Elaborate tunnel complexes, such as those at Cu Chi and Vinh Moc, have been used by the Vietnamese for centuries. The tunnels were a key part of guerilla warfare during the Vietnam War, and played a major role in defeating American soldiers. Claimed to extend more than 125 miles (201 km), the tunnels were dug by local people using shovels. Built at many levels, they had living spaces, kitchens, and clinics. Here, the Vietnamese could escape bombings, hide from the enemy, and mount surprise attacks. The American soldiers knew of the tunnels, and used infrared imaging and sniffer dogs in their search for them. They never quite succeeded in finding them since the tunnels were rerouted and enlarged to avoid detection.
Anatomy of the Tunnel System
While most tunnels were fairly small and simple, the major ones had three levels, and could be up to 33 ft (10 m) deep. Nonetheless, they were hot, cramped, and damp, making life underground difficult and unbearable.
Tunnel entrances were so small and well camouflaged with leaves and branches that they were often invisible to enemy eyes. One method attempted by the Americans to find them was by using stethoscopes to listen to subterranean activity.
“Tunnel rats” was the nickname given to the special teams of US soldiers deployed for entering and disabling the tunnels. They wore masks as protection when releasing gases in the tunnels to drive out the Vietnamese.
Cramped and narrow passageways were made as tight and constricted as possible so that the larger American soldiers would find it difficult to pass through the tunnels.
Ingenious booby traps, using everything from bamboo and iron staves to explosives, made the tunnels potential death traps for the unwary.