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Viet Cong Tunnels

Viet Cong Flags

Communists did not begin building tunnels and setting booby traps in South Vietnam after American soldiers arrived - they were built and used over the years starting in the 1940's to let the Viet Minh, and later the Viet Cong, control rural areas.  Originally built in the time of the French, tunnel systems were enlarged and networks were expanded during American presence.

Viet Cong could launch surprise attacks and then disappear in the well-hidden tunnels.  Finding concealed entrances made pursuing the communist guerrillas difficult.  These systems not only served as escape routes and hiding places for the VC, but were also used for transporting and attending to the wounded, holding prisoners, and storing and moving weapons, munitions, food caches, and other supplies and equipment.  Later in the war, some areas had parts of the tunnel system that could accommodate trucks.

In some areas, the ground is hard clay, which made the whole thing possible - support structures weren't necessary to avoid collapse.  People dug all of it with hand tools, filling reed baskets, and dumping the dirt in undetectable places.  They installed large vents so they could hear approaching helicopters, smaller vents for air, and baffled vents to dissipate cooking smoke.  There were camouflaged entrances and booby traps for security.

Viet Cong tunnel.

Home Sweet Home - table and stools.

A Vietnamese Communist (VC).

Two Viet Cong resting during the day.

Viet Cong and his AK-47.

South Vietnamese troops (ARVN) checking for VC.

Cu Chi Tunnels

The largest and most famous tunnel system was at Cu Chi, about 45 miles northwest of Saigon, with about 150 miles of tunnels.  The Cu Chi system was an underground city with living areas, kitchens, storage, weapons factories, dorms, classrooms, small theaters, field hospitals, and command centers.  Most connecting tunnels were about 3 feet high and 2 1/2 feet wide (more or less), no lights, hot and humid.  In places, tunnels and rooms were several stories deep and housed up to 10,000 people who lived underground for years.  They rarely saw daylight, and came out at night to tend their crops and animals.  At the height of the Vietnam War, the tunnel network stretched from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border to connect to the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Left half of drawing.

Right half of drawing.

Booby Traps

There were two kinds of booby traps - the exploding kind and the non-explosive kind.  The Punji Stake Pit was a non-explosive trap.  A stake or spike was usually made out of bamboo, placed in the ground point-up, and was usually deployed in substantial numbers.  Pits would be placed in areas likely to be passed through by enemy troops.

Viet Cong setting a punji trap.

The presence of punji sticks may be camouflaged by natural undergrowth, crops, grass, brush, and even under water.  Sometimes a pit would be dug with punji sticks in the sides pointing downward at an angle.  A soldier stepping into the pit would find it impossible to remove his leg without doing severe damage, and injuries might be incurred by the simple fact of falling forward while one's leg is in a narrow, stake-lined pit.  Such entrapment would require time and care to dig the soldier's leg out, immobilizing the unit longer than if the foot were simply pierced.


Punji Stake Pits.

Punji sticks were not necessarily meant to kill the person who stepped on it; rather, they were designed to wound the enemy and slow or halt his unit while the victim was evacuated to a medical facility.  Some stakes were deployed on the ground surface in areas where surprised enemy might be expected to take cover, thus, soldiers diving for cover would impale themselves.

A foot saved by an armored boot liner.

The stake itself would be sharpened, fire hardened, and could easily penetrate through a soldier's boot.  In some cases, the tips were rubbed with toxic plants or frogs, or even feces, to cause infections in the wounded enemy.  The point of penetration was usually in the foot or lower leg area, but some pits were large enough in which the whole body could fall.

Civilian Vietnamese used punji stakes, too.
Moat surrounds village for protection from VC.

The Punji Bear Trap was a booby trap built basically in the same fashion as the Punji Stake Pit.  Instead of one uniformly shaped pit, this hole consisted of two different sized holes - a larger hole on top of a smaller hole.  The VC would place a punji bear trap on top of the smaller hole, so that when the victim's foot penetrated the brush covering, it would land on the trap causing it to snap shut in an upward motion.  It was very difficult to escape the trap's grasp on the victim's foot and leg.

Punji Bear Trap.

The Bouncing Betty was an explosive booby trap.  The mine is a small cylindrical device that was buried in the ground, with a set of wires sticking up.  The mine has two charges, and when the wires are tripped, the first shoots it up three or four off the ground to about waist height, then the second explodes and sprays the area with shrapnel.  The charge was not very large and contained small steel balls or metal scraps that would inflict injuries to soldiers.  The Bouncing Betty can maim as well as kill, and that's the demoralizing thought that can turn a brave man's blood cold.  Most soldiers become fatalistic about death, but not about losing limbs, or worse, the family jewels, and surviving.

Bouncing Betty.

There were other types of booby traps, and an aray of explosive mine devices.  Mines were the most harmful, were made from almost anything that was available, and had various setups and triggering methods.  In Vietnam, mines and booby traps caused about 11% of the deaths and 17% of wounds.

Tunnel Rats

The U.S. first countered tunnels systems with "tunnel rats" - small Americans that could fit in the tight tunnels.  They were sent in to kill any hiding enemy soldiers and to plant explosives to destroy the tunnels.  A tunnel rat was equipped with only a .45 caliber pistol, bayonet, and flashlight, although most were allowed to choose another pistol with which to arm themselves (the blast from a .45 caliber would often leave them temporarily deaf).  The tunnels were very dangerous, with numerous booby traps and enemies lying in wait.  Often there were flooded U-bends in the tunnels to trap gas.  Guards manned holes on the sides of tunnels through which spears could be thrust, impaling a crawling intruder.  Not only were there human enemies, but also dangerous creatures, such as snakes (including venomous ones), rats, bats, spiders, scorpions, and ants.

Demolition teams set charges in tunnel systems.

A tunnel rat "running the hole."

When the "tunnel rat" method was shelved, the decision was made to attack the tunnels from the air, first defoliating the land, then bombarding it with heavy bombs, including weaponry specifically designed to collapse tunnels.  Through all of this, tunnel networks survived.  It wasn't until the late 1960s, when B-52s carpet-bombed areas, that substantial sections of tunnels were finally destroyed, rendering them uninhabitable.  The Cu Chi area is claimed to be the most bombed, defoliated, and generally devastated region in the history of warfare.  By Vietnamese estimates, some 12,000 Viet Cong and civilians lost their lives in Cu Chi during the war.

Tourism at Cu Chi

Today, some of the tunnels have been preserved and are a tourist destination.  A few have been enlarged to accommodate larger tourists.  Admission can be around 65 or 80 thousand dong, depending on which destination you choose on a Saigon tour, which can cost 136,000 dong (about $8 including lunch).  The tunnels are like an amusement park attraction - displays, large maps, tunnel excursions, gift shops, dress up like a communist, briefing rooms for communist propaganda videos, etc.  You can shoot guns, such as AK-47, M-16, M-60, where each bullet costs between 20-25,000 dong, but for a minimum of 10 bullets.  They make footwear out of vehicle tires, so you can buy the old fashioned Ho Chi Minh sandals.  Inflation is high, it's still a peasant country, and the communists need tourist money real bad.

Entrance gate to the tourist Cu Chi tunnel system.

A page from the tunnel guide book.

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