Dropping into the Cu Chi Tunnels

In January 1966, the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), which had been attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) after arriving in Vietnam the previous year, participated in  Operation CRIMP. This was an operation involving over 8000 allied troops and is described in detail in Bob Breen’s book, First to Fight and in Blue Lanyard Red Banner by Lex McAulay, whose customised Australian Army lighter that he carried during the operation was featured in a previous post. CRIMP was the battalion’s first major foray into an area which has become synonymous with the famous Củ Chi Tunnels and the pioneering ‘tunnel rat’ work carried out by its sappers.

For 1RAR, the objective of this operation, which involved over allied 8000 troops, was a series of underground bunkers believed to be in the Ho Bo Woods area of Củ Chi district. Intelligence indicated that these bunkers housed the headquarters for the Communist committee that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District and a large complex of tunnels was subsequently uncovered by the battalion. For the first time, engineers of 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers (3 Fd Tp RAE), under the command of Captain Alexander (Sandy) MacGregor breached the network recovering large quantities of  weapons, food, equipment and documents.

Sandy MacGregor recounts the experiences of the sappers from 3 Fd Tp as they entered the tunnels for the first time in his book, No Need for Heroes.

We had three tasks. The first was to investigate the tunnels as fully as possible to discover what they were being used for. The second was to try and map the tunnel system so that we could work out its extent, and if need be, dig down to a soldier who might be trapped. The third, once we discovered what a treasure trove the tunnels were, was to recover everything we could – weapons, equipment and paper – all of which was invaluable for the intelligence boys.

Op CRIMP tunnel rat demo

Photograph by Captain Alex ‘Sandy’ MacGregor, OC of 3 Field Troop, who developed the ‘tunnel rat’ concept first used during Operation CRIMP. Here, soldiers are demonstrating a “Tunnel Exploration Kit”, which was developed as a result of the developments made by MacGregor’s soldiers. Note the ear plug in the soldier’s right ear, the throat microphone and the switch in his mouth used to operate the torch strapped to his forehead. He is armed with a Smith & Wesson 38 calibre revolver equipped with a silencer and pinpoint-light sight. Photograph: Alexander Hugh ‘Sandy’ MacGregor. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01595.021

It was not an easy mission to accomplish as this was a departure from the American policy of sealing and destroying any tunnels found. Captain MacGregor had previously recognised the inadequacies of the American approach and had begun training his engineers to enter and clear tunnels. The 3 Fd Tp sappers had built a mock tunnel at their base, experimented and developed clearance techniques but they were still entering somewhat untested territory when they commenced the operation. The “Tunnel Rats” as they would come to known, had their work cut out for them. As soon as 1RAR hit the LZ they came under fire from snipers hidden in underground firing positions, trenches and tunnels. Bob Breen describes the situation in First to Fight,

There were snipers and small groups of Viet Cong everywhere – in and behind trees, popping up from spider holes and tunnel entrances at ground level, and scrambling away after firing quick bursts. The area was seeded with numerous booby traps. Diggers (Australian soldiers) noticed the ominous wires and saw shells and bunches of grenades dangling from trees and clumps of bamboo.

In an ambush on the first day of the operation, a Viet Cong firing position was discovered inside an anthill. When the sappers blew the anthill, a tunnel was discovered leading away from the position. Clearance teams from 3 Fd Tp began entering the network but breaching and securing the tunnels was no easy task.

We blew smoke into the tunnel and I divided the men into smaller sub-units of twos and threes and sent them off to investigate Once we’d blown smoke, then tear gas, then fresh air down the tunnels, I sent a couple of men down to investigate. The entrance was so narrow it was hard to imagine it was intended for people at all. There was a straight drop then it doubled back up, like the U-bend under a sink. The tunnel turned again to go along under the surface and became a little wider, but there still wasn’t room enough to turn around. It was terrifying down there, armed only with a bayonet to probe for booby traps and a pistol to defend yourself.

