Narrative History of AFVN
Key Station Saigon AM 50,000 watts 540KHz
FM 100,000 watts 99.9 MHz Stereo
TV 240,000 watts Channel 11
From humble beginnings using borrowed equipment and hotel space the Saigon Station became the hub of information, news, and a link to the “World” for personnel serving in Vietnam. Devoted mainly to the American forces, it also provided information and news for other allied forces, such as the Australians, who were also serving in South Vietnam.
In the beginning it was only news and a limited music genre broadcast to the troops. Later on it had many locations throughout Vietnam and direct links to the United States. The broadcast even came from aircraft (Project Jenny) where the ability to transmit from normal towers was limited. This is discussed in a separate section.
At this time it must be made note that not all personnel were from one branch of the service nor were they all military. There were civilians and volunteers and even celebrities who came to the facility to provide shows to the personnel in Vietnam.
The first to recognize and transmit American music to the U.S. troops was the North Vietnamese government. They also broadcast propaganda as history as had Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally during World War II.
Just over a month later the American forces began broadcasting from what became known as the key station in Saigon. Eventually this became the hub of information to the American Forces and their allies throughout Vietnam. Later it also included AM radio, FM radio, and television on a regular basis. General Paul Harkins, Commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) recognized the need for and gave permission to use 820 kilo cycles in the Saigon area as well as four other frequencies throughout Vietnam. The AFRS had an old World War II tactical transmitter stored away and transferred it to MACV. It was set up at the Vietnamese Radio Communications Center at Phu Tho.
The first broadcast was by General Harkins and in his statement he said, “Today many American serviceman are again far away from their homes and families in many locations around the world. The need for Armed Forces Radio, therefore continues and is perhaps even more important in the light of the complexities of today’s world.”
The new AFRS was in place and on the air, but equipment was old, World War Two era and much more equipment was needed. Requests for military equipment and personnel were sent out. Some “borrowing” occurred and while initially five full-time personnel were assigned to the station there were also some volunteer civilians. Operating 18 hours a day they stayed “on the air” seven days a week. When conditions permitted the news came via short-wave from AFRTS transmitters in California. The quality was sometimes far from perfect when it still worked. An AFRTS transmitter in the Philippines was shipped to Saigon later and it became possible to retransmit several hours of news each day from the Voice of America transmitter in the Philippines.
The studios were still at the Rex hotel in Saigon when Martial Law was declared by order of Ngo Dien Diem, President of South Vietnam. The station went on the air all night as well and kept re-broadcasting the declaration. The next day rebel troops attacked the Presidential Palace and assassinated the President and his brother. MACV sent word out that it was forbidden to broadcast any news of the event. The idea was that perhaps this would avoid a panic not just in the Saigon area but in the countryside as well. Whenever the AFVN personnel went on the air gunfire from the streets below could be heard during their broadcasts.
In November 1963, the studios and administration section were moved to the Brink Hotel. This provided more space. The World War II transmitter was replaced by a new Bauer transmitter. The quality of the broadcast improved as well as did the morale of the personnel. More space also meant more room for the staff. Everyone remembers where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. Bob Andreson was to be involved as a part of AFVN history on November 22, 1963. He was to the one to call the MACV Headquarters Information Officer and tell him that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. The impact of the news was so great and they were so upset that it did not occur to them that this situation required a change to the normal broadcasting schedule. PFC Lee Hansen continued Rock & Roll throughout the morning show, while Bob Andeson would break in with the latest updates from the United States. The whole world was in confusion for days after the event so their decisions might have been better than those of many others during these first upsetting hours.
The military buildup continued throughout Vietnam and the limited transmitter in Saigon could not reach into the outer areas. “Provincial Radio Station Kits” provided by the State Department and originally intended for the South Vietnamese Government were put into place. But the U.S. Military had to give a powerful transmitter to the South Vietnamese Government before the small 50-watt stations could be installed throughout the south and making it possible for most of the troops to pick-up a signal. It wasn’t a true solution but it did work for the most part. Washington sent over an inspection team and in their report they noted that “AFRT radio broadcasts to personnel outside of the Saigon coverage area is greatly reduced by the technical deficiencies of the equipment available.”
