly newlyweds.  He proved to be very helpful and generous.  When the Navy guys at Sattahip (Royal Navy Port) needed jungle fatigues and boots we were able to arrange through his assistance 40 pairs of each in return for a pallet of beer -- 80 cases.  We also had cultivated friends in Security Police, transportation and getting the pallet from Sattahip and onto the base was relatively easy.  By the time everyone was paid off we were down to about 10 or 15 cases for us!  It was the fun of putting the deal together.

MARS operators could pretty much go in and out of the Main Gate as we pleased. There were certain items that we weren't supposed to take with us, etc., that we could walk in or out with. We were also not checked for curfew. We were also the ones the Main Gate called if any of our squadron members were arrested, came in too late, etc. We usually could work something out if it wasn't too serious. Another great thing about being in a communications squadron overseas was that you did all the communications including telephones. So, you had lots of treats to work with. Got the clap and didn't want that on your medical record. Of course we had several medics who we could count on to purge that info from your record. Even had several flight surgeons who were good friends. I watched the Bob Hope Show that year from a flight surgeon's quarters directly over the stage. Those Golddiggers costume changes were fun to watch.

Our exploits helped off base as well. We would run some calls for the Red Horse (Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers) and DZK boys and they all lived in the surrounding villages and Pattaya.  One of the DZK guys hooked a couple of us up with a special deal on a great bungalow equipped with young ladies to help us during our off duty time.   I remember the jungle ride down there and the checkpoints we'd have to go through and other crazy things, especially at night.  It's amazing we never got whacked, though we usually had weapons with us, something we weren't supposed to have.  But, we could get through the Main Gate unchecked.  I developed a very close relationship with a great guy who was an SP and one call from him to the gate was all it took. His wife, Annie, was in Hawaii and they talked often.

I've often said that I think some of the experiences I had from MARS played a role in my obtaining my masters in psychology, though not entirely. But, the experiences good and bad from seeing real human drama develop before you can't help but stay with you.  I don't think I really appreciated those feelings until years later.  I kept myself so busy during that year on and off duty that it literally flew by.  I've said many times that the first and last months were the longest and those in between a blur.  There were so many experiences that I unfortunately have a hard time recalling, but usually do when I hear or see something.  I also lost so many pictures over the years through carelessness and the moves.  I've always been bad about that.

I loved the camaraderie we all had over there.  We would have these great beer busts at the beach as the base was located on the Gulf of Siam.  Our second commander -- Major Major who fortunately was quickly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel  -- was big on that.   We all were interested in what each other did and I would go over to the Control Tower and hang and help out there and some of those guys would do the same with us. My roomies repaired all the equipment including the tower's and the radar approach people so they knew everyone.  We'd have barbecues outside the barracks, ours backed up to the perimeter.  Our bunker guards loved it because they got treated.  Boy, those water buffalo steaks were tough.

After making literally thousands of MARS calls during my SEA tour, I never made another one the rest of my life after I left U-Tapao.  I kept my headsets as a souvenir for years, but lost them in one of my many moves during my corporate career.

Errol Savoie, A1C USAF - AI8BU - Jan 1969 - Jan 1970      Back to Top