|"Somebody is going to get killed." Clouds form over Hon Tre Island (All photos copyrighted)|
It’s impossible to know how many pirate radio stations were broadcasting to American servicemen in the warzone of
it’s reasonable to assume that none could match the professional infrastructure
of WPOT Radio.
Operating at 99.9 on the FM dial, WPOT’s outlaw broadcasters had a fully-equipped studio with RCA control board, turntables, tape deck and cartridge machines; a powerful transmitter; a legal antenna and a choice selection of rock & roll music preferred by younger GIs, including antiwar songs.
|By day this studio was AFVN. By night it was WPOT. rf|
The brazen radio pirates operated with impunity for one very simple reason: it was hidden within an official affiliate of the American Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN). By day it was AFVN’s Detachment 4. After signoff, mutineer deejays took control and cranked up music that was banned from the approved play list.
WPOT was strategically located near the top of Hon Tre Island, offshore from South Vietnam’s central coast, giving the signal’s 25,000 watts the capability of reaching eastward into the South China Sea and westward to the central highlands. The potential audience was vast, including many thousands of military listeners based in the Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay areas.
I spent two months there, but only recently learned that much more was brewing on the mountain island than forbidden radio broadcasts; to include attempted murder, prostitution that may have compromised our war effort and a troublesome drug predicament that gave commanders good reason to crack down.
|Bob Wilford at AFVN Pleiku.|
Marine Sergeant Bob Wilford was one of the after-hours announcers on WPOT in 1969. “The Officer in Charge never said anything,” the wily broadcaster recalls. “We counted on the fact that he slept pretty much through the night like a little baby.”
The underground station’s phony call letters were entirely apropos. The “P-O-T” is what some of the deejays smoked during the late night sessions. Others preferred alcoholic beverages. All were lower ranking enlisted men. Wilford told me, “We’d read the standard signoff, play the national anthem, wait 60 to 90 seconds, and go back on the air—‘Hi, this is WPOT Radio.’ ”
|Arriving at Hon Tre. rf|
The 228th Signal Company shared the same elevation with AFVN’s compound, and we were sometimes socked in by cloud cover—the summit reached 1,600 feet. Our FM radio and TV station was the smaller unit, perhaps a dozen or so men, and we generally kept to ourselves, but were allowed the privilege of using the signal unit’s chow hall.
I readily acknowledge that mischievous deejays and innocent newsroom high jinks are part of broadcasting history—even becoming a popular media genre with the 1970s TV series WKRP in Cincinnati and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The blockbuster movie Good Morning,
the story of AFVN’s radio predecessor in 1965 Saigon.
But what was going on at
was beginning to spin out of control. Hon
|Photo courtesy Allingham|
The heyday for WPOT was in the final months of 1969 when Captain Robert Sanders (seen at left with hands on hips) was the Officer in Charge. Not long after his arrival there was a surprise drug raid. A helicopter landed, and a man who saw it said two MPs and drug-sniffing dogs jumped off and searched an AFVN hooch. It was the sleeping quarters shared by several broadcasters.
“Poor dogs just ran in a circle,” the eyewitness quipped, “such a target-rich environment!” A drug stash was incinerated on the spot and the chopper left. No one was punished, according to the onlooker.
Wilford told me that Sanders knew who the main problem was. “That was (Army Specialist)
Lane. Sanders was like CW Lane’s shadow,” according to Wilford.
“And if you were in the vicinity, and Sanders could even suspect anything was
going on, you’d have your own shadow.” Truer words were never spoken.
|The newsroom where I prepared the evening TV news. rf|
I arrived on “the rock” in January 1970. One evening as I was standing outside the TV newsroom waiting to go on-the-air, Sanders came storming down the hill and caught
Lane smoking weed in the bunker. Since I was standing
in the entrance and chatting with CW, Sanders ordered us to drop down and do
push ups. We were both in trouble, even though I was not partaking. No case was
pursued against me. [The full story of my escape is told in the digital book Broadcasters: Untold Chaos.]
