When this website was in its planning stage, back in 2009, we were honored to have retired Army LTC Jere Forbus aboard as an adviser. It was then-Major Forbus who conducted for the Saigon press contingent the final press briefing of the Vietnam War. With his expertise, we gladly accepted his recommendation to include a History section, and he offered to prepare "a comprehensive history," as he described it, of MACOI from start to finish. He did not foresee, however, at that time, that his health would decline, and that he would never finish his comprehensive history. We know, too, that for several years he had been working, as time permitted, on a novel set in war-time Saigon. We consider it tragic that the book was never completed.
Before reluctantly concluding that we would never be able to deliver our comprehensive history, however, we were given permission by two prominent veterans of AFVN to borrow their words relating to the history of that important and highly visible sub-unit. These excellent essays were written by Mr. Billy Williams, who was assigned to AFVN in 1971-72, and Mr. Donald Kirtley, who arrived in Saigon in the early days of the war in1963. Mr. Williams worked as an on-air personality in both radio and television and also worked behind the scenes as master control operator, while Mr. Kirtley served as the first commanding officer of AFRS - - AFVN's radio precursor. Both gentlemen are well qualified to tell this important part of AFVN's history.
This material, owned by the authors, is used with the permission of Mr. Williams and Mr. Kirtley.
American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN)
by Billy Williams
Radio broadcasts were important to those in combat during the Vietnam War. To an American soldier, each day of survival meant being one day shorter and a day closer to returning to "The World" on that "Freedom Bird." Radio helped those days pass faster.
Advances in consumer electronic technology and breakthroughs in miniaturization during the '60s led to cheap, mass-produced portable transistor radios, tape players and sound gear.
Almost anywhere Americans served in Vietnam, one could hear the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) with its News on the Hour and Stateside Survey providing reminders of home. At night, AFVN signals propagated into Australia, India, Pakistan and China. AFVN sportscasts included results from professional baseball, basketball, golf, boxing, hockey, National Football League and college events.
When founded on August 15, 1962, the station was known as Armed Forces Radio Service, Saigon (AFRS Saigon). It had a five-man staff and used a modified tactical transmitter set up at Phu Tho near Saigon with a downtown studio in the Rex Hotel on Nguyen Hue Blvd. Programs were transmitted from 6AM until midnight on 820 KHz AM.
In February 1965, FM service during afternoon and evening hours on 99.9 MHz. was added. AM service expanded to 24 hours. U.S. Marines landed in Da Nang to start a buildup of American ground troops.
By 1967, signal coverage had been expanded to most of the Vietnam combat zone through establishment of detachments.
Since AFRS Saigon had become a network, the title American Forces Vietnam Network and call sign AFVN were adopted on July 1, 1967. A broadcast complex was completed at 9 Hong Thap Tu near the American Embassy. It contained a half dozen production and programming studios, headquarters administration offices along with high-powered FM and television transmitters.
AFVN eventually expanded to nine detachments that were scattered throughout South Vietnam to lend credence to the AFVN slogan "Serving the American fighting man twenty fours hours a day from the Delta to the DMZ." Larger detachments consisted of a dozen or so AFVN servicemen assigned to provide AM and FM radio along with television broadcasts.
As the war progressed, radio programming from AFVN studios in downtown Saigon was increasingly distributed to detachments via the Integrated Wideband Communications System (IWCS). IWCS construction began in 1965 to provide countrywide telephone service for Americans. It used a microwave radio network with farms of giant antennas that resembled drive-in movie screens as an alternative to traditional telephone switching offices. The system provided greater geographic coverage with fewer relay points. Network programming became available to detachments for rebroadcast throughout South Vietnam.
Some AFVN detachments were located in isolated, dangerous places. Several originated local radio programming while others continuously rebroadcast the network feed from Saigon. Detachments usually were near signal sites on mountains. High altitude allowed better reception of microwave feeds.
Most detachments with radio capability used high-powered transmitters for extended coverage. The AFVN service area was extended through use of smaller fifty-watt unattended transmitters at dozens of remote installations.
The most popular format with AFVN's young audience was Rock and Roll/Top 40. Portions of the AFVN schedule were dedicated to Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, Progressive, and specialty music genres. Like stateside stations, AFVN aired cult favorites, Chickenman and Newton Snookers, the Tooth Fairy.
