The insurgents gathered around the body. On the ground lay one of their men, dead and ghostly white. They expected to find bullet wounds. Instead, closer inspection revealed he had two small puncture marks in his neck. In the night, something had taken him, sunk its pointed teeth in, and drained him of every ounce of his blood.
Some sort of creature killed their comrade. Their thoughts turned to the aswang, a vampire-like entity that had persisted in folklore for centuries. And then another fear began brewing: It would likely return for others.
The truth was far more pragmatic, but no less horrifying. It was the early 1950s in the Philippines, and insurgents known as the Hukbalahap were a concerning presence for both local government and U.S. intelligence. To combat them, the CIA would utilize a new frontier in psychological warfare: bloodsuckers.
Despite the fact that both factions had opposed Japan during World War II, the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines was complex. In 1946, the U.S. finally recognized the country as independent after centuries of Spanish—and later American—colonial rule. Though their respective governments got along, American military intelligence was rattled by the presence of a resistance group, the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (or Hukbalahap), in the country. (In Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in the Philippines, the name means “People’s Army Against Japan.”)
One of the reasons the “Huks” were worrisome to U.S. intelligence was that that the group had roots in communism—and with the Cold War with Russia brewing, that was perceived as a danger. In practice, however, the Huks seemed to be most concerned with creating a more industrious and self-sufficient country, objecting to the continuing military and trade presence of the U.S. In the minds of U.S. and Philippines officials, the Huks were a volatile and unwelcome variable.
Dealing with the insurgents was the purview of American Lieutenant Colonel Edward Lansdale, a CIA operative who was installed in the Philippines to get the movement under control—and that meant employing psychological warfare.
Lansdale used superstitions entertained by some living in the countryside to his team’s advantage. He ordered a plane to fly over villages and broadcast warnings in Tagalog that promised curses would befall anyone harboring Huk insurgents. He targeted other sympathizers by having an eye painted outside their homes—a signal that they might face death for cooperating with the Huks.
In studying regional mythology, Lansdale also learned of the aswang, a creature from Philippine folklore that can take on several forms. A version likely existed before the Spanish started colonizing the area in the 16th century, but some experts believe the colonizers added new elements during their efforts to convert locals to Catholicism. The aswang’s closest counterpart may be the vampire, though unlike that monster, the aswang also dines on organs and may take on the form of a pig or vulture-esque apparition. (Another variation, the Manananggal, slurps out a victim’s intestines through their rectum and also eats fetuses.) With its long tongue, the aswang can probe for holes in ceilings in pursuit of a meal. And while it’s capable of violence, it can also bring disease.
The aswang became crucial during one key operation. Lansdale wanted a group of Philippine forces redirected from a small area, but there was fear a local Huk installation of up to 300 soldiers would lay siege to the spot once they left and potentially kill American sympathizers. In order to drive the Huks out, Lansdale had his men begin to spread rumors that the aswang was nearby. They could not, of course, have any direct contact with the Huks, so the story was seeded through villagers, who had an open line of communication with the fighters.
A few days later, when Landsdale felt the rumor had reached the Huks, soldiers tracked a small squad on one of their known trails. The Americans grabbed the last man in the patrol, killed him, and punctured two holes in his neck. The man was then hung upside-down so his blood would drain. The body was left for the Huks to discover, at which point they had some cause to believe the man had been attacked by the aswang. They quickly fled the territory, just as Lansdale had anticipated.
After the aswang mission, Lansdale’s “psyops” in the Philippines continued; he even helped install a new president, Ramon Magsayay, who was sympathetic to American interests. The Huks, meanwhile, dissolved through a lack of morale, supplies, and recruits.
As difficult as the aswang story may be to digest, it was confirmed by Lansdale himself in his autobiography, In the Midst of Wars: An American’s Mission to Southeast Asia. The 1972 tome includes an account of the aswang operation.
“When the Huks returned to look for the missing man and found their bloodless comrade, every member of the patrol believed that the aswang had got him and that one of them would be next if they remained on that hill,” he wrote.
While Lansdale seemed confident it was the aswang myth that sent the Huks away, it’s not entirely clear how pervasive that lore was in that specific region, or whether the Huks truly believed a malevolent supernatural entity was to blame for the attack. As folklore researcher Jordan Clark told How Stuff Works, it’s possible the Huks were simply horrified at the vicious American assault and fled to avoid the same fate.
“There was no ‘vampire-like’ aswang lore in the region, so I am skeptical that this psywar tactic even worked,” Clark said, “other than the terrifying visual of seeing your friend strung up like that.”
Lansdale left the Philippines in 1954, heading to Vietnam to perform similar duties. Later, he would be involved in efforts to eliminate Cuban leader Fidel Castro before retiring from service in 1963. When he died in 1987, he was hailed as an exemplar of counterinsurgency operations. Considering the lengths Lansdale would go, he could also personify something else: a shadowy figure spreading fear. The aswang.