THE WANDERING SOUL
PSYOP TAPE OF VIETNAM

SGM Herbert A. Friedman (Ret.)

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PSYOP soldier with backpack loudspeaker

One of the more interesting superstitions of Vietnam is the belief in the wandering soul. It is the Vietnamese belief that the dead must be buried in their homeland, or their soul will wander aimlessly in pain and suffering. Vietnamese feel that if a person is improperly buried, then their soul wanders constantly. They can sometimes be contacted on the anniversary of their death and near where they died. Vietnamese honor these dead souls on a holiday when they return to the site where they passed away.

This sort of belief is not unique to the Vietnamese. I spoke to a South African soldier fighting the Marxist guerrillas of the Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) at the same time and he told me:

When I was in the army in South West Africa and Angola in the 1970's the air force used to drop leaflets on the guerrillas that said, “You will be killed and a hyena will eat your bones.” It was culturally upsetting to the Ovambos who made up most of the SWAPO ranks. They believe if their bones are buried by the family they will become honored ancestors, but to have their bones eaten by a hyena meant they would go to their version of hell.

Tradition has it that the young Vietnamese boy Kien Muc Lien reached enlightenment at an early age. His mother was not so lucky. She was evil, and upon her death, she was sentenced to spend eternity being tormented by demons and ghosts and in constant pain from hunger. Kien Muc Lien magically sent food to his mother. The demons were enraged and turned it into flames before she could eat. The son then asked Buddha to help him care for his mother. Buddha told him to hold a special ceremony. The boy held the ceremony, called "Lu Van" (Wandering Soul) to pray for his mother’s soul; and ask that her sins be pardoned. His wishes were granted.

Vu Lan Day is absolution of the soul. This is especially true in the case of parents. It allows their wandering souls to return home safely. The Vietnamese celebrate this holiday with many ceremonies including the floating of lights down the rivers at night to guide the lost souls to Nirvana.

It is held on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month every year at the Hoi An pagodas. The holiday is so popular than many tourists visit Vietnam during this time of the year to see the ceremonies. They set aside a day for the wandering souls and offer food for deceased relatives whom they believe might wander into the homes of their offspring.

Ann Crawford says in Customs and Culture of Vietnam, Charles E. Tuttle, Rutland, Vt., 1966: "Wandering Souls' Day is the second largest festival of the year. (Tet is the first.) Though it falls on the 15th day of the seventh month, it may be celebrated at any convenient time during the latter half of the month. It is not just a Buddhist holiday but also celebrated by all Vietnamese who believe in the existence of God, good and evil. They believe that sinful souls can be absolved of their punishment and delivered from hell through prayers said by the living on the first and 15th of every month. Wandering Soul's Day, however, is believed to be the best time for priests and relatives to secure general amnesty for all souls. On this day, the gates of hell are said to open at sunset and the souls fly out unclothed and hungry. Thus plenty of food is left at family altars."

The United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam issued a Fact Sheet 7 entitled Vietnamese Beliefs in Spirits and Trees dated 1 December 1969. It seems very similar to the Crawford writings above. It says about Trung Nguyen (Wandering Souls’ Day):

The festival is celebrated throughout the country, in Buddhist Pagodas, homes, businesses, factories, government offices, and Armed Forces units. Many Vietnamese believe that every person has two souls; one is spiritual (Hon), and the other material (Via). When a person dies, his soul is taken to a tribunal in hell and judged by ten justices. When punishment is rendered, the soul is sent to heaven or hell, as a reward or punishment for the persons conduct on earth. On Trung Nguyen the gates of hell are opened and the errant spirits return to earth where they wander aimlessly in the hope of finding a cult being offered to them. They cause misfortune if they remain unsatisfied, so the object of the Trung Nguyen is to provide ritual offerings for the errant spirits to propitiate them and grant them rest in death.

To appease the errant spirits a family heaps offerings on the alter dedicated to the Spirit of the Soil, which stands before the house. The head of the household begs the permission of the spirit to make ritual offerings to the errant spirits. A mat is then placed upon the ground and offerings of rice, fruit and rice alcohol are put on it. The errant spirits are summoned to partake of the offerings by striking a gong or two pieces of wood. Members of the family hold burning joss as the kowtow, after which they burn votive papers on the altar. This ritual is performed outside the house because of fear that, given the opportunity to enter, the errant spirits might install themselves on the altar of the ancestors.

The day is so important to the Vietnamese that American propagandists often mention it in their leaflets and radio broadcasts. For instance, leaflet 23 dropped over North Vietnam says in part:

Faithful to the ancestral traditions, the people of South Vietnam are praying for the dead on the “Day or Pardon for the Dead.”

As we sadly turn our thoughts toward the withering North, no sticks were burned on Vu Lan Day and no comfort was given to the wandering souls.

How many wandering souls need our prayers and your prayers on this day of “Pardon for the Dead?”

Comrades, demand that the Communist party stop its war of aggression in the south so that no more innocent souls have to join the already great number on innocent souls now wandering in this war-torn country of the South.

This belief in the Wandering Soul is a strong one and even today, we find news stories about it. The following was written by Mark McDonald and was published by the Mercury News Vietnam Bureau under the title of "Remains of the War" in 2000.

The death certificate has been typed onto thin brown paper, with thick carbon-paper keystrokes. The document is creased and smudged from three decades of folding and weeping, but this much remains clear: Le Duy Hien, age 26, was killed on May 5, 1968. Hien is one of some 300,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers still missing in action from what is known here as the American War.

In marked contrast to the U.S. effort, the search for Vietnamese MIAs has largely been left to the families of the missing. Even now, 25 years after the end of the war, their relatives can be seen all over Vietnam, mostly on weekends, trudging forlornly through the sprawling military cemeteries reserved for the liet si -- the martyred. They go from headstone to headstone, pausing briefly at each one, looking for the name of a lost son, a dead husband, a missing brother.

‘Strangers have buried you in careless haste, no loved ones near, no friend, no proper rites . . . and under the wan moon, no kindly smoke of incense wreathes for you,’ the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du wrote in his elegy, ‘A Call to Wandering Souls.’

To reach out to Le Duy Hien's wandering soul, the family holds a somber memorial ceremony every May 5 -- the date on his official death certificate. However, the family has been unable to follow the Vietnamese custom of digging up his bones after three years for cleaning and re-burial, and it causes Hien's mother no small amount of grief that her son's soul is still at large.

‘She believes Hien is not at rest,'' says Le The Luan, Hien's younger brother, who is now 54. ``Like all Vietnamese families, she wants to have us find his remains so he can be stable and at peace.’

The biggest problem for Hien's family is right there on his faded death certificate: On the dotted line that states where the young North Vietnamese sergeant went down, it only says, `’On a battlefield in the south.’

Sadly, Hien's family has no clues to his possible whereabouts. They know he headed off down the Ho Chi Minh Trail after being drafted, but he wrote the family just one letter, a letter that gave no details about his unit, its location or ultimate destination.

Therefore, Le Duy Hien's body remains undiscovered -- and his soul remains at large. His mother receives a small monthly payment from the government because, under Vietnamese law, all MIAs from the American War are now considered dead. The money, however, barely covers the cost of the incense she burns for him every day.

The Vietnamese are great poets and there are many poems that honor these wandering souls. One was written by Linh Duy Vo. It is entitled "The Wings of Freedom" and is dedicated to the South Vietnamese Freedom Fighters. Part of the poem is:

Four thousand years, countless perils
The blessed South Vietnam still exists
But your broken wings hurriedly bid farewell
You perished without whispers...
Gray clouds sadly enveloped your wandering soul
Dark oceans mourningly embraced your wings.…

An older and more traditional poem was written by Nguyen Du in the 19th Century. It is entitled “Calling the Wandering Souls.” Some of the poem is:

Year after year exposed to wind and rain,
on the cold ground they lie, sighing.
At dawn, when the cock crows, they flee,
only to grope their way again when night comes.

