CU CHI TUNNELS - Hội Hướng Dẫn Viên Du Lịch

Hội Hướng Dẫn Viên Du Lịch

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CU CHI TUNNELS
INTRODUCTION

In order to combat better-supplied American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, Communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong (VC) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels, including an extensive network running underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon. Soldiers used these underground routes to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces trained soldiers known as “tunnel rats” to navigate the tunnels in order to detect booby traps and enemy troop presence. Now part of a Vietnam War memorial park in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the Cu Chi tunnels have become a popular tourist attraction.

DIGGING THE CU CHI TUNNELS

Communist forces began digging a network of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam in the late 1940s, during their war of independence from French colonial authority. Tunnels were often dug by hand, only a short distance at a time. As the United States increasingly escalated its military presence in Vietnam in support of a non-Communist regime in South Vietnam beginning in the early 1960s, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops (as Communist supporters in South Vietnam were known) gradually expanded the tunnels. At its peak during the Vietnam War, the network of tunnels in the Cu Chi district linked VC support bases over a distance of some 250 kilometers, from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.

Did You Know?

"Tunnel rats," as American soldiers who worked in the Cu Chi tunnels during the Vietnam War were known, used the evocative term "black echo" to describe the experience of being in the tunnels.
As the United States relied heavily on aerial bombing, North Vietnamese and VC troops went underground in order to survive and continue their guerrilla tactics against the much better-supplied enemy. In heavily bombed areas, people spent much of their life underground, and the Cu Chi tunnels grew to house entire underground villages, in effect, with living quarters, kitchens, ordnance factories, hospitals and bomb shelters. In some areas there were even large theaters and music halls to provide diversion for the troops (many of them peasants) and their supporters.

WAR IN THE CU CHI TUNNELS

In addition to providing underground shelter, the Cu Chi tunnels served a key role during combat operations, including as a base for Communist attacks against nearby Saigon. VC soldiers lurking in the tunnels set numerous booby traps for U.S. and South Vietnamese infantrymen, planting trip wires that would set off grenades or overturn boxes of scorpions or poisonous snakes onto the heads of enemy troops. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. forces would eventually train some soldiers to function as so-called “tunnel rats.” These soldiers (usually of small stature) would spend hours navigating the cramped, dark tunnels to detect booby traps and scout for enemy troops.
In January 1966, some 8,000 U.S. and Australian troops attempted to sweep the Cu Chi district in a large-scale program of attacks dubbed Operation Crimp. After B-52 bombers dropped a large amount of explosives onto the jungle region, the troops searched the area for enemy activity but were largely unsuccessful, as most Communist forces had disappeared into the network of underground tunnels. A year later, around 30,000 American troops launched Operation Cedar Falls, attacking the Communist stronghold of Binh Duong province north of Saigon near the Cambodian border (an area known as the Iron Triangle) after hearing reports of a network of enemy tunnels there. After bombing attacks and the defoliation of rice fields and surrounding jungle areas with powerful herbicides, U.S. tanks and bulldozers moved in to sweep the tunnels, driving out several thousand residents, many of them civilian refugees. North Vietnamese and VC troops slipped back within months of the sweep, and in early 1968 they would use the tunnels as a stronghold in their assault against Saigon during the Tet Offensive.

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, venomous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, soldiers 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 was 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".

U.S. CAMPAIGNS AGAINST THE TUNNELS

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.
The tunnels of Củ Chi did not go 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.
Operation Crimp began on January 7, 1966, with Boeing B-52 Stratofortress 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 Combat Team, and the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment combed the region looking for any clues of PLAF activity.
The operation did not bring about the desired success; for instance, on occasions 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 punji stick pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel opening were to flush the entrance with gas, water or hot tar to force the Viet Cong soldiers into the open, or to toss a few grenades down the hole and “crimp” off the opening. This approach proved ineffective due to the design of the tunnels and the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems.
However, an Australian specialist engineering troop, 3 Field Troop, under the command of Captain Sandy MacGregor did venture into the tunnels which they searched exhaustively for four days, finding ammunition, radio equipment, medical supplies and food as well as signs of considerable Viet Cong presence. One of their number, Corporal Bob Bowtell, died when he became trapped in a tunnel that turned out to be a dead end. However the Australians pressed on and revealed, for the first time, the immense military significance of the tunnels. At an international press conference in Saigon shortly after Operation Crimp, MacGregor referred to his men as Tunnel Ferrets. An American journalist, having never heard of ferrets, used the term Tunnel Rats and it stuck. Following his troop's discoveries in Củ Chi, Sandy MacGregor was awarded a Military Cross.
From its mistakes, and the Australians' discoveries, U.S. command realized that they needed a new way to approach the dilemma of the tunnels. A general order was issued by General Williamson, the Allied Forces Commander in South Vietnam, to all Allied forces that tunnels had to be properly searched whenever they were discovered. They began training an elite group of volunteers in the art of tunnel warfare, armed only with a gun, a knife, a flashlight and a piece of string.
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 Command, Vietnam) to provide some sort of training and resources, this was primarily a new approach that the units trained, equipped and planned for themselves.
Despite this revamped effort at fighting the enemy on its own terms, U.S. operations remained insufficient at eliminating the tunnels completely. In 1967, General William Westmoreland tried launching a larger assault on Củ Chi and the Iron Triangle. Called Operation Cedar Falls, it was similar to the previous Operation Crimp, however on a larger scale with 30,000 troops instead of the 8,000. On January 18, tunnel rats from the 1st BN 5th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division 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.
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. 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 North Vietnamese units and letting them "survive 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. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Củ Chi allowed North Vietnamese fighters in their area of South Vietnam to survive, help prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties until their eventual withdrawal in 1972, and the final defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.

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