Jim Bolen SOG Interviews Part 3 – Nights in the Jungle on Vietnam War Covert Operations.
Above Photo: Tiger approaches jungle camera trap (nationalgeographic.com)
Jim Bolen is a former Special Forces operative and team-leader, who went on over 40 dangerous and top secret SOG missions to the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, being extracted under fire from over 30 of them.
A highly decorated soldier, Jim has also written a remarkable account of his life, before, during and after his time in Vietnam. Click here for Amazon: No Guts, No Glory.
PAL: What was it like being in the jungle at night when you were on your missions?
JB: I loved the jungle at night. When we were able to see the sky, which was very seldom, it was filled with stars that you don’t see when you live close to human population, it was beautiful. The noises and smell of the jungle to me were very relaxing. Also the most important thing was that you had made it through that day, making the right decisions, or you had been lucky, without getting your team or yourself killed, wounded or captured.
Once darkness settles in and you are dug in to a bunch of heavy jungle vegetation you have a relatively false sense of safety.
PAL: What factors dictated when you’d start looking for your Remain Overnight (RON) position before darkness fell?
JB: The day would be about over and we only had an hour or so of communication with our FAC (Forward Air Controller) left in our area. We only had communications 2 or 3 times a day. The FAC would come on station and do a high flyover for about an hour just close enough to us to pick up our radio contact but not close enough to give the NVA any reason to suspect there was a team in their area.
The evening communication was the most important to us and we always tried to get our location pinned down just in case something happened in the night. That way, if the next morning there was no radio contact from us, our FOB (Forward Operating Base) would have a starting point to begin looking for us. We also wanted to get any important intelligence back to our FOB while it was fresh, or in case something happened to us and it never got back at all.
PAL: What kind of RONS would you choose?
JB: RON’s are normally easy to find, just look for a place in the jungle that even an animal would not sleep in and that is your spot. A RON location should give you enough jungle coverage not to be seen of course, but another thing you want is a location that is so hard to get into that even an animal would wake you if it tried to get to you. The last thing you look for is a comfortable location; your own common sense should tell you that’s wrong.
The reason I mention this is because of a really stupid mistake I made one night on picking a RON position which I will talk about later.
I remember one mission to a mountainous area of Laos. The enemy trails were either in the valleys or over the top of the mountain ranges, which left only the steep, sloped side of the terrain for a RON. There were many nights I slept with a tree between my legs so I didn’t roll down the side of a mountain.
PAL: What was your standard security setup overnight?
JB: Every team had their own idea of the safest way to provide night time security. I would say most teams used a form of guard duty at night with 2 hour shifts. Some teams would put out Claymore mines in all four directions about 10 meters from the center of the team for perimeter protection. Normally all six men laid close enough to each other to be able to touch one another without getting up.
The two Americans were always in the middle surrounded by the indigenous personnel. I remember on one of my first missions I was laying next to one of my indigenous men when, in the middle of the night, he had a bad dream and started screaming at the top of his lungs, scaring the crap out of me and the rest of the team.
I quickly rolled over on top of him and put my hand over his mouth at which point he woke up. He said that he was having a nightmare about his family who had been killed by the NVA.
My way of having my team spend the night was a little different to the other teams.
In the beginning I used the conventional method of guard duty with 2 hour shifts. The fact that you believed there was someone awake watching for your safety made you sleep a little deeper. But I found 90% of the time that one or more of the indigenous personnel would fall asleep during his shift.
With that in mind I felt it was safer not to have guard duty and everyone, especially the Americans, slept a little lighter.
As far as the Claymore mines were concerned I never used them either. I did not think the extra weight versus carrying ammunition or water was worth it. Putting out Claymores at night can be a little noisy and the same can be said for retrieving them the next morning. I don’t think I ever heard of any team using their Claymores at night but I could be wrong.
PAL: Would you check in with anyone before you laid up for the night?
JB: Depending on what time the FAC was in our area, to give our evening status report mentioned above, that would be our last contact until the next morning. This report was given about an hour before dark.
My team would then be set in a defensive position until just before dark (the two Americans in the middle and the four indigenous personnel 10 or 20 meters out on all four sides). One of the things my other American and I would do right at dark was to take our shirts off and peel off the ground leeches.
No matter how tight you tried to keep your fatigues they always got in. Ground leaches are small – about 2 inches long and are heat seeking missiles. When you sit down during the day for a break you will see them immediately surround you. You get to a point where it is too much trouble trying to keep them off during the day so that is something you do right before dark. They aren’t nocturnal so they are one of the few things that don’t seem to bother you any more at night.
