We stumbled across the tunnel complex an hour before dark. A five-hundred pound bomb had landed almost on top of it and a twenty meter section had caved in. Otherwise we never would have spotted it. Charlie dug these things all over the place. We knew there were a shitload of hidden trenches under every one of these bombed-out villages in the Song Cai valley but we never looked for them or messed with them except sometimes to toss a grenade down an open hole or bunker. This time was different. It looked like part of this collapsed tunnel ran on another fifty meters right into the grove of trees in which we planned on bivouacking. We were going to set up a perimeter around that little palm- covered knoll and spend the night there. The tunnel made us nervous.



The Marines had bombed the hell out of this place the previous week. Our patrol of two American Green Berets and 23 Vietnamese of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group were attached to a grunt company from Danang who were all that was left of a bigger Search and Destroy operation that swept through here four days ago. There had been some intense fighting the first two days. The point company took 13 casualties in three fire-fights that lasted less than two minutes each. The day after two grunts stepped on trip-wire mines and one was big enough to blow one Marine's foot off.

By the time we got here things had cooled down. The last Marines were airlifted back to Danang leaving us behind.
We were assigned to do a body count. There was me, Irwin, the dumb though dangerous weapons' sergeant, and a Vietnamese interpreter besides the 23 CIDG. We were supposed to mop up but so far hadn't found any bodies and hadn't even been shot at. If things stayed quiet we could walk back to our A-camp at Thuong Duc in the morning. All we had to do was make it through the night.

Somebody had to check out the tunnel first. I would have gotten out of the job if at all possible. But for a bunch of reasons I couldn't. It was my turn. I was new here and I didn't want the CIDG to think I was scared shitless of going down into that gook hole which of course I was.

In contrast with most GI's, I liked Vietnam. Mostly because I got to some of the countryside before the war did. The country was beautiful. I loved the Central Highlands and the people who lived there. But the war always caught up. By the end, there were places in Vietnam I hated like no åother spot on earth. The tunnels were at the top of this list.

Nothing was worse for me than having to crawl into a Vietcong spider hole. They were gateways to a special kind of hell. They led down into narrow black tunnels rigged with feces-tipped sharpened bamboo sticks and wired grenades and booby traps of all varieties through cesspools of human shit and fire ants and past little side chambers one with a Malaysian pit-viper waiting at eye-ball level. They were the one place in Nam I never got used to; they were always something totally unknowable and alien. Never have I felt so out of my element. Even back in the world, tight, dark underground places had not been exactly my cup of tea. But in the tunnels of An Hoa I felt that kind of controlled panic sliding into pure terror.

We dropped a concussion grenade into the black slit of the collapsed tunnel to clear away any booby traps in the immediate vicinity and open up the hole a little bit so I could crawl in. I dumped my pack and web gear and got out new batteries for the flashlight. Sam, the Vietnamese interpreter, took my M-16 and I pulled out the Colt .45. The piece was too big and loud for tunnel work but it was the only pistol we had with us. I jacked a round into the chamber of the automatic and stuffed two extra loaded clips in each breast pocket of my jungle fatigues. We stood around for a few minutes while the CIDG opened up the entrance to the tunnel complex digging with their bayonets until it was wide enough for me to squeeze through. They held onto my feet while I lowered myself headfirst into the hole feeling with my arms for the walls of the tunnel. It was about a meter wide. Slowly I worked my way forward until my feet were in. I crawled a little further until the darkness was complete. Then I was alone in the tunnel.



I lay there motionless for maybe three minutes. All I could hear was my own breathing. I carried two standard army flashlights but hadn't turned them on because I wanted my eyes to adjust to the dark and I didn't know who or what was down here. One of the lights had a red plastic disc covering the bulb for low illumination. The other was the regular kind. The tunnel reeked. The stench was overpowering. I had to get the job over quick. It was the narrowest tunnel I had ever seen. You could scarcely breathe. I had only been down in these underground complexes once before. My heart beat like a generator engine.

I crawled forward, feeling my way along in the dark. The dirt shaft was wide enough for my shoulders but too narrow for me to stretch out my elbows. There was no way I could turn around. I couldn't even reach the K-bar knife which I had forgot to take off my belt and tie around my neck where I could get to it. I rolled on my side and worked my hand down to the sheath knife and pulled it up to my face, stuffing the Colt automatic into the shoulder holster. With the K-bar in my right hand I swept the blade along the tunnel feeling for wires and probed the earthern floor for mines. With my left hand I felt along the side and ceiling. Then I shifted hands feeling along the other wall, listened, moved forward a couple feet and repeated the procedure.

After about forty meters the tunnel got a little bigger and turned off 30 degrees to the right. I thought I could feel a little cold air blowing aound the corner. It smelled of shit and rancid fish or something else unbelievably putrid. I stopped short of the bend and listened. Nothing. I grabbed the flashlight with the low illumination red light in my left hand. I had the .45 in my right. I held the light as far away from my head as I could in case someone used it as a target. Then I flipped it on and shot the dim beam down the tunnel. I eased my head around the corner and looked into the darkness. The faint red light illuminated about five meters of tunnel and near the end there was a shaft leading down. The doors to shafts or subterranean chambers were often booby trapped. As I switched the flashlight off, I glanced at my wrist watch; I had been alone in the tunnel for less than fifteen minutes. It felt like hours.

