In 1960 the world was a tense place. The Cold war had been drifting on for a number of years with the East and West ready to launch a tirade of nuclear warheads at each other. Whilst thankfully it had not yet turned hot, there were certainly sparks flying around the world. Vietnam was one such spark, similar to what had happened in Korea a few years earlier, the north Vietnamese under communist rule had invaded the south to try and unite the country. The South had called in their American allies who came in their thousands to fight communism. But whilst fighting the North Vietnamese, the Americans also faced another enemy in the South, the infamous Viet Cong.
The Viet Cong were a communist army in South Vietnam that fought the Americans using guerilla warfare. They would ambush American soldiers in the jungles and hills and then somehow disappear without a trace. When the Americans tried following them, they would come against booby traps that caused tremendous casualties. The Viet Cong were experts at guerilla warfare, one tactic in particular that they used was building enormous tunnel systems underground. This baffled the Americans who had never experienced this tactic before and found it incredibly difficult to combat.
Construction on these tunnels had begun back in the 1940’s during the war of independence against the French, but by the 1960’s the tunnel networks had been greatly expanded, such as the Cu Chi tunnel system near Saigon that spanned 250 Kilometres or 155 miles. Tunnels like the Cu Chi system were spread throughout south Vietnam. These tunnels were able to render American fire-power and technology pretty much useless, mainly because the US could not hit the tunnels even with heavy explosives from bombing. When they first began discovering the tunnels, the Americans had no idea how extensive they actually were. Unbeknown to the Americans, large numbers of civilians and Viet Cong moved below ground in which infirmaries, air raid shelters, store rooms, dormitory’s, military headquarters and even small arms factories were built. Conditions for the Viet Cong were not pleasant to say the least, the tunnels were built so small that it gave just enough room for the average Vietnamese to crawl through, they were dark and riddled with deadly creatures including snakes, scorpions and centipedes. Literally thousands of Vietnamese lived underground for extended periods, sometimes for months on end, only emerging to tend their crops above ground. As battles raged overhead and with the Americans bombing the jungles, those in the tunnels remained in relative safety, schools were even built for the children who stayed down there!
In military terms, the Viet Cong used these tunnels to launch surprise attacks on the American forces. They would appear out of secret entrances to attack the Americans and then disappear back into the tunnels. When American, Australian and New Zealand units began to find the tunnels, they had no idea on how best to combat them. They first began to try flush out the enemy by tossing down tear gas, grenades, water and hot tar after which they would then destroy the entrance with explosives. But the Viet Cong had built numerous air vents and multiple secret exists which made these tactics useless. Rarely did any soldiers venture into the tunnels for fear of how hazardous they could be, but eventually it became apparent that this was needed if they were to effectively defeat the Viet Cong in their own territory.
During ‘Operation Crimp’ in January 1966, an Australian specialist engineering troop (3 Field Troop), under the command of Captain Sandy MacGregor, volunteered to search the Cu Chi tunnel system near Saigon. They searched the tunnel for 4 days, mapping it out using telephone line and compasses. Whilst underground, they found various supplies including ammunition, medicine, food and radio equipment. It was after this that the Americans began to appreciate how significant the tunnels were to the Viet Cong in their guerilla tactics. Later during an international press conference, MacGregor referred to his men as ‘Tunnel Ferrets’, but an American journalist, who had never heard of ferrets before, decided to call them the ‘Tunnel Rats’ and so the name stuck.
Soon a volunteer force was created called the ‘Tunnel Rats’ who were trained in searching the tunnels, but much of the training was on the job as nobody had any real experience in the field. Whenever a tunnel was found either the Tunnel Rats were sent in or a call for volunteers from front line troops would go out. This was a daunting task for the Tunnel Rats who were armed with only a pistol, a bayonet and a flash light. To say the tunnels were claustrophobic would probably be an understatement, the average Vietnamese could crawl through the tunnels, but the Americans and Australians had much larger builds and so found it difficult to squeeze their way through. As they crawled their way deeper and deeper, the tunnel rats had to be constantly aware of the dangerous booby traps that awaited them. The tunnel rats faced trap doors which contained deadly spikes underneath, snakes were hung from the ceiling so they would hang down ready to attack anyone passing by and some also contained holes in the side of the tunnel wall, on the other side would be a Viet Cong soldier holding a spear ready to impale any intruders. Face to face encounters with Viet Cong soldiers also occurred, but these terrifying battles in the confines of an underground tunnel simply depended on who could fire fastest.
It seems crazy that men actually volunteered to go into these tunnels, but the tunnel rats were motivated by many different things. Carl Kenneth Cory, a Tunnel Rat of the US 25th Infantry Division, actually liked the mystique that came with being a tunnel rat including other troops thinking he was mad. Although he hated to admit it, he enjoyed the rush of venturing into an unknown tunnel. Art Tejeda of the same unit as Cory, said that he saw the opportunities for business by venturing into the tunnels as he could gather various items of booty such as Viet Cong uniforms and rifles which he could use to sell. Others did it simply out of a feeling of duty. But whatever the reason may have been for these young soldiers, no one can doubt their guts in doing such a terrifying task.
Written by Jonny Morris.