The Jim Bolen SOG Interviews: Reconnaissance Missions to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Above Photo: A North Vietnamese 122 mm shell hits a U.S. ammunition bunker at Gio Linh, South Vietnam. (AP)
Jim Bolen was interviewed by Peter Alan Lloyd as part of his research for BACK.
PAL: Jim, out of your nearly 50 SOG missions into Laos and Cambodia, how many of them involved some element of reconnaissance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
JB: The Ho Chi Minh Trail runs out of the South western part of North Vietnam through Laos and down into Cambodia and at one time stopped at the Cambodian border towards Kontum in South Vietnam. The Trail runs North and South and is about 50 kilometers deep from South Vietnam’s border. Normally SOG teams did not go that deep into Laos or Cambodia due to certain restrictions imposed by leaders of each country. Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia did not want to take the chance that a SOG team would run into and kill Cambodian troops.
With that in mind, every road or trail we saw was some sort of artery linked to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
PAL: Can you describe what you might see coming down the Trail on a typical mission?
JB: The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a virtual highway of enemy supplies heading South to be placed along the South Vietnamese border to be used as needed. All along the trail, supplies would be filtered off onto arteries heading into South Vietnam depending on their need. On these arteries, along the border in Laos and Cambodia, is where we would find bivouac encampments, some large enough to hold thousands of enemy soldiers. In my past interviews I describe in detail some of these areas like “The wire tap mission” and “Heavy weapons cache found in Cambodia”. Obviously along this border there was also a heavy concentration of enemy troops. That is what made SOG missions so dangerous.
I will also pass on how politics made our missions even more dangerous.
The North Vietnamese had been using the Ho Chi Minh Trail for years to prepare for the eventual attack on the South. Our bombing of Hanoi, Haiphong and of the Trail itself did help restrain the amount of troops and supplies that could be sent south. In October 1968 President Johnson announced a bombing halt on North Vietnam because of anti-war protests in the US.
Years earlier, we had planted electronic seismic sensors along the Trail coming out of North Vietnam. These sensors were monitored 24 hours a day 365 days a year by C-130 Blackbirds. The seismic sensors would pick up vibrations from truck or tank movements along the Trail.
The idea behind the bombing halt was that the North would stop the escalation of the war and slow down infiltration through Laos and Cambodia along their Military supply route, into South Vietnam. Well before the bombing halt, North Vietnam was averaging 4 or 6 trucks or tanks down the trail over a 24-hour period.
After the halt, the traffic went to over a 100 pieces of heavy equipment a day.
Reports of this increased activity went to President Johnson daily. He knew exactly what was going on, and he still did nothing to repair the situation. So much for believing in our government, the enemy and peace talks. This is what happens when politics get involved, soldiers die.
During this time we noticed more teams had to be extracted due to enemy contact. The Trail and the surrounding area seemed much more congested due to the influx of enemy soldiers and equipment.
I remember when President Nixon got into office he started up the bombing of the North again. Sorry to say this did nothing to slow down the enemy at this time. The Democrats and anti-war protesters screamed, “See, it does not help to bomb,” well, hell, no thanks to Johnson the enemy during the bombing halt had plenty of time to strengthen their forces along the South Vietnam border. It was like closing the barn door after the horse had got out.
PAL: In your book, No Guts, No Glory, you describe a particularly hair-raising introduction to reconnaissance missions in the tri-border area of Laos.
JB: At this time I was working out of FOB 2, CCC, in Kontum. This FOB’s area of responsibility was primarily Laos. After two classified mission as an assistant team leader I was given my own recon team. My assistant and I were briefed on the operation; it was a basic reconnaissance mission. This was December 1967 and it was the first time I had come under fire as a team leader.
PAL: What happened?
JB: My team had spent two and a half days in dense jungle and rolling mountainous terrain, we’d seen no signs of life on any of the trails we’d been crossing, and perhaps this lulled us into a false sense of security.
We came to a small valley with a stream along a semi-cleared area. It was noon, and time to make contact with the FAC (forward air controller). He was only in our area three times a day, early morning, noon and last light. We deployed in standard defensive break pattern, 2 Americans in the center and the 4 indigenous soldiers facing outward on four sides 5 to 10 meters out. I could not get over the fact that the jungle was so quiet and yet we saw no evidence of the enemy. The small valley we were in was surrounded by small mountains on both sides. On one side there was pretty good visibility about 20 meters. On the other side, across the stream, the jungle was very dense. I started to fill in the situation book with information from the mission to send to the FAC, when suddenly, from the visible side of our position, we came under heavy enemy fire.
PAL: How did you react?
JB: We went into our Immediate Action drill, which was that everybody unloaded a magazine of heavy fire towards the enemy. This allowed us to break contact and evade.
