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Early History of the Military Affiliate Radio System (and K8AIR) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Prologue: The author relates some historical information concerning the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) activities at Wright-Patterson AFB during the mid-1950's. He was assigned to WPAFB as the Base MARS Director beginning in February 1956 in his initial entry on active duty following an AFROTC commission from the University of Cincinnati in June 1955. This initial tour of duty extended until June 1958 upon which he was re-assigned to the research and development activities in Area B, Wright Field. In August 1960 he resigned his regular AF commission and entered civilian employment with the Air Force Avionics Laboratory. He retired in December 1986 after nearly thirty years of military and civilian employment.

The motivation for writing these recollections came from receipt of an e-mail message from a former Strategic Air Command member, Paul Schleck in early 1998 inquiring about any historical background concerning the MARS station and its K8AIR amateur radio military club station. Mr. Schleck's motive was to try and establish a club at Wright-Patterson whereby the K8AIR callsign could be assigned in memory of the former MARS activities. During this interval of discussions, the K8AIR callsign was assigned to Roger Mundy, a former MARS chief operator at Otis AFB. With encouragement from both, this short historical article came into being.

The Beginning: During the Korean war years, the MARS organization was established in the Army, Navy and Air Force to provide a quasi-official means of allowing personal message traffic between Service members throughout the world and their families in order to enhance the morale and welfare of the troops. In the Air Force, the MARS organization consisted of a Director assigned to the Headquarters in the Pentagon along with field Directors assigned to major Air Force bases worldwide. Manpower positions were authorized at the major Commands for staffing of the MARS facilities. Additionally, military amateur radio club and recreation stations were establish in consonance with the MARS facilities to allow military and civilian employees who possessed an amateur radio license issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use the amateur radio bands for morale enhancement. At major Air Force Bases, the FCC assigned callsign having the AIR suffix to these stations. At Wright-Patterson AFB, the K8AIR callsign was issued to the MARS club station. Other bases such as Offutt and Otis were assigned KAIR and K1AIR callsigns respectively. The military and civilian members of these club stations provided assistance to the active duty MARS operators; especially at Wright-Patterson. The Air Force MARS operation established both regional and long-haul communication networks to handle the voice and message traffic. The MARS station at WPAFB was alternate net control (NCS) for the eastern portion of the US. The primary NCS for the continental US was the Offutt AFB station. This operational set-up remained until early 1958 when the Air Force decided to remove the manpower authorizations for the Command MARS organizations. At that time, the MARS activities came under a different structure involving mostly volunteer membership. Some variation of this set-up continues today as each Service still has official MARS Directors located in the Pentagon.

MARS Activity at Wright-Patterson (1956 - 1958)

In the early 1950's the MARS station was located in separate receive/control and transmit facilities. The receiving station and operating consoles were located in a warehouse shared with the Air Police vehicular radio maintenance shop in Area A. (Note: This building location is now part of the military golf course.) There were 4 operating consoles located within the control station. One console was used as the net control station for the eastern regional MARS network employing conventional AM voice communications. A second console was used for sending and receiving radio-teletype messages from MARS stations worldwide. A third console was devoted to operation on the amateur radio HF bands using a commercial transmitter and receiver. The fourth console was used for general purpose reception. The receiving equipment used in the MARS station was current vintage (then) Hammarlund radios. A radio repair facility was also located at the control site. The transmitter site was at a remote location in Building 199, which was in the "Wood City" area of the base. This area is now near the commissary and base theater. The BC-610 AM transmitters along with the antennas were located here also. Dedicated telephone lines to the receiver/control site in Area A were used for remote operation. The BC-610 transmitters were very bulky and provided 400 watts of power to the antennas. These transmitters were originally built for the US Army Signal Corps but were requisitioned for the AF MARS program. The antenna system included a couple of 400 foot long rhombic antennas aimed toward Europe and the Far East. These antennas were used for the long haul message traffic. This setup remained into the 1960's until the a retrenchment was made to consolidate all operations at the Building 199 site at what then was called Area D of the base.

