Warning: The job of tunnel rats was not for the faint of heart.

Imagine having to crawl in this underground tunnel that extends far, far below to where your flashlight could dimly shine, with the hole just big enough to squeeze your way down. If you’re not claustrophobic and managed to actually psych yourself up and get in there, the next challenge would be keeping yourself alive and hoping that there were no booby traps along the dark way, or maybe dangerous insects and animals that the enemies purposefully put like venomous snakes and scorpions, or that no Viet Cong was waiting for you at the end of the tunnel. Yep, that’s pretty much the life of the tunnel rats during the Vietnam War. Another day, another tunnel.

Living Underground

The Vietnam War was fought between the American and South Vietnamese forces versus the communist guerilla troops called Viet Cong (VC). What the Viet Cong did to combat their enemies who had better supplies was to dig tens of thousands of tunnels, with an extensive network of them running far underground in the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon. The Viet Cong used these underground routes as hideouts, means to transport their communications, arsenals, and other needed supplies, place their booby traps, and make surprise attacks before quickly jumping back in the tunnel and to safety.

The communists began this network of tunnels in the late 1940s during their war of independence from the French colonialists and did so by digging the tunnels by hand, a short distance at a time. They started in the jungle terrain of South Vietnam and expanded from there. When the United States military presence in Vietnam began to increase in the 1960s as a support to the non-communist South Vietnamese troops, the Viet Cong also started expanding their tunnels. At the peak of the Vietnam War, their network of tunnels in the Cu Chi district linked their support bases around a distance of 250 kilometers, running from the outskirts of Saigon up to the borders of Cambodia.

"Tunnel rat" is preparing to place charges and make connections for detonation.
“Tunnel rat” is preparing to place charges and make connections for detonation. Note the smallness of the access hole, which is easily camouflaged. (US Army, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States heavily relied on aerial bombing, so the Viet Cong would crawl down the tunnels to survive and carry on their guerrilla war. In some cases, they spent much of their lives in those underground bunkers and constructed them like a normal house with living quarters, kitchens, hospitals, bomb shelters, and ordnance factories. The entrances of these tunnels were camouflaged, making it fairly hard to spot unless, of course, your eyes were trained for that task.

Nothing But Flashlight, Pistol, Or Knife

To combat the VC’s guerrilla tactics, the US troops trained some soldiers to be “tunnel rats.” If you were a GI with a pretty small stature, then you’re more likely to be selected as one. It was important that the soldiers tasked to do the job were no more than five feet and five inches tall, as the tunnels were a tight squeeze, and you wouldn’t want them to be stuck and defenseless somewhere along the tunnels, waiting to be taken or instantly killed by the enemies. This translates to spending hours navigating the cramped, dark tunnels, usually alone with nothing but your flashlight, around six to seven rounds in a pistol, or sometimes just a knife. The goal of the rat tunnels was to search for valuable intelligence and enemies and return alive.

SGT Ronald A. Payne (Atlanta, GA) Squad Leader, CO A, 1st B.N., 5th Mechanized Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, moves through a tunnel searching for Viet Cong and their equipment during Operation “Cedar Falls” in the Hobo Woods about 25 miles North of Saigon. (Robert C. Lafoon / Department of the Army Special Photo Office, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In an article by Insider, former 25th Infantry Division Tunnel Rat Carl Cory said, “The most dangerous part would be psyching up to get into the tunnel. That was the part that was most frightening because you didn’t [know] what you were getting into.”

Sapper Jim Marett, who was also a Tunnel Rat during the Vietnam War, wrote about his experience in the New York Times.

For the most part, the job of tunnel rat was a catchall name for the work that we did as combat engineers. We were trained at the Australian Army’s School of Military Engineering, located 20 miles west of Sydney. The three-month course covered a lot of ground: mine detection, booby trap disarming, tunnel searching and demolitions. Somehow, I had convinced myself that my job as a combat engineer was going to be more “engineer” than “combat” — that the truly dangerous stuff would be handled by real experts. I was wrong.

Marett served with the Royal Australian Engineers and is the president of the Vietnam Tunnel Rats Association in Australia. In 2014, he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal by the Governor-General of Australia for his work with war veterans.

Our tunnel rat unit was small, with at most 120 men in the country at any time, and a total of around 700 who served from 1965 to 1972. During that period 36 of us were killed and around 200 were wounded, giving us a casualty rate of 33 percent, high even by Vietnam War standards. One in three of us was either killed or wounded during our tour.

Now A Tourist Attraction

One of the tunnel entrances which have been widened for tourists. (shankar s. from Dubai, United Arab EmiratesCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Around 45,000 Vietnamese reportedly died trying to defend the tunnels of Cu Chi throughout the war. When Saigon fell in 1975, the government decided to preserve the Cu Chi tunnels as part of the war memorial parks around Vietnam. Tourists and visitors can crawl into some of the safer areas of the tunnels where they can see the command centers and booby traps, fire an AK-47 rifle on a firing range, and even taste the typical meals that the Viet Cong living in the underground bunks ate.