My point man looked at me for a direction of movement, which I gave him. We got in our normal team order and headed up the side of the mountain that was covered in dense jungle, hoping to get lost.
As we were moving the first thing I did was have my radio man contact the FAC and give him our situation. Once the FAC knew we were under fire, he immediately had the choppers at Kontum launch and head in our direction, (unlike Benghazi). They were 2 to 3 hours away. The FAC also said he was bringing in 2 A-1E Skyraiders. . Luckily we were in Laos, because we couldn’t use Skyraiders for air support when we were inside Cambodia, because Prince Sihanouk didn’t want them flying over Cambodia. I think the Skyraiders were coming from Thailand,and they were only an hour out.
PAL: What happened next?
JB: We kept moving in the same direction, up the mountain, and we also kept in touch with the FAC so he would have a general idea where we were under the jungle canopy.
Surprisingly the enemy kept pursuing us. Normally, after the first few skirmishes, the enemy would break off or at least slow down. It was only natural for the enemy to be squeamish about following us into the jungle after our initial engagement with heavy fire, into a situation with limited visibility and the possibility of walking into an ambush. I also wonder how dedicated some of the NVA were.
The way the enemy kept on us they must have been hard-core or they thought we’d seen something that they did not want us to report on. They would shoot in our direction and probe us with rifle fire, hoping we would return fire and give them our exact location. We played this cat and mouse game, where we were the mouse, for about 45 minutes, before the FAC told us the A-1 Es were on station. I then took over the radio so I could direct the strike on the enemy.
Another nice thing about having A-1E’s was that I could talk to the pilot direct and bypass the FAC.
I explained our situation to the pilot and he told me he and the other pilot were carrying cluster bombs. Cluster bombs were great, but not always the best thing to use when we were so close to the enemy. They are somewhat erratic when released by the plane. The bombs roll out of the container under the wing of the aircraft by the hundreds, then, once free from the container, the wings on the bombs spring out and each bomb finds its own direction to the ground. The drop pattern of the bombs cannot be controlled exactly.
I told the pilot I would pop a smoke grenade and asked the pilot to identify its color, which was red. We did it that way, because, if I told him the color of the smoke before I used it, and the enemy was monitoring our communications, they could pop the same color smoke and confuse the pilot.
I gave the pilot the compass direction and the distance to the enemy from the smoke he would see. The pilot identified the smoke and made their run, warning us to get down because it was going to be close – and it was. They made a very low pass to help control the disbursement of the bombs.
PAL: How close?
JB: When they made their bombing run, the ordnance was dropped so close that the ground shook and my team was covered in a foot of chopped-up, flying vegetation
PAL: What did it feel like to be so close to a bombing run?
JB: It was odd because I was talking to the pilot during and after their bombing run, and I was amazed how calm and professional he was, although they were obviously in a different position than my team. I remember he said after the run that he had expended his ordinance and was getting short on fuel and was heading home. He wished us luck and said he had a hot lunch waiting for him.
At that time I wished I had been a combat pilot.
PAL: What happened after that?
JB: During my conversations with the pilot of the Skyraider, our FAC had also seen our smoke and was looking for a LZ away from the enemy. The attack from the Skyraiders put a stop to the NVA who were chasing us, and by now our FAC had found us a LZ pretty close and also told us our choppers were on station waiting to pick us up.
The FAC guided us to the LZ and we were picked up in half an hour without another shot being fired. I felt very dissatisfied about the mission. There must have been something important there, and we did not find it.
PAL: Were you ever as close to other bombing runs on your missions?
JB: The rest of my missions were in Cambodia, so no more Skyraiders, although I have called in fast movers, Jets, with rockets and choppers with rockets and mini guns. Many a time I would be in the middle of a LZ under fire with a chopper gun ship flying low directly overhead with both mini guns blazing and getting pelted by expended bullet cartridges from the mini guns, raining down on my head.
PAL – Did you have any other memorable reconnaissance missions to the Trail?
JB: In 21 January 1968, my team infiltrated Cambodia for what we called a normal reconnaissance mission. On the first two days we noticed light enemy movement on the few trails we crossed. These were posted on our daily sit-reps for future reference. There was just enough enemy activity to keep us on alert.
On the third day, around mid-day, we came across a grassy area with sparse trees and vegetation. The grass was heavy and waist-to-shoulder high. The size of this area was about 2 football fields. It was surrounded by normal heavy jungle. I decided to go through the grassy area as I thought it would still give us enough concealment.
I took my point man and headed into the grass, leaving the rest of my team at the edge of the heavier jungle, just in case. The problem with anything in the jungle is that you’re not able to see what’s right in front of you, especially an active trail, until you’re on it.
