written by John Barber

Vietnamese soldiers on elephants in Vietnam War

I’ve heard of elephants used in the Vietnam War, but I’ve never talked with a veteran who saw one in-country. Nor did I know anything about how or where they were used. Then, I got this story below from Vietnam Marine John Barber, author of Vietnam Requiem: A Memoir. John never saw an elephant in Vietnam either. But he kept his eyes peeled. 

We were on patrol somewhere near the DMZ. Our usual Search and Destroy-type mission. On this day, we were mostly searching.

Our Commanding Officer (CO) told us that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) used elephants to build their bunkers. He promised that who ever brought down an elephant would get two days off on the hospital ship the Repose (AH-16) anchored off Chu Lai in the Tonkin Gulf.

When your CO tells you that elephants are out there, you believe him. Now, our Marines on patrol were not only searching for the enemy but elephants. We desperately wanted those two day off on the Repose with hot chow, showers, and a nice bed to sleep in.

Exactly how we would take down an elephant, we never figured out. Our M-14s, we figured, would just make it angry. But we were determined. We wanted out of the jungle.

Our patrol came to a clearing and took a 10 minute break. We spread out, as always, and took some cover, just in case.

Three feet in front of me was a great man-sized hole, perfect for one person. Two other Marines had also seen that hole, so we drew straws. I won.

Sure enough, we heard the tell-tale hollow thrum of mortars leaving their tubes, and someone yelled, “Incoming!”

I jumped into my hole and covered my head. Explosions shook the ground, and dirt flew. Then, the blasts stopped.

Feeling something next to me in the hole, I turned and right up against me were those two Marine buddies of mine. How three of us ever squeezed into that one-man hole, I’ll never know. We laughed.

A couple of our Marines got hit in the attack, so we had to call in a Medevac. Then, we continued on the patrol.

I never saw an elephant that day, nor would I ever in Vietnam.

And I never got my two days on the Repose.

The best source of information about the NVA’s use of elephants in Vietnam is SGM Herbert A. Friedman’s “The Ho Chi Minh Trail Campaign.” The ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) reportedly also used elephants in the Central Highlands.