The Jim Bolen SOG Interviews Part 9 – A Night Insertion by Helicopter Inside Cambodia.
Above Photo: A Spooky gunship lays down a cone of fire near MAC-V Team 21 Compound in Pleiku, Vietnam, 1969.
Jim Bolen was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK (see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/)
First I would like to say that of all my 40 plus classified SOG missions as a team leader and coming out from Laos and Cambodia over 30 times under fire, this operation seems to haunt me more than any of the others.
I think it is not because it was so hazardous, because most of my operations were, but because this is one mission that once I left the strut of the chopper that night I was not in control of anything. I was like a puppet on a string.
Around the 10th of November 1968, one of our reconnaissance teams in Cambodia radioed back to headquarters that they had spotted a communications wire running between two large enemy units.
The two regimental size units of the People’s Army of North Vietnam (NVA) were west of Pleiku inside of Cambodia. They were suspected to be staging for another attack in Central Viet Nam.
Due to the way the wire was placed it was thought this was a permanent communications link being used by both these NVA units in their respective staging areas. Because of this it was thought a wire tap device that wasn’t a hard tap (which hooked on the wire – see image below) but a sensor type device, which would continue working without detection over a long period of time, should be used.
I have looked for a picture of this specialized wire tap unit but to no avail. The best way to describe the unit is, it comes in an oversized briefcase. It runs on a long lasting battery. It has three sensors about the size of a hot dog each with wires connected to the base unit.
These sensors were to be planted under the communications wire, and the wires and sending unit itself would be buried a few feet away from the wire to avoid detection. The great thing about this unit was it was undetectable by the enemy and it was automatic. Once a signal was sent down the wire by the enemy it turned itself on and the wire tap then relayed the communications to a monitoring aircraft called a Blackbird, a special C-130 used by the CIA, which was orbiting somewhere 24/7 over Cambodia.
I’m sure these listening devices were extremely expensive and that’s why they were only used on a permanent enemy location.
It took some training to fully understand how to place the unit to make sure it operated properly.
Our company commander asked if I would consider infiltrating that area at night with a special permanent wiretap device. I asked Lt. Kroske, a new officer in our unit who I became friends with the day we met, if he wanted to go. Our commander explained to us that this type of operation, rappelling into enemy territory at night from a chopper with a specialized wire tap device like this had never been done before and that it would be very dangerous.
Of course, we both said yes. An operation like that was what Lt. Kroske and I both found challenging and exciting. To me this is what I came to Viet Nam for. I considered myself very lucky to be part of this operation.
This special permanent wiretap device, as I said above, was designed to be planted in the ground under the wire to monitor the communications without having to be attached to the wire itself. It was better than a hard tap device because the enemy inspected the wire periodically for hard tap devices.
We made radio contact with the team already in Cambodia that had spotted the communications wire, and they agreed that at midnight they would place a strobe light on the wire, in between the enemy units, so our chopper pilot would be able to spot the area and allow us to rappel into place.
The extraction plan was for Lt. Kroske and I to unhook as soon as we hit the ground so the chopper would not draw too much attention. We were to move to the wire, hopefully we would be on top of or close to it to see the strobe light, and install the wire tap device, conceal the placement and leave the area undisturbed as much as we could and move as far away from that location.
We wore our normal defensive web gear and took only a little food and water, about one days worth, as we were supposed to be picked up the following day once we’d moved far enough out of the area and were spotted by the FAC.
We did not have back packs because the equipment took up this space. I remember I carried the main part, which was very heavy and Bill carried the accessories.
This was the plan if everything went right, but of course nothing went right. Considering the fact that everything went wrong it was a miracle we got out as unscathed as we did.
We rigged up special 250-foot-long rappelling ropes with heavy sandbags on the end. The purpose of the sandbags was two-fold: first, to break through the canopy (the overhead vegetation) and get the rope down to the ground.
Second, if we were wounded or killed during the infiltration, the bags would get caught in the snap link on our Swiss rappelling seat (fitted around our waist and legs) and they would at least be able to retrieve us or our bodies. We rigged these ropes up in the main infiltration chopper.
Four gunships were also to accompany us during the mission. These gunships were the typical Air Force 20th Special Operation Squadron Huey’s armed with individual mounted mini guns and rocket pods.
On November 12, 1968, a few hours before midnight, we headed out. We were completely outfitted before we got on the Huey, and our infiltration ride was of course the best, the 20th SOS.
I remember there was a lot of excitement from all the individuals anticipating and waiting for this operation from the other Recon teams in camp and the Air Force personnel. This was something new and everyone knew it had never been tried before.
I cannot tell you the level of excitement Lt. Kroske and I had.
Every mission is exciting but none were at this level. My main worry was to get through the jungle canopy and on the ground. I had worried that the the ropes were long enough for us to reach the ground. I really was not too concerned about the enemy, which was my mistake.
The FAC guided our chopper to what was thought to be the strobe light. I knew we were getting close because we were skimming the tree tops and slowing down after a two hour ride from the border.
We got the signal to hook up and they opened the left side door (we went out the same side). The crew told us to get on the strut of the chopper and that is when the real rush began. All we could see was black below us.
The door gunners threw the sand bags out once the chopper started hovering. Kroske and I had the end of the rope hooked to the chopper in our hands and hooked to our snap links on our Swiss seats, we waited for the rope to go slack, that meant, we hoped, that the sand bags were on the ground and not sitting 100 feet in the air on top of the canopy. Looking down in the darkness we could not tell how far we were from the tree tops.
Once the rope went slack that was our signal to go. We looked at each other and Kroske yelled something, I still have no idea what he said, and we jumped into the night.
Unfortunately, the pilot or the FAC mistakenly thought that we were over the top of the strobe light located between two enemy units. We later thought it was one of the larger fires from the enemy camp breaking through the jungle canopy.
