History Wars World War II

3 times US troops used the fear of the undead in combat against their enemies

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A Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, moves a Viet Cong suspect to the rear during a search and clear operation held by the battalion 15 miles west of Da Nang Air Base. (USMC photo)

Psychological operations can come in many forms. It could be blasting loud music to confuse or infuriate the enemy or it could come in the form of more traditional propaganda-style leaflets, posters or television programming. It could also be playing on the enemies cultural beliefs to scare the snot out of them and maybe dissuade them from fighting entirely. The United States has used all three, but the latter is by far the most interesting. Several times American troops have used the fear of the undead in combat against their enemies.

Times American troops have used fear in combat against their enemies

1. Undead in World War II

Many leaders of Nazi Germany had unhealthy obsessions with the occult. While we all might enjoy Halloween or astrology, we don’t all let our beliefs in things like ghosts, fortune-tellers and other paranormal things bleed into our personal and professional lives. A lot of important Nazis did, and when you’re running a country, that can be a real liability. When you’re running a country at war with the world, it can be your downfall.

During the war, American planes dropped propaganda leaflets on German and German-held cities, ones that contained horoscopes predicting an early end to Hitler and to the Third Reich. Joseph Goebbels would end up having to produce counter-horoscopes (which is a thing) to offset the American appeal to those astrological beliefs. 

In Sicily, the Allies used mannequin scarecrows 12 feet tall and able to move on their own power, emitting flashes and bangs as it staggered across the mountains in advance of small unit raiding parties. Entire villages were evacuated in the face of the lumbering sparkler man. They also refused to help the retreating German army, sometimes even sabotaging its retreat

soviet forces afraid of the undead
A Finnish Maxim M/32-33 machine gun nest 100 metres from Soviet forces during the Winter War, located approximately 5 kilometres north of Lemetti (area of the modern Pitkyarantsky District, Russia).

2. Undead in the Philippines  

After World War II, the Philippines was granted its independence from the United States, but the violence was far from over. Local farmers in Luzon who had taken arms against the Japanese still maintained their fighting force, known as the Huks. As the Huks influence grew after the war, they became a political force too, which was a problem for the United States. The Cold War was in full effect and the Huks had been claimed by the Communists.

The CIA, the U.S. military and the government of the Philippines were determined to ensure there was no Communist uprising in the newly-independent island nation, so they began to subject Huks and Huk party members to public humiliation and tried to portray them as outcasts. Increasingly marginalized, the Huks finally did take up arms against the government and the U.S.

To keep popular support for the Huks low, the CIA began taking dead Huk fighters, draining their blood, leaving two pin holes on their necks and dumping the bodies at crossroads. The villagers immediately believed what the CIA wanted: that Aswang, the vampires of Filipino lore, had come out against the Huk cause and were killing its soldiers. Support for the Huks dried up faster than play-doh in a kindergarten class and the government soon announced an amnesty for the fighters. 

citizens afraid of the undead
Citizens of Leningrad leaving their houses destroyed by German bombing. (Wikimedia)

3. Undead in the Vietnam War

Although the Viet Cong doesn’t seem like a fighting force that would get spooked by the undead or ghosts and such, American troops attempted to do that anyway. Operation Wandering Soul was launched against the communist guerrillas to scare them into believing that undead VC soldiers were following them around.

The idea is based on the Vietnamese custom that says if a body isn’t interred near its home, the spirit of that person will wander the Earth endlessly. American forces played eerie noises throughout the jungle nights, including groans, moans, and other sounds designed to be spooky. 

It didn’t work as expected. Air crews reported taking more fire during the Wandering Soul recordings, not less.