Psy-Ops!

 

Psychological Operations - the name itself sounds spooky and sinister.   The words conjure up images of playing with someone's mind.  Psy-ops is a fact of military life today - winning the hearts and minds of the enemy is considered as important as winning that of the general populace.  Weakening the enemy's resolve, convincing them that their side is wrong, sure beats blasting them out of their holes with hand grenades.  The cost in human lives is considerably less.

I almost said it costs no human lives at all - but that would end my story!  That lazy Vietnam evening, about an hour after dark, I was lying on top of my bunker, watching the stars above me.  Cricket songs flooded in from the surrounding sea of grass.   From within the Fire Base came the rock and soul sounds of Allied radio broadcasts, the crackling of battalion and company radios over in the radio hootch, and the voices of soldiers in the dark with nothing to do but talk.

From the general vicinity of Cu Chi about ten miles away, I noticed a blinking navigation light moving towards us through the night sky.  It came slowly - probably a "Bird Dog" light-observation plane, usually a Piper Cub or similar prop.   After a few minutes I could catch the drone of the engine, as the blinking lights drew nearer.  I hadn't seen one of these planes out at night before.

Out in the free-fire zones and along the border, night missions were common.   Helicopter gunships hunted for targets using starlight scopes; "sniffer" planes sought out enemy concentrations using sophisticated instruments, and Phantoms roared across the night sky dropping timed flares and taking pictures as each went off.   But around Patton we didn't see much night air activity unless we got into trouble - then we'd call for anything that would come.

Something unusual was up - that's what caught my attention.  I watched the plane fly past us.  About a mile away - in fact, just about where we had assaulted the underground tunnel complex that day - the plane began a slow circle in the sky.  Soon the sound of a Vietnamese voice drifted to my ears.   The plane was broadcasting to the enemy below through loudspeakers mounted on the plane.  The fast-paced clipped words poured out, coaxing, pleading, cajoling the men below to give up their weapons and come in for three squares a day and a warm bunk.   At least, that's what I think they were saying.

Prisoner Encourages Comrades To Surrender...The high-pitched voice went on and on.  Then the voice changed - perhaps now a prisoner was speaking.  This voice was slow, halting.  Not professionally trained, but perhaps sincere.  After a short speech, ol' tongueflapper returned to the air, his honeyed words rolling on and on - probably going for the sale.

What the men on the ground below thought about all this is difficult to say.  From what followed, I gathered that at least upper management wasn't going along with the program.  As the "Bird Dog" continued its lazy circles in the sky, a stream of green dots floated up from the ground, searching for the plane in the dark.  An enemy .51 cal. heavy machine gun had opened fire.  A moment later the deep pumping sound reached our bunkers.

From his vantage point it was probably difficult for the pilot to look directly below or behind the plane.  He didn't see the shooting right away.  For what seemed an eternity, the plane continued its slow circle, and the loudspeakers blared away as motormouth gave it his all.  The tracers arched back and forth, searching.  Then in one brief instant the enemy gunners found their mark, and the sales-pitch was over.   There was a sudden squawk, and then silence.  The sound of the plane's engine changed to a lower pitch, it banked sharply, and dived toward the ground.  I watched closely to see if they had taken a serious hit.  About halfway to the ground the plane leveled out and made a beeline back toward Cu Chi.  The blinking lights were extinguished.  The motor roared at full throttle.  The plane, at least, seemed O.K.  I could only hope the occupants had fared as well.

 

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Psy-Ops!:  Tales Of A War Far Away
Copyright 1995 Kirk S. Ramsey
Last modified: March 02, 1995