I am closing in on the end of my research concerning the history of MARS, focusing on the early years when the organization was known as the Army Amateur Radio System (AARS). I choose this as a research topic because no one has ever written a thorough history of MARS.
Dr. Paul A. Scipione, AA2AV, wrote MARS: Calling Back To ‘The World’ From Vietnam (The History of Military Affiliate Radio Systems Operations During the Vietnam War) which was published back in 1994. This hard to find book was truly a labor of love for Dr. Scipione, who had served as a soldier and MARS operator during the Vietnam War. He conducted countless interviews with soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and civilians who were involved in MARS during the length of the US involvement in Vietnam. He also conducted some initial research concerning the early days of MARS, prior to WWII. The majority of his research concerning MARS early history was done at Fort Monmouth, NJ, the location of the US Army’s Signal Corps School from pre-World War I to post-World War II. His primary source was QST which reflects a very ARRL flavored version of the AARS history. Army MARS currently uses an abbreviated version of Scipione’s history on their website:
In November, 1925, the Army Amateur Radio System (AARS) was initiated by a few dedicated pioneers in the United States Army Signal Corps led by Capt. Thomas C. Rives. His original intention was to enlist the talents of volunteer Amateur Radio operators as a source to train Soldiers in the then new technology of radio as well as pursuing radio research and development to improve radio equipment within the Army. His efforts were very successful.
This organization continued until the United States entry into World War II, at which time radio Amateurs were denied the use of the air. Therefore, the activities of AARS, as it was known, were suspended until 1946 when, once again, AARS was allowed to go back on the air. During the years 1925 through 1942, the AARS functioned more or less as an extra curricular activity of the U. S. Army Signal Corps, its scope being necessarily limited by the meager budget of the pre-World War II depression years. The best available figures indicate that as of the 7th of December, 1941, there were approximately 60,000 FCC licensed Amateurs within the United States and its possessions. Some 5600 of those Amateurs were members of the AARS. About 20% of the pre-World War II AARS members eventually entered the service of their country either in the Army or in a civilian capacity. The U. S. Army recognized the great importance of reactivating the AARS to train vitally needed communications personnel at a relatively inexpensive direct cost to the U.S. government. Therefore, in 1946, the AARS was reactivated and functioned as such until the creation of the Military Amateur Radio System in 1948, later renamed the Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS) with Army MARS and the newly formed Air Force MARS reflecting the creation of the Air Force as a separate service. In early 1963, the Navy-Marine Corps MARS was established.
From my research: AARS was officially constituted in November 1925, although the seeds for the organization had been planted a few years earlier. Both the ARRL and the Signal Corps had different motives for the founding of AARS. The ARRL was looking to affiliate with a government organization in order to ensure the radio amateurs continued to have the freedom to use the airwaves. Coming out of WWI, the ARRL was blindsided by the US Navy when it initially made a grab at permanently taking control of the radio spectrum. The ARRL proved to be an effective lobby and successfully persuaded Congress to maintain the status quo of the Radio Act of 1912, which gave the radio amateur his on-air privileges. The next fight was against commercial interests as broadcast radio skyrocketed in popularity. The ARRL knew that by affiliating with the Army, they could clearly justify the radio amateur’s continued access to the ham bands.
In the early 1920s, the Signal Corps was attempting to stand up a near-global radio system which came to be known as the War Department Radio Net. The hub of the net was based out of the Washington D.C. area and the other major nodes were located in each one of the nine corps areas.
This net grew to include Alaska, Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippine Islands. The Army lacked a large number of radio operators and soon faced budgetary and personnel cuts in the mid-1920s. Additionally, the Army was also looking at long term requirements. They realized the time required to draft and train the amount of radio operators that would be required for a major mobilization would be prohibitive. The Army viewed an affiliation with the ARRL and the American radio amateur as a possible solution to their short and long term manning issues.
While CPT Rives was stationed at Fort Monmouth during this period and a very active radio amateur, he was not the driving force behind the creation of AARS. The Army never saw the radio amateur as an asset to be used in helping with training at the Signal School. The Signal School was very progressive in its implementation of radio innovations and heavily leveraged the faculty at nearby MIT for technical assistance in addition to the school’s military staff.
Between 1925 and 1941, AARS was successful in training many amateur radio operators in Signal Corps procedure. Participation in AARS nets trained the radio amateurs in use of Army ciphers, how to pass message traffic, and net procedure. AARS members often provided aid during natural disasters, providing a link between local, state, and the national government. During the 1930s, AARS frequently teamed with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps to provide a radio link. The MARSGrams that became very familiar to soldiers during Vietnam can be traced back to the support provided members of the CCC sending messages back home. During the summer of 1941 as the US Army began its expansion for the coming war, AARS members operated directly from Army camps in order to pass messages from the soldiers back to their families.
While the Army had done an excellent job at training the AARS in Army communication procedures, it never was able to formally place the AARS members in any type of reserve status were they could be called up to active duty. No organized system was used to track membership and no plan was made to attempt to draft the AARS members into the Signal Corps. The AARS membership figure of 5600 is not accurate. Active membership during 1941 was at ~1200 with about 2000 inactive members.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, AARS evaporated. Members were encouraged to join the Army and promised placement in the Signal Corps. Compliance with this request was not universal. Not immediately seeing a use for AARS in a civil defense roll was shortsighted. The AARS could have served as a basis upon which to build the Wartime Emergency Radio System (WERS). Instead, the organization was scraped and it was hoped that they would seek placement in the Army.
Radio amateurs served in the US military in large numbers, but the vast majority were never prior members of AARS. National Guard units had consistently leveraged the use of radio amateurs who were members of their units to perform radio communication functions. For those radio amateurs drafted into the Army, their placement in a radio position was not assured.
AARS, during its existence, was a truly valuable organization – not an extra-curricular activity for the Signal Corps. Had the Army better managed the program and personnel, they would have derived much more benefit from the organization while on a wartime footing.
In addition to using QST as a source, I also used The Signal Corps Bulletin which was the professional journal of the Signal Corps up until 1940. The Signal Corps Bulletin provided a great deal of insight from the Army perspective concerning AARS, their development, and interaction with the CCC, National Guard, and the rest of the Army.
I continue to write my paper and am hoping to have a solid draft by next Friday. I am going to take the history a bit further – to just after the reconstitution of AARS as MARS in 1949 and then follow MARS up to 1953. If you are trying to find me in the coming days, chances are I’ll be at the Fort Leavenworth library, swimming in my notes as I try to tell the story of MARS in about 50 pages.