Psyops: Weapons of Mass Instruction

A Vietnam memoir from the author of Forrest Gump.

A Vietnam memoir from the author of Forrest Gump. (Courtesy Winston Groom)
Air & Space Magazine

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In the meanwhile, my job was to see that appropriate propaganda leaflets were dropped at every occasion. For instance, a report came in from one of the platoons patrolling in a remote valley that North Vietnamese soldiers were stealing chickens from the villagers’ coops. Using the brigade’s secure signal facilities, I teletyped (“twixed”) this information back to the 245th in Nha Trang, along with the coordinates of the village, which I plotted off a map, and by the next day a U.S. Air Force AC-47 would arrive over those coordinates and its crewman would toss out tens of thousands of leaflets to that village and others nearby informing them the NVA were a bunch of no-good chicken thieves and should not be supported in any way, shape, or manner.

At some point during this period, higher headquarters ordered that the word “warfare” be dropped from our title, and our job became psychological “operations,” probably for the same reason that after World War II, the War Department had been renamed the Department of Defense—it sounded less bellicose.

We were also told by the brigade’s intelligence section that the communist forces had an especially high regard for propaganda and psychological operations, and thus if we were taken prisoner, a price would be put upon our heads. They suggested that we exchange our psychological warfare shoulder patches for the ivy cloverleaf insignia of the 4th Division, which we were happy to do, since the division had a long and glorious history during World Wars I and II, and we didn’t want to have our heads chopped off.


To win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, I had another tool at my disposal: an airplane. Designated a U-10, the Helio Super Courier was especially designed for psychological operations. It was a STOL (short-takeoff-and-landing), high-wing, single-engine two-seater complete with an Air Force lieutenant pilot, as well as a compartment in the back for large boxes of leaflets, plus fittings for our powerful loudspeaker.

We flew missions almost every day weather permitted, circling low over targeted villages, heaving out leaflets like tickertape at a parade, and broadcasting messages in Vietnamese to soothe the savage breast. Occasionally we were shot at, and after one flight, bullet holes were found in the U-10’s tail and rudder. Most of the leaflets were made up by the psychological operations geniuses in Nha Trang or Saigon, based on various intelligence reports and the machinations of authorities much higher than me. However, I got to make up my own leaflets if I pleased, and have them printed and delivered for distribution by the faithful U-10, which had only one speed: It taxied, took off, flew, and landed all at approximately 40 knots (46 mph).

On the U-10 missions, I would bring a map or get with the pilot beforehand to give him coordinates. He had a map with a transparent acetate cover on which he would circle the coordinates with a grease pencil.

A lot of leaflet drops were in triple canopy jungle or wooded hillsides where someone—maybe Long Range Patrols or one of our infantry companies—had reason to believe an enemy was present. We also kept boxes of stock leaflets beneath our cots and stacked up to the top of the tent to use if we needed to move fast.

We were never certain whether the leaflets hit the target, unless it was a village you could see from the air. The drop was usually from about 2,500 feet, unless we were being shot at.

The pilot sat with the map in his lap, making educated guesses as to whether we were over the target. Heaven only knew if he was right; all we saw was miles and miles of green jungle interspersed with rice fields or mountains. When he thought he was at the correct spot, he would bank toward the target to make it easier for me to reach back and begin throwing handfuls of leaflets as we circled. After either I or one of my men tossed the leaflets, you could see them fluttering down.

I dimly remember one of the infantry platoon leaders telling me over drinks in the tent that passed for an officers club that the North Vietnamese soldiers were using our leaflets as toilet paper—his men had stumbled on an area in the jungle littered with the evidence. This led to us discussing a plot to embed the leaflets with itching powder or some other unpleasantness, but nothing came of it.


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