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The Ghosts of War: Operation Wandering Soul

Looking back through our long history of war is like looking through an encyclopedia of the numerous injustices and atrocities our kind is willing to inflict upon each other. Yet looking through the tapestry of death, destruction and blood that is scrawled over our history it is easy to be overwhelmed by the violence and to overlook the many ways we have attacked not physically, but psychologically. Amidst tales of weapons of war, mass destruction, and cold blooded murder, there are other tales of our kind using the enemy’s own mind against it; seeking to use superstitions, religion, or entrenched cultural beliefs to cloud their minds, and to stagger and demoralize them. From the battlefields of the Vietnam War comes one such case, which is a bizarre story of a weapon of psychological warfare which sought to use the perceived presence of the tormented ghosts of the fallen and supernatural beliefs as a weapon to inflict terror upon the enemy.

During the Vietnam War, while engaged in bloody battle with a tenacious, resourceful enemy that seemed to come from nowhere, the American forces were becoming increasingly desperate for ways to break the will and morale of the Viet Cong. This drive to demoralize and shake the enemy gave birth to a variety of bizarre and very unique operations meant to capitalize on the cultural beliefs and superstitious nature of the Vietnamese. Certainly one of the stranger, and indeed more chilling, examples of such psychological warfare was born from the minds of the U.S. Army’s 6th PSYOP battalion during the late 1960s. It was a truly off-the-wall concept that sought to utilize the enemy’s fear of death, limbo, and ghosts in order to hopefully drive them into stark terror, cause them to abandon their posts, and send them screaming into the night. Thus began one of the most bizarre propaganda and psychological terror campaigns of the war.

North Vietnamese fighters

North Vietnamese fighters

The idea was actually quite simple; to exploit a prevalent and powerful superstition among the locals to achieve a tactical advantage. The Vietnamese believed that the dead must be properly buried in their own homeland, lest their soul become a shadowy, wandering wraith forever doomed to constantly meander in pain and anguish through a dark hinterland between the worlds of the living in the dead. These “wandering souls,” as they were called, were said to be mostly invisible to the living, but could be contacted on the anniversary of their deaths, when a channel is believed to be formed between the two worlds, or near the spot where they had met their doom. Since the majority of the Viet Cong fighters were most certainly not to be afforded a proper burial and would die far from their homes, the operation that was to be called Operation Wandering Soul meant to exploit this ancient belief in order to rattle and terrorize the enemy, disorient them, or to even cause them to abandon their war efforts all together.

To this end, the U.S. military recruited Vietnamese nationals as voice actors to sequester themselves away in a recording studio to produce a creepy, twisted set of ominous recordings. Over the course of a few weeks, sound engineers and these South Vietnamese volunteers went to work recording a series of eerie voices that were altered, engineered and remixed to make them as otherworldly and terrifying as possible, and which were joined by a cacophony of other bizarre sounds, such as funeral music, mournful wailing, sobbing, shrieking, screaming, the banging of metal gongs, and even the sound of an angry tiger’s growl, all made to sound as preternatural as the technology would allow. Some of the effects used were recording voices through echo chambers or speeding up or slowing down the audio to produce a ghostly effect. These spine chilling voices and sounds were meant to emulate the restless ghosts of the damned who had died far from home on the battlefield and denied a proper burial, thereby ensuring according to Vietnamese custom that they had become some sort of demonic wraiths doomed to eternally wander the land.

American forces in the Vietnam War

American forces in the Vietnam War

The resulting compilation of recordings was unofficially often called “Ghost Tape No. 10,” and featured ghoulish voices urging the enemy, which they often called their “descendants,” to turn and flee lest they meet the same gruesome fate. The recordings were distributed among American units, many of which made their own tweaks, additions to, and remixes of the tape, leading to a plethora of different versions. They all make for some chilling listening, regardless of the fact that they were manufactured. In one instance typical of these tapes, a man’s ghostly voice surrounded by a blood curdling medley of spooky sounds laments:

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!

