While the U.S. Army employed thousands of combat troops in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, thousands more combat support and combat service support troops were also deployed to Vietnam to support the combat elements. Among these were soldiers from the Signal Corps, who were tasked with providing reliable communications for U.S. and allied troops. The largest Signal Corps unit organized for the war was the 1st Signal Brigade, which had a peak strength of 21,000 soldiers in 1968 and was by far the largest brigade in the U.S. Army at the time.
The U.S Army Signal Corps had established a presence in Southeast Asia in the early 1950s when the French were attempting to re-establish control over Indochina. As the U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated in the 1950s and 1960s, additional signal units arrived and their missions grew increasingly complex. It became apparent that better coordination was needed to maximize the capabilities of the Army’s communications network. At the request of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, (MACV) commander GEN William Westmoreland, a series of studies were conducted to gauge the feasibility of consolidating all signal organizations above field force level under one command. The result was the creation of the 1st Signal Brigade.
Constituted on 26 March 1966 and activated six days later on 1 April in Vietnam, the 1st Signal Brigade was given the complicated mission of originating, installing, operating, and maintaining an incredibly complex communications system that fused tactical and strategic communications in Southeast Asia into a single, unified command. At the time of its creation, the brigade brought together the three signal groups already in Southeast Asia along with several signal battalions and other units, excluding those organic to field forces and divisions. The 1st Signal Brigade, as an arm of U.S. Army Strategic Communication Command (STRATCOM) and headquartered at Long Binh, came under the operational control of U.S. Army, Vietnam (USARV). The first commander of the brigade, BG Robert Terry, and the commanders who followed him, also served concurrently as Assistant Chief of Staff, Communications-Electronics, USARV.
The 1st Signal Brigade was tasked with providing communications to U.S. Forces scattered over more than 60,000 miles of territory that included jungle, mountain ranges, and coastal lowlands. One new emphasis of the brigade was on training, and one of the brigade’s first acts was to establish the Southeast Asia Signal Training Facility in 1966 to supplement the Army’s stateside training programs. Eventually, the facility would train signalmen from the other U.S. services and allied nations involved in the war. In addition, the first centralized photographic coverage of the war began with the creation of the Southeast Asia Pictorial Center. Photographers from the center’s operating unit, the 221st Signal Company, would go on to document much of the combat action in Vietnam.
The signalmen of the 1st Signal Brigade made major improvements to communications in Vietnam. Old shortwave systems were largely eliminated and more advanced troposcatter and satellite systems were introduced. By 1968, the Integrated Communications System—Southeast Asia, was completed, providing some 470,000 circuit miles in Vietnam and Thailand. The completion of the Corps Area Communication System added another 153,000 circuit miles and provided secure communications to even the most remote base camps. In addition, phone services were greatly improved and the Automatic Digital Network (AUTODIN) was introduced, greatly improving the speed, security, and reliability of communications.
Along with efforts to “keep the shooters talking,” the soldiers of the 1st Brigade often came under fire and fought as combat troops when necessary, especially during the Tet Offensive in January – February 1968. The 69th Signal Battalion played a key role in the defense of Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon. Troops from the 362d Signal Company rescued a group of surrounded MPs in Dalat. Company C, 43d Signal Battalion, located in a strategic area of Kontum, City in the Central Highlands, drove off several VC attacks. The 513th Signal Detachment earned a Valorous Unit Citation and the 544th Signal Detachment earned a Navy Presidential Unit Citation for their efforts to support the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh despite facing heavy attacks.
As the war wound down in Vietnam, the brigade continued to provide communications for the troops remaining. Eventually, the 1st, which had shrunk to some 1, 300 men, was transferred to the Republic of Korea in November 1972. Today the 1st Signal Brigade, the “Voice of the ROK,” remains in South Korea, with its headquarters at Camp Humphrey, providing communications support for the United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea, and the 8th U.S. Army.
© The Army Historical Foundation