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Audio Letters from Vietnam War

All his life, Steven Starnes, who lives in northern Iowa, was told to stay away from his father’s collection of old audio tapes. After being boxed up for two generations, the recordings have been brought back to life unlocking a love affair that goes back to the Vietnam War.

In 1970, Army Specialist Paul Starnes hosted a radio show on the American Forces Vietnam Network for thousands of listeners including  servicemen in the Cam Ranh Bay area located on the central coast of South Vietnam.  During one of his programs from June 1970, he charms his audience with humor and a southern accent as an up-tempo song plays in the background.

“Welcome again to another good session of country western music right here on AFVN Radio 900, Dong Ba Thin,  a little bit of chuck wagon chow down, friends and neighbors my cold is much better today, I’m so full of penicillin today that every time I sneeze I cure a dozen people. I’m Army specialist Paul Starnes, hang around won’t you.”

Expanded montage of Paul and Carol's tapes to each other with AFVN broadcast excerpts

Paul often dedicates songs for soldiers about to depart.

“Going to send one out to a good buddy, Dave Bass, leaving for home today.  I’m going to send it out to his good girlfriend there back in the States, the world, back in the land of the great PX.”

Like many soldiers, Paul had purchased a tape recorder for personal use in his simple living quarters. That’s where he recorded intimate audio letters to his family and sweetheart back home in Kentucky.

“This would be the time for David and mother to walk out of the room since you said they didn’t care for the mushy stuff. I think I ought to tell you anyway that I love you very much Carol and I’m missing you.”

Credit Steven Starnes
Undated photo of Carol, who was a nurse.

Both in their early 20s, Paul and his fiancé Carol had delayed their marriage pending his return home. Until then, they exchanged tender messages on small reel-to-reel audio tapes.

“Did I tell you I loved you? Ah, yes I did. And I just can’t wait to be the future Mrs. Paul W. Starnes. I’ll probably cry the first time you call me that. In fact I know I will. ”

Paul stashed away 19 hours of recordings featuring his favorite music, the voices of family members, and those love letters mailed home. For the rest of his life, the compilation was off-limits.  Much of it includes observations of daily life, including what his Christmas looks like in South Vietnam.

“You said that you’re looking forward to a white Christmas. Well I don’t know whether I’m going to have one or not. If it is, it will be white sand, I’m sure.”

Paul’s son Steven Starnes says his father rarely opened up about his war experience.  11 years after he died, Steven decided it was time to unwrap the confidential soundtracks, 46 years after they were recorded.

“Most of the stories that I pieced together in my mind are from his photo albums, which some of them are quite colorful and vivid and in some cases quite horrific actually, and I understand why he didn’t want to talk about it.”

Credit Photo by John Pemble
Steven Starnes from Ringsted, examines one of the tapes recorded by his dad in South Vietnam.

Steven is also a veteran and still serves in the Iowa National Guard.

“I’m excited and interested to find out what’s here.  The only fear factor was touching the stuff dad told me for years not to touch. I was even asked the question, I think by you, why now? I still don’t know really the answer. I think the real answer is I’m ready now. Like I said I didn’t want the stuff to deteriorate and go bad on us either.” 

The back and forth letters between his parents sometimes express fear with references to the ongoing war.  When the Viet Cong attacked, the radio announcers ran to their sandbag bunker outside the studio. In this recording, Carol talks to the enemy, known as Charlie.

“I thought I told Charlie ‘lay off.’ Oh Charlie, behave yourself and quite hitting these guys. My boys have got to come home to me, you’re my man they’re my boys.”

As Paul’s time in Vietnam comes close to an end, he mentions it during his radio show.  “Let me tell you I’m going to send that one out to Carol too, cause friends and neighbors, I’m just about to get the two digit fidgets.”  Two digit fidgets, means he has fewer than 100 days left in his tour of duty.

Credit Steven Starnes
Starnes with his M16 rifle, in the radio station's bunker.

On a tape for Carol, Paul tries to reassure her that things are calmer.  “Charlie’s been real nice to us. He hasn’t hit us in about three months now, so if I’m lucky may not see another attack the rest of the time I’m here. Keeping my fingers crossed a little bit.” 

Even though Paul is a few months away from coming home, Carol tells him it’s hard to be separated.

“It has been bad man; I really, really miss you. I think you know, what if he don’t, you know, I shouldn’t say that I’m sorry but it’s in your mind, and I’m sure it’s in yours too. What would I do?”

Paul often complains about the heat, monsoon rain getting into the radio transmitter, and mentions a nearby unit where an American set off a grenade targeting an unpopular commander. He also talks about the good life which includes dining on steak and occasionally drinking alcohol, a subject that strains their long distance relationship.  Carol expresses her objection.

“Honey you know how I feel about drinking. What if there’d been an attack and you couldn’t have ran for shelter or you couldn’t have thought clearly enough on what you were supposed to do?”

Paul gently, but firmly responds. 

“I don’t know what to say, but a, you can’t change anyone by just wishing or fussing at them, but, I do I think I’ll try to quit a lot of this stuff.”

Credit Steven Starnes
Paul Starnes receives an award during his tour of duty in 1969-70.

For his 22nd birthday, Paul gets a special greeting from Carol.

“Your birthday present really is going to be having me in your arms, holding me, loving me.”

At the age of 39, this is the first time Steven Starnes listens to these tapes.

“I’m actually quite emotional about this right now. There’s definitely a past there that I’ve not heard.”

As Steven hears the youthful voices of his mom and dad, he is openly moved.

“He went to the war zone where you didn’t expect to come back home. My mom, she was killed in head-on collision just feet in front of our house. She died the tragic death and he died of natural causes.”

A copy of Paul Starnes’ recently discovered hour long AFVN broadcast from 1970 will be submitted to the American forces radio archives. For the Starnes family, the recovered memories of beloved relatives will be preserved as Christmas gifts, when these treasured voices from the past will be home for the holidays once again. 

Credit Steven Starnes
Army Specialist Paul Starnes on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network.