The Viet Minh originally began building underground tunnels in Cu Chi as part of their guerrilla warfare efforts against the occupying French army in the mid-1940s, shortly after the end of World War II. The French eventually left Vietnam in 1954 following their disastrous and embarrassing defeat at Dien Bien Phu. This was vivid proof that a ragtag band of poorly equipped but determined guerrilla fighters could actually defeat one of the world’s great armies, including the vaunted French Foreign Legion.
Sadly, but predictably, this valuable lesson was entirely ignored by subsequent American arrogance.
Following the cease-fire between the French and the Viet Minh in 1954, it was agreed that the country of Vietnam would be divided in half along the 17th parallel. Communist backed forces under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh would occupy the northern half with Hanoi as their de facto capital, and a western/United States backed independent republic would be set up in the south with Saigon as its capital. In fact, many Viet Minh never left their places of origin in the South, and began conducting an increasingly intense guerrilla war. A major component of this effort was the now rapidly enlarging complex of underground tunnels in Cu Chi.
In mid 1961, the recently elected US President, John F. Kennedy, was licking his wounds. First there had been the embarrassing debacle of the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April. And then there was the summit meeting in June in Vienna with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev where, as Kennedy himself put it: “He beat the hell out of me.”
As Kennedy fatefully put it to reporter James Reston of the New York Times immediately after his meeting with Khrushchev: “Now we have a problem making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place.” This marked the beginning of America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam’s civil war.
Kennedy’s focus on Vietnam was based to a large extent on what was a prevailing point of view at the time, and referred to as the “domino theory”. This theory argued that if South Vietnam were to fall into communist hands, all surrounding Southeast Asian nations would quickly follow suit. This would be greatly destabilizing for all Western powers, and was an outcome to be avoided at all costs.
Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson dramatically expanded American troop presence in Vietnam. At the time of Kennedy’s death there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam. By 1968, their number had peaked to over 500,000.
As the war intensified, so did the size and complexity of the tunnels. At the height of the Vietnam War in the second half of the 1960s, North Vietnamese regular and guerrilla troops commanded a network of tunnels that stretched from the gates of Saigon all the way to the border with Cambodia more than 50 miles away over land. There were hundreds of miles of tunnels connecting multiple North Vietnamese controlled villages and strongholds. The tunnels were accessible by cleverly camouflaged and booby-trapped surface entrances. They extended over multiple levels, and contained larger excavated areas that served as storage depots, living quarters, munitions factories, and even hospitals. North Vietnamese guerrillas would sometimes spend weeks and even months underground. Babies were born in the tunnels.
The tunnels of Cu Chi were the most extensive and sophisticated part of the entire tunnel complex. Some of these tunnels were located directly below, and therefore within the perimeter of some of the American troop divisions stationed outside of Saigon, including the First Infantry division known as the “Big Red One”. Much to the consternation and dismay of the American military command, US forces would often be attacked from within their own lines by an unseen enemy who would strike rapidly and then magically vanish into the night.
In 1966, the United States launched Operation Crimp. As the Army itself stated, this was designed to be “a massive attack to strike at the very heart of the Viet Cong machine in South Vietnam…” The operation particularly targeted an area near the South Vietnamese village of Cu Chi. Operation Crimp did not succeed in its stated mission, but it did establish the existence of a previously unrecognized large scale underground tunnel network. It quickly became clear that this was a new type of war.
A number of brute force techniques were tried in an effort to root the enemy out of his underground lair. They were all largely unsuccessful. The multiple turns, levels, and air vents of the tunnel system limited the effectiveness and efficiency of flamethrowers and poison gas. Bombs and explosives were obviously capable of destroying short segments of tunnel, but they also effectively destroyed potentially useful intelligence materials, including the ability to locate and map out extensions of the tunnel system.
Specially trained attack dogs were sent into the tunnels in an attempt to literally sniff out the enemy. However, the Viet Cong quickly realized that they could use captured US soap or pepper to overwhelm the dogs’ sense of smell. More importantly, the dogs were not able to spot the numerous booby-traps scattered throughout the tunnels, including trip-wired grenades and camouflaged trapdoors on the tunnel floors. The trapdoors swung downwards on a hinge causing the animals to fall into a hole whose base was riddled with numerous upturned sharpened bamboo stakes known locally as punji sticks. For good measure, the punji sticks were often deliberately covered with human excrement in order to maximize the risk of infection. The dog handlers eventually refused to let their animals enter the tunnels.
