History

Warriors in their Own Words: The 'Tunnel Rats' of Vietnam

If fighting the well-defended Viet Cong on their home turf wasn't dangerous enough, imagine having to crawl your way through a series of extremely tight and narrow underground tunnels to capture or kill them.

Such a terrifying prospect was reality for the brave "tunnel rats" of Vietnam, soldiers tasked with entering and clearing the makeshift tunnels dug by the VC in Vietnam. CW Bowman, Gerry Schooler and Art Tejeda spent days maneuvering through the tunnel complexes, clearing and destroying lethal booby-traps. Hear their stories:


In 1946, Viet Minh (a predecessor to Viet Cong) resistance fighters began digging the tunnels and bunkers throughout the countryside to combat the French, whom they would eventually defeat. By the time the Vietnam War broke out, the Viet Cong had over 100 miles of tunnels from which to spring deadly ambushes on American and South Vietnamese forces before vanishing. The numerous 'spider holes,' as the tunnel entrances were sometimes called, were conveniently located and well camouflaged — nearly impossible to detect.

Armed with only a flashlight, a single pistol, or maybe just a knife, a "tunnel rat" didn't have much in the way of defense as they crawled in to clear these tunnels.

Here's what you didn't know about these courageous troops:

1. The shorter the better

Sgt. Ronald H. Payne, a "tunnel rat", bravely searches a tunnel's entrance during Vietnam War

Many of the "tunnel rats" from Austraila, New Zealand, South Vietnam, and America volunteered for the dangerous position.

However, the brave troops that were picked for the job were commonly the shortest grunts in the platoon — for obvious reasons.

2. Most "tunnel rat" dogs didn't work out

It's well-known that dogs are great at detecting IEDs in modern warfare, but they weren't too good at sniffing out the many booby traps placed by the North Vietnamese around tunnel entrances.

3. Their rate of fire

If a soldier took enemy contact, their training taught them to adjust their rate of fire. Instead of firing multiple shots, the troop would commonly fire single shots, making use of echoes to confuse the enemy. After deafening shots rang out and reverberated off of tunnel walls, the enemy would left puzzled as to how many rounds they had left.

4. To wear a gas mask or not to wear a gas mask...

When entering a tunnel, many troops decided against wearing gas masks as they obstructed breathing and vision. Although crawling into a wall of gas was a possibility, many "tunnel rats" chose to take their chances.


Check out Simple History's video below to learn more about the dangerous job these brave tunnel rats had.