Of course the Communists retaliated and this anti-Government poem was published by the Da Nang City Propaganda Committee in 1967:

Oh fellow citizens, brothers and sisters dear!
Oh the whole mankind's Conscience!
Listen to the screams of thousands of slain people;
They won't survive; but they don't want to die!
Thousands of wandering souls fly in the entire space.
They bear their eternal implacable hatred!

The concept of wandering souls can also be found in their modern literature. One of the most popular books in postwar Vietnam was written by Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier. The Sorrow of War was published by the Writers Association Publishing House in Hanoi in 1991. The author tells of an area called the jungle of screaming souls where the North Vietnamese 27th Battalion was wiped out except for ten survivors by American and South Vietnamese troops. He says:

From then on it was called the jungle of screaming souls. Just hearing the name whispered was enough to send chills down the spine. Perhaps the screaming souls gathered together on special festival days as members of the Lost Battalion, lining up in the little diamond-shaped clearing, checking their ranks and numbers. The sobbing whispers were heard deep in the jungle at night, the howls carried on the wind. Perhaps they really were the voices of the wandering souls of dead soldiers.

During the American involvement in Vietnam, an attempt was made to use this belief against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Since it was clear that they would die far from home, their bodies probably never found or never properly buried, it was certain that they would become a wandering soul after death.

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Editing the recording

The operation was code-named "Wandering Soul." Engineers spent weeks recording eerie sounds. They were similar to the sounds employed during a scary radio show or movie. Very creepy and designed to send shivers down the back. These cries and wails were intended to represent souls of the enemy dead who had failed to find the peace of a proper burial. The wailing soul cannot be put to rest until this proper burial takes place. The purpose of these sounds was to panic and disrupt the enemy and cause him to flee his position. Helicopters were used to broadcast Vietnamese voices pretending to be from beyond the grave. They called on their "descendants" in the Vietcong to defect, to cease fighting. This campaign played the sounds and messages all night in order to spook the superstitious enemy. Despite eventually realizing that they were hearing a recording beamed from a helicopter, the enemy gunners could not help but fear that their souls would some day end up moaning and wailing in a similar fashion after death.

Both the 6th PSYOP Battalion of the United States Army and some units of the United States Navy broadcast the messages.

In general, the messages were as follows:

Girl's voice:

Daddy, daddy, come home with me, come home. Daddy! Daddy!

Man's voice:

Ha! (his daughter's name). Who is that? Who is calling me? Oh, my daughter? My wife? Daddy is back home with you, my daughter! I am back home with you, my wife. But my body is gone. I am dead, my family.

I…..Tragic, how tragic.

My friends, I come back to let you know that I am dead! I am dead! It's Hell, Hell! It is a senseless death! How senseless! Senseless! But when I realized the truth, it was too late. Too late. Friends, while you are still alive, there is still a chance you will be reunited with your love ones. Do you hear what I say? Go home! Go home, my friends! Hurry! Hurry! If not, you will end up like me. Go home my friends before it is too late. Go home! Go home my friends!

The tape was mentioned in Stars and Stripes of 28 April 1968 in an article entitled “Spooky Voice Fills Viet Cong with Shivers of Fear.” Correspondent Bob Cutts describes a Wandering Soul operation: 

It was midnight and the Green Berets knew they could expect the attack from the vicinity of the nearby Cambodian border any minute now. There was no sky so there would be no air support, just the unending rain. But somewhere up there was a drone of engines, a plane circling in the night. Then it began - a long, unearthly wailing, coming out of the sky, filling Cai Cai and the soggy marsh around it with a gigantic voice… 

In the article, First Lieutenant Jerry Valentine of the 5th Air Commando Squadron flying an AC-47 “Gooney Bird” from Binh Thuy Air Base says in part:

The tapes are best. We’ve got one we call the Wandering Soul” tape. It lasts about four minutes. It starts with Buddhist funeral music, then this spooky wailing voice. Then a little child is crying, the child is crying for its father. Then a Vietnamese woman comes on and tells how her husband was killed fighting for the Viet Cong.

And all the time, this eerie background voice, wailing about death. It’s a real beautyguaranteed to raise ground fire anywhere. It even sends chills down my spine. It’s so effective that even the government restricts use of it – they only let us use it on extreme occasions.

Vietnam Veteran Chad Spahr mentions the effectiveness of the tape:

There was a tape that we used; it was an audio tape, called “Wandering Soul” that played on some of the cultural aspects of the Vietnamese. One of the important tenants of Buddhism is that when a person dies within a very short period of time they have to be buried in consecrated soil in a family plot…Very haunting, very eerie, it was done with voice and echo chamber. It was very effective…I’d go out on a night ambush patrol with an American infantry unit with the 1st Cavalry and set up a small speaker in a tree and direct that toward an area where we suspected enemy troops were and I’d play that tape for a couple of hours. There were a couple of occasions when I did that where we’d get a prisoner later and the interrogation would indicate that they’d heard the tape and they were frightened by it, so I know that it had an effect, I know that it had an effect.

Another official tape coded number 6 is entitled “Come home to your family that fears you will die.” The message is 180 second long. The first 20 seconds is the sound of women and children crying. Then two announcers speak:

Oh, why is there such mournful crying?

These are the sounds of sorrow coming from the homes you have left. The heart-broken cry of a young wife who has lost her husband. The sad cry of a mother whose son will not return. The pitiful cry of a little child whose father has been killed, cruelly robbed of life in the so-called “war of liberation,” the very war in which you now participate.

It is also the sad, sad cry of families whose sons have died so senselessly for Communism.

There is then 20 seconds of children playing and laughing.

Oh, why didn’t you return to your family? Your children are waiting for you. Listen! There little voices ask for you.

Where is daddy? Where is daddy?

How can you be indifferent to those young children? They no not where you are or what you are doing.

Make your decision now!

Why don’t you return at once to rejoin your family? They are waiting for you. Oh, the child’s laugh is such a dear sweet sound. But the child’s cry is such a sad and mournful sound.

The tape ends with 20 second of crying sounds.

One wartime news story tells of the operation at Fire Support Base (FSB) Chamberlain. It was published in Tropic Lightning News, 23 February 1970.

If you were a Wolfhound of the First Battalion, 27th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, and were at Fire Support Base Chamberlain on the night of February 10 you might have sworn the place was being haunted by poltergeists, ghosts that is.

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Loudspeaker Team

The moans, groans and weird sounds began at eight that night, a likely time for the cloudlike forms to reveal themselves. Of course, ghosts are nonexistent, or are they? In this case the ghosts and weird sounds were furnished by the Sixth PSYOP Team and the S-5 Section of the 1/27th Wolfhounds who were conducting a night mission at Chamberlain. With the help of loud speakers and a tape of ‘The Wandering Soul,’ a mythical tale of a Viet Cong gone to Buddha, the mission was a success.

"The Wandering Soul is a tape about the soul of a dead Viet Cong. It describes the wandering of this soul about the countryside. The dead VC tells his comrades to look at what has happened to his soul and that he will never be at rest, always wandering,’ said Captain William Goodman of Philadelphia, the battalion S-5. ‘Buddhists believe very strongly that if they aren’t properly buried and properly mourned, their soul will wander through eternity,’ added First Lieutenant Peter Boni of Boston, the officer in charge of the Sixth PSYOP Team. ‘We play upon the psychological superstitions and fears of the enemy. The method is very effective," Boni said.

"The tape makes the friendly villagers return to their homes, and any suspecting persons who remain are questioned,’ Goodman said. A quick-reaction sweep following the tape by the l/27th Recon Platoon netted three detainees, one of whom was jailed. ‘It was the first time this type of tape has been used in the Third Brigade and reviewing the results we plan to use this method again," Boni said.

Sometimes the Wandering Soul tape was used in conjunction with other sounds to multiply the fear in the heart of the enemy. A former member of the 6th PSYOP Battalion told me, "You know what we did on 'Nui Ba Den Mountain' in 1970? The 6th PSYOP got an Air Force pilot to fly to Bangkok, to get an actual recording of a tiger from their zoo. We had a Chieu Hoi (rallier to the national government from enemy ranks) come down the mountain and tell of a tiger that was attacking the Viet Cong for the past few weeks. So, we mixed the tiger roar onto a tape of 69-T, 'the wandering soul', and a 2-man team got up on the mountain, played the tape and 150 Viet Cong came off that mountain.