There was another facet of the MARS program which proved to be very popular. Both military and civilian members were eligible to receive surplus radio and electronic equipment. The WP MARS organization had an extensive surplus distribution system in operation. A warehouse in Area A provided over 5000 square feet of space for this equipment which was obtained from the Material Redistribution office of both Wright-Patterson and the Gentile AF depot. The only restriction placed on the MARS members receiving this surplus equipment was that it must be for personal use. If the material was of no use to the member, it had to be returned to the MARS warehouse but could not be given away or sold. One interesting anecdote to the surplus material side of the MARS operation comes to mind. A full Colonel member of the MARS club lived in a rather large house on base and was a prolific user of the surplus material program. One day the Base MARS Director was visited by the Colonel's wife who pleaded to have their basement rid of all the material her husband had accumulated. So a crew of airmen were sent to the home and removed 2 truck loads of radio equipment. As they left the house, the Colonel was leaving the warehouse with yet another batch of equipment. This shuffle continued for another 8 months before he was transferred to another base. It was doubtful whether he ever knew what was happening.

Memorable Moments: In the early 1950's the MARS activities were in high gear. At Wright-Patterson the Air Material Command (AMC) had its headquarters and the MARS organization was the lead station in establishing quasi-official communications with the various AMC depots throughout the US. This quasi-official message traffic served two purposes. First it permitted timely message handling of low priority routine traffic which alleviated the regular Air Force teletype system. Secondly, is provided needed training for the enlisted personnel assigned as MARS operators. However, the most satisfying aspect of the MARS operation was the countless messages and "phone patches" that were handled by station personnel. A "phone patch" is a setup where a base telephone is connected to the radio which then permits establishing a link anywhere in the world where normal voice communications is effected. The radio operator had to manually switch the radio from transmit to receive and vice versa; however both parties were made aware that the operator would be listening to the conversation. Countless service members were able to talk directly to the wives and family members through this means. Many thank you letters were received by the MARS Director from family members who were able to use this service. Similar phone patch operation was used on the amateur radio bands under the call sign K8AIR. This was certainly the more pleasing aspects of the MARS operation. Another memorable moment occurred which greatly benefited the WPAFB MARS station. In 1956 General Curtis LeMay, Strategic Air Commander in Chief, hosted a conference at Offutt AFB for all the senior Commanders of the Air Force. The AMC Commander, General Edwin Rawlings, attended. General LeMay proceeded to demonstrate his ability to communicate with any SAC unit anywhere in the world through the new SSB HF radio network. Needles to say, General Rawlings was impressed and wanted the same capability for his Command. Shortly after his return to WPAFB, a 2nd Lt. MARS Director along with a full Colonel from the AMC staff traveled to OFFUTT AFB in a noisy and cramped B-26 aircraft. Well, it never came to pass owing to the tremendous cost involved. However, the AMC MARS stations began to be up-graded with the new Collins SSB radio systems.

Another memorable event occurred at the MARS station in 1957. Early one Sunday morning the Base MARS Director received a telephone call to immediately report to the station and listen for a special signal on the 20 meter amateur radio band and report the observations to a phone number in Washington, DC. Well as is well known now, this was the signal of the Russian satellite Sputnik. The MARS station was one of the first to submit a report on the Sputnik satellite.

The Big Change: In early 1958, Headquarters Air Force removed all manpower authorizations for its Command MARS operations. Consequently, a monumental change in the operation and organization occurred. The operation of the MARS facilities fell to the volunteer military and civilian members. During the ensuing years, the MARS facilities were consolidated into Building 199 in Area D. The military club station disbanded and the K8AIR callsign reverted to the FCC where it remained unassigned until in 1998 it was assigned to an individual amateur operator under the vanity call sign program. The last vestige of the MARS activity is the antenna system that is still in place in Area A near the Twin Base golf course. The building housing the station is undergoing major renovation and it is unknown at this time if a MARS station will re-appear.

Charles C. Gauder, W8XG

June 25, 1998

Beavercreak, OH USA

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