Tunnels of Cu Chi
Peter and Margie Benziger
Sun 7 Apr 2013 03:20
Recently, we left Peregrina for a 15 day backpacking trip to Vietnam. We traveled from Ho Chi Min City (formerly known as Saigon) to Hoi An, Danang, Khe Sahn, Hue and, finally, Hanoi. Along the way, we met some lovely people, saw some amazing scenery and witnessed a vibrant economy that, while still officially Communist, has all the trappings of a capitalist society in the 21st Century.
But, most of all, we learned a lot about the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective.
Over the course of two weeks in Vietnam, it became clear why America was unable to win that war which dominated the world’s attention (and tore America apart) during our college years. As we visited several of the major sites of military action that we remembered from the Nightly News back in the 60’s & 70’s, we reviewed the facts without the “…America is Winning the War against Communism” tactical spin.
To supplement our knowledge of what happened here, we relied heavily on an amazing book titled The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate (Berkley Books Publishing Group, New York) which had been given to us by some Australian cruising friends before our departure. In an ironic turn of events, Tom Mangold is a British journalist whose illustrious career includes two decades as a war correspondent and then ten years as an investigative reporter for the BBC TV news. He continues to produce TV specials for BBC but now enjoys the less stressful task of travel writing for a number of UK publications. He became one of Margie’s “go to” journalists from “across the pond” when she was working in Travel PR at Cheryl Andrews Marketing. We had a great dinner with Tom and his wife in Coconut Grove just before we left on our sailing adventure 3 ½ years ago and now, we run into him again via this book. It truly is a VERY small world!
We can recommend The Tunnels of Cu Chi highly and thank Tom and John for all their research which helped us out immensely in writing this article.
So…let’s give you a little background information since many of our readers are too young to remember the highly charged Vietman War era…
Vietnam is a long country running north to south with the South China Sea and Gulf of Tonkin on its’ eastern shore, Cambodia and Laos on the west and China bordering on the north.
The Cu Chi district lies northwest of Saigon in what was then called South Vietnam. The border between North and South Vietnam was the 17th parallel (Latitude) near Danang in what was the infamous DMZ, or DeMilitarized Zone.
The Cu Chi district became the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare. More bombs were used in the Vietnam War than throughout all the military theaters of WWII. By 1967, the 25th Infantry division was raining 200,000 shells a month into the Cu Chi district, averaging 6,500 daily. In spite of this, Cu Chi was an area that remained unpacified throughout the war and was the center for Viet Cong activity near Saigon.
It is estimated that there were more than 200 miles of tunnels in South Vietnam. In the Cu Chi district alone, there were hundreds of tunnels. Many were linked together.
No single military engineer designed this vast labyrinth. The tunnels evolved as the natural response from a poorly equipped and mainly local guerilla army to mid-twentieth-century technological warfare. Aircraft, bombs, artillery and chemicals obliged the Viet Cong to live and fight underground.
A typical tunnel complex would contain multiple concealed trap door entrances. In the picture below you will see that the entrances were very small. Peter had to take off his belt, wallet, and empty his pockets and then enter with his hands held over my head. I almost got stuck!
After squeezing through the entrance, Peter crawled down three levels and then surfaced a couple hundred yards from where he entered, Margie had a different experience.
Here is Margie going down a tunnel entrance enlarged for visitors.
Here is Margie coming right back up the entrance saying “No Way!).
Inside some of the more elaborate tunnels one might find a conference chamber with a kitchen, storage cache for weapons/ammo/rice, water well and first aid station with a operating room.
But, the majority of the tunnels were claustrophobic, dark, dank, rat and bug-infested burrows that were no wider than 47 inches and as narrow as 32 inches; no higher than 48 inches and as low as 32 inches..
Life in the tunnels was hard. Captain Linh, commander of the 7th VC Battalion in Cu Chi, spent five years living underground. He said that the wounded in his underground first aid stations “used to scream for one look at light and one breath of air, not fresh air, just air.”
But, the Vietnamese who lived and fought in these tunnels did so for decades with much success.
One of the initial strategies of the U.S. was to construct a series of fortified bases outside Saigon.
