Nov 5, 2021

Mixtape: The Wandering Soul

As the Vietnam war dragged on, the US military began desperately searching for any vulnerability in their North Vietnamese enemy. In 1964, they found it. It was an old Vietnamese folktale involving a ghost, eternal damnation and fear - a tailor made weaponizable myth. And so, armed with tape recorders and microphones, the military set out to win the war by bringing this ghost story to life.

Today, the story of these efforts and their ghosts that still haunt us today. 

Mixtape is reported, produced, scored and sound designed by Simon Adler with original music throughout by Simon. Indispensable reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen.

This episode was produced by Annie McEwen, with original music by Annie. Original reporting was contributed by Trung Dung Vo and Nguyễn Vân Hà.

Special thanks to: Allison Boccia, Jared Tracy and Herb Friedman. And to Mathew Campbell for introducing me to the Wandering Soul tape to begin with. And to Erik Villard for all his help pulling those tapes and voices for us. 

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SIMON ADLER: I'm Simon Adler, this is Mixtape. And before we start today, do you know that feeling— have you had the experience when someone you love or someone you know has died, and then maybe a week, a month, or year later, you—you hear their voice, their recorded voice again. There’s something about that—it's strange, it’s eerie, but also precious. Anyway, this story is that feeling multiplied 3.3 million times.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Welcome to this military training tape. This tape is designed to be informative to the solider about making your own…

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ghosts, spirits and screaming banshees. Disembodied souls, lost in the netherworld between life and thereafter... [scary laugh]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Part one of this cassette focuses on the means by which these realistic simulations can be made. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: If you die young man…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Understand that this tape is designed to assist you because the army takes these very seriously. [scary laugh]] Let’s begin.]

SIMON: How are you this morning sir?

ANH NGUYEN: Good! You’re looking good, Simon.

SIMON: As are you. You’re very rosy...

SIMON: We’re starting with this man, Anh Nguyen.

ANH NGUYEN: I am a Vietnamese-American.

SIMON: Today he’s a retired Coca Cola executive who still somehow loves Coke.

ANH NGUYEN: It’s so refreshing for me. In the morning, lunch and dinner. Crazy.

SIMON: Woah. Wow.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ice-cold, Coca Cola!]

SIMON: But back in the sixties he was growing up right in the middle of the Vietnam War.

ANH NGUYEN: Oh yes, the US Marines fought against the Viet Cong in front of our house.


SIMON: Literally in front of your house there were bullets?

ANH NGUYEN: Yes, yes right in front of my house.


SIMON: And I called him up because of this one story he remembers hearing as a kid that...


SIMON: Scared the pants off him.


ANH NGUYEN: My uncles and cousins, they went out together hunting in the mountains. Maybe lucky they’d kill some small animals. But mostly, they’re looking for dry woods to bring home for burning.

SIMON: Their home was a remote village in the valley of these mountains. And like so many other villages in Vietnam at this time, this one had been caught in the crossfire of the war. And they’d been living under the constant threat of air raid and invasion.

ANH NGUYEN: Anyway. They’re walking...

SIMON: Mile after mile into the mountains, picking up wood as they went, only turning to head home after the sun had set.

ANH NGUYEN: In the mountains, when it’s dark, it’s the most quiet place on earth.



ANH NGUYEN: With the field winds blow over the top of the trees.

SIMON: And as they’re walking along, carrying their heavy loads of wood, all of a sudden ...


SIMON: A sound. The men freeze. 

ANH NGUYEN: Back to back.

SIMON: And crouch low to the ground.

ANH NGUYEN: It’s a weird noise. Like a voice. Very sad, crying. And screaming, like a ghost.

SIMON: Finally...

ANH NGUYEN: Maybe ten, fifteen minutes later.

SIMON: The voice stopped. 


SIMON: The men stood up, gathered their wood and hurried home. But the next night, late, when the village was asleep.


ANH NGUYEN: They heard the—the voice echoing from the jungle.

SIMON: The villagers covered their children’s’ ears, they shut their shutters.

ANH NGUYEN: And ducked under the bed.

SIMON: And from then on...

ANH NGUYEN: Every evening or so often.

SIMON: The voice would return.



