During the Vietnam War, American soldiers started hearing rumors that the Vietnamese were very superstitious about the ace of spades. So Cincinnati's U.S. Playing Card Co. responded by printing decks of nothing but ace of spades—and sending them for free to GIs in Vietnam for the purposes of "psychological warfare."
Colin Dickey, author of Afterlives of the Saints, brought this fact to my attention on Twitter, where he links to a site that still sells the Bicycle 52 ace of spades deck. Supposedly the Vietnamese saw the ace of spades as a "deadly omen."
The Bicycle brand deck was particularly prized because it had two symbols of bad luck: The ace of spades and a woman printed on the back. The military's Stars and Stripes newspaper had claimed that the Vietnamese also considered seeing a woman before battle as bad luck. American troops started to leave the ace of spades on the bodies of people they'd killed and scatter the cards in fields when they were out on patrol.
But were the Viet Cong actually superstitious about the ace of spades? Probably not.
The 2009 book Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus raises doubts about just how superstitious the Vietnamese were about that particular card. Some soldiers called it simply a case of "transposed symbolism." Apparently it was just as likely interpreted as a phallic symbol and one Captain claimed that it might even be suggesting to the Viet Cong that American GIs were "involved in necrophilia" because the cards were being left on dead bodies.
In all likelihood it was simply feared because it came to be a calling card of the Americans, not because the ace of spades had any particular significance in Vietnamese culture.
"Did it work? I'm not sure," one solider is quoted as saying in Cowboys Full. "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 that were just trying to survive during a difficult time."
Below, a 1966 article from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times about American GIs and their adoption of the ace of spades on the battlefield.
Image via Getty: Two US Marine sergeants getting a supply of Ace of Spades cards, known as the 'death cards' which the reconnaissance forces leave as a warning to the Viet Cong, before going on patrol in enemy territory on January 16, 1967