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A Vietnam memoir from the author of Forrest Gump. (Courtesy Winston Groom)

Psyops: Weapons of Mass Instruction

A Vietnam memoir from the author of Forrest Gump.

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It was mid-July 1966 when I found myself on the edge of a typhoon 500 miles east of Okinawa, wondering just what in hell I had let myself in for. The swells were 40 to 50 feet, higher than my cabin aboard the USS Gaffey, a World War II-era troopship that was carrying my Army psychological warfare detachment to Vietnam. Unlike many of the thousand or so souls on board—including a battalion of the First Air Cavalry Division—I wasn’t seasick, but I certainly felt the straining vibrations through every inch of steel on the ship as it crested each wave.

I was a 23-year-old second lieutenant fresh from advanced training at the Army’s psychological warfare school at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. For three months, they had taught us every dirty trick in the books, and some not so dirty, and others not even in the books. My age and lowly rank notwithstanding, my impression was that I was headed for some exalted position worthy of a John le Carré novel.

Needing fresh air, I went up to the mess hall, where those who could were clinging to tables and those who couldn’t had their heads in various pans and pails provided by the messboys. For the voyage over, I had been assigned “extra duty” as the ship’s “rumors control officer,” so after I’d had my fill of fresh air, I joined an unfamiliar group who were sizing up the seas and quietly started a rumor that an enemy sub was following the ship. Then I returned to my cabin to see how long it would take for the rumor to get back to me.

A week or so later, we landed at Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam, and were trucked north to Nha Trang, which, during the huge U.S. military buildup of 1966, was a hive of activity, with Army trucks and airplanes relentlessly disturbing what must have once been a peaceful, lovely city on the South China Sea. My destination—along with the destination of 50-odd enlisted men I’d commanded on the way over—was the 245th Psychological Operations Company, which served the II Corps area in Vietnam’s central highlands, site of some of the most savage fighting thus far in the war.

Nobody seemed to be expecting us, nor knew what to do with us. Members of the unit found some tents and told us to set up camp at the edge of a rice paddy near the town dump. If that wasn’t bad enough, it turned out this was the area where daily they burned the contents from the officers’ latrines, and the foul black smoke engulfed our encampment. I was living with some officers in better quarters, but clearly this wouldn’t do, and by the time I got it straightened out, I was told by the 245th’s commanding officer to report to the main psychological operations in command in Saigon for further instructions.

Once there, I was informed that the building had recently been bombed by Viet Cong terrorists. There was nothing for me to do but report in every morning. After I made my report, I was on my own. Thus I spent every day for the better part of a month (courtesy of a college friend) playing tennis at the Cirque du Sportif, a swanky kind of country club in the middle of Saigon left over from French colonial days.

Evenings I spent dining at the rooftop restaurant of the once-fashionable Rex Hotel, watching flares fired by units of the 25th Infantry Division to attract or deter the enemy—I was never sure which—on the far outskirts of the city. I was still wearing my “Psychological Warfare” shoulder patch from Fort Bragg days, and other officers seemed to look at me as if I were some kind of spook or a character from a Graham Greene novel—or so I thought then. Looking back now, I realize they probably thought me a fool—but all that was about to change very quickly.

One day when I reported in at headquarters, orders had arrived from the 245th, assigning me as the leader of a psychological warfare field team with the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division, operating from a fire base in Phu Yen province, near the town of Tuy Hoa (pronounced “tooey wha”). The brigade, about 4,000 strong, was operating separately from the division, conducting Operation Seward, to protect the rice harvest along the coastal plains, and beyond that, patrolling in the mountain valleys for units of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

The day I arrived at the 1st Brigade headquarters, there had been a terrific firefight the night before, a little ways up Highway One, which ran the length of the country. A large force of Viet Cong had attempted to overrun one of the brigade’s artillery bases, and troops on both sides had been injured and killed. The brigade had only recently arrived in Vietnam, and this was its first big fight. Everyone was terribly upset at the American casualties.

My field team was a sergeant and three enlisted men: two of specialist class rank and one private, who was my jeep driver. They had arrived before me and set up shop in an eight-man tent by the barbed wire on the edge of a large rice paddy that was a respectful distance from the latrine.

Our equipment consisted of a powerful loudspeaker of the kind used in football stadiums, which could be carried on the operator’s back. Another team member backpacked the 40-pound load of batteries that kept the speaker going. Our gear also included a tape recorder and a number of Vietnamese language tapes that directed the enemy to surrender. The idea was that when one of the U.S. battalions engaged with the VC or North Vietnamese regulars, my team would be helicoptered to the site of the fighting and begin broadcasting surrender demands. In addition, one of the several English-speaking Vietnamese interpreters assigned to the brigade would be made available to us for conveying gentler messages.

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