Hidden tunnels of the Vietnam War

Fifty years ago in March 1965 the first American combat troops waded ashore in Vietnam. Here PETER RHODES recalls an underground encounter.

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Nightmare – a tunnel rat prepares for action

The tunnels of Cu Chi extend for about 200 miles. After 10 yards I’d had enough.

Ten feet underground the tunnel is so narrow it brushes your sides, so low you are bent double. The way both forward and back is blocked by other people.

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A living hell – one of the tiny tunnels created by the Vietcong

The tunnel widens into an old Vietcong conference room. It steadily fills with trippers until we are standing, sweating, shoulder to shoulder.

The only way out is another panicky, heart-thumping crawl into the rat-run of tunnels.

A bat suddenly flickers through the gloom. You duck. A woman gasps in alarm. Your chest tightens from belly to throat. Know the enemy.

And if your darkest enemy is claustrophobia, then give the tunnels of Cu Chi a miss.

Yet even in the narrowest, lowest part of this section, you are not experiencing a fraction of the horrors of this place. Throw in the type of warfare that went on down here, the shooting, spearing, knife-fighting and booby traps, all in the pitch black, and you are into the stuff of nightmares. The tunnels on show today have been specially enlarged for the tourists.

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Explosion – a ground attack during the conflict

Originally they were scooped out, with trowel and wicker basket, no more than a couple of feet high. The slender jungle fighters of the Vietcong – VC – could slip through with ease – the big-boned Yanks stuck fast. At least that was the theory as the VC dug ever deeper and further.

Into the darkness – the Cu Chi tunnels today

Eventually, the tunnels extended from the Cu Chi district, 30 miles north of Saigon, to the very gates of the city. They are on three levels, the deepest more than 30 feet below ground.

Armouries and operating theatres were constructed. Kitchens worked around the clock, the tell-tale smoke dispersed through a cunning colander of vents.

See it here? Look again, smiles our Vietnam Army guide. Beneath a pile of leaves in the dappled jungle, a chimney barely as wide as a finger produces a thin trail of acrid blue smoke from the charcoal cooker below. Entrances were hidden beneath camouflaged steel trap doors or dug into river banks below river level. By day the Vietcong rested or sneaked out to work their paddy fields. By night, they emerged from their secret tunnels and gave the Yankees hell.

From the mid 1960s the US Army knew there were tunnels. But even the most intensive searches failed to find more than a few trapdoors, baited with landmines to kill the intruder. When the Yanks sent down sniffer dogs, the VC began using stolen US soap and combat jackets to hide their alien scent. The unfortunate US 25th Division unwittingly built its headquarters on top of the tunnels and suffered dreadful losses as the Vietcong emerged, machine-gunned the Americans’ tents and blew up their helicopters.

The communists foraged for US weapons. After every air strike or artillery bombardment they would seek out unexploded shells and bombs, sawing them open, often with fatal consequences, to use the precious explosives in home-made grenades and rockets.

They felt so secure that ceremonies were held underground to present medals to those who killed Americans. There were cultural events with dancers and singers smuggled down from North Vietnam to entertain the troops.

The US response was to form the Tunnel Rats, a volunteer unit of small, dedicated soldiers who braved the furthest recesses of this awful place to play ‘Charlie’ at his own game. See here, says the guide. In the corner of the underground command cell is a ten-foot pit, razor-sharp bamboo stakes in the bottom.

“When the American found a room, he always went into the corner. It was the best place to fight from. So we dug these,” the soldier smiles.

From the tunnels of Cu Chi, the Vietcong planned, equipped and launched their 1968 Tet offensive on Saigon and other major cities.

Suddenly, the black-pyjama guerillas were everywhere. American TV audiences awoke to see their embassy in Saigon overrun by Vietcong.

At this stage fiction takes over from fact in the all-pervading propaganda dished out to today’s thin, but growing trickle of tourists. If you believe everything they tell you at Cu Chi, the Americans were defeated by a popular uprising among the people. It wasn’t quite like that.

The VC guerillas who streamed out of Cu Chi expected the city folk of Saigon to rally to their support. It didn’t happen. Tet was a military disaster for the communists. The US Embassy takeover was repulsed in a matter of hours. The VC lost 40,000 dead in Tet and was so badly mauled that it never again fought a pitched battle. Worse was to follow. Cu Chi was razed by huge US bulldozers, its trees stripped bare with defoliant chemicals. Cu Chi was declared a free-fire zone. Anything that moved was attacked.

Of the 16,000 guerillas who fought from Cu Chi, ten thousand were killed. But that was not the point. The men and women who lived and died in these tunnels may have been beaten in military terms, but they won an overwhelming victory for hearts and minds. For after Tet, the American public gave up all hope of winning the war.

In the very week of the offensive, the tally of American dead in Vietnam passed that of the Korean War, traumatising the nation. In all, 50,000 Americans were to die here. The anti-war movement grew. Richard Nixon was elected on the pledge of bringing the boys home. Later the North Vietnamese Army, assisted by the remnants of the Vietcong, invaded the South and took over.

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