For those serving in Vietnam, the only way to stay in touch with family was by using the Military Affiliate Radio System. MARS stations, supporting all branches of the service, were established throughout Vietnam, as well as aboard ship. These stations utilized ham radio operators and a phone patch linked system which allowed a radio signal to travel from Vietnam to the U.S.
Master Chief Petty Officer ATCM Dave Disbennett was stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Barber’s Point, Hawaii, between 1967 and 1969.
Utilizing a spare bedroom as a ham radio room, Disbennett used the MARS system with the help of the ship’s ham radio operator. Back in the U.S. mainland, his wife Carol worked with the phone operator to connect to her husband.
Their calls were limited to a very brief three to five minutes. The family receiving the call would have to accept a collect call to begin a conversation.
Once the call was accepted, only one person could speak at a time. Each party had to say “Over” so the MARS operators could switch the signal, allowing the other party to speak. “I love you, over…” became a common phrase for those serving in Vietnam and their families.
Master Chief Petty Officer Disbennett’s ham radio will be on display at Camp Legacy on the National Mall from May 11-13.
Other artifacts scheduled to be displayed are a Vietnam era boarding kit, debris from a trawler used to transport supplies to Communist forces during the Tet Offensive, life rings from the cutters Androscoggin and Minnetonka.
The Coast Guard’s display will also include a POW/MIA bracelet bearing the name of LT Jack Rittichier. Rittachier, a helicopter pilot serving with the Air Force 37th Aereospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, was shot down on June 9, 1968. He was reported Missing in Action until his remains were recovered in early 2003.
Coast Guard’s role during the Vietnam War
As the war in Vietnam escalated, it was widely believed that Communist forces were moving weapons and ammunition by sea and river. On 19 February 1965, that suspicion was confirmed when a 130-foot freighter, camouflaged by trees and bushes, was discovered in Vung Ro Bay.
A massive weapons cache consisting of recoilless rifles, heavy machine guns, rockets, mortars, mines, and thousands of small arms, as well as more than a million rounds of ammunition, was uncovered. Sea infiltration into the Republic of Vietnam was now confirmed.
Greater coastal surveillance and interdiction of supplies to the Viet Cong was imperative. On April 29, President Lyndon B. Johnson committed the U.S. Coast Guard to service in Vietnam, under the operational control of the Navy.
In addition to those serving aboard the 82-foot Point-class patrol boats, and the high endurance cutters, Coast Guard personnel provided port security, formed Explosives Loading Detachments, installed and maintained aids-to-navigation, established LORAN stations in both Vietnam and Thailand, and conducted search and rescue missions.
By the war’s end, approximately 8,000 members of the Coast Guard served in Vietnam.