Vietnam tunnel rats – these weren’t some vermin soldiers encountered during the Vietnam War. Instead, Vietnam tunnel rats were an elite group of soldiers during the Vietnam War who probably had one of the most daring jobs.
Vietnam War Tunnel Rats
The Vietnam War tunnel rats were a group of soldiers from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand whose job it was to search out underground tunnels to flush out or kill any Viet Cong, gather intelligence, recover arms, and then destroy the tunnels.
It was a small group of men made up of soldiers from the US 3rd Infantry Brigade, the 173rd Airborne, and the 1st Infantry Division as well as the 1st Royal Australian Regiment, which had two companies from the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. There weren’t generally more than 100 tunnel rats on the ground at any given time.
The Vietnam War tunnel rats were created in an effort to take down the Viet Cong. Military intelligence indicated that the Viet Cong were operating out of a large underground bunker. The tunnel rats’ first operation was part of Operation Crimp, carried out in January 1966, designed to destroy the bunker.
In the end, not much of importance was found but the Viet Cong continuously hit troops with small surprise attacks. The Viet Cong would seem to appear and then disappear very quickly. It was soon discovered that the enemy troops had a very complex network of underground tunnels. At that point, the Vietnam tunnel rats’ role became much more involved.
Background on the Tunnels
The tunnels had actually been around since the First Indochina War against the French, which Vietnam fought from 1946 to 1954. The Viet Minh commissioned volunteer villagers to dig the tunnels using hoes and baskets.
The clay where the tunnels were constructed was soft and easy to work with during the wet season and dried rock hard during the dry season making it an ideal environment for tunnels.
During the First Indochina War the tunnels were a fairly basic system but they evolved into a very complex tunnel system during the Vietnam War. Some tunnels were as much as 18-feet below ground and the system stretched for 200 miles, all the way to the border of Cambodia.
Fully Functional Tunnels
Despite being many feet underground, the tunnels were fully functional. It’s even believed the tunnels could hold up to 5,000 men for several months.
Eventually, the tunnel complexes included hospitals, storage facilities, barracks, training areas, kitchens, first aid stations, and headquarters. The tunnels had several levels with a trap door separating each level. Because of the trap doors, the Viet Cong could seal off the rest of the tunnel system from dangers such as gas and flooding. The trap doors were also very well camouflaged making it very easy for the enemy to escape undetected.
When the United States and its allies realized the complexities of the tunnels and the operations the Viet Cong could carry out, it became their mission to find, clear, and destroy the tunnels. This job fell on the Vietnam War tunnel rats.
Dangers for Tunnel Rats
Destroying the tunnels wouldn’t be easy. For starters, the tunnels were barely big enough for a 5’6” man to fit in so not just any soldier could do the job. The tunnels also required someone with a lot of courage since there was a high possibility the Viet Cong would find the tunnel rats before the tunnel rats found them.
The construction of the tunnels themselves made for a challenging job for the tunnel rats. The tunnels weren’t constructed in straight lines but with corners that had between a 60-degree and 120-degree turn. This made shooting at the enemy impossible and also made grenades fairly ineffective.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the odds of a tunnel rat dying were much higher than a soldier carrying out regular operations. The Vietnam tunnel rats faced a casualty rate of around 30% compared to a casualty rate of 10% (for United States troops) for soldiers in regular combat.
Here’s a look at some of the other dangers Vietnam tunnel rats faced:
- Booby traps
- Pressure release bombs
- Punji stakes
- Snake traps
- Bat swarms
- Vietnamese fire ants
Some of these dangers are self-explanatory but let’s take a look at some of the others.
Booby traps were an unfortunate danger for tunnel rats. Some tunnels had special holes in the wall where Viet Cong would wait for soldiers and then thrust stakes through the hole impaling the troops. Viet Cong would also wait for a soldier to come out a trap door then kill them with stakes, guns, or knives.
Punji stakes were spikes made out of wood or bamboo, which was then sharpened and heated. The stakes were placed in the tunnels and camouflaged so soldiers wouldn’t see them. Sometimes stakes were also coated in poison from plants or animals or human feces. This meant that while the strike from the punji stake might not be fatal, the infection from a coating could kill.
Snake traps were a particularly surprising attack. Viet Cong would tie a bamboo pit viper to the ceiling or bushes and it would strike and bite troops in the neck, face, or hand as they walked by. Its bite was usually deadly. Soldiers quickly learned to scan the ceilings with their flashlights.
Bat Swarms, Spiders, Vietnamese Fire Ants
While bat swarms, spiders, and Vietnamese fire ants were not fatal, they were a very frequent and unwelcome nuisance in an already dangerous task.
In addition to trying to avoid surprise attacks and booby traps, Vietnam tunnel rats also had to avoid getting lost in the myriad of tunnels. Needless to say, it was a dangerous job that only a special group of soldiers could handle.
Clearing the Tunnels
Any time ground troops found a suspicious hole, the Vietnam War tunnel rats were called in and it was their job to investigate, collect information, and then destroy the tunnel.
Before entering, a grenade was usually thrown into the tunnel entrance to kill any Viet Cong that may be near the top. Then, the first tunnel rat would be lowered head first into the tunnel by his feet. He was always secured to a rope in case he needed to be pulled out in an emergency.
The tunnel rat would look, as best he could, for any enemy troops and then feel for any booby traps or mines. Once he cleared that area, the second tunnel rat was sent in. The tunnel rat in front was always the one who had to look for booby traps or enemies. The second tunnel rat’s job was to note the soil and other measurements required for demolition later.
After the tunnel was searched, the tunnel rats would go back in with explosives and place them at tunnel bends and other strong points. They would move out a safe distance and detonate the explosives.
Tunnel Rat Weapons
All tunnel rats were combat engineers, soldiers trained to perform construction and demolition tasks in combat. In addition to their regular role, tunnel rats had to be extremely good at hand-to-hand combat. This was because they couldn’t fit through the tunnel heavily armed.
Generally, tunnel rats were armed with pistols, bayonets, flashlights, and sometimes explosives. Their standard military pistols weren’t ideal because the blast was so loud it would deafen them momentarily after firing. In the dark tunnels, Vietnam War tunnel rats needed every one of their senses so they had to settle for lesser quality pistols.
Even with pistols, the tunnel rats had to follow certain guidelines to try to stay alive. Soldiers couldn’t fire off more than three shots in a row because Viet Cong would know that you were empty and had to reload after six shots.
Sometimes, tunnel rats would run into Viet Cong in such close proximity that you couldn’t use your weapons and instead had to use hand-to-hand combat. The experience for tunnel rats was intense. One tunnel rat wrote in an article,
“In the tunnels, your adrenalin was pumping like a river. I swear I could hear my heart beating.” –Jack Flowers, “Rat Six”, 1st Infantry Division
The work was constant. One tunnel rat wrote that it wasn’t unusual to destroy more than 100 enemy bunkers during each operation. It also wasn’t unusual for a tunnel rat to quit after a few runs because it was just too intense.
Despite their extreme work during the Vietnam War, the tunnel rats are not a very well-known group but their job was one that made a huge difference during the war.