Probably the most relevant song was "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" by the Animals. It never achieved a top ten chart ranking in the United States, but in Vietnam, it was a night club and party favorite and was guaranteed to bring a response. The lyrics of young people trying to escape a sweatshop existence made the message something which Americans in the combat zone could understand.
Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, Barbara Randolph, Roger Carroll, Chris Noel, Gene Weed, Tony Pigg, Bob Kingsley, Gene Price, Tom Campbell, Charlie Williams and Herman Griffith were among stateside radio personalities who produced programs in Los Angeles. These 55-minute programs were flown to AFVN and other American Forces stations worldwide.
Programs produced at AFVN included Dawnbuster, Million Dollar Music, Town & Country, Nightbeat, Soul Train, Panorama, Sergeant Pepper, Orient Express, and Top 30 Countdown.
Service with AFVN was not without risk. The Hue AFVN detachment was overrun during Tet '68. One staffer was killed and four others were taken prisoner by the Viet Cong.
In May 1968, an exploding taxi with 110 pounds of TNT parked outside AFVN Saigon caused severe damage. This was a flashback to Christmas Eve 1964 when the station was knocked off the air by 250 pounds of plastic explosives near their studio, at that time in the Brink Hotel.
In 1969, three AFVN reporters were killed near Da Nang when their jeep ran over a land mine. American troop strength peaked at 650,000 in mid 1969.
The remote locations of some AFVN detachments contributed to hazardous duty in being a broadcaster in the combat zone. AFVN technicians were greeted with sniper fire as they serviced antennas and equipment to keep signals strong.
In 1972, U.S. troop strength declined and AFVN detachments closed. U.S. strategy stressed "Vietnamization." The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was trained to take on a bigger defense burden. AFVN staffers at detachments assisted Vietnamese technicians in improving the South Vietnamese television and radio system (THVN).
The Paris Peace Accords led to most Americans leaving Vietnam in early 1973. AFVN was renamed the American Radio Service. Radio was scaled back to only one FM station in the Saigon area.
The ineffective South Vietnamese government crumbled. Following drastic funding cuts in U.S. foreign aid to Vietnam, the decline hastened. By Spring 1975, it was apparent that the end was near.
Television in Vietnam
by Billy Williams
American television started in Vietnam on January 22, 1966 with tests on two channels. On February 7th, regular transmissions commenced with American programming on channel 11 and Vietnamese broadcasts on channel 9.
No permanent studio had been built, so three C-121 Super Constellation aircraft, known as Blue Eagles, were specially outfitted with film projectors and transmitters. A fourth Blue Eagle was radio only. It was used to relay audio of the 1965 World Series.
Circling high over South Vietnam and transmitting U.S. TV programs on Channel 11, the Blue Eagles provided extended coverage to Americans who were arriving in increasing numbers.
Later in 1966, a permanent TV station was completed at 9 Hong Thap Tu in Saigon. A huge antenna provided more reliable coverage. Hours were expanded and daily newscasts began.
Concurrently, several detachments added television. A complete station was mounted in a van the size of a large semi trailer. The mountaintop locations of some detachments provided excellent coverage.
But unlike radio, AFVN television programming could not be fed directly from the Saigon key station to detachments. Wideband technology still was primitive in the late '60s.
Programs on videotape and film were rotated among detachments using a weekly film flight and postal mail. In Saigon, sign-on was around noon daily while most detachments started transmissions around 4PM on weekdays and at noon on Saturday and Sunday. Troops watched favorite stateside series such as Bonanza, Mission Impossible, Gunsmoke, Laugh-In, and Hawaii Five-O. Tape-delayed NFL football games and the ever-popular Roller Derby were other highlights. A soldier could even watch the series Combat on AFVN-TV. When Archie Bunker and All In The Family broke new ground, Archie's antics were seen weekly on AFVN-TV.
Television service continued until the American troop population dropped in 1971-72. Detachments were closed and AFVN-TV left the air in early 1973 as the Paris Peace Accords took effect. Most equipment and facilities were transferred to THVN, the South Vietnamese TV network.
Detachment 1--Qui Nhon (Sept. 1966-Feb. 1972): 770 AM, 99.9 FM and Channel 11 TV
Detachment 2--Da Nang (June 1967-Early 1973): 850 AM, 99.9 FM and Channel 11 TV
Detachment 3--Pleiku (Feb. 1967-July 1972): 560 AM, 99.9 FM and Channel 11 TV
Detachment 4--Nha Trang/Cam Ranh Bay/Dong Ba Thin/Hon Tre Island (March 1967-Late 1972): AM, 99.9 FM and Channel 11 TV. This detachment moved around.
