The Tunnel Rats of Vietnam
Whenever a suspicious looking hole was found in Vietnam, there were certain men the American and Allied forces (Australians and New Zealanders) who were chosen to go check them out- they were called “Tunnel Rats”.
It took a lot to be a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam- guts mostly (although some folks may have questioned their sanity for being so willing), but it helped to be small in stature(most guys were 5’5 or under), wiry and without fear of tight and unknown dark places.
These guys didn’t like anything that would deaden their senses so they stayed away from anything from chewing gum, cologne or even smoking or alcohol. They learned to rely on their instincts and sense of smell and touch in order to stay alive in pitch darkness where there would likely be booby traps or other dangers than just the VC. They moved forward in spite of fear, going along in deliberate, painstaking care.
These guys were so gutsy that even the Viet Cong respected them and considered them deadly hunters, even though their only real weapons were a flashlight, knife or bayonet and pistol. The favorite weapon for the Tunnel Rat was the knife or bayonet, seeing that in the dark, short and confined tunnels they could be blinded for a few minutes and deaf for the next few hours after shooting even one shot. Generally armed with a revolver, a Rat would never fire more than three shots in an encounter, if they shot more, the VC would know they were almost out of ammo.
The training for the Tunnel Rats wasn’t anything specialized in the early days, as everything was learned on the job. As men gained more experience, informal training was set up for the new Rats, even building fake tunnels constructed on base to practice in. As the Tunnel Rats mission was more established, a Rat in training would spend weeks learning the ropes and in the field, spend their first missions above ground as part of the support team.
Early on before it was more specialized, a lone soldier or maybe a team of two would go into a tunnel. Later on, when tunnel exploration teams became more experienced, some would often be in a team of three, and multiple groups would be used to clear especially large sections of tunnels. Often a line would be tied in the hope that if something bad happened; the soldier(s) could be dragged out. The Rat might have a radio, but once they were deep in the tunnel complex, it wouldn’t work so they typically didn’t bother bringing extra gear, even radios.
The ‘Tunnel Warfare’ in Vietnam was brutal and vicious, yet no one really hears much about these guys who seemed to be a special breed, more heroes that no one talks about much if at all. By the time they came home, Americans were more interested in calling them names and spitting on them to hear what they had gone through.
I first learned about the Rats when I volunteered at the Military Heritage Museum in my town, where they have a display of a model of the tunnels and a short description about them.
As mentioned, the Tunnel Rats were a special kind of breed, and there were not many of them. Total numbers vary but range from about 100 to 700 total, but considering that there were 3 ‘troops’ of about 40 men per, per year, that would total up to near 700 in all and not many survived their time in the tunnels.
The VC had a lot of different styles in laying traps for tunnel intruders such as spike pits, trip-wire grenades, or claymores (usually American made). One such trap taught the rats to always check the ceilings with their flashlights was when the VC would tie bamboo vipers to a piece of bamboo with string and as the Tunnel Rat went through, they’d knock it, the snake would bite them in the face or neck and once bitten, they died almost instantly.
Scorpions, hornets, centipedes and other biting insects were another way, they’d set a box of scorpions or spiders or insects with a trip wire that would open the box and the man would be covered and stung.
I guess we should look at the tunnels just so we can understand all what the Rats were facing, along with the fact that the VC seemed to be able to be everywhere at once, and always seeming to have the upper hand. It was more than just home turf for these fierce killers.
The intricate network of tunnels under the jungles of South Vietnam was built by the Communist forces in the late 1940s, during their war of independence from the French. The Viet Cong expanded the tunnels as the United States expanded their military presence in Vietnam in support of the South Vietnamese regime which was non-Communist beginning in the early 1960s
At the peak of the Vietnam War, the network of tunnels in the Cu Chi district linked VC support bases over a distance of some 155 miles, from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border. Củ Chi Base Camp was a major U.S. Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam base in the Củ Chi District northwest of Saigon in southern Vietnam. For the early years of the war, the Viet Cong would come out of the tunnels, bomb the fuel depots and virtually disappear, leaving the Americans frustrated- until they discovered the tunnel systems. It was the tunnels in the Cu Chi district that the VC used as their stronghold against Saigon during the Tet Offensive in January, 1968.
The tunnels were truly like an underground city. Air, sanitation, water and well equipped cooking areas made them reasonably safe for those who sought refuge or military strategies. Few of them were more than 6 feet high, and along with the cooking areas, the VC built sleeping quarters, air- raid shelters, latrines, hospitals, conference centers and print shops. They stored rice, water buffalo and even captured American artillery. They even built traps, antipersonnel mines and weapons in ordnance factories and repaired unexploded American artillery shells and bombs to reuse.
No wonder they built so many false dead ends, winding and maze like tunnels and were so skilled at camouflaged entrances and hatches. This was their advantage- a place to escape after an ambush or raid on American soldiers. The tunnel sections were often twisted, multi leveled and purposely winding to limit any long range line of fire or throwing explosives and grenades.
The Tunnel Rats who dared enter had to face hundreds of yards of these tunnels and trap doors leading from level to level. Going through those trap doors was the worst part of being a Rat, on top of everything else; because they had no idea what they were ‘sticking their heads’ into. The VC had no end to painful horrors for their enemy, and could be waiting to slit their throats, or drop a grenade, or impale the Rat in the opening making it impossible for his buddies to get him out.
Since the US focused on aerial bombing, North Vietnamese and VC troops went underground in order to survive and continue their guerrilla tactics. Once the American Brass discovered the massive maze of tunnels, they realized their bombs wouldn’t work underground and had to rely on men to go in and destroy them.
In 1967 30,000 American troops launched Operation Cedar Falls where they attacked the VC stronghold Binh Duong province north of Saigon, near Cambodia- also known as the Iron Triangle. They had heard about the network of tunnels there, and used bombing raids, and defoliated the jungle and rice paddies with Agent Orange so they could send in bull dozers to sweep the tunnels which drove out mostly civilians.
So, the life of a Tunnel Rat- in the pitch dark with no idea where you are going, crawling and feeling every inch in front of you, hoping you don’t feel or trip a booby trap, or worse, come upon a trap door with any number of enemies lurking before or after you, armed with a gun that you don’t want to use, lugging a bunch of explosives on your back, while wondering if your buddies top side will be able to haul your body out on the rope that you’re tied to if and when something happens….
God Bless our Troops and Veterans. Keep them safe and give them the peace they gave for the rest of us.