THE CU CHI
tunnel network of Cu Chi District became legendary during the 1960s for its role in
facilitating the Viet Cong (VC) (the Liberation Army and locl guerrillas) control of a
large rural area only 30 km from Saigon. At its height, the tunnel system stretched
from places close to Saigon to the Cambodian border. In the District of Cu Chi
alone, there were over 200 km of tunnels. The network, part of which were several
stories deep, included inmumerable trapdoors, specially constructed living areas, storage
facilities, weapon factories, field hopitals, command centres, and kitchens.
The tunnels made possible communication and coordination between the VC controlled
enclaves isolated from each other. They also allowed the guerrillas to mount
surprise attacks wherever the tunnels went - even the perimeters of American bases - and
to disappear into hidden trapdoors without a trace. After ground operations against
the tunnels claimed large numbers of casualties and proved ineffective, the Americans
resorted to massive firepower, eventually turning Cu Chi 420 sq km into the most bombed,
shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.
The tunnels of Cu Chi were built over a period of nearly 30 years beginning in the late
1940s. They were the improvised response of a poorly equipped army to an army that
possessed high tech ordnance, helicopters, artillery, bombers, and chemical weapons.
The Viet Minh built the first dugouts and tunnels in the hard, red earth of Cu Chi-ideal
for the construction of tunnels-during the war against the French. The excavations
were used mostly for communication between villages and to evade French army sweeps of the
The tunnels were repaired and new
extensions excavated in the early 1960s. Within a few years the system assumed
enormous strategic importance, and most of Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating
intelligence agents into Saigon itself. The stunning attacks in Saigon during the
1968 Tet Offensive were planned and launched from Cu Chi.
In early 1963, the Diem government
implemented the "strategic hamlet" program under which fortified encampments,
surrounded by rows of sharp bamboo spikes, were built to house people relocated from the
VC controlled areas. The first "strategic hamlet" was in Ben Cat District,
next door to Cu Chi. Not only was the program carried out with incredible
incompetence and cruelty, alienating the peasantry, but the VC was able to tunnel into the
"strategic hamlets" and control them from within.
The series of setbacks and defeats
suffered by the South Vietnamese government forces in the Cu Chi area helped make a
complete National Liberation Front victory by the end of 1965 seem a distinct possibility.
Indeed, in the early months of that year, the guerrillas boldly held a
victory parade in the middle of Cu Chi town. The guerrillas' strength in and around
Cu Chi was one of the reasons the Johnson administration decided to involve American
combat troops in the war. To deal with the threat posed by the VC control of an
areas so near Saigon, one of the Americans' firts actions was to establish a large base
camp in Cu Chi District. Unknowingly, they built it right on top of an existing
tunnel network. It took months for the 25th Division to figure out why they kept
getting shot at in their tents at night.
The Americans and Australians tried to
"pacify" the area around Cu Chi that came to be known as the "Ion
Triangle" by a variety of methods. They launched large-scale ground operations
involving tens of thousands of troops-but failed to locate the tunnels. To deny the
VC cover and supplies, rice paddies were defoliated, huge swathes of jungle bulldozed and
villages evacuated and razed. The Americans also sprayed chemicals defoliants on the
area from the air and then, a few months later, ignited the tinder-dry vegetation with
gasoline and napalm. But the intense heat interacted with the wet tropical air in
such a way as to create cloudbursts that extinguished the fires. The VC remained
safe and sound in their tunnels.
When the Americans began using Alsatians
trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate trapdoors, the VC put out pepper to
distract the dogs. They also began washing with American toilet soap, which gave off
the scent of the canines identified as friendly. Captured American uniforms, which
had the familiar smell of bodies nourished on American-style food, were put out to confuse
the dogs further. Most importantly, the dogs were not able to spot booby traps.
So many dogs were killed or maimed that their horrified army handlers refused to
send them into the tunnels, so the US army began sending down men instead, and they were
The Americans declared Cu Chi a free
strike zone; minimum authorization was needed to shoot at anything in the area, random
artillery was fired into the area at night and pilots were told to drop unused bombs and
napalm there before returning to base. But the VC stayed put.
Finally, in the late 1960s, the
Americans carpet-bombed the whole area with B52s, destroying most of the tunnels along
with everything else around, but it was too late, the United States was already on its way
out of the war. The tunnels had served their purpose.