Detachment 5--Hue/Quang Tri (May 1967-Feb. 1972): AM, 99.9 FM, Channel 11 TV
Detachment 6--Tuy Hoa (May 1967-Sept. 1971): AM, FM, Channel 11 TV
Detachment 7--Chu Lai (1967-Early 1971): AM, Channel 13 TV
Can Tho--Channel 78 (UHF) TV. Retransmitted AFVN-TV Channel 11 Saigon to the Mekong Delta area.
Recollections from AFRS-Saigon -- The Early Days, 1962-64
by Donald Kirtley
Chain of Command AFRS-Saigon reported to the Navy's Headquarters Support Activity-Saigon, or HEDSUPPACT. I reported to Navy Capt. Malcolm Friedman, commander of HEDSUPPACT, with a dotted line to Air Force Col. Lee Baker, head of MACOI. I attended staff meetings weekly at HEDSUPPACT in Cholon and occasionally was called to MAC-V staff meetings to give a report. Gen. Paul Harkins ran those meetings until the spring of 1964 when he was replaced by Gen. William Westmoreland.
AFRS-Saigon On arrival in Vietnam in the spring of 1963 as the first OIC of AFRS-Saigon, I was a 24-year old Air Force lieutenant two years out of ROTC. Those years had been spent as a public information officer and a part-time general's aide. The AFRS staff was young, mostly under 25; even the "old guys" were barely in their 30s. And what an adventure we all had. Saigon, like Baghdad more recently, was the center of terrorist activity, so a year out there matured us in ways that might not have occurred otherwise.
The station had been operating several months when I got there. The savvy/genius of Navy CPO Bryant "Buck" Arbuckle, using rotating TDY personnel, old equipment and borrowed LPs, brought it on the air from four storage rooms off the back stairwell of the Rex Hotel, and did it within weeks of his arrival. The Rex, located in the center of downtown Saigon, was a senior officer BOQ run by the Navy. They had given us one BOQ room adjacent to the stairwell for use as an office, conference room and bathroom facilities. I was assigned to a BOQ in Cholon, miles from the station. So we put a bed in the office and that's where I slept for the next six months.
On the roof of the Rex an FM transmitter sent our signal to an antenna farm at Phu Tho, west of Cholon on an old French rubber plantation. From there the AM signal was broadcast via a "long wire" antenna. We reached several hundred miles south over the flat delta, east to the coast and west to Cambodia, but had poor reception north because of the hilly terrain. Later we installed troposcatter repeater transmitters in I Corps and II Corps and could be heard from Hue to Can Tho. We broadcast at 99.9 FM and 820 AM. FM could be picked up in the Saigon/Cholon/Tan Son Nhut area directly from our Rex FM transmitter.
Buck had created the Dawnbuster Show and was its first host. It was an instant hit, with Buck's and his successors' zany instructions at 6AM: OK, OK, reveille, wake up, ready to fall in, uniform of the day is tin pots, no liners, carbines, ammo belts, skivvies and flip-flops. The GIs in tent city, where most lived at Tan Son Nhut, loved it. MAC-V brass wasn't so sure. Colonel Baker told us to keep going but tone it down. We didn't tone it down, but survived. Navy Spc. John Ramsey was doing the show when I got there, followed by, as I recall, Army Spcs. Jerry Masini, Lee Hansen, Bob Andresen and Steve Southerland. A1C Lee Maltenfort , PFC Steve Sevits and Spc. Craig Prosser, among others, did the news.
Shortwave reception was generally poor, but then we began to get a daily special feed from the Philippines from 2 to 5PM. which was not too badly garbled most days. It was a real data dump of news and sports. AF Sgt. Frank "Monty" Monteleone, head of news, put together a one-hour news and sports show every day airing at 5PM. Much of the show was still being scripted as it went on the air. It had a Huntley/Brinkley format and we broadcast all Stateside news we could get. In those days you had to get on a waiting list several days long to call the States and the cost was about two weeks' pay. Except for letters and off-and-on delivery of Stars and Stripes, there had been only spotty news from home before the new shortwave feed. The show was a big hit with news thirsty GIs, and fun to put on under pressure of filling up an hour with a shortwave feed that didn't always cooperate.
