MARS – Military Auxiliary Radio System

During the Vietnam conflict, there were no individual personal cellular or landline telephones available for soldiers or sailors to use for calling family members back home. To address this, United States MARS (Military Affiliate Radio Service) stations from all branches of the service, Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, were deployed throughout Vietnam. The MARS system offered soldiers and sailors a way to personally communicate with loved ones back home via the use of a “phone-patch” telephone connection over short-wave radio. MARS stations would allow each soldier a free 5-minute personal radio telephone call home to the United States.

First the band would have to be open to patch quality conditions using a HAM operator.  Then a MARS operator would call the MARS station in Vietnam for a “Listing” of service members who wanted to make a call, to whom and what phone number.  The only cost was a collect call charge the family had to accept from the ham’s location. The HAM operator in the states would then get a telephone company operator on their home phone line and have the collect call placed.  Once the charge was accepted and the family member was on the line, the operator would instruct the family member that only one person could talk at a time, and they had to say “over” when they were finished talking and not start talking until after the service member said “over.”  Then the operator would call Vietnam for the service member to come online.  The call then proceeded.

When using this system, soldiers were required to follow a certain protocol. Since this was a non-secure band, we were not to mention anything about where we were or what we were doing in Vietnam. The time limit was also strictly enforced – the crew member would hold up his hands and count down from 10 before terminating the call.

When wanting to place a call, there was a sign-up list for your name, the name of the party you’re trying to reach and that phone number.  For us grunts, sometime. we weren’t able to use the system because of an exceptionally long waiting list or the MARS group was unable to get a decent connection. Both required time, a luxury that grunts on stand down did not have.

A portable MARS group of guys set up in a USMC truck with their radio equipment, came from Da Nang to An Hoa to offer its radio services to our battalion. I had the luxury to be able to sign-up and got to “call home” to my parents in Western New York State a few weeks after my heat stroke recovery.  I was in An Hoa, Vietnam but I could not tell them where I was located.  The call lasted five minutes.  They got to hear my voice.  I got to tell my parents how much I loved them and thanked them for their prayers for me.  I had to remember to say “over” after each part of my conversation.  It was really great to hear their voices. It was very hard emotionally for me to process that phone call. Having just heard their voices, I wanted to escape the war and get home to them immediately where it was safe. I decided not to sign up and use the MARS system to call them again while I was in Vietnam.

Leave a comment