The Army realized that they needed a novel, specialized, dedicated type of soldier – the “Tunnel Rats”. These men would have to be volunteers who were willing to enter the tunnels in small groups, locate the enemy in the dark while avoiding deadly booby-traps, and engage directly in man to man combat while moving around in a confined space on their hands and knees. Since the tunnels were built by and for the North Vietnamese who were typically much smaller and leaner than the average American soldier, the Tunnel Rats would ideally need to be similarly sized.
The Army built a Tunnel Rat ‘school’ at the Cu Chi base using about five hundred feet of real tunnel that they had eventually located directly below their feet. To reproduce conditions as accurately as possible, they populated their tunnel with fake booby-traps. On average, less than ten percent of potential volunteers graduated, and the majority of the remainder would crawl out of the fake tunnel almost immediately.
Billy Joe Ramirez graduated with honors.
In addition to the punji sticks, trapdoors, and tripwires, Charlie liked to use snakes for booby-traps. A favorite was the bamboo pit viper, a snake so venomous that it was called “one step” or “two steps” because that was about as far as you got after being bitten. They would place the snakes in small, thin bamboo containers which they would suspend at random from the tunnel ceilings. When someone crawled by and unsuspectingly bumped against the bamboo tube, “one step” would fall out and do its thing.
Another favorite was the boa constrictor. On one memorable occasion, one such snake wrapped itself around the head and neck of a Tunnel Rat just as he entered one of the tunnel system’s larger chambers head first. The man died from asphyxiation and a crushed larynx within minutes, but not before the snake, which must have been pretty hungry, did some serious damage to his face. When they finally dragged the man’s body back outside, the snake was still wrapped tightly around what was left of him above the shoulders.
After they killed the snake, some of the men, including Billy Joe, made themselves some pretty cool snakeskin bracelets.
Entering larger chambers in the tunnels was always dangerous, especially when entering headfirst from below. That was because another favorite trick of Charlie’s was to wait for some guy to stick his head out and then transfix him through the neck with either a sword or a long punji stick. The result was that the man, who was often not killed immediately but was instead left dying a slow, agonizing death, was now effectively wedged into the tunnel opening, unable to be dragged out backwards by his comrades.
Exiting the tunnels to the surface, particularly if you did not exit from your original point of entry, carried its own risks. What the outside world saw was a small, usually brown skinned, disheveled, grimy, shirtless figure erupting out of a hole in the ground, and looking a lot like Charlie himself.
Billy Joe learned this the hard way when he came out of a tunnel in the middle of a small field, and found himself surrounded by a group of humorless grunts, all pointing their rifles at his head. It was only after he told them that the Los Angeles Dodgers had lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1966 World Series after winning the title in 1965 that they lowered their weapons and started smiling and chuckling. Billy Joe didn’t think it was that funny.
The motto of the Tunnel Rats was the dog Latin phrase “Non Gratus Anus Rodentum”, as in “not worth a rat’s ass”. Some of them even had the phrase sewn into their clothing. Contrary to the impression of many that they were wild, hard drinking crazies, most of the Tunnel Rats were actually monk-like ascetics.
They eschewed alcohol and drugs as these dulled the very senses they relied on to stay alive in the tunnels. They used little soap, and no aftershave or cologne as these could lead to premature detection by the enemy. They avoided heavy tobacco use for similar reasons. The intermittent indulgence of one’s natural libidinous tendencies was perfectly fine, but mooning endlessly over distant wives and lovers was seriously hazardous to one’s health.
Most of the Tunnel Rats were loners who preferred their own company. Many, like Billy Joe, had dark and violent pasts. All were cool, calculating, and ruthless men who lived by the most primeval rule of all: kill or be killed.
In the tunnels it was just you, your pistol, your knife, your flashlight, your senses, and your wits. There was no room for error. You either became a perfectly tuned killing machine, one who could literally smell the enemy in the dark before they sensed you, or you became dead.
Billy Joe loved it in the tunnels. With every fiber of his being, he knew that this was what he was made for.
The most useful weapon in the tunnels was actually the knife, a weapon as old as war itself. Not only did you use it to probe gingerly around for booby-traps, but, unlike the pistol, it gave away no telltale sounds when it killed.