So convincing were these sinister recordings that it was common practice to make sure that the South Vietnamese allies would not accidentally overhear them, as they were just as potentially susceptible to the psychological effects as the North Vietnamese enemy was, and so the tapes were kept under wraps to be only used out in the field amongst the enemy. Such recordings were blared in a continuous loop over loudspeakers attached to backpacks and helicopters to echo out into the night in areas where the enemy was thought to be hiding, loud enough to reverberate through the underground tunnels the Viet Cong frequently used, in an effort to get them to go into hiding, defect, fall back, or completely give up the fight. Whatever the enemy was thinking when they heard these demonic, phantom voices and unearthly noises echoing through the jungle night and pervading the humid air amongst the clouds of mosquitoes, gun smoke, and the smell of death, the effect was certainly unsettling, with one former American 1st Infantry Division sergeant saying of the tape:

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.

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In the end it did not matter that the ghosts were not real, only that the enemy believed that they were, and great efforts were made to try and ensure that they did. On many occasions the blasting of these scary recordings was accompanied by the dropping of sinister leaflets designed to further emphasize and enhance the spooky effect. In these cases, the sounds being beamed out into the night were joined by a rain of papers carrying frightening images and disturbing messages designed to incite terror, such as:

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?…

Another such leaflet prominently features a startling, haunting image of a dead North Vietnamese soldier sprawled out unceremoniously across the mud, followed with the text:

Is this a grave? 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.

Helicopter fitted with speakers for blasting the ghost tape

Helicopter fitted with speakers for blasting the ghost tape

The results of all of this seem to have been quite mixed. In many cases, it was reported that friendly troops would retreat to their homes upon hearing the recordings, after which any remaining confused soldiers would be captured and brought in for questioning. However, there are many more reports that speak of the tape having other effects of varying success. Some units reported that the recordings had absolutely no effect on the enemy whatsoever, and that the North Vietnamese clearly understood that it was all a ruse meant to rile them up. Other reports claimed that the spooky tapes had the effect of causing the surrender or defection of large numbers of the enemy, horrified by the supernatural elements wafting over the battlefield, with at least one case in which over 150 enemy soldiers were said to have turned themselves in after the ghost tape was blasted from a hilltop. Other reports say that the playing of the recordings almost always resulted in heavy, aggressive fire from the enemy, even when it was not in their best interests to engage, leading some American forces to use this rashness to their advantage; blasting the tape in order to force the enemy into giving away their positions or to send them into an aimless rage in which they could be more effectively wiped out.

There were problems with using the tape, in that there were those, in particular the South Vietnamese, who questioned the morality of using such methods to gain the upper hand; callously capitalizing on local fears and traditions. There were also concerns voiced over the effectiveness of the sounds in causing defections, as how would the enemy possibly choose to defect when they knew that they were almost always immediately fired upon when coming out of hiding upon hearing the ghost tapes? There were also serious doubts as to how much the enemy really bought these recordings as voices from beyond the grave, with arguments that it was the fury of having their culture abused by the foreign enemy that caused such rage filled responses rather than any true fear of wandering spirits or belief that the sounds belching forth from the speakers were real.

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So did all of this work? There is no real hard, objective data to demonstrate just how effective Operation Wandering Soul actually was, and what data there is is muddied by the contradictory reports from the field as to how well it actually worked. It seems that it was at best only sporadically effective, although there are those who believe that even if the recordings did not have any noticeable, visible impact at the time, it still would have had at least had some form of demoralizing effect in making the enemy face their fears of dying far from home, having some latent effect even if it was not immediately noticeable. In the end, we have no idea just what the ultimate effect of this bizarre psychological horror campaign was or what those enemies experienced when they heard these chilling sounds booming through the trees.

Whether any of this truly worked or not, Operation Wandering Soul reminds us that not all of the craziness of war is tied up in the merely physical damage it inflicts, and that there seems to be no end to the lengths we are willing to go to torment the enemy and gain some advantage by any means. We are willing to try and manipulate and warp our fellow man’s mind just as much as we are willing to maim and destroy the body. This will probably always remain a method of conducting war, with the mind every bit as attractive a target as the body. While Operation Wandering Soul was certainly not the first such psychological warfare mission and will definitely not be the last, it still remains one of the strangest.