Once you’d negotiated the tight entrance and the U-bend, you had to crawl along tiny passages, rubbing your shoulders on each side of the tunnel, on all fours, with no way of turning around if you got into trouble. Often, you’d find larger ‘rooms’, sections of tunnel that were big enough to crouch or kneel in, but you weren’t to know that when you first set out. The further the men went, the more complex the tunnel system was revealed to be. There were drops, twists and turns, corners around which the whole North Vietnamese Army could be waiting, for all they knew. The men burrowed away, ever further, ever deeper, until they discovered a hidden danger in the operation. Some of them began passing out in the tunnels due to lack of air. But, despite the fact that there was no room to turn they were all dragged back to the surface, usually after we’d blasted more fresh air down to them.

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground ...

A Sapper of 3 Field Troop emerges from a Viet Cong (VC) tunnel by way of a trapdoor in the ground during Operation Crimp in the Ho Bo Woods with troops of 1 Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). The trapdoor of concrete is covered with earth and grass and saplings are grown in it so that it carefully blends in with the rest of the vegetation, and is virtually impossible to detect. Photo: Peter Kelly. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: KEL/66/0021/VN

Unfortunately, one of the sappers, Corporal Bob Bowtell, succumbed to the lack of air in one of the antechambers and had died of asphyxiation by the time his body could be brought back to the surface. The operation took its toll on many of the sappers as George Wilson recalls in Gary McKay’s book,  Bullets, Beans & Bandages,

Those long periods spent underground, often in total darkness, where at times the only ‘light’ was the luminous face of your watch, were my most vivid memories of Viet Nam… Our troop casualty rate was particularly high on that operation with only 12 out of 35 men remaining until the end… of the operation.

During the six days that 3 Fd Tp spent on Operation CRIMP, the sappers had investigated tunnels for 700m in one direction and another 500m across that line, recovering truckloads of documents and equipment, including photographs of the Viet Cong’s foreign advisors. On the final day of the operation, the sappers found a trapdoor which led to a third level in the system, but before they could investigate it further the Americans decided to end the operation and pull out. The tunnels that had been discovered were lined with explosives and tear gas crystals in an attempt to either destroy or make them uninhabitable. Later, long after the end of the war Sandy MacGregor finally learned what lay beyond that final trapdoor. It led to the military headquarters of the Viet Cong’s Southern Command.

They had been that close.

However, Operation CRIMP had uncovered a massive amount of equipment and intelligence information and as a result, American units throughout Vietnam received orders to clear tunnels before destroying them. The tunnel system breached by 3 Fd Tp was later discovered to consist of over 200 kilometers of tunnels in multiple levels, and included living, working and storage areas, forming part of the much larger Củ Chi tunnel complex. For his contribution, Sandy MacGregor was awarded the Military Cross by the Australian government and the Bronze Star by the Americans. He recounts his experiences developing the ‘Tunnel Rats’ concept and service in Vietnam in an interview that was recorded for the Life on the Line podcast series, which is worth listening to.

Viet Cong haversack : Sapper P M Cachia, 3 Field Troop, Royal Australian Engineers

Viet Cong locally made canvas haversack captured by Sapper Peter Cachia of 3 Fd Tp RAE during Operation CRIMP. It consists of a central compartment made from light brown canvas with fold-in weather flaps. This compartment is closed by a large external flap secured by tying together lengths of synthetic cord. The flap has a large external pocket of green canvas with a plastic button closure. The straps are of light brown canvas 60 mm wide tapering to 12 mm wide. The narrow end of each strap is passed through a loop of synthetic cord sewn to the bottom of the haversack and knotted. This is how the length of the straps can be adjusted. Lengths of synthetic cord have been machine sewn to the both the straps and the haversack along the joins as a means of reinforcement. The haversack, which originally contained an aluminium lighter and a large quantity of documents and other printed matter. The printed matter was taken by army intelligence for analysis, and Cachia was allowed to keep the haversack and lighter. Australian War Memorial Collection Accession Number: REL43475

cu chi tunnels model-01

The district of Củ Chi lies approximately 60 kilometers northwest of Saigon bordering an area known as the Iron Triangle, the heartland of the Viet Cong guerrillas operating in the region. The tunnel system took advantage of the hard, red, soil which was suitable for digging and did not become waterlogged during the monsoon season.  It was first developed by the Viet Minh in their fight against the French and in 1947 only 47 kilometers of tunnels existed, but with the formation of the Viet Cong the system expanded. By the end of 1963 it was estimated that around 400km of arterial tunnels, trenches, connecting tunnels and bunkers existed in an area that covered 300 square kilometers. The Củ Chi Tunnel complex was big enough to conceal an entire regiment, some estimates put the figure at 5000 troops, enroute to its area of operations and proved to be an ongoing problem for the allied forces. Later, they were used as a staging area for the attack on Saigon during the 1968 Tet offensive and their utility was only somewhat restricted after a heavy bombing campaign by B-52’s in 1970.