SIMON: Now, this sound that these people were hearing, was not a ghost. It was actually a weapon. A weapon designed and deployed by the US Military to target the deepest fears of the Vietnamese people. It was only used for a brief moment during the Vietnam War. But rather than fade away into history...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: He was blown to shrapnel in the neck and mouth.]

SIMON: This ghost... 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: He was bleeding rather badly.]

SIMON: Has refused...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Walking over to where the bodies were.]

SIMON: To die.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Is he dead?]


ERIK VILLARD: I don’t know. You have to admit, there’s something a little sinister about all of this.

SIMON: Okay, just to back up, this is historian Erik B. Villard

ERIK VILLARD: I am at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington D.C., and I am a Vietnam war specialist.

SIMON: And Erik says, this strange weapon was created, in part, because of the Korean War

ERIK VILLARD: Yeah. During the Korean War…


SIMON: Just over a decade prior.

ERIK VILLARD: A number of American soldiers and marines were captured by the North Koreans.

SIMON: And soon after.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You can imagine the surprise.]

SIMON: Heard on Communist radio stations.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Exhorting us in their own normal voices.]

SIMON: Sounding like Communists.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Fellow Americans, don’t go on with this senseless war. Stop being the tools of the rich capitalists who start wars for profit. Join us as guests of the Chinese Peoples’ Volunteer Army.]

SIMON: It really spooked a lot of people, on the battlefield and at home.

ERIK VILLARD: This anxiety that the Communists could brainwash good, solid, decent, American sons and daughters.


SIMON: And there was this feeling that like, we got to get ahead of this. And so during the Vietnam War, the United States became very interested in what motivated the enemy to fight and then figuring out…

ERIK VILLARD: What can we do to convince those people to not fight?


SIMON: This was PSYOPs.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Psychological Warfare.]

ERIK VILLARD: The warfare of the mind.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: It’s mission is to influence the thoughts of the enemy soldier.]

SIMON: The idea was, if you could persuade people using...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Words and ideas.]

SIMON: To put down their weapons, you can win the war while killing fewer people. 

ERIK VILLARD: That’s the essence of psychological warfare.

SIMON: And who's the best in the world at convincing people to do stuff?

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ice cold, Coca Cola!]

SIMON: The ad folks on Madison Avenue.

ERIK VILLARD: At that particular moment there was, you know, this Mad Men advertising...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Now it’s Pepsi.]

ERIK VILLARD: Explosion.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You’ll love that cold…]

SIMON: With TVs and radios now in living rooms across the country.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Have some crisp Ritz cracker.]

SIMON: All of a sudden there were all these opportunities...


SIMON: To understand what makes us tic.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: So enjoy....]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: What can I do about my hair?]

SIMON: Exploit it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Use Halo Shampoo!]

SIMON: And get us buy things.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Want anything special for your birthday?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Just a decent cup of coffee.]

SIMON: And the military took note of this.

SIMON: And do we know? Were there actually ad folks that, that joined the Armed Services?

ERIK VILLARD: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the areas where they were—you know, look for talent. 


ERIK VILLARD: They would go to people and say, “Boy...”

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Lucky Strike filters will show you plenty of smooth flavor.]

ERIK VILLARD: “Your Lucky Strike campaign was really effective. Maybe you can tell us something about how to convince someone to turn in their weapon.”


SIMON: And so, all these ad men begin to search for a weakness...

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [coughs]

SIMON: In their target audience.


SIMON: The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. 

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: My name is Nguyễn Văn Sự.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: I joined the military when I was 18. In the year 1971.

TRANSLATOR: [Speaks Vietnamese]

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

SIMON: We hired Vo Trung Dong and Nguyễn Văn Há, reporters in Vietnam to interview a few North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers for us.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

ERIK VILLARD: When you think about these soldiers, they are far, far from where they were born and raised. Most of these kids would be, you know, farmers or fishermen or maybe live in a place like Hanoi.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: I was a Hanoian.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: In my Sophomore year at the University of Industrial Art.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: I was the first of the university to join. 

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: college principal even drove me to the army station. 

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: And the students lined up on both sides of the gate clapping hands. 

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: At that time, I didn’t think much. I thought that the war wouldn’t be too terrible. 

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: But when I had been in the army for a while...

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: I was mentally broken.


