That Crazy Batch Of American Devils
By Carol L. Bowman
The Cu Chi Tunnel Experience
I couldn’t breathe in the four-foot high, three-foot wide passage. Grunts from the person behind me bounced off mud walls. Dank, moldy air filled my lungs, my eyes strained to make out faint images and claustrophobic fears ruined the adventure. I wanted this underground crawl to end and mumbled, ‘Where’s the damn exit?’
We were exploring a complex system of subterranean tunnels, 30 miles north of Saigon in Cu Chi District. Dug in three levels at depths of 10-30 feet, these burrows meander for 75 miles, connecting villages all the way to the Cambodian border. Initially carved out by peasants during the French occupation of Vietnam in the 1940’s, these tunnels served a new purpose with the US combat intervention twenty years later.
Expanded hideaways connected shelters, hospitals and meeting rooms, where thousands of Vietnamese civilians sought refuge from US bombing raids. The Viet Cong used this virtually invisible base of operation to launch the 1968 Tet Offensive and performed deceptive guerilla warfare so skillfully that the clueless Americans built a base directly atop part of this excavated network.
The Army deployed the Canine Corps to sniff out tunnel openings. To confuse the dogs, the VC lined hidden entrances with black pepper and chili powder and blanketed channels with ‘friendly’ smells of American uniforms, washed in a familiar soap. Viet Cong vanished into the earth, after every kill of a German shepherd and his handler.
Years after the conflict ended, the Vietnamese government converted this once live battleground of ‘the American War’ into the country’s second most visited attraction. Tourists can explore sections of the Cu Chi Tunnels, as part of this expansive War Memorial Park.
I felt pensive, walking through this arena of combat, where Communist guerillas had engaged Western allies. I wondered if my ex-husband had suffered his Vietnam nightmares here. I never knew, since he never talked about ‘The War.’ I thought about Rabbit, a college friend and football running back, who flunked out in 1966, lost his deferment, got drafted, sent to ‘Nam and was killed, all within six months.
Park guards guided us to a mandatory stop: a rustic pavilion with rough-hewn benches, a TV monitor, two maps of the Cu Chi Tunnel maize and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh nailed to a post. A scratchy, black and white, 1967 propaganda film popped up on the screen. A female narrator spoke in broken English of “That crazy batch of American devils, whose bombs ruined the peaceful area of Cu Chi; American devils who killed women, children, chickens and ducks with Washington’s bullets.”
The video showcased a teenage girl, who received the ‘Championship Title of Killing American Soldiers’ in a contest that rewarded those with the most foreign military slayings. Her personal ‘dead count’ using a grenade launcher, numbered 118 US GI’s. Had Rabbit been one of her statistics?
My mood turned bitter and paranoid. For the first time since landing in Vietnam three weeks before, I felt vulnerable and visibly American. I overheard other tourists speaking with British, Australian and European accents. I kept quiet, hoping the group of Vietnamese sitting behind me wouldn’t point and shout, ’There’s one of those devils.’
We traipsed through new jungle growth, sprouting from the chemical and bomb scarred earth, after decades of deforestation. Uniformed park rangers demonstrated the graphic evidence of the VC’s ingenious guerilla tactics, a myriad of booby-traps. They used trip-wires that set off explosives, hidden snares of rolling metal spiked logs, and baskets of scorpions and poisonous snakes dumped on US patrols from overhead tree branches. See-saw rectangle boards camouflaged with leaves, flipped soldiers who stepped there into deep pits and impaled them on sharp speared bamboo poles. Jugular piercing panels lined with long sharp nails, slammed neck-high when triggered.
The intended goal of these devices was to maim rather than to kill. The guide explained that mutilation took three foreign fighters out of action; for each one injured, it took two to maneuver a stretcher. I felt physically ill, thinking about all those vets who returned damaged.
I stared at Vietnamese teenagers, laughing and taking pictures on top of a destroyed American tank. Anger at their disrespect churned inside me. But they were just kids, what did they know of war. Cu Chi Tunnels represented a place of national pride for them, where their grandparents had made great sacrifices. An estimated 45,000 Viet Cong died in defense of these tunnels. I realized if another nation invaded America, we’d display the same fierce patriotism. I had watched this futile war unfold on the nightly news 50 years ago and the question still lingers. Why did we ever intervene?
The entire time we spent in the Memorial Park, I heard shots fired in the distance. The source was a shooting range, where tourists could buy bullets to fire the VC’s Russian-issued Kalashnikov AK-47, or the US soldier’s M-16 rifle. I had crawled through a miserable tunnel. I didn’t need to trigger a gun to intensify this experience. Enough visions of killing had passed through my mind for one day.