While trying to come up with equipment and ideas to remedy the situation, the Viet Cong attacked the station on December 24 by setting off a bomb which killed two and wounded many other U.S. personnel. Even though the Brinks BOQ was badly damaged and the station was in ruins the station was back on the air within 20 minutes using a backup transmitter. The strength of troops in South Vietnam at this time was estimated at 23,000.
Military Assistance Command continued to assist and with the help of Colonel Robert Cranston and engineer John Scales, of AFRTS in Los Angles, came up with the “solution”. Their solution would involve the establishment of high powered stations in Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Pleiku, and Cam Ranh Bay which would cover larger areas. Eventually even more stations would be added. Cranston and Scales also recommended that programming be expanded from 18 to 24 hours a day and that a Saigon FM service be established for the afternoon and evening hours. “This was my project to establish radio and television in Viet Nam. John Scales and I made several trips to Saigon and other areas but the basic work was done on the plotting board at AFRTS-LA. One day John and I were at the map and had picked out a good site for a transmitter. We phoned Saigon to check on it and were told that the location had not been captured yet and to check back in a few days. It was not easy but we succeeded. You probably know that our first transmissions were from Navy aircraft (Constellations) circling the coverage area and broadcasting radio and TV signals to the ground. John Scales died of a heart attack in Saigon on February 14th, 1971 and is buried in the Los Angeles National Cemetery.
Television was to be the next step in the Vietnam information system. While negotiations were going on between the U.S. and the South Vietnamese governments for available frequencies and permits for ground locations. The Chiefs of Staff had gave an assignment to the Navy Oceanographic Air Survey Unit at Patuxent River, Maryland. They were to develop a “flying television station”. This had been tried before under a program called the “Indiana Project,” but had failed. The Indiana Project had used an old C-54 with two video playback machines and a transmitter. The purpose was to fly over a three state area and provide educational material to the school systems in the flight area. It did work to a point but there were problems with equipment upkeep and replacement of antennas that kept burning out. The project was closed after only a short time.
The Navy’s idea was to use C-121 aircraft. This was the military version of the Super Constellation, propeller driven and recognizable by its triple tail. Under the name “Project Jenny,” the planes were given the name “Blue Eagle.” Blue Eagle One was equipped with only radio transmitters and arrived in Vietnam in October of 1965. Blue Eagles Two and Three also had television equipment. In November of 1965 Blue Eagle Two conducted the its first airborne TV broadcast test by flying around the DC beltway. In preparation for Vietnam TV broadcasts and in conjunction with District of Columbia Station WRC-TV (Channel 4) two-thirds of a movie was broadcast from WRC-TV at which time WRC-TV dropped off the air and the remainder of the movie was broadcast from Blue Eagle Two.
Blue Eagle Two and Three contained two television transmitters rated at 200 watts each, one 10,000 watt AM radio trans- mitter, one 1,000 watt FM transmitter, one single side-band short-wave with a 4-channel teletype hook up as well as two video tape recorders, six audio tape recorders and two 16mm film projectors. Space was even made to incorporate a small two-person broadcast studio using a remote operated camera. The technicians solved the previous antenna problems and Blue Eagle Two was delivered to Vietnam in December of 1965. Due to the need for the South Vietnamese government to make some changes in channel frequencies, in-country tests did not begin until January when Blue Eagle Three arrived in Vietnam. The planes were based out of Tan Son Nhut Airport. Construction had already begun on Blue Eagle Four and Five and they would arrive later. Blue Eagle One was based at Da Nang airbase to provide airborne PSYOPS radio broadcasts for MACV-SOG.
