Friday, December 27, 2013

Tunnels of Cu Chi - The Underground War to Freedom

Comfortable underground kitchen with easy access to a tunnel,
The opening with the fence around it to protect tourists.

Of the many myths and truths from the history of the 1950s-1970s, one at the top or damned close to the top of any list is the Vietnamese guerrilla war area called the Cu Chi tunnels.    Leanna and I got to visit the national military reservation or park that contains the tunnels and related historic displays. We have heard repeatedly since our arrival that the people of Cu Chi are a special source of pride and inspiration for all of Vietnam. We visited three different park areas and drove by several more. Following are our impressions and some of what we learned about this amazing history.
The town of Cu Chi lies north and west of Ho Chi Minh City but seems like a suburb because the spread of HCMC is so extensive. After about an hour's drive we turned off the main highway to follow a smaller highway for a few miles. We pulled into a military area and parked next door at a large restaurant – at the banks of the Saigon River. You pass through a large, modern tunnel to enter the actual Cu Chi preserved/restored park and tunnels. After emerging in the park area we joined with a group of Malaysians to make a tour group lead by a young man dressed in khaki green. The first tunnel we looked at was entered by a SMALL rectangular hole that a person could drop down into if the alarm were given. I dropped in to have a look-see but it was immediately evident that I couldn't go out into the tunnel that connected to the entrance, it was too small for someone my size (about 5'8 1/2 and 150 lbs – I have lost weight since coming to Vietnam) but our guide told us that there were tunnels enlarged so that tourists could share some of the experience of moving and “living” underground. Just a couple of awe inspiring facts: the Cu Chi underground was built by Vietnam patriots (regular working people men, women, children of all ages) from the Cu Chi area in the years from 1948 to 1965 although it was used right up to the fall of Saigon in 1975. The people of Cu Chi are proud of their ancestors and martyrs who died in the war of liberation as well of the tunnel network they built to help defeat the French and the US. Maintaining the Cu Chi area free of USA control was seen as vital to the liberation of Saigon. The underground tunnel network totaled 200 kilometers, or about 120 MILES! This matrix was built by human toil,sweat and blood without big fancy machinery but hand tools: picks, shovels, wheel barrows, a bamboo woven carrying device that looked like a cement hod and the like. The tunnels were constructed at 3 levels: the fighting level was at about 6 foot underground and was constructed so that Viet Cong in their “black pajamas” based on a traditional clothing style of the country folk called an ao baba, a cousin of the ao dao (ow zi, the i is pronounced like a long i and the d is pronounced as a z more or less) could fire on the enemy and when things got hot dive in the tunnel and crawl to another port hole where they could pop up and continue to fight or flee to fight another day. The tunnels were not constructed in straight lines but had twists and turns to stop the force of explosions and prevent the deaths of the soldiers and support personnel in a tunnel (the blast would run into the wall and be weakened but there were still casualties). The brave US troops would spray flaming petroleum fuel into the tunnels with flame throwers in their attempt to defeat the enemy. Of course they killed old people, women and children   burning them alive. And in the US we have heard about the tunnel rats of our US Military who would brave the tunnels seeking the enemy but the enemy had disappeared by the time the GIs went down into the tunnel and this saved many American lives. On the other hand there were many booby traps that injured our US troops. In one building we were given a lecture on several types of booby traps that were deployed against the invaders. The main thing that can be said is that traps were made from local materials such as bamboo, other forest products, and the technology the people had used for thousands of years to trap animals. [Now as the guide said they trapped the enemy]. The Viet Cong also re-manufactured captured French and American bombs, cannon shells, other weaponry, rockets, tires, blown-up tanks and other vehicle parts etc to make weapons in factories in the tunnel complex. Our guide stated that “We recycled everything”, it made you think of an ecology group getting a tour on recycling except in your eye you saw weapons being cut to pieces and then re-assembled into much less sophisticated but effective weapons. There were as we mentioned two more tunnel levels, one at about 10 foot and the other at about 18 foot depth. Parts of the “fighting level” could be destroyed with cannon fire or grenades so when under attack the Vietnamese could drop down slanted entries to the second level where they were safe from most weapons. The lowest level at about 18 foot were safe from the carpet bombing of the B52s with 500 kilogram bombs. At this level people could survive terrible weapons of mass destruction although casualties were enormous. There were 47,000 military deaths (does not count all the civilians) in this small area, almost equal to the total of all Americans killed during the war.

Trying out a tunnel entrance, not much room.

