More than Shoot & Salute
U.S. Army Psywar in Laos
In January 1961, a twelve-man team from the 1st Psychological Warfare (Psywar) Battalion (Broadcasting and Leaflet [B&L]) deployed to Laos as part of a secretive, small-scale U.S. Army Special Warfare presence to advance U.S. strategic objectives in Southeast Asia (SEA). Assigned to the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, the psywar team offered multi-media psywar support to U.S. agencies operating in-country, but its primary role was augmenting the U.S. Information Service (USIS). In addition, team members advised the Royal Lao Government and armed forces, which had been fighting the externally-supported Communist Pathet Lao and other insurgents since 1954.
Comprised of mostly junior officers and soldiers, many of them new to the Army or on their first deployment, the psywar team was inserted into a highly ambiguous situation (as explained in the contextual Laos article in the previous issue of Veritas). Afforded little preparation, guidance, or direction from higher headquarters, these soldiers relied heavily on their own education, experiences, and initiative. The team’s selection, pre-mission preparations, and six-month deployment, the focus of this article, are described by three of its members: Second Lieutenant (2LT) Raymond P. Ambrozak, Specialist 4 (SP4) Neil E. Lien, and Private First Class (PFC) William J. Dixon.
Born in Nanticoke, PA, on 8 November 1935, 2LT Raymond P. Ambrozak studied Industrial Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, before being drafted into the Infantry in September 1958. His enlisted time was short, as he completed Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, GA, in October 1959, earning a commission as an Infantry 2LT. Expecting an Infantry assignment, he inexplicably received orders to the 1st Loudspeaker and Leaflet (L&L) Company at Fort Bragg, NC, as a Psywar Officer.1 On 24 June 1960, the 1st L&L was re-designated as the 1st Psywar Company [L&L], a subordinate unit of the 1st Psywar Battalion.2 Adding to his confusion was notification of deployment to an unknown country in SEA a couple of months later. Two other unsuspecting prospective members of the psywar augmentation team were SP4 Neil E. Lien and PFC William J. Dixon.
1 Biographical information obtained from the official personnel file of Raymond P. Ambrozak, National Personnel Records Center (NPRC)/NARA, St. Louis, Missouri.
2 U.S. Army Special Warfare Center, U.S. Army Special Warfare Center (Baton Rouge, LA: Army and Navy Publishing Company, 1962). The other units in the 1st Psywar Battalion were the Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), the 3rd Psywar Detachment (Reproduction), the 4th Psywar Company (Radio Broadcasting [RB]) (Mobile [MBL]), the 308th Psywar Company (RB) (MBL), the 350th Psywar Company (L&L), and the 353rd Psywar Company (Consolidation).
Born, raised, and educated in western Chicago, Neil E. Lien attended Lawrence College in Appleton, WI, where he double majored in English/Creative Writing and Speech Arts. The latter discipline encompassed such fields as theater, oral interpretation, and radio broadcasting. He also minored in psychology and worked at the college radio station. Graduating in June 1958, Lien waited “for the shoe to drop (for my draft notice to come).” In anticipation, he bought the Draftee’s Guide to Military Life and Law. Receiving his draft notice in late summer 1959, then-Private (PVT) Lien felt prepared. While in basic training at Fort Ord, CA, he had his Classification and Assignments (C&A) interview with a career counselor to determine his Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). Looking at his fields of study and radio broadcasting experience at Lawrence, the NCO said, “There’s only one place for you to go: psywar.” He reported to Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC), 1st Psywar Battalion (B&L), on Smoke Bomb Hill, Fort Bragg, in late 1959, as a radio broadcaster.3
3 Neil E. Lien, interview with Jared M. Tracy, 27 April 2017, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Lien interview.
William J. Dixon was born, raised, and educated in Dixon, IL. He attended the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN, graduating in June 1959 with a B.A. in Fine Arts. His father, a retired colonel who had served in both World Wars, felt strongly about his five sons joining the military. Accordingly, in 1959, Bill enlisted for two years as an Army Illustrator. He attended basic training at Fort Riley, KS, before reporting to the HHC (S-3), 1st Psywar Battalion (B&L), around Thanksgiving, as one of seven illustrators in the battalion.
After six months learning from more experienced illustrators and performing ‘extra duties as assigned,’ Dixon got wind of a real-world ‘opportunity.’ “One day, I got an urgent message to get back to my company,” recalled Dixon. Informed by his leadership that he may be deploying on a secret mission, he was not sure why he among the illustrators was selected. He suspected that since he was an ‘excess’ soldier above and beyond the battalion’s Table of Organization and Equipment (T/O&E), the unit had wanted to send him so as not to lose assigned personnel.4
4 William J. Dixon, interview with Jared M. Tracy, 17 April 2017, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Dixon interview.
