Last year a friend asked me if I had ever heard of a movie called “Operation Dumbo Drop.” I said that of course I had. He said he had watched the movie recently with his grandkids and from the moment he heard the words “Ban Don,” he froze, for the words “Ban Don” had a special meaning for this guy.
The movie, “Dumbo Drop,” with Danny Glover and Ray Liota, is about a squad of U.S. support soldiers, led by two Special Forces captains, getting an elephant for a remote village to replace their elephant that was killed by the VC. Getting the replacement elephant transported to its new home is the point of the story and eventually involves strapping a parachute onto the pachyderm, hence the title, “Dumbo Drop.”
Putting aside the idea of two SF captains playing elephant nannies with a squad of REMFs, it is a cute movie, funny and fun to watch, the violence is minimal, and the movie overall is one of those that makes the Vietnam War seem like it was an uproariously good time. But, some movies are like that.
The truth is that there actually was a Ban Don village. Ban Don was a small, remote village northwest of Ban Me Thout in the Darlac Province near the Cambodian border in the Republic of Vietnam. During the war, few people had been there except for Special Forces soldiers. Next to Ban Don was a Special Forces camp, A-233 at Tran Phuc, which was under B-23 of the 5th Special Forces Group.
The French built the original camp at Ban Don during their part of the war. U.S. Special Forces teams moved into the camp in the early stages of their war, but eventually abandoned it after the Montagnard uprisings. From late 1965 to early 1966 the troublesome Rhade Yards were moved to a new camp at Tran Phuc. Ban Don and Tran Phuc were of strategic importance due to a major North Vietnamese Army infiltration and supply route which ran nearby and screamed for interdiction.
Said my friend, “As all of us SF men know, there are many missions that befall Special Forces ODAs. The unwashed masses think we Green Berets are barbarian commandos who eat snakes and burn villages. Those of us who have been privileged enough to wear the Green Beret know that is not always the case and that often our job is ‘winning hearts and minds,’ and that often leads to civic action operations.”
There are varying ideas about “civic action.” The purpose of civic action was, and is, to improve the living conditions of the indigenous population through various means, such as improving sanitation, irrigation and crops, building schools, digging wells, propagating livestock, etc. In some cases, helping the locals to establish a business is the right civic action project. And that is how Operation Barroom came about.
The central highlands of South Vietnam are covered in deep forests, often of triple canopy. Good timber is abundant. However, the central highlands were remote, in relation to the lowland areas of South Vietnam, and roads were mostly unimproved. No improvements to the infrastructure had been made since the French had left. Making use of that lumber resolved a number of challenges toward winning the hearts and minds of the people in the region. But, getting it out posed a problem.
At the Special Forces camp at Tra Bong in I Corps, someone, with USAID input, had the idea to build a sawmill to boost the local economy and make the village more self-sufficient. Great idea. A missionary donated the funds to build the mill, which was built around a Volkswagen engine turning a large circular saw blade.
There was timber, way upstream, but no way to get to it and to transport it to a location where the sawmill was to be built. Then someone had the idea that elephants could be used to haul the cut timber out of the jungle. Great idea. But there were no elephants at Tra Bong. Ah, but there were elephants at Ban Don. There was also the additional issue that nobody wanted to go where the timber was because there were beaucoup VC up there.
Elephants were used in the construction of other A-camps, such as at Tran Phuc, where the local Mong Gar Montagnard tribe used their elephants to haul trees to improve the fields of fire and extend the perimeter around the camp. Some A-teams even used elephants to transport supplies on operations.
The problem was how to get the elephants from Ban Don to Tra Bong. It is 200 miles by air and over 400 miles by road. Someone at 5th Group Headquarters in Na Trang suggested that since 5th Group was an airborne unit, the elephants could be dropped by parachute into Tra Bong. No one was certain if this was a serious idea or not, but the press got wind of it, then the animal rights groups, and soon that idea was dead for sure, until some years later when the screenwriters and producers of the movie, “Dumbo Drop,” heard the story, probably from a Saigon commando.
So, A-233 was minding their own business one day in March of 1968 when a Huey helicopter came in bearing the 5th Group Civil Affairs officer and the group veterinarian. They came off the Huey in starched jungle fatigues, carrying enough weaponry to arm an ODA, and met with the team commander, the team sergeant, and my friend, the XO, and presented their plan of buying an elephant. 233 thought the staff guys were high from sniffing fuel on the Huey, but they played along. My friend mentioned to the CA officer that he thought he could buy two elephants. The CA officer told him to find out how much two elephants would cost and to let him know. With that, the CA and veterinary officers headed back to Na Trang to put in the paperwork for their Air Medals and CIBs.
Once the team vented sufficiently to each other about REMF idiocy, my friend went down to the village of Ban Don to see the elephant handlers, with whom he had done business in the past. The lead elephant handler thought that my friend had been drinking too much nam pe rue, Montagnard rice wine, for he could not conceive why my friend, an American Special Forces officer, who could get anything he wanted, would want to buy two elephants. My friend was eventually able to explain the situation to the handler enough for him to quote a price.
