THE DEATH CARD

SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.)

Note: Images from this article were used in “Three Practical Lessons from the Science of Influence Operations Message Design” by M. Afzal Upal, Canadian Military Journal, Volume 14, No 2, 2014.

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We don’t know where the idea of an ace of spades representing death first originated. We do know that during the reign of “Murder Incorporated” in the 1930s, at least two gangsters were assassinated and left with aces in their hands. One of the unidentified criminals with an ace of spades is depicted on the cover of the Burton B. Turkus book Murder Inc.: the Story of the Syndicate. Turkus also mentions Salvatore Marinzano, an early Cosa Nostra crime boss who was assassinated by a younger faction led by Lucky Luciano. When Marazano was killed, he had an Ace of Diamonds in his hand.

In 2010 a self-proclaimed witch wrote to me from Britain with a historical explanation. I have shortened it considerably but perhaps it will shed some light on the mysterious history of the ace of spades:

There are 52 cards.  Each card stands for a week in the year.  The thirteen cards in each suit also stand for the thirteen lunar months in the year.  The suits stand for the seasons.  The red suits are feminine, warm, positive, upward looking, etc.  The black ones are masculine, cold, negative, regressive, etc.

There are four main Sabbats - the Ace of Spades relates to the week of Yule.  Yule, at the beginning of winter was a date dreaded by the old peasantry - the beginning of winter heralded a time of famine, or a Time of the Wolf.  The Ace of Spades stands for the first week of winter, beginning 21 December.  Supplies would be running low, and the last of the meat would be slaughtered and cured to eat in the months ahead.   Offerings would be made to the dead, and the elderly would be sure that their last wishes were known, in case it was their turn. 

The Ace of Spades represents the Death of the Year and the start of a new one, when the wheel turns again.  The reason why it is a trump card is that Death comes for all of us in the end, and there is no escape - even for kings. The spade is also known in the Tarot as the sword - a symbol of war.  The symbol could represent a heart with a spike in it, a severed head on a spike, a cowled head, an evergreen yew, or a dead leaf - all emblems of Death. 

In 2012, a Canadian reader sent in a simpler and perhaps more accurate reason for the Ace of Spades as a death card. He said:

A spade is also a shovel and shovels are used to dig graves.

VIETNAM

The ace of spades, the so-called "death card" is featured in many movies about the Vietnam War. The symbol is also depicted on various unit crests, special operations privately-made patches, collar insignia, and on flags and painted vignettes on military aircraft and gun trucks.

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Ace of Spades Gun Truck

An example of such a gun truck is "Ace of Spades" of the 523rd Transportation Company based in Phu Bai, Vietnam. Former crewmember Sergeant Sammy Seay bought this military vehicle in 2003 and rebuilt it into a replica of his unit’s 1971 Vietnam-era truck at a cost of about $50,000. The above Gun truck was a 5-ton M54 cargo truck converted by soldiers. Double-walled steel plating surrounds the outside of the truck, which is equipped with four .50-caliber machine guns, two M-60 machine guns and an M-79 grenade launcher. Just one authentic gun truck survives from Vietnam. It is displayed at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Ft. Eustis,Virginia.

Another interesting folktale about the ace of spades that is certainly a myth is found in an article entitled "Forked-Tongue Warriors," by Ian Urbina writing in New York’s Village Voice:

But there are also some PSYOP success stories. In Vietnam, US planes sprinkled enemy territory with playing cards, but prior to carpet bombing, they dropped only the ace of spades. Before long, the Pavlovian technique took hold, and just the dropping of aces was sufficient to clear an entire area.

An interesting use of the Ace of Spades appears in the June 2008 issue of Vietnam magazine. It prints a letter from Jaxon Caren, a former member of the 6/31 Infantry in the 9th Infantry Division who worked aboard river boats in the Vietnam Delta in 1968. He said that every time they tied up at the shore, the local children would suddenly appear and had to be watched constantly or they would steal everything on the boat not bolted down. He had heard that the Vietnamese were superstitious about the ace of spades, so he had his mother sew some flags with the Ace of Spades on them. When they flew the flags, the kids would sit on shore and would not board the boat.

There is a misunderstanding of the meaning of the ace of spades that exists in some areas to this day. For instance, the Discovery Channel features a program called "American Chopper." On this show, the Teutul family of Orange County Choppers builds a theme motorcycle each week. On a program first shown in January 2004 they built a bike in honor of the veterans of the Vietnam War bearing various POW/MIA symbols. Two aces of spades symbols were hand-fabricated from metal and placed on the motorcycle. Paul Teutul Sr. stated that the ace of spades was a symbol of good luck among American soldiers. He was wrong of course, but the bike was a fitting tribute to veterans and his heart was certainly in the right place.

What do we know about the ace of spades in Vietnam? Did it truly terrify the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army regulars and leave them trembling in fear? Did American military units all throughout Vietnam use it? The answers would seem to be a resounding "no." In fact, some intelligence studies indicate that the Vietnamese had no concept that the ace of spades represented death. Many units never used the cards and the majority of troops I met never even saw one used in-country.

I spoke to several combat veterans about the cards. One said:

Sorry I can't help. I've heard of them but never saw one and never heard of them being used in my AO during my time.

Another commented:

The story we heard was that the Vietnamese were inveterate card players--and that was true; I saw mamasans playing cards many, many times in any shade that was available--and that some of the common superstitions about certain cards had penetrated Vietnamese culture, by way of the French. For instance, the Ace of Spades was a death card. The Queen of Hearts was a love card. The Jack of Spades represented an enemy.

Two more combat veterans told me that they never heard of death cards and had no idea what I was talking about. One veteran who was knowledgeable in PSYOP did remember the cards, but in a very negative way. He said:

I seem to recall that some Vietnamese professors were contacted at the University of Saigon and when they were asked about that card their answer was quick and simple. There is no black ace of spades in one of the main card games that Vietnamese play. Of course, the ace of spades became a legend in its own right after being used constantly, but certainly did not have the meaning to the VC or NVA troops that we seemed to think it had. Just another example of cultural ignorance on the part of brass that hardly ever got out of their air-conditioned headquarters and the Circle Sportif.

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The Death Card - La Carte de Revenge

The death card concept was so interesting that in 1988 the Dart Flipcards Company of Canada actually prepared a trading card showing one being used. This card from a set on Vietnam is entitled "The Death Card - La Carte de Revenge." It depicts two soldiers on the front, one about to drop an ace of spades on a dead Viet Cong. Text on the back in English and French is:

The Death Card

In addition to the thousands of Americans dead and wounded, the Vietnam War also took a psychological toll. Soldiers lived in constant fear of an enemy they often couldn't see, and responded to this terror in different ways. The 1st Cavalry Division left the Ace of Spades -- the payback card  -- on the enemy's body as its signature. 

Specialist 4th Class Jim Brannen who served in Vietnam during 1969 and 1970 in the Military Assistant Command Vietnam (MACV) and later the 4th Infantry Division agrees:

Not a lot of people actually know that the whole decks were aces. I knew. I saw many of them in the Pleiku area since the 1st Air Cavalry was at An Khe. The 4th Infantry took over An Khe in March 1970. There were plenty of those ace of spades decks around. I wish I had kept some. I did see a few of the cards used. It is hard to talk about it now but during the war things were different. Some soldiers would place the cards on the eyes of a dead Viet Cong. It meant that the card was the last thing they saw. The Viet Cong really feared the Air Cavalry. Some of those with or without cards were along the Highway running from Pleiku to Qui Nhon. I think that the 82nd and 173 Airborne had death cards made up too.

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The 1st Cavalry Division Death Card

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Death Card Scene from the movie Apocalypse Now

The ace of spades was also featured in many movies about the Vietnam War. Who could forget the scene in Apocalypse Now where a young sailor sees soldiers throwing cards on the bodies of dead Viet Cong:

Lance: "Hey Captain, what’s that?"

Willard: "Death card."

Lance: "What?"

Willard: "Death card. Letting Charlie know who did this."

The fact is that this was a psychological warfare campaign that came from the troops, not headquarters, G-2 (Intelligence) or the Psychological Operations experts at Battalion and Group.

Research assistant Sharon Frickey worked worked at the CRESS (Center for REsearch in Social Systems) field office at Ft. Bragg in 1967-1968. The CRESS field office, an extension of the think-tank research arm of American University, responded to requests from the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare and the 4th PSYOP Group at Ft. Bragg.  One of the research questions that CRESS received in 1967 was about the possible use of the Ace of spades for psychological operations and the strength of the superstition about it among the Vietnamese. There were seven PhD area specialists and dozens of researchers studying the problem and they came to the conclusion that the Vietnamese had no cultural basis to fear the Ace of Spades as a symbol of death, and any such propaganda utilizing the symbol would be useless.

Even the commander of the PSYOP Group in Vietnam was against the use of the card. 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 said the same thing in an earlier report in in Credibilis, dated 10 December 1967. He complains that there is some frustration at the lack of signs of tangible success, and this has led to gimmicks like the ace of spades calling card, sky-lighting effects, and ghostly loudspeakers:

BEWARE OF GIMMICKRY

Any survey of the PSYOP program in Vietnam reveals that many psy-operators are frustrated by the lack of signs of tangible success in the PSYOP effort...Perhaps in an attempt to overcome this deficit many appear to be impressed with the values of what can only be called propaganda gimmicks. This includes the use of the ace of spades, special lighting effects, and ghostly loudspeaker broadcasts.

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.

Captain Blaine Revis was assigned to Military Assistance and Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAGV) from April 1963 to May 1964, and later commanded the 29th PSYOP Detachment attached to the 1st Air Cavalry Division at Anh Khe. At that time he was asked by the division commanding general about the use of the ace of spades for PSYOP. The 101st Airborne Division was already using the cards that had been sent to Vietnam in bulk by the Bicycle Playing Card Company. Revis told me:

I told him that it was a bad idea and a case of transposed symbolism. We Americans look at the ace of spades as the death card, but to the Vietnamese it is more like a phallic symbol and if anything might suggest that we were involved in necrophilia.

So why was the ace of spades so popular that some individuals or units actually ordered them from playing card manufacturers to place on the bodies of dead Viet Cong and NVA? The answer seems to be, because the American troops just loved them. Although the cards were allegedly anti-Communist PSYOP, in fact they were really pro-American PSYOP. U.S. troops got a kick out of them and loved the idea of leaving them on bodies. Like wolves, it was a way to mark their territory. It proclaimed them the biggest and "baddest" varmints in the valley of death. The cards motivated and encouraged American troops far more than they terrified the enemy.

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Leaflet 246-362

This vignette of an ace of spades on a skull was a favorite of the 246th PSYOP Company. They prepared at least five leaflets using this image in 1967. All of these “skull” leaflets from the 246th are 4 x 5-inches in size, non-rotators to be dropped from aircraft. Leaflet 362 was requested by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division. The text on the front is:

Viet Cong! This is a symbol of death!

The back depicts a dead Viet Cong guerrilla and the text:

Continue your struggle against the National Cause and you will surely die a mournful death like this!

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Specialist 4th Class Dave Kolchuk

Specialist 4th Class Dave Kolchuk was an Army illustrator assigned to the 246th PSYOP Company in Vietnam from October 1965 to October 1966. He told me that he had designed many of these skull and ace of spades leaflets. I asked him what he remembered about his orders and he said:

The skull was the most popular design I created. There are several different versions of it. The spade symbol was a very bad luck omen to the Viet Cong. It's like telling them they're going to go to hell and burn painfully without honor for all eternity. A real curse for the family of a Viet Cong too. Their loved one will die leaving a curse without honor on the whole family. Their ancestors will be ashamed of them.

I told him that some Army documents seemed to indicate that the Viet Cong did not recognize the ace of spades as a symbol of death and he answered:

That was what our operations people told us. They are the ones who came up with the ideas and did the research. Vietnamese were reputed to be a very superstitious people. They had the highest regard for their ancestors and didn't want to do anything that would dishonor them or the family. That's why we used the spade so much. It was supposed to instill fear in them. I don't have any info on how effective that was.