During the course of the war it is estimated that at least 45,000 Vietnamese died defending the tunnels and after 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved sections of the tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country. Today, visiting the Củ Chi tunnels are rated as one of the top five tourist destination activities in Vietnam, with some estimates placing the number of visitors as high as 1000 tourists per day.

There are two different tunnel display sites, Bến Đình and Bến Dược. The tunnels at Bến Dược are smaller attracting fewer visitors than the Bến Đình site which is closer to Ho Chi Minh City and is more popular with the multitude of tour groups offering the Củ Chi ‘experience’. Both tunnel sites offer a somewhat sanitised experience, allowing visitors to crawl around a ‘tourist friendly’ modified section of tunnel, check out displays depicting life for the occupants, boobytraps, weapons, equipment and be subjected to the usual pro-communist version of events. Personally, I think that the visitor parks are somewhat over-rated in terms of education or real historical value, but for a visitor with an interest in the military history of Vietnam they are worth visiting, just to check them out.

It is quite easy to reach the tunnels and there are lots of half-day or full day tours that include the Củ Chi Tunnels on their itineraries. Trip Advisor list several on their website which will give you an idea of what you can expect, however I think that it is best to visit them independently instead of an organised group tour. This can be done by bus or private taxi/driver, which is easily arranged and allows more flexibility with stops and timings.

Some of the organised full-day tours include a visit to the Cao Đài Holy See at Tây Ninh, approximately 96km northwest of HCMC as part of their package tour. Visiting this site is actually the main reason why I have made return visits to the tunnels at Củ Chi as its proximity makes for a good day trip and is worthy of consideration if you are organising your own visit.

The Cao Đài is a Vietnamese religious sect that was founded by a French colonial bureaucrat named Ngô Văn Chiêu and based on a series of messages he received during seances in the early 1920’s. Its doctrine is a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and occultism which deified an unusual mix of figures including Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen. Officially recognised as a religion in 1926, it adopted a clerical organisation structure similar to Roman Catholicism, established its headquarters at Tây Ninh.

In the years following its establishment, the Cao Đài became increasingly active in politics and at its peak, during the French period, had a militia of around 20,000 troops under its command. The French Indochina wars form a large part of my interest in Vietnam and the sect was a major player in the south during the French era.

cao dai illustrated london news 9 june 1951

An article about the Cao Dai from a 1951 edition of the Illustrated London News which talks about the support of their militia in battling the Viet Minh alongside the French.

 

In 1933, the Cao Đài commenced construction of its main cathedral, the Holy See, which is described in Graham Greene’s book, The Quiet American as “a Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in technicolour.”

Completed in 1955, the temple is a rococo extravaganza that mixes the architectural idiosyncrasies of a French church, Chinese pagoda, Madam Tussaud’s and the Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong. Prayer services are held four times per day, when uniformed priests and laity enter the building to perform their rituals. Visitors are free to enter the balcony section of the temple during these prayers and it is a very colourful spectacle to watch the priests and dignitaries carry out their observances. The best time to visit is just before the midday prayers (held every day except during Tet) and then head on to the tunnels as the second stage of a full day trip.

Cao Dai Holy See-11

An usher takes a nap during the midday prayer service at the Cao Đài Holy See in Tây Ninh. The yellow, blue and red stripes on his armband are the colours of the Cao Đài. Photo: Julian Tennant

In the next few weeks I’ll take a closer look at the Cao Đài’s political and military activities as I begin a series of posts devoted to some of the French Indochina period insignia that I have in my collection.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

Items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter in the middle of the picture has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges. It was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this period. The Viet Cong badge attached to the lighter was found in one of the tunnels when he was participating in Operation CRIMP in January 1966. Collection: Julian Tennant

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An Australian souvenir from Operation CRIMP, South Vietnam, January 1966.