Lien had another theory for their selection. “First, we all had good reputations. I was Soldier of the Month twice, I never caused any problems, and I was really affable with the other guys. The second consideration was skills—what skills were needed to build this team, and who had them? For example, mine was radio broadcasting.” Finally, each enlisted member had to have enough time left in service for the deployment. Lien had just enough, with two months to spare. “On those three criteria, that’s how I qualified.”5
5 Lien interview.
Lien, Dixon, and sixteen other prospective candidates—including a civilian and a major—met in an empty barracks for a more detailed rundown. “They didn’t tell us where the mission was, but said it would be for roughly six months,” said Dixon. Interested people would need to get a security clearance, a time-consuming process; therefore, they needed to volunteer ‘on the spot.’ “Everyone raised their hands. However, within a month or so, there was a shakeout and it narrowed down to twelve.” The major had to leave for another assignment, and was replaced as Officer-in-Charge (OIC) by Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Charles A. Murray.6 Eventually ‘filled in’ on the particulars and sworn to secrecy, the team began ad hoc pre-deployment training.
6 Dixon interview.
Slated to arrive in Laos by September 1960, the team had about six weeks to prepare for deployment. The 1st Psywar Battalion (B&L) provided no training regimen, so they developed their own. According to 2LT Ambrozak, they built an “area study” to familiarize themselves with the people, culture, economy, and political situation in Laos. “We parsed out each one of these areas to different members of the team.” Once an individual completed his ‘class,’ he presented it to the group. In addition, the team received a crash course in the Lao language from a 7th Special Forces (SF) Group NCO (non-commissioned officer) who had spent a year in-country and had picked up 200–300 words. Ambrozak pointed out that while the language training was minimal, it actually did help “promote a quick relationship with the local Lao people” during the deployment.7
7 Raymond P. Ambrozak, recorded video narration, no date, copy in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Ambrozak narration.
“We parsed out each one of these areas to different members of the team.”
— 2LT Raymond P. Ambrozak
In August 1960, the team had nearly completed its pre-deployment training when its overseas movement was delayed due to the chaos in Laos following Captain (CPT) Kong Le’s insurrection. The group took advantage of the time by improving their area study and continuing ad hoc language training in French and Lao. Having lost their SF language instructor, the team elected one of their own who had earlier gotten the best scores in the Lao language: 2LT Ambrozak. “I became the language instructor for a country I didn’t even know existed six weeks prior to that,” he remembered.8 For the rest of 1960, the team continued learning more about its host country.
8 Ambrozak narration.
While CPT Kong Le’s rebellion had been the main reason for the delayed overseas movement, another was that not all of the administrative steps involved with an ‘off-the-record’ military deployment had been completed. Formal U.S. military involvement in Laos, evidenced by President John F. Kennedy’s creation of Military Assistance Advisory Group, Laos (MAAG Laos), was still eight months away. There was to be no indication that these twelve men were U.S. Army soldiers. “We were administratively severed from the Army and assigned as DoD civilians,” even though their pay, allotments, and time in grade in the Army continued. “Before leaving, a State Department employee came down from Washington, DC, met with our team, and provided us with civilian passports, DoD civilian identification cards, and international drivers’ licenses,” according to Lien.9
9 Lien interview.
On 5 January 1961, the formal deployment order arrived. All twelve men were listed as ‘Mr.’ and given fake DoD civilian (General Schedule [GS]) grades on the orders. The ‘civilian’ status of these men meant that “there was no rank consciousness,” Lien remembered. “There was no separation between officers and enlisted; we were all compadres.”10 With their civilian passports in hand, they were to deploy around 25 January for duty with the Programs Evaluation Office (PEO) in Vientiane, Laos.11 The PEO, the ‘civilian’ predecessor to MAAG Laos, was established in 1955 as a low-key DoD staff agency providing advice and assistance to the Laotian government and military. It had been the higher headquarters for American SF teams training their Laotian counterparts since 1959, and would be for the psywar team as well.
10 Lien interview.
11 Headquarters, Department of the Army, “SUBJECT: Orders (AGPA-O [4 Jan 61]),” 5 January 1961, copy in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.
