The Jim Bolen Interviews: Part 2 – Surveillance Missions to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Above Photo: Surveillance photo of a North Vietnamese armored car on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (U.S. Air Force photo).
Jim Bolen is a former Special Forces operative, who went into Laos and Cambodia on dangerous and top secret SOG operations to the Ho Chi Minh and Sihanouk Trails during the Vietnam War. He was a recon team leader and went on over 40 SOG missions, 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. Amazon: No Guts, No Glory.
PAL: What were your immediate actions once your team hit the ground after being inserted by helicopter, far behind enemy lines?
JB: When you leave the chopper you are prepared for the worst and ready for it, anticipating enemy contact. If it does not happen then that is the first positive thing on your mission. Once on the ground you and your team head to the cover of the jungle. You, your team and the insertion pilots all know what your direction of movement will be. This is gone over prior to the mission, in briefings.
The only time this would change is if contact with the enemy was made right after insertion. This could also change if you were inserted next to an enemy compound, even though it might be empty, which was not visible from the air due to the heavy canopy cover.
PAL: Roughly how far from your target would you be dropped by the helicopter?
JB: Normally I would like to be at least a 2 day walk away from my target. If you are inserted too close to your prime target it does nothing but stir up the enemy.
PAL: What was it like once you’d been safely inserted and the chopper and the gunships had flown off?
JB: First I will tell you that the best sound in the world to a SOG team member is the sound of a Huey; it has a very distinctive sound. To a team member that sound is life support. Once that sound leaves you realize you’re on your own. I don’t think anyone can imagine the anticipation stepping off a chopper behind enemy lines and not know if you were walking into a trap. Then, once on the ground, heading to the cover of the jungle hoping no one was there waiting for you.
You start moving through the jungle in your pre-planned direction, never knowing what was going to be next. Once a little ways off the insertion LZ, I would have my team set up a defensive perimeter and sit and listen for any movement around us. This would tell us if we were compromised at the time of insertion. If we were, obviously we wanted to be as close as possible to the LZ we came in on.
After a short time, if no enemy presence was detected, we continued on our mission.
During the day you have some radio contact with the FAC (Forward Air Controller) which gives you some false feeling of comfort and support. At night, at the RON position (remain over night), there is no contact and you are completely on your own. Believe it or not I really enjoyed my nights in the jungle. It gave me time to think about my life and family.
I always felt the safest when the jungle was busting with noise. That meant we got in without disturbing the environment and usually no enemy were around.
PAL: What was the closest an enemy soldier came to you in the jungle without you being discovered?
JB: The closest I came to an NVA soldier, that I didn’t shoot or kill, was probably the wire tap mission which I talk about in my book.
We found a wire between two NVA regiments and they had a small 2 foot wide trail with the wire in the center. This small trail was located in between two large, heavily-used trails that were each about 10 feet wide.
My interpreter and I lay next to the small trail with the wire. We had the small trail on one side of us, then, about 20 feet away, we had the high speed trail on the other side of us, and we stayed in this small confined area. I had the rest of my team move out of the area because of the heavy enemy activity. Every couple of hours the NVA would send a couple of soldiers down the wire trail to make sure there were no taps on it; this is standard for any military unit. We had to use a hard clip-on tap for the wire.
My interpreter and I would listen in on their conversation with head phones, and, for some reason, thankfully, they would radio ahead when they were going to check the wire. When we heard them coming I would reach out and take the tap off until they passed us, then I replaced it. I would say I was within 2 or 3 feet from the enemy at that time. We stayed there like that for a couple of very intense days. We ate and used the restroom lying down.
PAL: Did you ever see any evidence of Russian or Chinese personnel on your missions? Or other non-Asian fighters?
JB: No, although once we were in a huge firefight when we bumped into a larger NVA unit. We immediately laid down a large volume of covering fire. Some of the NVA that we hit were wounded and crying out for help. My interpreter said one of them was talking in Russian. There was a large bounty for a Russian POW or body. We wanted to try and get to the wounded Russian but we were too outnumbered.
PAL: In your book you mention being chased and shot at by a large group of NVA when you were on a prisoner-snatch mission in Cambodia. What happened in that engagement?
JB: The mission was a prisoner snatch so we were pretty aggressive in our movement, hoping for contact.
We spotted a large road that was being used by trucks, plus foot traffic. We started moving along the side of the road hoping to make contact with the enemy. It wasn’t long before I spotted a couple of NVA apparently on break.
As I moved closer to try and capture one of them, they saw me and open fire. They both were shooting at me but I was only hit once through my left arm. Apparently they were a tail element of a large force of 50 to 100 men. We killed the two NVA who were firing at me. Then the enemy unit quickly started to encircle us, and that is when I told my team to take off down the dirt road away from the enemy.
