Friday, July 31, 2015

Project Jenny Brings TV to Vietnam

Click here for best version and photos Final magazine story

Project Jenny / On the air—from the air (2015)
Seven months after marines hit the ground in Da Nang, officially becoming the first U.S. combat forces in the Vietnam War, a lone aircraft departed Ton San Nhut Airbase with a surprise, nonlethal weapon. It would bring immediate support to the American buildup, and, over the coming months, would transform the very culture of Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict. Fifty years ago, on October 6th, a Navy C-121 Super Constellation turned loose its payload: a live radio broadcast of the 1965 World Series. Anyone within range could tune in a receiver, even a cheap transistor radio, and listen to the opening game between Minnesota and Los Angeles; the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale versus the Twins’ Mudcat Grant. The NBC broadcast, with announcers Joe Garagiola and Byrum Saam, came from Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. The signal was relayed around the globe and intercepted by waiting airborne technicians, who retransmitted the program over AM radio and short wave, to an eager audience below. Peanuts and beer would have made the game more complete, but for the fans who were listening in Vietnam and at sea, the play-by-play broadcast was a grand slam. It was a breakthrough success for the U.S. Naval program code-named Project Jenny, and it was only a sneak preview of what the military had in mind.

Home-based at Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, Project Jenny was considered experimental. Doubters believed the next phase was near impossible. During that summer of ‘65, the Oceanographic Air Survey Unit was commissioned at Pax River, and since OASU (later VX-8, and VXN-8) was a collection of technology-oriented units with novel missions, the Chief of Naval Operations added Project Jenny to the portfolio. What's more, they were all familiar with the Lockheed C-121. The World Series broadcast was designed to test an aerial platform, a fully-functioning, flying radio station, complete with built-in transmitters and antennas. Radio was already available in Vietnam via traditional ground stations from AFRS (American Forces Radio Saigon), but never a sustained, live broadcast from the air like that first historic ball game; it stretched out over two hours and 29 minutes before the Twins prevailed 8-2. The broader vision for Project Jenny was mind-boggling; nothing short of revolutionary: the introduction of television to Vietnam transmitted from aircraft.  
The strategy was more complex than simply building morale and making shows like The Beverly Hillbillies available to the audience in South Vietnam. “Previous studies and research,” according to the written history of OASU, concluded that “television would significantly contribute to the U.S. policy objectives of rural pacification, urban stability, national unity, free world support and U.S. prestige in Vietnam.” The plan was to roll out TV as a bilingual venture, with separate language channels for English and Vietnamese, while maintaining capabilities for multiple radio missions. The TV objective was seen as temporary, to keep the aircraft in service until ground stations and towers were up and running.
“We were at RCA school when we got wind of it, and I said they’ve got to be nuts,” according to Chief Electronics Technician John Lucas. A graduate of submarine school, Lucas got orders to meet a civilian on a street corner in Camden, New Jersey at 8 o’clock one morning. “We introduced ourselves and he said, ‘What do you think of television?’ My first words were, ‘I hate the damn stuff. The biggest waste of time I’d ever seen.’” It was all rather hush hush. “I walked into a room with about 20 guys and nobody knew what was going on,” said Lucas, who would later become the senior technician for the project.
The concept of airborne telecasting had been researched since the early ‘60s. The first operational assignment was to Cuba, but the two prototype C-118 aircraft were not outfitted in time to be deployed during the missile crisis. As the Vietnam War was ramping up, Project Jenny became a priority, to include psychological warfare radio operations. RCA was a lead inventor and manufacturer in the expanding television industry, and despite fears that “the project is probably not feasible,” according to unit’s chronological time line, the company agreed to provide the equipment and technical expertise anyway. When the Navy delivered two more NC-121J Constellations to the project, technicians and mechanics immediately began to convert the 1950s-era transports into hi-tech radio and television stations. Collectively, they would become known as Blue Eagle One, Blue Eagle Two and Blue Eagle Three.  BE1 was deployed for the World Series broadcast and would remain radio-only. BE2 and BE3 would become TV birds, but were also capable of transmitting radio; sometimes all at once.