Most Tunnel Rats used a standard 45 caliber army issued six shot revolver such as the M1917, at least initially. You were trained to never fire more than three rounds at a time. Under no circumstances were you ever to fire all six rounds because, in the confinement of the tunnels, there was no ability to reload. Charlie would be counting the rounds, and he was surely coming back for you on six.
The first time that Billy Joe fired his M1917 in the tunnels, not only did he miss, but he went deaf for two days. Since having excellent hearing in the tunnels was literally a matter of life and death, Billy Joe decided he needed a new sidearm. The vast army base at CuChi housed several guys who, for the right price, could literally get you any weapon you wanted short of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Billy Joe settled for a Swiss made 7.65 X 21mm Luger with a 4.7inch barrel and a 1.5 inch silencer. Not only was the gun well made (God bless those Swiss engineers), at just under two pounds it was fairly light and quite maneuverable, even with its silencer threaded on. Most importantly, the gun could hold eight rounds.
There was a soft, suppressed, but nonetheless faintly audible, cough that oozed its way out of the murkiness in front of him. Silently, Billy Joe shuffled backwards around a corner and out of sight. He reached into his right front pocket and took out a one and a half inch square mirror that had previously seen some serious service as a local hooker’s compact. He placed the mirror on the floor against the far wall and angled it so that it provided him a view of whatever might be coming down the tunnel towards him. He stretched out flat and, keeping the rest of his body safely hidden, he extended his right hand and its enclosed Luger slowly along the floor, and carefully curled it around the corner, He kept his gaze locked onto the tiny mirror. He didn’t have to wait long.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a wraith-like figure could be seen emerging from the gloom. Billy Joe squeezed the trigger three times. The loud thunks of the silenced rounds were immediately accompanied by a muffled groan and the unmistakable sound of a body collapsing onto the tunnel’s mud floor.
Billy Joe waited patiently. For several minutes there was no sound. Then he heard it. More accurately, he sensed it. There was someone else in the tunnel. And he was retreating. Billy Joe retrieved his mirror, pocketed it, and started his hunt.
He slowly approached the body of the man he had just shot. Using his knife, he stabbed the body several times to see if it elicited any movement or sound. There was neither. Gingerly, Billy Joe crawled over and around the corpse making sure he caused as little disturbance possible. Charlie 2 might have booby-trapped Charlie 1’s body before leaving.
He needed to be fast, but cautious. In addition to whatever booby-traps were already in the tunnel from before, Charlie 2 might be adding more of his own as he receded. But Billy Joe had two advantages. Moving backwards was always more difficult and slower than moving forwards. And it was no accident that the other Tunnel Rats had nicknamed Billy Joe the Ferret.
Billy Joe caught up to Charlie 2 just as he saw the man begin to lower himself backwards into what was probably a larger room on a lower level. He knew that if the guy made it down there he would be able to move more freely which would make him both more dangerous and more difficult to catch. Billy Joe didn’t have a clean or stable shot, but he knew he had to try. He squeezed off another three shots in rapid succession. All three missed.
He saw and heard the man pause his descent. Then he saw him reverse course and start moving rapidly towards him. Charlie 2 was a good soldier. He had been counting the rounds. And there had been six. So naturally he was feeling pretty confident as he crawled his way towards Billy Joe.
In fact, Billy Joe was pretty sure he could see the man smiling as he approached and raised his rifle. By this time, Billy Joe was well set. He aimed the Luger directly at the man’s smiling teeth and fired off one more round. The expression on the guy’s face was priceless. Then the face disappeared in a cloud of spray,
And he still had one round left for the way back. Just in case.
That was Billy Joe’s all time favorite kill. By far.
Between 1967 and early 1972, when US troops began leaving Vietnam in earnest and the Tunnel Rat unit was officially disbanded, Billy Joe completed an almost unprecedented five tours of duty. By then, he had lost count of the number of men he had killed. On the flip side, about one in three of the more than seven hundred Tunnel Rats who fought alongside him during this time were either killed or wounded. That included Billy Joe who was stabbed once in the left side, and, on a separate occasion, had a bullet traverse cleanly through his right posterior thigh.
By the time Billy Joe received his official honorable discharge papers in late 1972, he had achieved the rank of Master Sergeant and had an Army dress shirt festooned with ribbons and medals.
As he found out after returning to the United States, that and a quarter got you on the subway.