Albert Salvatori, a 27-year-old geophysicist, got his orders as soon as he waded up to the beachhead in Normandy: Send out leaflets that will persuade the German troops to surrender.
It was D-Day plus one, June 1944. Salvatori was one of the "psych boys," a select crew of perhaps 800 German-speaking Allied soldiers whose mission was to wage psychological war against the enemy. The problem was, the enemy troops threatening his beachhead spoke Polish. Besides, his suitcase of leaflets sank before he got to the shore.
And, Salvatori told a group of former psych boys gathered for a reunion at the National Press Club yesterday afternoon, none of the Allied soldiers wanted to fire off paper leaflets anyway.
"They weren't going to shoot paper!" he remembered, laughing.
Salvatori did get off a message, urging the Germans to give up at once. But the leaflets burned to a crisp inside the artillery shell, he says.
So, "like a vaudeville routine," began the first effort in Europe to sow the treacherous seeds of doubt and undermine the morale of the enemy, says Salvatori. "I would defy anyone to come up with anything more zany," says Peter Wyden, an organizer of the reunion.
Salvatori and about 80 of his former comrades traveled from as far away as Munich and Rome to reminisce about their war of words. Some of them were German refugees who became "foxhole citizens" during the war. They pulled out old photographs and copies of messages to the enemy.
Their efforts became more refined as the war went on, they said. The psych boys started putting out maps that showed Allied tanks surrounding their position. They reprinted pictures taken from German cities that had been leveled by Allied assaults.
They created "safe passage" cards that German soldiers could fill out and take to Allied lines. They were small enough to be hidden inside the cuffs of a German soldier's coat and made out of rice paper so an escaping soldier could eat one if discovered by his Army. They interrogated prisoners for details on poor food and lack of supplies and broadcast them to the enemy over loudspeakers mounted on tanks and jeeps at the front line.
Konrad Keller, an intelligence officer, remembers trying to catch the attention of the German troops ensconced in Brest, France, with racy German limericks read by women with sexy voices. "The Russians promised them sex. We didn't," he says.
War, as portrayed by the group gathered in the club's ballroom yesterday, was more personal then. Men like Keller tried to find out the name and hometown of an opposing unit and bid them welcome over loudspeakers, hoping to shake them up with the idea, says Keller, that "we knew so much."
They mention soldiers who had surrendered, specifically by name, according to Arthur Jaffe, who commanded one of the psychological warfare units: "Your buddy Kraus is here. Why don't you join us?"
Credibility was important -- to an extent. Keller remembers letting a German soldier return to his troops because a loudspeaker message had promised that anyone was free to change his mind after surrendering. The next message emphasized how the Allied men kept their word: "If you don't believe us, talk to Sergeant so-and-so . . . "
On the other hand, Wyden remembers the psych boys broadcasting the "You-are-surrounded" message when exactly the opposite was true. "Of course," says Jaffe, "you lie a little."
The technology was very crude by today's standards. Jaffe remembers how loudspeakers had to be stationed no more than about 75 yards from the enemy because they carried only 25 watts of power.
Some regular soldiers considered the psych boys of World War II "absolutely useless," Keller recalls. But the gray- and white-haired men who gathered yesterday were convinced they saved lives with their words.
"We had the feeling we were contributing to the war effort without actually killing anyone," says John Anspacher. "That's the most important thing."