Fresh off the plane and straight into it: Learning on the job with the Australian Tunnel Rats in VietnamBy Jim Marett September 10, 2019
Most of us who served as Tunnel Rats with the Australian Army in Vietnam quickly realised our role of crawling through enemy tunnels and bunker systems would be the least of our worries. Accepting this task as a normal part of our job was a surprisingly easy transition, partly because all of the men within our small unit were doing the same thing, and partly because we soon learnt it wasn’t underground where the majority of our casualties were taking place. It was above ground where our men were losing life and limb while carrying out our other key task of finding and delousing mines and booby traps.
Our training to take on the role of Tunnel Rats was conducted at the Army’s School of Military Engineering (SME), located around 20 miles west of Sydney. The three month course covered mine detection, booby trap delousing, tunnel searching and demolitions, but despite the seriousness of the subject matter, most of us were convinced that when we got to Vietnam the army would actually have real experts there to look after all that stuff.
It turned out the experts were indeed men just like me, fresh out of SME.
For draftees like myself, the Army had us for just two years, and for those heading to Vietnam it was all a bit of a rush. Within just nine months from enlisting, you were in Vietnam, having somehow completed rookie training, corps training, plus jungle training at Canungra in Australia’s tropical north. We had only been processed through training establishments and had never served in a regular army unit until arriving in Vietnam – somewhat raw and bewildered.
Our saviour was the crucial two-man team system the Tunnel Rats had established in Vietnam, where men experienced in-country took you under their wing. The teams were known as Splinter Teams when attached to infantry, and Mini Teams when attached to tanks or APCs. The team leader, known as a ‘No.1’, passed on locally accumulated knowledge to his ‘No.2’ and shepherded him through the first five to six months until he was ready to be a ‘No.1’ himself. A proud moment, and a pay rise.
I arrived in Vietnam on 11th June 1969, joining 2 Troop, 1 Field Squadron of the Royal Australian Engineers based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province, about 70 miles south east of Saigon. My rank was Sapper, which is the Engineer Corps equivalent to a Private in the infantry.
My first ‘No.1’ was Corporal Geoff Handley who warned me out just two days into my tour that we’d be going on Operation Esso, a month long stint to be conducted by 5 RAR, an infantry battalion, at the base of the Long Hai Mountains. Geoff helped me get kitted out with packs and webbing, and issued with rations, weapons, ammunition and explosives, showing me how to pack it all properly, and what to discard as junk.
I was stunned at the open access we had to weapons, ammunition and explosives compared to in Australia where these items had all been tightly controlled. In Vietnam it was open slather, and after just a few operations out bush, each Tunnel Rat had a substantial stash of C4 plastic explosives accumulated in his tent at Nui Dat. Amazingly, we were even using C4 explosive for cooking. The rapid burn rate and intense heat of C4 made it ideal for heating up a quick snack or brewing instant coffee – literally. This easy access to explosives wasn’t without its consequences. The squadron suffered a spate of ‘phantom bombings’, with our toilet block being blown up on a regular basis. Later in my tour, in February 1970, my troop mate Mick Van Poeteren and I utilised some of my C4 stash to blow up the squadron’s ceremonial flagpole in protest at newly imposed beer rationing. If we’d been caught out we’d certainly have done time in military prison, but fortunately an extensive official investigation led nowhere. The beer rationing quickly ended but of course Mick and I couldn’t reveal ourselves as the ‘heroes’ until we were well out of the army.
Operation Esso began for Geoff and I on 15 June 1969, just four days into my 12 month tour. Early that morning we were picked up by a troop of Centurion tanks already loaded up with a platoon of infantry from 5 RAR. By the time we got to our destination we’d heard one of 5 RAR’s other Platoons had already been decimated on this first day of the operation. Sergeant Rod Lees of 12 Platoon had stood on an M16 ‘Jumping Jack’ mine, killing three soldiers and wounding 24 others. Although seriously wounded himself, Rod Lees was a lucky man, being one of perhaps only three Australians serving in Vietnam who kept both their lives and their legs after standing on a fully functioning M16 mine.