What ultimately happened to
CW Lane remains a mystery. Various AFVN
veterans say he was sent to the brig, or went Absent Without Leave. Wilford
remembers Lane being demoted. Whatever his grand finale, CW did enjoy his
cannabis. A co-worker said he smoked “bodacious”
amounts of weed.
Sanders seemed to be on a campaign to clean up AFVN’s drug problem. New arrivals were told they would be watched, including Specialist Jim Allingham—who neither smoked nor drank. Jim shared a telltale warning during his orientation from the top non-commissioned officer: “He said he knew some of the guys at the detachment were doing (marijuana), but hadn’t been caught yet.”
There was gossip that Sanders was military intelligence, but that didn’t ring true when I talked with him 50 years after he was commanding Detachment 4. “I wasn’t in the nature of being a tattletale,” the former captain explained. “But I consider taking drugs on duty not minor. Especially if someone was in a bunker and had guard duty.”
|The perimeter just outside the AFVN compound. rf|
Sanders’ hooch was just outside the main bunker, and he made his argument personal. “You know, if there had been any sappers (enemy commandos) they’d have gotten me first, so I didn’t think that was very funny.”
One night, he was reported to have gone outside the perimeter in order to sneak up on a bunker for a random drug check. This was told to me by a combat veteran: “Remember, it was a free-fire-zone. Fortunately, he picked a bunker that was fully alert and drug free, so he escaped somehow getting shot.”
One wonders if a sentry on duty at the adjacent signal company was stoned when he fell asleep on guard duty, and his rifle tumbled to the ground. Numerous rounds misfired. Sanders remembers what happened: “They all thought they were under fire and opened up with (their own) fire. There was a full time war going on there for a little while.” The guard accidentally shot himself in the leg and was evacuated.
Hon Tre was in a sliding into dysfunction and ominous red flags were embedded in the letters one broadcaster sent to his family in the
Midwest. “Another 15 pounds of marijuana confiscated one
more guy in jail and the pressure is like electricity. This place is ready to
blow. Somebody is going to get killed.”
|The enemy hits a U.S. target on the mainland opposite Hon Tre. rf|
It seems that our intrepid commander had been targeted in a “fragging” incident. “Fragging” is military jargon for murdering an unpopular leader with a fragmentation grenade. I was one of three Hon Tre broadcasters who vaguely remember hearing about it.
Apparently, a grenade had been placed in a bunker—inside an ammunition box—and was set to go off when the lid was opened. Sanders was tipped off that he could find drugs in the ammo box, but when he opened it, the pin was not fully pulled. Fragging attempts were often meant to be more of a message than to do actual harm.
Sanders was unaware of the incident, but told me, “It could have happened right under my nose. They might have tucked it in there in such a way that I never saw it. That’s possible.”
The former AFVN commander did recall a fragging episode at our neighboring unit, aimed at the captain of 228 Signal Company. “They took a hand grenade, pulled the pin, and then wrapped the handle with electrical tape and put it in his gas tank,” said Sanders. The gasoline was supposed to dissolve the tape and allow detonation. Sanders struggled to recall the outcome: “I don’t think it exploded, but it might have.”
Being ordered to the isolated radio and TV station was like being exiled to AFVN’s
Siberia for troublemakers.
Two of us were shipped to “the rock” for being whistleblowers—exposing AFVN’s
heavy handed news censorship in Saigon. The negative
media attention resulted in a congressional investigation.
Sanders once brought me in for an interview to evaluate my satisfaction as an AFVN newsman. He composed a “Memorandum for the Record” which included this closing sentence: “He (me) further indicated that he had neither plans nor desire to create dissension at Detachment 4 or in the Network.” I had earlier joined a group in
that actively opposed AFVN’s policy of news censorship (see Broadcasters: Untold Chaos).
|Photo courtesy Allingham|
When we talked in 2019, the former OIC had a good grasp of censorship—when it is necessary and when it is not. Sanders’ conclusion was this: “I trust you guys. I have confidence, I think you’re good journalists, and that’s all it took. I never had a bit of trouble with them.”
