Written by Olivier Guiberteau
Inching their way through tunnels so tight that only the smallest soldiers could navigate, the men crawl painstakingly through the near darkness in unbearable heat. A small torch tucked into the mouth the only light available, a pistol held unsteadily in this unnatural position the only possible protection against whatever they might find inside the tunnels.
This kind of terrifying situation wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film, but during the Vietnam War, this process to clear out the vast tunnel complexes constructed by the Viet Cong, by those who came to be known as Tunnel Rats, was all too real.
Any involvement in the carnage that became the American, Australian, and New Zealand war in Vietnam would have been horrific, but few military positions or posts could compare to what the tunnel rats were tasked with.
Crawling through tight tunnels that would make anybody with a claustrophobic sensibility go weak at the knees, faced with booby traps, venomous snakes, oppressive heat, and all in near-complete darkness, this ordeal was even before they found members of the Viet Cong.
Combat underground was at close quarters, often hand to hand, with a viciousness that comes with fighting where only one man can survive. The job of the tunnel rats was horrendous on multiple levels, but also required a level of bravery that many can only ever hope to aspire to.
The Viet Minh
While the term tunnel rats originated in the war in Vietnam between the North and South but also included ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) troops, the use of tunnels in the country began well before that.
Part of the reason ANZUS operations struggled so badly against this guerilla warfare, was that it was not the Viet Cong’s first rodeo. Before the conflict that included the most powerful country in the world, the Vietnamese had battled another major global player, France.
After the conclusion of World War II, the French sought to consolidate control over a region then known as French Indochina, which included much of Vietnam, as well as Laos, Cambodia, and even parts of modern-day China.
However, the world had seen dramatic change throughout the dark years of World War II, and independence movements soon began springing up around the globe. Many people quite understandably began to query why they were being asked to swap the yolk of Nazi or Japanese rule, with that of their old colonial masters.
And nowhere was this quite as pronounced as Vietnam where the conclusion of World War II, and the expulsion of the Japanese, had led the Viet Minh, a communist organization led by Hồ Chí Minh, to declare Vietnam an independent nation.
The French, like other colonial powers at the time, balked at such as situation and began flooding to the region with troops in an attempt to quell the uprising. But as the Americans would find out nearly twenty years later, the Vietnamese were a fearsome proposition.
The First Indochina War saw the Viet Minh slowly bleed the French dry with Hồ Chí Minh and his soldiers taking to the hills and jungles where they were able to inflict devasting attacks on an army ill-prepared for this kind of warfare.
This is where we see the first tunnels appearing as the Viet Minh sought to find methods of staying out of sight and range of the more sophisticated French firepower, which included the first use of napalm in the region. The Củ Chi Tunnels just outside Saigon, a complex that became famous during the next conflict, was started during First Indochina War and these early small-scale tunnel systems began appearing around the country.
The Vietnam War
The First Indochina War quickly degenerated into a bloody mess that the French couldn’t hope to win. The final nail in their coffin came with the disastrous results of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu when 11,000 French soldiers were captured. This soon led to the 1954 Geneva Accords in which Vietnam was granted independence, but as a split nation.
Any resemblance of peace lasted less than a year before the North and South found themselves embroiled in conflict. Fast-forward to the early 1960s and with thousands of U.S advisors doing what they could do to prop up the calamitous South Vietnamese army, things were about to take a dramatic turn.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which a U.S ship reportedly came under fire from the North Vietnamese and which actually may have genuinely been a completed fabricated false flag event to justify war, was just the excuse needed. In 1964, the first U.S combat troops began arriving in Vietnam, a figure that would climb to over half a million by 1969.
If some of the tunnel systems had been started during the First Indochina War, it was during the Second Indochina conflict that things really got going. When the Americans entered the war, Hồ Chí Minh knew that the fight had completely changed and ordered that existing tunnels be dramatically expanded.
Throughout the conflict, these systems went from being simple hideouts to vast subterranean barracks, complete with hospitals, living quarters, kitchens, and arsenals.
Ventilation ducts were installed that provided a meager amount of air in the tunnels and entrances were often carefully camouflaged. From these eerie chambers, dubbed “black echo” by American soldiers, the Viet Cong could launch surprise attacks before evaporating into the darkness once again.