The reason for two having television transmitters was to allow simultaneous broadcasts using Channel 11 for AFVN and Channel 9 for the South Vietnamese Government. The Vietnamese citizens would get information about the U.S. objectives such as rural pacification, urban stability, the MEDCAP program, the ideals of free world support and a show of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. The programs on the South Vietnamese channel were totally separate from the AFRTS which tried to remain free from propaganda in order to preserve its credibility with its audience. More detailed information on Project Jenny is contained in a separate chapter below.
Roger Maynard who flew on the Blue Eagle planes also was part of the group that was planning the new facility in Saigon. The antenna would be the tallest man-made structure in Vietnam. The compound would have guards, its own power supply and for the most part be self-sufficient. General Westmoreland had decided it would have a special place in his duties and he would occasionally stop by to check on the progress at the new studio. He was there at the initial sign-on of the station, remained out of sight until the sign-on was made. He also cut the opening ribbon at several of the detachments.
The first commander was LTC DeForest Ballou III, the executive officer was Lieutenant Commander Cleveland and NCOIC was Master Chief Ed Halley. Some of the personnel were transferred in from the nearby Far East Network (FEN) in Japan. These included GySgt Eddie Stein, SSgt Ron Graebert , Sp4 John T. Mikesch and John Steinbeck IV. They were in a combat zone (all of South Vietnam was a combat zone) and on occasion bullet holes would appear in the new station, the windows and sometimes even in the equipment. They would be repaired and business went on. Sometimes bombs would be placed nearby and damage and injuries would occur. On December 24, 1966 one bomb went off and two people were killed and several others injured. On May 3, 1968 another was hidden in a blue and yellow taxi parked in the alley between Saigon University and the Vietnamese station. One woman living in the alley was killed along with a pig. Three People were slightly injured in front of the station by flying glass and a producer was hit on the shoulder by a ceiling tile in the studio while preparing the weather map for the 6 O’clock news. Patty Krouse was live on the radio just after noon when the bomb went off.
Part of the plan for coverage included broadcast vans similar to those used in previous combat zones such as Korea and dur-ng WWII. The Television-Audio Support Agency, Sacramento, California Army Depot, supervised the construction of trailer studios. Their duties included the obtaining, testing, shipment and at times installation of all the non-military broadcast equipment needed by AFRTS around the world. This plan was to include a complete studio, a 5KW transmitter, two film chains, a slide projector, a multiplexer, complete audio and visual consoles, and mobile cameras. Also included was a collapsible tower that could reach 120 feet and two trailer mounted 45KW generators. The TV programs would still be sent from AFVN headquarters in Saigon and AFRTS in Los Angeles, but local programming would help raise the morale of the those in the area surrounding the unit. Audio (radio) reception was improved greatly as the units began to be put into place.
On March 24, 1966 an underwater cable that ran directly to AFRTS in Los Angeles was completed. This made it possible to receive clearly live events and not have to continue to rely on the short-wave system that would fade off and contained static at times. Captain Willis Haas was in command of placing the remote stations in place. The first was sent to Qui Nhon. The station was it on top of Vung Chua Mountain. The local PX had sold over 1,000 televisions in preparation for the start of broadcasting. The second unit was sent to Da Nang (Monkey Mountain). More units were being placed throughout Vietnam and as they began transmitting there was less need for the Blue Eagle flights. But they were continued in the Delta region because, with the flatter topography, it was the best method to get the signal out to the troops. This included the Vietnamese government broadcasts as well.
During the AFVN Christmas party on December 23, 1966 snipers fired into the Saigon Station facility. There were no casualties but the spirit was definitely suddenly less cheerful so the party ended.
In February 1967 a third unit was put on the air in Pleiku (Dragon Mountain). Number 4 was established on Hon Tre Island near Nha Trang. This allowed broadcast service to not only the Nha Trang area, but to Cam Ranh Bay as well. Units fine and six were established in Tuy Hoa and Hue. All this was done by May 1967?a truly incredible accomplishment. A seventh broadcast unit was to be kept in Saigon as a replacement and a training facility for in-coming personnel. However some areas still had limited reception and the additional 50KW transmitters were placed at Cat Lo (the Delta and Saigon area), and at Pleiku and Cam Ranh Bay. On June 1, 1967 AFVN became an actual network. Until then it was considered to be AFRTS Vietnam. Field reports stated that almost 100% of the U.S. forces in South Vicetnam could listen to radio and over 80% could get at least some television programs. The reader can “go figure” why the TV show “Combat” with Vic Morrow became the most popular show.