All of life was not spent underground. The village of Cu Chi, original population 18,000, had dug out buildings/bunkers for tunnel workers and their families, schools for the children, a small hospital, eating rooms for communal meals, kitchens, weapons manufacturing areas where we watched how American bombs were turned into weapons to fight the invaders, a clothing and “shoe” manufacturing plant where the workers turned used tires into sandals. While we watched an operator used the equipment to make shoes like the ones that I bought. (The sandals I bought are made from recycled pieces of auto tire for the sole and heel and inner tube strips for the top straps. I put them on and worn them them the rest of the day to walk a mile in another persons shoes to know her life in a small way.) The living quarters and other buildings now rebuilt are both above and below ground level so that us tall foreigners can get in and out easily, but in the day the buildings did not protrude above ground or just barely above ground level so that the jungle canopy would make them invisible. Not protruding above ground also offered some protection from the blast of bombs that exploded near by – the blast would travel horizontally above the dug out buildings and the building would survive to be used again. The folks in the buildings would run into the tunnels as soon as there was an alert and head down to safety. Every building had an alarm or alarms made of pieces of bamboo that could be struck with sticks to make a racket and warn other buildings. Indeed sections of the tunnels have been enlarged for people Leanna's size and equipped with electric lights so that you can careful climb down into the first two levels of the tunnels and move through the tunnels for around 150 feet. Even that short distance is overwhelming in a crouched position when you know you're headed toward an exit. Incidentally we saw a lot of bomb craters left from the carpet bombing by B52s and other US aircraft. Chemical warfare was used extensively on Cu Chi --- is Henry Kissinger and our generals and officer staff up there with Adolf Eichman and the other NAZI swine? You will have to answer but it is a hell of a question. As I remarked recently on Facebook, our troops shouldn't be put in the position of killing others to satisfy the desires of the ruling classes of our nation – who make damn sure their kids don't go, [think “Dick” Chaney and George W. Bush for example.].
The second area we visited was a reconstruction of the original Cu Chi village so we could get a feel for the history of the area and people from 1960 through 1975. First we saw typical bamboo-sided, thatched roof houses with rooms for sleeping, cooking, eating with storage as well as wooden houses of similar size but made with sturdy wood and more substantial furniture – the relatively rich. There were plentiful fields of rice and vegetables, grazing, bamboo, livestock. A school was proudly built and in full use by 1965 for the village children. There was a market, village meeting house and a modest health clinic. After the defeat of the French colonialists, the Cu Chi area remained solidly Viet Cong/anti-USA imperialism so the tunnel system connected all buildings, houses, public areas, work areas, school and clinic. As we continued walking we entered an area depicting the village during the increasing USA war when heavy bombing and troop invasions took place. At this point houses and buildings became bunkers as described above all connected by tunnels.  Since this USA strategy of carpet bombings and toxic defoliants did not stop the Vietnamese resistance in Cu Chi, the USA then constructed concentration camps and attempted to force the people of Cu Chi into the so-called “strategic hamlets.” The USA then used more carpet bombing, Agent Orange and bulldozers to demolish the land, vegetation, village above ground structures, etc. As we walked through the area of bomb craters, un-restored land and destruction and desolation dotted with tunnels, it was sobering. Yet the people of Cu Chi continued to fight off the USA military and provide a launching area for successful liberation using the tunnels and their creative commitment to independence, freedom and happiness. Today 38 years later it is amazing to see bamboo and other trees (peanut, rubber, fruits, etc.) growing again with healthy vegetables, rice fields. The resilience of Vietnam's people and land is inspiring.
Our final stop was the Ben Duoc Martyrs' Memorial built from 1993 until 1995 as a tribute to the more than 47,000 military dead from the area. We were visiting on an anniversary day of the Vietnam military so there were special ceremonies honoring the heroes of the American War. It was very moving to see the huge statue of Ho Chi Minh and the innumerable golden plaques listing each dead revolutionary. The outside walls of the memorial was covered with beautiful mosaics depicting the history of Vietnam. The buildings are surrounded by quiet gardens with many trees planted in memory of individual soldiers as well as a large fountain shaped like the lotus flower – the entire memorial overlooks the Saigon River.

           There were many times during the Cu Chi visit that were painful and uncomfortable for us as Americans. The guides and installations were very straight forward and we were treated with sincere respect. The facts spoke for us. There were also moments of intense inspiration at the strength, resilience, depth of political commitment, vision and thirst of the Vietnamese people to win and shape their own future. We came to Vietnam thinking we had a solid foundation and understanding of the history of Vietnam. Cu Chi has taught us that there is so much more to learn about and from the Vietnamese people and their examples for the world historically and now.

We will share more pictures in a second post on this subject in the next few days.
The woman ahead of me moving through
the enlarged tunnel, made so us
big people can get through!
The hole at the top right into the wall of the room is a tunnel entrance,
original size and I can't picture myself trying to run from falling bombs into
that tunnel, but people did it to survive.

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