Soon after our arrival at the area of operations we were told the tanks, along with the infantry, were there to protect a team of bulldozer operators clearing the dense jungle. Each night we would return to a temporary Night Defensive Position (NDP), where bulldozers had pushed earth up into a circular bund for protection. As the land clearing progressed, we would move to new NDP sites. Geoff and I formed the Tunnel Rat team attached to this part of the operation and our role was to deal with mines, booby traps, demolitions, tunnel and bunker searching, plus serve as extra infantrymen on the patrols and on the night piquet duties guarding our NDP.
There is a popular perception of enemy tunnel systems in Vietnam being miles long and comprising multiple levels. This was certainly true of the Cu Chi tunnel complex probed into at various points by ARVN, Australian and US forces in 1965-1966, but large systems like this were rarely found again throughout the war. Mostly what we subsequently experienced were bunker systems, often with short tunnels interconnecting key bunkers or providing an escape route to a nearby creek or ravine. Tunnel Rats would search the bunkers and tunnels, pull out any enemy weapons and documents, then set them up for demolition. These systems were plentiful and it was not uncommon for two Tunnel Rats attached to an infantry company to search and blow up over 100 bunkers and tunnels in a single four to six week operation.
On Operation Esso we would head out most days on tanks to locations suitable for providing protection for the bulldozers. This usually meant ‘scrub bashing’ through the jungle, which is a far from delicate operation for a 52 tonne tank. It’s all about brute force and as the vehicle broke through, the branches, vines and associated wildlife would all come crashing down onto the body of the tank where Geoff and I were perilously perched.
We armed ourselves with spray cans of insect repellent to fend off the red ants and spiders dislodged by the home invasions. A snake dropped onto the tank as well once, sending me, Geoff and the snake into blind panic, with all three of us wondering which way to head. No doubt in today’s modern army, work practice regulations would not allow such ludicrous situations to take place, but this was 1969 and you were just expected to suck it up.
On the 19th of June, just four days into the operation, I was sitting on top of a tank watching the Long Hai Mountains being bombarded by US naval guns. The enemy had bases and camps throughout the mountains, including tunnels and deep caves they could retreat to for shelter.
The gunfire from the ships was being directed by a US forward air control (FAC) plane, a Cessna 02-A carrying a pilot and an observer. Their job was to spot the enemy positions, then assist the navy in adjusting their gunfire. By the very nature of their job the FAC crews were always in danger, flying low and slow over enemy positions. In all, 223 US forward air controllers were killed during the Vietnam War, a hugely disproportionate number when you think of how they were such a small sector of the massive overall US commitment.
Incredibly, I was about to witness the demise of one of those planes and the two brave men on board. It was a strange sight, unreal and difficult for the mind to comprehend. I was just sitting back watching the plane swoop and dive, when it appeared to stop for a second in mid-air before bursting into flames and breaking up. Delayed by the distance, the muffled sound of an explosion reached me a few seconds later. The double tail broke off and the fuselage section fell straight to the ground, with the wings separating and tumbling more slowly to earth. Soon all that was left was a huge smoke ring and a shower of fine debris fluttering down. I was gobsmacked at what I’d just witnessed, as were the tank crews around me.
An Australian Air Force Iroquois helicopter was soon hovering over the location and reporting that both the pilot and observer had been killed on impact. Several of the tanks from our position were sent to secure the crash site, joining up on arrival with an infantry platoon mounted on APCs. The bodies and weapons were recovered and a brief religious service was conducted for the aircrew by an Australian army padre who happened to be out with the APCs that day on a familiarisation ride.
The aircraft was thought to have been hit by enemy Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) fire. Those who lost their lives were the pilot, Captain James Dean Hoag, of the 19TH TAC AIR SPT SQDN, United States Air Force, and the observer, First Lieutenant George Richard Dover, of Fleet Marine Force Pacific, United States Marine Corps.
Four days after the plane incident, just before midnight on 23 June, Geoff woke me up, telling me that movement had been detected outside our NDP perimeter. As we reached the bund one of our machine gun positions opened fire after again sighting enemy movement. The barrel flash of the machine gun gave the enemy an aiming point which they used to fire an RPG rocket back at us. Fortunately the RPG hit the bund, with the earth absorbing the explosion and stopping the spread of shrapnel. The two Infantry manning the gun let loose with a barrage of classic Aussie swear words before firing back in response.
