written by Todd DePastino

Vietnam Donut Dolly Penni Evans and fellow Dolly Terry Harmon riding an elephant in Veitnam in 1970 in the town of Ban Me Thuot in Dak Lak

Not since our post about the Navy peacoat’s demise or our (failed) attempt to define what a Warrant Officer is, have we gotten as much readers’ mail as we did in response to John Barber’s story about elephants in Vietnam. In that post, I asked readers if they had ever seen elephants being used by the Viet Cong, the NVA, or ARVN during the Vietnam War, 1959-1975. Below are some of the notes we received. Thank you to all who shared their memories.

Penni Evans was a Donut Dolly in Vietnam, and she sent the photo about of her and fellow Dolly Terry Harmon riding an elephant in 1970 in the town of Ban Me Thuot in Dak Lak, the Central Highlands. “I had another roll of fill with elephants and me in the basket boats at Cam Rahn but the whole roll was lost,” she writes.

Richard Keirstead also saw elephants in Vietnam, and also in Ban Me Thuot:

After my active duty in the US Army Signal Corps, I worked in Vietnam for the US government as a civilian from 1959 to 1965. Most of 1960 was spent in the Central Highlands in and near Ban Me Thuot. It was not unusual then to see domesticated elephants at work. A friend organized a hunt from elephant-back. I think he had seen too many movies. His elephant wouldn’t stand still long enough to get a shot at anything. At that time, there were tiger, leopard, deer and banteng in the forests. I have a clouded leopard skin that was shot in a nearby village. It was raiding the livestock and was shot with a poisoned arrow from a crossbow. A few of the local tribesmen knew how to compound the poison from native plants. A picture of the leopard skin is attached to this email. There are less then 10,000 of this species left in the wild. I also have a 20 inch tusk (obviously from a young elephant) purchased in the Ban Me Thuot market. I was not a combatant in Vietnam, though I was shot at a couple times.

Clouded leopard skin killed in Vietnam

Army veteran Thomas McCormack also saw elephants near Ban Me Thuot in early 1965. Tom served with the 339th Transportation Company, detached. The 339th was a heavy maintenance repair and helicopter recovery unit that flew all over South Vietnam on recovery mission, such as the attack  on Camp Holloway Pleiku, and the hotel bombing in Quy Nhon in February 1965. It was around that time Tom saw the elephant in a Montagnard village. Never got a photo of it, but he did have this picture snapped.

(Thomas McCormack)

“I was flying right seat gunner that day and we took some big shot to the village for a meeting. I can’t believe I walked away from my rifle to have this photo taken. The crew chief must have stayed with the helicopter.”

Air Force veteran Paul Worsham reports that he didn’t see elephants, but got first-hand reports of their use by the enemy:
In 1965, I was serving as a Ground Radio Operator with a Tactical Air Team assigned to support the Army 1st Infantry Division. One of my jobs was to take After Action Reports from our Forward Air Controllers. The reports included ordinance expended and targets hit by our aircraft. I received one report I couldn’t understand. It said, “NVA convoy destroyed.”  The NVA wasn’t moving by vehicles in our area in 1965. Then, someone explained to me that this was actually a report of elephants targeted by our aircraft as “enemy transports.”

Airman George Kniss served in Vietnam early as an Air Force photographer. He writes:

I did not witness elephants being used in the war, but I do have a reconnaissance photograph taken by our RF-101 Voodoo at low altitude over the Delta in late 1963, I believe. I remember developing the roll of film and seeing the elephants. They were running in a paddy and high grass. It was a small herd. I could possibly dig it up for you if you want.

