Elephant Airlift The Story Behind ‘Dumbo Drop’ Is No Less Fantastic Than The Movie
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. By helicopter.
Gantt’s animal adventure forms the basis of Disney’s “Operation Dumbo Drop,” which opened in theaters on 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 service in Dixie County. He remembers the tiniest details of Operation Barroom, as the elephant project was dubbed by the jokesters in the company (the word barroom refers to the sound made by a particularly flatulent pachyderm). 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 that 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.”
The villagers caught on quickly. “Within six months, Tra Bong was totally self-sustaining. They had cut, by hand, and rolled in by hand, all of the trees big enough to make lumber out of within half-mile of the camp. They’d cleared a massive forest. And they came to us and said ‘Hey, we need a way to get logs to the sawmill.”’
They tried trucks, and caterpillar 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.”’
Plans were hatched, calls were made, and deals were struck.
But it wasn’t easy. “It’s like trying to buy kids,” recalls Gantt. “One elephant in a village, or two elephants, that’s really the livelihood of the village. And you had to buy ‘em a replacement, give them something.”
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.”
Gantt spent 12 straight hours talking, via military telephone, to various American zoos, collecting advice on how to best tranquilize and transport two three-ton elephants. A powerful drug was located in England - it took an extra day of tricky phone call transfers - and, after six weeks of paperwork, Operation Barroom was all set to go.
Then came the Tet offensive. Every American aircraft in Vietnam was occupied with the intense fighting, and no one gave the elephants any further thought for a while.
The animals finally made the trip on April 4, 1968. Word had reached the press that the Green Berets were planning to air-drop the elephants with parachutes, like supply shipments, but the British SPCA made such a noise the plan was quickly changed to an airlift.
The sedated beasts were loaded into a C-130 airplane 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.
Gantt arrived with the first elephant, and climbed out of the helicopter to find the world’s press - including all three American TV networks - waiting for him.
“Thousands of Montagnards had showed up for the show - they came out of the hills from everywhere,” he recalls. “We unwrapped him, gave him the antidote, he woke up and was standing there. And all of a sudden, here comes another one incoming. The clearing was only big enough for one.”
The designated elephant handler was nowhere to be found, so Gantt acted quickly. “I bounced up on his back, poked his ear with the little guide stick and walked him out of the clearing. And they landed the second one.”
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. But Operation Barroom was never front page news, because Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis the same day.
Historically speaking, it wasn’t peanuts to John Scott Gantt. His elephant exploit became a chapter in “Fighting Men,” a book by fellow Green Beret Jim Morris; Disney then turned Morris’ prose into the script for “Operation Dumbo Drop.”
Gantt and his family saw the movie at a special advance screening. “It was highly fictionalized,” he reports. “But there were times … when the Viet Cong walked into the village to kill the elephant, the emotion that was there, I can’t say was healthy.
“Some of it was very Keystone Cops. But if you take away the humor and the slapstick comedy, it was very realistic. As a Green Beret soldier, you basically did whatever it took to get the job done.”