ERIK VILLARD: I mean, your average North Vietnamese soldier, they're not—they’ve never lived in the jungle, they never lived in the mountains. That—that was crazy! And so here they are, squatting in the jungle, hundreds of miles from home. Haven’t seen their family in six months, a year, two years?

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: I was hoping that I could get out of the war and go home.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: I felt like a ship that ran aground and couldn't return to the sea.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

ERIK VILLARD: They’re incredibly homesick.

SIMON: So the ad people were like, “That’s it!”


ERIK VILLARD: That’s the emotional appeal.

SIMON: They want to go home. Let’s give them an opportunity to quit.


SIMON: They start spit balling.

ERIK VILLARD: Throwing stuff against the wall.

SIMON: Like what about theater, culture plays, drama skits, live music?

ERIK VILLARD: They’re like, “Yeah, just try it out.”

SIMON: And the Vietnam War very quickly...

ERIK VILLARD: Becomes this petri dish, this test bed for all these ideas.


SIMON: And by far, the favorite, the number one tactic was leaflets.  


CHAD SPAWR: We had cases and cases of these damned leaflets. 

SIMON: That’s American PSYOPs Officer Chad Spawr.

CHAD SPAWR: We’d call ourselves the bullshit bombers and the professional litterbugs.

SIMON: [Laughs]


SIMON: He and his team would go up in an airplane with all these leaflets.

CHAD SPAWR: Fly along 2500, 3000 feet over a target area and we’d literally throw ‘em out by the handful. You know, you’d just sit and look out the back. See ‘em streaming out behind you.  And there were times when you could hear a strong metallic pop when the rounds hit your aircraft. Start taking fire. And that increases the pucker factor substantially.


SIMON: And just the term “pucker factor,” what does that mean?

CHAD SPAWR: Who’s gonna hear this? [laughs]

SIMON: Oh, you—if it’s inappropriate we’ll edit it out.

CHAD SPAWR: It’s when your sphincter tightens up so bad that it might pull a hole—it might pull a piece of fabric out. Okay?

SIMON: Wow. Okay.

CHAD SPAWR: Yeah, that—that’s when you start really start throwing stuff outta there.


SIMON: And so, these leaflets eventually flutter down to Earth. Landing in treetops, in gardens, animal pens, creeks.


CHAD SPAWR: We just blanketed the country in those things.

SIMON: And if someone picked one up, they’d basically be holding a coupon. There’d be these graphics...

CHAD SPAWR: Yeah, the American and South Vietnamese flag. Smiling faces.

SIMON: And it’d say something like…


ERIK VILLARD: Good for one free pass. You’re miserable. You probably have malaria. You’re homesick. Why don’t you just put down your weapon? Come over. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: For a decent cup of coffee.]

ERIK VILLARD: We’ll give you a nice cup of hot coffee….

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You hungry? Mmmm...]

ERIK VILLARD: And some warm food.

SIMON: Come in with this little piece of paper with you.

ERIK VILLARD: We’ll take care of you.

SIMON: All your problems will be over.


SIMON: So millions and millions of these leaflets were printed and dropped from the sky. But were they effective?

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

SIMON: Here’s North Vietnamese veteran, Tran Ngoc Tho.

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: You need to understand this, our hatred was very high. 

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: No matter what.

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: We, young men and women at that time, went to liberate the South and reunify our country.

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

SIMON: And, Nguyễn Văn Sự, says that while the United States was appealing to their desire to go home, North Vietnam and their propaganda was appealing to why they’d left home in the first place. 

NGUYỄN VӐN SỰ: [Speaks Vietnamese]

SIMON: The feeling of being called to something larger than oneself. To their sense of identity and bravery and strength. 

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: The goal was to destroy as many enemies as possible.

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR:  So, these scattered American leaflets that were falling like leaves? We didn’t read them. 

TRAN NGOC THO: [Speaks Vietnamese]

TRANSLATOR: We were not influenced.

SIMON: But then….

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Oh man, what a heck of a day.

SIMON: A special day comes up.

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: That was—that was in ‘64.

SIMON: This is Major Ray Ambrozak. Back in ‘64, he was a tall guy with a blonde crew cut. 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: I was stationed at the time in a radio station, the official voice of South Vietnam.

SIMON: What are we talking here? Big reel-to-reel recording machines? Like ...

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Yeah, all that. A complete studio.

