Friday, September 5, 2014

"Tunnel Rats" --Vietnam

Tom's Journal.

The Tunnel Rats

The men who took the Vietnam war underground with nothing but a pistol and a flashlight
Hero vietnamtunnel

Sep 2, 2014 | By Thomas McDermott

"For our unit they said, 'We need somebody to go in the tunnel' and so we went. We took a .45 and chambered a round, cocked the hammer back, and went in." - C.W. Bowman, Tunnel Rat
Midway through the 1940's, the Vietnamese forces fighting the occupying French colonial troops knew they were outmatched and outgunned. With nowhere to go, they dug extensive tunnel systems below ground, retreating deep into the hollowed out caverns where they would lie in wait for the sound of enemy feet trampling the earth above them.
By the 1960's, the tunnels had grown into an expansive network of underground hospitals, command posts, and barracks. The Vietcong knew the land well, and the Vietnam conflict had once again brought a foreign enemy to their jungle.

As soon as U.S. and allied forces hit the ground, the Vietcong made the large Củ Chi Tunnel network their base of operations once again. The tunnels allowed the Vietcong to run devastating guerilla warfare attacks on unsuspecting soldiers before slipping back underground undetected.
The Anti-Communist forces needed a way to bring the war to the Vietcong, and began asking for volunteers to join a unit devoted to flushing out the booby-trapped, enemy-filled tunnels inch-by-inch. This all volunteer-force became known as the Tunnel Rats.

Comprised of American, Australian and New Zealand soldiers, The Tunnel Rats were a dedicated search-and-destroy force that were called in whenever regular infantry units discovered a tunnel entrance. Generally men of shorter stature to more easily fit into the narrow crawlspaces, Tunnel Rats were lowered into a hole with only the essentials — a flashlight and a handgun. The men were allowed to choose their sidearm, and due to the tight confines of the spaces they operated in, they tended to prefer a lighter pistol rather than the standard-issue .45 caliber M1911, as the sound and intense muzzle flash would often leave them temporarily deaf and blinded.
The men frequently removed their shirts, helmets, and flak jackets, leaving them completely unprotected but drastically reducing the chance of becoming snagged on trip wires and springing booby traps. They would crawl on hands and knees, slowly running their fingers along the dirt in front of them, trying to feel for false floors that would drop into bamboo spike pits or set off claymore mines. Once they had cleared the tunnel of threats and gathered any intelligence they discovered, the men planted explosives that would cause a cave-in and destroy the tunnel once they'd re-surfaced.

The close quarters of the tunnels meant that gas was a deadly effective tool for the enemy to use, and although some Tunnel Rats entered the hole wearing a gas mask (as it would be next to impossible to don a mask once inside the crawlspace) others felt that it was too great a detriment to their ability to breathe and see and decided to risk it without one.
Enemy soldiers and booby traps weren't the only hazards to avoid however. It wasn't uncommon for a Tunnel Rat to stumble upon venomous snakes, Black-Bearded Tomb bats, and poisonous spiders. As the conflict went on, the Vietcong became more adept at avoiding detection, often hanging strips of American uniforms inside the entrances, and bathing with American soap to throw off the search dogs that prowled above ground sniffing out tunnels.

The dangers of the mission meant that the casualty rate was extremely high, and many of the men sent down into the pitch-black tunnels were quickly dispatched by enemy fire or booby traps. But not a single Tunnel Rat who was killed in action was ever left behind in the tunnel. The men always retrieved the soldier's body for a proper burial, using commo wire, rope, or by sending another Tunnel Rat crawling into the hole to pull his fallen comrade back up into the daylight.
The unit's unofficial motto "Non Gratum Anus Roddentum" or "Not Worth a Rat's Ass" may reflect how much the men felt they were valued by their commanding officers, but to each other, they were like brothers. "I'd go in a lot of tunnels and he'd come in behind me," Gary Heater of the 25th Infantry Division says, choking back tears as he recalls the calming presence of his friend and fellow soldier Ralph Bowman,"I felt safe when he was with me, that's the big thing."