Friday, March 17, 2006

Chapter 10: Tunnels

Part of the training we received that first week in Vietnam covered the tunnels around the Cu Chi area. At the time, they really didn’t know just how large massive the tunnel system was. Today these tunnels are a major tourist attraction and the Vietnamese have made known what it was like.

War is hellish at the best of times. But imagine fighting a war underground in the suffocating, sweltering blackness of tunnels, barely tall enough for a man to crawl, let alone walk. Here, a wrong turn could send you plunging onto the lethal bamboo spikes of a punji stake trap. Elsewhere carefully placed trip wires were primed to detonate a grenade or release a box of scorpions onto their unsuspecting victim. In other places the entire walls of the tunnel seemed to move, covered with an impenetrable mass of spiders and stinging fire ants.

This was the reality of warfare in the tunnels of Cu Chi, the Viet Cong's underground fortress dug beneath the jungles of South Vietnam. At its peak the Cu Chi tunnel network covered some 250 kilometres - from the Cambodian border in the west to the outskirts of what was then Saigon and includes everything necessary to support an army, from hospitals, kitchens and mess halls, to headquarters facilities. The tunnels gave Viet Cong forces the apparent ability to appear out of nowhere and disappear into nothing after an attack.

This map gives an idea of the extent of the tunnel system at Cu Chi--the orange lines represent major tunnels

This is a diagram of what a typical tunnel complex looked like.

Entrances to the tunnels were always carefully disguised but one day we found one that wasn’t disguised well enough.

We were searching a large village one-day when someone noticed some movement in a clump of trees. A few guys went over to investigate and saw a piece of wire sticking out of the top of what looked like a large anthill. A close look revealed a small trap door, which turned out to be the entrance to a tunnel. Our Kit Carson Scout came over and yelled something in Vietnamese into the opening. Someone inside the tunnel yells that he is coming out. He came out followed by a few more men. You see they had been wounded because they each were bandaged in some way. The scout questioned them and they told him that they had been wounded and were recovering down below. We called for our Tunnel Rat to climb down into the tunnel and search it.

One member of our platoon was what was called a Tunnel Rat. Tunnel Rats were volunteers and most were small men who could squeeze through the tight trap doors and crawl along the narrow passages of the tunnels with relative ease. All they normally carried was a flashlight and a pistol.

The Tunnel Rat climbed down into the hole and crawled around for a while. When he came back out, he told us that this entrance leads into a small room with a few beds. He saw other openings but didn’t go in them.

We spread out and searched everything very closely while other troops rounded up all the villagers in one area. When I looked in one large bush, I found a sandbag full of small vials that looked like medicine vials containing medicine for shots. I brought the bag to our CO who was in one of the hooches interrogating one of the villagers. The interpreter read the label on the vials and said it contained dried penicillin. Ultimately we found out the village was sitting on top of a large underground hospital. Our company commander radioed in the situation and more troops were air lifted in to relieve us, search the tunnels and ultimately destroy them.

I received a lot of praise for finding the bag. They weren't getting anywhere with the questioning, but when I showed up with the bag, the villagers started talking to hopefully save their ass.

Today the tunnel complex is one of the main tourist attractions the the area. Here are some pictures that will give you an idea what they were like. The passages have been enlarged to accommodate tourists.

I know this last one doesn't have anything to do with the tunnel, so shoot me. ;-)