SIMON: How many reel to reel machines are we talking about? 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: [laughs] Now, you’re talking to a very old man here who was there in 1964. Now he wants to know how many reel-to-reel...

SIMON: [laughs] Forgive me. Forgive me.

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Well, we were shooting—you might be able to get a sense of it—we were shooting for four hours of original broadcasting. 

SIMON: That’s four hours of pro-South Vietnam content a day. 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Now that was music, news, commentary.

SIMON: There were comedy routines. 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Two guys come on there like Abbott and Costello doing Vietnamese jokes. 

SIMON: As well as pretty in-depth little radio plays. 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: This idea of the soap opera. 


SIMON: Always sort of ending the same way. 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Somebody dies. And then the music would come in.


MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: That was pretty much it. 

SIMON: And then one day, at a staff meeting, everyone was sitting around the table.

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Maybe three or four Vietnamese... 

SIMON: That’s South Vietnamese.

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Three or four of us. 

SIMON: The production coordinator’s going over the broadcast schedule. And...

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK:  They said, “okay, on this certain date”—I think it was about two weeks out since— said, “We’re gonna be on a reduced staff. And we’re only gonna have, you know, x number of people in here instead of what we usually have.” And I said, “Well, you know, what’s that all about?” They said, “Well it’s—they’re celebrating, you know, this holiday.” And they named the holiday.

SIMON: This big national holiday called Trung Nguyen, Wandering Souls Day. And Ray had never heard of it. And so, he turns to his Vietnamese colleagues and he says...

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: I’d like to know what that is. And so, they said, “This is—this is the holiday where we honor our dead.”


MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: This was the first time I’d heard about it and so we took a good part of that meeting talking about this. 

SIMON: They told him that in Vietnamese culture, when you died...

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: You had to be buried in your homeland in order for you to have a chance at a good life in the afterlife. And if they don’t have that proper funeral, then their spirit is condemned to wander in the ethereal mist forever. And they’ll never—their soul will never be at peace. And, you know, I’m thinking, really? This—you know, well, first thing I thought was, you know, stupid, you should known about that already. I should have known about that already. No really, you know, because all those hundreds, thousands of soldiers coming out of North Vietnam to South Vietnam, well that’s where they are gonna fight their battles, that’s where they are gonna—a lot of them are gonna die. And there was no way that they were gonna get their bodies back to the North to have a proper funeral. And…


MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: Everybody got excited about that.

SIMON: And the ad people are like, “Spiritual fear of death.” 

MAJOR RAY AMBROZAK: This was a handmade vulnerability that could be exploited.

SIMON:  And not too long after...


CHAD SPAWR: I got a radio message to come to battalion headquarters at Biên Hòa.

SIMON: Chad Spawr enters this spartan military office.

CHAD SPAWR: They said, “Sit down, we got some coffee.” They said, “sit down.”

SIMON: And his commander said, “we’ve got something new.”

CHAD SPAWR: “We’ve got a tool. We want you guys to start using it out in the field.”

SIMON: And he reaches over to a small little mini reel-to-reel recorder on the table. And pressed play.


SIMON: And everyone in the room is just sorta mesmerized. Like one had ever heard anything like it. 


SIMON: And most of them didn’t know what it was saying. 


CHAD SPAWR: I was the only one who had any language training so I got it really quick.

SIMON: And what—what was it saying?


CHAD SPAWR: It’s essentially the disembodied voice of a soldier, a Communist soldier, who’s been killed.


SIMON: My friends, I come back to let you know that I am dead. Dead. I’m in hell. Just hell. 


SIMON: It was a senseless death. How senseless, how senseless.


CHAD SPAWR: He’s in horrible distress because he’s lost, his body’s lost, he can’t be properly cared for. He can’t be properly prepared for burial and properly officiated by his family, you know to carry him forward into the afterlife. 


CHAD SPAWR: It’s his spirit in anguish.


SIMON: To give some context, we're just 20 years after Bing Crosby and Jack Mullin started editing audio on tape for the first time.

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Bing Crosby: [sings] It seems to me that…]    

SIMON: Just 14 years after Bing released his first track where he layered his voice on top of itself. 

