The July 10, 1966, edition of New York Sunday News carried a story about the Ace of Spades, calling it “a symbol of death to the Viet Cong.” During that year and the next, similar stories ran in newspapers and magazines all across the country. Since then, many organizations and individuals in the military have taken credit for initiating the use of the Ace of Spades as a psychological warfare calling card. Many did use it, but only one unit started it.
In January 1966, the 25th Infantry Division’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 the orderly room of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry (2-35), a small space that served as a bachelor officers’ quarters for four lieutenants—Barrie E. Zais, Thomas R. Wissinger, a Lieutenant Davis and myself. Naturally, there was a card table 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 U.S. Representative Craig Hosmer of California to the House of Representatives. On February 7, 1966, the congressman mentioned the superstitions of the Viet Cong. The article stated that two of the VC’s bad-luck symbols were pictures of a woman and the Ace of Spades. Later that evening, someone in our group noticed that the Ace of Spades from a deck of Bicycle brand playing cards had a picture of a woman that was a representation of Lady Liberty on the dome of Washington’s Capitol. In her right hand she held a sheathed sword; in her left hand was an olive branch.
Before long, we had developed a plan to use the Ace of Spades as a calling card when Charlie Company went into the field, leaving it 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, our discussion turned to a way of obtaining large quantities of cards, since each deck had only the one. We obviously couldn’t afford to part with the ace from every deck we owned; we needed some complete decks for poker. Nonetheless, in the months that followed, many decks turned up with only 51 cards because someone had lifted the ace and used it in the field.
Almost jokingly, I volunteered to write a letter to The United States Playing Card Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, requesting extra aces. What was 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 could we know that the letter landed on the desk of the president of the company, Mr. Allison F. Stanley. We had no way of knowing that Stanley had lost a son in World War II and that he would be eager to supply as many aces as we needed. The same day that Stanley read our letter, 1,000 Aces of Spades 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 the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, asking for permission to use the story Stateside. Powers handled the public relations account for the playing card company.
With our permission in hand, Powers relayed the story to Bob Considine, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and he also issued a press release to United Press International. The playing card company soon received so many requests for cards—even from mothers who wanted to send them to their sons—that they started packaging them in specially marked boxes containing 52 aces. They were always shipped to units in Vietnam postage paid.
As time went by, Lieutenants Zais and Wissinger were reassigned to other units already stationed within the country, while Lieutenant Davis and I frequently went on operations in different directions. Days or even weeks might go by without my seeing Davis, but I continued to correspond with Stanley, Powers and Rep. Hosmer.
The story eventually ran in newspapers across the United States, and reporters started showing up at C Company for interviews. A few even went into the field with us. One reporter stayed in the field with my 3rd Platoon for six days. In the months that followed, I received several letters from Rep. Hosmer, The United States Playing Card Company and the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. I always tried to reply as soon as possible and give them an update on our psychological warfare campaign.
Hosmer, who in February 1966 had been severely criticized for suggesting that the United States use psychological warfare in Vietnam, spoke before Congress again on June 14, reading correspondence he and Stanley had received from the lieutenants of Company C. A transcript of the congressman’s remarks can be found on pages 12497- 12499 of that day’s Congressional Record–House.
In a letter I received from 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, Argosy, Newsweek, NBC-TV News’ Huntley-Brinkley Report….” and a number of other national media outlets. Once the story appeared and spread across America, I received many personal letters from people I had never met. All that most of these people knew was my name and our unit’s designation. They just wanted us to know they believed in and supported what we were doing. I have reread those letters from time to time and still have a good feeling about what we were trying to do.
One of my own letters to Rep. Hosmer was published in a book titled Letters From Vietnam. In it, I had written: “I cannot give an account of the effectiveness of our campaign. I will say that once we swept through the area, leave our cards, and then return some weeks later, there has been little or no VC 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 who were just trying to survive during a difficult time. I have written this account some 40 years after the fact, so there may be omissions 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 effort. I really don’t know why I kept them and sent them home. More than likely it was just a 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. From that scrapbook I was able to pull together the information for this article.
On January 23, 2003, I finally got to visit The United States Playing Card Company, the supplier of the Ace of Spades during my tour in Vietnam. That was something that I wanted to do for a number of years, but had never taken the time or had the opportunity. On that cold and snowy afternoon, Dick Arnold, the president of the 35th Infantry Regiment Association, joined my wife and me at the company headquarters in Cincinnati to tour the facilities and meet some of the employees.
George White, vice president of marketing, coordinated our visit. He guided us through the office complex, introducing us to the current company president, Greg Simpko, and other managers. The production manager, Jason Lockwood, then joined our group and gave us a detailed tour of the production process. It was amazing to see how a giant roll of paper is converted into more than 5,000 decks of cards.
Looking back to 1966, I am surprised that the company took the time and the expense to interrupt its normal production runs to pull thousands of aces of spades from printed and packaged decks of cards and send them to us in Vietnam. In fact, the same company still manufactures several designs specifically for the military and has a long history of working with the armed forces. During World War II, the company made special decks with escape route maps embedded into the cards. The cards were distributed by the Red Cross to American POWs in Germany. The company had developed a card that separated when it became wet, exposing a small section of a map hidden between the two layers that formed the card. The various sections could be assembled to form a map with the escape routes outlined.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the company also produced “secret weapon decks” for the U.S. military. Today the company produces decks of cards using special ink that remains legible when viewed through night vision goggles. Soldiers no longer need to hide under a poncho liner at night, playing cards by candlelight.
After our tour, Mr. White arranged for me to speak to two separate groups of employees to explain how we used the Ace of Spades in Vietnam and how their company became involved in that campaign. During the discussions one of the employees recalled how he prepared wooden crates and packed them with decks of aces to ship to soldiers in Vietnam. I had the honor to speak with employees who remembered the “secret weapon decks.”
I carried one of the original decks from 1966 with me to show the employees how we received them in Vietnam. Before we left the assembly room, a fellow Vietnam veteran, John Cramer, took my original deck, carried it back to the production line and put cellophane wrap around it to seal the deck and protect it from moisture. At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. White presented me with a glass case containing two of the few remaining “Secret Weapons” decks from the 1991 Gulf War.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.