I asked about the technique of drawing a leaflet:

All art was done by hand. No computers back then. We did have a Photostat machine enabling us to copy stuff. Body text was often done letter by letter using the Leroy Lettering System with accent marks added later by hand. Those accent marks were critical. Vietnamese is a tonal language - no word is more than six characters long, and many were spelled the same except for the accent marks. They had a dozen or more combinations of accents that could completely change the meaning of the word. I had taken some Vietnam language lessons that helped. I was not fluent, but conversant after my year there. We also had a Varitype machine for body text and later on, a Photo Typositor machine for large text headings and poster work. I'm guessing it would take about two - four days to do a good leaflet, including rough pencil sketches, approvals, and final inking.

The 1st Infantry Division might have used the actual death cards. Ben Van Etten is interviewed in the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University and says in part:

The first big battle we had was the First Infantry Division up north by Phu Loi…We supported them and we had a real good success in that battle…We had about a two hundred body count from them…our infantry troops were really excited about doing this…The Ace Spades is a bad omen for them. It’s a death card and they literally had Ace of Spade cards printed…it was first infantry division and we dropped them airborne all along the jungle there so they would find them…They took the bodies and they just stretched them out along this route, open area Route 13 for probably a mile along the road there and just left them there, put these cards all over them. So that, if and when the enemy came to recover them, they would see… what they faced.

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246-91-67

Another leaflet from the United States Army 246 PSYOP Company used the identical image of a skull with an ace of spades, but with no text on the front.  The back is all Vietnamese text.

Attention: Viet Cong Cadres of the 506 D2 Battalion. The 25th Infantry Division is advancing toward your area along the Vam Co Dong River. We will attack the 506th D2 Battalion and the 2nd Independent Brigade. We will stay in this area until all Viet Cong cadres are annihilated. The 25th Infantry Division offers you the chance to return to the government and live a happy life forever, or to stay and die for a senseless cause. Please surrender to any unit of the ARVN or the Allies at the first opportunity.

This leaflet might have been used during Operation Cedar Falls in early 1967, when the communist dominated village of Ben Suc in the iron triangle was encircled and captured by the 1st and 25th divisions. This battle has been publicized in the well-known report "The Village of Ben Suc."

Leaflet 246-59-67 was addressed to the 313th Viet Cong Company. It is identical to #362 on the front with the same propaganda text. 100,000 copies were printed for the 25th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Some of the text on the back is: 

ATTENTION SOLDIERS OF THE 313TH VIET CONG COMPANY

On 18 August 1966 you were defeated in battle by soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam near Binh Phuoc. You left behind the bodies of 37 or your comrades, and you know many were wounded. You felt the power of our cannon and airplanes.

Stay with the Viet Cong and your death is assured. Disgrace and sorrow await your families. Return now to the Government of Vietnam and help build a free nation and a better way of life for you and your families. Under the Chieu Hoi program both you and your family will be well cared for.

Leaflet 246-130-67 depicts the skull without text as in #91. It was targeted at the 165A Regiment. 60,000 copies were printed and dropped by aircraft. They were ordered by the U.S. 25th Infantry Division. Some of the text is:  

ATTENTION – SURVIVORS OF THE 7TH BATTALION 105A REGIMENT. 

The U.S. 25th Infantry Division admires your courage in fighting on in the face of the horrible losses we have inflicted on you. If your continue to resist, we will destroy you, as we have destroyed three-quarters of your comrades… 

The last skull leaflet we will mention is 246-151-67. It has the text message at the lower left and the back is all text. It is entitled simply “Scare.” 50,000 leaflets were printed at the request of the U.S. 11th Cavalry. The message says in part:

ATTENTION VIET CONG SOLDIERS

You have witnessed a small part of the death and destruction that awaits you soon. The mighty air power of the Republic of Vietnam and Allied powers will destroy you and all you represent. Your only hope for survival is to rally to the Republic of Vietnam at once...

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Leaflet 246-338

Leaflet 246-338 was addressed to the Q762 Regiment. It is identical to #362 on the front with the same propaganda text. 500,000 tactical leaflets were printed at the request of the Intelligence Section for distribution by air. Some of the text on the back is:

Men of the 2nd Battalion, Q762 Regiment. Are you the victims of bad fortune? How do you explain being caught in three B-52 raids during a thirty day period? In the last month you have lost your commander, Executive Officer, and 300 of your comrades killed or wounded in the battles of Binh Long on 8 June 1966 and 9 July 1966. Does the “Spectre of Death” stalk your path?

Leaflet 246-340 was addressed to the Viet Cong 9th Division. It is identical to #362 on the front with the same propaganda text. 100,000 copies of the 4 x 5-inch tactical leaflets were printed for distribution by air. Some of the text on the back is:

Soldiers of the Viet Cong 9th Division and men formerly of the 10th Battalion of the North Vietnamese Army Regiment. The battles in the Binh Long Province cost you almost one thousand lives and you know how many were wounded for life. The bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong destroyed 65% of the North’s fuel. This means less supply convoys for you…

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Alleged SOG Card

There is also a SOG death card that depicts the skull and ace of spades on the front with the same text, "Viet Cong! This is a symbol of death!" Notice that the back of the card has been striped so that the Viet Cong would find it difficult to place a pro-communist propaganda message there.

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The Skull Image without the Ace of Spades

We should mention that there is another set of leaflets that uses the exact same skull with hatching in the background, or black background with red vignette inside the skull to emphasize blood, but instead of the ace of spades, the vignette inside the skull depicts a Douglas Skyraider strafing Viet Cong. Since there is no spade, the leaflets do not belong in this article but both sets were created by the same artist, SP4 Dave Kolchuk.

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The Skull Image without the Ace of Spades – 246-272

Five leaflets from this set are: 246-103-67 “Greetings, soldiers from North Vietnam,” 246-113-67 “To the Viet Cong soldiers of the TD 506 B2,” 246-163-67 “Soldiers, why must you and your comrades die needlessly,” 246-272 “Attention members of the 269th Battalion.” and 246-356 “Soldiers, why must you and your comrades die needlessly,”

Leaflet 246-356 was a tactical leaflet that targeted the soldiers of the C-56, Q-761 and 271 Regiments. 500,000 were printed on 22 July 1966 and dropped by aircraft. Some of the text is:

Soldiers, why must you and your comrades die needlessly? Many more Americans and allies of the Government of South Vietnam are coming to Vietnam to destroy the Viet Cong and the soldiers from the North. Do you think the fighting is hard not? Wait! The future can only insure your death. We are determined to help the people of the South enjoy a better way of life. You are the only obstacle to peace. Recent bombings of Hanoi and Haiphong assure that you will have fewer supplies in coming days. Have you not heard of these bombings? The fuel supplies for North Vietnam have been cut by 65 percent... You cannot win. Return and build a future. Stay and be destroyed.

Can we prove our statement that the cards were meaningless to the Vietnamese? Robert W. Chandler, War of Ideas: The U.S. Propaganda Campaign in Vietnam, Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1981, says in a section entitled "Major Psychological Appeals and Themes," under "Fear":

But not all such approaches were effective. One major misassumption occurred about 1966 when U.S. soldiers scattered fear-appeal leaflets with the ace of spades as an omen of death. In some cases actual playing cards were left along trails in Communist-controlled territory (American troops wrote to playing card manufacturers requesting numerous aces of spades to supplement the campaign). A subsequent review and evaluation by the United States Information Agency revealed, however, that the ace of spades was not included in the Vietnamese deck of cards. Thus, except for a few Montagnard hill tribesmen, they were unfamiliar with its meaning as a death omen. Despite these finding and a JUSPAO policy directive prohibiting the aces of spades practice, American soldiers began using the technique again in 1971. This repeated error was probably symptomatic of trying to maintain continuity and high-quality psychological operations with military persons being shuffled into and out of the country on one-year tours of duty.

Chandler makes two interesting points. The first is that the Vietnamese were not even familiar with the ace of spades. Curiously, the leaflet from the 246th PSYOP Company numbered 246-362 places the symbol of the ace of spades on a skull on one side, and the photograph of a dead Vietnamese body on the other. It is almost as if the Americans were trying to teach the Vietnamese. "See, there is an ace of spades, and here is a skull and there is a body. Therefore, when you see the black spade, think of death." The second point is one that has been argued for years. One of the great weaknesses of the American involvement in Vietnam was the one-year tour. Chandler implies that even if an officer in 1968 clearly knew that the death cards had no value, he would be gone by 1969 and his replacement might think that they were a wonderfully innovative idea.

Having stated all these intellectual reasons why the death card was meaningless to the Vietnamese, I must now mention a personal experiment done by Captain Edward N. Voke, S2 (Intelligence) Staff Officer of the 6th PSYOP Battalion in 1966, whose unit was asked to print some of the cards for the Special Forces.

I was curious about the reaction, if any, of the ace of spades to the Vietnamese. We made a quick check and did find a 1930’s Vietnamese novel that used that card as a sign of impending death. I handed out some of the cards we printed to people in the S2 and asked them to carry them in their wallets, and when paying for something in a shop, bar, restaurant, etc., to fumble around and place the card on the table and see if there was any reaction from the locals.  There was. People definitely noticed the card. They vacated the seat next to you; bar girls left you alone, etc. My thinking at the time was: the Special Forces like it…it disturbs some Vietnamese for some reason…and it does not appear to be harmful to any of our PSYOP plans or campaigns.

Where did the concept that the ace of spades was a bad omen originate? Apparently in the distant past. The history of the ace of spades goes all the way back to the age of pirates. The single spot on the card could put you "on the spot" or in danger. The origin of this expression goes back to 18th-century pirates whose back-up symbol for intimidation (after the skull and crossbones) was the dreaded ace of spades with its single black spot. This card was intentionally shown to a traitor or informer as warning that his life was in danger. Anyone sent an ace of spades was "on the spot."

Returning to Vietnam, a 10 May 1967 PSYOP Policy Directive (Number 36) details official U.S. guidance on "The Use of Superstitions in Psychological Operations in Vietnam." The document was prepared by the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), the military agency that directed U.S. propaganda efforts from Saigon. The policy states that "In accordance with U.S. mission directives, this is mission psychological policy and guidance and is to be implemented as pertinent by all U.S. elements in Vietnam."

Some of the pertinent text in regard to the ace of spades is as follows:

A strong superstition or a deeply-held belief shared by a substantial number of the enemy target audience can be used as a psychological weapon because it permits with some degree of probability the prediction of individual or group behavior under a given set of conditions.

To use an enemy superstition as a starting point for psychological operations, however, one must be sure of the conditions and control the stimuli that trigger the desired behavior.

The first step in the manipulation of a superstition as an enemy vulnerability is its exact identification and detailed definition of its spread and intensity among the target audience. The second step is to insure friendly control of the stimuli and the capability to create a situation that will trigger the desired superstitious behavior. Both conditions must be met or the psyops effort will not yield the desired results; it might even backfire.

As an illustration, one can cite the recent notion spread among combat troops in the First Corps area that VC and NVN troops were deathly afraid of the "Ace of Spades" as an omen of death. In consequence soldiers, turned psy-warriors with the assistance of playing card manufacturers, began leaving the ominous card in battle areas and on patrols into enemy-held territory. The notion was based on isolated instances of behavior among Montagnard tribesmen familiar from French days with the Western deck of cards. A subsequent survey determined that the ace of spades does not trigger substantial fear reactions among most Vietnamese because the various local playing cards have their own set of symbols, generally of Chinese derivation.

Here then was an incorrect identification of a superstition coupled with a friendly capability to exploit the presumed condition. It did not work.

In summary, the manipulation of superstitions is a delicate affair. Tampering with deeply-held beliefs, seeking to turn them to your advantage means in effect playing God and it should only be attempted if one can get away with it and the game is indeed worth the candle. Failure can lead to ridicule, charges of clumsiness and callousness that can blacken the reputation of psychological operations in general. It is a weapon to be employed selectively and with utmost skill and deftness. There can be no excuse for failure.

