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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We also had, at our disposal, an AC-47 “Gabby” aircraft—a twin-engine Douglas DC-3 in civilian life. We used it to circle above the enemy’s suspected hiding places and play scary funereal music over the loudspeakers to cause them to run away in terror or at least to keep their troops awake all night.

If the weather conditions were just right, some of these airplanes were equipped with a kind of movie projector that would shine big dragons or other frightful things onto low-hanging clouds. A downside of these tactics was that they could cause any friendly South Vietnamese troops in the neighborhood to run away also.

An added stratagem was for the Air Force to follow the Gabby ship with a Douglas C-47 Spooky airplane equipped with three General Electric mini-guns, which could fire at the terrific rate of 100 rounds per second. Circling at 3,000 feet, a Spooky (also known as “Puff, the Magic Dragon”) could put a 7.62-millimeter bullet into every square yard of a football-field-sized area in less than 10 seconds. Needless to say, the enemy below did not welcome this development.


The brigade fire base was a tumultuous place, with helicopter, airplane, tank, truck, jeep, foot, and armored personnel carriers constantly bringing people and taking them away. The battalions were always rotating into and out of the field, except for a sort of palace guard that stayed to protect the base and the enormous tent that contained the Tactical Operations Center, or TOC, which was the focal point of all brigade-related matters great and small.

Here the daily briefings were held, amid rows of maps belonging to the operations and intelligence sections. Banks of radios connecting every aspect of the operations were constantly blaring or hissing, or both, at the assortment of officers and non-commissioned officers who manned them.

Presiding over all this was the brigade sergeant-major, who had built a huge chair at the far end of the tent, which he occupied like a king on his throne. Inside the TOC and out, the expression “Sorry about that” (a phrase from the popular 1960s TV comedy “Get Smart”) was repeated approximately 10,000 times a day by everyone from privates to the commanding general himself.

Half a dozen times, we received word that a unit in the boondocks had made contact with the enemy and our field team was desired at the scene. But in every case but one, before we could get our gear to the helipad, the enemy contact was broken. The one exception was on Christmas Eve, when a rifle company got into a fight with an NVA force of unknown size in a steep valley near a river. We arrived at the place and trudged forward to the sound of guns when suddenly we saw armed men coming toward us.

They turned out to be our men, who were pulling back because an artillery strike had been requested. The contact, however, had been only about 100 yards ahead, well within broadcasting distance of our speaker, so we set up and commenced to play tapes telling the enemy to “Lay down your arms,” “Surrender, and you will not be harmed,” etc., etc. Then the artillery strike came in, and the shells bursting changed the mind of anyone who had been tempted to surrender. The enemy high-tailed it out of there and probably didn’t stop, in the words of the company commander, “till their asses got all the way back to Hanoi.”

Judging the propaganda’s effectiveness remained difficult. If the subject was broached during any enemy interrogations, the answers were never shown to me, and the spooks doing the interrogating didn’t want me interfering with their conversations. One measure to judge by, however, was the “Chieu Hoi” pass. The Chieu Hoi (pronounced “chew hoyee,” meaning “open arms”) program was a U.S.-backed South Vietnamese effort to promote enemy defections. A “safe conduct pass,” a bit smaller than a dollar bill, promised the holder that he would not be harmed if he surrendered. They were distributed in the countryside by the millions. Sometimes the passes were found in the belongings of enemy soldiers who had been killed or taken prisoner, proving that they’d been at least thinking of giving up.

Not long after Christmas, our psychological operations came to an abrupt halt. It was winter—monsoon season. It rained day and night, a cold, violent, windy rain coming in off the South China Sea. Sometimes it rained so hard we could not see the flagpole in front of the TOC. Out in the field, mud indescribable in volume seized up troop movements, and heavy vehicles could not be used except on roads. Naturally, nothing flew.


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