Cu Chi Tunnels
Location: Cu Chi Tunnels are located
approximately 70km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City centre in Cu Chi Rural
Characteristic: Cu Chi Tunnels consist of more than 200km of underground tunnels. This main axis system has many branches connecting to underground hideouts, shelters, and entrances to other tunnels.
The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of
connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh
City (Saigon), 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 Viet Cong's base of
operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong
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 Viet Cong in resisting American
operations and protracting the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans
Life in the tunnels
American soldiers used the term "Black echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, 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 for 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 Viet Cong 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 Viet Cong managed to wage campaigns against a conscripted army that was technologically far superior, eventually wearing down their enemies.
U.S. campaigns against the tunnels
The tunnels of Củ Chi did not go completely unnoticed by U.S. officials. They recognized the advantages that the Viet Cong 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.A trap door on the jungle floor leads down into the Củ Chi tunnels. Closed and camouflaged, it is almost undetectable.The camouflaged trap door, now open. This photo was taken at the same location only moments later. 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 1st Battalion, 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. The tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or pundit 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.
A booby trap with bamboo spikes.
On January 18th, tunnel rats from the 1st and 5th Infantry uncovered the Viet Cong 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 Viet Cong 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 1975
The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has 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 Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.
Above-ground attractions include caged monkeys, vendors selling souvenirs, and a shooting range where visitors can fire an assault rifle.
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