BBC Reporters: Disciplined Guerrillas Can Topple Military Superpowers
A decade after the war in Vietnam ended, BBC reporters Tom Mangold and John Penycate wrote the The Tunnels of Cu Chi about the hundreds of miles of underground tunnels that allowed the Viet Cong to observe American troops from relative safety, then pop up to kill patrols, only to lose themselves in a subterranean network:
“Ultimately what was self-evident was that the United States armed forces were not facing a bunch of Communist terrorists who had somehow infiltrated from the North and half a placed South vietnamese peasantry at knifepoint. The Americans had discovered a new enemy,” they argued.
As with ISIS today, the Viet Cong had to capture equipment from their enemies—and build homemade munitions from cast off US supplies. All of this was done in the extensive tunnels which went down four levels. “It was an extraordinary triumph of the primitive in a decade that saw man walking on the moon,” the authors point out.
US soldiers weren’t trained in tunnel warfare, around since Biblical times, and later a mainstay of Japanese defenses in the Pacific. The military machines of superpowers still train for set-piece battles. This is what General Westmoreland hoped to achieve in using the highly outnumbered marine bade at Khe Sanh as a decoy.
The Viet Cong in the tunnels had all the advantages. They had built the system for smaller stature soldiers. They knew how to booby trap and prevent explosions, flooding, and gas attacks from spreading far. In short, they were at home in the tunnels, with kitchens, hospitals, factories, and media rooms.
Tunnel Rats , the 2008 German-Canadian movie by Uwe Boll gives some sense of the extreme claustrophobia and danger that made few soldiers want to volunteer to crawl into the unknown, at times having to swim underwater to get past “gooseneck” bends—or fit through 11”x16” trapdoors.
One man who did go down into the tunnels for on-the-job training and combat was former US soldier Arnold Bergstrom, who splits his year now between homes in Rapid City, South Dakota and also in West Jordan, Utah.
“I served with the 65th Engineers in Vietnam as a demolition specialist. I was attached to several Inventory and Mechanized Units throughout South Vietnam. As a Demo Specialist, I spent a lot of time crawling through tunnels, clearing foliage and destroying enemy cover. I am proud to have served my country and, knowing the risk and fears, I would do it all over.”
You are invited to hear Bergstrom talk about his experiences as a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam on Saturday, January 9, 2016, at Ellsworth Air Force Base’s South Dakota Air and Space Museum, 9:00-11:30 am (first half hour is social period), an event sponsored by the Black Hills Veterans Writing Group.