Communications and the War in Southeast Asia

GCA & Control Tower 1st Mob Team 75-66 Phu Cat, Vietnam – January 1967. Contributed by Tom “Dave” Davidson

In the 1960s and early 70s, Air Force communications played a critical role in Southeast Asia.  Communication support to the massive operations involved a host of specialists performing every then-known communications-electronics function and devising new ones as situations dictated. 

The war in Vietnam dramatically tested the responsiveness of communications operators to the various demands of tactical combat as well as counter-insurgency operations.  

(From Flares to Satellites: History of Air Force Communications)

Tropospheric scatter communications antennas at Pleiku Air Base, South Vietnam, 1966. From Flares to Satellites, p 32

One of the most important functions performed by the early American advisors was that of air traffic control. The first USAF team deployed to Southeast Asia for this support was a detachment of the 1st Mobile Communications Group, which arrived in Thailand in February 1961. Subsequently, other teams were deployed to the area to support American and other allied forces. 

At the end of 1961 because of the rising tensions in the area, the Pacific Air Forces directed that a tactical air control system be installed and operational in South Vietnam within two weeks. The result of this request was that the 1st Mobile Communications Group was directed to provide voice and teletype service to South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut, Pleiku, Da  Nang, and Nha Trang. 

These actions represented the beginning of a lengthy and heavy involvement in Vietnam for Air Force communicators. As American involvement in the conflict increased, so too did the demands for communications systems, such as the Tactical Air Control System (TACS). 

Timeline of communications activities/events in Southeast Asia

(From ‘Window to the Future’  — AFCC Chronology, 1913 – 1988 (courtesy of CCC History Office))

On Jan 14, 1962, a detachment of AFCS’ 1st Mobile Communications Group installed a tactical air control system in South Vietnam.  Also, the group installed voice and teletype services at Tan Son Nhut, Pleiku, DaNang, and Nha Trang. 

On May 1, 1962, in response to the need for fixed rather than mobile communications in Southeast Asia, AFCS activated the 1964th Communications Squadron at Tan Son Nhut, South Vietnam.

On Sept 16, 1963, the 1867th Facility Checking Flight initiated a flight check of selected US Army navigational aids in South Vietnam at the Army’s request.  This action began AFCS’ flight checking responsibilities in Southeast Asia.

On Dec 13, 1965, Air Force Communications Service established its first Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) station in South Vietnam as part of an effort to improve the morale of military personnel serving in Southeast Asia.  The first station was at Tan Son Nhut AB.  Using MARS stations, servicemen could speak to their families in the United States by telephone patches, or they could send a written message relayed by radio teletype to a MARS station nearest the service member’s home.

On March 21, 1966, the Air Force Communications Service provided the first communications support for Project SKY SPOT in South Vietnam.  This was a radar system in which controllers operating mobile radar sets tracked aircraft, corrected the aircraft’s direction and speed, and signaled pilots when they were over their targets. 

In June 1966, the flight inspection aircraft were repainted.  Because of hostile ground fire in the Southeast Asia combat zones, the silver and bright red flight inspection aircraft were camouflaged.

On Feb 26, 1967, DaNang AB, South Vietnam, came under hostile attack and lost its landing and teletype communications.  The Tan Son Nhut AB Military Affiliate Radio System station provided essential backup communications until communications at DaNang were restored.

On April 28, 1967, two of the EC-47 aircraft from the 1869th Facility Checking Squadron at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, transferred to the 1867th Facility Checking Squadron at Clark AB, Philippines, to provide flight inspection of Army and Marine navigational aids in Vietnam.

On July 15, 1967, Air Force Communications Service suffered its first battle casualty in the Vietnam War when SSgt David Fasnacht, AFSC 30750, assigned to the 1st Mobile Communications Group, Clark AB, Philippines, was killed.  Sergeant Fasnacht was a passenger on a C-130 taxiing on Da Nang runway after arrival from Phu Bai when the base came under mortar attack.  He was 35 years old and had been in Vietnam three days.

On Sept 9, 1967, a rocket attack hit transient barracks at Da Nang AB, South Vietnam, killing A1C Arlon D. Wall Jr., age 25, and SSgt Marl W. McCutchen Jr., age 23.  Airman Wall and Sergeant McCutchen were assigned to the 1972nd Communications Squadron at Da Nang, AFSC 30450, and were processing for PCS to the states following a one year tour at Da Nang.