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Wandering Soul Tape

Captain Albert Yanus of the 5th Special Operations Squadron played the Wandering Soul tape from a HC-47d flying out of Bien Hoa AFB. The 5th SOS utilized HC-47d’s, O-2’s, and U-10's at Ben Thuy for leaflet and speaker missions. Their official motto was “The truth shall make them free,” and their unofficial motto was “Better to bend the mind than destroy the body.”

He sent me a picture of the tape and the letter of instruction that accompanied it. Notice that the label on the tape box says “Wandering Soul! Play only at night.”

The instruction sheet is from the II Field Force Vietnam, 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, dated 24 June 1968. The tape number is 059-6T with the targets the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army. The Southern dialect text on this 3-inch tape is:

Funeral Music - crying:

Children: Daddy, Daddy, come home to us.

Father: Oh my children! Oh my wife! My dear children! Here I am. I come back to you! Oh my darling. Oh my darling, here I am coming back to you. But I’m dead! What a pity. I have come back to you to let you know that I am dead. I have died needlessly. But it was too late, when I finally realized that I was wrong to join the Viet Cong.

Friends…you are still alive. You still have a chance to see your loved ones. Rally now! Do not hesitate any longer. You still have time to rally! Rally now to save yourselves, my friends. If not, you won’t be able to escape from death. You will be killed like I was. Rally now. Rally! Rally immediately before it is too late.

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LTC Raymond Deitch, 6th PSYOP Battalion Commander

Raymond Deitch, former commander of the U.S. Army 6th PSYOP Battalion was interviewed on the History Channel Secrets of War series, episode 51, Psychological Warfare. Talking about Operation Wandering Soul he said:

It exploited the belief among many of the Vietnamese people that once a person is dead the remains must be placed in an ancestral burial ground or that person will forever wander aimlessly in space forever.

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South Vietnamese Nationals make a recording

A male voice was recorded through an echo chamber that represented the soul of the dead soldier. In some cases, the recording was actually too persuasive for its own good. The tape was so effective that we were instructed not to play it within earshot of the South Vietnamese forces, because they were as susceptible as the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army.

It was not only the Vietnamese that were superstitious. Kenneth Conboy says in Shadow War – The CIAs Secret War in Laos about an operation to convince the Pathet Lao that one of their dead generals was talking to them:

Ghost music and recordings allegedly in the general’s voice were played from airborne loudspeakers; on one of these flights, the broadcasting aircraft passed too close to a Royal Laos Army garrison, causing the spooked Royalist troops to desert en masse.

The PSYOP-POLWAR Newsletter of 20 November 1969 mentioned the Wandering Soul campaign briefly:

The First Infantry's Divisions G-5 staff used 'Wandering Soul' broadcasts of eerie sounds intended to represent the souls of enemy dead who have not found peace (i.e. by being buried in the village family plot). Communist troops, of course, knew perfectly well that the sounds were coming from a tape recorder on an enemy helicopter, but the idea was that the sounds would at least get a Communist soldier to think about where his soul would rest in the likely event of his being killed far from home.

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Huey Helicopter with mounted loudspeakers

Duane Yeager mentioned the operation is an article entitled "Winning Vietnamese minds was what the U.S. Army's 4th Psychological Operations Group was all about," in Vietnam Magazine, December 1990. He says:

As with the leaflet catalog, PSYOP units also produced and maintained a library of audiotape propaganda messages for support of tactical operations. As one Viet Cong commander complained, these audio messages were hard to ignore, for the sound even penetrated through the earth to VC hidden in underground tunnels. One of the most effective such tapes was 'The Wandering Soul,' an eerie tape, played mostly at night, that constantly reminded NVA soldiers of the hardships they were enduring, home, and the loved ones they had left behind.

The 29 October 1965 overseas edition of Time discusses the strange PSYOP campaign: 

Tucked away in their hammocks beneath the dripping rain-infested canopy, the Viet Cong guerrillas could hardly believe their ears. Out of the night sky came an ominous, warbling whine, like bagpipes punctuated with cymbals. It was Buddhist funeral music - a dissonant dirge cascading from the darkness. Then a snatch of dialogue between a mother and child: "Mother, where is daddy?" "Don't ask me questions. I am very worried about him." "But I miss Daddy very much. Why is he gone so long?" Then the music and voices faded slowly into the distance and the platoon settled back to a restless sleep. 

It was, of course, only one of many sights and sounds that the Viet Cong are greeted to every day, courtesy of JUSPAO - the Joint United States Public Affairs Office, which handles psychological warfare in South Viet Nam. Funeral dirges howl nightly over Viet Cong redoubts from the loudspeakers of JUSPAO planes, along with the tape-recorded cries of little children, and weird, electronic cacophonies intended to raise terrifying images of forest demons among the superstitious terrorists. During daylight hours, JUSPAO's eight aircraft dump tons of leaflets on the enemy - 3,500,000 a week, ranging from safe conduct passes to maps showing the best way to get out of Red territory. Says one of JUSPAO's "psywar" adepts; "We are the world's worst litterbugs."

Speaking of JUSPAO, their PSYOP Circular Number 7 dated 4 November 1968 mentions “Significant Dates” in Vietnam. It says in part:

Trung Nguyen (Wandering Souls) Day is the Vietnamese All Souls Day. According to Vietnamese beliefs, every human has two souls, one spiritual, the other material. When a man dies, his soul is judged by a tribunal. Once judgment is made, the soul goes to Heaven or Hell as reward or punishment for his conduct during his lifetime. On Trung Nguyen Day, sinful souls can be absolved from punishment or delivered from Hell through prayers for them by the living. On this day the gates of Hell open at sunset and the damned souls go out, naked and hungry. Those who have faithful descendants living on earth come back to their homes and villages. Offerings for them are placed on alters by their families. Those who have no relatives on earth or who are forsaken by the living wander, hungry and helpless, through the air on black clouds, on rivers, from tree to tree or in the villages begging. Offerings of food are on altars in the pagodas, the markets and other suitable places in the villages, towns and cities.

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Helicopter Tape Deck Playing a Propaganda message

The full message of one such tape is archived under audiotape 1965AU2346, “No Doze Chieu Hoi.” The pill of the over-the-counter alertness drug “No Dose” contains 200 milligrams of caffeine, so certainly the name of this tape is a gag implying that the tape would not allow any Viet Cong to doze while it was being played. The message is a bit different than that translated above:

Buddhist funeral music.

Child: Mother, where is daddy?

Mother: Do not ask me darling, I am very worried to death.

Child: But I miss Daddy. He is away so long a time. What kind of business does he do that keeps him from coming back to mother and to me? Do you miss him Mother?

Mother: God! Stop asking me darling.

Child: Do you really miss daddy? Tell me.

Mother: Yes…I miss daddy.

Child: You miss daddy. I miss daddy too. Why doesn’t he come back? He must not miss you and me. He surely left us Mother.

Mother: Do not say so. He is coming back.

Child: Do not lie Mother. How often have you told me he is coming back and he has not. Daddy lied too. He said he would be away for a couple of days and…

Mother: Leave me alone. Go play.

Child: No I won’t go play (crying). I won’t go play. Daddy…daddy…daddy…come back with me and mother. Daddy…daddy…

Strange and eerie noises.

Bugle:

Attention weary soldiers of North Vietnam. We know the hard times you face. Not enough food, not enough medicine. Your leaders have misled you. They are taking you down the road to sure death. Do not die far from home because of their lies. Return to the open arms of the Government of Vietnam. The choice is up to you. Death or the open arms of the Government of Vietnam. Death or Chieu Hoi!

Bugle.