We ‘stood to’ for another hour then went on 50% alert for the rest of the night, with all of us alternating one hour on guard and one hour sleeping. At first light a clearing patrol was sent out to the area where the movement had been seen but there were no bodies, blood trails or drag marks.
We usually stayed in these night defensive positions four or five days before moving to a new position. During the days there was always regular tank and APC traffic to and from the NDP. We should have realised the enemy had been observing our traffic and the reason they were outside our perimeter that night was to plant an anti-vehicle mine. Next morning an APC approaching our position hit that mine, flipping it in the air with such force it landed back on the crater created by the explosion. It was perhaps 100 meters from our NDP and we could see clearly what had happened.
Geoff didn’t immediately react in any way so I said to him “Shouldn’t we be getting out there?” Inexperienced, I hadn’t even thought or realised what sort of scene would greet us at the APC. Geoff had been in country about nine months and had seen and done a lot in that time. “I don’t know what your rush is mate,” he said. “It’s not going to be a pretty sight out there.” We had no idea whether in addition to the two-man crew they were also carrying a section of eight to ten infantrymen.
Geoff and I were taken closer to the site by an APC then we dismounted and cleared our way to the flipped vehicle, with me using the mine detector and Geoff prodding with his bayonet. We were looking for the anti-personnel mines the enemy usually laid, aimed at the men they knew would be rushing to the aid of the casualties. All of a sudden, there I was, doing stuff I was sure only experts would do.
Because the APC was flipped we couldn’t enter the top hatch, and the back door had been buckled and jammed shut by the explosion. We had no way to reach those inside, so we cleared another safe lane, allowing an APC to come close enough to attach a tow rope to tilt the damaged APC onto its side. Once we had access we could see that the Crew commander and the driver were the only ones on board, and they were both dead. The force of the explosion had been massive to lift and flip the 13 tonne vehicle.
The head of one of the crew members had been crushed flat. I’d never seen a dead person before and the initial shock was that a human body could be so distorted and devastated.
Naturally their mates wanted to reach them and extract them from the vehicle, so Geoff and I cleared and properly marked a further safe lane. In doing this, using the mine detector I cleared a large puddle of water which had formed where part of the APC had rested on its roof while inverted.
I noticed white bubbles of material floating on the water, which I took to be plastic foam from insulation material blown from the APC. Later, back at the NDP, I noticed these bubbles were stuck on my boots and the lower legs of my pants, and when I went to brush them off I realised they were brain matter from the crew member whose head had been crushed. It seems bizarre now, but at the time it felt somehow disrespectful to just wipe them off, so I left them there till they dried and disappeared over the next few days.
The sights, the sounds, the experiences of war had begun for me, and I was beginning to learn how incredible the human mind is, and how you can handle situations and get on with the job, not only that day, but ongoing.
Killed in the mine incident were the APC Crew Commander Lance Corporal Keith Dewar, aged 21, and the driver Trooper Robert Young, aged 22, both of 2 Troop B Squadron 3rd Cavalry Regiment, Royal Australian Armoured Corps.
A few days after this incident, Geoff and I were called out to take a look at an enemy cache of weapons and explosives found by one of the Infantry patrols. We cleared the area around the cache and the entrance to it, looking for mines or booby traps. Set in a covered hole in the ground rather than a bunker or tunnel, the cache was relatively small, containing a few mortar rounds plus rifle ammunition and some old and weeping blocks of explosive material, possibly dynamite.
Geoff thought this was an ideal opportunity for some on-the-job training, and gave me the task of setting up the cache for demolition. Here I was again, doing stuff I was convinced only real experts would be doing; I was beginning to realise I might be wrong in that assumption. I gingerly gathered the various items into a pile, with Geoff constantly reminding me they were perfectly safe and needed the impact of an explosion to set them off.
