Military history

C. W. BOWMAN

Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning

The war in Korea (1950-3) committed a fresh generation of Americans to combat, bitter in character and frustrating in its outcome. The conflict, endorsed as a legitimate peace-making operation by the United Nations, did not, however, engender domestic political dissent. The war in Vietnam, eventually involving half a million American troops between 1965 and 1972, divided the nation. Opponents objected that the war did not involve vital national interests and that, moreover, it was fought in a brutal way. Supporters of the war policy held that its prosecution was justified by America’s commitment to preserve an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam, and was essential as a demonstration of the United States’s determination to oppose the subversion and overthrow of free government throughout the Communist area of influence.

Opponents and supporters of the war effort all recognized that combat with the Viet Cong (Communist-led South Vietnamese guerrilla force and revolutionary army) and the North Vietnamese forces was of a particularly cruel and intense character. Never more so than in the struggle for control of the tunnel systems which the Communist forces had created all over South Vietnam, particularly in the region around Saigon. Tunnelling is a distinctively Asian style of warfare, practised by the Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese. It confronted their Western opponents with demands on an individual soldier’s courage to which nothing in their training or experience had previously exposed them. C. W. Bowman, an American serviceman who volunteered for the work of clearing tunnels of the enemy, describes the ordeal.

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Tunnel warfare was another war in itself, an underground war. People asked me if I had a death wish: Why would anybody want to go down into the tunnel? I don’t know. I was eighteen, and you’re not going to die, at least you think you’re not going to die. You’re invincible. I guess it was because I had a good sixth sense or whatever you’d call it.

They had tunnels of all sizes. In some, you had to crawl on your hands and knees, in some, you could stand up and walk, and in some, you could almost drive a truck through. Mostly, I ran tunnels around Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle. Most of them were what I called ‘hands-and-knees tunnels’ because you had to crawl. Tunnels were cool inside — some went far underground — but you’d still be sweating. When you first entered, you’d look: most of the tunnels dropped straight down and took off on a 90-degree turn. That way, you couldn’t see what was down the tunnel until you dropped down into it. You couldn’t throw a grenade down there or tear gas or anything else because then you couldn’t go in. A grenade would eat up the oxygen. So a lot of times, depending on how the tunnel was dug, it would be like dropping straight down into it. You had a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other. You never knew if you were going to come eyeball to eyeball with somebody right then. There were all kinds of little things you had to look for. There were snakes down there, and the VC [Viet Cong] planted nests of fire ants. Now, fire ants would build a nest out of leaves, and if you hit one, they would just pour out of those leaves. Once they got on you, the only way you could get them off was to pull them off: if you brushed them, they still hung on to you. They would draw blood or take little pieces of meat as you pulled them off, and it would burn like fire. I guess that’s why they called them fire ants.

Usually, my friend Gary and I went in tunnels. It gets strange down there; it’s quiet. It’s cool, but the sweat is running off your body — rivers of sweat running down your back, dripping off your shoulders and arms, running over your nose, into your eyes. I never really got claustrophobia. But sometimes, you think you hear something up ahead, and your heart starts pounding: your chest hurts because your heart is pounding so hard. Sometimes, you could sense or feel there was something up ahead, but you couldn’t really see it. You’d freeze in place, and you had to talk to your body to get it to move. Your arms and your legs feel about 1,000 pounds each, and at the same time, you feel so weak that you don’t know if you had to if you could pull the trigger of your pistol or not. You want to back up and leave, and then you don’t want to back up and leave because it’s your job to go through the tunnel. The body sometimes feels like it’s trying to tear itself in half. Part of it wants to go ahead because of the unknown, the challenge, but the other part, because of the fear and the unknown, wants to go back from where you came from. It wipes you out. When you come out of a tunnel, you are drained. You just have to sit down and pour some water over your head or whatever: take a break and regroup.

I’ve been in sandy tunnels, laterite tunnels. You’d get it all over you, and it would stick to you. We’d come up on trapdoors where we’d actually have to sit on the edge of the trapdoor, drop our legs through, and put our hands over our heads to narrow our shoulders so we could drop down. No telling what you’d find. We found medical equipment, surgical instruments, weapons, clothing, documents. Every tunnel was a little bit different. They had false floors in them booby-trapped with punji stakes, so you could fall through the floor and end up in a punji pit [full of sharpened bamboo spikes, often coated with poisonous or infective matter]. They might ambush you when you stuck your head up a trapdoor and stab you with a pike. There were false walls in the tunnel: you’d go through the tunnel, and they’d be on the other side of the wall watching you through a peephole, and they could open fire on you. I was fortunate and lucky that a lot of this didn’t happen to me. Still, Gary and I did run into the VC or NVA [North Vietnamese Army] in the tunnels. We had our shootouts. I’ve seen in books where people had .22 or .38 pistols with silencers on them. But all we had were .45s, and when you start firing up a tunnel with a .45 the concussion damn near kills you. Gary and I both have come out of there with nosebleeds, and I ruptured my eardrums at least once. So it’s a completely different world. And everything is fair game: if it moves, you can shoot. As a matter of fact, you better shoot. You can’t take the time to say, ‘Halt, who goes there?’ You just kill whatever you come up on. There is no place to run, no place to hide down there. You come face to face with somebody, either they’re dead or you’re dead.

I’ve seen guys break. They would go down into the tunnels, and then one day — maybe they had a dream or something — and they say, ‘No, no, no.’ The rule was, if you broke once, you never went down a tunnel again. There were all kinds of ways some guys broke. Some guys sat down and cried; some guys would drop down into the tunnel, and as soon as they dropped down, they’d start shooting, and that was it. Or you could just say, ‘Hey, I’ve had it, I can’t do it any more.’ We had a lieutenant who thought he could order people down there. Once I went down a well, not a tunnel, and told Gary to pull me back because there wasn’t any oxygen. The lieutenant called me all sorts of things, candyass and stuff. He told Gary to go down, and Gary told him to kiss his ass. I loved it. The lieutenant went crazy and was going to courtmartial us, but the captain laughed at it. You’d find barracks-room types everywhere.

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