This dirge and others like it came from the fertile imaginations of officers like Captain Blaine Revis, who served with Military Assistance and Guidance Group, Vietnam (MAAGV) from April 1963 to May 1964 and later served as Commander of the 29th PSYOP Detachment, a 27-member special unit attached to the 1st Air Cavalry Division in 1965. Revis told me:

One idea that I presented was to mount loudspeakers on some helicopters and to play tapes of the Vietnamese funerary dirges. (Really strange sounds but very effective in producing a mood of finality and defeat in the Viet Cong) The idea was represented in the movie “Apocalypse now,” but in the movie instead of the funeral dirge they played the “Ride of the Valkyries.” More identifiable to a western audience, I suppose. The dirge is played on a small instrument that looks and sounds like a miniature clarinet. I had noted that when a funeral procession went by and the dirge was played, even people who did not know the deceased became agitated and would sometimes cry openly. When I asked why, they would explain that soon it would be their turn even if they were young. I recommended the use of the dirge to General Kinnard of the 1st Air Cavalry Division along with the painting of the helicopters to look like the beast that carries people to heaven or Hell. I do not know if he acted on the recommendation.

A former US Army master sergeant who acted as a G2 (Intelligence NCOIC) during the war recalls:

It brings back a lot of memories. The tapes were also used in conjunction with, and to assist in the Phoenix Program. It led to some information for the Enemy Political Infrastructure Files (collateral and special intelligence).

Robert H. Stoner reports a Navy operation. He tells of Operation Sea Float/Solid Anchor. This was a joint US-Vietnamese attempt to inject an allied presence into An Xuyen Province, 175 miles southwest of Saigon. Stoner says:

This evening's adventure was to insert and extract a Beach Jumper Unit ‘Duffel Bag Team.’ (This team planted and monitored vibration-and body heat-activated sensors that helped track movements of the bad guys around our base). On the way out, we were to play some ‘Wandering Soul’ tapes the Psychological Warfare boys had dreamed up to terrorize the guerillas. The line was the guerillas would become so frightened, they'd come over to the government side."

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HAL-3 Seawolves

Aviation Electricians Mate Senior Chief (E8) Bill Rutledge took part in a Navy operation using Army helicopters temporarily surplus from the Army inventory. He says:

The only Navy Helicopter Gunships that ever flew combat missions were assigned to Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three (HAL-3)(the Seawolves), under the operational control of Commander, Task Force (CTF) 116, in Vietnam from 1966-1972. This unit was the most decorated naval aviation unit in history. Navy pilots and enlisted gunners flew heavily armed Army UH1B "Huey" Gunships at low level and in the night covering the Navy Seals, The Brown Water Riverine Forces, and any allied unit in contact with enemy Viet Cong and regular North Vietnamese Army forces. They supported the PBR (Patrol Boat, River) operations with fire support, recon, and medevac services. The unit was tasked with additional responsibilities, including assistance to the Vietnamese Navy units operating in the Mekong Delta.

The Saigon Brass came up with an added mission. We were already dropping Chieu Hoi passes, small Republic of Vietnam Flags and surrender pamphlets during our regular missions. In addition, we were now to place one large speaker in each back door of the Gunship to play a PSYOP Cassette repeating tape while flying over known enemy controlled areas. Invariably, playing of the tape to win the "hearts and minds" of the enemy forces would cause the enemy forces to fire on the helicopter. With the large speakers in the door, it was difficult for the door gunners to return fire. The Saigon-issued mission orders put the aircrews at great risk. We were not there to win hearts and minds. We were there to protect allied forces on the ground and to search for, and destroy any enemy we could find.

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Navy Helicopter Gunship

Knowing that every time we used the PSYOP tape we took fire, we installed smaller speakers and bigger door guns. The lead helicopter was armed with a 50 caliber machine gun and dual M60 7.62mm machine guns. The trailing helicopter had a door-mounted M134 6-Barrelled 7.62 minigun that fired up to 4000 rounds per minute and a M60 machine gun. In addition the helicopters were armed with an external rocket pod (seven 2.75 inch rockets) for the pilot and an external minigun for the co-pilot.

We then played the tape with the intention of taking fire. The gunners were at the ready. One gunship flew low and another gunship flew high, ready to roll in for the kill at the first sign of Viet Cong activity. Apparently, someone in Saigon found out what we were doing and told us to stop. We did not stop, but used the tape less often. Killing was our business and the PSYOP tapes helped make business damn good. We never saw the result of the PSYOP program but heard rumors of enemy forces occasionally defecting.

Mile Worthington was a door gunner in the Navy Seawolves. He told me a story about one of his missions that went bad.

We were tasked to do a PSYOP flyover in our gunship. I was pissed because I had to take off my door mounted mini-gun in order to accommodate the 6 loud speakers. This Operation was in conjunction with the Army. We took off and headed for “Snoopy's Beak” with a box of Chu Hoi pamphlets and these speakers and the Army PSYOP trooper and tapes. We got over the place he wanted and started throwing the pamphlets and as soon as he turned on the speakers the whole damn world lit us up. I had been in some fierce fire fights but this got my attention. I pushed the Army guy back, grabbed my free M-60 with my left hand as I was cutting the speakers away with my right hand. Needless to say I pissed this guy off as I kicked the speakers loose and leaned out and returned fire. I could hear him yelling but my instincts as a gunner took over. Then our pilot turned right back into the fight and shot all 14 darts of high explosive and fleschetts. Needless to say, I wanted to fly no more PSYOP missions.

Bill Ogle, a Seawolf helicopter pilot who flew a number of PSYOP missions in 1968-69 recalled playing what he called "The Howling Ghost" tape many times. He said that "On about half the missions a PSYOP officer would fly with us and attempt to direct the mission. We dropped leaflets, magazines, and played the tape. Without exception we drew fire each mission. This was one of the primary objectives of the mission." When not flying the PSYOP missions, the pilot, "Seawolf 57," flew mostly in support of the Navy SEALS.

We mention above how it was possible that a PSYOP tape aimed at the Viet Cong could terrify and demoralize troops of the Republic of Vietnam. Lieutenant Junior Grade Tom Byrnes (USNR) tells of an operation that he took part in as part of Mobile Advanced Tactical Support Base (MATSB) Operation Seafloat in the Nam Can Forest in An Xuyen Province, IV Corps. Tom was one of 8 Naval officers trained at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School  at Ft. Bragg, NC from  September to December 1969.  His 5 enlisted team members received on-the-job training and were mostly former Swift Boat crew members. The tour of duty was 4 months for an officer and 3 months for an enlisted man. He performed PSYOP operations with a 1400-watt broadcast system from Beach Jumper Unit 1. The system was used on Swift boats, Yabuta junks, Army Huey helicopters, or Navy Seawolf  (UH-1B) helicopters belonging to Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three (HAL-3), Detachment One. Tom says:

Operation Seafloat was a group of 12 AMMI pontoon barges tied together and anchored in the Song Cua Lon (Big Crab River) about 6 miles north of the very southern tip of the country. The Ammi is a Navy 90x28-foot pontoon barge developed after World War II for rapid construction of piers, bridges, and small craft facilities. It can be moored in water ranging from 3 to 40 feet in depth.

We had about 100 Americans, 20 Vietnamese, Swift Boats, River Assault Craft crews and Navy SEALs. Since we didn't have any infantry, and the area was mud and Cai Duoc trees, boat operations were the order of the day.

Sometime late in the summer of 1970 a unit of Vietnamese Marines and their U.S.M.C. Advisors were assigned to work in our area. Since we had the boats, we decided to launch a small amphibious operation in the area where the South China Sea meets the Gulf of Thailand. The idea was for the Swifts to carry the Vietnamese Marines out of the Bo De river and to proceed south, then southwest and to debark them from the Ocean onto the mud beach.

We had a Vietnamese-language tape made that said, "Drop your weapons and stand up." The idea was to play it from a 1400-watt broadcast system on a U.S. Army Huey helicopter which would fly over the area just ahead of the Marines as they hit the beach.

