Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam
The Story of the Tunnels of Cu Chi
By Don Johnson
Santa Paula News
Published: February 08, 2013
“The Tunnels of Cu Chi” by Tom Mangold and John Penycate is a wonderful work documenting the story of the tunnels and the people involved on both sides. The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of 25 years that began sometime in the late 1940s. They were the improvised response of a poorly equipped peasant army to its enemy’s high-tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers and chemical weapons.
The Viet Minh built the first dugouts and tunnels in the hard, red earth of Cu Chi (ideal for their construction) during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area.
When the VC’s National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began in earnest around 1960, the old Viet Minh tunnels were repaired and new extensions were excavated. Within a few years the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under firm VC control. In addition, Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon. The stunning attacks in the South Vietnamese capital during the 1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi.
The series of setbacks and defeats suffered by the South Vietnamese forces in the Cu Chi area rendered a complete VC victory by the end of 1965 a distinct possibility. In the early months of that year, the guerrillas boldly held a victory parade in the middle of Cu Chi town. VC strength in and around Cu Chi was one of the reasons the Johnson administration decided to involve U.S. troops in the war.
To deal with the threat posed by VC control of an area so near the South Vietnamese capital, one of the USA’s first actions was to establish a large base camp in Cu Chi district. Unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing tunnel network. It took months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept getting shot at in their tents at night.
The U.S. and Australian troops tried a variety of methods to ‘pacify’ the area around Cu Chi, which came to be known as the Iron Triangle. They launched large-scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops, but failed to locate the tunnels.
To deny the VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge swathes of jungle bulldozed, and villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area aerially, and a few months later ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained safe and sound in their tunnels.
Unable to win this battle with chemicals, the U.S. Army began sending men down into the tunnels. These ‘tunnel rats’, who were often involved in underground firefights, sustained appallingly high casualty rates.
When the Americans began using German shepherd dogs, trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors and guerrillas, the VC began washing with American soap, which gave off a scent the canines identified as friendly. Captured U.S. uniforms were put out to confuse the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified handlers then refused to send them into the tunnels.
The USA declared Cu Chi a free-strike zone: little authorization was needed to shoot at anything in the area, random artillery was fired into the area at night, and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and napalm there before returning to base. But the VC stayed put.
Finally, in the late 1960s, American B-52s carpet-bombed the whole area, destroying most of the tunnels along with everything else around. The gesture was militarily useless by then because the USA was already on its way out of the war. The tunnels had served their purpose.
The VC guerrillas serving in the tunnels lived in extremely difficult conditions and suffered horrific casualties. Only about 6,000 of the 15,000 military personnel who fought in the tunnels survived the war. Thousands of civilians in the area were killed. Their tenacity was extraordinary considering the bombings, the pressures of living underground for weeks or months at a time, and the deaths of countless friends and comrades.
Don & Debbie Johnson’s visit to the tunnels:
Above was the history of the Cu Chi Tunnels; however, seeing the complex and some of the tunnels was quite surprising and a bit scary. Scary, because you begin to realize the enormous loss of life during the Vietnam War. Not only did Americans and international partners lose lives, but also the North Vietnamese Army and especially the Viet Cong lost thousands of lives, especially those soldiers that lived in the tunnels.
The effort put forth in building the Cu Chi Tunnels was amazing. The tunnels were built to house a large city of soldiers. They had kitchens, hospitals, sleeping areas and more.
One of the most amazing engineering feats was the system of hiding smoke from the kitchen areas. A piping system was developed where pipes were laid, sometimes several miles away, to carry smoke from the kitchens. The smoke was dissipated from small holes that filtered smoke through the jungle where nothing was left and could not be seen from the air or from ground level.
While the tunnels had main entrances, mostly in the middle of villages where only villagers knew where they were located, small spider holes were dug into the tunnels that were used for emergency entrances. Thousands of the holes were dug in around the tunnel system and camouflaged with leaves and debris. When being chased, Viet Cong would just disappear by using one of the holes.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are northwest of Saigon and very close to Cambodia.
When we arrived, a young guide met us, he took us through the jungle to an area where we met Mr. Tang, a Viet Cong soldier. Mr. Tang lived in the underground tunnels for many years. While in the tunnels, the Viet Cong soldiers were required to dig tunnels. The digging ended in 1970. The Vietnam War ended shortly after when large scale assaults were conducted from the tunnels on Saigon.
Mr. Tang spoke about his time during the Vietnam War when he was very young. He talked about how difficult it was for him and other soldiers, especially knowing that many were killed or would be killed while fighting. He also talked about defenses in and around the tunnels, especially the tunnels. The Viet Cong set up many booby traps in the tunnels to discourage American soldiers from entering the tunnels. Even though soldiers did enter the tunnels, many were killed and injured so entry into the tunnels by American soldiers became limited due to the booby traps.
Before he answered question from our group he wanted to leave one message, “he said that he did not want any more war, just let everyone live in peace.”
Our tour group asked many questions and Mr. Tang, through an interpreter, answered each and every question. Here are some of the questions and answers:
Q. If you found an injured U.S. solider in a booby trap, where would the Viet Cong take them?
A. Soldiers who lived in the underground tunnels were very young and would always rescue U.S. soldiers. Their medical facilities were not very good, but they would save their lives then ship them up to Hanoi, by way of the Ho Chi Minh trail. They were not treated nicely in Hanoi. Booby traps were built to wound, not kill.
Q. Why did you join the VC?
A. He was born in the tunnels and the area was his hometown. Indoctrinated at a very early age by soldiers, he went into the army at the age of 14.
Q How long did you serve and how old are you now?
He fought in the tunnels from 1970 to 1975. Mr. Tang said he would be 60 years old in a few months.
Some tunnels were built for living in and some tunnels were built for fighting. Tunnels were three layers. They were started in 1948 and finished in 1970. Some tunnels were built to just connect the neighbors, kind of like bomb shelters.
Q. What was life in the tunnel like? What did you do with your spare time?
A. Very tiny, squat space only, and spare time was spent digging more tunnels. There were three problems in the tunnels: no light, lack of oxygen, lack of space.
Viet Cong would go out of tunnels and they would gather up all the stuff left by U.S. soldiers. Reused all that they could. Would take ammunition boxes and used them as a toilet, could close lid after use to keep out the smell.
Mr. Tang was too young to fight at the age of 15, so from 15 to17 he was used as a messenger. He did not fight in the Tet, which is the Vietnamese new year.
Q. Did you have other relatives fighting with you?
A. Yes, father and a brother who died in the fields.
Q. What was the longest time spent underground and what was the effect?
A. The tunnels were built to be able to live in for up to 90 days. The longest he was in at one time was 36 days. When he came up he was very happy to see the light.
Q. Did you do patrols?
A. During the war he spent most of his time living underground. Sometimes he was sent up to do patrols in the jungle. War was fought at night. They would attack bases for maybe 15 to 30 minutes then retreat. When they would attack, they used AK47 only that was supplied by Russia and China.
Following our question and answer period with Mr. Tang, our guide took us on a tour of the area. Various displays were set up showing the living conditions of the tunnels. Also on display was a large area showing recovered bomb fragments that were dropped on the area during the war.
Our guide also demonstrated how the small spider holes were used. In fact, as we were listening to our guide we discovered that many in our group were standing on top of the spider holes. The holes were camouflaged very well.
At the end of the tour, we were able to walk through part of the tunnel system. It was difficult to grasp how the enormous complex was built and used.
If interested in finding out even more about the tunnels, all you need to do is “google” Cu Chi Tunnels. Many sites will appear with very detailed information.