Abducted Nurses: An Unusual Rescue Mission Into Cambodia, During the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: AP Reporter Danielle Flood interviews Monika Schwinn in 1973 (© unknown)
Jim Bolen was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK.
In an interview I recently did with SOG veteran Jim Bolen, he mentioned he had led his team in an attempt to rescue a group of German nurses who were being held in a cage in the jungle by the North Vietnamese Army. (http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-1/the-jim-bolen-sog-interviews-part-2-into-the-jungle/).
The mission failed, because the nurses had already been moved, but Jim found the cage where the nurses had been held.
I did some research and discovered there was a survivor from this group of nurses; a German called Monika Schwinn. She had been captured with four other people initially by the Viet Cong, and then marched north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Cambodia, Laos and into North Vietnam.
Monika was the only survivor of the group, and the only woman POW ever to be released by the North Vietnamese.
This is a follow-up interview with Jim Bolen, specifically about that SOG rescue mission.
PAL: How did your team, RT Auger, get this rescue mission?
JB: I want to be careful how I answer this question. First I had a lot of experience as a team leader. My team and I had been very lucky on our missions, some of which were highly dangerous and resulted in information deemed to be of a very high intelligence value. I do not want to say I was better than other team leaders, they were all great. It was known however that my team, due to previous successes, was asked to handle certain missions. This was just one of them.
I believe the mission was carried out in 1968.
PAL: How much time did you have to prepare?
JB: This was a spur of the moment mission. We had just gotten back from a mission when I was asked if I could be prepared to go ASAP. My answer was yes of course. As a soldier you envision in the back of your mind what you want to accomplish during your tour. To me this would have been my greatest accomplishment if we could have saved these women.
PAL: Where was your destination – Laos or Cambodia?
JB: This was Cambodia. The NVA encampment was about an hour inside the Cambodian border by chopper and in very heavy jungle. The terrain was flat and I have no idea how close we were to the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was in our FOB 5 area of operation.
PAL: How did US Intelligence have such good intel on the nurses location?
JB: Again it has been a long time since the mission, but if I remember correctly, the Intelligence community had received the location from local villagers. It was extremely important to try and recruit local villagers, but because of the threat of NVA always moving through their area, it was hard to recruit or keep alive allies who could help in our covert operations. When we did turn an asset I am not sure exactly how they fed the information to us. This was usually handled by the CIA. I believe that in most cases intelligence from locals was rare.
PAL: What was the briefing like and did it take place the night before the mission?
JB: The briefing was short and to the point. We had very limited intelligence and no time to prepare. Sometimes teams can over-prepare for missions and find what they are looking for is gone.
PAL: Did you fly in, land and proceed through the jungle with no major problems?
JB: Yes. Of course we were expecting the worst but this particular mission was very quiet. Good for us, but bad for the nurses. This is not what we were hoping for.
PAL: Did the added urgency of this mission affect any of your usual planning or operational procedures once you were in the jungle?
JB: We definitely moved through the jungle at a faster pace because this mission was about saving lives, not taking them. We knew full well on every mission our lives were in danger but when you are trying to save the lives of innocent civilians, motivation is at a much higher level.
PAL: What did you do when you came up on the camp, before you entered it?
JB: We approached the NVA compound the same way we would any enemy encampment. We realized the trail leading into the camp was well used so we felt things looked good and the camp was occupied. We got as close as possible to evaluate the situation, which was very close, and listened for about an hour. Eventually, with no noise coming from the compound and no movement on the trail, we realized the camp was empty and started looking for evidence the nurses were there. The only evidence was the fairly large cage, the right size to hold four or five people. Our indigenous personnel assured us that everything was fresh and we just missed them by a day or so.
PAL: What could you see?
JB: We saw the cage and living quarters for a small group of NVA, probably six or so. It looked like the NVA were not there for long. I’m sure they wanted to move the nurses up the Ho Chi Minh trail as quickly as possible.
PAL: What was the cage built out of?
JB: The cage was a combination of bamboo and rattan. Size was about 6 or 8 feet square. The cage itself was backed up into a very heavy part of the dense jungle which camouflaged it well on three sides.
The living area for the NVA also merged into the jungle. There was a very small, cleared common area 4 to 6 feet square; that was one reason we believed the NVA unit guarding the nurses was small.
PAL: What evidence could you see that the prisoners had recently been there?
JB: I am not a tracker but our indigenous personnel were, but even we could see the freshness of the site. Our indigenous were sure of their assessment. The NVA did a good job policing the area as we found nothing of intel value.
PAL: Did you come out as soon as you had ascertained they were not there or did you have other objectives on that mission?
JB: Our only objective was the nurses, so we found a suitable LZ and were safely extracted asap, without problems. We were disappointed that we were unable to successfully rescue the nurses, especially having been so close and finding their jungle prison.
Jim’s Book, No Guts, No Glory, can be bought on Amazon: No Guts, No Glory.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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