The landing was a mess since the water was so shallow. The Marines had to wade about 500 yards to the beach through the mud. I was on the Huey and we orbited just outside of the beachhead until the Marines hit the beach. We then went roaring through the area about 5 feet over the trees with the tape blaring the message every 5-8 seconds.   We stayed around for maybe 5 minutes and then returned to Seafloat.

At the nightly briefing later that evening we were told the operation was a success and that our broadcast resulted in 5 Viet Cong dropping their weapons and surrendering to the Marines.

Unfortunately, the bad news was that it also resulted in several Vietnamese Marines dropping their weapons and raising their hands.

We often dropped leaflets from helicopters although most of the local people could not read. This gave them something tangible to hold on to. We followed up with helicopter loudspeaker messages and “Wandering Soul” harassment broadcasts. Whenever we played the tape near friendly Vietnamese they opened fire on us. If there were Viet Cong near us when we played it, they also opened fire on us. We preferred to use it on nights with moonlight. We would use SEAL tiara grenades (Phosphorescent marker rifle fired grenades, not white phosphorous) fired high. When we heard them pop we would start the tape. As the phosphorous started to fall, the breeze would catch it and it would look like a ghost in the sky. It was probably very effective since it gave me the creeps, and I was the one causing it.

We also used the Wandering Soul in conjunction with a "Laugh Box" You squeezed it and it gave out an irritating laugh. We would play the Wandering Soul, they would shoot at us. We would shoot back and mortar them with the Swift boat’s or the Heavy Seal Support Craft's (HSSC) 81mm mortar, then play the laugh box over the1400 watt broadcast system.

We often added country or rock music, or messages from ralliers to their villages. We ultimately caused 823 Viet Cong to rally to the Government side. With the exception of one man, everyone on the team was wounded at least once. All but one of the wounds were shrapnel, and all but one were non-life threatening.

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A Patrol Craft Fast (PCF), also known as Swift Boat

Miami Herald writer Guy Gulotta recalled his experience with PSYOP in a feature piece entitled “Master of the Game,” written for his newspaper in 1989. Guy was a Navy reserve lieutenant (junior grade) assigned as commander of a small navy Patrol Craft Fast, also known as a PCF or "Swift Boat." He was stationed on a semi-permanent base on pontoons moored in the Cua Lon River in 1970. The base was known as Sea Float. Some of his comments are:

The object of our game was to win the hearts and minds of the local people by killing all the "Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communist aggressors" we could find. Charlie and the Swift Boats were like two youth gangs in a vacant lot. If it moved, zap it.

Thus it was that we had little enthusiasm for periodic "PSYOP" (Psychological Operations) designed to further our cause with the Vietnamese. It tended to muddle things up, dilute the action with the impurity of a political campaign. Besides, in our area the only Vietnamese we knew about were waiting to tear our heads off; there wasn't any point in preaching to them.

My crew pointed this out to me the first time we were instructed to cruise the canals playing tapes of "The Wandering Soul," a howling banshee sermon promising eternal damnation to any Viet Cong who didn't lay down his weapons and join up with us right away. Nobody on the boat understood the words, but any boat that played it usually got hit with rockets. "The Wandering Soul," as Seaman Sherwood J. Drumheller told me, "is Number 10," and dropping off the chart.

Unfortunately, I pointed out, we were the only boat on duty that had a functioning PSYOP system - a loudspeaker. "We’re going to have to play something," I said.

"Great," said Drumheller, who was 19 and the only normal person on the boat besides me. He favored Steppenwolf, Credence or the Stones, but would also go with Santana because "some of the words are foreign."

Boatswain's mate Hogan, who was from Lubbock, and had no known first name, hated Steppenwolf, but offered Buck Owens or Dolly Parton in exchange.

"Not heavy enough," I concluded. I chose Ike and Tina Turner (Workin' Together), pointing out that Tina, like Dolly, was a girl, and she sang Honky-tonk Woman (Stones) and Proud Mary (Credence), which, incidentally, was about a river boat. Besides, she had a voice that could melt steel; Charlie would love it.

And it worked. For six hours in the middle of the night Tina Turner ripped through the forest like a chain saw, and we didn't hear a single gunshot or see a single muzzle-flash. "The Wandering Soul" was never heard again on the Cua Lon River.

A Gunner's Mate 3rd Class by the name of "DJ" Skully tells about his first exposure to the Wandering Soul tape. He was a member of River Section 534, later River Division 534. He was patrolling the Ham Loung River in the area of Mo Cay and Ken Hoa Provinces as part of Operation Gamewardens. He manned the aft 50 caliber machinegun on a fiberglass Mark II Patrol Boat River (PBR). The time period was late December 1967 to early January 1968. Speakers were mounted on the boat's engine cover armor plating. He said:

I first heard the tape around midnight. Pitch black. We idled along the river bank. Now that I have heard it again I wonder, What the F**k was I doing? Amazing! Freaky! I don't remember the tape being used again by our unit after the Tet Offensive in 1968.

In Brown Water Black Berets, Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam by Thomas J. Cutler, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1988, the author provides another opinion of the use of psychological operations along the rivers in his interview with Navy Lieutenant Dick Godbehere who served on a  Patrol Boat, River (PBR):

He disliked psychological operation patrols because the PBRs had to move slowly in order to allow the messages to be heard, which made them very vulnerable to attack, and because listening to the taped messages over and over challenged his sanity.

The Wandering Soul tape did not just appear full-blown on the Vietnam scene. There were earlier variations. One former operations officer of the 10th PSYOP Battalion (1968) told me:

I do not remember that Wandering Soul reverb tape at all. I note that the time of that tape follows my tour by 1 year. Our tapes were of Vietnamese funeral music and most were the standard fare sent to us from Group.

He recorded Robert Brown's "Fire" from 1968 and used the "demonic" portion repeatedly in an endless loop. He mentioned that the tapes often enraged the Viet Cong and led directly to their death:

Our C-47 'Gabby' aircraft came back one night and I waited for them at Binh Thuy for an after-action report. After all, this tape was my baby and they were beta testing it. The pilot stormed in, spoke briefly with the Commanding Officer and then came to talk to me. He said that they would never play that tape again. He had received incredible ground fire the moment they turned it on.

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SP5 Tom Zangla took this picture of Spooky in action from the 525th Military Intelligence Group MACV Team 21 Compound near Pleiku, Vietnam, in May 1969.

He had stumbled on to a Battalion-sized Viet Cong force and they were bold enough to attack our aircraft. That's an important intelligence point. It was rare for a Viet Cong unit to engage our aircraft unless they were absolutely sure of their strength and security. Of course that was what I wanted. Over the Commanding Officer's objection I scheduled our C-47 for a repeat visit over the same target. The next night they went up again, but what I wasn't told until later was that Spooky (a gun ship) went along with our aircraft and flew the speaker mission in opposing orbit and all blacked out. When our aircraft played the recording, the ground fire erupted again and Spooky "hosed em" with all three cannon in full cyclic rpm.

This sounds very much like an early aspect of Project Quick Speak where we tried to get the enemy to react to our tapes so they could be engaged. He concludes:

This incident happened but was never officially reported. The crew felt damned good about seeing the ground fire halt instantaneously as Spooky answered back. It was no fun being an unarmed flying target. As I remember it, no one worried too much that what we did was against

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Joint Vietnamese-American PSYOP Loudspeaker Team prepare
to take off. Note the bundle of leaflets on the floor of the aircraft.

There are numerous reports of the Viet Cong opening fire on the loudspeaker aircraft. Specialist 4 (SP4) John (Snake) Orr of B Company, 6th PSYOP Battalion (Bien Hoa) told me that during his Vietnam tour he was assigned to and supported at different times the 101st Airborne Division, the 1st Infantry division, the 1st Air Cavalry (almost 600 hours flying speaker and leaflet missions) the 9th Infantry Division, and the 25th Infantry Division. John said that the 9th Infantry Division was the only unit that thanked him. He said that in general, most of the infantry patrols were unhappy to have his team tagging along. He suspects that they considered his PSYOP troops just dead weight who they hoped could shoot straight in a firefight. John preferred flying to ground operations; though he admits that he took a heck of a lot more bullets in choppers than he ever did on the ground. He adds:

I played the Wandering Soul tape many times during 1969-1970; until it got my aircraft all shot up. The damn tape drew fire every time. I never understood the lack of fire discipline on the part of the enemy.

