By Al Zdon
Gulf War was as nearly as much a war of words as it was a
war of missiles, tanks, jet fighters and M-16s.
A unit from Minnesota, the 13th Psychological Operations Battalion,
played a crucial role in that war, a role that with a perspective
of 10 years looks even larger.
While Saddam Hussein was preparing for the "mother of all
battles," the Minnesotans were going quietly about their business
of getting Saddam's troops to desert or surrender.
By the time the U.S. and its allies took control of Kuwait,
there were only about 85,000 troops remaining to fight - instead
of the 400,000 Saddam had sent to control his captured nation.
What happened to the rest? Some had been captured, some had
been killed, but most of them had just gone home.
"We were the only battalion geared to do POW psychological
warfare," Jim Noll said in a recent interview. Noll was the
lieutenant colonel in charge of the 13th Psyops Battalion
when it was called to active duty in December of 1990.
"By the end of the war, seven out of 10 Iraqi soldiers had
deserted. In some units only 10 percent might have been left
in the forward positions. In some cases, there were not enough
Iraqi soldiers left to drive their vehicles."
Noll is a native of Wabasha, a graduate of Winona State College
in 1967, and was a teacher in St. Cloud when he got his draft
notice in 1968. "I turned in my grade cards on June 4th, and
on June 5th I was in the Army."
After OCS, he joined the 101st Airborne and took part in the
three and one-half month battle for Firebase Ripcord in Vietnam
as a platoon leader. He was wounded twice during that action.
He earned a Silver Star and Bronze Star in addition to his
Noll got out of the Army in 1971, returned to teaching, and
also joined the Army Reserve at Ft. Snelling. Along the way,
over the next two decades, he was named commander of the 13th
The Minnesotans were activated in December of 1990 and sent
to Ft. Bragg where the unit had two weeks to get organized.
It arrived in Saudi Arabia on the 13th of January.
Noll was the highest ranking Minnesotan to serve in the Persian
The battalion's job was to make the enemy quit without fighting,
but how do you go about getting an enemy to go home?
For the 13th Psyops Battalion, it started in the POW camps
run by the Allies. A number of Iraqis had been taken prisoner
during the early skirmishes of the war. Others trickled in
as time went by.
Part of the Psyops job was to get the prisoners to comply
with regulations and keep the problems at a minimum. Another
job was to interview the prisoners and find out ways to convince
their comrades who were still in arms to desert or surrender.
"The MPs carried the weapons, and they were the bad guys.
We were the good guys," Noll said. "The MPs greatly respected
the Psyops people because we made their job so much easier."
For instance, the Psyops people would show movies every night
just outside the fence. If the prisoners had not behaved that
day, they saw no movie. "We had some Iraqi movies that were
made according to strict Muslim laws, but they didn't want
to see those. They wanted to see 'Superman.'"
Cigarettes, extra food and candy were also used to reward
good behavior or cooperation. The Iraqis were provided with
prayer mats and signs that indicated the direction to Mecca.
"We wanted to show them that we were taking good care of them,
and so they had no fear in surrendering to Americans."
The psychological specialists would interview prisoners from
morning to night. Unlike American prisoners of war who are
trained to keep silent, the Iraqis generally had no compunction
about spilling the beans about troop placements, missile locations
or other valuable war information.
They also didn't mind talking about who might be trying to
escape. "We tried to identify who the Republican Guards and
the secret police were. We wanted to isolate those who we
felt had the potential to cause problems.
"They had no code of conduct. They would simply tell all,
about underground munitions dumps, or units that hadn't been
in combat yet, whatever."
From these interviews, a strategy was developed to convince
the Iraqis to leave their units.
"You've got to remember that many of the Iraqi units were
isolated electronically from other units. The U.S. was blocking
most of the radio signals, and we were overriding Iraqi radio.
In some cases we were replacing their messages with our own
The U.S. would air drop little portable radios into an Iraqi
unit to help get the word out. At other times, thousands of
leaflets would be dropped.
One strategy was to warn the Iraqis of an impending bombing
attack and then follow through. "We would tell a particular
unit that we would bomb them within 24 hours and they must
leave. A lot of them would do just that. We would follow through
on the bombing so they knew we were telling the truth.
"The next day we would inform the next Iraqi unit in line
that we would be bombing within 24 hours. We'd tell them to
just leave the area and leave their equipment. A lot of them
would go home. They'd just start hoofing it."
Noll noted that the Iraqis had been waiting for war for many
months, and many had earned a furlough at home. "Those who
had any brains never came back."
The psychological warfare in the end saved many lives, on
both sides. "I know many American lives were saved because
so many Iraqis had deserted or chose not to fight when we
arrived. Many of them were holding up our leaflets to surrender
The leaflets were based on the intelligence the Psyops battalion
had gained from prisoners. Some showed large bombers dropping
their payloads. Others showed tank units how to surrender.
Others showed Americans landing from the sea (a military ploy
to divert Iraqi defenses. The U.S. never did land from the
sea.) Others were printed on fake Iraqi money so the soldiers
could conceal them in their wallets.
In the end, over 14 million leaflets were dropped to Iraqi
troops. Some were even delivered in bottles that washed up
The pictures were important. "Many Iraqis only had enough
education to read the Koran, and that was it."
Once a leaflet was developed, it was tried with the prisoners
to find out how effective it might be. In one case, a leaflet
went out with a red border. The Iraqi troops had been instructed
that red meant danger, and the leaflets were not used. After
switching to a green border, the results improved dramatically.
Noll had Saudi and Kuwaiti soldiers who were bilingual assigned
to his unit that helped with the testing of the materials
by working with the prisoners of war.
The Iraqis also tried some crude psychological warfare of
their own. One particular leaflet told American soldiers that
Bart Simpson was at home with his wife. Apparently the Iraqis
didn't realize that Bart was a cartoon character.
Only once in the POW camps was there a major problem. A typhoon
hit one of the camps one night, and the guards, who were not
U.S. soldiers, deserted their posts. Psyops soldiers with
speaker backpacks went into the camp where chaos reigned,
and with the help of local officials restored order.
In addition to the Psyops units working in the camps, each
American unit had three psyops specialists assigned to it.
The job of these tactical units was to make contact with the
enemy and encourage them to surrender.
The strategy was especially important because when the U.S.
did attack, the armored units raced across the desert to confront
Iraqi tank units. In the process, many Iraqi army units were
simply bypassed. It was important to convince those bypassed
units to surrender rather than fight.
When Kuwait had been retaken by the Allies, Noll entered the
city the next day. He urged the command to release his tactical
units, spread out throughout the American forces, so they
could be used to help control the huge influx of enemy prisoners.
The Americans also trained the Saudis in the aspects of psychological
warfare and dealing with prisoners because the prisoners were
soon turned over to the Saudi army for safekeeping.
The 13th Psyops Battalion left in May, and turned over all
the POW camps to the Saudis.
"My unit may have saved thousands of lives during the war,
on both sides."
Noll returned to his home south of Forest Lake just in time
for his daughter's first communion. In the next year, he volunteer
for the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, and he returned
to command the 88th Regular Supply Command. His last job in
the Reserves was as director of personnel for a six-state
area, including about 25,000 soldiers.
He retired in June 1999 as a colonel.
Noll is a teacher at Forest Lake Southwest Junior High School.
He and his wife, Rose, have eight children.