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.

Cu Chi Tunnel Matrix

cu-chi-tunnels-museum-not-below-small-68409Imagine Wind Cave or Jewel Cave in western South Dakota being a matrix of interconnected tunnels used for military defense.  During the Vietnam War, US forces were unprepared to fight a guerrilla war in which the Viet Cong could slip into and out of an elaborate complex of tunnels under the town of Cu Chi just seventeen miles north of Saigon.

The tunnels were about 125 miles long when the US Forces encountered them in 1965.  They were originally built by the Viet Minh during the 1940s and 1950s in their fight against the French.  The tunnels had hidden trap doors leading from each of the three different levels, and small rooms that served that simulated theaters, hospitals, kitchens, command centers, and storage rooms.  A life of grim deprivation awaited those who lived underground.

The tunnels were narrow and dark, just big enough for the smaller Vietnamese to crawl through, but not the larger Americans, known as “tunnel rats,” equipped with only a flashlight and pistol.  Poinsonous snakes and spiders added to the fear of tunnels-cu-chi-harrowing-account-americas-tunnel-rats-john-penycate-paperback-cover-artgetting lost underground–or having to swim into water-filled tunnels in hopes of finding a way out.

The Tunnels of Cu Chi (1985) by Tom Mangold and John Penycate describes how the tunnels supplied fresh troops for the Viet Cong guerrillas who could strike and then disappear.  American tunnel rats were considered the bravest of the brave, but their lives were short-lived.

Veterans who revisit  Vietnam today can find museums and underground tours of the Cu Chi tunnels.  Missing would be the horror and claustrophobia that was there during the war.

Is “Tunnel Rats” Movie of Vietnam War Ultimate Combat Nightmare?

imagesAll modern warfare tends to take place underground these days because of artillery and bombing campaigns to soften up the enemy in advance of any invasion.  The Japanese during World War II were the ultimate underground fighters, establishing elaborate subterranean cave systems.  Soldiers on the surface would have been annihilated.

The Vietnamese had constructed even more extensive interconnected tunnels in order to fight the French.  Underground rooms took the place of aboveground buildings, including hospitals, billets, and command centers.

The legendary tunnels at Cu Chi just north of Saigon were the most threatening to US Forces.  The 2008 movie Tunnel Rats goes beyond the horrors of most other combat.  Crawling through dark tunnels adds the psychological dimension of extreme claustrophobia and risk that would quickly weed out all but the bravest individuals.

But the American military could ill-afford not to challenge the Viet Cong who would otherwise be operating with impunity in the the US backyard.  Few Marines would have ventured into the sulfuric caves systems on Iwo Jima, but in Vietnam they had to.  Just watching the movie is enough for some viewers to suffer nightmares.

Superior air power drives enemies into caves and tunnels

Iwo Jima and Afghanistan might first come to mind, but American soldiers took the full brunt of Vietnam’s labyrinths of tunnels and caves.  The caves of Laos were a Communist stronghold during the Vietnam War.  Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong Cavern was discovered in 1991.

The caves at Viengxay, in north-eastern Laos, once hosted the country’s communist revolutionaries as they plotted the final US defeat in Indochina.  Even in peacetime it takes two days to drive to Viengxay from either Vientiane, the capital of Laos, or Luang Prabang, its second city.  During the secret war in Laos it was almost impossible.  The remoteness of this “hidden valley” was one reason that the communist Pathet Lao chose it as its headquarters. The other was that the valley is full of natural caves – nearly 500 of them.  Onechanh Somany spent nine years living in the caves during the 1960s and ’70s as a communist policeman, enduring constant bombardment. “Every day from 7am until 10pm the Americans bombed us,” he says. “At night they tried to blow up the bridges and the transport vehicles. There were brave soldiers on top of the mountain trying to shoot them down – many of them were killed. But inside the caves we were safe and no-one died.”

Per head of population, Laos remains the most heavily bombed country ever. In a nine-year-long undeclared war the US dropped half a tonne of bombs for every inhabitant.  It was a desperate attempt to prevent the North Vietnamese communist forces using Laos to supply their forces in South Vietnam and to prevent the Lao communists taking over the country.  But it failed and in August 1975, a few months after the falls of South Vietnam and Cambodia, the US suffered its final defeat in Indochina – a defeat orchestrated from the caves of Viengxay.  At one point, there were around 23,000 people living in the caves. And the community had everything from factories to make uniforms, to hospitals, to rooms in which the war was actually planned.