GUIDANCE:

To exploit enemy superstitions, psyops personnel must be certain that the superstition or belief is real and powerful.

A psyops operator's desire to take advantage of manipulating enemy superstitions surreptitiously must be balanced against the counterproductive effects of possible failure and exposure of the attempt by the mass media. The U.S. image and the effectiveness of future psyops might lose more than the commander might hope to gain by successful execution of the plan.

In summary, enemy superstition manipulation should not be lightly employed by field psyops personnel. Proposals to make appeals based on superstitions or otherwise manipulate target audience beliefs will be forwarded in each case to JUSPAO and/or MACPD through the respective channels of their originators. They will be carefully analyzed there in the light of the considerations spelled out in this guidance. No psyops campaign in the area of superstition manipulation will be undertaken without JUSPAO/MACPD approval.

Army officer William Shelton mentions the continued use of the ace of spades in Vietnam:

One of the things we also found out, the Vietnamese are very superstitious people like most of the Orientals that I’ve known and worked with. The Ace of Spades trick was one that we used. In their society, much the same as in our own, an Ace of Spades in fortune telling and Tarot and all of that indicates death, so if you threw an Ace of Spades into one of their cache sites, somebody would see it and they would get very superstitious and it played a big role in how well they would fight or not fight.

How did the various Ace of Spade cards get to Vietnam? As mentioned above, some individuals wrote to playing card manufacturers and asked for them. Those manufacturers, being patriotic, were more than happy to comply with the requests.

Much of the story can be found on various web sites devoted to poker, or even the web site of the United States Playing Card Company. For instance, an early version of the story says:

The Ace of Spades served a famous purpose in the war in Vietnam. In February1966, two lieutenants of Company "C," Second Battalion, 35th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, wrote The United States Playing Card Company and requested decks containing nothing but the "Bicycle" Ace of Spades. The cards were useful in psychological warfare.

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Ace of Spades Deck
Courtesy of CW2 John D Sarviss

In a later comment the manufacturer tells the story in more depth:

The Death Card or Ace of Spades was considered bad luck by the Viet Cong. This is the story that I got first-hand from one of the lieutenants who originated the idea. He had read an article in the Stars & Stripes indicating that the Vietnamese were a very superstitious people and that the men were afraid of the Ace of Spades. The French previously had occupied Indo-China, and in French fortune telling cards, the Spades predicted death and suffering. It also seems that a statue of a woman foretold a "bad day" and there was some belief that the Viet Cong even regarded lady liberty as a goddess of death.

Anyways, this guy, along with three of his fellow-lieutenants were playing cards with one of our Bicycle decks, which fortunately they liked to use, and they noticed that the Bicycle Ace of Spades had a statue of a woman in the middle of it, so they figured that this was a potentially good psychological operations weapon. So they contacted the United States Playing Card Company and we sent them thousands of the requested decks gratis to our troops in Vietnam. These decks were housed in plain white tuck cases, inscribed "Bicycle Secret Weapon: Ace of Spades."

The troops started using them, basically as calling cards. And then all their friends wanted some. And eventually, the military asked us to produce a deck that had fifty-two Bicycle Aces of Spades. The cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids. The very sight the "Bicycle" Ace was said to cause many Viet Cong to flee.

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Members of the 3rd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division place death cards in the mouths of dead Viet Cong during Operation Baker near Duc Pho and Mo Duc in 1967.

We have heard the story of the ace of spades from the President of the United States Playing Card Company. Here is the same story from the point of view of the military unit that originated the letter requesting the cards. It was written by Charles W. Brown (C/2/35) in 1966, published in The Cacti Times Magazine, entitled "ACE HIGH - This card was no Joker."

The Ace of Spades, "a symbol of death to the Vietcong", was reported in the New York Sunday News, July 10, 1966. In 1966 and 1967 that headline, and many like it, was published in newspapers and magazines all across the country. Over the years many organizations and individuals in the military have taken credit for initiating the use of the Ace of Spades as a psychological warfare weapon. Many did use it, but only one unit started it. Let me take you back to early 1966 to the beginning of the Ace of Spades story.

In Jan. 1966 the "Tropic Lightning’s" 3rd Brigade had established a base camp on a hill just outside the town of Pleiku, South Vietnam. The story begins there in the rear of Co. C, 2/35th’s orderly room that served as a BOQ for four lieutenants (Davis, Zais, Brown, and Wissinger). Thinking back to that time, I remember that tent looking very much like the "swamp" from the TV show M*A*S*H. Naturally a card table had its place in the center of the room.

While sitting around that table one of the platoon leaders called our attention to an article in the Stars and Stripes about remarks made by Congressman Craig Hosmer of California to the House of Representatives in Washington D. C. Those remarks, made on Feb.7th, pertained to the superstitions of the Vietcong. The article stated that two of their bad luck symbols were pictures of women and the ace of spades. Later that evening, someone in the group noticed that the ace of spades from a deck of "Bicycle" playing cards contained a picture of a woman that just happened to be a representation of the Goddess of Freedom or Liberty on the dome of our nation’s capital building. In her right hand she held a sheathed sword; in her left hand an olive branch.

Before long the groundwork was laid for a plan to use the ace of spades as a calling card when Charlie Company went into the field by leaving them at the entrances and exits to villages we cleared of VC, posting them along trails, and leaving them on VC bodies. As the plan began to take shape, the discussion turned to a way of obtaining large quantities of cards since each deck we had contained only the one special ace. It was quickly pointed out that we needed to keep our "decks" intact and couldn’t afford to part with that "ace" from every deck we owned. We had to have some complete decks for poker, Tonk, or Hearts, which helped to pass the time. However, in the months that followed, it was discovered that many decks contained only 51cards because someone had lifted the ace and used it in the field.

Almost jokingly I volunteered to write a letter to the "The U.S. Playing Card Co." in Cincinnati, Ohio to request the aces we wanted. My theory was…. what’s the harm in asking? The worst that they could say would be "NO"! In the initial letter I asked for approximately 1,000 cards, not really expecting a reply, and certainly not expecting to create the commotion that it did. Little did we know the letter would find its way to the desk of the president of the company, Mr. Allison F. Stanley. We had no way of knowing that Mr. Stanley had lost a son in WWII and that he would be eager to supply as many aces as were needed. The same day that Mr. Stanley read our letter 1,000 cards were pulled from the production line, packed, and shipped to us at no cost.

Soon after our first shipment of cards arrived, we received a letter from John B. Powers with J. Walter Thompson, Co., an advertising agency in New York City, asking for permission to use the story stateside. Mr. Powers handled the public relations account for the playing card company. So with our permission in hand, Mr. Powers relayed the story to Bob Considine for his nationally syndicated newspaper column and he also made a press release to United Press International. The playing card company then received so many requests for cards (even from mothers who wanted to send them to their sons) they started packaging them in special marked boxes containing 52 aces. They were always shipped "postage paid".

By this time, Lts. Zais and Wissinger had been reassigned to other units within country and Lt. Davis and I were frequently sent on operations in different directions. Since days or even weeks would go by without me seeing Lt. Davis, I continued to correspond with Mr. Stanley, Mr. Powers, and the Congressman.

Soon the story would be carried in newspapers across the states. Reporters started dropping in for interviews. Some just stopped by to take photos. A few even went to the field with us hoping for "live" action shots. One reporter stayed in the field with my 3rd platoon for six days. During that time, the reporter got everything he needed but the action shots. It was not uncommon to have free-lance photographers and writers hanging around the forward base camps looking for additional material. In the months that followed, I received several letters from Congressman Hosmer, the U.S. Playing Card Company, and J. Walter Thompson Co. I always tried to reply as soon as possible and give them an update on our psychological warfare campaign.

Congressman Hosmer, who in Feb. 1966 had been criticized for suggesting that psychological warfare be used in Vietnam, spoke to Congress again on June 14, and read the correspondence he and Mr. Stanley had received from the Lieutenants of Company C. This information can be found on pages 12497-12499 of that day’s Congressional Record - House (Vol. 112, No. 97).

In a letter I received from Mr. Powers dated May 24, 1966, he stated that he was "presently trying to work out story ideas on your ace of spades use with Life, Look, True, Newsweek, NBC-TV News (Huntley-Brinkley Report), This Week, Argosy, True, Sunday Group Editorial Service (photo stories to 18 major metropolitan newspapers, including NY News, Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)." Once the story of the "Ace" was reported and spread across America, I received many personal letters from people I had never met who saw pictures or read stories about the ACE OF SPADES in their local newspaper. All that most of these people knew was my name and our unit’s designation (C/2/35, 25th Division) and they just wanted us to know they believed in and supported what we were doing. I have read those letters from time to time and still have a good feeling about what we were trying to do.

One of my letters to Representative Hosmer was published in a book entitled Letters From Vietnam. In that letter I wrote, "I cannot give an account of the effectiveness of our campaign. I will say that once we sweep through an area, leave our cards, and then return some weeks later, there has been little or no V.C. activity there. You can arrive at your own conclusions." Did it work? I’m not sure. Did it help our morale? I definitely think so! In our company and others throughout Vietnam, I think the cards did something to encourage the men that were just trying to survive during a difficult time.

I am writing this account some thirty-five years after the fact so I may have left out parts here and there. For some reason I kept most of the letters and mailed them home with the newspaper articles, clippings, and other material people sent to me concerning our psychological warfare action. I really don’t know why I kept them and sent them home. More than likely it was just my way of sharing with my wife what was going on in that crazy mixed-up part of the world. She kept everything I sent and put it all together in a scrapbook. It’s from that scrapbook I was able to pull together the information for this article. I hope you enjoyed my account of how using the Ace of Spades began.

Note: Recently I had the opportunity to donate several items from Vietnam to the 2/35th museum at Schofield Barracks. Among those items was one of the original decks of 52 aces I received from Mr. Stanley in 1966. The CO of the Battalion sent me a deck of 52 aces, also produced by the U.S. Playing Card Company, for the gulf war. I don’t know if the "jinx" worked in the Middle East, but it is nice to know that the tradition lives on! CACTI FOREVER

There was apparently more than one letter written to the president of the playing card company. Staff Sergeant Rick Hofmann, a former member of the 6th Psyop Battalion., HQ, Saigon, told me:

I wrote to the Bicycle Company in 1967 asking about the cards. They said they were donating the Aces of Spades to the military on a no-questions asked basis. The cards that were sent were said to be slightly flawed misprints, which couldn't be put into circulation. There was also some mention of a relative of one of the Bicycle Company executives being a killed in action, hence the company's support of the troops and Death Card operations. We understood the card to be a double whammy - the Ace of Spaces itself was bad luck, reinforced by the standing goddess in the center of it.

An American who served in Vietnam in 1967-1968 tells what he thinks the ace of spades represents:

The ace of spades is called the death card or the death-dealers card. It's use in Vietnam meant approximately 'I understand that my job means killing the enemy. I am ready to do so.' Think of it as the opposite of the peace sign.

Another Vietnam vet said

The first one of these I ever saw was on the road from near the demilitarized zone (Dong Ha) and Camp Eagle at Phu Bai in 1971. It was nailed to the forehead of a Viet Cong tax collector.

Ken Smith says in a short story entitled "Happy Birthday Grunt":

The quotation in the 2/35 Infantry was "Got to get Dem Dinks", and "Don't Mean Nothin". Our Crest was Cacti Blue and our calling card was the Ace of Spades. That was supposed to bring fear in them. I believe that I was more scared of them though. I mean what tough guy wouldn't be scared when exchanging rounds that close. If you weren't afraid of getting killed, you must have been on something.

One former member of A Company, 1/52, 198th Light Infantry Brigade told me:

I saw the death cards used once during my 1969-1970 tour of duty. We were patrolling through an area that another sister company had worked. We found a few of the death cards strategically placed on the bodies of some dead North Vietnamese Army troops. I don't think it scared them at all. In fact, I believe their buddies thought we did it and for about two weeks we had a running gun battle with the sons of bitches! I didn't mind fighting them, but I just couldn't see any sense in stirring them up!

