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Vietnam, War and Elephants

July 08, 2015

As we have discussed the role of elephants in the Allied campaign in World War II and the impact of the more recent conflicts in Laos and Cambodia on elephants, it is time to have a bit of a talk about Vietnam.  Looking back in history, elephants were often viewed as valuable wartime resources.  In fact some historians have referred to them as the equivalent of tanks used in modern warfare.


In the 15th century, the Vietnamese successfully defeated a Mongolian invasion through their use of war elephants.  Modern weaponry ultimately eliminated the impact the size and force of a group of elephants had on infantry soldiers.


Some fifteen years ago, I brought the Thai state oil company into my joint oil exploration venture offshore Vietnam with the state oil company of Vietnam.  In our first meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the Thai partners said their relations with the Vietnamese would be easy as they were just like each other.  I took the Thai gentleman to the window and pointed out the statue of the Vietnamese king who stopped the Mongol invasion of Vietnam and told him the Vietnamese have been at war for over 500 years and they always win.  I added the Thai people have never won a modern war because of their kind and gentle manner but that is why we love the people.


Elephants did play a more modest role in the recent conflict termed the Vietnam War by the United States and the American War by the Vietnamese.   First the South Vietnamese often rode them on patrols before the United States became more directly involved.


The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese used them to transport materials and supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail originating in North Vietnam and crossing Laos and Cambodia before reaching their destination in South Vietnam.


You will note some differences between the two photos.   Armed troops are riding the South Vietnamese elephants whereas only the elephant driver is riding the North Vietnamese elephants.  As the war was a guerrilla campaign at this juncture, it does not make a lot of sense to ride noisy elephants to a shoot out.  The North Vietnamese are many miles away from any conflict.  When the war escalated, Soviet-bloc trucks thankfully replaced elephants and bicycles as the transportation mode on the Ho Chi Minh trail since the U.S. was allegedly bombing the trail in two neutral countries.


U.S. Special Forces once transported two elephants, Bonny and Clyde, to a Montagnard hill tribe village in the Central Highlands to enable the Montagnards to pull logs to a sawmill they had built.  The two elephants were tranquilized, placed on pallets and air lifted to the village by helicopters.  It was a successful mission and only marred by the massive gas that emanated from the elephants following the tranquilizers they were given to relax them.


Captain McCahan, the Special Forces vet overseeing the medication seems to be holding his breath after the tranquilizer injection.  If you saw the movie Operation Dumbo Drop starring Danny Glover, Ray Liotta and Denis Leary, it was all about this mission.


We cannot leave our Indo China coverage without one more Rocky Air America story.  Rocky got a gig flying International Control Commission observers from Canada, Poland and India to document any violations of the Geneva and subsequent Paris Peace Accords.  It seemed like a pretty safe activity as you had one member sympathetic to each side and an alleged neutral party on board.   Ultimately, Rocky could not stand the boredom.  Finally, one day up in the air with his strange cargo, he feigned recognition of some peace accord violation on the ground, pulled out a cheap Kodak Brownie camera, snapped some pictures and pulled away.  He got a tap on the shoulder and was motioned to return to the sighting.  All of a sudden, the observers brought out their Nikon cameras and zoom lenses but saw nothing to photograph.  Upon their return to Saigon, they compared notes, concluded they had been duped and Rocky was reassigned to more hazardous duty.  That says it all about a guy who lived on a steady diet of jalapenos and Jack Daniels.

The Elephant Story purchases vintage Hmong fabric in The Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar join and applies the vintage Hmong fabric to Vietnam era fatigue jackets in memory of these courageous fighters.

Intricate design and workmanship are found in these beautiful cards, hand-made in Vietnam.

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