The tunnels of Cu Chi – 50 years later…

I’m taking a little time out from remembering the centenary of the First World War to remember a more recent conflict – Vietnam.

On 8 January 1966 (exactly 50 years ago) Australian soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) flew in US Army helicopter to a Landing Zone known as LZ March (around 40km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City) to participate in Operation Crimp, a US-led search and destroy mission. A Viet Cong headquarters complex was in the area, which is close to the localities known as Cu Chi and the Ho Bo woods.

The Australians started arriving at around 9.30am in successive waves of helicopters and were all on the ground by around 10.00am. 1RAR’s C Company, which included my father who was commanding one of its platoons, was the last to arrive. Other Australian units were also involved; the lighthorsemen (driving armoured personnel carriers) from the Prince of Wales’ Light Horse, sappers from the 3rd Field Troop of the Royal Australian Engineers, and gunners from the 105th Field Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery.

The Australians soon discovered that they were actually on top of the Viet Cong headquarters complex, which consisted of a labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers. Over the next week or so the men of 1RAR and the 3rd Field Troop (the ‘tunnel rats’, who played the primary role) managed to explore, search, and destroy a small portion of the complex. Importantly, they were able to retrieve large quantities of documents, weapons and ammunition.

The Australians were withdrawn by helicopter to their base at Bien Hoa on 14 January 1966. The picture is of my father back at Bien Hoa.

 

bienhoa01

Operation Crimp had claimed the lives of eight Australians with a further 30 wounded.

Some of the tunnels in the area still exist and have been turned into an open-air museum by the Vietnamese authorities. It’s easily visited on a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, although it isn’t in exactly the same location as the Australians visited in Operation Crimp. It’s also difficult to assess how much dates back to the war and how much has been recreated since then. The picture below shows a tour guide emerging from a tunnel and makes an interesting comparison with this picture of a tunnel located by 1RAR in 1965.

Some good books that examine Operation Crimp include Lex McAuley’s Blue Lanyard Red Banner, Bob Breen’s First to Fight, and The Tunnel Rats by Sandy McGregor and Jimmy Thomson.