I used two slabs of C4 plastic explosive for the demolition, with Geoff showing me how to wrap detonating cord around them as the ignition device for the slabs – totally different to our training in Australia. Under Geoff’s instructions I ran the detonating cord out of the hole for about 5 metres before taping a detonator close to the end of the cord. Geoff measured out a length of fuse long enough to give us time to walk to a safe distance while it burnt down to the detonator.
The infantry were told we were ready to ignite the charge and they began to move off. As the last men departed I lit the fuse and Geoff and I joined the patrol. After about five minutes we heard the cache blow up – a very satisfying sound for a young Sapper.
At around 9pm on the night of 4th July, just ten days after the APC mine incident, Geoff and I were in the NDP chatting with an APC crew when we heard an explosion nearby which Geoff recognised immediately as an M-16 ‘jumping Jack’ mine.
Within minutes 5 RAR’s 7 Platoon came up on radio to report they’d hit a mine and about half of the platoon of 24 men were casualties. This level of casualties confirmed it was indeed an M16 anti-personnel mine, the same as the 12 Platoon mine incident on the opening day of the operation. These mines leap out of the ground to explode at hip height, spreading shards of cast iron over a wide circular killing zone.
Geoff knew that our troop mate from 2 Troop, Sapper Robert ‘Yogi’ Earl was the ‘No. 1’ of the Tunnel Rat team attached to 7 Platoon, and that his ‘No. 2’ on the team was a Sapper new in country just like me. I wondered how my fellow new guy would be handling the situation.
We listened as further details came in over the radio and procedures started falling into place for dust-off of the casualties. Geoff alerted me to ensure my gear was ready in case we were called to the scene to clear safe lanes to the casualties and find any other mines at the site. While getting my gear together I remembered the sights we’d seen in the mine incident ten days earlier, and knew that this would be far worse.
We soon heard another explosion, from the same direction, and sounding like a duplicate of the first one. “The poor bastards have hit another M16 mine,” said Geoff, revealing more snippets of the obscure expertise you acquire over time in this job.
Within minutes somebody at the site of the mine incident came up on the radio; “There’s nobody left. There’s nobody left,” he said, in a voice filled with disbelief at the insanity and devastation surrounding him. “Our Holdfast is Whisky, India, Alpha and we need more Holdfast at our location,” he continued. Holdfast was the code name for the Tunnel Rats, and this message was telling us one or more of the Splinter Team with 7 Platoon had been wounded in action. Without able Tunnel Rats there to find and disarm any further mines, the platoon was dangerously exposed to even further casualties.
Geoff was soon informed we were to be taken out to the mine incident site by helicopter, along with medics plus some infantry to enhance the strength of the dramatically depleted platoon. We all gathered at the designated pick-up zone on the edge of the NDP, with the infantry lads clearly showing how anxious they were to get out there and help their mates. Among those waiting was Tunnel Rat, Rod Crane, the ‘No.1’ of another Splinter Team from 2 Troop who happened to be in the NDP that night. I was comforted that there would be more trained eyes on the ground looking for those further mines.
We could hear the chopper approaching through the night sky for some time, but couldn’t see it until its landing lights were turned on just before touch down. With the dust storm created by the rotors still swirling about us, we all clambered on board, somehow finding a place to sit or squat in the sparse space available.
The chopper eased off the ground in what was to be my very first chopper ride – then plopped straight down again. The message came back from the pilot that the load was too heavy and that two or even three guys had to get off.
“Piss off Jim,” said Geoff. “You haven’t been here long enough to see this anyway.” Geoff knew he had fellow ‘No.1’ Rod Crane with him, and that the two of them would make a strong team on the ground.
I often look back on Geoff’s decision to toss me off the aircraft, thinking it’s very likely he saved my life in doing so. In my naivety and inexperience I would have been a liability out there that night. In the darkness, amidst the scene of human carnage created by the two mine explosions, my chances of stuffing up and stepping outside a cleared area were high.
On arrival at the site, Geoff and Rod immediately got to work. Sapper Yogi Earl had been wounded by both mine explosions - in the shoulder by the first mine, then severely in the legs by the second explosion. Despite his wounds, this brave young Sapper continued to perform his duty, helping ensure the survival of his 5 RAR comrades.
