Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


The Opposite of a Peace Sign

by James McManus |  Published: Jun 11, 2008


Charlie don't surf!

— Col. William Kilgore

American soldiers certainly played poker in Vietnam — in jungle hooches, Hanoi prison cells, air-conditioned offices in Saigon — as they have in every conflict since the Civil War. A more interesting story, perhaps, is how one of the cards in their poker decks came to be used as a weapon.

The U.S. military was constrained from deploying its most lethal weaponry against North Vietnamese insurgents because the commanders in chief — presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon — feared China or the Soviets would retaliate with nuclear missiles. So, in addition to such devastating conventional weapons as napalm, helicopter gunships, and supersonic fighter-bombers, Johnson ordered that subtler forms of warfare be ratcheted up. On April 9, 1965, in a classified White House memo from National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy to the secretaries of state and defense and the directors of the CIA and USIA, Bundy spoke for the president when he called for "intensified and expanded psychological activities in the Vietnamese conflict."

When the 1st Air Cavalry Division arrived in-country on Sept. 11 of that year, the Pentagon attached to it the first new PSYOP unit as a "force multiplier." Trained at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the 22-man unit under Capt. Blaine Revis began by dropping primitive leaflets into the jungle. What is your girlfriend doing at home while you are here? You will die in the mud a horrible death … give up and we will pay you and give you soap. Eventually, they were dropping three and a half million such leaflets per week.

At some point in 1965 or '66, an American soldier came up with the related idea of placing the ace of spades onto a Viet Cong casualty in an effort to intimidate his comrades. The tactic was depicted in Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now. When a green GI, the famous surfer Lance Johnson, sees his fellow soldiers tossing cards onto dead VC fighters, he asks Capt. Willard about them. "Death cards," Willard tells him. "Lets Charlie know who did this."

The PSYOPS of these ground troops apparently led the Air Force to adapt its own version. According to a Village Voice article, "U.S. 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."

The spade ace had badass cachet 500 years before Charlie failed to surf Vietnam. French spades from as early as 1460 were stenciled black pikes or spearheads, by far the most deadly image among the four suits. By the 1960s, the ace stood for anything — such as alpha, God, 1, the top dog, a lion, a steeple, a cathedral — that outranked the most dominant human. L'as de pique was said to represent death in French-Indochinese fortunetelling. As a cooler, more pointed expression than the skull and crossbones, the American military deployed it on special-ops patches, military aircraft and trucks, and as calling cards. But as more troops began displaying it on their helmets, at least one Marine warned out that they "couldn't afford to part with that ace from every deck we owned. We had to have some complete decks for poker."

Americans came to favor the Bicycle spade ace because they somehow gathered that superstitious VC soldiers associated "Lady Liberty" on the back with the goddess of death. Charles Brown, a soldier who claimed his platoon had originated the use of the death card, wrote in 1966 that while sitting around a poker table, "one of the platoon leaders called our attention to an article in the Stars and Stripes [that] pertained to the superstitions of the Viet Cong. 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."

Once the American Playing Card Company heard about the military's interest in their Bicycle spade ace, the company shipped off cases of decks consisting of nothing but that particular card. During World War II, the USPC had worked secretly with the Department of War to produce special decks to be mailed to American prisoners of war in Germany. When moistened, the cards peeled apart to reveal sections of maps indicating escape routes. In 1966, the company hired the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency to feed what it saw as a feel-good story about its Bicycle brand to UPI and Bob Considine's widely syndicated newspaper column, among other media outlets. The USPC soon received thousands of requests for Bicycle decks containing 52 aces of spades, especially from mothers of GIs who wanted to send them to their sons. Follow-up stories were soon published in Life, Look, and Newsweek, and broadcast on NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report.

As the PR and PSYOP campaigns continued, one important question remained: Were Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops actually afraid of the ace of spades — ach bich, as they called it — or, for that matter, of any playing card? According to one GI, "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," and so on. Sgt. Rick Hofmann of the 6th PSYOP Battalion naturally spoke up for the card's ability to intimidate: "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." Another soldier said the card meant, "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." The card was often stuck in the mouth of a dead insurgent, and one GI recalled seeing it nailed to the forehead of a Viet Cong tax collector. "The whole idea was to scare the crap out of Charlie," he said.

Yet other reports make us doubt the card's effectiveness. Capt. Revis himself called it "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 we were involved in necrophilia." Another soldier called it "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."