[ARCHIVAL CLIP, Bing Crosby: [sings] ...created you for me to love]

SIMON: I mean, this stuff was still pretty damn new. So to create this tape, for weeks or months, we’re not really sure, a team of sound designers and producers had hunkered down in a recording studio and taken Jack and Bing’s techniques to their logical extreme. Using some of the latest sound equipment, including hot-off-the market, just released...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Tape recorder…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: My super scope tape recorder with built in mic.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Panasonic cassette tape recorder.]

SIMON: Cheap, portable tape recorders.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Almost any sound can be recorded magnetically…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: So simple and so convenient! So easy to use. ]

SIMON: Armed with this new tool, the producers could go out into the world and collect sound.

ERIK VILLARD: So let’s—let’s get some audio of, let’s say, a Buddhist funeral dirge…

SIMON: Again, historian Erik Villard.

ERIK VILLARD: Well, you just go down the street, there’s one going on. And they’d run out there with a tape recorder.


ERIK VILLARD: And you’d get audio of that. And then, let’s say...

SIMON: You see a woman crying in the street.


ERIK VILLARD: Literally anguishing. And you get that audio. They’re scavengers like that.

SIMON: Some of them even hopped on a plane to Bangkok.


ERIK VILLARD: Cus they’ve got a zoo there.


SIMON: To record the sound of a tiger growling.


ERIK VILLARD: And then maybe if we like…


ERIK VILLARD: Put a little echo and flange on that, you know. 


ERIK VILLARD: Play around with it, see if we can get something spooky out of that.


ERIK VILLARD: This is sort of an early iteration of sound design.

SIMON: For the voices, they hired actors.

ERIK VILLARD: Or maybe you grab the secretary from down the hall.

SIMON: Got them to read a script, slap a little echo on there.

ERIK VILLARD: There’s no handbook, per se.

SIMON: And after much trial and error, they’d created a ghost, captured on magnetic tape. 

CHAD SPAWR: After we got done playing it, I was talking to one of the Vietnamese who worked there in the office. He was a Vietnamese infantry sergeant who’d been through a lot. And I said, “What do you think about it.” He said, he said, “I don’t like it.” I said, “Why not?” He says, “It hits my soul.”


CHAD SPAWR: And when he said that, I—I knew that it had some potential power. 


CHAD SPAWR: So, you know, they gave me a little tape player with some batteries and the tape, and so I packed my stuff up and went back to Quần Lợi to play the Wandering Soul tape.


SIMON: The gates of hell are opened, right after a quick break.

[ROMEO: This is Romeo from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Mixtape, a special series from Radiolab, is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative. The Shanahan Charitable Family Foundation. And the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is the end of side one. The program continues on the other side of the cassette.] 


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Part two of this cassette guides you through a…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Taped tour of our nation’s capital, Washington D.C.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: At each stop, you will hear a beep. [beep]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Here in this city, you can see the scars…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Do you have any special instructions for me?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Of yesterday’s wars…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The VC, they’re in that streamline where it makes the cut back to the east and that thick tree…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Roger that.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Stop one: our tour will begin.]

SIMON: I’m Simon Adler, this is Mixtape. Back with Chad Spawr, who’s just been given the Wandering Soul tape, and orders to get this in the ears and the souls of the enemy. 

SIMON: Do you remember the first time you used this thing?

CHAD SPAWR: Yeah, um...

SIMON: He and his team had gathered at the Quần Lợi Airbase.

CHAD SPAWR: It was a dirt packed runway in the middle of a rubber plantation.

SIMON: The soil up there is full of iron.

CHAD SPAWR: So, everything gets stained red. You know, it gets into your skin, under your nails, into your ears. You can't ever get rid of it.

SIMON: Anyway, they decided that the creepiest time to play this tape would be late at night.

CHAD SPAWR: We went out at about 2 o'clock in the morning. I had three or four South Vietnamese soldiers with me for security and I showed them on the map where we wanted to go.


SIMON: They headed through the jungle on foot, toward a village known to be sympathetic to the Viet Cong.

CHAD SPAWR: I had a backpack speaker with the tape and my weapon and some extra ammunition and a couple of grenades, a canteen. And we went at least a kilometer, maybe two, being very careful because it was night time and, you know, we clearly didn’t want to get ambushed.

SIMON: When the village was in sight.

CHAD SPAWR: Maybe a hundred meters.

SIMON: Just through the trees. They stopped.

