Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Underground Tunnels of Cu Chi, Vietnam

During the war in Vietnam, thousands of people in the Vietnamese province of Cu Chi lived in an elaborate network of underground tunnels. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and played a major role in North Vietnam winning the war.

The Cu Chi tunnels were built over a period of 25 years that began sometime in the late 1940s during the war against the French. The excavations were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the area. When the National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgency began around 1960, the old tunnels were repaired and new extensions were excavated. Within a few years the tunnel system assumed enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi district and the nearby area came under firm Viet Cong control.

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The secret tunnels, which joined village to village and often passes beneath American bases, were not only fortifications for Viet Cong guerillas, but were also the center of community life. Hidden beneath the destroyed villages were underground schools and public spaces where couples were married and private places where lovers met. There were even theaters inside the tunnels where performers entertained with song and dance and traditional stories.

But life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. Almost everyone had intestinal parasites of significance. Only about 6,000 of the 16,000 cadres who fought in the tunnels survived the war.

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Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in Ch Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The US and Australian tried a variety of methods to detect and infiltrate the tunnels but all were met with failure. Large scale ground operations involving tens of thousands of troops were launched. They ravaged rice paddies, bulldozed huge swathes of jungle, and villages were evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemical defoliants on the area aerially and a few months later ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with gasoline and napalm. By a strange twist of fate, the intense heat of the napalm interacted with the wet tropical air only to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The Viet Cong guerrillas remained safe and sound inside their tunnels.

Unable to win the battle with chemicals, the US army began sending men called ‘tunnel rats’ down into the tunnels. Armed only with a gun, a knife, a flashlight and a piece of string these tunnel rats would enter a tunnel by themselves and travel inch-by-inch cautiously looking ahead for booby traps. The job of a tunnel rat was fraught with immense dangers. The entrance holes in the ground were barely wide enough for the shoulders. After a couple of meters of slipping and wriggling straight down, the narrow tunnel took a U-turn back towards the surface, then twisted again before heading off horizontally further. The light from the battery powered lamp wasn’t enough to pierce the darkness inside the tunnels, and there was no room to turn around and retreat. The tunnel rats, who were often involved in underground fire fights, sustained appallingly high casualty rates.

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One of the entrance to the tunnels. Photo credit

The Americans then began using German shepherd dogs trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors and guerrillas. The tunnel people responded by washing themselves with American soap which gave off a scent the canines identified as friendly. Captured US uniforms were put out to confuse the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps. So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified handlers then refused to send them into the tunnels.

Finally, by the late 1960s, the American began carpet bombing Cu Chi destroying several portions of the tunnels along with everything else around. The gesture was militarily useless by then because the USA was already on its way out of the war. The tunnels had served their purpose.

The 120-km long complex of tunnels at Cu Chi has since been preserved and turned into a war memorial park. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make traveling through them easier and booby traps have been clearly marked. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tet Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.

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Tourists entering tunnel system. Photo credit

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Booby trap. Photo credit

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Besprechungsbunker / meeting room. Photo credit

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Making weapons. Photo credit

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Cu Chi Tunnel model. Photo credit

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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