Later in the conflict, and in particular, during the Tet Offensive of 1969, the Viet Cong used their tunnels to strike at the very heart of South Vietnam. The offensive itself failed, but the dangers of allowing these underground superhighways to remain open were clear to see. Attacks from above ground could sometimes seriously damage the tunnels, but often fail to completely destroy them. To do that, and eliminate any Viet Cong hiding within the underground labyrinth, it often required a tunnel rat – or two.
While the term tunnel rat has often come to be associated with American troops, it’s long been established that the first ANZUS troops to begin flushing out the tunnels to any serious degree were in fact Australian.
In early January 1966, U.S and Australian troops commenced Operation Crimp which sought to destroy a Viet Cong headquarters thought to be underground near the Ho Bo Woods, in what we now know of as the Củ Chi tunnels. The operation began with the typical shock and awe that was replicated throughout the conflict, with U.S B-52 bombers dropping unimaginable quantities of ordnance on the area, effectively turning it into a wasteland.
This was followed up with roughly 8,000 ANZUS troops who carefully picked through the obliterated landscape looking for tunnel entrances. Numerous openings were found, but soldiers rarely ventured into them, mainly out of fear at this early stage, but also because the practice of tunnel ratting had not yet begun.
Instead, soldiers would attempt to flush the Viet Cong out, either with gas, water, hot tar, or even hand grenades. Sometimes this worked, but often it didn’t, with the layout of many of the tunnel systems meaning that enemy soldiers could remain safe behind trap doors or ‘S’ bends deep underground.
And so, enter the first pioneering tunnel rats, members of the Australian 3 Field Troop, under the command of Captain Alexander “Sandy” MacGregor, who were the first to venture into the tunnels. The group explored the system for 4 days, discovering ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies, food, and signs of considerable Viet Cong presence.
At a press conference shortly after, MacGregor, who was awarded the Miltary Cross for the actions of his unit during Operation Grimp, used the term ‘tunnel ferrets’ to describe the heroic actions of his men. A U.S reporter at the conference who had never heard the word ferret before used rat instead, and name tunnel rats stuck for good.
With American numbers far superior to either Australian or Kiwi, it’s no surprise that the tunnel rat endeavors have become a huge part of the story of the U.S involvement in Vietnam.
The success of the Australian ‘tunnel ferrets’ led to a complete rethink in terms of how the U.S approached the tunnels. New directives soon went out that stated that every tunnel that was found had to be extensively investigated and any enemy neutralized. There would no longer be any standing on the surface and simply hurling grenades into the holes. The U.S army needed specific soldiers that could handle these very distinct sets of circumstances.
These were not your everyday soldiers and were often part of the engineer corps who would train at the Australian Army’s School of Military Engineering, just outside Sydney, in a three-month course that covered mine detection, booby trap disarming, tunnel searching, and demolitions.
First known as tunnel runners, then ferrets, before finally settling on tunnel rats, their motto, which also appeared on unofficial badges, was Non Gratus Anus Rodentum – not worth a rat’s ass, and their bravery became known throughout the armed forces.
Most tunnel rats were volunteers, normally on the smaller side to be able to squeeze through the tiny entrance holes. The vast majority of American tunnel rats were said to have been of either European or Hispanic heritage and were on average smaller than the strapping multigenerational American men who couldn’t hope to fit into the tunnels.
Into the Abyss
As I mentioned earlier, entrances in and out of the tunnels were normally carefully camouflaged to such an extent that you could walk right past them without even noticing. However, when troops did spot an opening, a call would go out for a tunnel rat.
The tunnel rats would usually work in pairs, with the first man often lowered headfirst into the hole, followed by the second carrying a radio. While the lead tunnel rat faced the unenviable task of crawling through the darkness unsure if death was just around the corner, the second remained close behind for support, but also to relay positioning and the tunnel layout to the waiting soldiers above ground.
Directives were simple, kill or capture any Viet Cong – and as I’m sure you can imagine it wasn’t often that prisoners of war were escorted out of the tight tunnels for obvious reasons. This often involved brutal close combat in near darkness and temperatures that could be well over 40C (104F). Tunnel rats were usually armed lightly, carrying either a small pistol, knife, or bayonet, and chose gunfire as a last resort, as it would not only attract other enemy soldiers but also potentially affect the structural integrity of the tunnels.