Katherine Keane was a Red Cross “Donut Dolly” in Viet Nam from 1967 to 1968. She was assigned to the Red Cross Recreation Center in Nha Trang. She told me that many of the soldiers coming into the center appeared to have some form of PTSD. She believed they were being treated locally in an Army medical center. One sat down next to her and she expected a pleasant talk about home and what it was like to be in Vietnam. Instead, he pulled out a handful of photographs to show her. She said:

“Here” he said. ‘Look here.” He pulled a stack of Polaroid pictures out of his cargo pocket. He laid the pictures down in front of me one by one. The first showed a dead Vietnamese with an Ace of Spades stuck in his mouth. I was completely unprepared to see this. He continued laying them down, one next to another. The next showed a group of dead Vietnamese with the Ace of Spades stuck in their mouths. The next showed the Ace of Spades apparently stuck into the man’s chest with some kind of stick. The last showed the Ace of Spades nailed into a man’s forehead. He seemed to have the pictures in some sort of order of brutality. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He offered to let me pick and keep one picture but I declined. He seemed relieved. I would have broken up his collection. Then he handed me a sewn patch depicting an Ace of Spades that I did accept.

It was not even noon yet and I was a complete wreck. I went into the office and found my partner Mary going through some donated books, and asked her if she had heard that there were special psychologists in Nha Trang that worked with guys who were disturbed. She said she knew there was a hospital, but didn’t know anything about special shrinks. “See that guy out there?” I pointed to the young man, who was still sitting slumped at the table, looking at his pictures.“He showed me pictures of dead Vietnamese with the Ace of spades in them. “Really?” she said, quite undisturbed. “I’ve heard all that Ace of Spades stuff before…”

I suspect that Katherine Keane was just dealing with regular soldiers back from the field suffering from some degree of PTSD. However, she might have been correct in thinking there was a psychiatric center nearby. A subordinate unit within the 8th Field Hospital at Nha Trang was the 98th Medical Detachment. They operated the only inpatient psychiatric facility in I and II Corps (the two most northern tactical zones in Vietnam). Besides dealing with mental health issues on an outpatient basis, they had a 12 bed in-patient facility staffed by a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and five social work specialists. They could keep an in-patient for 30 days; at the end of that time they had to return the patient to duty, reassign him in-country, or medically evacuate him back to the United States for further treatment.

There are many types of the ace of spades death cards. It is important to note that very few of those you see offered for sale are genuine. In fact, no death card should be considered genuine unless the source is impeccable and there is an unimpeachable history of it being personally brought back from Vietnam. Fakes and forgeries abound. I would guess that 95% of those offered at auction are bogus.

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Death Awaits…

One soldier said in regard to the above card:

These were put on every dead Viet Cong to send ‘Charlie’ a message that US soldiers had been there. The top line reads: "Death awaits Viet Cong cadres." The second line reads: "Return [to the south Vietnamese side] rather than being killed.

These seem to be the most prevalent type of death cards, one might almost say "the standard" death card. I have seen about three variations with slightly different fronts but always the same message on the back.

In addition, the same skull inside the spade is depicted on a commemorative death card distributed by Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade, at the Americal Division Reunion in Reno Nevada, June 2004. On one side is the Americal unit insignia, the other side is the ace of spades with skull and crossbones in the center spade.

I would have assumed that this card was privately made; perhaps ordered from an American printer. Instead, it turns out that the card was produced by the United States Army 6th PSYOP Battalion on the request of Special Forces. Captain Edward N. Voke, S2 (Intelligence) officer from 1966-1967 told me:

The only type of death card I saw was the one with the skull and crossbones inside the spade on one side, and the crosshatched design and message on the other. The first time was in 1966 when some Special Forces officers from IV Corps, working around Father Hoa’s area, came up to Saigon with a shopping list. They wanted a small run of these leaflets; explained that the ace of spades meant  death to the Vietnamese; that the cards were to be pinned to the clothing of dead Viet Cong, but, in actual practice, were often left in the mouth. I only recall us printing them for Special Forces, usually in the IV Corps area, but I did not usually get involved in what our printing plant did for our companies or other units and agencies.

Warning: In December 2010, these cards were being reproduced and sold by a Florida dealer in sets of 50. The dealer had sold 25 sets at the time I saw his offer so there are already a minimum of 1250 fake death cards circulating. Do not buy a death card unless it comes with a pedigree from a bona-fide veteran who personally brought it back. The dealer comments:

This is an exact reproduction of the famous Ace of Spades "Death Card" used during the Vietnam War by the United States Military Armed Forces. My reproductions are as close to the originals as possible and by far surpasses any others offered. Printed on Card Stock.

A Variant of the Standard "Death Awaits" Card

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An Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 found this variant of the standard “Death Awaits” card. Note that although it seems identical at first glance, the spades at the corner are boxed, and the text at the back is shorter in length than in the more common versions.

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Death Card Poster

I also have a large “death card” variant in my possession: 16 x 10.25-inches and 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

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Death Awaits… with scythe

This card is similar except that there is no central large ace of spades and the skull is accompanied by a scythe.

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Death Awaits… with scythe (variation)

In this variation Death is now inside a large black spade and the Letter "A" is now made up of bones. The message on the back is identical on all three cards.

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CAP 1-3-9 Ace of Spade

In spring of 1970 the United States Marine Combined Action Platoon (CAP) 1-3-9 stationed in Binh Song about 14 kilometers east of Tra Bong received intelligence indicating that they were about to be attacked by a large force of regular North Vietnamese Army troops.

PSYOP was called in to help with the defense of the unit and they dropped a leaflet depicting an ace of spades on the front with the text:

DIE! The same thing will happen again…

The back of the leaflet is all text:

NVA from Hanoi, 116 died on September 12, 1969 in Ah Phong. NVA should never come back here again because they will die.

The leaflet is coded 7-301-70.

The leaflet may have worked because there was no immediate attack. However, the 6th Battalion of the 21st NVA Regiment did attack two CAP units to the east of 1-3-9 in April and May, so there was definitely strong activity in the sector.

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Another Marine card was a personalized type purchased at the Freedom Hill Military Exchange (PX) near Da Nang Air Base by a former Marine Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol member of the 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion.

 

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Scythe with blood

Another variation depicts the scythe with blood dripping from it. I have mostly seen these as sewn patches, so it is possible that they were not prepared in the form of death cards.

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2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry

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Chieu Hoi

One card does not threaten death as much as it offers life. This card depicts the symbol of the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) organization and is a reminder to the Viet Cong that they can live by simply rallying to the Government of South Vietnam.

Many other death cards exist. Whether they are genuine or not is anyone's guess. For instance, one depicts a skull and bone fingers holding scythe with the text, "101 ABN pathfinders" and "Hue Phu Bai."  The back has text that says, "we are searching for viet cong, give up or die."

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Death from Above
Courtesy of CW2 John D Sarviss

Another card depicts a winged skull and the words "Death From Above." This card was printed by the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. There is a confirmed report that this card was designed by Captain Mozey of C Company, 1st Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment "The Jumping Mustangs" during his Vietnam tour of 1965-1966. A member of the unit told me that:

The calling card was placed on the chest or tucked, slightly, in the shirt pocket.  But as I said before we did not use it except to say "We were here." The actual “Death From Above” saying was a WWII phrase. As of August 1966 the 1st & 2nd of the 8th “Jumping Mustangs” were all carrying a deck of "Death From Above" cards.

Specialist 4 Kevan Mynderup, a former member of “Charlie” Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1968 adds:

I can confirm that the “Death From Above” card was designed by Captain William B Mozey in either late 1965 or early 1966. When Bill took over the company the nickname was changed to “Death From Above” and the unit members got a full deck of the playing cards along with a Black Silk scarf with the “Death From Above” and airborne Skull on it. The phrase was banned in the Battalion Area, so the guys said “DFA” until the brass figured that out. It was an Article 15 offense to say either. The company was broken up at least 2 times because of “DFA” and the cards and scarves disappeared, but returned in 1968 when I was with the company. Only Charlie 1/8th Cavalry was known as “Death From Above” at this time. The other companies had their own nicknames as did all the companies in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.

Former Specialist Fourth Class Vic Castle told me that when he arrived in Vietnam as a member of the 1/8th Cavalry on 1 May 1967 they showed him the death cards and black silk scarf and told him their use was prohibited. He says:

The clerk calls out my name. I get in Jeep for short ride to 1/8th Cavalry. There is a large sign that says, “1/8th Cavalry: Airborne, Air Assault, Air Mobile.” Out walks this Sergeant who greets us. I tell him I think there has been a mistake. I haven’t had Jump training. He says, “Don't worry about it; we don't give you a damn parachute anyway. He assigns me to A Company. He shows me the Death card and the “Death From Above” black scarf and tells me if I get caught with either it is an Article 15.

He remembers that some unit members were court-martialed while using the cards. He said:

I was told that the men were carving a Cavalry patch on a dead Viet Cong's chest and stuck the playing card in his mouth. There was a soldier from an engineer outfit there and he took some pictures. He sent them back to his father who apparently was not amused. An investigation followed and then a trial of a First Lieutenant and a buck Sergeant. I think the trial was held in St. Louis and both men were sent to Ft. Leavenworth.

It seems to me that the two men were tried for abusing the body of the dead Viet Cong rather than the use of the death cards. Such charges have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems perfectly acceptable to shoot a terrorist a dozen times or hack him to death with a bayonet, but abuse the body in any way afterwards and it is a criminal act. How strange.

Curiously, the “Death from Above” death cards reappeared again 30+ years later when American troops were sent to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.

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Strike Recon

After years of looking at death cards I suspect that nobody ever made as many as the 101st Airborne. Here we show another, used by Strike Recon, First Battalion of the 502nd Airborne Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. One side depicts the screaming eagle, a combat infantry badge and airborne wings. The other side depicts a bright red heart and the text:

Compliments of Strike Recon 1/502

We have a HOME – where is your home?

There are skulls and crossed bones at the four sides, and the second message is in both English and Vietnamese and probably is in regard to the North Vietnamese Army having a home hundreds of miles north.

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Sat Cong

There were other types of death cards that did not bear the ace of spades. For instance, one card depicts a skull wearing a Vietnamese farmer's hat with cross-hairs over the face and the words Sat Cong ("Kill Communists"). I have seen this same saying tattooed on the body of South Vietnamese commandos.

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I saw you

Another card appears to be a SOG product. It depicts a rifleman taking aim at a Viet Cong Guerrilla. The text in Vietnamese is "I saw you but let you live…next time you die." The back of the card depicts a crude skull and crossed bones. There are numerous such fake cards sold on the Internet but this one would seem to be genuine. It is depicted in John L. Plaster’s SOG – a Photo History of the Secret War, Paladin Press, Boulder, CO, 2000. The author says about this particular image:

SOG calling card designed to be left by recon teams behind enemy lines.

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Recon Team Death Card

The author also depicts a card with a skull and crossed bones and says:

Some recon teams inserted their own psychological warfare items – such as this card that was published untraceably in Thailand and left them on NVA bodies.

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101st

An even cruder card depicts a winged skull with an open parachute behind. Text is all Vietnamese, and at the bottom left is the crest of the 506th Infantry (Airmobile) and at the lower right the crest of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles Division. The text on the card is not actually a sentence, but rather a group of Vietnamese words. Some of the words are Quan Sat (Observed), Viet Cong (Communists), Ban Chet (Shoot to Kill), and Dau Hang (Surrender). We can partially date this card because some of the three battalions of the 506th Infantry were in Vietnam from October 1967 to December 1971.

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An Australian Death Leaflet

 

This is really not a death card in the true sense of the term, but it is very close. The Australians fought in Vietnam alongside the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Among their better known troops was the Special Air Service (SAS). These were very well trained soldiers, not unlike American Special Forces. They had the Australian 1st Psychological Operations Unit print this leaflet coded ATF-091-71 and entitled “Death Notice” on 26 February 1971. The leaflet depicts two skulls on the front and a vulture over a skeleton on the back. The text on the front is:

 

Your camp has been discovered: You are no longer safe. Fill out the spaces on the back of this notice and keep it with you. When we find your body we will use it to give you a proper burial.

