Members of the Corps of Engineers carried out a wide variety of tasks during the Vietnam War. Some members of the Field Regiments were required to travel with infantry patrols to give advice and to defuse mines and other explosive booby-traps.
One of the more psychologically taxing tasks (for a select few in this group) was to venture into and clear enemy cave systems and tunnels. These men were known as the 'Tunnel Rats'.
“ Imagine if you can, how it feels to launch yourself head-first down a hole in
the ground that’s scarcely wide enough for your shoulders. As the tunnel
twists and turns in the velvet darkness the sound of your own breathing
competes with the thump of your heart. You are in the enemy’s domain.
Every inch has to be checked for booby-traps so you have a bayonet [or torch]
in one hand and a pistol in the other. Your spotlight makes you a sitting target. You can’t turn around ... you become dizzy and confused as the air runs out. That is how it felt to be a Tunnel Rat! "
- Sandy MacGregor in No Need For Heroes, 1993.
Their black berets worn as dress hats,
Labelled ‘support troops’, by their peers;
Attached to infantry battalions,
Members of Corps Engineers.
Some paved an airstrip, at our base,
Or built other installations,
Such as bores, roads and steel bridges,
Cementing civil relations.
And yet some sappers were special,
Quite dangerous roles, they were tasked;
Compounded by pressure, from above,
Beyond what should have been asked.
For those who may hold any doubt,
Holsworthy displays well their toll;
Memorial carved in cold stone,
With thirty eight dead on that roll.
They’d carry packs of white ‘plastic’,
Which they planted, then wired;
Blew up VC rice caches.
With detonators they fired.
And when we ‘grunts’ would discover,
Live bombs from a B.52,
Guess who was called to light fuses,
Ensuring they safely blew?
From ‘The Horseshoe’ to Phuoc Hai,
The brigadier’s ‘brilliant’ intention,
’Twas a barrier minefield’s construction,
Yet its costs rate barely a mention.
Sappers given instructions,
To meet their commander’s dead-lines;
Forced to increase daily tallies,
Arming thousands of land mines.
Little regard for the dangers,
Such an order clearly increases,
With any lapse in concentration,
Young Diggers blown to pieces.
’Twas a ‘stuff-up’, a failure,
Regarded by most, who were there;
Yet the ‘can do’ leaders in charge,
Still justify it, or don’t care.
Sappers did more than their share,
Laying those ‘Jumping Jack’ mines,
Whilst disarming others ‘grunts’ found,
Or dismantling ‘boobies’ on vines!
And when a patrol strikes a minefield,
’Tis a gamble taken, each step;
A sapper again called to clear it,
All others placed deep in his debt.
If no detector, then a bayonet,
Crawling and probing, all around;
Carefully inserting a ‘safety’,
On any mines that were found.
And most of these, encountered,
Were our own M.16s, from ‘The Fence’;
Causing death, screaming wounded,
That project defied common sense.
Yet, the most unenviable task,
Concerned round holes in the ground;
Large enough for only one man,
Required nerves of steel to go down.
Crawling on bellies, with torches,
Pistols held pointed out front;
Times like that, I’d imagine,
Each preferred the role of the ‘grunt’.
Sweat would pour out from all pores,
Resulting not merely from heat,
As shudders would travel right down,
From their fingertips to their feet.
And each of course desperately prayed,
A large chamber would be found,
So that on their return trips,
They could have at least turned around.
Passages veered without warning,
Perhaps with embedded barbed stakes;
Containing hidden snipers on guard,
Or maybe poisonous pegged snakes.
Chancing Viet Cong and cave-ins,
Gas fumes and deadly booby-traps;
Always revered yet unenvied,
Were these tagged ...‘Tunnel Rats’.