I covered my team until I saw they were far enough down the road, and had moved into the jungle. This is when I took off running as fast as I could down the center of the road. The reason I ran down the center of the road was to get out of the area as fast as I could. I could not go into the jungle on either side because at that point I was not sure how far the NVA had encircled me.
I will never forget that run. It seemed the whole jungle opened up with machine gun fire. I could hear the bullets flying by my ears and all around me. The bullets were tearing up the road and throwing dirt in the air.
All I could think of was when was the bullet going to hit me in the back of my head as I was running. I remember they had one or two large caliber machine guns that sounded like cannons every time they fired. Once I got down the road far enough to rejoin my team, we made our way through the jungle looking for an LZ. About 6 to 8 hours later we were picked up.
The only wounded was one of my indigenous personnel, Mang Bein, who had a bullet through his wrist and I was shot in my arm. I did the best I could to patch us up. Fortunately as a team leader I carried syringes of morphine; a couple of those and you feel no pain.
The worst thing was my CAR-15 (rifle). Having been shot in my left arm, there was a small hole in front but when the bullet came out it had torn a large hole in the back of my arm, my blood ran down onto the red hot receiver and stained it. I still remember the smell of my blood cooking off my weapon.
PAL: What was running through your mind at that stage? Is it all a blur or are you able to keep a cool head under such intense fire?
JB: Remember that I had had over 40 classified operations under my belt by this time as a team leader. I had also been involved in at least 40 fire fights with the NVA so getting shot at was not something I was surprised about.
I also had 2 Purple Hearts already, so I was just glad I could move and fight with my wound. The first thing you realize as a SOG team member is the only chance you have of surviving is as a team. In order to have any chance you must control your team and keep in contact with your support personnel in the air and keep them posted on what is happening on the ground.
Truthfully though, I really did not expect to get out of this alive. I was just waiting for the one shot that ended it all. Due to the heavy jungle canopy it took us quite a while to find a suitable LZ to get extracted.
PAL: Did you ever see POW cages or facilities such as the one below, behind enemy lines?
JB: This picture reminds me of the many different type of compounds I saw in Laos and Cambodia.
I found installations under the jungle canopy that would hold thousand of men, but they were built for and used by North Vietnamese Army soldiers in transit only. They were fairly modern and even had volleyball courts.
I saw something similar to the prison cage in this photograph on a mission where I was supposed to find 4 German nurses who had been captured. We got there a day or two late but their cage was still there.
PAL: Can you say anything more about the mission to find the four German nurses?
JB: Just that I hated the fact that we were too late. My indigenous troops said, by looking at the encampment, we were a few days late and that they had moved out of the area.
I do not know if they were ever rescued but I sure hope so.
PAL: A quote in your book, when you talk about loading tracer rounds into your rifle on SOG missions into Laos and Cambodia. To an objection that it might give your position away, you say “anyone I ever killed in Vietnam was eyeball-to-eyeball anyway.” Can you explain?
JB: Yes. The jungle was so thick in the areas we worked you could be walking for hours and be going right besides a major NVA trail, with the enemy on it, and not know it.
Some of the old timers, support personnel from Korea, would be surprised about my tactics but again I would explain that in Korea you could see clearly for 100’s of meters. Some of my kills were 10 feet away while others were 30 feet. But still we, the enemy and I, knew the color of each others’ eyes at the moment of contact.
The huge advantage of the tracer rounds is being able to shoot from the hip. I always carried my weapon with what I call a jungle sling. My weapon is slung under my left arm, I’m left handed, and my left hand is always on the pistol grip ready to fire. I cannot tell you the times I ran into the enemy and was able to kill them while they were raising their weapon to fire.
With the tracers I would walk my rounds into them firing from the hip. I still remember my first kill with the tracer rounds. My point man and I were crossing a small trail. We crossed just a few feet down from a bend in the trail. As I stepped on the trail 3 NVA came around the bend with their weapons on their shoulders.
Again as they were bringing their AK’s down I fired from the hip. I’m sure this will be hard to believe, but I still can see the tracer rounds hit the first man. I put 3 holes across his chest. We were so close, 10 or 12 feet, I could see smoke coming out of the bullet holes as he was going down. I will never forget that.
I continued firing and killed the other two.
PAL: It is clear in your book that Lt Kroske was a good friend of yours. Do you know the circumstances of how he ended up MIA in 1969?
JB: A month or two after the above photo was taken he was on a prisoner snatch.
While sitting on a high speed trail he spotted an NVA soldier coming down the trail towards him. He jumped out, yelling to the NVA to stop. While trying to grab him I was told the NVA shot him numerous times in the chest. The other American and indigenous personnel tried to get to him but at that time other Vietnamese soldiers opened fire on the remaining team. The balance of the team got out, but Lt. Kroske’s body was never recovered. That is why it took so long to declare him KIA.
