Imagine you are in a darkened tunnel, eyes robbed of sight and your ears finely tuned to gain some measure of safety. Your breathing is laboured, your pounding heart registering the fear of the unknown. On your haunches, with a bayonet in one hand and a pistol in the other, you inch forward. You feel your shoulders scuffing against the clay walls. Phantom adversaries flood your brain. Each pained movement forward is dulled to conceal your presence. The air you breath is stale save for faint traces of smoke. The wafting signs of human habitation ahead send voltages of fear flooding through your senses.
Welcome to the world of a tunnel rat in Vietnam in 1966. These extraordinary sappers, part of the 3 Field Troop of the Royal Australian Engineers, would have faced these dangers on a daily basis. They parried with these imaginary phantoms and devilish realities in their attempts to flush out the Viet Cong who made these subterranean fortresses their home.
The Viet Minh who fought to oust the French in Indochina employed tunnels to conceal and house their embattled troops. Some of the tunnels were located north of Saigon in an area known as Zone D. When the French were finally defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954, the world of underground fortresses was forgotten.
This may well have continued if not for the 7th Cavalry bravado practised by General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn, being exercised by the American military machine in the steamy jungles of South Vietnam. Both ended in defeat. If the Americans had cared to examine the defeat of the French, even with the battle-hardened efforts of the Foreign Legion, they might well have paused and rewritten their history books.
The Viet Cong, like their predecessors, the Viet Minh, saw the need to fight the Americans in a non-conventional way. The tonnages of bombs from B-52 bombers, the napalm firestorms dropped from Phantom jets and the ravages of Agent Orange which defoliated jungles, pushed the Viet Cong into habitats that provided a measure of protection.
The most infamous of these underground villages was the Cu Chi tunnels, which at their peak, threaded through 600 kilometres of ground east of Saigon. They were at their most effective during the Tet Offensive in 1968. They were part of a network of tunnels that provided solace for combat troops, as well as serving as communication hubs, hospitals, and food and weaponry storage depots.
Below is a map of the Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City district and the general area in which the Australian forces held sway. Nui Dat, the Australian base, was located slightly south of the centre of the map.
The actual tunnels were marvels of ingenuity and perseverance. The tunnels have been hollowed out to accommodate obese Westerners too used to snacking on their fourteenth McDonalds burger!! The original tunnels were .66 of a metre wide, .8 of a metre high and most rooms had the dimensions of 2m (high) x 1.3m x 1m. The trapdoors on the surface (see photo below) were of the dimensions 7 cms x 5.6 cms. For those suffering from any form of claustrophobia, they were not ideal.
Vietnamese military leaders, who were interviewed, claimed five to ten thousand combatants made these labyrinths their home. There were as many as six levels to house, train, store or hospitalise the Viet Cong. There were classrooms for weapon instructions, field kitchens and the entrances were carefully spaced apart so that discovery of one wouldn’t lead to uncovering the other rooms. Air vents were concealed under bushes and behind rocks.
However, accommodation was slightly below the standard of the Ritz. The tunnels were infested with poisonous scorpions, centipedes and spiders. Viet Cong documentation showed that one third of the inhabitants had malaria and virtually all of them had intestinal parasites. To ensure you could see the scorpions and spiders, pedal and hand generators provided some electricity and lighting. The smoke from fires was dissipated by containers of water and lengthy corridors.
To give you a sense of the size of the entrances, the photo below has been included. I am of average size and girth.
The Viet Cong showed great skill in devising new and interesting ways of maiming and killing the enemy. Punji sticks, sharpened spears of bamboo, which were dug into pits and covered with light vegetation, were designed to puncture rubber boots. Manure, to aid infection, was amply spread over the spikes. When steel soles were added to combat this problem, the Viet Cong merely slanted the punji sticks so they would gouge into the soldiers’ calves and shins. The manure was a complementary addition.
Australian tunnel rats had to attach silencers to their revolvers. The blast from a shot fired in the confines of the miniature tunnels would have perforated the eardrums and done permanent damage. As well, they had to ensure that their level of personal hygiene matched the inmates of these underground villages. Having a shower before descending into this black Hades would have placed you in a perilous position. Your fresh body odour would have wafted ahead to warn the enemy of an intruder. Miners’ lamps had to be worn on their helmets which were to be used only in exceptional circumstances. When tear gas was used to flush out the recalcitrant combatants below, gas masks had to be worn. This would have added to the level of discomfort.
This friendly looking implement of war gives you a sense of the danger troops faced.
At the end of the tour of the tunnels, there is a distinctive aural vibe. You can hear the thump of rifle fire. There is a shooting range where tourists can sample AK 47s, M60s and M16s. For as little as 340 dong or $1.75, you can purchase 10 rounds. The weapons are bolted to a stand to prevent the massacre of innocent tourists. It was a strange feeling. When I visited in 2013, I watched tourists dressed in Hawaiian shirts trying to manhandle an AK 47. Here was the best assault rifle ever produced being tamed, neutered for indulgent Westerners. The world is a strange place.
Molly Meldrum wouldn’t mind the misquoting. Do yourself a favour and visit the Cu Chi Tunnels when you tour Vietnam.