Recently interviewed, Yogi recalled how he tried to keep everyone calm and still so they wouldn’t set off another mine. “It was hard, with so many of the guys hurt, and many of them just screaming in pain,” said Yogi. “I started clearing safe paths, first to the wounded, and then to a landing zone (LZ) where a chopper could land and take the casualties out. I marked the safe lanes with whatever I had at hand, using a mixture of weapons, packs, straps and other gear.
“After I’d finished clearing a safe lane to the LZ, we started moving the wounded close to the pad for when the choppers came in to take them out. Unfortunately, in this process, someone stepped outside the cleared zone and triggered another M-16 mine. This second mine wiped out almost the entire remainder of the platoon. There were only six men left unwounded. I was hit severely myself by this second mine, shredding my lower legs and leaving a hot chunk of metal sticking out of my ankle.”
“Yogi was just amazing,” recalls Geoff Handley. “Bits were hanging everywhere off his legs, and he’d lost a lot of blood – a real lot of blood. He couldn’t move, but as soon as he saw us he starts telling us which areas are cleared, which areas are unproven, and how the safe lanes were marked. This enabled us to safely direct the infantry who’d arrived with us into positions where they could effectively protect the platoon while we got on with our job.”
Geoff and Rod Crane prodded their way in with bayonets, using torches for light.
“Yogi and his ‘No. 2’ had done an amazing job clearing safe lanes to most areas,” said Rod. “But in addition to Yogi being badly wounded, by this time his ‘No. 2’ was in shock. I think he’d only been in country a few weeks, the poor bastard. We prodded our way to the wounded so they could receive medical attention, and then cleared safe lanes to those not wounded and moved them to safe ground. Adding to the stress of this situation, we had artillery dropping rounds close to us, protecting us from possible assault by the enemy we knew were at the foot of the Long Hai Mountains nearby. Eventually we had all the wounded out and proper defensive positions were established. It was about 4am by the time we’d finished.”
Geoff Handley remembers that though they’d done all they could by then, nobody could really relax. “Essentially we’d cleared a minefield in the dark under the incredibly stressful conditions of being surrounded by wounded comrades and having artillery bursting close by. We all knew the chances of there still being more mines amongst us were very high. And we were right, because in the morning another M16 mine was found in our midst. It was sheer luck none of us had stood on it during the night.”
Yogi was evacuated by chopper to the US 36th Evacuation Hospital, Vung Tau, and subsequently sent home to Australia because of his wounds. He was Mentioned in Dispatches for his role in the incident, an appallingly inadequate level of award for the bravery he showed that night.
“I didn’t feel I’d done anything special, honestly, I was just doing my job,” says Yogi.
There were 18 casualties out of the 24 man platoon, three men killed and 15 wounded, ten of them seriously enough to be evacuated to Australia.
Geoff arrived back at the NDP next morning, and didn’t really discuss what had taken place out at the mine incident. It was all just treated as part of the job, and I would come to learn this was the attitude assumed by all of us throughout our tours in Vietnam.
Nobody instructed us to avoid discussing the details of incidents and none of us consciously made a decision to not talk about them. It just evolved that way, and the various incidents and traumas you were involved in quickly slipped into the past. It was a seemingly effective self preservation mechanism, but for some it was loaded with the potential for the memories to come back and haunt them later in life.
I was again learning of the mind’s incredible capacity to deal with the things we were being confronted with – things people leading normal civilian lives thankfully never got to see or do.
The remaining nine days of the operation were a continuation of the tank trips out to the observation positions where we could protect the bulldozer teams. During these final days of Esso we began to hear that several other elements of 5 RAR and their attached 2 Troop tunnel rats had been involved in mine incidents during the operation, and Esso was being described as the worst operation of the war so far in terms of Australian casualties caused by mines.
Everyone was looking forward to getting back to the safety of the base camp and of course to hot showers and cold beers. Geoff and I arrived back at Nui Dat on 15th of July, to be greeted with the news that a Troop BBQ would be held the next night. It was a rare occasion where virtually the entire Troop was in camp at the same time – ample reason for a serious piss-up.
