Pat Sajak Vietnam Vet Recounts His Army DJ Days before 'Wheel of Fortune'
By Pat Sajak
“Good morning Vietnam!”
It was a phrase I shouted virtually every weekday at 6 a.m. from the studios of the American Forces Vietnam Network in Saigon between October 1968 and December 1969. I wasn’t the first to use those memorable words—that was Adrian Cronauer, who was famously portrayed by Robin Williams—but that became the signature sign-on of every early-morning DJ on AFVN.
Before I was Pat Sajak of ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ I was Pat Sajak Vietnam DJ - I was an Army Spc. 5th class who had joined the service, been trained as a clerk typist, was sent to Vietnam as a finance clerk. After repeated attempts, I had been transferred to Saigon to be a disc jockey, as I had been in civilian life. The Army can work in mysterious ways.
Pat Sajak Vietnam Vet: from Army DJ to 'Wheel of Fortune’
I used to feel a bit guilty about my relatively “soft” duty. After all, I was billeted in a hotel, and there were plenty of nice restaurants around. But I always felt a little better when I met guys who came into town from the field and thanked us for bringing them a little bit of home. I always thought it was strange that they should be thanking me, given what so many of them were going through on a daily basis. But they reminded me of the importance of providing entertainment to those who serve — something the USO knows very well. To this day, my fellow vets from that era repeat those thank-yous, and it’s really very humbling.
My respect for those who serve has stayed with me throughout my life, and my time in the military—particularly my time in Vietnam — are among those things in my life of which I’m most proud.
On “Wheel of Fortune,“ my favorite weeks are those which feature military personnel. We’ve also had Military Families Week to honor those at home whose sacrifices are often overlooked. Even when we don’t have special military-themed weeks, many of our players are members of the armed services. And I’m happy to report that, in terms of ratings and audience feedback, our viewers seem to enjoy and appreciate that fact. As a Vietnam vet, I’m especially gratified to see a change in the way veterans of that war are perceived and appreciated.
Pat Sajak’s secret of entertainment
While I am proud of my service, there was one small incident that fills me with more than a little bit of embarrassment. I haven’t told this story often, but I thought this might be a good time to unburden myself of this terrible secret. It happened during Christmastime in 1969.
President Richard Nixon had taken office in January of that year, and he was preparing to make his first holiday address to the nation as president of the United States. In those days, there was no technology to allow for live television coverage to Southeast Asia, so the address was delivered to us by radio. Because of the time difference, Nixon’s prime-time address was to take place during my morning show.
The process was a simple one. While I was playing records—yes, records—and delivering snappy patter, I was monitoring CBS News through a pair of headsets. When it came time for the president to start his speech, I would hear him being introduced through those headsets. Right on schedule, the CBS announcer began his introduction and I broke into the music I was playing to announce in the most important tone I could muster, “We now go to Washington for an address by President Nixon. Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.”
All was going well. I flipped a switch to bring the CBS feed to radios throughout Vietnam, and the president began his speech. I don’t remember much about what he said, but it was effective and occasionally moving, and by the time he was wrapping up, I felt he had done a very nice job. When he came to the end and began shuffling the papers in front of him, I flipped the switch in the other direction and, again, in my best announcer’s voice, I told everyone they had been listening to the commander in chief, and then it was back to the business of entertainment.
After I started the next record, I wanted to hear what the CBS announcers back home were saying about the speech we had just heard. Since we didn’t carry the post-speech analysis, I flipped back to the CBS feed in the studio where, to my horror, I discovered that they weren’t discussing the speech - the president was still speaking!
Merry Christmas from Richard Nixon
Apparently, what I deemed to be the close to the speech was merely an effective pause, and Nixon’s paper shuffling was nothing more than a short break. To make matters worse, I heard Nixon say, “And now I’d like to speak directly to the men and women serving our country in Vietnam.”
To say the least, I had a quick decision to make. Should I jump back on the air, and confess that I had cut off the leader of the free world in the middle of his address, or should I just keep playing music and hope for the best? It was as if a little angel was perched on one shoulder with a little devil on the other. The angel, of course, was right. The president was speaking and it was my duty to reconnect him. But, I had to admit that the devil was making some good points. His main argument went like this: Because the CBS feed was coming directly into the AFVN studio, and I was the only one monitoring it, I was literally the only human being in the world who realized that the people the president thought he was speaking to couldn’t actually hear him. So, really, what was the harm?
True, he was sending holiday greetings to the troops and promising to bring them home soon, but they were already listening to the 1910 Fruitgum Company singing “1, 2, 3 Red Light.” Heck, now I’d be cutting off that fine song in the middle, and two wrongs don’t make a right, do they? And by the time I explained what had happened, he might be finished anyway. In short, the devil made me not do it.
It is with pain and embarrassment that I confess the secret of my Pat Sajak Vietnam DJ Days - that my comrades in Vietnam never heard the president’s words to them back in 1969. So, very belatedly, I want you all to know that Richard M. Nixon wishes you a very merry Christmas.
There - I feel better.
Pat Sajak Vietnam war veteran and host of “Wheel of Fortune,” highlights the USO’s commitment to bringing entertainment and a reminder of home to American service members around the world. You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.
Stories in this Series
Sep 19, 2019
What is the Black and White Flag Flown on POW/MIA Recognition Day?
The POW/MIA flag, a solemn black-and-white banner, stands as a tribute to the troops who fought in Vietnam and remain missing or unaccounted for. Typically, it is flown POW/MIA Recognition Day on the third Friday in September, but in some locations, it is displayed all year round.
Sep 18, 2019
Second-Longest Held POW in American History Details How He Was Captured
When Everett Alvarez, a young naval aviator, told his crewmates he'd see them "later" when he ejected over North Vietnam on August 5, 1964, he didn't think that moment would lead to 8 years of captivity, making him the second-longest held POW in U.S. history.