My light observation helicopter was an easy target and I always got very worried of the time lag between the first green tracers coming up and our protecting Cobra attack helicopter’s response.

It could be worse on the ground. I had an encounter with an officer who tried to convince me that my two-man team should set up a all-nighter with the tape and 1000-watt speakers in a hostile deserted village with a 200 foot high South Vietnam flag colored helium balloon attached to my speakers.  I believe he fully intended that it would draw fire; though he professed that it would draw in Chieu Hoi’s.  As team leader, I refused to put my team in jeopardy and that got the major and me in a little trouble.

Thomas C. Sorensen mentions the use of ghostly PSYOP messages in The Word War, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1968:

Low flying loudspeaker planes awakened the enemy at night with somber Buddhist funeral music, followed by the recorded voice of a child pleading for his daddy to return home - or perhaps weird electronic cacophonies to frighten the superstitious who believed in forest demons.

The Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office booklet National Catalog of PSYOPS materials mentions one such tape numbered 3A. The tape is 49 seconds long and the message is spoken by a woman. It opens with 10 seconds of Buddhist funeral music and ends with two more seconds of the music. The message is:

Each day that passes brings you closer to death. All men must die sometime. But if you stay with the Viet Cong, you will soon die by bombs or bullets. It is much better to spend the rest of your life among your family and friends. Come home! Make your plans to leave the Viet Cong now. Come home before you die. Come home!

A former 1st Infantry Division sergeant who served several tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 remembers the taped funeral music. He comments:

The damn reverb effect of the recording is eerie. I saw and picked-up leaflets and once heard Funeral Music played over the valleys around Landing Zone Mary Ann. A Kit Carson Scout told me what the music was. This was a ghostly sound. Hell, listening to that made me want to Chieu Hoi myself. It must have been effective as hell in the jungle at night.

Sergeant Jerry Sopko, 1st Platoon, Delta Co, 4th Battalion, 503rd PIR of the 173rd Airborne, 1969-1970 adds:

I remember those tapes playing along the I Corps - II Corps border area of Northern Binh Dinh Province. At the time, the 4th Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was working the An Do Valley. Even knowing that it was a PSYOP tape, it freaked you out…especially if you were on an ambush mission that night. I recall a ghostly “woooo—wooooo”, and “ah-oooo” kind of wail. I didn't know what it was called; we simply called it "Ghosts."

Another former sergeant wrote:

I can relate to your article concerning PSYOP Broadcasting Propaganda tapes. I was a Field Team Leader, assigned 4 August 1967 to the 6th PSYOP Battalion in Saigon.   I worked for the first few months with the 246th PSYOP Company at Bien Hoa and in late 1967 I was transferred to Cu Chi, attached to the 25th Infantry Division.  I was promoted to Sgt. E5, and reassigned to 244th PSYOP Company where I was a Field Team Leader in Quang Tri Province, attached to the First Cavalry Division. We did Search and Destroy missions in the A Shau Valley. I spent many hours in a “Huey” with loudspeakers broadcasting those very tapes.

We have seen no data to verify the success of the Wandering Soul operation. I suspect it did not do well. The one continuing factor I find is that in most cases the Viet Cong took fire when they reacted to the tape. This does not seem to be a successful way to motivate defections.

The Wandering Ghost campaign was not universally admired. Lieutenant Colonel William J. Beck commanded the 4th PSYOP Group from 15 October 1967 to 7 October 1968. He discusses some of his unit’s problems and successes in the declassified Senior Officer Debriefing Report. He complains that there was some frustration at the lack of signs of tangible PSYOP success, and this led to gimmicks like sky-lighting effects, and ghostly loudspeakers:

This aspect, unfortunately has often reduced idea formation on the part of these operators and staff to the level of “gimmicky” and more or less desperate attempts to find a quick solution and dramatic breakthrough. This is not good PSYOP.

There is little evidence  that positive, long-range mass persuasion can be achieved by the gimmick route. On the contrary it could probably be easily shown that gimmickry has a reverse effect of conditioning the audience against the emotional effects of well thought-out propaganda.

In sum, there is a place for occasional gimmickry and dramatic effect in the PSYOP effort, but these are normally secondary aspects and should be reserved for those circumstances where the long-range program has created an acceptable situation.

Major Michael G. Barger also quotes Beck in his U.S. Army Command and General Staff College 2007 Master’s thesis Psychological Operations Supporting the Counterinsurgency: 4th PSYOP Group in Vietnam:

Lieutenant Colonel Beck, in his Senior Officer Debrief, called the use of gimmickry, such as projecting images on clouds or using ghostly loudspeaker broadcasts, as “more-or-less desperate attempts to find a quick solution” to show “solid evidence of positive results.” Beck asserted that effective PSYOP takes time and instant results are usually the result of other factors that predisposed a target audience to complying with a PSYOP argument. He also pointed out that units could not sustain trickery for long, and once the lie was revealed it would damage the credibility of PSYOP personnel.35 Worse, once gimmickry failed to achieve results, the commander who once overestimated the potential of PSYOP now was even more inclined to relegate PSYOP to an ancillary function rather than integrate it into his combat plans.

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Leaflet 4-29-69

Although in general leaflets that showed dead Viet Cong were frowned upon since they were not likely to win the admiration and respect of the enemy, and in fact were known to make them angry and ready for revenge, from time to time the American PSYOP units did prepare such leaflets. To remind the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army of their vulnerability, the 4th PSYOP Group prepared a series of leaflets in 1969 that depicted dead Viet Cong. I will show one such leaflet but the reader should understand that there was an entire series. Some of the leaflets were 4-27-69 “Don’t Die Like This”;   4-29-69 “Don’t Die Tragically Like This”; 4-40-69 “Don’t Die Uselessly for the Communist Dark Plots Like Your Comrades in this Photo”; and “Wishing Longevity to Uncle Ho Doesn’t Mean that More of Your Comrades have to be Killed Dreadfully like This.”

The Psychological Operations leaflet and poster catalog of the 244th Psychological Operation Company, Detachment 2, Quang Ngai, Vietnam, offers a leaflet that fits in very well with this topic. The title is "Two Ways of Appreciating Combatants." It depicts a live person with the text "One, Human" and a dead person with the text "One, wicked and Abandoned."

The text compares the life of a Communist soldier with that of a Government of Viet Nam soldier. It first says of the Communist, " We think of how these wounds torment your body until the day you die in the nooks and corner of the thick forests and mountains. In a strange mound, no incense where your bodies are buried. Who will think of you?..." It next tells of the ARVN soldier, "For us, if we die in the battlefield our bodies will be carried to our native village and buried there. If we are wounded, we are taken to a military hospital for medical treatment and recuperation."

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Is this a grave?

Another leaflet asks, "Is this a grave?" Beneath a photo of a dead NVA soldier. Text on the back is, "Unfortunately, it is not. But it is the final resting place, many, many kilometers from the graves of his ancestors. His body cannot be identified, his grave cannot be marked, and his soul will never find rest..."

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Those Wandering Souls Died in Nameless Graves

Captain Edward N. Voke, S2 (Intelligence) staff officer of the 6th PSYOP Battalion from 1966 to 1967 ran across a poster in I Corps in 1967 that used the Wandering Soul theme. He told me:

I  have a 16 x 10.25-inches poster printed on one side only; black print on white background; probably designed to be posted on buildings and trees. It has the same ace of spades card with skull and crossbones and below it are 4 lines of shaded verse. It is coded “244-298-67,” so it was printed by our 244th PSYOP Company in I Corps in 1967.   

