Operation Dumbo Drop' Did Happen - Well, Sort Of

Note: Major John Gantt was S-3 in 7th Psyop Group from 1969-1971.

August 3, 1995|By BILL DeYOUNG New York Times News Service
ROSS CITY - — In Vietnam, John Scott Gantt was known as a Green Beret who could get things done.
A captain with the 5th Special Forces, Gantt was 30 years old in 1968 when he devised a scheme to fly a pair of elephants cross-country to a remote mountain village.

Gantt's animal adventure forms the basis of Disney's Operation Dumbo Drop, which opened in theaters Friday. Although the movie is based on a real event, the filmmakers took lots of liberties with the facts. "If you had to pick somebody that was me, it would be Danny Glover," chuckles Gantt, who lives in Cross City.
Gantt, 57, is now assistant director of emergency services in Dixie County, on the Gulf Coast. He remembers the tiniest details of the operation, and he's been telling the story to his children, and their children, for years.
Part of the Special Forces mission was to recruit and train soldiers from the Montagnard villages that dotted the mountainous central regions of South Vietnam. The Green Berets used lumber imported from the United States to build the training camps, and at $4 per 2x4 board, they knew they were paying too much.
The local forests were rich in mahogany, and Gantt reasoned that the Montagnards could likely be trained to cut their own lumber. So he talked the Army into buying a small, used sawmill from an Australian company.
This pilot program began in Tra Bong, 65 miles southwest of Da Nang, "in an area that we controlled sometimes, and Charlie controlled sometimes," Gantt explains.
"I recruited a couple of guys who had sawmill experience," he adds. "And back in Alabama, my grandaddy had run a little sawmill - so between us we got it operational, cut the first trees and taught them how to operate the mill and start producing lumber."
They tried trucks and tracked vehicles, and within six months the rough terrain had destroyed them all. "The village elders came up with an idea," Gantt says. "They said `We used to do this a long time ago with elephants.' And that's when the colonel said `Gantt, get elephants.'''
Once two Indian elephants were purchased from the village of Ban Don, Gantt had to figure out how to get the animals to the sawmill at Tra Bong. "You can't walk 'em 300 miles," he says. "So then we were going to walk them 70 miles to Nha Trang and load 'em on barges, then walk inland - but as it turns out, elephants get seasick.
"So we had to plan on flying them. But that got real hairy, because the Air Force wouldn't talk to us unless we could tranquilize them."
The sedated beasts were loaded into a C-130 airplane on April 4, 1968 and flown 300 miles to Dha Nang, the closest airfield. There they were wrapped in cargo nets and fastened to cushioned wooden palettes; suspended under a pair Marine Corps Jolly Green Giant helicopters, they flew the final 65 miles over the mountains to the tiny Tra Bong clearing.
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Gantt arrived with the first elephant and climbed out of the helicopter to find the world's press - including all three AmericanTV networks - waiting for him.
The next morning, back in Florida, Gantt's wife saw a brief clip of her husband on TV, riding shirtless on top of an elephant. Gantt and his family saw the movie earlier this week, at a special advance screening. "It was highly fictionalized," he reports.
"Some of it was very Keystone Cops," he says. "But if you take away the humor, and the slapstick comedy, it was very realistic."