Yet even if the ach bich failed to scare Charlie, many U.S. troops loved the idea of marking their territory with calling cards. As one young grunt put it, "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."

Death-card historian Herbert Friedman wrote that the aces proclaimed the GIs to be "the biggest and baddest varmints in the valley of death. The cards motivated and encouraged American troops far more than they terrified the enemy." He also pointed out that attempting to manipulate another group's superstitions is always a dicey affair. "Tampering with deeply-held beliefs, seeking to turn them to your advantage means in effect playing God … 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."

Otherwise, it could get your own soldiers killed. As one GI complained, "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!"

A postwar evaluation by the USIA noted that the ace of spades was not included in regular Vietnamese decks. "Thus," writes military historian Robert Chandler, "except for a few Montagnard hill tribesmen, they were unfamiliar with its meaning as a death omen." (He is referring to tribespeople similar to those seen worshipping Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.) Friedman emphasizes that more than one U.S. military survey concluded 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." The bottom line on ach bich? "It did not work."

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter and Sen. John McCain's real-life experiences as a POW contribute to our very faint sense of what captured Americans must have endured in that war. Fighter-bomber pilots like McCain, whose mission was to deliver destruction and death from on high, often causing hundreds of collateral civilian deaths, were treated more harshly than most. McCain fractured both arms and a leg after being hit and ejecting from his plane on Oct. 26, 1967. He nearly drowned after parachuting into Truc Bac Lake in Hanoi. When he regained consciousness, soldiers vengefully spat on, kicked, and stripped him of his uniform; others crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and drove a bayonet into his abdomen and foot. He was taken to Hanoi's main prison, where his captors refused to put him in the hospital; instead, they continued to beat and interrogate him. Almost literally overnight, his dark hair turned white. He was later offered an early release because of his father's high rank in the Navy, but the junior McCain gallantly refused to break the code of "first in, first out." He wasn't released until March 1973.

During the '60s, most POWs were confined alone or in two-man cells scattered throughout the North. After a few were freed by American raids in 1970, however, nearly all were removed to communal prisons in Hanoi, where security was tighter. With two or three dozen of them now confined in each room, the POWs were grateful for each other's company, but soon became desperate for ways to relieve their homesickness, claustrophobia, and boredom.

Spike Nasmyth had been an F-4 pilot in the 555th Tac Fighter Squadron, the notorious Triple Nickle. Shot down and captured more than a year before McCain, Nasmyth spent 2,355 days as "Uncle Ho's guest," as he put it. "The Vietnamese gave us playing cards," he recalled. Made of stiff cardboard, they couldn't be shuffled without cracking them, so the men swished them around for a while before cutting and dealing again. Their chips were hand-baked by a pilot named Dick Bolstad, whom Nasmyth aptly calls "a very inventive guy." Bolstad mixed bread and water with ground-up roofing tiles to make orange chips, with leftover medicine for purple ones, and with coal dust for black ones. "When the semi-finished chips were laid on the window sill to dry, there was a fairly good chance that the rats would carry them off or just take a bite or two." So the resourceful Bolstad came up with a "secret ingredient" to add to his chip recipe that even rats found distasteful. "This discovery," writes Nasmyth, "kept his chips in top quality."

With poker sessions lasting for days, senior officers mandated a maximum loss of $1,000, though Nasmyth reports that "some guys hit their max in several rooms over the years." Nasmyth was one of the "poker czars" in charge of keeping tabs of who owed whom what. He meticulously kept the tally on a crumpled piece of cigarette paper, which he hid in his ear and managed to smuggle out upon their collective release in 1973. "When we got home, I mailed IOU letters to the losers. Everyone paid up, and every winner got paid." We suspect that his follow-through would have been equally diligent even if his own winnings didn't come to $3,740.25.

Creative poker thinking in prison was hardly limited to Bolstad and Nasmyth. To take only two more examples: On Christmas Day 1971, POW Dwight Sullivan presented his friend Ted Ballard with a tiny poker table that he had fashioned from bread and sticks. "It even had ash trays," said Ballard. "I kept the table for almost a year until the guards finally found it and took it away." Despite years in captivity, forced to play with breakable cards for money that he and his buddies figured they might never see, Ballard never lost his barbed sense of humor. He proved it by giving fellow prisoner Leroy Stutz "an imaginary book" as a Christmas gift, to go with Stutz's mounting IOUs. The title? How to Play Winning Poker.


Related Articles