“We packed our Army uniforms in duffle bags, which shipped separately from us. I don’t know where they went, and I never saw them again until I got back to Fort Bragg,” recalled Dixon. “In civilian clothes, we drove up to Washington and flew out on Capital Airlines. After a layover in Chicago, we flew into San Francisco and stayed there for five days. Then, we flew out on a chartered Pan Am Constellation from Travis Air Force Base (AFB), CA. We were in the air for around 48 hours, with only short stops for refueling and changing crews. It took us twelve hours just to get to Hickham AFB, HI.”12 When they finally landed in Bangkok, Thailand, they reported to Joint U.S. Military Advisory Group, Thailand (JUSMAGTHAI). Activated in 1953, JUSTMAGTHAI had since developed a close relationship with the PEO, and was the gateway for U.S. personnel destined for Laos. JUSMAGTHAI presented a number of briefings to the team, with topics ranging from health and safety to current intelligence estimates on Laos.13
12 Dixon interview.
13 Ambrozak narration.
The team initially thought that it would just be working in Vientiane; JUSMAGTHAI and the PEO changed that perception. While most of the psywar personnel would ‘live’ and work in Vientiane, the team would send one officer to each Military Region (MR) in Laos (except the Communist-infested MR II) to advise Laotian commanders and support U.S. agencies in those areas.14 2LT Ambrozak would be ‘solo’ in Luang Prabang (MR I); 1LT George M. Daly in Savannakhet (MR III), but as it turned out, Daly would be mostly in Vientiane; and 2LT Thor W. Rinden in Pakse (MR IV). LTC Murray, CPT Richard M. Gunsell, and all of the enlisted men would operate from Vientiane (MR V).
14 See, for example, Doc. 10: “Memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (Nitze) to Secretary of Defense McNamara,” 23 January 1961, in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1961-1963, Vol. XXIV, Laos Crisis.
2LT Ambrozak recalled the threesome’s trepidation after that was decided. “We three [Ambrozak, Daly, and Rinden] went into a quiet panic mode . . . This was our first rodeo and we felt that the credibility of PSYOP [psychological operations] rested on our shoulders.” The three lieutenants met in a hotel room in Bangkok to coordinate plans for their respective regions. In addition, they came up with a plan to get ‘buy-in’ from their host nation counterparts. “We thought that a letter signed by a senior commander, outlining areas where we could work with them, would give us some status with our counterparts and specify programs for immediate attention.”15 The team drafted a letter and wired it to the PEO before catching a military ‘hop’ from Bangkok to Vientiane.
15 Email from Raymond P. Ambrozak to Jared M. Tracy, “SUBJECT: Re: Names,” 28 March 2017, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Ambrozak email with date.
COMMAND RELATIONSHIPS, LAOS, 1961
Their draft letter was published in the form of an official two-page memorandum from Laos’s Defense Minister and staunch U.S. ally, General (GEN) Phoumi Nosavan, to senior Laotian Army commanders. Titled “Plan for Increased Emphasis Upon Psychological Operations,” the memorandum “included some items not in our [original] message, which we felt was a good sign. Someone had given some thought to our mission and wanted our assistance,” Ambrozak remembered.16 Phoumi wrote of his desire for unity and peace in Laos, but regretted that they could not be achieved with Communist propaganda infecting villages throughout the country. “We must counteract this threat,” he wrote. He then laid out a plan for “a strong [Royal Lao Army] psychological operation” to support national aims and earn popular support for the Royal Lao Government.17
16 Ambrozak email, 28 March 2017.
17 Memorandum from GEN Phoumi Nosavan to Bounleut Sanichanh, Boun Pone, Kouprasith Abhay, and Siho Lamphouthacoul, “SUBJECT: Plan for Increased Emphasis Upon Psychological Operations,” no date, copy in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Phoumi PSYOP memo.
Phoumi informed his commanders that “twelve [American] specialists . . . are now in Laos to assist [us] in the development of a strong information program and to teach the techniques necessary to conduct such a program.” These ‘specialists’ would help with four main areas. First, helping Laotian soldiers understand the need to improve conditions in villages and counter Communist propaganda. Second, educating villagers by training Laotian soldiers to show motion pictures and hand out printed materials throughout Laos. Third, curbing Lao-on-Lao violence by assuring Pathet Lao fighters of proper treatment by the Laotian government if they surrendered or deserted. Finally, improving radio operations, which he called “essential for the education and training of our troops and for informing our people of our aims and programs for their better living.”18 This memorandum provided a basic framework for the U.S. Army psywar role in Laos.
18 Phoumi PSYOP memo. For more on Laotian government views on the ‘psychological factors’ of the conflict, see USIA, “Inspection Report: USIS Laos,” 31 March 1960, 8-9, in Folder “Laos, April 19, 1960; February 6-17, 1956,” Record Group (RG) 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), hereafter “USIA Inspection Report” with page number.