Another Air Force veteran, John Kramer, had a memory jogged about his Vietnamese language instructor in the US:

Ba Bao was one of my instructors at the Defense Language Institute. She liked to share memories of “old Vietnam” and told us stories of elephants in her village of Da Lat in the mountains. She said as a child she would ride them.
Marine Ernest Fideli saw an elephant at Khe Sanh months before the infamous 77-day siege there:
I was with Bravo Company 26th Marines. The date was May of 1967. The elephant handler was a small boy about 12 years old, a Montagnard. I spoke Vietnamese and a little French. From talking to the boy and an older man, I learned the French used the elephants in the coffee plantations. The dirt around Khe Sahn was red clay, and the elephants had red tint to their skin.
Army combat engineer Dolph John Armstrong relayed this story:
I never saw an elephant in Vietnam, but I saw first-hand evidence that they were used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I was a combat engineer assigned with the 4th Infantry Division from November 1967 to November 1968. Most of our time we were with a specific infantry company in the 3rd Brigade Task Force (formerly part of the 25th Infantry Division).

Our Area of Operation was along the coast: Duc Pho and environs northwest of Danang until Tet, and then Bong Son.

In February 1968,  we were sent to the Central Highlands to “interdict” enemy forces coming in along trails that connected with the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were many enemy footpaths in the jungle that brought men and supplies in over the mountains. In July, I got assigned to C Company of the 1/14th Infantry. We were the lead unit on a three-company assault that would put us far enough into the jungle to find and follow these paths.

We had spent the months prior clearing the tops of mountains with explosives and chain saws to set up forward fire bases. We first cleared a space large enough to set up mortars and a LZ and then progressively enlarged the area so it would accommodate 105 howitzers flown in by Chinooks.

The 4th ID never operated outside the range of its 105s, so when we went on that mission in July, we had ample artillery coverage. God knows it would be the only help we could get that deep in the god-forsaken triple canopy.

To prepare for the helicopter assault, the hillside had been peppered with 155 rounds which left a large area of downed trees. However, a small clump of tree trunks remained in the center of the LZ. Helicopters could not actually land. They would hover and we would jump out. I was assigned to the headquarters squad and told my job was to blow that clump of trees when we landed to make it easier for the rest of our company and the other two companies to come in if the LZ was hot.

I was in the third helicopter with the Company Commander, Captain Vaughn. We landed under fire from the jungle, and I hit the dirt behind some rucksacks. Captain Vaughn stood up in the center of the LZ like he was bulletproof. He ordered me to get up and blow the trees (with some expletives), which I did despite thinking there was a neon sign pointing to me saying, “shoot here.”

It was only a small group of NVA and they quickly vanished into the jungle. All three companies made it in safely, and each one set off following footpaths through the jungle – most of them well worn.

We were out for several days when we came to a grassy clearing in the jungle. Beyond it, our footpath joined a major route. It was wide enough to drive a deuce-and-a-half. To camouflage the trail, the NVA or VC had cut trees level with the ground and left them standing. The canopies were intertwined with trees on either side of the trail, which held them in place and allowed the enemy to swing them to one side so large vehicles could pass.

The trail was also graded with gravel to make travel easier. We dug in for the night in the clearing and sent one platoon up the trail to set up an ambush. When we returned to the clearing, we noticed that it was covered with elephant tracks deep in the mud.

There was dung, too, but I remember mostly being freaked by the size and number of tracks.

In hindsight, the clearing would have been the perfect place to rest elephants for the night and also to offload supplies and men who would follow the path we had just come in on.

That night I had visions of being trampled to death by elephants.

So, while I did not see an elephant, I saw enough evidence of elephants to convince me they were used on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

As an aside: That night, I was sharing a poncho hooch with Captain Vaughn. In the middle of the night, I heard what I thought was Charlie (the enemy) messing with us by saying, “F – you.” I sat bolt upright. Captain Vaughn chuckled.

“That’s not Charlie,” he said, “it’s a F-you lizard.” It went on for most of the night.

Between the worry about elephants and my skepticism about the lizard, I didn’t sleep well between watches. But, in the bush in Vietnam, you were lucky to get four hours of sleep a night.

The next morning we explored down the trail a short way and then turned around and headed back up the trail we came in on and continued on our patrol. Before we left, I blew up a bunker that was probably used for sleeping. It was a waste of time and C4. But it was fun and I had less weight to carry.

Bottom line – I get no credit for actually seeing an elephant, but I did see first-hand, solid evidence that they were there. And, I don’t regret for one minute not actually seeing one.

We have more stories coming. I look forward to discussing some of these during Open Conversation!