This A-team XO then sent a message to the 5th Group S-5/CA officer, Capt. Scott Gantt, stating the price. It was decided that two elephants would be procured from the Montagnard tribesmen at Ban Don by him, the XO of A-233. The elephants would then be flown from Ban Don to Chu Lai where the elephants would be sling-loaded by CH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopters to Tra Bong.
A few days later, Gantt and the veterinarian returned with enough Vietnamese piasters to purchase the elephants. First, they wanted to see the elephants, so they drove to the village where the 5th Group veterinarian gave the elephants a quick physical. Then my friend gave the money to the handlers. At that point he was the owner, if just for a few days, of two Asian elephants. The team named them Bonnie and Clyde.
March 31, 1968, was the day of execution for this transport operation. A C-130 aircraft arrived and off-loaded a forklift, two pallets, two cargo nets, and an entourage of group operations and civil affairs staff people, veterinarian personnel, various other staff officers, and of course the public affairs reporters and photographers. The moment they had all been waiting for arrived when the two elephants finally lumbered onto the airstrip. The first elephant, Clyde, was placed on a laid-out cargo net and the group veterinarian tranquilized him with compound 99, delivered by a dart shot from a CO2 rifle.
At this point the veterinarian, Capt. George McCahan, put on his rubber gloves and covered one arm with plastic and proceeded to take a rectal temperature reading of the elephant. The Montagnards found this highly entertaining. It was shortly after the temperature reading that the operation acquired its name: Operation Barroom. Rest assured, elephant farts are epic. Turns out the chemical used to tranquilize elephants creates a considerable amount of intestinal gas. The group veterinarian had anticipated this and donned a protective mask. A-233 did not anticipate this and did not have masks (and were not issued masks until the following December, after a mortar attack that involved CS and CN gases). So, they were at the mercy of the elephant gas.
Within minutes, the elephant became drowsy and lay down on the cargo net. The forklift then picked up the cargo net, with the elephant inside, and placed it on one of the pallets. The net was secured and the pallet was placed inside the C-130 and off it and the elephant, Clyde, went to Chu Lai. Later that day, the operation was repeated with the second elephant, Bonnie. A few days later the headlines in Stars and Stripes stated that Operation Barroom was a rip-roaring success.
So, the truth is that there were two elephants, Bonnie and Clyde, and they were transported by aircraft from Ban Don to the Special Forces Camp at Tra Bong, in the northern part of I Corps, not dropped in by pachaderm-chute, as in the movie. The other key truth is that both elephants were pygmy elephants, too small for hauling timber. It was never determined if the elephant handler had pulled a fast one or not. But, he probably knew they were pygmies.
In 1970, my friend returned to Vietnam, with the stand-down elements of the 5th Special Forces Group, and was assigned to MACV Ranger Command. He went to Special Forces Camps and transitioned the Civilian Irregular Defense Forces (CIDG) of those camps to ARVN Rangers. He was assigned to a battalion in I Corps, not too far from Tra Bong, and went to Tra Bong the first chance he had to see the elephants and the saw mill. When he got there he was disappointed to find no elephants and no saw mill, and no one that he talked to knew anything about the elephants or that they ever existed, which was very odd, and suspicious.
The moral of this story is that, once again, movies are, usually, bullshit, especially war movies, with few exceptions. Movie producers are not concerned with truth. They are concerned with making money. And truth, on the whole, does not sell in movies, or much else for that matter.
And, also, civil affairs operations can be tenuous affairs indeed. Civility in the civilized world is hard enough, but trying to deliver such solutions or infrastructure to remote Third-World locations can carry enormous challenges. There are many similar stories from Afghanistan, Iraq, Thailand, Haiti, and numerous other places that Special Forces teams have been over the past seven decades, trying to win hearts and minds, all with varying degrees of success.
The Army flew the lumber out on Caribou C 7As. Instead of elephants, tractors and men in teams pulled the lumber between the airfield and the sawmill, maybe two or three hundred meters. Some said it was a wonderful jobs program, just not for the elephants. The other problem with using the elephants to haul lumber, besides them being too small, was the VC, which were thick in the area where the lumber was cut. Elephants are more susceptible to bullets than are tractors.
Many visitors went to see this great public works program, and the elephants. Lots of photos were taken. Various SF men from that time and place have said that pictures of riding the pygmy elephants were probably the best things to come out of that whole operation. It would have been nice if the elephants had lived long and prosperous lives. But life is not a Disney movie, especially in a war zone.
Less than a year later, Bonney developed some intestinal problems, probably from what they were feeding her. The group vet came out and looked her over, but there was nothing he could do. She died soon after, with lots of loud bellowing. Clyde died a few weeks later of a broken heart. The village celebrated after the funeral by having an elephant meat BBQ that is probably still talked about in certain parts of the central highlands of southern Vietnam.
Authors note: This story was first written up in the 1968, Volume III issue of the 5th Group magazine, “The Green Beret.” A version of this article was published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Drop, the quarterly magazine of the Special Forces Association, by this author.
Featured image courtesy of sky.com.