Once in Laos, 2LT Ambrozak headed to Luang Prabang (MR I) with the official title of Information Consultant to the Regional Commander, GEN Bounleut Sanichanh, although he had little more than an occasional briefing relationship with the general. In this capacity, “I could affect both military [and] civilian programs which were supporting national objectives in that region. These happened to be right in line with what USIS was doing there, so I began working very closely with the USIS personnel in that area.”19 For several weeks, Ambrozak supported USIS pro-government product development and dissemination. Unfortunately, tragedy gave him greater responsibility.
19 Ambrozak narration.
On 1 April 1961, the USIS chief in MR I and Ambrozak’s mentor, Mr. Francis P. ‘Frank’ Corrigan, died on a leaflet delivery mission when his Cessna O-1 Bird Dog engine failed shortly after takeoff and crashed.20 Ambrozak took the loss of his friend and mentor hard, but he had little time to dwell on it. The Chief of USIS in-country, Daniel E. Moore, asked him to take over the USIS office in Luang Prabang until they could get a replacement. The USIS staff expected this assignment “because they assumed I was with USIS anyway.” Ongoing USIS efforts included nascent radio operations, printed products, and training Lao governmental and military personnel to conduct pro-government and anti-Communist messaging throughout the country. “We didn’t try anything on a unilateral basis. We always pulled in the appropriate Lao military or civilians into any campaign that we had going on.”21
20 “U.S. Aide Dies in Laos: F.P. Corrigan of USIS is Killed in Laos,” New York Times, 2 April 1961, 2. Originally from Napa, California, 35-year-old Mr. Francis P. ‘Frank’ Corrigan. Corrigan had lived and worked in Hawaii and New York before joining the USIA in 1957. After his death, Frank’s wife, Flora, came up from their residence in Bangkok to attend three days of ceremonies and social events to honor him. This culminated at the royal palace in Luang Prabang where King Savang Vatthana conferred Laos’ highest award for service on Corrigan. A small-scale Buddhist ceremony, attended by U.S. SF personnel and others, was held at the airfield prior to sending his casketed remains to the States.
21 Ambrozak narration.
One day, Ambrozak received an urgent call from LTC Murray to return to Vientiane, as did 1LT Daly in Savannakhet. In the capital, they were directed to assist 2LT Rinden in MR IV with developing a Pathet Lao Prisoner- of-War (POW) ‘re-orientation’ program at a camp just outside of Pakse. Their main task was to make assessments and recommendations to Laotian government personnel running the site. After arriving in Pakse, the three LTs visited the camp and quickly identified problems. “First, it was filthy,” noted Ambrozak. “We recommended cleaning up the camp, bathrooms, and showers, and providing the nearly fifty POWs with clean clothes and better food. Second, we found out that the guards weren’t treating the POWs well. If there was ever to be any hope of ‘repatriating’ these POWs, then it needed to start with the attitudes of the guards.”22 They recommended training guards in the fair treatment of prisoners.
22 Raymond P. Ambrozak, interview with Jared M. Tracy, 12 June 2017, USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC, hereafter Ambrozak interview.
The team also established POW ‘discussion groups.’ “If there was a former Pathet Lao soldier who had successfully completed the program and reintegrated, we would bring him back as a discussion group leader,” Ambozak stated. “We’d also bring in elders from the prisoners’ home village, and get them to talk.” Finally, cooperative Pathet Lao POWs needed to feel trusted if there was any possibility of them ‘reintegrating’ back into the mainstream. Accordingly, Laotian administrators gradually allowed cooperating POWs to visit their home villages (supervised) or to receive family visitation.23
23 Ambrozak interview.
Ambrozak and Daly returned to their posts only a week after arriving in Pakse, and therefore could not assess the long-term impact of their POW ‘re-orientation’ program. However, the Laotian government ended up implementing this ‘pilot’ program throughout the country, including Luang Prabang. The Laotian military “asked me [Ambrozak] if I knew anything about this, which I thought was pretty funny. I didn’t let on that I knew about it.” The young lieutenant “was surprised how closely it resembled what we had developed.”24 Not only had the POW program taken root throughout Laos, but it provided a working model for future PSYOP-supported programs in such locations as Vietnam during the 1960s (the Chieu Hoi program) and Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror (Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program).25
24 Ambrozak interview.
25 USASOC History Office, Info Paper, “SUBJECT: The Chieu Hoi Program,” 16 November 2015, and USASOC History Office, Info Paper, “SUBJECT: Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program,” 14 December 2015, both in USASOC History Office Classified Files, Fort Bragg, NC.