After about 20 meters, we found a large high-speed trail that showed heavy activity. The next thing I saw was a 12-man NVA unit coming at a fast pace down the trail towards us. It was too late to do anything but open fire on them before they saw us.
My point man and I killed the first 3 or 4 on our first burst. The NVA were caught completely off guard, luckily for us. It took them only a few seconds to gain their composure and to start returning fire on us. At that, time the rest of my team was there, firing on full auto. The NVA took off running back into the jungle and left their dead and at least one wounded, along with a big surprise for us. The surprise was a 122 mm rocket launcher.
Not only were these rocket launchers of great interest to the CIA, they were also highly prized by the enemy, and could be used to devastating effect. So it was important to put this one out of commission.
PAL: Can you give an idea of the weapon’s power?
JB: The 122 mm rocket had a range of three to eleven kilometers, and it was used extensively by the NVA and the VC. The 122 mm rocket was a fin-stabilized weapon with considerable destructive power and was lethal within a 163 square meter burst area. These rockets were used not only against military installations, but also against urban areas, ports and bridges throughout South Vietnam.
Attacks by these rockets were usually of longer duration than attacks by 140 mm rockets since more than one 122 mm rocket could be launched from the same launch position when using the rocket launcher.
PAL: How close was the team carrying the weapon to you when you emerged from the grass?
JB: The NVA was moving at a fast pace and not expecting to see us, which is why we saw them first. My best estimate for the distance we were apart is about 20 to 25 feet. Again they were right on top of us before we knew it.
PAL: What did you do with the injured man?
JB: Once the balance of the NVA unit was far enough away from us, and we felt they were not coming back any time soon, we surveyed the NVA bodies and equipment that was left. The radio man immediately contacted the FAC. Fortunately it was around noon and he was in the air close to our location. He launched our choppers at Ban Me Thuot and started looking for an extraction LZ ASAP.
We made sure there was no other NVA alive, grabbed the NVA that we thought might make it and carried him through the jungle along with the 122 mm rocket launcher (that took two men) and headed towards an LZ the FAC had found for us. Unfortunately the NVA died before we got there, so we stripped him of his personal and military papers, and some of his equipment, so it could be evaluated, and we left his body there.
PAL: What kind of equipment would you take in those situations, and what information could the CIA glean from it?
JB: First we took his weapon and back pack. He was carrying a wallet with personal pictures and letters. We noticed that the men all had good uniforms and equipment and were well supplied. He had a picture of his girlfriend or wife and some letters which I could not read. All this hard intelligence was valuable to our war effort.
PAL: What happened at the extraction?
JB: We had an unusually trouble-free extraction, considering the amount of gunfire there had been when we engaged the NVA Unit. It was a little crowded in the chopper with the rocket launcher and other NVA weapons and equipment, and the funny thing was we could not close the doors on the way back because the launcher was sticking out both sides. The chopper crew liked the fact we could leave the doors open – a six man recon team can smell pretty ripe after a few days in the jungle.
PAL: What happened when you got it back to base with the weapon?
JB: To answer this, I’m going to quote a comment that was made on “Amazon” by someone, who I don’t know, who bought my book and who posted this on the comment page:
“Jim was at Omega when I arrived. Jim was as fine a SOG 10 as I recall. He is the real deal. I recall the 122 mm rocket coming in by chopper. It was quite a scene. Bolen was always a real Pro. After SOG test-fired the rocket into reinforced concrete, we knew how many inches of reinforced concrete it would penetrate. Bolen’s find caused me to build the northern launch site’s underground TOC (Tactical Operations Center) to defeat any 122 mm. TY Jim.
Bolen goes into his crazy life and his extremely sharp mind. What few men outside of SF know, is that 90 percent plus of our SF enlisted men easily qualified for OCS.
Bolen does not say much about his Omega/SOG time. His awards and letters from all commands to include the highest Viet and SOG commanders need no attaboys. He was endorsed by my CO for a commission. Read the book. Bolen was a warrior.”
PAL: Do you have any other recollections of your time on reconnaissance missions?
JB: After all the interviews I have done with you Peter, it has given me a chance to reflect on my experiences in SOG. I am 72 years old and I did not take much time in my life to remember my experiences until these interviews.
First the heroism of everyone involved with SOG from our Air partners, 20th Special Air Squadron (Green Hornets), the FACs, Indigenous personnel and of course the Americans on the recon teams.
When I think about the intellegence gathered by different SOG methods, prisoners, wire taps, plus captured weapons and killed NVAs along with the disruption of the NVA troops we encountered that were heading South, I have to believe we were responsible for saving many, many American lives. I am extremely proud to say that I am part of such a group of dedicated professional soldiers.
We were told that NVA prisoners captured and interrogated by other units all said the same thing, their greatest fear was the B-52 bomb strikes and the commando units that worked their infiltration routes.
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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.
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