I inched along the floor to the mouth of the shaft. It was wet and I slid through a pool of slime that smelled of fresh rat turds. I made it to the shaft. No door or lid covered the opening. I probed with the knife blade around the hole. The stink coming up from the tunnel complex below was so bad I gagged. I felt around. The shaft slanted down for a meter or two then leveled off. Time was running out. Outside, above ground, it was getting dark and we were deep in enemy country.

Below, in the the absolute darkness of the tunnel, I started down the shaft. I didn't dare use a flashlight. The shaft bent up towards the level and I had to arch my back to feel around the bend. My fingertips brushed the earthen ceiling and I felt a pencil-sized twig poking out of the roof of the tunnel. I ran my fingers down the stick to a joint then out to the end of the bamboo whip which was sprung back and anchored in a wire hoop with a trip wire running up to the roof and back to the tunnel floor in front of me. I shaded the red light until I found the commo wire stretched across the tunnel. At the end of the bamboo whip just short of the wire hoop was a rusty fishhook, a large treble hook, with the points straightened out. A primative little device designed to impale your eye on a barbed hook. I checked for some trick then grabbed the sprung bamboo and lowered the hook. The booby trap was recent; the whip still had a lot of spring left in it.

I turned the light off. My heart raced and stomach heaved. I could smell human shit and a trace of nuoc mam, the rotten fish sauce Vietnamese used, but these foul stenches were overpowered by something far more pervasive.

A couple of meters more and I reached the end of the shaft. It opened up into some kind of chamber. I listened and felt around the doorway for hidden grenades orwired Claymore mines. Nothing there. This was as far as I would be going. I was out of time. I listened some more and I thought I could hear the faintest sound of breathing. For the first time since crawling into the tunnels, I felt there was someone else down here.

In the darkness I sensed I was in a tiny room or a chamber. There was someone sitting in the far corner. I could feel him. A Vietcong. I thumbed the automatic's safety down to off. The Colt .45 felt inadequate. I was probably outgunned. If he had an AK-47 it would be all over.

I froze and listened. There was no sound but I knew he was there.


Then I wasn't so sure. Maybe I was hearing things. I started to creep forward across the floor of the underground chamber. I crawled with the Colt ready groping for trip wires with my left hand. Suddenly I touched something cold and smooth. My left fingers closed around a bloated human hand.

The darkness exploded. I leaped backwards at the same time emptying eight .45 calibre slugs in the direction I imagined the corner. I threw the empty clip across the room and pushed a loaded one into the butt of the automatic. I chambered another round but didn't squeeze it off. For a moment I was deaf from the discharge of the heavy pistol in the closed space. Then I could hear myself puking. There was no other sound in the room.

I held the bright flashlite high above my head with the 45 levelled. I slid the switch on and the light fell on the corner of a three meter square chamber high enough to stand in. The corner was right where I thought it was, right where I had emptied the pistol. I lowered the flashlight beam and looked into the face of a dead Vietnamese draped in shreds of what had been black pajamas. The man had been dead for some time.

I scanned the room. There were three more corpses falling out of the sides of the room. They looked like they had been hurriedly stuffed in holes along the walls and maybe jarred loose by the shockwaves from the bombing. The bodies looked small. The ones I could be sure of were men. They had been folded up into little fetal-like bundles just like the prehistoric Indian burials I had found in Michigan as a teenager. The bodies had been there for several days. It was hard to tell since everything rotted quickly in this humid heat. I looked at the bloated hand I had held a minute earlier. The hand was attached to a necrotic arm that stuck out of the wall. The rest of the corpse was covered with dirt.

I felt faint and started to black out so I flipped off the light, just in case. After a minute, I turned the flashlight back on. I looked across the chamber at the first body who looked like he had slid out of the corner I imagined he was sitting in. This body too was folded up but I could still see that his intestines had been rended from a violent wound to his abdomen. I could tell now what the smells were. Off to the left of the dead man another tunnel ran off. That's where the smell of nouc mam sauce seemed to be coming from.

I had to get out. I shook so violently I dropped the flashlight which went out. I didn't try to find it. Instead, I turned and squatted, ready to start back out the shaft. The stooping brought on another dizzy spell and I might have passed out for a few seconds.

When I got my senses back I was lying at the entrance to the shaft leading out with my feet still in the burial chamber. I was there long enough to again get a strong whiff of fish sauce rising above the stench of vomit and dying. It was coming from the direction of the other tunnel. Now I could hear the sound of soft breathing. It was slow and soft. But unmistakeable. Someone was alive just across the chamber near the mouth of the tunnel. Five meters away. Breathing in the darkness.

We sat there on opposite sides of the temporary burial chamber listening to each other's respiration for what seemed a long time. The VC, or whoever was there, could have killed me or tried to at any time. But he didn't. Maybe the dead people were his friends or even his family. He might be paralyzed by grief or mourning his dead. The war could be over for him. All I could hear was the regular sound of breathing. He didn't move. He just sat there overlooking the dead and so did I.

Finally I turned into the tunnel and retreated quietly in the dark. I moved as quickly as I could crawl the fifty meters or whatever it was back to the caved in trench where my comrades waited. It was nearly dark and everyone was jumpy, anxious to move into a night location. I told them I hadn't found anything down there. I said the tunnel was
cold.

Audio

Ready for War
Interview by Scott Carrier: National Public Radio, September 2001 (18:37)

 

Ready for War: Ten Years Later
Interview by Scott Carrier (11:44)

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