We all have our heroes to aspire too. It’s an important way to motivate ourselves and set goals we can all pursue. And while I have no doubt that the average gun-totting Joe Jar-head dreams of Rambo’s and Schwarzenegger, I tend to pick my heroes that are in one way or another unique, and there is one in particular that I would like to talk about. I consider him an absolute genius in psychological warfare and covert psych-ops. He’s someone you’ve probably never heard about.
Edward Geary Lansdale. Yeah, figured you never heard of him.
Edward G. Lansdale has been behind some of the most successful and ludicrously genius operations in history. And I put strong emphasis on “Ludicrous” because they have been, I’ll admit, bordering on simple insanity. And as a former Los Angeles sales and marketing executive turned spy, Lansdale certainly was and still is an intriguing character to me.
Born February 06 1908, he had a pretty average childhood like most at the time, he was a boy scout, had a paper route and would often fight with his brother. It’s when he got into UCLA things got interesting. He earned his way through by writing for interest groups, magazines and newspapers. While attending UCLA he also served in the US Military Reserve and graduated with a bachelor degree and the rank of second Lieutenant. Showing a talent for writing and researching topics, when he entered military service at the outbreak of the second world war in 1943, he were recruited for the CIA’s predecessor, the OSS.(Office of Strategic Services).
So what did this man do to have the former director of the CIA, William Colby to call him the greatest spy in history?
“Lansdale was one of the greatest spies in history. His accomplishments were the stuff of legends.”
– William Colby, former director of CIA.
For starters, he laid the foundation for modern psychological warfare during his operations against the Nazis where he used supernatural elements like ghosts, demons and more to turn Goebbels occult mythology previously used to unite and inspire, into a weapon against the Germans. (I’ll definitely come back to psy-ops in the WW2 later).
But the tactics he developed on the German front was further evolved on the battlefield in the Philippines (and to some extent in the Vietnam war). You see, in 1945 he was transferred to the Headquarters Air Forces Western Pacific were he was promoted to major, and became chief of the Intelligence Division. From there on he spearheaded several campaigns in the south-east pacific. At the end of the war he requested to extend his tour in order to remain in the Philippines until 1948, where he both helped construct new governmental systems, defense, military and intelligence forces.
After the Japanese occupation ended, the former communist guerrilla group known as Hukbalahap or “Huks” rose up in the Hukbalahap Rebellion in 1946. The rebellion started for a variety of reasons, the post-war election of Manuel Roxas had accusations of fraud and corruption, with Roxas being seen as a paid puppet by the US. It was also hard for Huks to return to normal life after the Japanese occupation, being mostly peasants they had targeted landowners who for the most part collaborated with the Japanese, this lead them to flee to manila and not returning. Meaning there were no jobs or farms for the Huks to return to and little agriculture which led to starvation. There were also a constant conflict with the Huks and the Government with arguments over disarmament of the Huks, unlawful imprisonment and assassinations.
After the 77 Massacre in which a group of 109 Huks were killed by US and Filipino troops and dumped in mass graves, tensions were high between the Huks and the Filipino government.
A full on rebellion broke out in 1946 after the death of Juan Feleo, one of the political leaders among the Huks and peasants who headed the disarmament and pacification programs between the Huk Veterans and the Filipino Government.
In 1950 the at the time president of the Philippines, Elpidio Quirino, personally requested Lansdale to help them combat the communist rebellion. Which is where the true legend of Lansdale the Master Spy, or Lansdale the Mad, depending on your viewpoint, truly started.
Lansdale conducted a number of operations to demoralize the Huks, turn their strengths against them, and take away the support they had in the local populations.
For instance, interrogating captured Huks and studying the bodies and equipment of dead Huks revealed several amulets and charms they were wearing in order to protect them from bad spirits and devils. This was something he could use, and have fun with.
Oh, and interrogations for information was very important for Lansdale. In fact, he would often be furious over the Filipino troops tendency to outright slaughter Huks en masse rather than leaving a few alive for questioning. Finally fed up when one unit had captured, killed and decapitated a Huk soldier, Lansdale grabbed the head of the dead Huk in front of the Filipino soldiers, stuck it on a pole and started interrogating it, when (obviously) there were no answers from the head, he got angrier and angrier and started slapping and punching the head until finally one of the Filipino soldiers piped up; “Colonel, Colonel. It is dead, it cannot talk to you”. In which Lansdale turned around and replied; “No you stupid son of a bitch! Of course it can’t. But it could have, if you hadn’t been so fucking stupid as to sever the head from the body”, and then he threw the head on the ground. And yes, indiscriminate killings were not a problem afterwards.
Turning the Huks spiritual convictions against them, he got to work on his operations. The Huks believed that a battlefield was always haunted after a battle, so Lansdale would have the corpses of the Huk soldiers painted white with red eyes, string them up on trees or poles to scare of the Huks, often with bells and flutes nearby adding ominous sound when they patrolled the area.
And suspected Huks hiding and living in villages would get the weirdest of it, nicknamed “Operation Eye of God”, Lansdale and his men would sneak into villages at night, and paint menacing eyes on every wall and surface facing the suspected Huks house or hut. This would sometimes go on for weeks, every night they would sneak in and paint the eyes, staring at the suspected Huk every morning. And he had several teams working multiple villages and Huk suspects throughout the campaign. The villagers and neighbors of the Huk suspect would end up shunning the Huk out of fear of evil spirits and demons, isolating the Huks and tormenting them psychologically.
