Underground with Viet Cong

After touring their network of tunnels, it's no wonder the Vietnamese won the war

I have no trouble accepting the premise that War is Hell. I’ve never fought in one and impending Geezerhood pretty much insures I’ll never have to. I thank my lucky stars for that.

But if the fickle Fates decide otherwise and the future finds me outfitted in helmet, army boots and 20 kilos worth of combat kit on my back I have just one small request to make.

Please don’t make me fight underground.

I have recently returned from the Cu Chi district of Vietnam, a swath of lush jungle about 50 kilometres northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. Well, it’s lush jungle now, but 40 or 50 years ago it was a blasted and cratered moonscape of mud and shredded timber where nothing moved or grew.

That would be a direct result of the 500,000 tons of explosives U.S. bombers had dropped on the area. They were trying to root out the Viet Cong who used the Cu Chi district as a military stronghold. All those bombs didn’t make much difference because the Viet Cong were underground in an incredible network of tunnels that ran for 150 miles over a 100 square mile area. But they weren’t merely tunnels. The VC had constructed a maze, a complex — a virtual city that was three storeys deep in places.  It incorporated sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, a command post, weapons storage, kitchens, emergency ORs — even weapons factories.

Actually, ‘factory’ is gilding the lotus somewhat.  A ‘factory’ consisted of a few guys in black pyjamas hunkered down in the dark hammering and hack-sawing chunks of bombshell debris.

U.S. forces weren’t entirely unaware of the tunnels but they had no clue how extensive they were, and they weren’t likely to find out by exploring them. The tunnels were low and narrow, built to accommodate the smaller bodies of Vietnamese, not a GI’s strapping bulk. Then too, the prospect of shimmying into a black void infested with poisonous spiders, venomous snakes, rats and armed enemy soldiers, all in stifling jungle heat, can’t have held much appeal. Accordingly, troops finding a concealed tunnel entrance usually elected to pump in poison gas or toss in a few grenades, fill in the entrance and move on.

So what was it like for the Viet Cong who lived in and fought out of the Cu Chi tunnels?  Not good.  Aside from being carpet bombed almost daily, they suffered from a variety of pestilences. A captured Viet Cong document indicated that at any given time more than half the underground troops were stricken with malaria and that “one hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance.”

Human beings aren’t designed to live in tunnels. The air was bad, the diet was pathetic and the denizens had to learn to live in a permanent hunch in pretty much perpetual darkness.

Sixteen thousand Viet Cong fought out of the Cu Chi tunnels during what they call “The American War.” Twelve thousand of them lie buried in graves that carpet the outskirts of the tunnels.

Do the math. Three-quarters of the troops fighting for Ho Chi Minh in the Cu Chi tunnels died there. Clearly the whole tunnel offensive was a devastating defeat for the North Vietnamese forces.

And yet…

The official name of the nearest city is Ho Chi Minh City, not Saigon. It was changed in spirit the day that a Viet Cong commando squad briefly but humiliatingly took over the U.S. Embassy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968.  Those Viet Cong operated out of the tunnels at Cu Chi.

The war is over and, incredibly, Western tourists are warmly welcomed in Vietnam. We can even tour short sections of the tunnels at Cu Chi — sections that have been purposely enlarged to accommodate our Western bodies. Even at that it’s a cramped and uncomfortable experience — unimaginable as a way of life.

As one sweaty, wide-eyed Canadian tourist said, emerging into the sunlight from the Cu Chi tunnels, “No wonder they won.”

— Humour columnist Arthur Black lives

on SaltSpring Island


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