Once the tunnels had been fully explored, a decision would be taken on whether to set explosives and bring the entire system down. More often than not, this was down to what had been found in the tunnels and how many enemies soldiers might be close by. If the decision was made to set the explosives, the tunnel rats would lay what was needed, before backtracking out of the tunnels and blowing them sky-high.
But this was an almost impossible struggle to win. Viet Cong tunnels were so numerous and difficult to find, that it was never really realistic to expect that all of them could be found and destroyed.
Dangers in the Tunnels
The life of a tunnel rat was constantly fraught with danger, though many have since pointed out that things on the surface could sometimes be even worse than underground. That may have been true on occasions, but few envied the role of the tunnel rat, and as a whole, the group saw casualty rates that outstripped almost every other unit throughout the war.
There were around 700 U.S tunnel rats, though it’s thought there were never more than 100 in-country at once. In total, 37 were killed and 200 wounded, equating to one of the highest attrition rates of the entire conflict.
But meeting the Viet Cong while inside the tunnels was only one of the countless dangers that the tunnels rats faced each time they ventured underground.
Let’s begin with the structural makeup of the tunnels. These systems were often superbly constructed and reinforced which meant they could often withstand everything that Uncle Sam dropped from the sky, but tunnels could still collapse at any moment. This could kill a tunnel rat outright, or leave them stranded underground without any hope of rescue.
Then we come to the booby traps that could maim or kill without even knowing what had hit you. The Viet Cong used a wide variety of techniques, some of which included animals, from tying up a bamboo viper and leaving it concealed in holes within the caves, to putting scorpions in a box then rigging the lid and attaching it to a tripwire.
Other methods were more traditional and might have included hand grenades or anti-personnel mines while falling onto punji sticks – sharpened bamboo spikes that were driven into the ground – often led to a slow and very painful death.
The tunnels were sometimes designed to include ‘U’ bends which meant portions could be flooded with water or gas. As gas became more common, tunnel rats were issued with gas masks, but most chose to go without as vision was difficult enough in gas masks above ground, let alone in the darkness below.
Numerous natural dangers could easily harm a tunnel rat. Spiders, rats, hornets, ants, snakes, scorpions, and bats were common within the tunnels, and while some might have been little more than a horrible nuisance, the wrong bite from the wrong animal could well be deadly.
They were also places of disease that affected both sides. During the war, a captured Viet Cong soldier reported that at any given time, half of a unit of North Vietnamese soldiers had malaria and that 100% had serious cases of intestinal parasites. There were even reports of the bubonic plague being discovered in rats, but it’s unclear whether this is merely an embellishment to the story, or genuine fact.
Operation Cedar Falls
One of the largest U.S operations of the entire war began on 8th January 1967 with the aim of once and fall all smashing the Viet Cong’s Củ Chi tunnel complex and the Iron Triangle region.
Similar to Operation Grimp, but on a grander scale, Operation Cedar Falls involved 30,000 men as the U.S targeted the area northwest of Saigon. In response, most Viet Cong in the region slipped across the border into Cambodia, while others remained hidden underground.
On 18th January, tunnel rats finally discovered the Viet Cong district headquarters at Củ Chi, along with half a million documents concerning military strategy, including maps of U.S. bases, detailed accounts of troop movement from Cambodia into Vietnam, lists of political sympathizers, and perhaps most remarkably of all, plans for a failed assassination attempt on Robert McNamara – then the United States Secretary of Defense.
It was quite a find, but in the grand scheme of things, Operation Cedar Falls did little to affect the outcome of the war. Within a matter of weeks, the Viet Cong had begun to reoccupy the areas they had fled and began reconstructing and repairing their tunnel complex. By the end of the war, the Củ Chi system amounted to an extraordinary 121 km (75 miles) worth of underground tunnels.
Operation Cedar Falls neatly encapsulated the entire war in a single operation. Fearsome American firepower and early territorial gain, followed by the slow relinquishing of said territory until everybody was pretty much back to square one.
ANZUS troops were never able to fully gets to grips with the Viet Cong tunnels, because of their sheer size and numbers. With a casualty rate of 1 in 3, the tasks carried out by the tunnel rats were perilous and came with the kind of close quarters, fight to the death combat that we rarely see in the movies.
This was not the glorious image of how war is often presented, this was scrambling on all fours through dark tunnels in raging temperatures. The only sound was the rapid pounding of your heart and the scurrying of unseen insects around you. This was war at its most desperate and most savage.