Thursday, November 29, 2012


A Vietnamese punji trap, designed to trap US foot soldiers
Our group is exploring outside the war tunnels of Cu Chi, when our guide Duc announces, “If you don’t like your wife, let me know, and we can leave her in the tunnel!” A former soldier for South Vietnam during the war, Duc may have had a hard life, but he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

As I look around, I see another tunnel entrance. This one isn’t for visitors, so I grab a light, and crawl down for a quick look alone. Descending the cramped steps, I get six feet underground, where the tunnel branches out. This tunnel is REALLY cramped; obviously not made for a tall guy like me. It’s only knee high. Squeezing down into the tight space for a better look, my light illuminates the walls of red clay. It gets even tighter further ahead, so I have to stop. If I tried to continue, I would have to shimmy along like a snake, and would probably end up stuck. I don’t really feel like screaming for help, and then being dragged out by my feet.

The war tunnels had many levels, like an underground village
Most of these old war tunnels aren’t safe anymore, and many sections have collapsed from erosion. Although there are no longer Vietnam Cong rebels down here, I recall that certain slithering reptiles still make their homes in these tunnels. With that in mind, I crawl backwards to the entrance and climb out of the tunnel.

Walking on, our group reaches a small clearing in the woods. There are no hiding places here, or so we think. The ground is covered with fallen leaves of the surrounding jungle foliage, and a Vietnamese soldier joins us. He steps towards the center, and reaches down into the leaves. I’m taken aback when he lifts a perfectly camouflaged wooden cover, the size of a shoe box, revealing a dark cavity in the earth beneath. He puts his feet in, drops into the small hole, and pulls the cover closed again, all in less than 10 seconds. His hiding place is virtually undetectable.

This tiny hideout is what was known as a spider hole. Viet Cong would emerge from these holes frequently to fire on patrolling American soldiers. When charging GI’s advanced on the VC’s position, the VC would quickly disappear in seconds back into the spider hole. This left the puzzled, frustrated American soldiers wondering how the lone VC had disappeared.

Feeling brave, I hop into the hole to check it out, but like the tunnels, these small holes were tailor made for the smaller, thinner VC. It takes me longer than the small soldier, but I manage to squeeze in. The lid comes on, and it’s pitch black, tight, but a very effective hiding place. Someone could step on the door itself, and never know I’m down here.
A soldier's hiding place, for thin people only

I climb out, and Duc says that a few days previously, a large Canadian woman got stuck in this very same spider hole. It was a struggle to get her back out. “It took us twenty minutes,” he says. “We needed five people to pull her out.” Duc smirked, added a few vulgarities, and said, “She lost her trousers, her panties, everything.”

As we make our way around the old battlefield, we pass many depressions in the surrounding jungle. These are old bomb craters, of many different sizes. Since the VC tunnel system was never destroyed, this whole region was continuously bombed by aircraft and artillery for years. Duc witnessed a bombing himself. One day he left nearby Dong Du base in a helicopter. “I was riding in Huey,” he said. “We look down, we see smoke come out of ground.”

Their chopper was over tunnel territory, and the smoke they saw was from a hidden chimney. Someone was cooking in an underground Viet Cong kitchen. The co-pilot called in the coordinates, and soon an artillery strike rained down on the surrounding landscape. When the dust cleared, the smoke had stopped.

With so much artillery and aerial bombing, by 1972 Cu Chi’s not all of them exploded. The VC found some of them, and carefully brought them down to the tunnels. Duc brings us to a workshop area of the tunnel network, where a dud 250 pound airborne bomb was left partially opened.

“Here they cut open the bomb, take out explosive,” Duc says. Fighting an enemy that was much better armed then they were, the VC scrounged for weapons and explosives wherever they could. Using simple tools, VC tried to carefully removed the explosives, a very dangerous process. Think of The Hurt Locker, with no body armor. Sometimes as they worked, the bomb went off, killing all the VC near it. When the explosive was successfully removed, it was remanufactured into primitive hand grenades and landmines.