My first challenge was lobbying the Navy and MAC-V for better facilities. The Navy gave us space in the Brink BOQ, three blocks from the Rex. The space had been the building's laundry room. It was perfect for us and gave us room for a reception area, main studio, two broadcast studios, news booth, news room, record library and equipment/engineering room. We let everybody put their two cents in on designing it. How many radio hands ever get to design new studios from scratch? I had made a trip to Tokyo AFRTS and found a treasure trove of old music crated up in a warehouse. They shipped it down to us and for the first time we had a real music library and with the new station plenty of room to catalog and store it. We moved into the new studios in early November 1963.
On Christmas Eve 1964, the Brink and the station were destroyed in a VC car bomb attack. The Brink was built on cement pilings with parking underneath. The explosion took out several of the pilings and the six-story building partially collapsed. Life Magazine ran a photo/story in January 1965 showing AFRS personnel carrying injured from the studios. I don't know where the station was located after that. Maybe someone who was there at the time can fill us in.
My wife and I visited the site of the old Brink compound about 10 years ago. Nothing had been rebuilt. However, today a Park-Hyatt Hotel stands on the spot and in front is a large monument commemorating the attack with a plaque reading: "East Saigon Force Victory in Battle Brink, 24/12/1964."
Such attacks were common. The GI movie theater in Cholon was bombed in '63 and again in '64. The bleachers at a ball field at Tan Son Nhut were blown up during the base championship ball game in '64. The U.S. Information Service on the ground floor of the Rex was attacked. GIs on the street and in bars were always targets. Because our staff was going on and off shift at all hours from 5AM until after midnight in the center of Saigon, I got permission for us to wear civilian clothes both off and on duty.
During our final days at the Rex, the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem occurred. It began about noon on Nov. 1 and fighting continued all night in the downtown streets below the station. We watched from the roof just above the studios. We stayed on the air all night giving MAC-V's somber warning that a "civil disturbance" was occurring and that U.S. personnel were to remain at their duty stations or in their barracks until further notice. By mid-afternoon dive-bombers began sporadic attacks on Diem's Palace compound located directly behind the Rex. They would swoop over our heads out of sight of the compound's machine guns and then dive toward the Palace building. Several of us were crowded in the control room and while reading the MAC-V script on the air, we saw a dive-bomber that appeared to be headed straight at us. We hit the floor, the plane swerved toward the palace, and the announcer, mike in hand, continued the "civil disturbance" script. We picked ourselves up, caught our breath, looked at each other and, grasping the irony of the situation, began to laugh. Nervously, I should add.
Three weeks later President Kennedy was assassinated. We had been in the new studios only a few days. It happened in the middle of the night, our time. I believe Army Spc. Bob Andresen was the Dawnbuster that morning and began the show as the short wave began bringing the news. With no orders to the contrary he continued the show until someone, probably Buck, called in and ordered the show pulled and marshaling music played, with news updates as available. Typically at that time of day in the tropics atmospherics disrupted our short wave feeds. That day was no different.
I left Saigon in late June 1964, a year older and, I think, several years wiser. Most of the old gang had rotated back to the States by that time. I believe Steve Southerland was the only one there when I arrived and when I left. As I recall, he rode with me to Tan Son Nhut to catch my flight home, but we found that the flight had been rescheduled for the next afternoon. Back at the station there was a message from Colonel Baker. Since I wouldn't be leaving until tomorrow, he said I should attend the MAC-V staff meeting the next morning and give a final report. There, he presented me with a MAC-V Certificate of Achievement, with some kind words on it. General Westmoreland was there and signed it. I told him I accepted on behalf of Navy CPO Bryant Arbuckle and all the young men that made it happen.
Post Script The above mentions all the staff I recall being there when I arrived except Navy SK1 Frank Reilly, a supply specialist who with Buck did a great job getting everything we needed from the Navy. That summer and fall, Monty Monteleone and many other PCS personnel arrived to relieve those on TDY. We had three Vietnamese civilians: Nguyen Nhut, engineer; To Tran Tri (aka Winston Chan), clerk; and Mrs. Song, typist. And there was a fourth, a driver we called Charlie. Ever the cumshaw artist, Buck convinced the Navy motor pool that we needed a car during certain hours of the day. Charlie came with the car. On my visit to Vietnam ten years ago I hired a tour guide for several days. He turned out to have been a veteran of the war, a Viet Cong veteran. I asked him what he thought might have happened to our civilian employees. He said that most South Vietnamese, including his brother, who had worked for the Americans, were put in re-education camps and then sent to work on collective farms as laborers.