Book Review - The Tunnels of Cu Chi

The Tunnels of Cu Chi, by Tom Mangold and John Penycate 1985

Various Club members have criticised me in the past for reviewing books and computer programs which are only vaguely connected with speleology. Doubtless this review will upset them again as it is of a book which really has nothing to do with the sport or science of caving at all! However, I am sure that anyone interested in the construction, exploration and destruction of underground tunnel systems will find it quite fascinating.

The tunnels of the Cu Chi district formed the most complex part of a massive underground network which, at the height of the Vietnam War in the mid sixties, extended from the gates of Saigon to the border of Cambodia (now Ho Chi Minh City and Kampuchea, respectively).

There were literally hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, laboriously dug by hand in the hard clay soil, linking villages, districts, and even provinces. They comprised living areas, storage depots, ordnance factories, hospitals, military headquarters and almost every other facility required by the South Vietnam Communists to conduct their guerrilla war against the American forces. Amazingly, it was due largely to these tunnels systems that the VietCong guerrillas, and later the North Vietnamese Army, were able to protract the war to the point where the Americans were eventually persuaded it was unwinnable and withdrew.

Surprisingly, the tunnel system was not conceived by a single governing body, but evolved from what started as underground shelters, not unlike our air-raid shelters of the Second World War, which were dug in and around the villages and hamlets of the area. These were slowly interconnected imtil it was possible to provide sufficient  communications and movement of personnel over a vast area right under the feet of the American forces. So well did this network operate that, it was possible to emerge from concealed entrances for sniping and bombing raids even from within the American fortresses.

During the initial sfnges of the campaign the U.S. forces were completely unaware of what lay beneath the ground they patrolled. Imagine their consternation at having, as they supposed, swept and cleared an area and pushed forward only to find the energy forces behind them launching a surprise attack and cutting off their retreat. Slowly
they began to uncover entrances to short sections of tunnel which were revealed after shelling, and a few  courageous GIs were persuaded to enter and explore them. Often, they would only extend a few dozens of feet before apparently reaching a dead end, the concealed trapdoors to the deeper and more extensive levels having been completely missed. Many GIs were killed in these cirofnnstance in surprise attacks or by booby traps.

Despite every effort by the U.S., no conventional warfare methods were capable of breaking the tunnel network. Evan heavy artillery had little effect on the resilient structures, which were often reinforced with bamboo, unless direct hits direct hits were suffered. Even then vital links would be re-dug within a few weeks or even days. In order to counter the enemy special teams of infantrymcn were required who were prepared to enter the tunnels and engage then enemy in his, own territory, These special forces became known as Tunnel Rats and they became feared by their quarry.

A Tunnel Rat obviously required a special temperament and courage to perform the most unnatural and stressful of acts:, being required to crawl through the low, narrow, earthen tunnels (which were only built for the diminutive Vietnamese), sometimes for hundreds of yards, with the threat of sudden death at any moment. In addition to the heavily armed forces which took refuge underground during the daylight hours, every tunnel was sown with booby traps and mines, which were often constructed from faulty American bombs and captured equipment.

This book graphically details how the tunnel complexes were constructed and how they were utilised to the full, despite the harshest of conditions, to resist and repel the massive American war machine. It is also an account of the men who were specially trained and equipped to fight in them against all the odds. Of course, any account of war is truly horrible, and many of the stories contained in this book are not for the squeamish but, once you have finished it, you cannot help but admire the courage and determination or the personnel who were able to come to terms with this type of warfare.

Chris Fry