War Elephants

By John Vogel

March 1968, Na Trang, Vietnam

The men of A-233 5th Special Forces Group were called into a meeting. The meeting most likely contained all the normal people and faces, and as a Special Forces team operating in country, it probably was routine. This one though, had a few additional faces, such as the group’s civil affairs officer and, strangely enough, a veterinarian.

In essence, the meeting was to plan a delivery of goods to the remote village of Tra Bong, within the highlands of Vietnam. The village had a functioning sawmill, which was running off a donated VW engine, and lumber was being processed efficiently. The first problem was that the village was so remote, they couldn’t export the lumber. The second problem was that they were surrounded by Viet Cong. For every problem, the Green Berets have a solution. This being Southeast Asia, there is only one common solution to transportation: elephants.

The brainstorming began.

Throughout history, elephants played key roles in warfare conducted in and around Asia. Elephants proved useful by delivering heavy materials to remote areas, serving as living military transport vehicles. War elephants were utilized by the Romans, Persians, Indians and Chinese as early as 49 BC all the way through to the 19th century. Equipped with spikes, armor or even having their tusks shaved down to blades, elephants gave an immediate advantage to any army willing to employ them. With the invention of rifles and advanced methods of transportation, the tactical advantage dwindled, but even during WWII, the British utilized elephants to assist in building bridges and moving heavy material where trucks just couldn’t go.

A-233 knew they could get elephants from the village of Bon Don, where villagers traded pachyderms like kids trade baseball cards, and were generally opposed to commies. Budget-wise, they had enough to cover the purchase of 2 elephants. The only hang up was from Bon Don to Tra Bong it was 400 miles on foot—400 miles that was crawling with VC. But as the crow flies, it was only half that.

The plan was to buy the elephants, dope them up with tranquilizers, and transport them to the air base in a cargo net hauled by helicopter. Odds were good that if dumbo woke up mid-flight, it would not end well for the elephant, the crew, nor anyone that happened to be on the ground below them.

To ensure the elephants—nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde—stayed sedated, they devoted one day per elephant. The day of the first delivery, Clyde was marched out onto a large cargo net, doped up, and once asleep, was lifted and moved via helicopter, dangling like a shopping bag in hand. Two hundred miles later, Clyde was delivered without issue and monitored as he awoke to the weirdest and worst hangover of his life. After giving the OK, the same process was repeated with Bonnie, who 3 days after Clyde was delivered, experienced the same confusing hangover as she came-to in a new and unfamiliar place.

The mission was a success. The village was grateful for the delivery and a few more hearts and minds were won that day in the fight against communist expansion. A-233 departed, feeling hopeful and accomplished, and made their way elsewhere.

Two years later, members of A-233 went back to check on the operation, only to find the elephants, the sawmill and the village leaders gone without a trace. Those living in the general area were asked what happened and claimed to have no idea what the U.S. military members were talking about.

Footnote: The Romans figured out that Elephants’ tragic flaw was their skittishness. Elephants tended to panic at certain sounds and smells, one specific example being the sounds and smells of hogs as noted by Pliny the Elder. Their panic resulted in elephants running over their own handlers during their immediate retreat. The Romans tested this theory by setting wild pigs on fire and sending them running towards the elephants of their enemies. Talk about War Pigs

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