The first thing I noticed at the BBQ was that the guys who’d been in country for six months or more had a special bond with each other. It wasn’t anything overt, but there was this underlying trust and confidence between them. And they shared a sharp, seemingly cruel sense of humour, using phrases totally foreign to us new guys. We would soon learn that only hard time in this place could direct your humour into those dark spaces.
Like most young adults of the era I had done my share of drinking, but I’d never seen anything like the 2 Troop BBQ that night. Everyone was freshly showered and in brand new army issue pants and shirts, but within a short time, virtually every shirt had been ripped to shreds, with some guys having little more than a collar left. It was evidently a long-standing ritual. The steaks and sausages were eaten, but the crabs and the salad were ammunition in a food fight, eventually engulfing the entire troop and leaving us all splattered with crab guts, lettuce leaves and tomato remnants.
Having lost considerable weight while out on the operation, and having no alcohol for a month, our bodies were less able to cope with the rapid intake of beer. Many were soon a little unsteady on their feet and many were either singing to their hearts content or laughing till they were brought to tears. There were no fights and there was no agro. It was all good natured, and obviously a means of coping with the month that was Operation Esso and with some of the horrendous things these men had seen and done.
I’m sure a psychiatrist could explain it all in technical terms, but it was fairly obvious that the grog, the behaviour and the special comradeship enjoyed by the ‘old hands’ were all a means of shutting away the nasty stuff, enabling you to get on with the continuing task in the months ahead.
I didn’t realise it then, but when you look back on it now, you have to give high praise to the instructors and the process at the School of Military Engineering. From raw recruits they produced hundreds of men who did extraordinary things in this job – things totally foreign to the civilian lives they had so recently left behind. The process of going through SME produced Sappers like Yogi Earl - wounded twice in two mine incidents on the same night, yet continuing to perform his duty, helping ensure the survival of his comrades. I would come to learn of many more Tunnel Rats just like Yogi, who performed equally bravely in equally trying circumstances. The school produced men like Geoff Handley and his fellow ‘No.1’ team leaders who took bewildered newcomers like me and all the other new arrivals under their wing, passing on the weird and wonderful knowledge and skills of the Tunnel Rats – skills that were essential to our survival in this job.
I was beginning to witness perhaps the ultimate product of the School of Military Engineering, and something I treasure to this day – Sapper Spirit.
For me that first operation seemed to be one hell of an introduction to my tour in Vietnam, but I had no idea whether what took place was typical and no way to measure whether I’d had a rough time of it or had actually gotten off lightly. I would come to learn it was the latter, but I still look back on the Vietnam experience positively. War can be a character-building experience.
Now in our twilight years, Vietnam veterans seem more at peace than ever before in terms of how society views them and relates to them. In the early days after the war, to admit you had fought in Vietnam often brought cries of ‘shame’ and suggestions that you had been a lackey of the imperialists. The next phase was a negative image created by a bewildering array of tortured-soul veterans who blamed their wife-beating, binge-drinking or other antisocial tendencies on the war. In reality they were perhaps just bad eggs with a handy excuse for their abominable behaviour. The current phase is somewhat kinder. People now want to talk with you about the Vietnam War and it's almost fashionable to admit involvement.
Our Tunnel Rat unit was small, with at most 120 men in country at any one time and a total of around 700 who served in the role over the years from 1965 to 1972. During that time 36 of us were killed and around 200 wounded, giving us an average casualty rate of 33 percent. One in three of us was either killed or wounded during our tour. Somehow the mind coped with that, just as it coped with the string of horrendous and extraordinary sights and activities we each experienced. However, towards the end of our tours we did tend to get a little nervous. There was a creeping belief your luck was beginning to run dry and lucky charms emerged in great numbers.
When you reached the point of only having 10 days to go in country, you knew you were safe. At this stage the medics put you on a course of pills designed to flush out any tropical bugs and diseases lurking in your system. The ever-practical army figured it was best you didn't move too far away from a decent toilet during this treatment, so you were confined to base. It was the end of ambushes and patrols beyond the wire.
Despite the devastating laxative effect of these pills, they became known as ‘happy pills’ because you knew you had made it through your tour. You were heading home in one piece.