Navy Captain George Dixon, a World War Two veteran, was recalled to head up the project. Dixon had become vice president of Technical Materiel Corporation, a defense contractor that specialized in communications systems. “It would not be wrong to call him the father of Project Jenny,” according to Jim Hicks, who manages a website for Project Jenny veterans ( He flew on Blue Eagles in 1967 and 1968. “We broadcast AFVN (American Forces Vietnam Network programming) in English and some “Chieu Hoi” (open arms program) and Vietnamese news at the same time.” AFVN was on channel 11 and THVN (Vietnamese TV) had channel 9. As Hicks remembers it, “We were very proud to be over there. I was especially very proud of trying to keep people alive instead of trying to kill people.” Technical Coordinator Dixon expressed it this way in 1966: “This project is being designed to fight the enemy with ‘show and tell’…instead of bullets and men.” In a thank you letter to the wives of team members, Dixon wrote, “Passing the word to the general populace in a minimum amount of time can very well be the saving of a great many lives, both American and Vietnamese.”
It was the job of senior tech John Lucas to dismember and retrofit all of the essential components so they could be squeezed inside the Super Connies. The precision work of customizing all the modules was executed at Andrews Air Force Base. “The challenge was to break it down so I could get two transmitters in there, get a whole television studio in there, get all the stuff that feeds video tape machines, film chains and all that stuff, get it packed in there so we could operate it and still be able to do any maintenance.” When Blue Eagle Two was ready for an aerial performance check, Capt. Dixon, Chief Lucas and an RCA engineer were all on board. Some of the aviation personnel, it was said, refused to fly because the plane was overweight. The crucial test flight was above Washington D.C. Lucas had his wife watching television at midnight when engineers used a “function generator” to create a false signal, and according to Lucas, “we literally wiped out a broadcast station on the ground by jamming their signal. My wife saw a bunch of squiggles on the screen. That was the intent; hands down it was a success.”
The conversion of Blue Eagle Three was started next, as an advance party arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airbase to establish Detachment Westpac, OASU’s operations center in Vietnam.  They annexed an open space near the flight line and hastily built an improvised facility with tents, scrap lumber and shipping crates. “They wanted it on the air now,” according to Jean LeRoy, then an Air Force announcer on some 50 TV flights. “They wanted to show this presence. It was to let people know we were there.” By January 1966, the two TV birds had joined Blue Eagle One in Saigon. South Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Cao Key, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and General William Westmoreland were all beaming for the dedication ceremony at the airport terminal, and of course, it was recorded for later broadcast. LeRoy was attached to AFVN and ran the camera. “We had a full size studio camera and had run cables into the airplane because that was the only place we had a VTR (video tape recorder).” AFVN was responsible for programming the English language channel and personnel would bring along the show films and video tapes for that night’s schedule. AFVN also provided the on-air talent to read live newscasts and announcements from a small onboard studio. LeRoy says he was on the original flight: “I’d get some rip and read news before we left, you’d strap yourself in and away we’d go.”  
The twin TV aircraft flew on alternating nights, seven days a week, showering news and entertainment from an altitude around 10,000 to 12,000 feet. “We’d just get them on station and fly in circles,” radio operator Dave Tice remembers from his 1966 perch behind the pilot. “We’d fly a race track pattern, fly a leg, make a turn, and fly back.” The Vietnamese channel was telecast simultaneously and they provided their own program recordings. But for locals and expatriate viewers alike, American blockbusters like Bonanza and Combat were among the fan favorites. For several hours every evening, the Constellations went on-the-air, from the air, broadcasting signals that could be picked up by “rabbit ears” antennas throughout the capital city region. The U.S. government distributed TV sets, “for less than the cost of one load of bombs,” according to Congressman Charles Chamberlain. He considered television “a potent weapon,” that would help defeat the Viet Cong. By the end of 1966, TV Guide reported that 46,000 receivers had been sold at Post Exchanges around Saigon. At one time, the PX’s imported 10,000 sets a month and usually sold out.
Television officially premiered Feb. 7, 1966, with regularly scheduled programs in two languages. The technology breakthrough that had swept western countries years earlier was now an overwhelming sensation in South Vietnam. In what may be the only account of that historic first night, Air Force Master Sergeant Shelly Blunt, a pioneer announcer himself, gave his impressions of TV’s debut to the AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) Newsletter.
“Just for kicks, a few of us patrolled the area to see how TV was being received. The large round-about near the Brinks (hotel) with the small park in the center was jam-packed with citizens like crazy, to see and hear. They placed two receivers on a platform about seven feet above the ground…it kind of reminded me of sitting in the last row at the Hollywood Bowl and trying to see the color of the eyes of the performer! In another place, this time in a bar not far from the Brinks, we noticed a large crowd of people on the street, seemingly hypnotized at what was going on inside. All in all, we’re tickled pink and hope both planes stay up.” 
