The Tunnel Rats

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #History
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The Tunnel Rats

November 5th, 2019

5 minute read

The U.S. Military deployed to Vietnam with the M1911 .45 caliber pistol on its hip, the same handgun they had gone to war with since its combat debut in 1914. The rugged pistol soldiered on, sturdy and reliable as ever. American troops loved them, and why wouldn’t they? The M1911 gave a man a sense of confidence. As my dear old Dad used to say: “Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.” Many GIs believed that big .45 ACP pistol was worth the extra weight.

The tunnel rats were American, Australian, New Zealander, and South Vietnamese soldiers who performed underground search and destroy missions during the Vietnam War. A tunnel is an underground or undersea passageway. It is dug through surrounding soil, earth or rock, or laid under water, and is enclosed except for the portals, commonly at each end. Search and destroy is a military strategy which consists of inserting infantry forces into hostile territory and directing them to search and then attack enemy targets before immediately withdrawing.
Going underground with the 25th Infantry Division during Operation Atlanta in the “Iron Triangle” area, December 1967. Images: US National Archives

Officers and crew-served weapons’ crews often carried them. MPs, helicopter crews and grenadiers, too. For almost every American soldier who carried one in Vietnam, the pistol represented a “back-up” weapon. But not the “tunnel rats,” America’s subterranean warriors that would head underground in the jungles of Vietnam. They used their pistol as a primary weapon. No other firearm would be effective in their battleground below ground due to cramped spaces. The M1911 was the one pistol ready for action.

The Vietnam War was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. It was the second of the Indochina Wars and was a major conflict of the Cold War. South Vietnam unsuccessfully resisted the communist invasion with the support of the United States of America. South Vietnam, officially the Republic of Vietnam was a country in Southeast Asia that existed from 1955 to 1975, the period when the southern portion of Vietnam was a member of the Western Bloc during part of the Cold War after the 1954 division of Vietnam.
Men of the 8th Infantry begin the dangerous process of searching a Viet Cong bunker near Mi Duc, August 1967.

Underground Nightmares

During their war against the French in the early 1950s, the Viet Minh guerrillas had constructed a network of hidden bunkers and tunnel systems. In the early 1960s, the next generation of communist guerrillas (this time the Viet Cong) improved these tunnels, eventually expanding them to include underground storehouses, barracks, manufacturing facilities and even hospitals. The Viet Cong were determined tunnellers, and it proved to be their best defense against American firepower and air superiority.

Operation Quyet Thang, was a United States Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam security operation to reestablish South Vietnamese control over the areas immediately around Saigon in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive was a major escalationT and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People's Army of Vietnam launched a surprise attack on January 30, 1968, against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces and their allies.
A squad leader of the 25th Infantry Division in a VC tunnel.

An old friend of mine served two tours in Vietnam, and he commented: “Give me a regiment of VC armed with shovels, and we will tunnel out all of Southeast Asia.” For the American troops tasked with taking the fight to the enemy in Vietnam, part of the job was to chase him into the subterranean warrens where he often dwelled.

The VC tunnel systems may have appeared to be nothing but a hole in the ground, but in truth they were quite sophisticated. Most had several levels, with each level accessed via a watertight trap door that protected the entirety of the tunnel system against flooding with water or gas. The complex maze of passages was a defense system unto itself. Just one of the dangerous risks of the tunnel rat’s job was becoming lost underground.

Operation Crimp, also known as the Battle of the Ho Bo Woods, was a joint US-Australian military operation during the Vietnam War, which took place 20 kilometres north of Cu Chi in Binh Duong Province, South Vietnam. 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment is a regular motorised infantry battalion of the Australian Army. 1 RAR was first formed as the 65th Australian Infantry Battalion of the 34th Brigade on Balikpapan in 1945 and since then has been deployed on active service during the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Vietnam War, Unified Task Force in Somalia, East Timor, Iraq War and Afghanistan.
A GI of the 25th Infantry Division emerges from a VC tunnel, October 1967.