PAL: What about food?
JB: The food we carried was very slight. We all carried indigenous rice which came in a clear plastic bag. With a decreased appetite, because of our situation, there was enough for 3 or 4 meals in each bag; it also could be because it was so bad.
We would prepare the bags ahead of the mission. We would add water, tons of hot sauce, salt and pepper. Two of those bags lasted a mission. I would also carry 8 to 10 hot chocolate mix packets, my personal favorite, which had no American markings. I would mix them with water in the packets into a paste for breakfast and evening meals.
PAL: What time would you wake up and move out the following day?
JB: The jungle would wake you up just before first light in the morning. Everything started to become alive at that time. First thing you would do when you wake up is not move. Then you make very small movements, trying to feel if you have acquired a pet during the night.
Your body heat attracts a lot of unwanted guests in the jungle, from what we call “click clicks” to hot dog size centipedes that will make you very sick if they bite you. The click clicks look like small one inch lobsters and eat web gear and the centipedes crawl into your arm pits at night for the warmth.
PAL: Did you have any memorable incidents with these creatures at night?
JB: I never had any centipedes but I did have an episode with click clicks. I woke up in the morning during a mission and, after checking myself out, I sat up and looked on the ground behind me. There must have been a hundred of what we call click clicks, right where the middle of my back was and in a big clump. You sleep on your web gear in position in case you have to make a hasty departure in the middle of the night. The click clicks had chewed a big percentage of my web gear.
I believe they are actually a species of Stag Beetle and they eat decayed wood and fruits. I don’t know why they chose to chew on my web gear that night.
Fortunately I always carried a small amount of nylon parachute cord and was able to piece things together.
Also we’d check that no small snakes had crawled up in the small of our backs to stay warm during the night.
PAL: After that procedure, what was your usual early morning routine?
JB: Once you have determined you were pet-free or had discarded what you had acquired during the night, you would make sure everyone was quiet and listen for a short time. If there appeared to be no enemy movement close by, everyone would fix their breakfast.
My breakfast consisted of two pouches of hot chocolate mix, which I ate cold, from Okinawa. I would put both pouches into one and mix in a little water and stir it with my special spoon, from my previous interview, into a paste.
I am a chocoholic so breakfast was my favorite meal. All this is done in about a half hour. Next we would code up a message for the FAC who would be on station around 7 AM.
We would give him our direction of movement for the day and any troop activity that we might have heard during the night. Once that was done we made sure our area was not disturbed and that we weren’t leaving any evidence of us being there and headed out in our planned direction.
PAL: In another encounter mentioned in your book, you say you set up a RON position, in Cambodia, only to realize you were on the fork of two high speed trails, and just before dark you were suddenly surrounded by 100 NVA troops who set up camp around you. How close were they to your position?
JB: Like I said previously, finding a safe RON position is good common sense. Well in this case I did not do a very good job. After sending our last communication that day, the FAC left our area and we kept moving for another hour or so.
We crossed a stream about 4 feet wide and moved up an embankment about 10 feet high. This put us higher than the side of the stream we came from. We moved along the stream, which is not smart (only bad things can happen around water because that is where all predators feed). In a few minutes we moved into an upside down “Y” where two streams met. We were in the middle of the “Y”. It was really a nice spot, the kind you would take your girlfriend for a picnic. The point area where I had decided to RON in had some large logs, 18 inches high, from fallen trees on both sides of the point and we had heavy jungle behind us plus we crossed no trails to that point. I felt comfortable because we had not seen any signs of the enemy.
I did not send my indigenous out ahead to check because they would have to cross the stream on each side then come back and sleep with wet uniforms. Again, without any enemy activity my comfort level was good. That was really big mistake.
PAL: Why was that as mistake?
JB: When spending a day behind the enemy lines without any evidence of activity, you can get lulled into a false sense of security.
We just finished our normal routine before dark and getting comfortable when all of a sudden there were sounds of people in front and one side of us. The jungle was just sparse enough that we could see about 30 feet, and what we saw scared the hell out of me.
We saw a very large unit of NVA moving in and setting up their camp for the night. My first and biggest concern was whether they were going to send scouts to verify that the area around their bivouac site was clear. Apparently they did not want to get wet either or they just felt safe.