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 173 Abn and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

A selection of items related to the initial deployment of 1RAR to South Vietnam during the period from May 1965 until April 1966 when they were attached to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate). The WW2 era Australian Military Forces lighter which has been modified with the addition of the enameled 17rd Airborne and Viet Cong badges was issued to Corporal Lex McAulay, who was serving as a linguist with 1RAR during this time. Collection: Julian Tennant

One of my collecting interests is Australian cigarette lighters from the Vietnam War. In recent years I have tended to reduce my focus to (predominantly) Zippo lighters related to the Australian Special Forces units and the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). However, I do still collect some that are from other units or have interesting provenance. This Australian Army issue lighter, which I obtained from noted military author and historian, Lex McAulay OAM, is one of those unique objects that makes collecting interesting.

Personalised WW2 period Australian Military Forces issue lighter carried Corporal Lex McAulay during his first tour of Vietnam with 1RAR in 1965. Collection: Julian Tennant

Personalised WW2 period Department of Defence issue Mark III  lighter carried by Corporal Lex McAulay during his first tour of Vietnam with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in 1965-66. Collection: Julian Tennant

The marking’s on the lighter’s base indicate that it is the Department of Defence issue Mark III, which was one of the 96,000 made by the munitions factory in Footscray, Victoria, just before the end of WW2, in July 1945. These lighters continued to be issued to Australian servicemen for several years, including during the war in Vietnam. This personalised example is one of two lighters that I acquired from Lex, the other being a Korean copy of a Zippo (also shown below) which he picked up in Saigon during one of his later tours.

Bien Hoa, Vietnam. 1965-09. Two bare-chested Australians Corporal Lex McAulay (left) of Innisfail, Qld, and Corporal John Henderson of Macquarie Fields, NSW, inspect an Armalite rifle at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Photograph: Bryan Dunne. Australian War Memorial Accession Number DNE/65/0335A/VN

Bien Hoa, Vietnam. 1965-09. Two bare-chested Australians Corporal Lex McAulay (left) of Innisfail, Qld, and Corporal John Henderson of Macquarie Fields, NSW, inspect an Armalite rifle at the headquarters of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). Photograph: Bryan Dunne. Australian War Memorial Accession Number DNE/65/0335A/VN

Lex McAulay joined the Australian Regular Army in June 1960 and trained as an infantryman. In 1962 he volunteered for language aptitude testing and was subsequently accepted to the RAAF School of Languages, where after completing a year-long Vietnamese language course, qualified as a Vietnamese linguist. Lex was subsequently posted to the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment but when Australia committed ground combat troops to South Vietnam in April 1965, he was immediately transferred to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR).

The battalion departed Australia in May 1965 and upon arrival in Vietnam was attached (as a third battalion) to the US 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) which was based at the Bien Hoa Airbase 25km North East of Saigon. 1RAR was initially restricted to operations protecting the airbase until, in September 1965, the Australian Government lifted these restrictions and the battalion was expanded to a battalion-group, with the addition of supporting artillery, engineers, aviation, medical and logistic elements. The battalion-group now began to undertake operations in the Viet Cong dominated areas of War Zones C, D and the Iron Triangle.

The battalion performed extremely well on operations with the American Brigade, most notably during Operation CRIMP in January 1966, when the Australians breached the extensive Cu Chi tunnel network. This operation is described in detail in the book, First to Fight, by Bob Breen and is also the main theme of Lex McAulay’s book, Blue Lanyard Red Banner. The US military policy of the time was to destroy tunnels and bunkers, but the Australian engineers of 3 Field Troop RAE began searching them, capturing large stocks of food, weapons, equipment and documents. It was during one of the tunnel clearances that the Viet Cong lapel badge that is attached to the lighter was discovered and in a note that Lex sent to me with the lighter, outlining its provenance, he writes,

During the operation, a small box, about the size of an old matchbox, was found in one of the tunnels being investigated by 1RAR soldiers. The matchbox was filled with these Vietcong badges. Corporal McAulay was the only linguist available to 1RAR for this operation and was responsible for sorting and sending back all captured items. His unofficial but personal policy was to send items of intelligence value back to higher headquarters but return everything else to the capturing sub-unit for use as souvenirs and keep the soldiers motivated to send captured items to him or other members of the battalion intelligence section.

