Operation Dumbo Drop

Down there in the Georgia pines at Ft. Benning officer candidates are taught to “think positive.” “Make a bold move,” is one maxim drummed into their open and receptive young heads. 

Therefore it is not surprising that when one of our lieutenants was asked over the phone by a USAID rep in Saigon, “If USAID buys elephants for the Tra Bong sawmill, can y’all move them?” he replied, “Sure, baby, we’ll move your elephants.” 

When the full ramifications of the elephant story came to light this young officer could not be identified, and did not come forward. This exemplifies another maxim dear to staff officers: “Cover your ass.” Clearly this young man was assured of a brilliant military career. 

Captain J. Scott Gantt’s emaciated but limber body splayed across his swivel chair in the Special Forces headquarters. An expression both sardonic and baffled played across his face as he cocked an eyebrow and inquired, “Whuffo we want to move elephants to Tra Bong?”

The question was directed at Master Sergeant Robert Bennett. Bennett, the noncommissioned officer in charge of what was called “Revolutionary Development”, the then-current buzzword for our nation-building efforts, resembled an uncompassionate Buddha, smiling smugly, fingers laced across his kettledrum belly as he swiveled his chair back and forth in quick, nervous movements. “The Tra Bong sawmill is a joint civic action project between our A-team there and USAID,” he said. “It is the sole support for two hundred Montagnard families who have moved in and around the camp for security. They have cut down all the logs that are close enough to the mill to haul, and the ground is too rough and hilly for machinery. Hence elephants.”

Captain Gantt stretched like a lazy lizard and ambled into the junior officer cage to visit handsome First Lieutenant Roy T. “Sweet Roy” Kimbrough, beloved of young women on three continents. 

“Roy,” he said, “lay on a convoy to haul elephants, four each, two to go to Tra Bong, and two to Kham Duc. We pick up the elephants in Ban Me Thuot, truck them here, load them on an LST for Da Nang, and walk them overland to the camps, okay?”

Kimbrough looked up and flared his nostrils, in the dramatic way that made the hearts of young ladies flutter when he did it in their presence. “Roger,” he said, and reached for the telephone, then paused and looked up, “What they eat?” he inquired innocently. 

“Hmmm,” said Gantt, “maybe we better find out.”

“Fifty pounds of high grade hay per day per ton of elephant, plus fifty gallons of water per day per elephant. At three tons of elephant per each for four elephants, times nine days, that’s about 5,400 pounds of hay, plus 1,800 gallons of water. You’ll need one LST for the elephants and another for chow. Plus the elephants may get very seasick. I suggest we try for air movement.” 

These words were spoke by Captain Tommy Dees of Edenton, N.C., the group vet, a Huck Finn clone in a green beret. He leaned in the doorway with a book on elephants by Frank Buck open in his hand, and another by L. Sprague DeCamp tucked under his arm. 

“Incidentally, the closest source of this hay is Manila.” He spoke with a thick southern accent. 

“The roads from the camp are too insecure to move overland,” Kimbrough put in. “And you can’t airland at Tra Bong. The strip is too short. How we gonna get them in?”

Sergeant Richard Campbell, who had been following all this with a bemused expression, said, “Airdrop?”

Dees blinked, held up two fingers in the Churchill salute, said, “Peace in Veet Namm,” turned and walked off down the hall.

While the purchase of elephants was nothing new for Special Forces, the attempt to air move them was. So Gantt called the Air Force. He was informed that the only aircraft in Vietnam that could handle the job was a C-130. Since the strip at Tra Bong was too small to handle a 130 – Kham Duc had plenty of runway – they would have to land at Da Nang. And they couldn’t be moved by land from Da Nang.

There were other difficulties with the Air Force. They were glad to move the elephants, but they had very stringent regulations about the air movement of large animals. The Air Force was leery of elephants crashing around inside the cargo bay in flight, adversely affecting the trim of the aircraft. Having once seen a C47 full of Somerset pigs unloaded in Pleiku I didn’t blame them. 