The fact that they did not send out security I felt safe for the moment. As long as we were lying down we were out of sight. My next thought was what their direction of movement in the morning going to be. We discussed our position and we all thought the best thing would try and sneak out after midnight. The fact that we saw no enemy activity that day getting to our location I felt it was best to back out the way we came in.
We waited nervously until around midnight. There was a moon out, so there was enough light coming through the jungle canopy so you could see about 5 to 10 feet in front of you. We moved back down our side of the stream until we thought it was safe to cross back over. Again the reason we went back the way we came in was we did not know what lay ahead of us and we knew there was no enemy activity the way we came.
It wasn’t long after we crossed the stream, when I thought we were okay, that we must have been heard going through the jungle, probably by an NVA perimeter security detail, which opened fire in our direction. I am sure they were firing at sound and not sight. As quietly as I could I made sure no one returned fire, because that would have given them our exact location and they would have been able to flank us.
We closed up our position to arms length with each other not to lose anyone.
It is scary enough going through the jungle during the day but at night it is much, much worse.
PAL: Later, you were chased through the jungle all night by this much larger enemy force. How close did they ever get to catching up with you? And were you just bothered about getting away, rather than setting up diversions or booby traps for them?
JB: When being chased by the enemy at night, through a jungle where you have no idea what lies in front of you, there isn’t enough time to set up booby traps, unless you’re in a Hollywood movie.
Not only do you have to hope that you do not run into another faction of the enemy, you worry about the terrain or wild animals and what type of crap you could be getting yourself trapped in.
That night, the NVA were right on our tails, just meters away, firing blindly at our location hoping we would return fire to find our exact direction of movement. They kept probing the jungle with gunfire for our location for a couple of hours. I imagine they were just as concerned as we were, moving through the jungle at night and not being able to see.
After a few hours it appeared we had evaded the enemy; we kept moving although at a little slower pace. Around four in the morning we stopped and hoped to get at least a couple hours of sleep. Believe me, we were all exhausted from stress. We were not sure about how good our new RON position was, but it had to do. I felt we had put enough distance between us and the NVA and I did not want to chance going through the jungle any more that night.
After a couple of hours of rest, and some sleep, it was becoming daylight and I knew we had better start heading towards our target but with the knowledge there was more enemy activity than the previous day.
PAL: Was it only enemy troops you had to worry about in the jungle at night?
JB: No. One night, during a RON, right before dark, one of my indigenous personnel brushed a deadly Pit Viper off my pack. We were in heavy bamboo and I would say that I was lucky not to have been bitten. Again the centipedes, other small snakes and of course the click clicks.
But the strangest encounter we had was with a tiger in Cambodia.
We had just talked to the FAC and used a mirror so we could communicate with him and pinpoint our position. The reason we could use the mirror was we were in some very tall elephant grass. The grass was tall enough to conceal us easily but the FAC could look down and see us.
This would be our last communication for the day. We were in the process of finding a RON position.
The FAC radioed back to us to be careful because he could see there was a big tiger following us through the grass. We couldn’t see or hear it and had no idea it was stalking us at that point.
When we found a place bad enough to RON in, my 1-1 and I decided to sit back to back almost the entire night to cover each other just in case. It was a little while after dark when we all heard the tiger. He started walking around our perimeter about 30 feet out. He was actually moaning with a deep low sound.
For some reason that tiger scared me more than the NVA, because the enemy will normally stop once they are being fired, at but a tiger will just keep coming.
You can reason with a human being but not an animal that wants to eat you. I don’t think the tiger cared what side we were on, NVA or American. I felt that I had the advantage over an NVA soldier but I wasn’t so sure about a huge tiger.
We had our silenced weapon ( the silenced M-3 Grease Gun below) put together just waiting for him to charge, but thankfully he stayed outside our perimeter all night.
PAL: Why did you have to put your silenced weapon together?
JB: We always carried at least one silenced weapon which was broken down in pieces and distributed among the team to spread the weight. The reason for the silent weapon was in case someone happened upon our location; we could kill them without giving away our position. I never thought I would need it because of a tiger.
Weight was always a big problem on our missions, which was the reason we generally didn’t carry large weapons such as the M-60, large amounts of claymores or hand grenades, on standard missions.
I weighed my standard gear one time and it was over a hundred pounds.
PAL: Did you hear of other tiger attacks on SOG missions in the jungles of Laos and Cambodia?
JB: I don’t think they were that common, but I heard of one indigenous team member from another FOB being pulled out of the RON position in the middle of the night screaming. The team members chased the tiger away. The indigenous member only had slight wounds but was scared to death.
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