On Feb 18, 1968, Sgt Bruce L. Carey, AFSC 36254, assigned to the 1876th Communications Squadron, Tan Son Nhut AB, South Vietnam, died from wounds received during an early morning rocket attack on the base.  Sgt Carey was killed the day before his 24th birthday and records count him as on duty at the time of death.

On March 10, 1968, a rocket attack at Dang Hoa, South Vietnam, killed Sgt Francis X. Turbeut, AFSC 30450, assigned to the 1972nd CS, Da Nang AB.  Sergeant Turbeut was 21 years old and records indicate he was on duty at the time of the attack. 

In May 1968, Air Force Communications Service air traffic control operations (transmissions between air traffic controllers and/or air traffic control radars with aircraft) in Southeast Asia reached its peak with 80,549 operations monthly at DaNang, South Vietnam.  This was an average of 2,595 operations daily.  Five controllers per shift handled everything from routine flights to battle damaged aircraft, including Navy aircraft unable to return to their carriers.  This count was the greatest known to have occurred at any airport in the world at that time. 

On August 9, 1968, SSgt Vernon O. Gentry was awarded the Silver Star for Valor while assigned to a detachment of the 1st Mobile Communications Group at Khe Sahn, South Vietnam.  Sergeant Gentry was the first person assigned to AFCS to be awarded the Silver Star since AFCS became a separate command in 1961. 

On Jan 10, 1969, Sergeant Ronald K. Asada, AFSC 30450, assigned to the 1880th Communications Squadron, Binh Thuy AB, South Vietnam, died from shrapnel wounds received during an enemy attack on the base.  Sergeant Asada was 22 years old and off duty at the time of the attack.

On Jan 17, 1969, a CH-3E helicopter crashed and burned in Laos killing Lt Col Wayne F. Bolton, AFSC 3016, age 53, assigned to the 1974th Communications Group, Udorn RTAFB, Thailand; TSgt George A. Kurtyka, AFSC 30471, age 44, assigned to the 1973rd CS, Udorn RTAFB, Thailand; and TSgt Juan A. Maldonado, AFSC 30451, age 31, assigned to the 1973rd CS.  Colonel Bolton and Sergeants Kurtyka and Maldonado were on duty and were en route to an out-of-country site. Lieutenant Colonel Bolten was the most senior communications air traffic control officer killed in the Vietnam War.  

On June 16, 1969, SSgt Rudolph P. Munoz, AFSC 36251, assigned to the 1883rd Communications Squadron, Phu Cat AB, South Vietnam, died from shrapnel wounds received during an enemy attack on the base.  Sergeant Munoz was 32 years old and off duty at the time of the attack.    

On July 21, 1970, AFCS suffered the 11th and final battle casualty in Vietnam when Sgt Richard Max Pearl, AFSC 36150, died from shrapnel wounds received during an enemy rocket attack on the base.  Sergeant Pearl was 32 years old, assigned to the 1882nd CS, Phan Rang AB, South Vietnam, and was on duty at the time of the attack. 

On Feb. 12, 1973, the 1st Mobile Communications Group participated in Operation Homecoming, the repatriation of American prisoners of war held by the North Vietnamese.  Living up to the command’s motto of the first in and the last out, the group’s personnel were on the first aircraft to land at Gia Lam Airport in Hanoi, North Vietnam, and were on the last aircraft to depart.  Within 10 minutes of the initial landing at Hanoi, the group established contact with Clark AB, Philippines, and the first C-141 medical evacuation aircraft was on its way to pick up the prisoners.  Meanwhile, at Clark AB, other AFCS combat communicators helped set up hundreds of telephone lines and circuits for the free Americans to call their families and friends in the United States. 

On March 27, 1973, the last AFCS unit in South Vietnam, the 1964th Communications Group, moved without personnel and equipment from Tan Son Nhut AB, to Ramstein AB, Germany.

From April 23 to May 1, 1975, during the evacuation of Saigon, South Vietnam, four AFCS men, TSgt Antoine A. Kristol, TSgt Benjamin F. Scott, SSgt George L. Pappas, and SSgt Stephen A. Blyler, with a radio-equipped jeep, provided communications for the US Defense Attache Office.  By April 28, attacks on Saigon had become so heavy that the team was ordered to evacuate.  Two of the men, Sergeants Kristol and Blyler, volunteered to stay to support the US Marine guards.  When Sergeants Kristol and Blyler were airlifted out by helicopter shortly after midnight on May 1, they were the last Air Force personnel evacuated from South Vietnam.