The Jim Bolen SOG Interviews: Part 4 – Covert Prisoner Snatch Missions during the Vietnam War
Above Photo: North Vietnamese Army soldiers moving along a more exposed part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Normally a unit this size would have 2 NVA out front 20 to 30 meters to secure the trail.
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: No Guts, No Glory.
Jim 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/)
PAL: Jim, can you explain what SOG prisoner snatch missions were, and why they were necessary?
JB: Prisoner snatches were when SOG teams brought back, from missions into Laos or Cambodia, a live enemy soldier. The reason these prisoners were so important was for intelligence. You never knew for sure the value of the information an NVA soldier may possess, because it depended on the level of the prisoner. Was he just a low ranking individual or did he actually have important knowledge involving future enemy attacks? SOG teams usually turned their prisoners over to a unit that specialized in interrogation.
Every mission was a potential prisoner snatch mission, if the circumstances were right.
PAL: Where was the best location for trying to snatch a prisoner? Actually on the Ho Chi Minh or Sihanouk Trails?
JB: Prisoner snatches were mostly missions of opportunity. No matter have much you prepared for them, once on the ground things were never the same. In the movies the heroes have detailed maps and weeks to reconnoiter movement of the enemy. We tried to keep our missions to five or six days (that is all the water, food and ammunition we could carry) so that did not give us much time to sit on a trail. We tried to keep our exposure to a minimum.
Our enemy was in a state of constant movement South, and the best location to try for a prisoner snatch was any active trail. Sometimes smaller trails were easier because they were used by smaller units and the security was not as intense, the soldiers were more relaxed.
PAL: Were these missions especially dangerous for SOG teams?
JB: Prisoner snatches and wire taps were probably the two most dangerous missions for SOG teams. I personally was involved in two prisoner snatch missions and two wire tap missions. Now, these were missions where the sole purpose was a prisoner snatch or the placing of a wire tap and nothing else.
One out of the two prisoner snatch missions I was shot and one out of the two wire tap missions I had the top of my hand blown off plus my ribs broken. That is a 50% average and not good.
PAL: Presumably the Intelligence value of NVA captured on the Trail was local and short term?
JB: I would say the intelligence value of an enemy prisoner was “not” local or short term. Every NVA that I saw coming down the Ho Chi Minh’s trail from North Vietnam was heading to infiltrate into South Vietnam. The NVA would not stage or spend much time in one area but seemed to travel quickly to get to their destination.
So I would say that their intelligence would be fairly current. Again coming down from the North their intelligence would not have much “local” value either. The intelligence value from them would be more about NVA units and bivouac sites en-route.
There were other things about an enemy soldier of intelligence value, besides his knowledge. We were always looking to see what type of weapon they were carrying, ammunition supply they had on hand, food, condition of their uniform and, most importantly, the physical condition of the enemy soldier himself. This told us about his availability of supply and whether or not our bombing of the North was having an effect. It is easier to defeat a morally depressed and poorly supplied enemy.
PAL: Was the planning of prisoner snatches by SOG teams sometimes necessarily made up on the spot?
JB: Like I said above, every mission was a potential prisoner snatch mission. It was just luck and involved extreme danger to bring back a prisoner. SOG teams train for specific missions.
Some of the missions were executed after other SOG teams had come back with intelligence about truck or heavy foot traffic on a major trail. The SOG teams would then train attacking a truck and pulling the driver out, or, like I did, attacking a small NVA unit and trying to bring back a wounded NVA.
After about a week of preparing, the SOG team would be inserted into the area, as close as possible to the target area and hope they were not compromised going in.
Our SOG teams stayed together during our tour of duty so once we practiced something as a team it was in our play book. SOG teams, during their down times, always continued to maintain their combat readiness and would repeatedly prepare for different scenarios. We knew the only way we would make it back from most missions was by being a team and with everyone doing their job.
PAL: Roughly how many prisoner snatches did your team, RT Auger, attempt?
JB: There were only two missions that I had that were for prisoners and prisoners only. Most prisoner snatches or attempts were impromptu and reflected the present situation.
PAL: How many were successful?
JB: None I am very sorry to say.
PAL: Do you have any specific memories of those missions?
JB: We were on an area reconnaissance mission in Cambodia to look for NVA movement and active trails. On the morning of our third day my point man, Mang Khoa, stopped and motioned for me to come to his position. We had just come to a high-speed, well-used trail that showed heavy enemy traffic. We could tell it was enemy traffic by tire tracks and combat boot prints. The visibility on both sides of the trail was about 5 feet and the vegetation was chest high.