Lt. Kroske was an all American young man who died a hero doing what he could for his country. He was just one of the many brave SOG men we lost.
PAL: Another good friend of yours, and your team interpreter, Nay Bunn, was killed on a SOG mission when you were on leave in the US. Do you know the circumstances of how and where he was killed?
JB: He was invited to go on a mission while I was on leave back in the US. He was not required to, but the team leader, Sgt. Lewelling, was a friend of mine and Nay Bunn, our FOB’s best interpreter, was just glad to help out.
Sgt. Lewelling said while on the ground in Cambodia there was just one shot fired and they never saw where it came from. It hit Nay Bunn in the chest and even though Sgt. Lewelling, who was also a Medic, tried to give mouth to mouth, Nay Bunn died there in the jungle. It was a huge loss to me personally and to our outfit, he was a great warrior.
The NVA who fired that shot must have been a spotter because there was no more contact after that. I have pictures of Nay Bunn on my desk that I look at every day. He wanted to come to America with me, and I supported that thought and told him I would be his sponsor. I still wonder what my life would have been like if he made to the US.
PAL: One of the most remarkable stories in your book was how you couldn’t find a truck trail in Cambodia and you had the audacity to approach a local villager with your interpreter, and ask for DIRECTIONS, which he then gave you. Of course, you pretended to be a French soldier fighting for the NVA, and you were carrying an AK47 and didn’t wear a US uniform, but nonetheless this was a brazen tactic to employ. How did you come up with it?
JB: The other teams had been trying to find this road for some time. My team just got back from a mission and they asked if I would mind going right back out, normally we get a few weeks off between missions. Of course I said we would go.
After a few days I was just tired of looking for this truck road. There were other teams also trying to find the location and direction of this road with no success.
We spotted this small trail leading into a Cambodian village and saw a lot of villagers moving on it. We watched the trail for a couple of hours and did not see any enemy movement at that time. I got my point man, who could speak the local dialect and who was dressed like an NVA, and he and I moved up to the edge of the trail, and waited for a villager. When we found one coming down the trail we stopped him and asked if he knew of the road.
It was funny the way the villager kept looking very nervously at me. My point man just told him not to worry because I was a French adviser helping the NVA. He bought that story and gave us the location of the road. He showed the location to us on our map, which was an old French map, and I understand the road was bombed with success.
The reason why I called this story “The Wheelbarrow” mission in my book, is because when we got back to our FOB (Forward Operating Base) the crowd that came to meet the team was larger than usual. Teams not in the field always came to meet incoming units. The Commanding officer, LTC Earl Trabue, headed up the group and he was pushing a wheelbarrow.
I asked what the wheelbarrow was for, and he said,” to put your balls in; they must be huge”. I remember that story fondly.
PAL: Did you or any other SOG team ever try this again?
JB: I don’t think so or at least I never heard of anyone else trying it, but knowing how SOG members are, I would not be surprised. The men of SOG were very intelligent and brave. To this day I am very proud to be part of such an organization.
PAL: Was there a difference between missions into Laos and missions into Cambodia, for example the jungle cover, or the threats, or the preparedness of NVA and VC, who may not have been expecting to be ambushed in Cambodia?
JB: The terrain in Laos was more mountainous, whereas Cambodia was flatter and rolling. The jungle was pretty much the same. It definitely was more tiring trying to move stealthily in the mountain areas, and sleeping on mountain sides was a little uncomfortable.
In Laos, it seemed, the NVA were more concerned about getting to Cambodia. The NVA camps were used more for transit than permanent lodging. I did not encounter as many villagers in Laos as I did in Cambodia. That was probably due to the terrain.
In Cambodia, movement was easier because of the terrain, but the jungle was heavier. I saw more villages and there was much heavier traffic, both civilian and NVA, on the trails. I believe the NVA were a little more on the alert in Cambodia maybe because they were preparing to infiltrate into South Vietnam.
Again this is just what I experienced on my missions. Other teams may have a completely different outlook.
PAL: Did you have any or much respect for the VC or NVA as fighters?
JB: They were a formidable enemy. The NVA would train with wooden weapons, walk hundreds of miles through Laos and Cambodia with a bag of rice, infiltrate South Vietnam and fight like hell with no air support or artillery, then turn around and walk back north. The South Vietnamese had the best of our weapons, food, air support, artillery, and us, and we still lost. That just shows what a properly motivated enemy could do.
Next Jim Bolen SOG Interview: Nights in the Jungle.
Jim’s book can be bought here 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 possible 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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