ST. LEO — Best-selling author Winston Groom brought a bit a levity to an otherwise serious Veterans Day service Monday as he shared stories about his own service as a young Army lieutenant during the Vietnam War.
Groom, best known for his novel, “Forrest Gump,” was a featured speaker at Saint Leo University’s Veterans Day event. Groom brought his trademark sense of humor and distinct Alabama drawl, reminiscing about his combat experience in Vietnam, where he led in a five-man Psychological Operations warfare team.
Psychological Operations, or PSYOPS, are designed to influence the behavior or emotions of foreign audiences — in this case, the Viet Cong. Groom’s efforts, as he explained, were largely ineffective.
“They essentially gave me control of an airplane, a utility plane, so we could drop leaflets and great big loudspeaker, and we had all these tapes where we could to talk to the enemy and try to get them to surrender,” Groom said. “The main thing was trying to keep track of all these tapes and make sure you were putting the right one in.”
Groom said he designed 50,000 leaflets comparing the Viet Cong to “nothing but a bunch of no-good chicken thieves.” That was, until he learned his target audience was using his leaflets as toilet paper. “So we tried to concoct a scheme to see if we could get the leaflets made up with itching powder.”
At one point, the PSYOPS team used a plane that played “spooky music” at the enemy or, on cloudy nights, projected a giant dragon onto the night sky. “And that was supposed to scare the North Vietnamese,” he said. “The problem was they would shoot at the plane.”
Retired Army Col. Donald Kropp, who read Groom’s first novel, “Better Times Than These,” while he was stationed at Fort Bragg in the late 1970s, said it was a treat to hear the author speak about his time in the service.
“I loved it,” Kropp said. “I was in 4th PSYOPS Group, too, and he really brought a personal touch that brought back a lot of memories.”
By the time he served in PSYOPS, Kropp said the Army had abandoned most of the bumbling practices of the Vietnam era.
Groom also told the story of how a shopping trip in San Francisco inspired his most famous character. He returned from Vietnam in 1967 and treated himself to a suite at the Fairmont Hotel, dressed in his uniform and went out to find a date.
“What I learned was in 1967, you didn’t go out to find girls in uniform in California,” he recalled. “So the next day I went downtown to get a suit of clothes, and I ended up at a department store there called Gumps, and I must have signed up for a catalog because it’s followed me from that day to this.”