AFN makes historic move of Korea HQ to Camp Humphreys
CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — Palmer Payne was a 19-year-old soldier in Japan when he volunteered to go to Korea to help set up a mobile American Forces radio unit at the start of the 1950-53 war.
He and his fellow soldiers assembled an AM radio station inside an ordnance maintenance van that was shipped to the peninsula. Now 86, he remembers traveling around the war zone broadcasting from Seoul, Daegu and even joining paratroopers in an airborne assault near what is now the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas.
“I spent a lot of my time as a combat correspondent in the field and pretty much hopscotched with 8th Army,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. “We operated out of the vans but had quarters somewhere else.”
The back of a van is a far cry from AFN’s new $26 million Korea headquarters on an expanded Camp Humphreys. After more than six decades, the network closed its office at the Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison in Seoul last week and celebrated the grand opening of its new home on Tuesday.
Ray Shepherd, the director of Defense Media Activities, recalled the history in his remarks.
“Because of the swiftly changing front lines in the early part of the war, transmitters and studios were located in mobile vans and moved with ease to ensure continuous broadcasting,” he said, adding the stations used nomadic IDs such as “Vagabond” and “Gypsy.”
AFN’s move is part of the much-delayed relocation of most U.S. forces to regional hubs south of the capital. The new headquarters plans to consolidate by absorbing operations at Osan Air Base in the spring and personnel at Camp Casey when the 2nd Infantry Division is expected to move to Humphreys in 2018.
The $10.7 billion expansion of Camp Humphreys was originally scheduled to be finished in 2008, then 2012, 2016 and 2017. Military officials are now reluctant to talk about specific end dates, but units have begun moving as facilities are completed. As of Tuesday, 44 of 102 projects have been finished, according to garrison figures.
Air Force Col. David Honchul, director of AFN’s parent organization the American Forces Radio and Television Service, said the move would allow the network’s staff to better inform its audience about the upcoming move.
“By having these guys here and having the facility here, they can help commanders communicate that and help folks understand what it is to be part of this growing complex,” he said. “Being a part of that early allows us to be more credible in being able to push that information and help people understand and remove some of that shroud of mystery.”
The network said it has no plans to reduce the nearly 100 employees in Korea and promises to deliver the same level of live radio and television service to troops and their families on the peninsula.
The $26 million headquarters, which was almost entirely funded by the South Korean government, has a 457-square-meter TV studio with green screens, four radio studios and three satellite dishes that will enable AFN to receive TV programs as well as live sports and entertainment from the broadcast center in California.
The operation is also prepared to shift farther south to bases at Kunsan or Daegu if needed.
Payne chuckled at the description of the new headquarters, recalling that at different points, they had to park the van in a schoolyard and on a cleared section of a former ammunition dump. He said major concerns were typhus, dysentery and rats.
He began his career with what was then known as the American Forces Radio Service when he went to record a Christmas message for his family. They liked his voice, and he was eventually recruited.
“Everything was going along well until the North Koreans marched into South Korea,” he said. “When we first went over there, we thought everything was going to be over by Christmas.”
One of his most memorable moments was the airborne assault at Mussanye.
“My parachute training was on a Tuesday afternoon jumping from a 50-foot oil drum into a sand pit,” he said.
Payne said the mission was vital because many U.S. troops were sent to Korea without knowing much about the country or the conflict and needed to be informed.
“They talk about Korea being the forgotten war. We felt we were forging some sort of link that way,” he said. “It also gives them a slice of America that they left behind.”
After leaving the Army in May 1952, Payne went on to have a successful commercial career as a radio talk show host and a TV anchorman for several stations around the United States.
“The Army gave me a lifetime wonderful career, quite by accident,” he said.