Creating a team called Force X, Lansdale had Filipino troops disguised as Huk soldiers, carrying supposedly wounded Huk soldiers around after staged battles in order to get close to real Huk units, once they got close enough they would attack and slaughter the Huks. This tactic worked so well that on more than one occasion two unfamiliar Huk units would attack each-other, fearing the other was the infamous Force X.
He also outfitted small propelled airplanes with loudspeakers who would then fly over villages and Huk controlled areas broadcasting incredibly specific messages like:
“You hiding down there. We see you. Yes, I mean you in squadron 17. I mean you commander Sol. I mean you, Juan Santos. And you Bulacan Boy. And you, Pepe and Ramon and Emiliano. Borro and Dario, Carmelo and Baby. We know all about you. We are coming to kill you. Stay there. And now i must go while our troops are coming to attack you. To our secret friend in your ranks i say thank you. Run and hide so you won’t be killed. Sorry i cant call you by your name but you know who i mean. Thank you and goodbye.”
Oh, and he didn’t really have spies inside the Huks. he mostly used the areas most common names and combined it with intelligence gathered from interrogations, and played on the Huks fear of being infiltrated. Anyone trying to run away from the “impending” attack would immediately be labeled a traitor by the Huks. It worked, he made them turn on each-other and they would often flee the area or stay and fight each-other over who the mysterious traitor could be.
And it didn’t stop there, when Lansdale needed to root out Huks from an area, they would first move into the nearby villages, spreading rumors of an Aswang having been seen nearby. “Aswang” is a philippino myth about a dismembered blood sucking vampire-like monster hunting in the night. After spreading the rumors they would wait a few days to let the word of the Aswang reach the Huks in the surrounding jungle or mountain before moving in.
They would hide along the patrol route of the Huks and silently drag of the last man of the Huk unit. They would then puncture two holes in his neck or throat and hang him upside down to drain him of blood, once that was done they would clean him up a bit and place him back on the patrol road.
When the Huks came back looking for their missing comrade, all they would find was a dead Huk drained of blood with two holes in his neck. It worked. They would often flee the area immediately, or a day or two afterwards out of fear of being next. And Lansdale and his men would tag along, often taking down whole units one by one by one. As the rumors of the Aswang attacking Huks started spreading among both the local population and the Huks themselves, the locals were scared of supporting the Huks and the Huks were demoralized.
But not to portray him as a Huk killing machine, Lansdale also understood the need to remove the Huks support in the local population.
In fact, when Lansdale was first brought in and briefed by Filipino and american officers, he commented:
“…curiously enough, Philippine and American officers barely mentioned the political and social factors in briefing me. They dwelt almost exclusively on the military situation. It was as though military affairs were the sole tangible factor they could grasp.
The Huks, being a force of 12,800 soldiers and a mass base of 54,000, had a large amount of support from the local populations who had been killed, harassed or had their homes burned down by Filipino troops hunting for Huks prior to Lansdale’s involvement. The Huks had provided an underground government called Huks Justice for peasants and farmers who didn’t have the same rights as landowners or the political elite.
To combat this, Lansdale started several training programs to teach Filipino soldiers to treat civilians better, being courteous, polite and coming into villages with food, clothes and medical supplies. Interrogations were made more humane and civilized, and he also convinced the Filipino government to send out lawyers to work pro bono for peasants in land and crop disputes with landowners and more. The lawyers also offered their services to chinese businessmen and merchants in the provinces, which protected them from extortion and provided a legal system previously unavailable to them, and being grateful, they in turn started “banks” and gave out loans to peasants who could buy land or afford an education in Manila to improve their future. The peasants had been supporting the Huks because they were starving, poor and wanted justice. Lansdale fixed that.
There was also leaflets, magazines, reward programs for information, and a song. Yes a song. Several songs actually like the Magsaysay Mambo, all of whom functioned as effective propaganda against the Huks.
To prevent any captured Huks from returning to the fight once they were released from prisons, several work and study programs were created. Much of the grievances for the Huks had been the lack of opportunities as many didn’t want to go back to being farmers, instead they learned new crafts in the prisons like carpentry, mechanics, hand crafting, painting and similar. And once they were rehabilitated and released, the Filipino government, heeding the advice of Lansdale, had reserved plots of land for the former Huk soldiers to settle and build a new home.
Programs like this worked incredibly well, but the real killing blow against the Huks came from Lansdale’s constant attack on the Huks moral high ground, most notably by publicizing the fate of the babies and young when Huks had to make rapid retreats from threatened camps. The horror and outcry over abandoned babies struck a blow at the Huks “Amazons” image. The outright neglect and abandonment of babies discredited the Huks while gathering support for the government with the help of pictures of army nurses caring for the babies and soldiers armed with milk bottles.
Tactics like these are certainly unorthodox, and Lansdale’s later tour in Vietnam and Indochina didn’t get any less insane. but that’s the point of intelligence, to think outside the box.
And while we may never again see another Edward Lansdale, we could certainly learn from his tactics when dealing with modern-day insurgents and terrorists organisations.
After all, the Filipino government spent years fighting the Huks. Lansdale had the Huks rebellion sorted out in less than eighteen months.