Compared to the “flat screen” TVs and High Definition clarity of today’s picture, those wavy, rudimentary, black and white images that mesmerized viewers in Saigon were captivating, nonetheless, especially when considering the telecast was beaming down from an orbiting aircraft. The basic “rabbit ears” reception could be sharpened with better antennas, which became a form of barter. “Our engineers would make TV antennas and I would trade those for all kinds of silly things,” according to AFVN’s LeRoy; “Lobsters from the Navy, steaks from the Army, and we would have parties with all that stuff. The engineers knew exactly how to tune that antenna so it got that signal perfectly.”
Television was becoming a hot commodity, but not everyone liked it. Two months after the dawn of TV, the Viet Cong mortared Tan Son Nhut where the Blue Eagles had parked right after the night’s telecasts. Senior Tech John Lucas was still aboard BE2 when it sustained a direct hit. “I was inside cleaning up. There was only one thing between me and the mortar and that was the air conditioner.” The cooling unit, installed to keep the television equipment from overheating, ended up saving his life, but the Eagles were damaged. BE2 was in bad shape, although the others returned to service quickly. The nightly television schedule had to be scaled back for a month while Blue Eagle Two underwent major repairs, including a two foot gash in the fuselage. A couple months later, Project Jenny was bolstered when a third flying TV station arrived in-country, designated as Blue Eagle Six.
All along, the plan was for land-based facilities to replace the aerial broadcast platforms, and Gen. Westmoreland was there for the ribbon cutting to christen AFVN’s first ground station at Qui Nhon. He brandished a Samurai sword and sliced through a video tape to inaugurate the station. Then, in October of ’66, AFVN’s new headquarters opened near the U.S. Embassy, adjacent to THVN-TV, which would soon be broadcasting in Vietnamese. The 300 foot tower was the tallest structure in Saigon and provided excellent TV coverage. This allowed the Blue Eagles to concentrate on the Vietnamese-speaking rural population in the Mekong Delta. “The State Department put generators and TVs in the strategic hamlets and the larger cities. I’m sure it was all propaganda,” recalls Jim Eanes, a 23 year old Ensign who supervised the Blue Eagle technicians broadcasting the Vietnamese programs. “It was entertainment and news for the government. They obviously were trying to win the hearts and minds of the population.”
The four-prop Constellations bursting with all the TV equipment were always overweight on takeoff; including diesel for the generator that ran all the non-aviation electronics, in addition to the aircraft’s own fuel. They were equipped with four of the most powerful Wright, 18 cylinder engines. “Some of the pilots commented the aircraft was a big, lumbering beast,” according to technician Jim Hicks. The exception was Blue Eagle One, which was the radio-only plane, free of the heavy video gear and external TV antennas. “It flew just fine” for navy pilot Chuck Monroe. He was in control of the cockpit in 1968 when BE1 was based in Da Nang. “Black radio” missions, or, special operations, originated high off the coast of North Vietnam. “We had grandstand seats of the anti-aircraft fire and SAM missile launches and other fireworks over there,” the former Lt. Commander reminisced. “One night we heard radio chatter that MIGs were in the air. A few minutes later we saw some unidentified aircraft whipping by, thought the worst and we shagged ass out of there.” But the plane could have been an American aircraft, and the next day Monroe reminded the Special Operations Group that Blue Eagle One drags a 1,000 foot long antenna cable through the air for broadcasting radio. “That could easily cut a wing off a jet, and it would be best to stay away from us,” Monroe cautioned. “(We) did not see any more aircraft come close to us.”
Blue Eagle One, with its enigmatic assignment, was the most mysterious of the Project Jenny Constellations in Vietnam. “One part of the mission was completely classified and the other part was PSYOPS,” is how Electronics Technician Hicks described it. Occasionally they took a “spook” along: “That person came aboard to operate radio equipment in the back of the aircraft behind a curtain.” Hicks says a bright Vietnamese PR officer would fly along sometimes. “He would listen to the news from Hanoi and take voluminous notes. As soon as that show was over we would come up on the air, with our superior altitude, and override their program and (he would) give the South Vietnamese version of the news, on their frequency.”
Like any other television station, technical snafus would sometimes interfere with programming. The constant vibrations of the big planes began to take a toll on broadcast equipment, according to an insider’s account of the program logs. “One evening, no less than five soldered connections in one tape recorder shook loose. Added to this, the rainy season with its turbulent air currents came along, and notations in the program logs began to appear.” A sample of log entries shows broadcast interruptions for various reasons: “Transmitter failure,” “probably bad amplifier,” “lost audio,” and “video tape machine kaput.” The most alarming log notation was a near disaster: “At 19:15 a fire broke out in #4 engine. The supercharger blew smoke into the fuselage. So smoky the pilots couldn’t read instruments. At low altitude hatches open and smoke cleared.” The unidentified writer concludes, “This was the closest a Blue Eagle aircraft ever came to an actual ditching.”