CHAD SPAWR: We set the speaker up and we angled it, you know, up into the air, about— oh— 40, 45 degrees, and then pointed it toward the village. 


CHAD SPAWR: And then started the broadcast. And uh as the sound came in…


CHAD SPAWR: I turned up the volume, so it sounded like it was coming closer to people who were hearing it. 


CHAD SPAWR: It was very eerie, very eerie...


SIMON: What Chad was broadcasting off of a tiny cassette tape in the middle of the night, seeping into the dreams of those sleeping, was far heavier than he ever could have known. It was tapping into a long, cruel, very present history.


ANH NGUYEN: The ghost stories we don’t take as easily.

SIMON: Again, Anh Nguyen. He says, Vietnam history is filled with violence. They suffered under Chinese rule for a thousand years. And  after that under the brutal colonialism of France.

ANH NGUYEN: Back in the late 1930s, the French Navy entered Huế city through the port and their navies sailed up the rivers and they killed every Vietnamese in sight. Thousands and thousands of people dies for no reason. During the WWII, the French take away their rice. Their troops take all the rice. Two million Vietnamese died due to starvation. And knowing that, they took no action.

SIMON: And at this point, we’re in the middle of the Vietnam War...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: GI’s still patrol on…]

SIMON:  Which would go on for another decade.

ANH NGUYEN: Families, they lost so much and the noise of the wandering soul, it reminded them in a personal manner.

SIMON: And Anh’s family is no exception.

ANH NGUYEN: I had a young cousin who died during the Tet Offensive 1968. His body never recovered. It disappeared somewhere in the mountains. So the ghost wandering around with nowhere to go. And—and just like screaming.

SIMON: And so, when Chad was playing this…

CHAD SPAWR: Why can’t it get through sooner so I can get the hell outta here.

SIMON: He didn’t know it but he was tearing at an open wound.


SIMON: And I mean, this tape was played to many quiet villages, to many soldiers hiding in the jungle.

SIMON: Well and so did — do we know if this thing worked?

ERIK VILLARD: I mean, they did studies. They would get um these defectors and—and interview them…

SIMON: Again. historian Erik Villard.

ERIK VILLARD: And say, you know, "What type of message was most effective on you?" And so we have some basic data, but like in terms of the wandering soul in particular, that messaging, we're still not entirely sure how successful that was. 

SIMON: Okay, got it.

ERIK VILLARD: I mean, I’ve always thought that part of the that reason the United States not only did this sort of Wandering Souls message in the first place. but why we’re still fascinated, is almost more about us as a society than it is about the Vietnamese. 

SIMON: I’ve been thinking a lot about what Erik means by this. And here’s where I’ve landed. The Vietnam War still hangs over all of us. Talking to these veterans—the horrors they endured, the—the things they were asked and ordered to do, is just unimaginable. 

CHAD SPAWR: Yeah, it is, You know, Christ, what—I’m what— 21-years old and it was my job.


ANH NGUYEN: I still remember clearly the marines, 19-years-old, as well as so many North Vietnamese Army killed in front of our house in Vietnam. Their screaming voice in agonies and shouting in pain.

SIMON: Each year on Wandering Souls Day, when the veil between the land of the living and the dead is thinnest, the Vietnamese leave out offerings of food for their dead family members. 


SIMON: They sing, they dance, they feast. They release birds from cages, fishes from bowls, and burn ceremonial offerings. For us here in the U.S., there’s so much shame, anger and trauma mixed together, and no real national cultural way to deal with these things. We don’t speak of the ghosts that haunt us. But they’re definitely there.



ERIK VILLARD: So that’s our security door opening.

SIMON: And the souls of those ghosts are lingering right here in our nation’s capital.

SIMON: It has a little bit of a feel of like a—of a library. Okay. Take my jacket off.

SIMON: I went down to D.C. to visit Erik.

ERIK VILLARD: We are at the Center of Military History, here in Fort McNair.

SIMON: And the largest collection of raw interviews with Vietnam soldiers in the world.

ERIK VILLARD: The whole wall is filled with our Vietnam interview collection.

SIMON: Shelf after shelf, row after row of carefully labeled boxes full of cassette tapes.

SIMON: Wow. And so when were these captured?

ERIK VILLARD: So, these are the result of these military history detachment teams.

