The Tunnel Rats: Vietnam’s Underground War - History Key

The Tunnel Rats: Vietnam’s Underground War

War is hell, that is for sure. But we think that it could be even worse if you would believe it is possible. Among the many things present in war, or directly on a battlefield, there are some jobs and missions truly horrible, and today we will present you one of them.

Job Title: Tunnel Rat

During the Vietnam war, the US soldiers had to deal with all sorts of alternative and unknown tactics, applied by their direct enemy, the Viet Cong. Having the advantage of knowing the surroundings very well, the Viet Congs adapted and applied several tactics based on their home environment, an environment totally unfamiliar for the US troops.

Since the war against the French and their colonial intentions, the Viet Cong built an incredible network of underground tunnels and complexes, including hospitals, storage areas and training facilities. During the ‘60s and throughout the Vietnam War, those underground facilities reached an unexpected functionality, and someone had to enter in those tunnels in order to hunt the Viet Cong. That was the “Tunnel Rats” mission.


Viet Cong Tunnel Complex
Viet Cong Tunnel Complex ©

Basically, the “tunnel rat” had to enter in those tiny underground spaces, armed only with a lantern and a pistol in the search of the enemy. A very risky and claustrophobic situation. Americans, New Zealand and Australian soldiers, who volunteered for such missions, formed the unit.

Considering that the Viet Cong had incredible skills for guerrilla warfare, even if a tunnel complex was discovered and dismantled by the US troops, there was a need to send the “tunnel rats” in a seek and destroy mission. After the tunnels were cleared, the “tunnel rats” destroyed them using explosives, to ensure that the underground complex will not be used again.

US soldiers using a stethoscope to spot underground Viet Cong movements
US soldiers using a stethoscope to spot underground Viet Cong movements ©

Job challenges

The tunnels were “infested” with traps and enemies, while a tunnel rat was carrying very light equipment formed by a 45 cal pistol, bayonet, and flashlight. But the tunnels were also full of other risks: scorpions, ants or venomous snakes, often used as living traps.

“Non-Gratus Rodentum” a Latin phrase meaning “Not Worth a Rat”, was the tunnel rat’s motto. Besides the previously listed risks, the tunnels had also another kind of danger: the natural gas forming underground, especially after digging deep. Sometimes, the tunnel rat chooses to wear a gas mask, but most of the times he entered the tunnels without it because the mask would have been an impediment, limiting the field of vision and also aggravating breathing.

Considering that the pistol was the main weapon for a tunnel rat, let’s see what pistols they mainly used in the underground warfare. The tunnel rats somehow disliked the .45 caliber, also because the round was producing a strong muzzle blast, leaving the operator temporarily deaf. A strange fact is related to the use of German pistols, which were among the preferred one by the tunnel rats. The Luger or the Walther pistols, having chambers of 9x19mm, were particularly desirable for such work. You probably ask yourself “from where did they buy such guns?” The answer is easy: soldiers brought many of them back from WW2.


Soldier with tunnel exploration kit
Soldier with tunnel exploration kit ©

Many soldiers involved in the tunnel warfare would ask someone at home to send them a civilian pistol or revolver, easy to use in such situations. Other soldiers used improvised suppressors on their handguns, in order to reduce the noise and the chances to be spotted. Considering that their area of action was very limited, usually, the tunnel rats were men of smaller stature, almost exclusively White or Hispanic individuals.

The main objective

Many tactics were developed on site by US troops, including throwing tear gas inside the tunnels while sealing any spotted entrance/exit hole. Even if many soldiers reached high levels of experience in that kind of underground warfare, there still was a fatal risk: even if you were an experienced tunnel rat. You always could get lost in the tunnels, and that was forever.

We all know that humans have the ability to adapt, especially in difficult situations, when the skill and the will to adapt, could make the difference between life and death. The experienced tunnel rats developed different hearing, being able to hear even the smallest sound from the pitch black tunnels. The ability to hear a gun cocking or the pin from a grenade being pulled out was a vital feature.

A tunnel rat on a mission
A tunnel rat on a mission ©

Two distinct parts formed the usual mission for a tunnel rat. The first one was related to the seek & destroy action, searching and killing all the enemies at sight. Once the tunnel was considered cleared, the tunnel rat would went at surface just in order to get back in the tunnel loaded with C4 explosive. Then he had to place the C4 in some key point, in order to have the entire tunnel collapsed.

We must admit that only the bravest men were capable of such task. Imagine yourself having to crawl in the darkness, without knowing too much about the “battlefront”. In other words, the tunnel rats were always in a deadly situation: kudos to them!

Tunnel Rat with a flashlight and a .45 pistol
Tunnel Rat with a flashlight and a .45 pistol ©

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