AUTOVON connected to major headquarters in Vietnam, but all other phone lines connected to field phones much like those used in World War II and Korea. Even those of us who had desktop telephone instruments like the ones found in homes and offices in the United States had to request help from the operator to make a call anytime, anywhere. We had dials but not telephone numbers. Most often, the instruments at the other end were field phones, with a crank handle attached to a magneto to generate an electrical pulse to signal the operator that they needed help with a call.
We picked up the phone and waited for an operator to assist us. Some whistled and shouted into the instrument when they got tired of waiting. They believed that the operators could hear them. In truth, no one could hear them until the operator plugged a cord into the circuit of the person placing the call. The caller named the military unit they wanted to call and waited for the operator to find a circuit to connect them.
Telephone circuits generally followed the chain of command. For example, if I wanted to talk to someone in Company B, 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry, the operator would begin with a connection to the 60th Infantry. If all circuits to that regimental headquarters were in use, they might call another regiment and see if they had an open circuit to the 60th. From there, another circuit was used to connect to the 3rd Battalion, and another from there to Company B. We had to rely on the ingenuity and perseverance of the operator to get our calls through.
Most S1s were platoon leaders who had survived six months or been relieved of command for leading combat patrols poorly. In either case, they were not administrative experts which is why I hitch-hiked on helicopters to visit them and brief them on their duties, especially those relating to casualty reporting. Having been infantry-trained myself, I knew that they were ill-prepared for their duties.
Soon after taking over command of the Casualty Reporting Branch, I decided one day to take a few calls to see what my men were having to cope with. I took a blank form in hand and my pen when the telephone rang and took a report for a KIA, cause of death: Traumatic amputation of both legs when he stepped on a mine. It rattled me, but I completed transcribing all the information and confirming its details.
The Army tolerated no errors in casualty reporting. No excuses were allowed for the primitive communications that we were forced to work with any more than they cared for our personal sensibilities. The horrors we faced dealing with the dead were nothing compared to those who faced death.