The Australians know that the Vietnamese believe that if they die and are buried in an unmarked grave away from their home village their restless ghost will walk the Earth forever. They are offering to return the body to give the ghost everlasting peace.

 

The back of the leaflet asks for the following information.

 

Full Name; Rank; Religion; Next of Kin; Date of Birth; Unit.

Notice that if the enemy soldier was captured and refused to talk, this leaflet when filled out would give all the pertinent information any Intelligence S2 Section could want. It serves three purposes. It demoralizes the soldier telling him that he is about to die, it reminds him of eternal damnation if not given a proper burial, and it could be an intelligence goldmine.

Death Cards vs. Calling Cards

We should take a moment to differentiate between death cards and calling cards. The death card is easy to identify. It usually is black or features black vignettes, shows an ace of spades, or makes some threat of death to the Viet Cong. In the words of one ex-Cavalryman:

It was the Best of the Best that used the cards. The guys that wanted Charlie to be really sure who it was that killed him. The whole idea was to scare the crap out of Charlie.

Calling cards are quite different. The military has a long tradition of using calling cards for social introductions. As a sergeant major assigned to a new unit one of my first tasks was to visit the home of the commanding officer and leave a calling card in a silver tray. It was understood that was the way one properly introduced himself.

Like all military traditions, there is even a prescribed military way in which the card is used:

Calling cards are a courtesy you extend to your hosts. They are desired by most military hosts and hostesses for a reference file of past friends and acquaintances in the service. Proper custom dictates that you leave one card for each adult member of the household, including guests, but never leave more than three of any one card. Cards should be left in a tray near the door either upon arrival or departure. When making a call and the person on whom you are calling is not home, leave the card with someone who is present or slip it under the door. Calling cards were not used for a time, but the tradition of using them is returning and they are being used more and more today.

Calling cards were also popular among warriors and combat units. They tended to be long on exaggeration and braggadocio. It was the old Davy Crockett "Killed him a bar when he was only three" syndrome. Tough guys talk tough. Many of the cards we will show during the rest of this article are really calling cards. They mention death and destruction, but in general they were not meant to be left on a body. However, if the body count was high and you just happened to be standing there...well, a calling card might become a death card.

So, enjoy the rest of the cards. They were produced by men and units who were proud of their fighting ability and willing to tell the world about it. Let's just say that these cards were multi-purpose.

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Viet Cong Banknote Overprinted by "Robin Hoods"

Although ARVN forces made up the majority of troops involved in the Cambodian incursion. American helicopters provided air transportation, liaison, medical evacuation, and close fire support. One of the aviation units was the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company (AHC). The 173rd AHC was attached to the 11th Aviation Battalion (Combat) for the Cambodian raid. The 173rd took part in 14 campaigns. It received 8 battle decorations including the Valorous Unit Award, Meritorious Unit Commendation, the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with palm, and the Republic of Vietnam Civil Action Honor Medal. The radio call sign of the 173rd AHC was "Robin Hood."

Members of the helicopter company "liberated" some of the banknotes confiscated during the raid and overprinted them as souvenirs with the text " Compliments of / 173rd AHC / The Robin Hoods." They might have been simply souvenirs of the raid, or they might have been used in some cases as "calling cards" to be placed on the bodies of dead Viet Cong. Whatever their use, they are the only known type of calling card prepared on an enemy banknote during the Vietnam War.

Four more death cards are depicted in The Vietnam Photo Book, Mark Jury, Vintage Books, NY, 1986. Jury was a specialist 5 (SP5) sent to Vietnam in July 1969. As an army photographer he was able to document much of the war. He illustrates a photograph of two army medics carrying a Viet Cong guerrilla on a stretcher. The caption is:

Two orderlies carried the wounded VC off the medevac [Medical evacuation helicopter] and disappeared inside the hospital. A few minutes later one of the orderlies came out and handed me a calling card. "You want a souvenir?" he said. "This was stuck in the bandages. We get them all the time." He looked at the "dealers of death" card and mused, "Ummm, First of the Sixth. They've been kicking some ass."

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Gunfighters Death Card

The card is depicted below the photograph. It depicts a skull and crossed bones within an ace of spades. The text is:

A CO 1. 6th 198th L.I.B. - GUNFIGHTERS 1969-1970 - DEALERS OF DEATH.

["LIB" is a "Light Infantry Brigade.]

The second card is all text:

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Gunslingers

Those who kill for pleasure are sadists. Those who kill for money are professionals. Those who kill for both are Gunslingers.

[Although the nickname Gunslingers was fairly common, this card may have been used by the 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment, activated in 1968 and assigned to the 101st Airborne Division].

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Death On Call

The third card depicts a winged griffon holding the insignia of the 101st Airborne Division in one hand and a lightning bolt in the other. The text is:

Love by nature - Live by luck - kill by profession - DEATH ON CALL - wire Griffin, San Francisco, 96383 - C Btry, 4th Bn (ARA), 77th Arty.

[Once again we have a unit attached to the 101st Airborne Division. One battlefield report states, Death on call Cobras from C Btry, 4th Bn (ARA), 77th Arty in one of the largest battlefield actions in recent months killed 60 North Vietnamese Army soldiers and destroyed one mortar position, resulting in six secondary explosions, 20 miles west of Quang Tri.]

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Front and back of Kingsmen Calling Card

The above card depicts an inverted ace of spades on the front with the word "Kingsmen" in gold. The back is all text:

INTRODUCING THE "KINGSMEN" U.S. ARMY. Assault Helicopter Company. SPECIALTIES: Combat assaults (Day and Night), LRRP Ins. & EXTR, Emergency Ammo Resupply, Flairship & Phyops (sic), Emergency Medivacs, VC Extermination, People Sniffer & Defoliation. SIDE LINES: Worlds Greatest Pilot, International Playboy, War Monger, Renowned Booze Hound, Social Lion, Ladies Man. PROVIDING: Death and Destruction 24-Hrs. a day. If you care enough to send the very best, send KINGSMEN.

A second variation of this card is more specific with the unit being identified as “B Company 101st AHB,” and the additional specialties: “F.O.B. (we do the old “Quang-Tri-trick),” “Flare ship,” “NOD,” and “Insecticide,”

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Kingsmen Unit Crest

The Kingsmen were originally the 17th Assault Helicopter Company from Ft. Riley Kansas and part of the First Aviation Brigade. They were attached to the 101st Airborne after the Tet uprising in 1968. When the 101st became an Airmobile Division the company was infused into the Division and redesignated B Company, 101st Aviation Brigade. The unit insignia on the tail boom was a white diamond, this diamond was the border of their uniform patch with a black spade centered in the diamond. During the Vietnam War they performed numerous missions; some of their helicopters equipped with loudspeakers for propaganda messages, the delivery of thousands of aerial leaflets, special operations missions into Laos as well as Lam Son 719 and “Nighhawk” missions (deny the enemy freedom of movement at night by the use of starlite scopes and automatic weapons) in their operational area.

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Mustang

Other calling cards abound. It seems that they fascinated fixed-wing and helicopter pilots. One such card depicts a black chess knight and the text:

Have Gun…Will Travel – Mustang 22 – Wire Mustang A. P. O. 96227.

This card is reminiscent of the one carried by the western television hero Paladin, whose card depicted a white chess knight and the words, "Have Gun - Will travel -Wire Paladin – San Francisco."

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Spooky

Spooky was the call sign of the AC-47 gunship. In modern warfare the gunship would be a C-130 with the call sign “Spectre.” During the Vietnam War the 4th Special Operations Squadron used the above calling card, offering in part:

Spooky – AC-47 Dragonship

RVN’s # 1 Fly By Night Outfit

We Defend: Outposts – Hamlets – Special Forces Camps – Ambush Patrols and any other TIC

Our 7.62 Devastates: Monkeys, Sampans, Ground markers, Campfires, Water Buffalo

'Call "A" Flight, Da Nang 2425, 3005 Daily 1800-0600

When you hurt enough to want the very best

This card was used by “A” Flight in Da Nang. “B” Flight in Pleiku, “C” Flight in Nha Trang, “D” Flight in Bien Hoa, and “E” Flight in Binh Thuy had their own calling cards.

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Cobra Card

Jennifer Gabrys depicts what she calls a “Vietnam kill card” in Airdrop, Book Works, London 2004. The card is plain text in Vietnamese and English:

COBRA

VINHLONG AIR FIELD

If you see this attack helicopter - COBRA STRIKES

Death will come to you - DEATH TO THE VIET CONG

The above card was used by the Cobra Platoon of the 114th Aviation Company, from 1965 to 1968. The cobras often covered the scout helicopters in the area of operation orbiting around them until the scouts radioed that they were taking fire. The cobras then attacked with mini-guns and rockets.

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240th Attack Helicopter Squadron

This calling card from the K. A. Watson of the 240th Attack Helicopter Squadron depicts a mad dog on the front armed with rockets. The back guarantees:

Extermination Unlimited

This card was in the possession of a former Airborne Ranger First Lieutenant Philip W. Knauth, 1st platoon, Alpha Company, 1st/27th Wolfhounds, 25th Infantry Division. He told me:

Watson was the gunship pilot of what I think we called a pink team. The action was west of Xuan Loc in March of 1971. A pink team was a little bird to get down low and a cobra to stand off and render unto the enemy that day's ration of 2.75 inch folding fin rockets or flechette rounds and 40mm.

It was quite an afternoon for me. I was working the artillery and the gunship at the same time, while SGT Allen handled the firefight. The arty was keeping the enemy from fading into the bush. They first tried their usual hugging tactic, but SGT Allen's patrol was able to throw them back.

I got the cobra pilot to come well inside danger close, because we needed it. We were able to get some cover in the 20-year-old French fighting holes SGT Allen's patrol had stumbled upon about the same time they ran into a platoon or so of NVA. When firing flechettes, there's a puff of red smoke as the round leaves the launcher to warn folks on the ground of the nailing they are about to receive, like it or not. There was an awful lot of noise: 105s, M60s, 2.75 mm rockets, AK47s, bloopers, M16s, hand grenades, and finally the flechettes had the final word.

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Widow Makers

Another calling card depicts the symbol of the 101st Airborne Division at the upper left, the “Strike” emblem of the division’s 1st Brigade at the upper right, crossed M-16 rifles at the lower left and the symbol of the “Widow Makers” of the 3rd Battalion of the brigade at the lower right. The back of the cards was blank, but eventually most of the individual companies had their own versions printed with their information on the back. Text in the center in Vietnamese and English is:

This is the result of the Viet Cong.

The people who turn their wives into widows.

COMPLIMENTS OF THE STRIKE FORCE WIDOW MAKERS

Dale Joritz of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade of the 502nd Regiment told me that he got to Vietnam in June 1965 and the cards were in use at that time.

The 2d Brigade deployed to the Republic of Vietnam December 1967. They participated in twelve campaigns over the next five years. The President of Vietnam decorated the colors of the Brigade three times, twice with the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and once with the Republic of Vietnam Civic Action Honor Medal. The Brigade returned to Fort Campbell in April 1972.

There was a rumor during the war that some members of the 1st Brigade maneuver battalion of the 101st Airborne Division carried “tomahawks” hanging from their belts which were used to cleave a narrow trench in the skull of the dead enemy so that an Ace of Spades with the words “compliments of the widow makers" could be placed in the cleavage and the bodies left for their Viet Cong comrades to find. According to the story, the rumor led to a Congressional investigation regarding the use of the tomahawks, but there was no evidence of them ever being used. Sgt. Mike Yancey of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, September 1967-1968 heard the story and had this to say:

We were the ones that were called the "hatchet Battalion" of Vietnam.  One of many myths about us is that we used the hatchets to create insertion points in dead bodies for death cards. Not True. Why make an opening when there are already plenty. We usually just put them on the bodies so they could be easily found. The press somehow got hold of the wrong idea that we were desecrating bodies with our hatchets. The next thing you know, some magazine came out with a huge article about The Hatchet Battalion of Vietnam. Orders came down for all the hatchets to be turned in, and for the most part they were. A few however, made it home to the states. These were not war tomahawks; they were very much like the old Boy Scout hatchet.

Joritz had little to say about the death cards. He did mention the hatchets. He told me:

It was Lieutenant Colonel Hank Emerson who purchased a number of connex (contingency employment exercise – a large Army metal container for shipping goods overseas) loads of hatchets for use by the guys in the field. That was in late 1965. Emerson’s call sign was “Gunfighter,” but inside the battalion he was also known as “Hatchet Hank.” In the early summer of 1968 our commander, General Barsanti, brought the whole 2nd Battalion back to Camp Eagle. He threatened anyone who was caught with one of the hatchets with a Court Martial.

I heard that North Vietnam put a bounty of the 101st Airborne Division. Allegedly, it was 500 Dong for any part of a “Chicken Man” or the patch from his fatigue jacket. Needless to say, our death card, and how it was used and placed, was part of how we reacted towards them.

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Crew members of the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron  364
hand out Calling Cards in I Corps during supply mission and troop lifts in December 1967.

Rangers lead the way

When I was in the Sergeants Major Academy, I had a classmate who was a Ranger. As to be expected, he was a “can do” guy and he was always cheerful though he told us of having volunteered to test a new parachute that only partially opened and crushed about a foot of his leg bone. He bragged that he saw himself on film and he had bounced almost a dozen times. When we got to that portion of the lesson where we learned the duties of the general staff, G-1 through G-4, and the paperwork needed to call for a hundred heavy vehicles to move our soldiers to the front, his first comment was, “We don’t need no stinking trucks. Rangers walk to the battle.” That guy was either nuts or inspirational, and I dedicate this little section of the story to him.<

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75th Ranger Regiment - 1988 Death Card

Robert McKercher Jr. was a member of a Long Range Reconnaissance Company during the Vietnam War. As the war neared end, he and other LRRPS were encouraged to join the newly-reactivate Ranger Battalions. He eventually was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in 1974.

Based on previous tradition, a “Calling Card” was printed and carried by members of the Second Battalion.

Specialist 4th Class Dave Rosini served in the 2nd Ranger Battalion from 1985 to 1989 as an M-60 machine-gunner. He was in Charlie Company, 2/75 and in 1987 he designed, and had those death cards printed in Tacoma Washington. He also painted the design as a mural on the Bravo Company barracks. Dave was a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston. He sold the cards three for a dollar or 50 cents each to the members of the battalion while they were waiting in the mess hall line at our dining facility. He had five hundred cards printed.

Dave told me about the project:

When I made the death card you have on your site, I basically Xeroxed an ace of spades and enlarged it. I was working with about an 8 x 10 copy of the ace of spades. I then copied pictures of different badges right out of army manuals and drew pictures of everything else I needed. I then arranged all the photos and used rubber cement to stick them to the paper. The grim reaper in the center of the spade was inspired from the Ryder Tarot Deck "Death" card. I traced it out then drew the horses back end to complete it. Then when I had everything the way I wanted, I reduced it down to the playing card size. I then took the finished cards to a printer in Tacoma.

When I made the death card, we were wearing the World War II style 2nd Battalion Ranger Scroll. The Ranger Regiment adopted that type of scroll about 1984. Before that the 2 existing Ranger Battalions (1st & 2nd) wore what we called the “Old Scrolls” like the one pictured on my death card above the eagle. These Old Scrolls were worn during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. The Old Scrolls were highly prized and were/are proudly worn by Ranger Battalion Grenada veterans as a combat patch. So I used the Old 2nd Battalion Scroll for my card because we all liked it more.

New High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) wings were scheduled to be authorized in 1987 or 1988, but we had not seen them. My platoon sergeant showed me some wings in his possession and told me they were the new wings. I drew them and placed them on the death card. Later, I found out that the ones he showed me were from a South American country (I can't remember which one) and he thought it was funny that he had tricked me. No one in battalion seemed to care.

When I got to the 2nd Ranger Battalion, we had a few Vietnam Vets and ex-LRRPS that were NCOs. They told us that in the Buddhist religion if you place a symbol or marker on a dead body they won't touch it. So, many American soldiers wore playing cards on their helmets so if they were killed the enemy would leave their bodies alone. Later the soldiers would place death cards upon the bodies of enemies they killed to scare them, and let them know who was responsible.

McKercher says that when the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel A.J. Baker saw them he ordered that they were not to be carried or used by any members, on pain of court-martial and expulsion from the unit. As a result, the cards were never used in combat. Rosini never heard of the ban, but the Ranger’s tours may not have overlapped. Rosini’s Battalion Commanders were Lieutenant Colonel Ellis and John J. Maher III.

The front of the card depicts an American eagle and symbols of Nationalist China and the United States. Airborne “wings” are above the eagle and the date “OCT - 17” is at the left and right. The motto on the scroll is SUA SPONTE (On its own motion) referring to the Rangers' ability to accomplish tasks with little to no prompting.

The back of the card has more symbolism; a Pathfinder Badge, A Scuba Diver’s Badge, a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and jump wings with combat star. Around the ace of spades are a number of battles that the Rangers took part in going back to WWII.

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Ranger – 1986

This was Dave Rosini’s first attempt at a death card. You can see growth from his first to third card in 1988. The image here is similar to the old 101st Airborne Division skull and wings, and the back is all text. On interesting artistic aspect is the Ranger tab that has broken through the barbed wire.

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Death from Above - 1987

Dave Rosini also created a card in 1987. This card was printed on the front only and featured the death card from the Rider Tarot Deck. The original card pictured the rider and the front part of the horse. Dave added the back of the horse and the text:

RANGER – 2ND BN – RANGER AIRBORNE – 75TH INF

Death from Above

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The Tarot Card “Death”

Here is the actual tarot card that Dave used as inspiration. Notice that there is no back end on the horse. Later on, Dave painted the same scene in full color on the wall of the Bravo Company barracks. The Death card also appears in the 2nd Ranger Battalion Yearbook on 1987-1988.

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Creeping Death

After our initial discussions Dave told me that he had talked to other Rangers and some of them still had their old death cards. The first we show is a classic card with the Ace of Spades on a yellow card on one side, and on the back:

Creeping Death – Ranger – 1st Ranger Bn

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Rangers Lead the Way

This card is very similar to some of the 101st Airborne Division cards that we have seen. It is only printed on the Front and depicts a skull, crossed knives and wings. Some of the text is:

RANGERS LEAD THE WAY

Co. C 1st Bn. 75th Ranger Regiment

Hard Rock Charlie

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Bad Muthers

Another card from the 2nd Rangers is from the “Bad Muthers.” Dave said that Alpha Company was the only company that had names for their platoons. He remembers that some were “The Bad Muthers,” “The Earth Pigs,” and “The Black Sheep.” The companies had nick-names too. Headquarters and headquarters Company was “The Hog,” A Company was the “Alpha Bots,” B Company was the “Bravo-trons,” and Charlie Company was “Cass Company,” (Cass short for “Casual.”). The M-60 gunners were generally referred to as “Maggots.” I particularly like the slogan at the end that refers to the Vietnam War habit of burning houses to force the people into Strategic Villages where they could not trade with and feed the Viet Cong. It is:

If we can’t win their hearts and minds we’ll burn their fucking hootch.

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The Greatest Happiness…

This 2nd Battalion card simply shows the Ranger tab on the front. The back has the 1226 quote from Genghis Khan made famous in Conan the Barbarian when it was paraphrased and made shorter and more concise. The full quote is seen on the card:

The Greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemy, to chase him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to rob him of his wealth and see those dear to him bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom his wives and daughters.

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Will kill, Maim…

This card is more in the form of a calling card. It doesn't mention a name or unit but is a general introduction to the Ranger creed and their fighting abilities.

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Greetings…

This 2nd Battalion card goes back to the Ranger operations in Grenada. The text is in English so it was clearly aimed at the black government troops and not the Cubans on the island. I don’t know if the card ever actually reached Grenada but was prepared for that operation. Copies of the card were later found in the Ranger Headquarters.

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ENEMY PSYWAR

Here is propaganda used on the Rangers, something a bit different. Although not a Death Card, this card was issued to members of the American Army Rangers during a war game as part of their psychological warfare training. The card depicts "Death" standing behind an American soldier. He is handing leaflets to the soldier that are entitled "Enemy PSYOP," "safe conduct" and "surrender." The text on the front explains enemy PSYWAR and consists of five themes that the enemy might use to destroy morale. The back is all text and defines PSYOP, lists "dos" and Don'ts" and the symptoms of a PSYOP casualty, a soldier who has been influenced by enemy propaganda and no longer had the will to fight.  Dave told me:

The Rangers went to Georgia in 1988 to stage for Panama. We were not deployed at that time. The Battalion did go as part of the invasion force in 1989. My unit had just been to Panama in 1988 and we had gone to the Ft. Sherman Jungle Operations Training Center and received Jungle Expert School training. I missed the Panama Invasion by 1 month. I had gotten married and transferred out of the Rangers and went to the 9th Infantry Division at Ft. Lewis, Washington.

What I found even more interesting was the propaganda campaign that came with the card. Ranger Dave Rosini told me:

They employed loud speakers for days that played the sound of a crying baby. It was really annoying. We heard it as we sat in our 16 x 32-feet long GP medium tents around Hunter Army Airfield on Ft. Stewart, Georgia in 1989. Then one day as the crying was being broadcast there was a loud gunshot and the baby stopped crying. It was really weird.

This ends our Ranger section...at least until we hear from other Rangers.

Another “death card” story that is probably apocryphal concerns the use of a conditioned Pavlovian response to frighten the Viet Cong out of a specific area. According to this story, when the military wanted to clear an area of enemy troops they would air drop death cards. Allegedly after the cards were dropped the Air Force would bomb the location. The Viet Cong began to associate the finding of the death card with bombing and destruction. Eventually, when the death cards were dropped over an area and the Viet Cong would vacate the area in the anticipation of the impending bombing. Friendly troops could then enter and occupy the area without firing a shot. I don’t believe this story for a moment, but several Vietnam veterans have repeated it and it is obvious that they believe it.

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LRRP Card

The LRRPs were Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. These were very tough fellows who went deep into enemy territory to identify units and select targets. One calling card from such a unit says:

Anywhere - Anytime – LRRP – Long Range Recon Patrol – Have Teams Will Travel – Call Trp D (AIR) – 1st Squadron - 4th Cav. – 1st Infantry Division.

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Card on helmet

Did the death cards have any effect on the Viet Cong or NVA? Doubtful. The president of the playing card company asked some of the men who used them:

But then I asked this guy, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Brown, "Did you ever actually see the Vietnamese in terror from this card?" And he said, "Well, we did use them. When we would clear villages, we would leave them to show that we had been there. We left them on dead bodies and our guys wore them on their helmets." And though he did not have a first-hand account of it being effective as a psyops weapon, it did serve as a morale booster for the guys in the military. Mostly, they were just pleased that this company all the way back in Cincinnati was making the effort to send them all these containers of Aces of Spades. It was a kind of unifying factor for members of the Army."

So, as we said at the start of this article, the cards were not for the enemy. They were for the morale and motivation of the U.S. troops.

We should also mention that the Communist death squads had their own calling cards. In The Vietnam Experience - War in the Shadows, Boston Publishing Company, Boston, MA, 1988, one such card is shown and identified as a death notice:

This death notice, which Viet Cong agents left on the body of assassinated hamlet chief Danh Hanh, accuses him of having been a lackey for the American-Diem clique. Hanh was judged to have "carried out treacherous activities against our country and incurred the deep hatred of the people of the hamlet." He was therefore "made to pay for his crimes."

DESERT SHIELD/STORM

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Bicycle Desert Shield Secret Weapon Ace of Spades Deck 

The death cards made an appearance again during Operation Desert Storm. because the entire war was over in 100 hours there was no point in using them on the enemy. Instead, they were made up as calling cards and personal mementos of the units involved in the war.

The President of the United States Playing Card Company mentioned them:

United States Playing Card has been making cards for the military for nearly a century, President White said. Remember those Vietnam-era images of soldiers tucking the Ace of Spades in their helmets? U.S. Playing Card made entire decks of the aces because they were believed to inspire fear among enemy fighters. Similar decks were reissued in Operation Desert Shield, but more as a tradition than as a psy-ops weapon.

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Bicycle Ace of Spades

This is a standard Bicycle ace of spades produced by the company and shipped to the troops about to take part in the Persian Gulf War. It looks exactly like a standard playing card, except at the lower center they have printed the words "Desert Shield." Desert Shield was the name of the operation during the defensive phase of the war when the Coalition was building up its forces in Saudi Arabia. The operation was changed to Desert Storm when the Coalition went on the offensive.

It seems that The U.S. Playing Card Company sent boxes of death cards to Saudi Arabia too. In 2001 an unopened deck of all Ace of Spades was offered at auction. The caption beneath the photograph of the cards is:

Here is an unopened deck of all Ace of Spades from the U.S. Playing Card Company. During the Vietnam War, the U.S, Playing Card Company produced entire decks of the Ace of Spades for combat troops in Vietnam. They were sent free of charge in a box called "Secret Weapon." Those decks were not marked Vietnam since this was never done before. During Operation Desert Shield, however, Bicycle again produced the decks in new packaging and typeface to distinguish the Vietnam and Desert Shield decks. The Desert Shield decks are clearly marked "Desert Shield." Again, these decks were supplied to U.S. troops free of charge. I don’t think the card had the same significance as it did in Vietnam.

The box has an ace of spades stamp at the top holding it closed. The word "BICYCLE" appears around the top of the box in red. The front of the box has a picture of the ace of spade and the text "Bicycle 808 The U.S. Playing Card Co. CINCINNATI, U.S.A. DESERT SHIELD." The back of the box is all text, "Secret Weapon BICYCLE Aces of Spades by The U.S. Playing Card Co. Cincinnati, U.S.A.

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Death by Dogs

This card depicts a skull inside the center black spade on the front and the words "DEATH BY DOGS." The back depicts an eagle carrying a skull with a shredded turban and the text, "OPERATION DESERT STORM 1991 - January 16, 1991 - Delta Company, 3-502 Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault - LET THE THUNDER ROAR."

A former member of the company told me that the cards had been privately made in Louisville, Kentucky. He said:

A soldier actually put one of these cards between the charred fingers of a dead Iraqi Republican Guard Tanker (Hammurabi Division) half way out of his T-72 Tank turret in Southeastern Iraqi South of Al Samawha and Southeast Tallil Air Base.

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Alpha Avengers

This card depicts a helicopter inside the central black spade on the front and the words "ALPHA AVENGERS." The back depicts an eagle over an air assault badge. and the text, "OPERATION DESERT SHIELD - Alpha Company, 6-101st Avn. Rgt., 101st Airborne Division, (Air Assault) - THE EAGLE HAS LANDED.

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When Diplomacy Fails

This card depicts the symbol of the 101st Airborne Division, the figure of Death holding a scythe marked "C," and the words "WHEN DIPLOMACY FAILS." The back is all text, some highlighted by red, "Compliments of HARDCORE CHARLIE, 3rd BN 502 INFANTRY, When you care enough to send the very best! AIR ASSAULT."

The Sunday Times of 27 January 1991 stated that:

Calling cards had been manufactured by a company of U.S. soldiers calling themselves “The Nasty Boys.” They intend to place these cartes-de-visite, which say “Personal – Debt Repaid,” on all Iraqi soldiers they kill. On soldier admitted to having 50 such cards, but thought he would need more.

We cannot identify the unit but would like to learn more and perhaps see the actual card.

OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM

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“Tip” Calling card

Calling cards were also used during Operation Iraqi freedom. This photograph, featured in Army, August 2006, depicts an American soldier handing out personal calling cards while on patrol. The cards are signed by the soldier and also have an anonymous tip line telephone number. These allows any Iraqi to either phone in information on improvised explosives, or actually come to the base and ask for the American who gave him the card.

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Blackhawks

There have been just a few reports of death or calling cards used during Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The closest we have seen is a small souvenir calling card self-produced by some members of the “Blackhawks” of Company B of the 4th Battalion of the 31st Infantry Regiment. Since “death cards” are banned by higher command, these cards are never placed on bodies. They are carried by the soldiers and handed out to friends and colleagues the same way that officers might hand out challenge coins. They display pride in the unit and are lasting souvenirs of  time spent in battle. The front of the card depicts an Indian brave over the ace of spades. The back of the card show an Indian warrior and the words “Blackhawks - Truth, Honor, and scalps f border="2" ree of charge.

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A Combat Engineer Calling Card

SSG Jerry F. Eagle Jr., 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines Combat Engineers, sends a calling card used by his unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The card depicts a spiked-helmeted skull with “A / III” (Company A, 3rd Platoon), and the word “Munitor,” (Sapper), the old military term for engineers which indicates a specialist in fortifications and skilled at laying and detecting mines. The title got a bad reputation in Vietnam where Viet Cong sappers would infiltrate US installations and attack them with explosives. However, Sappers have always been considered among the most dedicated and dangerous specialists of the military commander. Text at the bottom of the card is, “The cure for insurgency is the massacre.” 

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Seawolves – Red Wolves Death Card

Here is a card that could be placed in Vietnam or Iraq. Before U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer 3 Waylon Carlson became a helicopter pilot he was a door gunner and rescue swimmer in Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 84 (HSC-84) “The Red Wolves.” In 2008, he attended the reunion of the Vietnam War HAL-3 “Seawolves” in Nashville, Tennessee. HAL-3 was established on 1 April 1967 in Vietnam as the only Helicopter Attack Squadron in the Navy. During this reunion, Waylon sat at a table with members of the old Vietnam unit including Mike Worthington, a three-time Purple Heart recipient. Both men had been door gunners. HAL-3 had eventually become HSC-84, so in theory both men flew the same position in the same unit. After some time together, Mike Worthington gave Waylon Carlson the Ace of Spades he had carried in Vietnam. Notice that the card is signed “Freak,” Worthington’s call sign. Waylon later carried the card in his flight vest flying the MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter on 97 Special Operations combat missions from Baghdad and Balad, Iraq.

OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM

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Freedom Endures

Perhaps the most famous calling card in modern times was used by the United States Army Rangers as they attacked a target deep behind the lines in Afghanistan in an operation meant to show the Taliban that the Americans could attack when and where they wanted. At 1845 (Zulu Time) on 19 October, 199 elite American Rangers and four PSYOP soldiers night-assaulted Objective Rhino on Vengeance Drop Zone. This was a remote Desert Landing Strip approximately 105 miles Southwest of Kandahar. This was the first Ranger combat drop since Operation Just Cause in Panama. Kandahar was the home of the Taliban spiritual leader, Mullah Omar. The raid was a warning that America could strike when and where it chose, even at the center of the Taliban spiritual strength. The American troops carried leaflets featuring a photograph of New York City firemen raising the American flag over the ruins of the World Trade Center, with the text "Freedom Endures" in English on one side and Pashto on the other.

The mission is explored in greater detail in the book Weapon of Choice - ARSOF in Afghanistan, Combat Studies Institute Press, Fort Leavenworth, KS 2003. It tells of Tactical PSYOP Detachment (TPD) 940, B Company of the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion training and rehearsing with the Rangers for five days prior to the operation against the objective they called "Rhino." Four of the Psywarriors jumped from MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft into combat with the Rangers. Some of the text is:

TPD 940 conducted final planning, underwent several inspections, and participated in detailed rehearsals of actions at the objective. Inspections included personnel, weapons, ammunition, and combat equipment as well as PSYOP product scripts and mini-disk copies of the scripts in Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic that would be used during the operation. The 6th Product Development Detachment (PDD) had also prepared leaflets that were to be left on the objective. They were to communicate America’s resolve to stop terrorism and let the enemy know that it had been there.

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Although the Central Command never released an image of the leaflet it did appear on a Discovery Channel TV documentary entitled Commando Solo Afghan Skies. The leaflet was attached to a soldier’s rucksack and was identified as a "Calling Card" in the documentary.

The “calling card” is also mentioned in the 2005 book One Bullet Away – the Making of a Marine Officer, by Nathaniel Fick, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA. Weeks after the attack on “Rhino,” Second Lieutenant Fick walked up a small hill and noticed something stuck on a desert bush. It was about the size of a “thank you” card and depicted the three firemen raising the flag at the World Trade center and the words, “Freedom Endures” in both English and Pashto. Later, as his platoon left the site on foot he passed a destroyed Afghan truck and left the calling card on the truck as a warning to the Taliban.

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Afghan National Army soldiers prepare to load into a Chinook helicopter

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Ace of Spades and Joker Death Cards for the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade

Pilot Warrant Officer 4 Roger M. Gordon flew Chinook helicopters in Afghanistan in support of the 2nd Battalion (The Rock) of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade (Sky Soldiers) from March 2005 to March 2006. He was attached to the Task Force based out of Kandahar Airbase. He often flew in support of Able Company, Battle Company, and Chosen Company of the 2nd Battalion located at Qalat Forward Operating Base. He recalls using the above 'Death Cards' in Afghanistan. The cards show the insignia of the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade on one side, and on the other side either an ace of spades with “Death from above,” or a joker with, “Sorry we missed you, but don’t worry, we will be back!!” He told me:

We were known as the Mustangs (Our call sign). We routinely conducted air assaults throughout our Regional Command and specifically in Zabul Province, of which Qalat is the provincial capital, to conduct search and destroy missions, patrols, etc.  When the Sky Soldiers encountered the enemy, and they did a lot, they would leave the Death Cards on the enemy dead which let them know who was hunting them.   There were instances when we would assault villages, or cave complexes and the Sky Soldiers would not encounter the enemy, but would leave their “calling cards” to let the Taliban and al-Qaida know that they had visited and WOULD be back.

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An Unknown Afghanistan Death Card

This Death Card dated 2004 depicts the comic book character Lady Death which was drawn by a Scott Lewis. She holds a dead Taliban member in her right hand and a smoking rifle in her left hand. She stands in a field of opium poppies. The text is:

Lady Death

Death Card

The reverse depicts another image of lady Death inside a spade along with three skulls. The text is:

Sorry we missed you

2004 UTC

See you soon

This card does not give enough information to identify the unit. However, it has all the trappings of a military death card. Artist Scott Lewis recalls that the person requesting the cards had an email address that mentioned the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, so we assume the card was for that unit. In July, 2013, artist Scott Lewis wrote to me and added:

This project was a request of troops stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2009. I don't know why the card bears the date 2004, but that's what they asked for [Note: Perhaps that was when the unit was initially deployed to Afghanistan]. When I was asked to do this card for the troops I was very excited and of course I designed it for them gratis. I have always been fascinated with death cards and this project was a real privilege to do.

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Lady Death Tattoo

Some troops had the image tattooed on their body. One wrote:

I had a short 5 day break and traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia and got a tattoo of image two on my shin. Another one of our guys got the tattoo on his back. Three others are just waiting to get back to the States to get it tattooed…

Scott continues:

I think that Lady Death was sort of an unofficial mascot for them. I have seen the image used on several tattoos. The troops in Kabul printed and distributed them. They requested reproduction permission for the Lady Death character and of course it was granted. I was asked to provide the artwork for the card design, and it apparently it was well received.

One soldier who was actually involved in producing the cards told Scott at the time:

We pretty much run counter-narcoterrorism operations over here...Afghanistan provides about 95% of the world's opium/heroin…So, we hit a lot of drug labs and high level narcotic traffickers. If you could incorporate an opium poppy in the card that would be perfect.

