MARS operators practice by sending letters to Santa from Whidbey

Digger O’Dell operates radio equipment at the MARS station aboard NAS Whidbey Island. MARS operators will send children’s Christmas wish lists to Santa through the radio system. - Kathy Reed/Whidbey News-Times
Digger O’Dell operates radio equipment at the MARS station aboard NAS Whidbey Island. MARS operators will send children’s Christmas wish lists to Santa through the radio system.
— image credit: Kathy Reed/Whidbey News-Times

Some tried and true technology can help children get their Christmas wishes to Santa Claus.

The Naval Air Station Whidbey Island MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System) station is participating in the Pacific area Navy-Marine Corps Messages to Santa Project.

“We have an operator up at the North Pole, that’s where all the messages are headed,” said Digger O’Dell, an operator at the MARS station on the Seaplane Base. “They can email or phone in their wish list, we’ll send it off to Santa and he’ll send a message back when he gets it.”

Anyone interested should include their child’s first name, the first initial of their last name, city, state, telephone number or email address, along with the child’s wish list (50 words or less). The messages can be emailed to or called in to 360-675-2823.

In addition to stirring interest in amateur radio, MARS operators say it’s good practice for them.

“We’re an adjunct to military communications,” said Richard Isakson. “If we don’t practice we won’t be ready in the event of an emergency.

“It gives us practice writing and sending messages, transmitting them to Alaska, and the operators in Alaska get practice receiving the messages,” he continued.

For years the only phone calls anyone got on a ship were patched through a MARS station. With the advent of cell phones and the internet, the only remaining use for MARS is as a backup communications system in the event of a disaster. All area hospitals and emergency responders are part of the emergency radio system and tests are conducted regularly each week.

If the power goes out, cell phone towers would be useless, since they require electricity. If there were ever an electromagnetic pulse, amateur radios would be able to be rebooted and can run off generators.

“Blackberries, iPhones, cell phones, amateur radio, it’s all radio frequencies they’re transmitting, they just use different frequencies,” said Gary Jandzinski, Emergency Management Officer for NAS Whidbey Island.

“The toys we carry in our pockets are very fragile. Everyone takes them for granted. They are literally the grandfather of these,” Jandzinski continued, waving his iPhone.

The MARS station on NAS Whidbey Island’s Seaplane Base is one of the last remaining on a military facility. The men and women who man the station have not only a love for amateur radio, but a special place in their heart for MARS.

“We’re not at the forefront of anybody’s mind,” said operator Willie Oliver.

“In Vietnam through the Army MARS, I was able to call home, so doing this now is kind of payback,” said Isakson.

“There was a MARS station and ham radio on every carrier I was on,” said O’Dell. “I’d like to see it get back up to where it belongs.”

Children’s wish lists can be sent to the MARS station through Dec. 21.

Santa’s response will be sent once their list has been reviewed.


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