There were other vivid recollections too, based on accounts from Blue Eagle veterans and old news stories. Occasionally, air strikes in support of ground troops would force the Connies to change course; BE2 was raked by a 50-caliber machine gun during takeoff from Saigon near the end of the Tet Offensive; and three of the unit’s officers were wounded when the VC bombed the Victoria Hotel. For Jim Eanes, it was lightening strikes: “If you got hit on the nose of the aircraft there was this big blue ball of energy that would roll back through the plane, and miraculously, it hardly ever knocked out any of the equipment.” Aircraft electrician Ken Hassebroek was aboard for choppy rides during the rainy season: “The Super Connie was a rugged aircraft through storms and through monsoons; it’s really aerodynamic with the three tails.” Lt. Joe Rolwing’s nemesis was walking from his BOQ to the airbase; “I had to walk by the morgue, every day. That was the most traumatic thing I did.” When AFVN’s ground station in Hue was overrun and knocked off the air during the ’68 Tet Offensive, Project Jenny came to the rescue. According to a detachment fact sheet, northern AFVN and THVN operations were rapidly replaced by airborne telecasts from Blue Eagle flights in the I Corps area.
By the late 60s, television had become deeply rooted in South Vietnam’s everyday life. A growing audience was watching the news, cultural programs and, even Laugh In, while gathered around a flickering small screen in darkened living rooms. On the streets of Saigon, young American military newscasters were seen as TV celebrities. Servicemen bought portable sets for their hooch, and the South Vietnamese government was learning how to spin its own news for the Vietnamese population, both friend and foe. The several hundred American military men, who kept the Blue Eagles in the air, had made the innovation of television into Vietnam’s “social media” of the rock and roll ‘60s. During its first four years of operation, it was estimated the TV squadron had logged 10,000 broadcast hours.
Five years after that breakthrough baseball broadcast, Project Jenny put itself out of business, flying its final TV mission on Sept. 30, 1970, and the entire project was wound down by the end of the year. A network of reliable ground stations was providing a full schedule of programming over a wider reception area, and with more sophisticated production techniques, including live news, sports and program specials than could ever be done from an airplane. As primitive as the Blue Eagles might seem today, in one respect, they were ahead of their time; millions of viewers still receive their television from platforms in the sky—except today, we call them satellites. Meanwhile, that Minnesota baseball diamond where the experimental World Series transmission originated has been transformed into another favorite American pastime, a shopping paradise, known as the Mall of America.  
Sidebar: Super Dooper Blooper
Blunders are just part of the business in live television broadcasting. Most of the fluffs and faux pas are harmless, often humorous, but an innocent gaffe made by a Blue Eagle technician in 1968 had the potential to escalate into a diplomatic kerfuffle. It was right after the Tet Offensive; a sensitive time with civilians and the military still on edge. A prime time audience was watching a Vietnamese language program when the sound track was mismatched and startled viewers heard the wrong channel; a tape recording that was meant for Vietnamese radio. “It was a big brouhaha when we landed,” according to Lt. J-G Ralph Koozer, who was in charge of the broadcast technicians on that flight. “I heard the skipper say the Vietnamese were hopping mad and wanted to come up and shoot down the plane.” Exactly what the audience heard is not clear, but another Blue Eagle veteran, Jim Eanes, was told that the audio was a PSYOPS broadcast intended for the enemy. “The South Vietnamese Air force thought the Viet Cong had taken over the Blue Eagle and scrambled a couple F-5’s.” Koozer says the mistake involved a “humongous patch panel,” and the mix-up happened as they were patching music into the plane’s internal speakers for the crew to listen to. The story circulated through the squadron back in the States, where Eanes heard how the technical difficulty was resolved: “The American crew was able to convince the fighter pilots that it was an unintended blooper, they’ve fixed it, and the correct audio was now going out.”


  1. During my 3 deployments to Vietnam with the Blue Eagles between 1966 and 1968, I was extremely proud of the job we accomplished bringing T.V. to Vietnam. I flew as the Flight Radio operator in the Cockpit along with 2 Pilots and a Flight Engineer. From that vantage point we could often see ground fire being directed toward our aircraft, which was probably the most scariest part of our nightly missions. I thoroughly enjoyed my 3 deployments to Vietnam and the entire mission assigned to us.
    It was our Navy "Gitter done" attitude that made the whole mission a success.

    1. Job well done Dennis. Of all the changes that have occurred in Vietnam since our deployments, one thing remains constant. Television is as overwhelmingly popular as ever! Thanks

  2. I was at Tan Son Nhut during 1970, I had no idea some of the broadcasts had come from planes.

  3. What these guys did to put a TV station in an airplane is astonishing---like putting a genie in a bottle. Although the flying broadcast service was phased out in the mid 60's, and replaced by ground stations, it lingered a bit longer for Vietnamese-language programming. All a very fascinating accomplishment.