These outlying units also came under fire at times and Da Nang’s site was attacked by mortar fire. There was some major damage but the personnel quickly repaired the facility. Among other buildings, the mess hall and lounge were destroyed. In 1968 the Key station in Saigon had prepared in advance by designating separate two broadcast and technical staffs. In the event of heavy casualties “the show would go on”. On January 31, 1968 the inevitable happened. At 0230 explosions woke the personnel at Vung Chua Mountain. Part of Hue was now under control of the NVA and was now attacking the AFVN unit. Master Sergeant John Anderson and the station and personnel were completely surrounded. Prior to this only occasional harassing mortar attacks had made the personnel feel somewhat secure. For the next five days the personnel continued to hold their positions. Two are killed in action, one is executed after surrendering and all of the other members are wounded in various degrees. When the ammunition and water was almost gone an attempt to make it to a nearby base camp about a mile away but they ran into an NVA and VC unit. Everyone ended up spending the next five years in a North Vietnamese Prison Camp. The television cameras caught the men got off the Freedom Bird in the U.S. and one of them kissed the ground. John Anderson was also home and free. After their release he went on to serve as station manager in Stuttgart, Germany (AFRTS) as a civilian.
Back to the TET offensive in 1968, when it was over AFVN rebuilt the damaged equipment and improved other stations. More staff positions were added and programming became even more professional. Teams were created to cover special events such as the Bob Hope specials and even a Midnight Mass by Archbishop Terrance Cooke. CBS agreed to allow a Walter Cronkite news broadcast every day. The favorite news item of the troops was the announcement by President Nixon of up coming reductions of troops by 25,000 in Vietnam. By mid-1968 the AFVN network had seven detachments with the ability to do live broadcasts. Of these, five could provide both live radio and live television programs while two could do only live televisions programs.
In 1971 the troop reductions and U.S. unit withdrawals continued so the AFVN stations began to be closed down. Tuy Hoa was first, followed by Can Tho. A decision was made for Saigon to continue while the equipment from other stations would be transferred to AFRTS locations outside of Vietnam. Some of the broadcast units would end up back where they started in Sacramento, California. October brought Typhoon Hester. This storm damaged the AM & FM towers in Da Nang and it was several days before broadcasting could be resumed. In February of 1972 the Hue and Qui Nhon AFVN stations were closed down. The equipment was transferred to the South Vietnamese government. Cam Ranh Bay was shut down in April and the staff moved to Nha Trang. During all the reductions in detachments, quality was not reduced and everyone continued to maintain “excellence” in its work and dedication to the AFVN network. This was shown on the 10th Anniversary of AFVN when Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird sent the following; “I congratulate all personnel, past and present, of the American Forces Vietnam Network as the Network marks its tenth anniversary. The dedicated efforts of these hundreds of skilled men and women to provide current, comprehensive and accurate information are well known and appreciated by all who have served in the Republic of Vietnam. These efforts have been recognized at all command levels as truly professional. Now as we continue to decrease involvement in this area of the world, the work of American Forces Vietnam Network is no less important. For those thousands who felt a little closer to home because you were there, I thank you for a job well done.”
Equipment as well as personnel was being sent home and some of the equipment was being transferred to the South Vietnam- ese Government. Department of Defense Civilians began manage those FM automated stations that were still functioning.
LTC Harold Hutchison, as the last commanding officer of AFVN sent the following message to Washington, DC on March 23, 1973: “AFVN ceased as of 2400 hours 22 March 73.”
Some of the programs produced at AFVN included:
Million Dollar Music
Town & Country
Top 30 Countdown