Củ Chi Tunnels
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The tunnels were used by NLF 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 role of the tunnel systems should not be underestimated in its importance to the NLF in resisting American operations and protracting the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans into withdrawal.
The district of Củ Chi is located 70 kilometers to the northwest of Saigon near the so-called "Iron Triangle". Both the Saigon River and Route 1 pass through the region which served as major supply routes in and out of Saigon during the war. This area was also the termination of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Because of this, the Củ Chi and the nearby Ben Cat districts had immense strategic value for the NLF (National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam). Mai Chi Tho, a political commissar stationed in Củ Chi describes the region as a “springboard for attacking Saigon.” He goes on to say: “We used the area for infiltrating Saigon-intelligence agents, part cadres, sabotage teams. The Tết Offensive of 1968 was prepared-the necessary troops and supplies assembled-in the Củ Chi tunnels.”
In the beginning, there was never a direct order to build the tunnels; instead, they developed in response to a number of different circumstances, most importantly the military tactics of the French and U.S. The tunnels began in 1948 so that the Viet Minh could hide from French air and ground sweeps. Each hamlet built their own underground communications route through the hard clay, and over the years, the separate tunnels were slowly and meticulously connected and fortified. By 1965, there were over 200 kilometers of connected tunnel. As the tunnel system grew, so did its complexity. Sleeping chambers, kitchens and wells were built to house and feed the growing number of residents and rudimentary hospitals created to treat the wounded. Most of the supplies used to build and maintain the tunnels were stolen or scavenged from U.S. bases or troops.
The medical system serves as a good example of Vietnamese ingenuity in overcoming a lack of basic resources. Stolen motorcycle engines created light and electricity and scrap metal from downed aircraft were fashioned into surgical tools. Doctors even came up with new ways of performing sophisticated surgery. Faced with large numbers of casualties and a considerable lack of available blood, one man, Dr. Vo Hoang Le came up with a resourceful solution. "We managed to do blood transfusion," Vo said, "by returning his own blood to the patient. If a comrade had a belly wound and was bleeding, but his intestines were not punctured, we collected his blood, filtered it, put it in a bottle and returned it to his veins.”
By the early 1960’s, the NLF had created a relatively self-sufficient community that was able to house hundreds of people and for the most part, go undetected by large numbers of American troops based, literally, right on top of the tunnels.
American soldiers used the term "Black echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the NLF, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge 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 accounted for the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured NLF report suggests that at any given time half of a PLAF unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance.” In spite of these hardships, the NLF managed to wage successful campaigns against a conscripted army that was technologically far superior.
The tunnels of Củ Chi did not go completely unnoticed by U.S. officials. They recognized the advantages that the NLF held with the tunnels, and accordingly launched several major campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system. Among the most important of these were Operation Crimp and Operation Cedar Falls.
Operation Crimp began on January 7, 1966, with B-52 bombers dropping 30-ton loads of high explosive onto the region of Củ Chi, effectively turning the once lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand troops from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, 173rd Airborne Brigade, and the Royal Australian Regiment combed the region looking for any clues of PLAF activity.
The operation was, for the most part, unsuccessful. On the occasion 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. Besides being too small for most Western men to fit through, the tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or punji stake pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel opening were to flush the entrance with gas or water to force the guerillas into the open, or to toss a few grenades down the hole and “crimp” off the opening. The clever design of the tunnels along with the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems rendered American technology ineffective.
From its mistakes, U.S. command realized that they needed a new way to approach the dilemma of the tunnels. They began training an elite group of volunteers armed only with a gun, a knife, a flashlight and a piece of string in the art of tunnel warfare. These specialists, commonly known as “tunnel rats” would enter a tunnel by themselves and travel inch-by-inch cautiously looking ahead for booby traps or cornered PLAF. There was no real doctrine for this approach and despite some very hard work in some sectors of the Army and MACV (Military Assistance Group (Vietnam)) to provide some sort of training and resources, this was primarily a new approach that the unit(s) trained, equipped and planned for themselves.
Despite this revamped effort at fighting the enemy on its own terms, U.S. operations remained largely unsuccessful at eliminating the existence of the tunnels. In 1967, General William Westmoreland tried launching a larger assault on Củ Chi and the Iron Triangle. Called Operation Cedar Falls, it was, in principle, exactly the same as Operation Crimp, but with 30,000 troops instead of the 8,000.
On January 18th, tunnel rats from the 1st and 5th Infantry uncovered the NLF district headquarters of Củ Chi containing half a million documents concerning all types of military strategy. Among the documents were maps of U.S. bases, detailed accounts of PLAF movement from Cambodia into Vietnam, lists of political sympathizers, and even plans for a failed assassination attempt on Robert McNamara. With this one exception, Operation Cedar Falls failed to achieve its objective of destroying the communist stronghold in the region.
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 but futile. Towards the end of the war, the tunnels were so heavily bombed that some portions actually caved in and other sections were exposed. But by that time, they had succeeded in protecting the local guerrilla units in "surviving to fight another day".
Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Củ Chi proved to be a source of frustration for the U.S. military in Saigon. The NLF had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of locally being able to control where and when battles would take place, thus frustrating the Americans' overall military superiority. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Củ Chi allowed guerrilla fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive and help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972.
The 75-mile-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi have been preserved by the government of Vietnam, 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 Tết Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that NLF fighters would have eaten. However, despite their restoration, a crawl through these claustrophobic, hot, black tunnels today makes one wonder how anybody could have lived like this for so many years.
Above-ground attractions include caged monkeys, the inevitable tourist trap vendors selling souvenirs, and a shooting range where visitors can fire an assault rifle for USD$1.3 a round.