The poster message is:

The owls are calling for the souls of the Viet Cong
Those wandering souls without destination
Spreading countless horrors to the people
Those wandering souls died in nameless graves

RETURN [to the National Government] OR DIE

Voke mentions another leaflet which tells of the enemy of their dead lying unburied on the battlefield: He considered this leaflet one of the best he had seen:

One of the most effective leaflets I ever saw was printed after one of the battles in 1966 or 1967. A U.S. Infantry Division Commanding General wrote a letter to the enemy division Commanding General (on regular 2-star stationery; English on one side & Vietnamese on the other), informing him that his North Vietnamese troops had disgraced themselves on the field of battle. The American general said that he had buried the North Vietnamese dead and was carrying for the wounded; and if he could do anything else, to please contact him.  We later heard the full background on that battle. Apparently, the U.S. forces were beating and pushing back the North Vietnamese slowly, and the enemy was pulling back in good order. Then, a North Vietnamese machine-gunner in the center platoon panicked, jumped up and ran to the rear. Seeing this, other troops around him also began to run to the rear and it opened up the center of the North Vietnamese defense. The American forces exploited the sudden weakness and caved in the enemy with terrible losses to the North Vietnamese.

If the enemy Battalion Commander knew what caused the rout he probably didn’t want to tell his boss. The American Commanding General’s nice letter let the North Vietnamese Army Commanding General let everyone in the immediate vicinity know of the division’s cowardice. I heard that many copies of the letter were dropped over the enemy’s area of operations. We later heard that the North Vietnamese battalion and regiment commanders were relieved. This was by far the best PSYOP leaflet I ever saw by a US combat unit.

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General Hay letter

Lieutenant General John H. Hay Jr. discusses the same leaflet in Vietnam Studies – Tactical and Materiel Innovations, Department of the Army, Washington D.C. 1989. Hay says in part:

On 13 May 1970 an agent reported that within Phong Dinh Province some 300 local force Viet Cong were to be recruited and sent to Cambodia as replacements for North Vietnamese Army units that had suffered heavy losses. The information was passed to the U.S. intelligence adviser and the province adviser for psychological operations. By 1600 on the same day, the psychological operations staff had prepared a leaflet capitalizing on the raw intelligence information. The priority target selected for the operation was the area of Phong Dinh Province, which was known to harbor hard-core Viet Cong. The province adviser for psychological operations and the S-5 adviser arranged to have the leaflets distributed throughout the appropriate districts during that night and the next day. Late in the evening on 14 May, the first Hoi Chanh rallied in Phung Hiep District with a copy of a leaflet on the Stationery of the Commanding General of the 1st Infantry Division, red flag with stars and all. By 23 May, twenty-eight Viet Cong had rallied, stating that they had done so because they were afraid of being sent to Cambodia. The leaflet read in English and Vietnamese:

DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY
HEADQUARTERS 1ST INFANTRY DIVISION
OFFICE OF THE COMMANDING GENERAL

AVDB-CG                                                                                                                   22 March 1967

SUBJECT:                  Unsoldierly Conduct of Officers of Cong Truong 9

TO:                 Commanding General
                        Cong Truong 9
                        HT 86500 YK

 

Dear General:

 

This is to advise you that during the battle of Ap Bau Bang. On 20 March the Regimental Commander of Q763 and his battalion commanders disgraced themselves by performing in an unsoldierly manner. 

 

During this battle with elements of this Division and attached units your officers failed to accomplish their mission and left the battlefield covered with dead and wounded from their units. 

 

We have buried your dead and taken care of your wounded from this battle.

 

                                                              Sincerely

                                                                        J. H. Hay

                                                                        Major General USA

                                                                        Commanding

Notice that Volk mentions a time line of 1966-1967 for this leaflet when we spoke in 2007, and General Hay places it in 1970 in the statement he wrote in 1989. This difference could be caused by “the fog of war,” or it is possible that General Hay wrote such a leaflet on more than one occasion.

Retired Colonel Alan Byrne of the 4th PSYOP Group told me that in general these personal letters were frowned upon. Although this is not exactly what he talks about here, it is close. He says:

There was another type of leaflet message that we would receive from our field units on rare occasions asking if it was OK to develop and produce them. And we vetoed them every time along with a letter back from our Group Commander to the combat unit commander (Usually a Battalion Commander) explaining why these were not acceptable. There were, however, a few that did get out and printed in small numbers.

I seem to recall that a command directive went out directing commanders to cease and desist on any actions of this type. These we nicknamed “Macho Man” leaflets. They were always a direct physical challenge and threat. The language was always very explicit language and they were always from an American commander to the opposing NVA or VC force commander. The general theme hardly ever varied. Our American commander would toss the gauntlet in insulting terms to the opposing enemy commander to meet him alone, on the battlefield. They then, without any weapons, would fight, one-on-one, hand-to-hand, to the death.

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Wandering Soul Leaflet Prepared but not Disseminated.

Specialist Fourth Class Charles Kean Jr. Was a member of the 245th PSYOP Company in Vietnam during the years 1966-1967. He was trained as a U.S. Army Illustrator (Military Occupational Specialty 81E2W). He told me:

We never used this one that I drew. I am not sure if that was the final version of the drawing or a work in progress. Perhaps it was refined to show some grass or small trees to indicate that the body was left to rot in the jungle. We heard that there was a superstition among the Vietnamese that their soul could not rest and would be forced to wander endlessly if certain rituals were not followed after death and they were not properly interred according to tradition. The drawing was an attempt to capitalize on those fears. Unlike us, they would leave their dead and wounded on the battlefield when they retreated after a battle. Sometimes it seemed that they would willfully leave their wounded knowing that our medical people back at the base would do all in their power to patch them up and save their lives.

The text would have explained that this soldier’s soul was going to wander Vietnam forever because he did not have a traditional burial. We mostly did specialized leaflets for tactical situations. We produced leaflets covering a lot of different dialects and situations. The unit was charged with the task of producing materials that encouraged the enemy to lessen their resistance or surrender.

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Leaflet ATF-010-70

The Australian 1st Psychological Operations Unit produced a leaflet with a similar theme of Viet Cong bodies left on the ground to rot by their comrades. About 100,000 copies of Leaflet ATF-010-70 were produced 4 June 1970 and dropped by aircraft. The front depicts a dead Communist guerrilla in the jungle. Text to the left of the body is: 

Unburied Communist dead on the battlefield.

The leaflet targeted the Ba Long Province Viet Cong units. The purpose was to demoralize the enemy by the thought of them never being properly buried at home and wandering forever in the afterlife. The text on the back is:

Soldiers and Cadres of D440, D445, C25, C41, and other Ba Long Province Units

Lately, and especially from 4 May to 23 May, the Government of Vietnam and Allied Forces in Phuoc Tuy have found 15 bodies of Communist soldiers lying where they died on the battlefield. Some only had a sheet of plastic over them.

Will you soon be killed and left unburied in the jungle?

The leaflets were supplemented with the playing of the “Wandering Soul” tape at night. The Australians used a Pilartus Porter aircraft to fly the missions (it replaced the U. S. Skymaster O-2B aircraft).   They flew at about 1000 feet above ground level just above stalling speed at night without lights. The aircraft engine could not be seen or heard by the enemy on the ground below.

Former sergeant Derrill de Heer of the First Psychological Operations Unit described the Australian use of the tape:

I and others in the unit used the Wandering Souls tape on many occasions. There seems to be a number of versions of it made. In PSYWAR a tape needs to be 20 to 40 seconds long or you may leave an area before the intended target hears the whole message. The Australians only played the tape at night in areas away from inhabited areas and away from areas of South Vietnamese soldiers. The Vietnamese have a strong belief that if you die violently or where you are not known or are not buried in the traditional way your spirit will wander eternally. Hence the tape was made to make then think about their death and perhaps consider returning to the South Vietnamese government side under the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) amnesty program.

As I remember the tape the first half was electronic music with a voice from beyond saying he was wounded and did not know where he was.  He was thinking of his family and children. The music changed to psychedelic music and the voice was more wavering and he was now dead and his spirit was wandering.

