COMMONLY known fact: most Filipinos are superstitious. Little-known fact: the CIA was in the Philippines during the 50’s fighting against the Hukbalahap. What do these two things have in common? Keep reading.
Anyone who calls himself a Filipino knows what an aswang is. It’s a generic term for monster, and everyone knows a guy who knows a guy who has a friend who knows a guy that was “victimized” by an aswang. Ghost stories range from being followed home by an aswang late at night or seeing one peeping out at you from the bathroom window just before it shape shifts into a bat and flies away. It’s generally believed that the sole intention of an aswang is to cause you harm in any way that it can.
Most of the time they’re after your blood, but certain types of aswang, such as the manananggal prefer to suck human fetuses out of the wombs of pregnant mothers. The aswang legend has been around since before the Spanish came here. Spanish chroniclers noted that the locals feared the aswang possibly more than they did the Spaniards. This was because the Filipino is, by nature, very superstitious – a trait which was used to the advantage of the United States’ clandestine service.
You might remember the Hukbalahap (Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon) as a guerilla movement that fought alongside US and Philippine Commonwealth forces against the Japanese during World War II. After the war, they were repurposed as the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines and renamed the “Hukbong Mapalaya ng Bayan.” They believed that then-president Manuel Roxas was a collaborator and sought to oust him from power.
The 1950s America was more paranoid of the so-called “Red Menace” than today’s America is paranoid about Islamist terrorist attacks, and just like modern America, the US government vowed to stamp out its enemy wherever it was found. Funding and aid was hurled at any government that was fighting against a Communist insurgency, and the Philippines was no exception. President Truman sent over military advisors and shipped crates of military equipment – some of which are still in use today. Also, lurking in the shadows, CIA spooks were sent into the jungle to face the Huk rebels hands-on.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. The CIA realized that the Filipinos were extremely superstitious people, and they planned to use that against the Huks. Enter Major General Edward Lansdale – this CIA operative who held a rank in the US Air Force had been in the Philippines for about two years prior to the anti-Huk campaign. Ostensibly, he was here to help the Philippines rebuild its intelligence service and to help the large numbers of POWs left over from the war. But according to American historian Sterling Seagrave, his actual purpose in this country was to shuttle millions of dollars’ worth of Japanese gold out of the country and into the waiting arms of American banks. In any case – his mission changed when the Huks were declared enemies of the state.
Now, Lansdale was well known for his unorthodox psychological warfare. There was this certain mountain stronghold that the Huks had taken in Luzon, and the Philippine Army was having a hard time taking it back. The CIA gladly offered their assistance – secretly, of course. Lansdale’s first act was to spread rumors around surrounding villages that the mountain was haunted and loaded with aswang. Terrifying to some, sure, but not terrifying enough to make the Huks want to leave. For that – he organized fake vampire attacks.
Yes, that’s right – fake vampire attacks. But it wasn’t fake blood and Hollywood makeup. Lansdale would target small Huk patrols up on the mountain and have his people silently ambush them. They would stab them in the neck twice to make it look like a vampire attack and then drain them of all their blood. After that, they would be put back on the trail for their comrades to find. Soon enough, the Huk abandoned their position on the hill, and that little covert act was the source of more horrific ghost stories for generations to come.