The site of Cu Chi was studied from the comfort of a strategic war room in Hawaii. General Weyland said, “We picked this area because of the topography. It is one place, 12 meters above the water table, where we can put trucks and tanks without having them sink during the monsoon season. It has good drainage, access to a river and water supply. It is ideal!”
Unfortunately, it was for those very same reasons that the Vietnamese had been digging tunnels in Cu Chi as far back as the 1940’s and 50’s when they were fighting the French!
On Christmas Day, 1966 Bob Hope came to the Cu Chi military base to do a Christmas show. One of his lines was “When I landed I got a nineteen gun salute. One of them was ours! We’re so close to the fighting we had to give the Viet Cong half the tickets!
Bob Hope did not appreciate the true import of his words. After the war, it became known that while Bob Hope was performing his Christmas show above ground, an entertainer named Pham Sang was boosting Viet Cong morale in the tunnel below ground with his own comedy show.
It was also discovered later that one of the Vietnamese tunnels had a secret entrance right into the U.S. supply depot on the base! The Viet Cong would actually enter the U.S. supply depot to do midnight shop-lifting when their supplies ran low!
General William Westmoreland, who commanded the American forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968, said in his memoirs: “No one has ever demonstrated more ability to hide his installations than the Viet Cong: they were human moles.”
And, it wasn’t just people hiding in these tunnels! In 1966, the Viet Cong stole a M-48 tank. Three years later, it was found in a tunnel in Cu Chi! It was buried six feet underground and several connecting tunnels had been dug to it. The tank was used as a VC command center; the batteries, lights and the radio were still working.
In another tunnel, they found a 1500 pound printing press in perfect working order; rows and rows of type, thirty seven trays together, stacked against the walls of this huge six foot high, thirty by forty foot chamber. A table with bottles of ink, dyes in five gallon containers and stacks of pamphlets and papers –two tons in all.
A clever and finely engineered trapdoor system was devised to create entrances and exits to secret passages and from one tunnel to another. It was crucial to the plan that, even when the first tunnel level was discovered, the secret trapdoor that led down to the next level would remain hidden from the enemy.
The Tunnels of Cu Chi tells the stories of several American “tunnel rats” whose job it was to explore the tunnels. It was not a job that anyone reading this story would want. These “tunnel rats” went down in the tunnels with just a knife, flashlight and pistol. Many never came back.
The slogan of these tunnel fighters was “Not Worth a Rat's Ass.” In 1962 the Limited Warfare Laboratory (LWL) in Maryland instigated a crash program to develop new technological weapons for tunnel warfare. These included their official “Tunnel Exploration Kit” with a new headlamp, hands free bone conductor microphone, “silenced pistols, bullets that split into four segments etc. Much of the kit was too bulky to even fit into the tunnels. The Tunnel Exploration Kits were tried by the Tunnel Rats and “ gratefully” returned to the LWL … never to be seen again.
Other tactics included sending smoke, rolling grenades, tear gas, acetylene fire, trained dogs, etc.
At the end of the war Lieutenant Colonel James Bushong, of the 25th infantry division admitted that they never discovered any effective way to destroy the tunnels or even deny their use to the communists. He still does not know how he would do the job today.
Some of the Vietnamese fighters lived and fought in the Cu Chi tunnels for up to 10 years. Only the certainty that victory was inevitable protected the mind and body from the true horrors of tunnel life. When victory would come was academic – perhaps in five more years, perhaps in ten. America was a formidable fighting force; one would have to be patient.
Mangold and Penycate write, “To Asians, steeped in Confucian concepts, time is an endless river flowing from an infinitely regenerative source. Time to Westerners is precious (we are always in a hurry) while to the Oriental, time is something that can be spent with generosity. Even Western calendars are different – they have starting and stopping points. Each page has a beginning and an end. But the Oriental calendar is in the form of a wheel, a symbol with neither has a beginning nor an end --- a continuum. Quick victory is a Western concept.”
Years before, Ho Ch Minh was fighting the French in Vietnam and he said: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours and, even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.”
This was the basis for the war strategy against America… all the Vietnamese had to do was not to lose. They could use the tunnels as sanctuary, emerging when it was to their advantage and retreating when necessary.
Time was on their side since, by simply not losing, they would eventually win.