Their requirement was that the elephants had to be unconscious and strapped down like cargo. In addition, in case one woke up, a weapon big enough to kill an elephant had to be mounted inside the aircraft. The smallest weapon in the military inventory capable of taking out an elephant quickly and simply was a .50 caliber machinegun, so one of these would also have to be mounted inside the aircraft. 

As to Campbell’s suggestion that they be air-dropped, a quick call to the rigger section verified that it was indeed possible to drop something of that size and weight. The rigger sergeant suggested that five hundred-foot cargo chutes per elephant would do the job. 

Dees, a qualified parachutist as well as a veterinarian, agreed the elephants could take the drop if they were strapped down on cargo pallets and the pallets mounted on stacks of honeycomb shock absorbers, a device commonly used in air-dropping heavy machinery. 

While all this was in the planning stage it became an in-Group joke, christened “Operation Barroom” after the punch line of a gag about an elephant fart, and rumors of the upcoming airdrop started floating around Vietnam. 

Gantt got inquiries from curious reporters. That was when I, as Information Officer, was called in. 

A claim on the story was more or less staked out by John MacLennan of Reuters, and Curt Rolffes of UPI. MacLennan was a South African, a big easygoing guy who, except for his costume, looked almost exactly like Captain Marvel. Normally he wore U.S. Army fatigues with a patch that said “correspondent.” 

Rolffes was a tall, dark-haired fellow, a photographer who had done a spell as a Peace Corps volunteer. He wore one of the world’s most spectacular beard-and-moustache combinations. The beard came to two points below his chin. The moustache looked like rabbit-ears antennae, no less than seven inches on a side, waxed to needle points, quivering at the ends, which were more or less even with his eyeballs. I knew Rolffes from a great shot in Stars and Stripes, of him in his beard and moustache, staring bug-eyed and cross-eyed at one of his cameras that had taken a round right through he camera body.

They wanted to know did we really plan to air-drop the elephants? MacLennan called Gantt on the phone and was given an enthusiastic reply, full of positive-sounding noises. 

We really did want to. Paratroopers are kind of funny anyway and we wanted to prove that it could be done. However, after MacLennan’s first story ominous rumbles came from the British SPCA and it looked like we would get an awful lot of flak if one of the chutes malfunctioned and we splattered elephant all over Tra Bong. 

“Do you definitely plan to air-drop the elephants?” John MacLennan asked. Hovering nearby was his buddy Rolffes, in his luxurious beard and moustache. 

“Only as a last resort,” Gantt said. “We are going to try to lift them by flying crane from Da Nang to Tra Bong. Kham Duc’s no problem because we can air-land there.

“The thing is we have to lift those elephants in crates. If we try to sling them under the crane, the weight of their bodies will crush their diaphragms, killing them.”

“But, I say,” said MacLennan, “won’t the elephants tend to thrash about a bit.” 

“Oh, they’ll be tranquilized,” Gantt said confidently. 

MacLennan and Rolffes were not highly pleased with Alternate Plan B, since it was not nearly as spectacular a story. 

Dees had an animal tranquilizer in stock, which the Group had used occasionally to move animals as large as water buffalo. But by conservative estimate it would require 240cc of this stuff to knock out an elephant. These tranquilizers were administered by firing a hypodermic dart from an air rifle into the behind of the animal. The capacity of the darts is 10cc. No one knew of any elephants sufficiently placid to stand still while they were shot in the ass by twenty-four darts. Another tranquilizer had to be found.

“You’re calling from where?” the operator asked incredulously. 

“Vietnam, ma’am,” Gantt replied. “I want to talk to the Cleveland Zoo.” It was hard for him to keep the edge out of his voice. He had been on the phone for a little over eleven hours, and had talked to three different zoos, trying to locate the right tranquilizer for the elephants. Dees was on the extension, both feet propped up on Sergeant Bennett’s desk, phone cradled in his neck. He had all the paper clips in the dish on Bennett’s desk linked into a chain seven feet in circumference, and was starting to work on a string of paper dolls. 

