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Jhemmylrut Teng

Petite American, Australian, and New Zealander Soldiers and Their Risky Mission as Tunnel Rats in Vietnam

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Jhemmylrut Teng
Jhemmylrut Teng
 27 days ago
A GI of the 25th Infantry Division emerges from a Viet Cong tunnel, October 1967.(Source: US National Archives)

At the height of the Vietnam War, soldiers from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand (ANZUS) have supported the South Vietnamese who opposed the communists of the North. But in the South alone, the troops had to face the North's counterpart - the Viet Cong.

However, these Viet Cong were not only challenging but also tricky to apprehend. Besides, Vietnam is their homeland, so they got all the advantages. And this includes their skilled underground operation through narrow tunnels. These tunnels became a dilemma for the American soldiers and their associated forces, making it difficult for them to pin the Viet Cong in the bud.

Nevertheless, the Allies recruited men with small statures. With a height of no taller than five feet and five inches, to take on a critical, dangerous mission more significant than their size by becoming tunnel rats.

Viet Cong's tunnels

Before the Americans, the Viet Minh already fought the French in Vietnam from 1946 to 1954. During that time, the Viet Minh learned how to fight a nation more powerful than them. To do so, fight using guerilla tactics. One of those tactics was literally operating underground. The Viet Minh got to work building a massive complex of tunnels.

When the Americans arrived in 1955, the tunnels were already vast. However, it was the Viet Cong that made that feat of engineering. So, during the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong utilized their tunnels to the fullest. The underground was their place to hide, eat, sleep, and machinate attacks on their enemy.
Illustration of the underground operation of Viet Cong's tunnel(Source: Vietnam Travel Group)

By the 1960s, the tunnel complexes included hospitals, training areas, storage facilities, headquarters, and barracks. These diverse facilities, coupled with sophisticated ventilation systems, allowed Viet Cong guerrillas to remain hidden underground for months at a time.

At night, the Viet Cong would come out to place booby traps for the enemy and sneak back into the tunnel. Because of this sly operation, many American and Australian soldiers lost their lives against the foe they barely seen above ground.

Dangerous mission
A tunnel rat soldier entering VC's tunnel(Source: US National Archives)

The ANZUS troops uncovered a significant number of enemy tunnels while patrolling or conducting more extensive operations.

Destroying the tunnels above ground was feasible, but not enough. Often, the tunnels were complex and snake-like, so an above-ground demolition was not sufficient to entirely dismantle the labyrinth. Someone would have to go down into the tunnels to gather information and better inform their attack. Thus, the tunnel rats came to be.

The Australian combat engineering unit, the three (3) Field Force, was the first tunnel rats. They were trained at the Australian Army’s School of Military Engineering. Most men recruited for the job tended to be of more tiny stature, not taller than 165 cm, making it easier to maneuver through the cramped spaces.

Tunnel rats were tasked with destroying the tunnel, gathering intelligence within, and killing or capturing Viet Cong, often in close combat conditions. Typically, a tunnel rat was equipped with only a standard-issue M1911 pistol or M1917 revolver, a bayonet, a flashlight, and explosives.
Tunnel rats typically armed with a flashlight and a pistol in conducting their mission(Source: US National Archives)

Later in the war, the Americans joined the Australian and Kiwi soldiers in the tunnel rats mission. But the tunnels proved to be an even more mysterious, uncharted area where dangers lay around every corner.

Apart from enemy combatants, the tunnels were decked with booby traps as the Viet Cong knew full well that the American forces would try to use the underground against them.
A Viet Cong guerilla guarding the tunnel(Source: Wikimedia)
Punji sticks, one of the booby traps used by the Viet Cong(Source: Wikimedia)

Many tunnel rats were devoid of any formal training. However, they were sometimes successful in securing intelligence, an enemy hospital, or stores of weapons.

Despite such successes, the ANZUS soldiers completed. It didn't change the fact that Viet Cong's tubes presented many potential dangers to tunnel rats. Most of the time, these tunnels were booby-trapped with hand grenades, anti-personnel mines, punji sticks, and venomous snakes.

Rats, spiders, scorpions, and ants also posed threats to tunnel rats. Tunnel construction occasionally included anti-intruder features such as U-bends that could be flooded quickly to trap and drown the tunnel rat.

Sometimes poison gases were also used. A tunnel rat might choose to enter the tunnels wearing a gas mask. Although, some American tunnel rats tended to went without gas masks because wearing one made it even harder to see, hear, and breathe in the narrow dark passages.
Some tunnel rats wear a gas mask to protect themselves(Source: US National Archives)

Accounts of tunnel rats

One of the tunnel rats who's been active in sharing his story is Jim Marett. He was also the president of the Vietnam Tunnel Rats Association. He was sent to Vietnam in 1969 at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province, about 70 miles southeast of Saigon. His rank was Sapper, which is the Engineer Corps equivalent to a Private in the infantry.

" Accepting this task [tunnel rat] as a normal part of our job was a surprisingly easy transition, partly because all of the men within our small unit were doing the same thing, and partly because we soon learnt it wasn’t underground where the majority of our casualties were taking place. It was above ground where our men were losing life and limb while carrying out our other key tasks." Jim Marett

Marett pertains to other vital tasks as locating and disarming mines on the field above ground. He reckoned his experience spending weeks in the bush finding mines location. During that period, 36 of his comrades were killed, and around 200 were wounded.

In a conference in Forest Lake, Washington County, Mike MacDonald, an American veteran tunnel rat, supports Marrett's statement as he recalled his experience every time he ingresses a tiny hole into the unknown.

“The scariest part for me was staring at that hole, not knowing what you were going into. But once you get down there you take a few deep breaths, you collect your thoughts...then it’s all business.” - Mike MacDonald

He also attested that were tons of things he saw in the tunnel. But whenever he gets to see real rats, he felt safe.

“When I’d run into a rat or two, it was a comforting thing, because I knew that if the enemy found a rat, they’d eat it. So the rats were a sign that there wasn’t anybody in there.” - Mike MacDonald

The golden rule in their unit, when they see a weapon like rifles, they never touch it because it's a trap. Also, whenever they penetrate a new area in the tunnel, they leave a military patch to let the Viet Cong know that American and allied soldiers had been there.

Often when faced with a Viet Cong soldier below ground, tunnel rats had to resort to hand-to-hand combat, as firing a weapon in such a small space only ripples disaster given the space around them.
Sgt. Ronald H. Payne moves through a tunnel in search of Viet Cong with a flashlight and M1911 pistol(Source: Wikimedia)

Despite the physical dangers in conducting their mission as tunnel rats, these courageous soldiers still maintained a clear and precise mental state of mind and not let the fear get the best of them.

After completing a search, many American units would rig the tunnels with C-4 explosives or bring in expert flamethrowers to flush out any remaining hostiles.