Paul A. Scipione. MARS: Calling Back To 'The World' From Vietnam
(The History of Military Affiliate Radio Systems Operations During the Vietnam War).
Kalamazoo, MI: Center for the Study of the Vietnam War, 1994.
"I spent Christmas Eve 1969 in Vietnam - in the ward at 326th Med, Camp Eagle, the base camp of the 101st Airborne Division - waiting to go out to the hospital ship USS Repose for surgery to repair a deviated septum.
At dawn the next day, several of my ward mates and I were choppered out to the Repose, anchored five miles offshore in the South China Sea. When I came out of the anesthesia, the doc told me that the surgery had gone "A-Okay. You can breathe again." After lunch, two Navy doctors strode into the ward to announce that there had just been a major firefight near Quang Tri. We had to be shipped out to make room for the latest wave of GI casualties. By mid-afternoon we were already back to the ward at 326th Med.
"Okay, guys, this is the plan," whispered the lanky Spec 4 from Texas, drawing the four of us into a tight circle to shield our conspiracy. "It's time to call home. As soon as the nurse medic leaves, we'll stuff pillows under our blankets an' duck out the back door an' down the hill to the MARS station." The plan sounded fine, except that two of the guys were in casts and on crutches, the Texan was bent over from surgery to remove shrapnel from his intestines, and I could barely see around the bandages on my face. We headed for AB8AAE, the MARS station operated by the 501st Signal Battalion at Camp Eagle. Between the four of us, we had the equivalent of one working body.
AB8AAE wasn't particularly impressive from the outside, just a typical plywood-and-screen hooch, up a few feet off the muddy ground, with a tin roof.
"How long a wait will we have?" I inquired to station operators.
"Can't estimate that exactly," a buck sergeant hollered out from behind a crude wooden table covered with Collins transmitters, receivers and linear amplifiers. "Propagation ain't so hot."
As the four of us from 326th Med took our places in line along the inside walls of the radio hooch, an amazing thing happened. One by one, other Screaming Eagles began giving up their places. "We can always come back tomorrow night. Looks like you guys need a call home more'n we do. Merry Christmas."
We were grateful for the generosity of our fellow GIs. After a two-hour wait, I entered the "phone booth," a makeshift plywood enclosure with an Army telephone on a plywood shelf and an old stool to sit on. I wondered if my wife and I would be able to recognize each other's voices over the 8,000 mile shortwave connection.
"Okay, Sarge," the MARS operator pointed at me. "The usual time limit is three minutes, but you guys from the hospital get five. Don't forget to say 'over' to mark the end of your side of the conversation."
I was heartbroken when there was no answer at my wife's number. The MARS operator then shifted to my parent's number as a backup. Wow, I could immediately recognize my Dad's voice on the other end, hollering for my Mom to crowd around the phone.
"Dad, how are you and Mom? Did you have a nice Christmas? Over."
"What's t-h-a-t, I can't quite make out who's talking on the other end. Is this call really coming from Vietnam? Over."
"Yes, Dad, it's really me, calling all the way from Vietnam. Merry Christmas from the land of monsoons and rice paddies. Over."
"I'm still kinda confused at this end," I heard my Dad say in frustration. "If it's you, Paul, this is you father, Alfred Scipione, of Lewiston, New York, talking. Over."
When my Dad heard my laugh from 8,000 miles away, he knew it was really me. We were soon conversing like pros, as the MARS operators on both sides of the world threw their send and receive switches.
After I talked to my parents and hung up, tears filled my eyes, out of loneliness and because some wonderful ham radio operators had volunteered their time and stations to give us a touch of home. I stood in line another two hours, this time managing to reach my wife Linda, who had gotten home from some late Christmas shopping with her older sister. "Hi, Babes. Love ya, Babes." The 8,000 miles instantly disappeared.
Around 2am, our foursome finally stumbled out of AB8AAE and limped back up the hill to 326th Med and our cold bunks. I looked up at the starry sky and smiled with joy, thinking of my two miraculous Christmas calls home."
Comments: A network of more than 80 Army, Air Force and Navy/Marine MARS stations in Vietnam transmitted more than 2.5 million phone patches and handled more than 1 million MARSgram messages to several hundred stateside MARS stations, some in the homes of volunteer ham radio operators and the others on military bases. By far the busiest MARS station during the Vietnam War was AFA7UGA, located in the home of Sen. Barry Goldwater (Republican Presidential Candidate in 1964 against LBJ), who was kind enough to write the Foreword to my MARS Vietnam book. During Operation Desert Shield and Storm (1990-91), I was National Public Relations Officer (AAA9PR) for Army MARS and personally ran more than a thousand phone patches for the troops from AA2USA at Fort Monmouth, NJ.
"For more than 75 years, scientists have known that signal propagation in the so called HF frequencies (3.5 to 30 MHz), which encompasses all the frequencies for both phone patches and RTTY contacts, are primarily affected by the number of sunspots on the Sun, a statistic that is counted daily. Also relevant to HF propagation are the geomagnetic A Index and K Index.
There is another phenomenon related to sunspots and HF propagation that you should also be aware of, the so called 11 year cycle. We have counts going back more than 250 years that show that sunspots reach peak levels every 11 years and then gradually fall back into a long statistical trough, during which HF propagation takes a nose dive, largely curtailing worldwide contacts at frequencies above 15 MHz.
Fortuitous to U.S. military and MARS operations during the Vietnam War, the peak of Sunspot Cycle #20 occurred during November 1968, when the count reached 111. So from the Fall of 1968 through the summer of 1969, HF propagation was a maximum strength. This was also the time when U.S. troop strength in RVN (South Vietnam) and SEA (Southeast Asia) reached their peak at more than 540,000 and 750,000 respectively. Their coincidence of phenomena gave the MARS systems and operators on both sides of the Pacific an unbelievable advantage, one that we put to good use. On many days, there was patch-quality propagation between RVN and the United States for more than 15 hours a day."
Comment: Even though HF (high frequency) propagation was exceptional during the time I served in Nam (1969-70). During Christmas 1969 I was hospitalized at 326th Med at Camp Eagle, just outside Hue. One night I hobbled down to AB8AAE and placed a call home to my parents. When I heard my Dad's voice on the other end I announced: "Hi, Dad, it's Paul calling. Merry Christmas."