The first hour was spent trying to convince military operators, who must have justification, that the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) had a valid reason for wanting to discuss elephant tranquilization with someone twelve thousand miles away, in the States.

Finally he got through to Cleveland. He was informed that an experimental drug had been tested in Africa, a high-intensity morphine derivative, which could knock out any elephant known, in under ten seconds. 

“Yessir, yessir,” he said, fighting the sleep in his bones, furiously scribbling notes. “The name of the drug is M-99, and it is manufactured by Reckitt’s and Sons. Where is Reckitt’s and Sons?” He paused to listen to the reply. When it came  the pencil dropped from his fingers and he laid his head down on his desk, slowly beating on it with his left fist.

Dees whistled a long, slow whistle. When the conversation was over, he said, “Well, it took us twelve hours to call the States. You wanta wait until tomorrow to call Hull, England?”

“Yeah,” said Gantt. “We’ll wait until tomorrow, or maybe even the day after. Is the bar closed yet?”

“Yep,” said Dees. “Gawd! England!”

  They made the call to England from my shop, where we put out the Group magazine, and had a number of phones, so they could talk. I listened on an extension. Damnedest thing I ever heard. First the call had to be relayed through Saigon, then Honolulu, San Francisco, Washington, New York, the French city of Navarre, and a couple of others. The last thing we heard was the operator in Bristol, England, saying, “Wheah? Viet Nayam?” We couldn’t hear Hull, and had to relay through the Bristol operator. 

The upshot of the call was that Recketts and Sons had the drug, and it was everything claimed. All the 5th Special Forces Group had to do was procure a narcotics import license through the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and we were in business. 

That took about six weeks. 

By the time the change from air drop to air move had been announced, the British SPCA was picketing the American Embassy in London and stories like the following appeared in the British Press:


by London Express Service

London, January 18, Authoress Mable Raymond-Hawkins deals with hundreds of animal problems at her 68-acre Sussex Animal Welfare Centre—“anything from hamsters to horses.” 

When she heard about the elephant drop into Vietnam, Mrs. Raymond-Hawkins, 65, stormed into the U.S. Embassy in London with a “Jumbo” sized complaint. 

“It’s completely inhuman,” the lady protested, “to parachute four five-ton elephants in crates into thick Vietnam jungle. 

Said Mrs. Raymond-Hawkins, “I’m not a woolly sentimentalist about animals. I can look a dead elephant in the face — but not a maimed one.” 

“Their poor pillar-like legs would take a terrible jar.

“This has nothing to do with my feelings about the war,” she said. “A sense of justice is involved – justice for elephants, and I’m on their side.”

“They’re rioting in London about the elephants, and the British Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is sending a delegation to protest our cruel and inhuman treatment of them. We got a call from the embassy last night,” said Doc Tsoulis, the Group Surgeon. 

“That certainly puts this whole protest business in perspective,”  Gantt said, now completely numb to shock.

“When you gonna drop the elephants?” Doc asked.

“Air-move, not air-drop. Please don’t say air-drop. I don’t ever want to hear those two words in that particular sequence again.” His face was gray.

“Air-move then?”

“As soon as the M-99 gets here.”

After a cable from the State Department, without consulting me, Gantt, or anybody else in Group, a U.S. embassy spokesman inaccurately explained the “jumbo drop” to the press. In their version two of the four elephants flown to Vietnam would be carried in nets slung under helicopters and landed at their “thick jungle destinations.” No parachuting was involved. 

The elephants would help Vietnamese rebuild villages destroyed by bombing.”

There were no bombed out villages near Tra Bong. We were not trying to correct a mistake; we were just trying to help people. 

Many people in the States, perhaps most, believed the U.S. was killing off thousands of innocent people, that Vietnam was an eroding wasteland. There was massive social dislocation attributable to the war, but we had stringent rules of engagement designed to avoid civilian casualties. We lost a lot of guys because of those rules, tens of thousands. 

It was my hope that this elephant story would give us the hook we needed to make the point that the U.S. was going to elaborate lengths to help the Vietnamese. 

Operation Dumbo Drop Trailer