SIMON: Erik says the military was always trying to improve. And so when a battle was over or an ambush survived, they’d send out these historians who would sit down with soldiers in tents or offices or wherever they could find a relatively quiet spot, they'd take out a tape recorder ...

ERIK VILLARD: Pop in a tape and ask, "So what happened?"

SIMON: Can I just look at one of these cassettes?

ERIK VILLARD: Oh yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Lemme give you—lemme give you 169.

SIMON: He just pulled one off the shelf at random.


SIMON: It’s a beautiful cassette.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Okay so, Saturday, 22, March 1968. This first interview is conducted with Captain Robert G. Hoop]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Alright, Captain Hoop nine, in consideration of command and communications for this mission, would you care to discuss that subject?]

SIMON: The whole format of these interviews was just dry, basic, unedited data capture.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: ...And so forth.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The battalion commander was on the ground with us behind the elements, the Bravo company, for a while, and then he’d be behind the Alpha company for a while…]

SIMON: The idea, Erik says, was to preserve as much as they could about a moment in the war so that then they could recreate what had happened. Figure out what had gone right and what had gone wrong. In previous wars, this hadn’t really been possible.

ERIK VILLARD: But by the ‘60s, you could go out with a cassette recorder, right, that you bought in Hong Kong, pop in a tape or a reel-to-reel, and do these interviews.

SIMON: Thanks to those efforts and this technology, we still have all of this information. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Spider holes dug in the side of it, each one of them at different points on the compass.]

SIMON: But Erik says that a happy byproduct of this is that preserved in the information is...

ERIK VILLARD: A piece of someone…

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Beautiful. And in view and out of hearing…]


ERIK VILLARD:  Still here on earth.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: In the fourth…]

SIMON: It’s just one moment in a young man’s life.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We uncovered a gravesite where they’d use the...]

SIMON: Some of the time he spent on this earth is recorded right here.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: After they’d wrap the bodies in canvas, they’d fill it in with the loose dirt…]

ERIK VILLARD: It tells you something about who they were and you know what they went through.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The amount of bodies in there, I did not know. We did uncover two of them, but they were—had been dead quite a while…]

SIMON: He sounds very solid. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: There were small holes to start with…]

SIMON: He sounds very tired.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And branching off eight or ten feet…]

SIMON: In less than two months after this interview, during combat in a pineapple plantation, he was hit, probably by an RPG and died of multiple fragmentation wounds. He was 29. And there are hundreds and hundreds of these. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Testing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Lieutenant Young, would you describe the operation that led to General Bond’s death?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is a combat after action interview report with Lieutenant Roe. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: I was 1st Platoon Leader of D troop, 17th Calv. at that time.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Whole body count was probably like 29 bodies that we found.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And I was on a mission one April…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Hitting my platoon leader was hit.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Was he laying on the ground? He was laying on the ground when I got...]

ERIK VILLARD: You know, we’ve got like all these ghost voices. 


ERIK VILLARD: And in a way, I feel like these audio tapes are kinda like these Wandering Souls, you know, sitting in our archives, on our shelves. Just, just asking us to listen to them. 


[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is when I discovered when he was wounded.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: There’s a very big stream of blood pumping with every heartbeat.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We wrapped the bodies in…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Speaking Vietnamese]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: They had to cut off a body that they were raising on a hoist.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Speaking Vietnamese]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Shrapnel in the neck, the mouth…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Speaking Vietnamese]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The man with the AK47 is spraying...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Speaking Vietnamese]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Captain Drake…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Speaking Vietnamese]


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Usually don’t understand it.]

SIMON: Next week, the story of how the cassette tape created the internet. 


[SIMON: Mixtape is reported, produced, scored and sound designed by me, Simon Adler, with original music throughout by me. Indispensable reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen. This episode was produced by Annie McEwen with original music by Annie, and had original reporting contributed by Trung Dong Vo and Nguyễn Văn Há. Our voice actors were David Le Nguyen, Topher Ngo, Merk Nguyen and Meggy Hai Trang. I’d like to give special thanks to Allison Boccia, Jared Tracy and Herb Friedman. And for Mathew Campbell for introducing me to the Wandering Soul Tape to begin with. And for Erik Vallard for his help pulling those tapes and voices for us. I’m Simon Adler and we’ll have another tape for you, next week.]

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer and Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tanya Chawla, Shima Oliaee, and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

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