Sunday 6th Oct
The Cu Chi tunnels visit was one of three deeply disturbing visits to war sites, giving an insight into what happened during the “American” war. There is a lot of bias in these visits, much of it anti-American propaganda. By the time we left this tour, most of us felt quite sick to our stomachs. So be warned, and use your discretion reading this. It will be toned down a bit, it is difficult to accurately describe the warfare methods used without feeling ill, and parts will be hard to take in. As difficult as it was to see these horrors, it was also important to hear about, and see them.
Cu Chi tunnels are about 60km from HCM city, Cu Chi is now considered a heroic district for its role in the anti-American war in Vietnam. It is a legendary tunnel system of over 250km and is now popular for both Vietnamese and foreign visitors. On arrival at the park we see the remains of tanks (M48 Patton), troop carriers, C130 aircraft (huge beast), helicopters, and guns.
The Cu Chi tunnel system was tactically and strategically important. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult, some systems built deep over three levels. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, venomous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, soldiers 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. We were distressed to hear that everyone in the village, including young children, had a hand in fighting the enemy. In particular the children could get close to the enemy because the Americans did not initially realise they were a threat. 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.
Operation Crimp began in January, 1966, with B-52 bombers dropping 30-ton loads of high explosive onto the region of Cu Chi, effectively turning the lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand troops from the U.S. and Australia combed the region looking for any clues of PLAF activity. The operation did not bring about the desired success; for instance, on occasions when troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size. Rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels, as it was so hazardous. The tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or punji stick pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel opening were to flush the entrance with gas, water or hot tar to force the Viet Cong soldiers into the open, or to toss a few grenades down the hole and "crimp" off the opening. This approach proved ineffective due to the design of the tunnels and the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems.
However, an Australian specialist engineering troop did venture into the tunnels which they searched exhaustively for four days, finding ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies and food as well as signs of considerable Viet Cong presence. One of their number died when he became trapped in a tunnel that turned out to be a dead end. However the Australians pressed on and revealed the immense military significance of the tunnels. At an international press conference in Saigon shortly after referred to his men as Tunnel Ferrets. An American journalist, having never heard of ferrets, used the term Tunnel Rats and it stuck.
By 1969, B-52s were freed from bombing North Vietnam and started "carpet bombing" Củ Chi and the rest of the Iron Triangle. Ultimately it proved successful. Towards the end of the war, the tunnels were so heavily bombed that some portions caved in and other sections were exposed.
Throughout the war, the tunnels in and around Củ Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the military. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area that they were in the unique position of being able to control where and when battles would take place. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.
The tunnels at Củ Chi have been preserved by the government, and turned into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, which is where we went. Visitors are able to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. The sites contain parts of the original tunnel system, some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate tourists, this was done after an American died in one of the tunnels. Low-power lights have been installed to make traveling through them easier, and there are horrific displays of the different types of booby traps that were used. Underground conference rooms where campaigns were planned have also been restored.
We sit through a video, loaded with anti-American propaganda. There are cutaway diagrams of the tunnels, and we are astounded at how much was achieved given the lack of tools. Most of the digging was achieved with something resembling a short hoe, and a small basket the size of a coal scuttle.
Tony goes down several of the tunnel systems, the first is a tight squeeze, steps down make it easy to navigate, and there are lights inside. He still has to duck walk along, and as he starts the climb up one of the guides is there to take a photo. We are shown one of the original fighting bunkers, and one of our guides goes down the hole to show us. There is no way most of us would have fitted! The wooden cover is piled with dirt and leaves, and by the time the lid is closed, you cannot see where it is. There is another tunnel nearby, and that has had the entrance widened, enough for Tony and the others to get down it. The biggest worry is missing your footing going in, the steps are narrow and hard to see. Inside the tunnel has also been enlarged, but Tony still has to duck walk along it. There are ventilations shafts in here, and it is quite surreal to see these, and feel the rush of air. After Tony emerges at the other end, Cynthea tells him that they put the cover back on while he was still down there. Probably would have worried him quite a bit if he had realised, but coming up he should have been able to lift the cover himself, if no one was standing on it. If he had been travelling on his own, how soon before the guides would have missed him? The vents are well disguised, and difficult to see, some look like termite mounds. It is possible to attack the enemy from in here, but one would reveal that there was someone within, so they are used to hide and attack from behind.
Tony goes through a couple more bunkers, one has a huge operational room. We went some 20 metres below but the guide did not tell us which direction to take once down there. The first of the group had already gone through, and the girl in front of Tony reaches a crossroads in the tunnel. Both ways are lit, but there is nothing obvious to show which way. To confuse things more, we can hear voices from both tunnels, but it still isn’t clear which direction to take. No one panics, and in the end we decide to go straight ahead. Further on we can still hear the guide, so we figure we are still going in the right direction. We come to a turn in the tunnel and it is a steep grade down. The girl in front goes down feet first, but at the bottom she cannot get through and stand up, she is too big (and she was not that big). With quite a bit of manoeuvring she gets through, no panic, but she was very worried. If you are very small you can go through and stand up, and take the vertical steps into the next room, but if you are too big you simply cannot do that. Tony tells the others behind him to wait up a bit, and that they have to come down crawling head first. It feels very uncomfortable doing it that way, but it is easier to get through at the bottom. Everyone else is through without incident. When we get out Cynthea said that they were told someone got stuck, and they wondered if it was Tony. Offended much!
We are shown another tunnel set that was used for cooking, and the vents several metres away. It was built so that cooking smells took a good four hours to travel out, some considerable distance from the main shaft. We are shown a machine shop where unexploded bombs are taken to be reused, the explosive for re use in home made weapons, the metal for weapons and traps. There were quite a few casualties here when recovery of the explosives didn’t go to plan.
Then we see the most disturbing part of the tour, the recreation of where they make booby traps, and how those traps work. More often than not they were designed to maim and trap, rather than kill outright, so that the rescue team would be ambushed. Trap doors over deep pits (tiger traps), with sharp sticks covering the floor are throughout the jungle. Most other traps involve spikes of some sort. One has a high spike in the centre, with four long spikes angled down. The foot goes through the hole, and is impaled, the leg is trapped by the other spikes. Others are on a hinge so that the victim falls through, and is then impaled under the armpits. The other traps are even more horrifying, and leave us feeling very disturbed. Tony meant to catch up with the parents of the kids on the trip, to see how the kids coped with this. Some of the adults had a very difficult time dealing with it.
We are given fruit (mango slices with chilli and sugar – tastes better than it sounds), and water before heading through the gift shop. We cannot buy anything from here especially if it looks like a bomb or a grenade! Not a good look bring that back through customs.
The final option is a shooting range where we can fire a number of assault rifles, such as the M16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a general-purpose machine gun like the M60. It was reasonably expensive, but there were a few trigger happy people happy part with their money for five bullets. Not us, we had seen enough.
We travel back to town through the rice paddies and rubber plantations. This is the first time we have seen rubber trees, and we were surprised, not what we expected them to look like at all. We had been expecting lunch, but we are told we will get that back in the city, it is a bloody long wait until lunch, nearly 3pm by the time we eat, in a restaurant behind where we are staying. No need for tea tonight.