Soon after I was banished to Hon Tre, Army Specialist Jim Allingham (photo at right) arrived. Also an anti-censorship newsman, he was unceremoniously put on a plane in
Saigon—Jim was the only
passenger—and ended up on the island with me. A third troublemaker was already
there: Sgt. Wilford, who was transferred from the American Forces Vietnam
Network’s station in Pleiku.
Wilford’s exile came after a stunning on-air protest at the end of his TV newscast. Wearing a black arm band and a peace symbol on a chain around his neck, he told viewers “On a final note…” and then read an antiwar editorial in Time magazine. The commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division at Pleiku saw it, complained and wanted something done. A couple weeks later, Wilford was transferred to “the rock.”
WPOT radio was not broadcasting for long and the hours were irregular. “Mostly it was for us to hear music that we were not allowed to play,” asserted Wilford. “We thought, ‘we can’t be the only ones who miss these songs.’ ”
One example given was “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” which included the lyrics, “It wasn’t me that started this whole crazy Asian war.” The version by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition had just come out in 1969.
|Michael Mankey on-the-air at Hon Tre. Courtesy Wilford.|
Another Marine Sergeant, Michael Mankey, was a Wilford sidekick who also wore two hats: one for spinning music on AFVN, and one for WPOT, according to Wilford. CW Lane was also in the studio, as well as other guests who were invited in from time to time. Wilford insists there was never any pre-planning, “We’d run out of things to do, and we’d go, ‘let’s go play some music in the studio.’ ”
Wilford, whose favorite libation was Southern Comfort rather than marijuana, admits that the enlisted men who gathered for the illicit WPOT programs understood what they were doing was very wrong. “We were all pretty paranoid, but we didn’t care. What were they going to do, send me to
Vietnam? It was
just a few of us with a huge, dangerous prank.”
One reason they got away with it was by keeping a low profile—even among the AFVN staff. Wilford put it this way: “Nice guys didn’t get invited to the clique parties.” During this time, Specialist Tom Benintende was program director for FM radio. In an email, he said, “I have absolutely no knowledge of anything nefarious going on.” Tom must have been a nice guy.
I suspect the scandalous behavior was winding down by the time I arrived in January 1970. I too was oblivious to the misbehavior, although the haze of smoldering weed was still in the air, and I was implicated when
was caught. But if WPOT was still broadcasting at that time, I was out of the
Prostitution was another problem on Hon Tre, according to Air Force Captain Daryl Gonyon, who wrote an account at americanveteranscenter.org. He said they were hired as maids, but could well have been enemy agents. When Gonyon plotted to get them removed, 21 “suspected Viet Cong” prostitutes were sent back to the mainland.
|Photo courtesy Ingle.|
Gonyon’s allegations did not mention AFVN, but one of our announcers added this observation: “They would swarm off the ferry every Sunday morning, ready for work,” according to Army Specialist Chuck Ingle (right), “I think they used to get $20.”
One principle reason why the bootleg station went undetected is that AFVN remained an effective operation, by and large, and a reliable link in the network’s countrywide operation. There were eight radio and television stations scattered throughout
Vietnam to serve more than a half-million Americans
who were deployed in 1969.
A half-century after WPOT was on-the-air, marijuana is on its way to becoming legal. But 50 years ago, it was used, along with booze, to relieve the demoralizing boredom which was a common affliction on Hon Tre. “The rock” lacked the social outlets found in large military installations: clubs, theaters, restaurants, bowling alleys, gymnasiums, libraries, etc.
In spite of the tumultuous times on
, things mostly had a way of
turning out all right: No one was killed, Capt. Sanders kept drug use from
getting totally out of control, and servicemen got some bonus, after-hours rock
& roll. Hon Tre Island
is a luxury resort and amusement park (Vinapearl), with inviting beaches, golf,
and gondolas that carry visitors via suspended cables to the mainland. The photo at left is Hon Tre today, courtesy James Healy, Flickr. Hon
|The panoramic view of Vietnam's coastline from Hon Tre Island in 1970. rf|