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"Right now in the background, you'll probably hear a chopper flying over" said Private First Class Frank A. Kowalczyk in a 1969 letter to his mother. Back home in Calumet City, Illinois, Mary C. Kowalczyk could hear the beat of the helicopter's blades and the sound of her son's voice recorded on an audio tape mailed from his station at Long Binh Post, Vietnam.
PFC Kowalczyk regularly exchanged correspondence in audio format with his family during his 11 months and 20 days in Vietnam. One letter was recorded in several sessions in March 1969. In this audio letter he spoke about his impressions of the army, the war, the country and its people; accounts of his buddies; inquiries about the family; reminiscences about home; and thoughts of his future.
Sometimes Kowalczyk preferred the tape for ease of self expression: ". . . Like what happened that night, it was easier just to say it out on a tape than trying to write it because it will take a lot of writing paper in order to get it straight." Sometimes it was a chore to fill up the tape: "I'm really running out of things to say over here because 900 feet is sure is a lot of talking, that's 45 minutes worth and not a little bit more. I guess you're wondering how big these cockroaches get over here. . . ." Throughout, there are reminders that the medium provides a connection to home that is not possible with just pen and paper: ". . . When you do make me a tape and send it back with all this talking on it, catch the weather or the news or something on television on it. It definitely would be strange to hear something like that way over here because you just don't hear nothing that good back here."
Mailing the tape was as easy as sending a letter or postcard. Free postage privileges for military personnel in designated zones included sending personal recordings. Kowalczyk's familiarity with the free mail regulations showed as he told his mother, "I'm pretty sure that anything five inches and under goes back free . . ." Such personal tapes were also eligible for shipping under the "space available military" (SAM) transportation program, which used commercial airlines to expedite mail to and from military personnel overseas.
Making this audio letter was also relatively easy for Kowalczyk. He owned his own reel-to-reel recorder, bought from another soldier while in Vietnam. For service members without their own recorders, the USO and American Red Cross centers provided recording stations in Vietnam and the Pacific. The "Voices from Home" program, run by the American Red Cross with material support from the 3M Corporation, set up recording sessions in communities to offer families the chance to record an audio letter in time for holiday mailing. "Voices from Home" letters were recorded on 3M's open reel tape brand "Living Letters," which was designed for mailing with their own shipping packaging and labels.
A World War II predecessor to programs like "Voices from Home" were recording booths used by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines to create personal messages on mailable phonograph albums. By the late 1960s, recording equipment had become more affordable and even portable. Newspaper columnists touted these attributes when advising the public on what to mail to service men and women in Vietnam. Practicality was one argument. The emotional appeal was another.
Audio letters had a uniquely endearing quality that allowed one to hear family and friends after days or months apart. One father writing in to the "Dear Abby" column in 1967 characterized the exchange of audio letters: "Hearing Tom's voice on those tapes was the next best thing to having him home. And he said the tapes we sent him boosted his morale like nothing else." A 1967 Washington Post article reported: "And for the growing number of men who have tape recorders, tapes from home are ideal gifts. As one veteran said, 'The men play their tapes so often that we all have them memorized.'" Like a written letter, one can to return to the words again and again.