McAulay goes on to note that he kept one badge and returned the rest to the platoon. The text on the Vietcong badge is: Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng miền Nam Việt Nam which translates as South Vietnam People’s Liberation Front. The 173rd Airborne Brigade badge was acquired and attached by Lex sometime after the operation.

Viet Cong badge held in the Australian War Memorial collection of the same type to that affixed to Lex McAulay's lighter. The badge consists of a white enamel oval shape with 'MAI DAN TOC GIAI PHONG' written in raised brass lettering. In the top right of the badge is the Viet Cong flag, red over blue with a central yellow star in enamel. At the bottom of the badge is a red enamelled scroll with 'MIEN NAM VIET NAM' written in raised brass lettering. On the reverse of the badge is a pin and catch threaded into a small brass tube which has then been soldered onto the badge. This particular example was given to 213419 Lieutenant Alan George Hutchinson, a Royal Australian Artillery Forward Observer attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) during Operation Crimp in January 1965. Is it possible that this badge came from the same matchbox of badges given to Lex McCaulay during the operation? Australian War Memorial Accession Number REL38058

Viet Cong badge held in the Australian War Memorial collection of the same type to that is affixed to Lex McAulay’s lighter. The badge consists of a white enamel oval shape with ‘MAI DAN TOC GIAI PHONG’ written in raised brass lettering. In the top right of the badge is the Viet Cong flag, red over blue with a central yellow star in enamel. At the bottom of the badge is a red enamelled scroll with ‘MIEN NAM VIET NAM’ written in raised brass lettering. On the reverse of the badge is a pin and catch threaded into a small brass tube which has then been soldered onto the badge. This particular example was given to 213419 Lieutenant Alan George Hutchinson, a Royal Australian Artillery Forward Observer attached to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) during Operation CRIMP in January 1965. Is it possible that this badge came from the same box of badges given to Corporal Lex McAulay during the same operation? Australian War Memorial Accession Number REL38058

Corporal Lex McAulay, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), holds the hand of an old man as he leads him to safety after a village had been cleared of the Viet Cong. Photograph: Michael Shannon. Australian War Memorial Accession Number SHA/65/0220/VN

Corporal Lex McAulay, of 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), holds the hand of an old man as he leads him to safety after a village had been cleared of the Viet Cong. Photograph: Michael Shannon. Australian War Memorial Accession Number SHA/65/0220/VN

Whilst Operation CRIMP failed to achieve its objective of destroying the Communist Committee Headquarters that controlled all Viet Cong activity in the Capital Military District, the performance of the Australians in entering the tunnels, capturing valuable resources and intelligence information, led to a change in American policies and subsequently all American units throughout Vietnam were ordered to enter and clear tunnels before destroying them. The operation also highlighted the differences in doctrine and tactical principles between the Australians, who had brought years of counter-insurgency experience from Malaya with them and the Americans whose strategy was one of attrition, with ‘body counts’ being their measure of success. In 1966 as the allied build up in Vietnam grew, the Australian units were placed under direct Australian operational command with the formation of the 1st Australian Task Force in April 1966.

After completing a 12 month stint in Vietnam with 1RAR, Lex McAulay returned to Australia in 1966 and helped to set up a short colloquial Vietnamese course in Sydney. In late 1967, Lex went back to Vietnam as a staff member of the Military Attaché at the Australian Embassy in Saigon, returning in 1968. His final tour of duty in Vietnam was in 1970 where he eventually took charge of the Interrogation and Document Translation Section of the Australian field HQ. It was in Saigon during one of these later tours that he acquired the other lighter I acquired from him, a Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of a Zippo lighter which features a Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) badge on one side and the US Vietnam Service medal on the other.

Korean 'My-Lite' copy of the Zippo lighter which Lex McAulay bought in Saigon during one of his later deployments to Vietnam. Collection: Julian Tennant

Korean ‘My-Lite’ copy of the Zippo lighter which Lex McAulay bought in Saigon during one of his later deployments to Vietnam. Collection: Julian Tennant

Lex completed his third deployment to Vietnam in April 1971 and was preparing for a fourth tour when the Australian commitment ended. He remained in the Army until his retirement in 1982 and has subsequently authored several books related to military history as well as managing Banner Books, which specialises in Australian aviation and military studies. In 2007 Lex was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to literature and as a military historian.

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Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages