Death Card History
THE DEATH CARD
by SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 1st Cavalry Division Death Card
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."
Willard: "Death card. Letting Charlie know who did this."
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.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
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.
Leaflet 246-362Text on front beneath skull, "Viet Cong! This is a symbol of death!" Text on back beneath dead Viet Cong, "Continue your struggle against the National Cause and you will surely die a mournful death like this!"
A second 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. We know from the leaflet code that it was prepared in 1967. 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ace of Spades Deck
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.
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 capitol 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
Death from Above
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 an unconfirmed report that this card was designed by Captain Mozey of C Company, 1 of the 8th Cavalry during his Vietnam tour of 1965-1966. Curiously, it reappeared again 30+ years later when the airborne division was sent to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm.
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.
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.
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.
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 cards are 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.
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
Gunfighters Death Card[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."
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:
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].
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.]
The final card all text:
INTRODUCING THE "KINGSMEN" U.S. ARMY. Assault Helicopter Company 114. 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.
[The 114th Assault Helicopter Company was attached to the 101st Airborne Division. It seems clear that the 101st was the main proponent of the death or calling cards in Vietnam].
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."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."
Card on helmetDid 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 STORMThe death cards made an appearance again during 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.Bicycle Ace of SpadesThis 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.
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 bandaged skull 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."
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.
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."
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 article with the most notorious ace of spades of all, the famous Saddam Hussein card.
Full credit for this article is given to SGM Herb Friedman (Ret.) who has done a wonderful job researching the subject. Many thanks to him for allowing us to post this important piece of history!
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