We thought this would be a good place to get pictures and give us an idea of equipment and attitude of the enemy. We moved back off the trail and laid out what we were going to do as a team as far as security and evasive movement were concerned, in case we were compromised.
I moved back towards the trail to find a good place where I could be concealed but still have visibility to the trail. Our first position with the trail was not good; we were on a bend that only allowed me to see about 10 feet each way up or down the trail. That put me into a position to be surprised.
Well I sure as hell was surprised. When I was about 5 feet from the trail, out of nowhere, this young boy, about 10 years old came flying past my location on a bike. He was wearing a military type uniform including a flop hat. My first thought was he might be a courier. I had to make the decision to quickly move out onto the trail and chase the kid down; by this time he was almost out of my sight around the bend. It is one of those times in your life you wonder if it is worth the risk. I would be putting myself and my team in a bad situation if I made the wrong decision. I had no idea if the NVA was following him or waiting for him around the corner, and I did not know how much of a fight he would put up, yelling and screaming. The kid never saw me.
Try and imagine you being in a very dangerous neighborhood, hiding in a dark alley and jumping on the first person that walks down that alley not knowing if he is alone, with a gang or what type of weapon he was carrying. Like I named my book, “NO GUTS, NO GLORY”, this time I used the better part of common sense.
As I am writing this I can still vividly see that kid on a bike riding away from me. It is one of those things that make you wonder “what if”. If I was in position and on the trail before the kid came by, no question I would have grabbed him, but the thought of running down a trail into the unknown, I just did not feel comfortable taking that risk for my team or me.
PAL: In your book, you recount one prisoner snatch attempt, where you were caught out in an exposed position as 12 North Vietnamese Army soldiers walked around a bend in the trail. What happened?
JB: On that particular mission I was hoping to find one or two NVA walking down a trail. When you jump out on the enemy you never know if there is just one or two or if it’s a point unit for a thousand troops. We had found a perfect location for a prisoner snatch. We were on a large sweeping bend in the trail that was elevated and had waist high grass. We were in a position to give hand signals to each of our positions. The idea was that I had a Montagnard about thirty feet on each side of me to give me a signal when only one or two NVA were coming down this trail. Then I was to move out of my concealed spot onto the trail in a keeling position and shoot the first NVA in the shoulder, so he could not bring his weapon up to fire, and kill the second.
I was given the signal, at least it was supposed to be the signal that only 2 NVA were moving towards me. So I moved onto the trail waiting for the enemy to walk around the corner and into my sights. I also had a Montagnard behind me facing the back side of the trail so I would not get shot by another unit coming from the other direction.
As the first NVA soldier came into my sights, I had a silenced M3 Grease gun; I was just going to squeeze off the round, when I saw what appeared to be more NVA coming around the corner towards my exposed position.
I quickly returned my sights on the first NVA as I was already committed and had no chance of getting off the trail. In my haste I shot the first NVA in the head then killed the next one behind him. Then the rest of them opened up on me but I got support from my team by that time.
My problem was I was standing in the middle of the trail firing a silenced weapon.
PAL: Why was that a problem?
JB: Because the enemy at first was not too concerned with me, because they could not hear any gunfire coming from me. That is the problem with a silenced weapon. Hearing the sounds from an automatic weapon, especially when you have tracer rounds like I always did, it is very intimidating to the person on the receiving end. Well here I was standing there like I wanted to talk to them. I am not sure “now” if they realized I was shooting at them. The best way to break contact with or intimidate the enemy is to lay down a heavy field of loud fire.
The rest of my team made up for that with their gunfire and we killed most of them. I remember a couple of them running through the jungle to get away. I went back to the first NVA I had shot and found out I had shot part of his head off on one side. When I shot so quickly I was still aiming at his shoulder but shot high. I put the handcuffs on him and tried carrying him for a while on my back but he soon died. We stripped him of his papers; he had pictures and letters in his wallet, and left him.
My Montagnard told me later he was sorry for giving me the wrong signal; he said he panicked when he saw the amount of enemy on the trail.
Remember if you do get real lucky and get a POW you still have to get him out. Dragging an enemy soldier through the jungle trying to keep him quite for hours looking for a LZ to extract from is a job in itself. When carrying the enemy on your back you have to make sure he cannot scream to give your direction of movement or get his hands on items on your web gear such as grenade pins.