We hovered, because of the intelligence from the team on the ground, at what we thought was a safe distance between the enemy units.
It was thought that the two enemy units were quite a distance apart – that was the reason for the sophisticated communication wire between the two. We also anticipated if the enemy heard the chopper in the distance the last thing they would want was to draw attention to their location.
The supporting gun ships were quite a ways and at an altitude that the enemy would have no idea what was going on, hopefully.
I remember when I hit the ground, I looked down to unhook my snap link, my main concern being to get off the rope. I saw Bill, barely, out of the corner of my eye, and then suddenly all hell broke loose. Apparently, we had dropped right into the middle of an enemy unit.
The enemy soldiers were grabbing at us. I could feel them on my back, legs, and arms and at the same time they were firing at the choppers overhead.
The fact that the enemy was all around us it was hard for them to fire at us, I guess, without hitting their own. I’m sure they were just as surprised as we were. I do remember, while being pulled along the ground, seeing tracer rounds going into the air towards our chopper.
As soon as the chopper that we were attached to started receiving fire, the pilot started flying parallel to the ground in order to pick up forward air speed to gain altitude.
Fortunately for Lt. Kroske and me, the sandbags did their job and kept us hooked to the chopper. Unfortunately for us, we were now being dragged through the jungle at 60 miles per hour hanging at the end of a 250-foot rope, knocking down everything in our path, from NVAs, to trees and enemy huts. Everything was a blur in the pitch blackness.
Of all the things I have done in my life, this is the only memory that still gives me chills when I think about it – which is too often.
Finally, we gained enough altitude and broke through the trees. As we were heading back to South Vietnam, the supporting gunships moved close to Lt. Kroske and me and put their lights on us to see our condition, which was not the best.
Fortunately, with the heavy canopy and moving so fast before the enemy could get a fix, especially at night, I don’t think we received any hostile fire as we headed to the closest friendly base on our side of the border.
The first thing I noticed when we cleared the canopy was that Kroske was about 20 feet above me hanging upside down and totally unconscious. (I razzed him about this later saying that because he was an officer, he hit fewer things than I did.) I am surprised that we both weren’t knocked unconscious.
I started checking my situation. The top of my left hand had been completely taken off and did not look good, and the ribs on my left side were crushed. I had a very difficult time breathing.
Naturally, I had many small cuts and abrasions all over my body as well. Imagine being tied to a four wheeler and dragged through the woods at around 60 plus miles per hour. What do you think you would look like?
That, believe it or not, was not the worst part.
While checking my Swiss seat, snap link and sandbag that was supporting me hanging under this chopper at 3,000 feet altitude and flying at 120 knots airspeed, I noticed my snap link apparently had taken a round or had been damaged and the gate which completes the ring was partially broken.
My first instinct was to try and pull myself up to secure my position in some way. Even though that might save my life there was no way I could do anything. I did not think there was any way it would hold very long.
The rest of the ride back to the border I was just waiting for the snap link to break, when I would fall far below into the jungle. That was a hell of a feeling and realization. I also knew finding my body would be impossible.
I had no way of communicating with our pilot to let him know my situation. Due to our classified location, there was no close place to land and there was no way for me to be pulled back into the chopper.
I believed I would die that night. I thought of my family and I was at peace, whatever happened. I repositioned myself the best and most painless way possible and just waited. I imagined what the feeling of a free fall would be like once my snap link broke. I had faced death many times but never like this.
Finally, after a two hour flight, I looked over my shoulder and saw lights in the distance from a friendly camp in South Vietnam. I could hear the pitch of the choppers changing and I knew we were preparing to land.
As they were flying me over the concertina wire (barbed wire) which was used for security around the perimeter of the camp, I thought my snap link would probably break now and I’d fall into the wire.
Well, I made it over the wire and the next thing I knew I was flying eight feet above the ground past APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) on either side of me at about 20 miles per hour.
This was a unit of Armored Personnel Carriers, and the crew members slept inside their vehicles. The top of an APC is open and not armored; the crew would cover it with a canvas tent at night and sleep in the bottom of the APC.
To this day I do not understand why the pilot didn’t just hover and lower us to the ground. I’m sure he did the best he could under the circumstances.
Just as I expected, upon coming in for a landing, my heels hit the side of an APC and I was thrown through the canvas cover and into the Americans sleeping inside. My first thought was to try and cut the rope so I wouldn’t be jerked through the top of the APC like it was the jungle canopy, figuring the metal APC wouldn’t give as much as the jungle.
Fortunately the door gunners cut the rope at their end just as I hit the ground or should I say landed in the APC.
All the troops in the APC knew was that someone had come through the top of their APC who was dressed in black utility military sterilized clothing in the middle of the night—he had to be the enemy.
They started screaming and beating on me. I was already in a tremendous amount of pain and I kept yelling to them that I was an American. A minute or two later, the tailgate of the APC, which could be opened from the outside, opened and the pilots and crew of my supporting choppers came to my rescue and pulled me out.
While they were carrying me away, the crew of the APC said, “What the hell is going on, who was that guy, and where did he come from?” If I wasn’t in so much pain I would have laughed at that remark.
We finally got back to our Forward Operating Base in Ban Me Thuot, where we were given treatment by our medical staff. After a couple of weeks, Lt Kroske was running ops again and, a week later, so was I.
Buy Jim’s Book Here: Amazon: No Guts, No Glory.
For a modern-day take on the Vietnam War, POWs/MIAs and Adventure Backpackers trekking into the war-ravaged jungles of Asia, see: http://peteralanlloyd.com/back-part-2/backpackers-meet-the-vietnam-war-back-screenplay-finally-finished/
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
Peter Alan Lloyd
BACK Parts 1 and 2
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