Cu Chi was once well known for fruit trees, but those are long gone now, since it wasn’t just bombs that were dropped on the surrounding woods. “All the tree die, everything dead,” Duc says. “They drop Agent Orange.”

In the early years of the war, Agent Orange was sprayed over rural areas where the enemy was thought to hide. Used as an herbicide to remove brush and trees, nobody knew how toxic the chemical really was in the early years. When the military eventually learned that exposure to Agent Orange was causing health problems, they stopped using it, but by that time it was too late. Millions had already been exposed to the dangerous chemical including soldiers from both sides, and numerous civilians. Many developed health problems later from their exposure, including many types of cancer, Parkinson’s disease, miscarriages, and birth defects in their children.

Decades later trees are growing back now, but few edible crops are grown here, due to the fear of chemicals still present. Much of the land has been switched over to government rubber tree farms.

Arriving at another section of the old battlefield, we reach another clearing, or so it seems. Duc steps into the center and kicks at the grass on the ground. The grassy floor swoops downward like a swinging door, revealing a four foot fall down onto sharpened steel spikes in a pit beneath. This is a punji trap, the kind the VC dug out in the jungle earth, hoping to kill or wound unsuspecting American troops patrolling on foot.

Duc shows us a few more traps here. There are the deep tiger pit-like traps, spiked balls that swung down from trees, and wooden boards that swung down laden with spikes. The most common punji traps were smaller, shallow holes dug out along footpaths. If a GI stepped into one, the bamboo or steel spikes were sharp enough to penetrate through his boot into his foot. The VC sometimes urinated on the spikes before they hid them, to increase the likelihood of infection.
The skeleton of an American M-41 tank, stripped after it was abandoned

We reach another clearing, and come across an old American M-41 tank. It ran over a mine here in 1970, and has been here ever since. Duc says, “One American died here. After tank hit mine, the tank cannot move. He got out, and got shot.”

Some bullet marks are still visible on the outside of the tank. Just steps away, old trenches and a tunnel entrance show where the VC could have taken cover.

Looking at the tank now, it has been stripped of most of its parts. The treads are gone, and the engine’s gone. I remember when I worked in Afghanistan, where I saw old tank engines converted into small village generators. Here, the rest was probably sold for scrap metal by locals. Now it’s just an old shell, for the curious to climb on.

I remember well a tank story from Don, a Vietnam war veteran from my hometown in America. He was an army mechanic based here in Cu Chi. The story went that they had an M-41 tank like this one on their base, and as sometimes happens in any military bureaucracy, all the paperwork for it had been lost. One of the oddities about the US Army, was that it was an extremely difficult, nearly impossible task to re-register a tank without any paperwork. Re-doing the paperwork was such a difficult, time consuming process, that it would have been much easier for them to just take the tank, put it into a hole, and bury it. And that’s exactly what they did.

They found an out of the way corner of the base, and used earth movers to excavate a deep hole. After removing the engine for spare parts, they pushed the tank right into the giant hole, and buried it. That wasn’t quite the end of it. A couple days later, the tank’s radio antenna popped up out of the loose dirt. This worried Don and his buddies. If their base commander found out that they had buried a tank, they would have been in a great deal of trouble. So Don’s Sargeant told him and another GI to grab a couple shovels, go out to the offending antenna, dig down a couple feet, chop it off, and rebury the hole. And that’s exactly what they did.

It almost seems like I should ask Don exactly where that old tank was buried. After all, it could be dug up and all that steel could be recycled. But if that tank was found, it may be more valuable to the Vietnamese government for propaganda purposes. They just might dig it up, repaint it like new, and stick it up on a monument somewhere with a plaque saying how it was captured in battle. The war may be over, but there is still propaganda. 

It would be great for me to get into the old Dong Du base for a look around at Don's old haunts, but I learn that going inside is out of the question. It’s still a military base today, only now it’s occupied by a few thousand troops of the Vietnamese Army. They’re not about to let an American back in.

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