De Heer mentioned the operation again years later in a newspaper interview:

We did this during night-time because in the silence of night sound travels further. We’d be drifting in a Pilatus Porter aircraft, with no lights, at about 1000 feet, just above stalling speed. On a ground, they couldn’t hear the aircraft. All they could hear was the message we were broadcasting. The message included a scary voice of a bleeding soldier, alone in a night and yearning for home. The tape that included electronic music, then changed to a more resounding tone, and portrayed the voice of a dead soldier, now a wandering spirit. It finished with a plea for enemy soldiers to rally to the Government of South Vietnam. The sound of tape was chilling, even for non-Vietnamese troops. I had one pilot that simply refused to fly missions when we were going to play that tape. It freaked him out.

The Wandering Soul operation was mentioned a third time by de Heer in his Masters’ Thesis: Victoria per Mentum: Psychological Operations Conducted by the Australian Army in Phuoc Tuy Province South Vietnam 1965 – 1971. Some of his comments were:

The superstition most favored by Australians related to the Vietnamese belief that if a villager died violently or outside the village his soul would wander without resting…One particular taped message produced by the Americans for general use was the message that was referred to as ‘Wandering Souls’. It was discovered later that there were a number of versions of this theme of Wandering Souls made by US forces throughout South Vietnam.

The version used by the Australians was a taped message about twenty to thirty seconds in length and contained a spiritual theme divided into two parts. The first part of the message could be described as electronic music with a voice in an echo chamber in Vietnamese saying “they were wounded and they did not know where they were, they were dying.” In the second part of the taped message the music changed to a slightly weirder and psychedelic style of ghostly music making the voice changes to sound like a spirit voice. The voice declared that “I am dead and my soul (spirit) is wandering.” This demonstrated how the victim was no longer in the region of the village and his ‘spirit’ would be condemned to wander forever. The effectiveness of these broadcasts was believed to be heightened during night flights when the aircraft would fly close to stalling speed at about one thousand feet above ground level with aircraft navigation lights switched off. At this altitude, the engine of the turbo-propeller driven Porter aircraft was so quiet that it could not be heard from the ground.

Royal Australian Army Service Corps Private Ken Stevenson told me about his 1969 experiences with the Australian PSYOP unit and his missions where the Wandering Soul tape was played from a helicopter.

He arrived in Vietnam in November 1969 and was sent to Forward Support Base Julia. He told me that Brigadier General Sandy Pearson, the Australian Task Force Commander was serious about the war and intended to continue operations during the Christmas holidays. The Australians assigned him the duty as a driver for the PSYOP unit. He said that many of the Australian regulars sniggered when they heard his assignment announced on morning parade. Psychological operations were considered a joke by most of the Australian troops. They thought it was funny that the new guy got the job of driving the “nut cases” in PSYOP. Ken was a conscript; a trained College instructor. Although a driver, because of his education he was given some more interesting jobs and often worked with the American III Corps PSYOP battalion at Bien Hoa and sometimes helped develop leaflet drops with them. He told me:

I usually worked with a four-man team; a Lieutenant Dick Williams, a Staff Sergeant Pete Erio, a clerk Private Norman, and me as the official driver. The Officer in Charge was Captain Mike Nelson. We had a Vietnamese Army interpreter named Sergeant Cu who was also a school teacher in civilian life. We even had a movie van. At that time we used Huey helicopters from Royal Australian Air Force 9 Squadron at Vung Tau with mounted speaker banks. The Pilatus Porter planes were not in Viet Nam when I was there.

I took part in Wandering Soul missions and even brought a copy of the tape home. Those missions were exciting; I felt that I was actually doing something significant. I remember that on one night mission the pilot said after about 5 minutes, “We're going to drop you back at Nui Dat and then fake the log when get back to base, are you OK with that?” Like the targeted Viet Cong, he too was scared witless. He was spooked out by the eeriness of the tape and the fear of being a few hundred feet over the canopy in the dark. We were quite low, actually “sitting ducks” if some dedicated Viet Cong cadre decided to take us on. On the bright side, I don’t remember ever drawing fire during a mssion.

As I said earlier, PSYOP wasn't seen as a traditional Army role so Headquarters seemed to be just humoring us. Most Australian Army effort apart from combat went into Civil Affairs and the engineers.

The Search for the Dead goes on...

Australian Vietnam War veterans Bob Hall and my old buddy Derrill de Heer were asked by Hanoi to help find the bodies of those soldiers killed by the Australians during the war. As former veterans, both academics, from the University of New South Wales / Australian Defence Force Academy, share a deep connection to Vietnam and its people. Mr. de Heer remembers one occasion in 1970 when he was approached by a Vietnamese man for help in seeking details of his son who had been killed in contact with Australian soldiers a week earlier and buried near Phuc Hai beach.

We found the old man's son buried in the sand -- one of four -- and wrapped him in a poncho. It was a clean wound, thank goodness, but I've never seen so much grief in my life.

The Australian practice of burying the bodies of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong personnel and marking the grid reference of the grave sites in unit war diaries proved the key to compiling the digital database. Derrill added:

Since 1972, the terrain has changed, dams have been built, towns expanded, roads built, so putting the burial details on old army maps would have been of no value. What we've been able to do is convert that information of wartime contacts -- latitude and longitude -- and put it on to Google Earth.

The issue of Vietnam's war dead -- estimated at 1.1 million -- is a sensitive one for Hanoi. But Vietnamese families are now demanding to know more about the last resting place of loved ones lost during the brutal conflict.

By 2010 Military researchers had identified the names and burial sites of more than 120 North Vietnamese and troops killed by Australian and New Zealand soldiers. The fighters are among tens of thousands of Vietnamese listed as missing in action during the war. The researchers have urged Australian Vietnam Vets who have items such as photographs, diaries or letters taken from the bodies of slain Vietnamese to hand them over to help in the search for more of the missing. The Australian mission to help find the Vietnamese MIAs has been named Operation Wandering Souls. It takes its name from Vietnamese culture in which the spirit of those whose fate is unknown or who died violently will wander forever.

DrawnNVNMother.jpg (34974 bytes)

A Hand-drawn picture of a Mother carried by a North Vietnamese Soldier

The picture above was returned to North Vietnam by Australians Derrill de Heer and Bob Hall in 2013 as part of their continuing “Operations Wandering Soul” project to return soldier’s artifacts to their families.

On 9 April 2012, Australian Vietnam veteran Derrill de Heer turned over the dates and times of more than 4,000 clashes between Australian and PAVN troops as well as data on about 3,905 North Vietnamese Army troops killed to the Information Network on Martyrs (MARIN) in Hanoi. The document comes from the Vietnam “Missing in Action” Project which was initiated by Australia’s Research Centre of Armed Conflicts and Society under the University of New South Wales.

CONTINUED RESEARCH INTO THE WANDERING SOUL

National Public Radio reported in June 2011, that Steve Goodman, the head of Hyperdub, a London-based record label, opened an exhibit called AUDiNT (Audio Intelligence) at the Art In General gallery in New York City which looks at various military uses of sound. He said:

What we're doing is tracing or mapping these three phases of the history of acoustic weaponry. Firstly, starting with the Second World War, there was a division of the U.S. Army that was referred to as the Ghost Army. Part of what they were involved in was sonic deception, putting loud speakers in the battlefield to create a false impression. So we trace this from the Second World War to the U.S. Army in Vietnam, a division of psychological operations called Wandering Soul. This involved helicopter-mounted loudspeakers playing simulated Buddhist chants, fabricated sounds of the dead ancestors of the Viet Cong fighters speaking to them from the afterlife to try and persuade them to surrender. The third phase is the use of these ultrasound driven directional audio speakers. These speakers can actually rupture eardrums from a distance.

About the same time, Radiolab, a National Public Radio show produced in New York City called me to talk about the effects of the Wandering Soul campaign. Apparently, some of these old PSYOP campaigns still intrigue researchers.

The author invites interested readers who may have additional information or personal experiences with the "Wandering Soul" tape to write to him at sgmbert@hotmail.com.