We Saw Pink Elephant
By Bob Whaley
As an observation and low altitude reconnaissance pilot with Marine Observation Squadron Six at Quang Tri Combat Base, I had the primary mission of working with troops in contact (combat with enemy units) and the coordination and control of artillery, air and naval gunfire in support of that mission. My sector of responsibility was the very northwest corner of South Vietnam; to the north was North Vietnam, to the west was Laos. I was flying the new OV-10A low altitude reconnaissance, light attack twin engine turbo prop aircraft armed with 2.75 and 5 inch Zuni rockets and four 7.62mm machine guns. My sector included the infamous but abandoned Khe Sanh air field and fire support base. The terrain included low, rolling hills to the west of Khe Sanh that fell off gently towards Laos, but to the northeast, the terrain rose abruptly with jungle-covered mountains, the highest of which we called Tiger Mountain. Though I wanted for a long time to fly over this magnificent area, it was rare we could ever do so because even on clear days the clouds lingered and were constantly forming and obstructing the mountain, due to the very humid climate and its 5300 foot elevation.
I will always vividly remember this one day. I had a newly assigned young aerial observer (A/O) lieutenant, (a combat experienced infantry officer who had just extended his tour of duty to fly with us) who was in my rear cockpit. It was a routine recon/observation mission looking for enemy movement in the myriad road and trail networks leading down from North Vietnam and across from Laos, often referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After flying over Khe Sanh, I glanced over at Tiger Mountain. It was almost totally clear. I told my lieutenant that he was really in luck. I had been flying up here for eight months awaiting the chance to have a good look at the mountains and waterfalls that were alleged to hold great beauty and majesty. They surely were everything I had hoped to see; high cascading waterfalls, thick lush jungle, beautiful rock outcroppings. My lieutenant called out “Look Major… at our 9 o’clock low, in the opening, near the falls…. elephants.” I rolled the aircraft abruptly to the left, and gazed down on a herd of 8-10 elephants, including several calves, one of which appeared to be nursing from its mother. The lieutenant exclaimed, “I don’t believe it, they’re all pink.” I told him that since elephants love to wallow and roll and the soil is predominantly red clay, they would probably have a pinkish hue. His next comment bothered me but I somehow expected it. He asked if we were going to shoot them ourselves or call in an artillery fire mission. I told him that I realized in this hostile sector where there are no known friendly personnel, that beasts of burden, like elephants and water buffalo, are often used as pack animals by the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, and as such are to be destroyed since they often figure into their logistics network, which he obviously knew. I added, however, that we were quite far removed from any known strategic trail or road networks or enemy sightings as reported by aircraft or Marine Force Reconnaissance patrols and that the poor elephants have probably finally found a safe haven from this crazy war and deserve to be left alone. “But major, we’re supposed to”, I interrupted him and said, “We’re not reporting this and if I hear of anyone asking about this or word gets out and some trigger-happy SOB goes looking for them, I’ll have you over to see the flight surgeon and you can explain the pretty pink elephants you saw and which I’ll totally deny.” I said, “Let’s be realistic. If I thought destroying that family of elephants would change the outcome of this war, I’d strongly reconsider my decision, but since they are not pack animals, no sign of pack marks, no easy access to their location, we let them be. Do you understand?” A formal, yes sir was the response. We took another pass over them. The old bull was rolling on his back with all four legs in the air. The lieutenant exclaimed, “that’s just what my dog likes to do”. My point was made and accepted.
Since we didn’t always fly with the same observer, it was several days later before I saw him again. It was at night. He was at a table in our makeshift officers’ club sitting with other observers and pilots. He had had a few beers and was quick to catch my attention with a sly grin and a big thumbs up. I knew our little pact was honored, our secret safe.
A week later I knew it would be honored forever. He was killed along with his pilot. At least we hopefully let something live on in that war that destroyed so much.
“WE ARE DEFINED BY NOT ONLY WHAT WE CREATE….BUT BY WHAT WE REFUSE TO DESTROY.”