SAIGON (UPI) — All for the want of a three-ton elephant or two, U.S. and Vietnamese government forces stand to lose a little Vietnamese village they have long labored to keep out of the grip of the Viet Cong.
Tra Bong desperately needs two elephants to haul timber over the rough terrain around the sleepy valley hamlet. Machines have been tested and failed. The villagers believe only elephants can do the job.
Without the beasts, Tra Bong will surely lose its one and only industry, a sawmill put into operation last year with the aid U.S. Army Special Forces, according to Green Beret Captain Scott Gantt, 29, of Cross City, Fla.
Gantt told UPI the loss of the sawmill industry would force some 400 families of Tra Bong to pull out, leaving the little valley in the hands of the Communists.
Gantt, with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has purchased two elephants for Tra Bong at a cost of 70,000 piasters (about $590) each.
There was one hitch, however. The elephants were purchased at Ban Don, about 170 miles southwest of Tra Bong, located in an isolated valley surrounded by Viet Cong in South Vietnam's central coastal plains.
The problem: How to transport two elephants to Tra Bong - not only over hostile Communist territory but through miles of military red tape.
The trip by land would be too long and too insecure because the Viet Cong firmly control the road leading into Tra Bong. The trip by boat, if the pachyderms could be moved to the coast, would likewise be too long. And the elephants might get seasick.
That leaves air travel. Here, Gantt thought he had the problem licked.
The U.S. Marines agreed to haul the elephants the 20 miles from Chu Lai to Tra Bong by Skycrane helicopters, the aircraft normally used for such heavy-duty lobs as lifting disabled helicopters to repair centers.
The problem then narrowed down to getting the two animals from Ban Don to Chu Lai, a trip of about 185 miles. No small chore.
It had to be done by airplane, thought Gantt, who contacted the 7th Air Force. They agreed, if the elephants could be properly secured inside a giant C-130 transport.
The Green Beret captain spent hours on a transatlantic telephone, calling zoos in the Bronx, N.Y., Cleveland and London in search of a tranquilizer that could put the animals to sleep for the trip without harming them.
Gantt learned that the drug he needed was M-99, manufactured by Rickitts and Sons of Hull, England. He arranged for the shipment of the tranquilizer to Vietnam and almost immediately ran into yet another snag:
The U.S. Bureau of Narcotics held up shipment until a "required form" was sent spelling out how the drug was to be used.
Having hurdled this roadblock, with M-99 in hand, the Green Berets tested the drug on an elephant. It passed all the tests and satisfied everyone, including the U.S. Air Force, that the elephants would remain docile for the plane ride.
As a sidelight, it was noted that M-99 tended to produce a harmless intestinal gas. After that, the operation was dubbed "Bah-room."
Operation "Bah-room" was scheduled to blast off this week.
Then it happened. The plane ride was cancelled.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. H. A. Rasmussen, assistant chief of staff for logistics, Military Assistance Command Vietnam, blocked the plans.
Tra Bong still needs its elephants.
"If they don't come, we've lost 400 families," said Gantt. "Unless we get those elephants up there, they're quitting."