Apart from the VC troops themselves, the tunnels were full of hazards: mines, trip wires, punji stakes and booby traps of all kinds (including poisonous snakes). Even the natural hazards beneath the Vietnamese topsoil, like spiders and fire ants, were enough to make a man’s skin crawl. It was a multiple-threat environment in Vietnam, even underground. The tunnel rats had a nickname for the dark, tight confines of the tunnels:  the “Black Echo.”

The Iron Triangle was a 120 square miles area in the Bình Dương Province of Vietnam, so named due to it being a stronghold of Viet Minh activity during the war. There was a large tunnel network that had to be cleared out by the 173rd Airborne Brigade commanded by Maj. Ellis W. Williamson. Ellis W. Williamson was a United States Army Major General who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He led the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the first US Army unit to deploy to South Vietnam and later commanded the 25th Infantry Division there.
Entrance of a large tunnel complex near Phu Hoa Dong, January 1967.

Taking the Fight to Them

When the M1911 pistol was designed, it is unlikely that it was ever envisioned to be used in a dark, damp tunnel, not much wider than a man’s shoulders. But even in those unexpected parameters, the M1911 was very successful. Despite the muzzle blast and intense flash in the dark, the man-stopping power of the .45 ACP round was unchallenged. One shot was enough to end the argument.

In military terminology a landing zone is an area where aircraft can land. In the United States military, a landing zone is the actual point where aircraft, especially helicopters, land. This was a point of contact with many enemy engagements like those at Củ Chi tunnels.
Many tunnels were pumped full of gas and some tunnel rats chose to wear a gas mask despite the fact it inhibited their vision.

A few silenced pistols made their way to Vietnam and some of them were used by the tunnel rats. Some civilian handguns worked their way into the mix, but for most of the tunnel rats the big .45 was the handgun they had to do the job. Ultimately, shooting underground was a last resort.

Shown here is a Viet Cong booby trap. A booby trap is a device or setup that is intended to kill, harm or surprise a human or another animal. It is triggered by the presence or actions of the victim and sometimes has some form of bait designed to lure the victim towards it. Traps like this are a form of low technology military weaponry.
A portal to Hell. The camouflaged entrance to a VC bunker exposed.

Staying in the Light

Do you want to own a pistol like these guys carried, but without having to go down into one of those nightmare tunnels? Then check out the Springfield Armory 1911 Mil-Spec .45 ACP. This pistol, part of a limited-time offering and priced at an MSRP of $549, gives you a pistol that offers the best of the classic 1911A1 pistol, but with some modern tweaks and upgrades.

In this photo is a Springfield Armory M1911 Mil Spec .45 ACP pistol. 	The original Colt M1911 is a single-action, recoil-operated, semi-automatic pistol chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge. The pistol's formal U.S. military designation as of 1940 was Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911 for the original model adopted in March 1911, and Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, M1911A1 for the improved M1911A1 model which entered service in 1926. They were used extensively by the Tunnel Rats in the Vietnam War.
The 1911 Mil-Spec .45 offers modern shooters a chance to own a reasonably priced pistol inspired by the classic M1911 military pistol. Image: Springfield Armory

To ensure a long life of shooting, this 1911 features a carbon steel frame and slide, both forged (rather than cast) for extreme strength. While the overall design of the pistol hearkens back to the 1911A1 — from its spur hammer to its arched mainspring housing and short trigger — it has modern upgrades like a stainless steel match grade 5″ barrel, lowered and flared ejection port, and three-dot sights. An attractive Parkerized finish and a 7-round magazine rounds out the package.


The 1911 has easily proven its mettle in its more than 100 years of service. From the trenches of the World War I to the beaches of World War II to the tunnels of Vietnam to the War on Terror of today, in the moment of truth — above ground or below — the M1911 has always been there to serve. 

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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