JB: This mission was a prisoner snatch only. I was told it was very important and we needed current intelligence ASAP. That meant we did not take the normal precautions moving through the jungle. The idea was to make contact.
During the first evening after dark we heard a huge amount of trucks moving South in the direction we intended moving the next morning. This was exactly what we were looking for. The next morning, after a few hours of moving through the jungle, we came across a very large and well used road. We headed down the side of the road, something which we very seldom did; we wanted to come across either a point or tail element of a larger NVA unit to engage, and we found what we were looking for.
We saw a couple of NVA sitting along the road, and I started sneaking up on them, when, out of nowhere, I was hit by an enemy I did not see. I was shot through the arm. Fortunately the bullet did not hit the bone but went clear through. There was a small hole in the front but the back of my arm was blown out.
That was the problem with prisoner snatches. It was the enemy you didn’t see that killed you.
The enemy force started to encircle us. We estimated around 100 NVA, at least it sounded like that many. My team of six went into an immediate action drill which we practiced all the time. That is 360 degree intense firing.
My number 3 Montagnard got shot through the wrist; it was an ugly sight. It looked like his hand was going to come off. I put a tourniquet on his arm and gave him a shot of Morphine. Next I gave myself a shot; the Americans always carried 6 vials in their gun stock. By this time the enemy had started to surround us and was hitting us with heavy fire on both sides. This is the time when I told my team to take off running down the dirt road away from the enemy. The road was about 10 to 12 feet wide. The enemy was using it to bring supplies by truck.
I covered them until I saw they were far enough down the road to cut back into the jungle. My CAR-15 was so hot that the blood running down my arm was smoking back up in my face from the receiver group. Later I never did get the blood off my weapon; it had burned into the metal.
Then 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 I was afraid to enter the jungle because I had no idea how far the enemy had encircled me. I also wanted to get out of the area as fast as I could and to me it seemed the only logical way. I had a hundred pounds of equipment on me plus a big hole in my arm but I still think I ran pretty fast.
That would have been a touchdown run in the NFL. I will never forget that run.
PAL: Why not?
JB: Because it seemed the whole jungle opened up with machine gun fire when I started running. I could hear the bullets singing by my ears and all around me. I could hear the shots coming from three sides of me. The bullets were tearing up the road and throwing dirt in the air. All I could think about was when was the bullet going to hit me in the back of my head as I was running. I was imagining what it was going to feel like. I figured I would not feel it.
I remember they also had some large caliber weapons that sounded like cannons every time they fired.
Once I got down the road far enough towards my team, they gave me covering fire. I took my position and we made our way through the jungle looking for an LZ. My radio man had done his job and already requested an extraction ASAP as we were under fire and we had wounded.
PAL: What ran through your mind when you were under such intense fire? Was it all a blur or are you able to keep a cool head?
JB: In situations like this you just react, you do not think. If you try and think, you die. Being a team leader for as long as I had been by then, you just did your job the way you trained and you hoped for the best.
I really thought we were going to be pursued heavily by the enemy force. We had to move so fast through the jungle that I was concerned about running into enemy that might be waiting for us. At that time there was no “stealth”, it was just about getting away. In the next hour we paused only long enough to check our wounds, to stop any more bleeding, also for more morphine shots, that stuff is great.
After a few hours of movement we found a suitable LZ and the 20th Special Air Force Squadron came to our rescue like they always did (they were real heroes). Unlike Benghazi we could always count on our support team no matter what the conditions. We were extracted without any hostile fire. They took us immediately to the Army Field Hospital in Pleiku.
PAL: One of your good friends, Lt Kroske was MIA presumed killed in a prisoner snatch mission with his SOG team RT Hammer. Do you know what happened to him?
JB: He was on a prisoner snatch. While coming across a high speed trail he spotted an NVA soldier coming down the trail towards him. Lt. Kroske was a hard charger and jumped out, yelling at the NVA to stop. He did not realize the NVA soldier was not alone and, while trying to grab him, he was shot numerous times in the chest or stomach by other NVA.
The other American and indigenous personnel tried to get to him, but at that time more NVA’s had arrived and opened fire on the remaining team. The other American called out for him but he never answered. 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. He was just one of the many brave SOG men we lost. Lt Kroske went missing in February, 1969 and was finally declared dead January 1979.
Again, prisoner snatches were extremely dangerous.
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:
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