I am a former Special Operations guy and I know that Lady Death has always had a special place for the guys over here. This will really be a great memento for all the guys that come over here to serve and put their normal lives back in the States on hold for the greater good of our nation. This is going to be one of those great items that you can put in your war chest back home and tell the grand kids about one day! I'll send some emails to deck makers to see what level detail they can handle. I am really just blown away that we are going to make this happen.

I also spoke to the trooper who prepared the cards in Afghanistan. He was previously in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st Special Forces Group and served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He sent a long message which I have edited:

A variation of the card was initially done yearly, so there are smaller batches floating out there from the earlier years. The first cards were also personalized, given to each guy on the team with their "call sign" on the card as well as the corresponding year that they had been with the team in Afghanistan. The cards were pretty basic the first couple years, done on a color printer and then laminated. As the group got a bit larger it was quite a bit of work to handcraft one for everyone so I came up with an idea to get some printed on actual playing cards. (It is surprisingly difficult to find laminate in Afghanistan.) The original idea was that if you found yourself in a bad situation you could leave your "personalized" card behind - our own style blood chit variation. Lady Death really stood out and was the kind of thing that might get some notice. If a card was found after a battle you would know you needed to rally the force.

The cards took on a life of their own after several years and became more of the team's personalized challenge coins. Our team did not receive awards or recognition so the card was more a gift from one operator to another. It became a symbol of the brotherhood of the professional warfighter.

A picture of Lady Death was always the defining feature of the card. Not all had the ace of spades, one year had the queen of hearts and another year it had the number that corresponded with the amount of guys. Every year around the same time we would make another card for the guys that had made it another year

I did a bit of research on Lady Death as I was not really sure we could use the artwork for the cards. Lady Death had become our unofficial symbol and I really wanted to do it right.

So I decided to try and get in contact with Brian Pulido (The creator of Lady Death) and ask if he would be willing to do the artwork for us for a death card. Brian got back in touch the next day and said he loved the idea and would do it for us free of charge. My artistic abilities are non-existent so we gathered some ideas and passed it back to a buddy of a buddy to do a sketch for us. Brain passed the initial sketch on to Scott and he really made it what it was. (It is a bit cut off in the card but there is a skull in the smoke coming out of the M-16).

The process took quite a bit of work from start to finish, so the "year" was changed to initiation date of the program 2004 as an homage to the "plank owners" that had started the tradition with the "UTC" as a reference in this case "Until Complete" written as “UTC” to indicate military time, indicating that the time was universal...that the mission and unit continued on. Everyone had their own piece in the development of the team.

Scott put together something for us that is still talked about in combat circles. I was proud of the idea of making the card but it was his artwork that really made that card. The colors glow, it is really well done. Of course, I should mention that the Afghans found the exposed cleavage of Lady Death rather offensive.

The death card was never sanctioned and was done for a small group of guys. The card really ignited the passion of the group and stories do pop up now and again about that card. In the end, the situation got rather politically correct over here in Afghanistan...there was worry it was going to cause some hassle for the unit, so it sort of died off.

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National Interdiction Unit Patch

The finder of this card was told by a U.S. Afghan veteran that it was used by the Counter Narcotics Police-Afghanistan (CNPA). He said these cards were used by western Counter Narcotics Units going after Narco-Terrorists.

UTC is a DOD term - Unit Tasking Code, and we started this operation in 2004. The tasking was to seek out, search and destroy Narco-Terrorist opium fields and heroin production in an effort to deny the Taliban and/or al Qaida money from narcotics for terrorist activities. The patch is the Afghan NIU patch. Afghanistan has a national police force, the ANP and then they have a national CNPA Counter Narcotics Police Afghanistan. Within the CNPA is the NIU National Interdiction Unit. They are a National SWAT team - 28 to 35 man units that we train and operate with to go after the poppies/opium/heroin.

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Saddam Hussein

Even as the military hierarchy condemns the concept of the death cards, units and individuals still use them or items closely related to them. During an April 2005 hearing in the case of 2LT Ilario Pentano of the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marines, accused of shooting two unarmed Iraqis, a fellow officer testified that Pentano had placed a sign on the bodies reading, "No better friend, no worse enemy." This was the motto of Major General James Mattis, Commander of the 1st Marine Division. The witness identified the sign as "like a death card," and stated that under the conditions he felt that it was inappropriate.

As I said earlier, the death cards used in Vietnam served no military purpose and were more for the morale of the American troops than to terrify the enemy. The vast majority offered for sale are fakes or reprints. I would advise the reader to be very careful about purchasing any card offered unless the individual can show a “chain of evidence” all the way back to Vietnam. The cards of Desert Storm were not death cards in the true sense of the term, but were rather motivational calling cards used by the troops to show pride in unit. Playing cards have always been used by the military for training purposes. They exist with data and illustrations of everything from friendly and enemy tanks and aircraft, survival skills, mine identification and Russian terminology to name just a few. In the most recent war in Iraq they were even used to identify wanted members of the former government. On that note I end this portion of the article with the most notorious ace of spades of all, the famous Saddam Hussein card.

Addendum

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Cultural Smart card for Iraq

We have mentioned Death Cards and Calling Cards and before we end this article we should mention the latest military use of cards, the “Themes and messages Cards” and the “Smart Card.” We have seen them used in both Iraq and Afghanistan and they are usually very professional, full-color coated cards that can be carried by the soldier and give him information, on religion, culture, customs and other important subjects.

The Commander’s Handbook for Strategic Communication and Communication Strategy, Version 3.0, US Joint Forces Command Joint Warfighting Center, 24 June 2010 says:

As an augmentation to training, cards can be a useful way to provide each soldier and United States Government member a handy reference to study and use as needed. Two very successful examples, used by the US Southern Command and the US Central Command are “Themes and Messages Cards,” and “Cultural Smart Cards.”

Units issue each soldier a card with key themes and messages to carry with them at all times. This approach is designed to synchronize words and activities all the way down to the individual level. This card helps soldiers and participants consistently communicate the desired message and guides their actions during unanticipated circumstances.

Another tool that facilitates understanding and interaction is the Cultural Smart Card, issued to each soldier in Iraq. These cards serve as a quick-guide to cultural understanding. They contain key religious facts (five pillars of Islam, key dates, and associated behaviors), customary dress (male and female) and gestures, major ethnic and cultural groups, cultural customs, and history.

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The Japanese Ace of Hearts Leaflet

Before we leave the subject of a playing card ace being used to bear a message during wartime, we should mention that it is not only the ace of spades that has been used for PSYOP purposes. Here is a rare WWII Japanese leaflet that uses the ace of hearts to spread its propaganda message to American troops trapped on the Philippine Islands during the early days of the war. The original message is full of spelling and grammatical errors. We have edited it to make it more readable.

You have reached the Philippines at long last. We can well imagine the big-shots who planned the Philippine operations bottoms-upping comfortably back at home. But have you front-line soldiers ever stopped to think about the enormous losses America has suffered so far? The amount of material already consumed if used otherwise, might have turned some South American countries into first class nations. How about human lives? Your comrades have been killed in as great a number as the cattle butchered at the Chicago stockyard. The number of maimed and disabled men, or of those driven insane, exceeds by far the total capacity of all hospitals in the U.S., and yet this stupendous sacrifice of men and material has not put an end to this war. Even a greater exhaustion is just beginning as the war rages on a far greater scale than here-to-fore. This you know better than anybody else because you are standing at the head of a long procession of final victims. But why are you marching to the southwestern Pacific? Because it is the will of your country. Then, why must you obey the will of your country.? Because you, and all your fellow-countrymen as well , share in the benefit of your country. But can those people who decide the will of the country he never under any delusion? Sometimes they are, it is true. BECAUSE, AS IT HAPPENS TO BE TRUE HERE, IT IS POSSIBLE FOR ONE LEADER ALONE, WHEN OBESSED BY DELUSIONS, TO SEND MILLIONS OF INNOCENT MEN INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH.

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The 1st Special Service Force Death Card

Author’s note: Although this article is mostly about the use of the Ace of Spades for a death card, what may be the earliest death cards on record are those left on the bodies of dead German soldiers in Italy during WWII by the joint American-Canadian 1st Special Service Force. This commando unit was trained at Fort Harrison in the United States. Their patch was a red spearhead with the words “USA” written horizontally and “CANADA” written vertically. The unit was deployed to Italy in 1943 and immediately earned a reputation for being able to take impenetrable objectives when no one else could. In one operation they wiped out a strategic enemy defensive position that sat high atop a mountain surrounded by steep cliffs. Previously, American and British forces had been unable to take the same target.

During the battle around Anzio the unit became known as “The Devil’s Brigade.” Allegedly, the diary of a dead German soldier had the comment: “Die schwarzen Teufel (the black devils) are all around us every time we come into the line.” The brigade's members smeared their faces with black boot polish for their nighttime covert operations. During the Anzio campaign, the brigade fought for 99 days without relief. It was there that they first used their trademark death cards. The brigade members carried cards depicting the unit patch and a slogan written in German: Das dicke Ende kommt noch ("The worst is yet to come"). They were allegedly left on dead German soldiers or on destroyed vehicles or fortifications.

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Death Playing Cards package made to look like a pack of Cigarettes

Curiously, after years of trying to bar the use of the so-called “death cards,” the United States Army is now using them for educational purposes. Mickey Weedon of Life or Death Playing Cards, San Luis Obispo, CA, told me:

“Death Cigarette Playing Cards” have 14 different cigarette characters with 52 different reasons to not smoke. “Death on Drugs Playing Cards” has 14 different drug characters such as King Heroin, Queen Cocaine, Jack Crack, Ace Alcohol, Joker Smoker, and so on. The Military has become my biggest customer. The Military loves the whole "Death" look of these decks and the troops keep and use the decks unlike other tobacco and drug education materials they just toss in the trash. People keep and use playing cards, brochures end up in the trash. A 55 card deck has 3 times the printable surface as a brochure. I am currently working with the head of the Army's Drug Demand Reduction world wide unit. The “Death on Drugs” deck will have the Army logo on it!

The cards can be seen in more detail at http://www.deathcards.com.

In November of 2010, I was contacted by Military Senior Instructor Farhana Qazi who wondered if he could use some of the images from this article for a new class he was teaching. He is a member of the Afghanistan/Pakistan (AFPAK) Regional Cultural Training Team, and had created a presentation called "House of Cards" for the AFPAK region. He needed images to convey to the students that this use of playing cards to educate is not new concept and has historical roots. He said of the cards: 

I have copied some of the images from your website, namely the Ace of Spades images to help the students visualize the effect of these playing cards. We have created a set of cards that we call “Faces of the Region,” which, unlike the death cards, is an effort to capture the “real” people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We use the model and framework of the playing cards but have a different purpose and teaching objective.

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GTA 30-1-23 – BE A WINNER – February 1977 

The use of the ace of spades for training purposes seems to be quite old. Checking through some old files recently I found my ancient Soldiers Guide to Combat Intelligence and four of the cards depicted the ace of spades and lessons on Challenge and Password, Communications Security Tips, Noise and Light Discipline and Cover and Concealment.

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Non-Military use of the Ace of Spades as a Motivator

The Ace of Spades is still used today by some organizations as a motivator. Matthew W. Carlson wrote to me in April 2012 and told me that he knew the military history of the Ace of Spades from his brother who was a helicopter door-gunner and thought that it would be a terrific motivator for his fire team. He is now a Driver-Operator & Hazmat Specialist for the Oshtemo Fire Department in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He started a tradition of presenting an Ace of Spades to selected fire fighters to remind them that death can happen at any time, to prepare for it, and fight against it. He told me:

Each card bears the motto, “Get ready--stay ready.” The card is taped inside the fire helmet as a reminder of our purpose, “to save lives and protect property.” For every fire death we have, the card gets a single mark--like a tally score. Every mark increases the sense of purpose. For guys with no marks yet, it's a reminder that their time is coming. It's a powerful reminder of purpose and calling every time we don the helmet.

As always, the author hopes that this article will open a healthy discussion. Readers who have brought home death or calling cards and would like them added to this article are encouraged to send a scan along with a description of their use to the author at sgmbert@hotmail.com.