Come back with me to the year 1968, the height of the Vietnam war. We’re in the U.S. Army.
We’ve landed in Cam Ranh Bay, on the coast of South Vietnam. Some of us thought that we’d be fired on as soon as we landed by commercial flight from the States. But Cam Ranh Bay is more like a resort area. It’s a huge sprawling base with places to drink and to gamble. We can see the beautiful blue South China Sea on the horizon.
Battle weary troops come in from the field for in-country R & R — rest and relaxation. But there will be no R & R for us for a long time. We settle in for our week long stay before flying out to the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
We will face three enemies in Vietnam. The first is the North Vietnamese regular army. They wear uniforms. Then the Viet Cong, which was a guerilla army. They don’t wear uniforms. The Viet Cong have dug an extensive network of tunnels throughout South Vietnam from which they can ambush American and South Vietnamese troops.
Finally, we face our own fear of the unknown. And the Army realizes that this is the most dangerous enemy we face. To help us be prepared for our assignments in the field, they send in Sergeant Davis, Corporal Jones, and Private First Class Smith. They are “tunnel rats,” which is the name of those soldiers whose specialty is going into these tunnels to flush out the Viet Cong. It is one of the most dangerous jobs in the Army, if not the most dangerous.
Sergeant Davis teaches us about the tunnels. He and his fellow tunnel rats show us diagrams and photos of the tunnels. We learn that the Viet Cong can eat, sleep, and live in these tunnels — and be ready to ambush us when we least expect it.
By this time we feel pretty confident that we now know about the dangers and realities of the tunnels. I felt as if I had a good grasp and understanding of them. Yet Sergeant Davis and his colleagues weren’t done with us.
“OK troops, line up single file and follow me,” commanded Davis, “Corporal Jones, take up a position in the middle, and Private First Class Smith, at the end.”
There were about a hundred and fifty of us. We marched double time and single file behind Davis.
He brought us over to the side of a hill and stopped. Bending down, he grabbed a dried up looking bush, lifting it away from an opening in the ground which was no bigger than a manhole cover.
I was in the middle of the line but could see the opening looming ahead. “Dear God, don’t make me go in that hole,” I thought to myself.
But Sergeant Davis had other ideas.
“This is a former Viet Cong tunnel,” said Davis. “But don’t worry. There are no Viet Cong in this tunnel. It’s secure. Now I want you to get back in single file and follow me into this tunnel. Corporal Jones will keep his position, and Private First Class Smith will take up the rear. Let’s go!”
Davis stepped into the hole. The line moved forward one-by-one. Finally, my turn came. I watched the man in front of me go in. Then I stepped down into the tunnel. Another person came immediately behind me. I couldn’t stand up straight but could walk with my head and shoulders bent forward. Not too bad, I thought, I can do this.
Up ahead I heard people cursing as they bumped their heads on the roof of the tunnel. It was getting too low to stand anymore. Now we began to crouch down. Couldn’t see anything. There was total darkness except for the occasional flicker of a flashlight.
The tunnel got even tighter as the roof became lower. Now I had to get on my hands and knees. Dirt trickled down my neck mixing with sweat. I kept close to the boots in front of me, and the guy behind me kept bumping into my ass.
Claustrophobia kicked in. I had always been fearful of being in tight spaces. As we snaked our way through the tunnel, I was acutely aware of all the people in front of me. But what terrified me the most were the seventy-five or more people behind me. There was no way out except to keep going.
On we crawled. Another thing that scared the hell out of me was that we were going down deeper into this hellhole. I was breathing heavy, feeling that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. The smell of fear and sweat permeated the air.
Sound was muffled down here. Heard occasional curses and “keep moving for Christ sake” from someone a few bodies behind me. I hoped that none of us would panic. There was no room for it. We’d get crushed. Just had to keep going as the line moved forward.
Forward movement stopped. The guy behind me bumped into me for the umpteenth time. “Why’d you stop,” he hissed at me. “The whole line is stopped,” I said. “Can’t go anywhere until it moves.”
Whatever the holdup was, apparently it was over, because we began moving again. I immediately found the cause of the delay. There was a much tighter opening where I had to crawl on my belly. I felt like I was going to be buried alive. But, I kept crawling. The space widened again and we could crawl on our hands and knees.
Up ahead I saw light. Yes!!! It was sunlight! Our pace picked up considerably. Now we could almost stand up again. One by one we escaped the horror of that tunnel. Many of those already outside were lighting up cigarettes. Others, like me, were simply sinking down on the side of a hill facing the sea. Sun, sea, and solid ground never looked so beautiful.
Finally, everyone was out of the tunnel. Sergeant Davis let us take our break, before leading us back to our debriefing area.
I gained three things from this experience.
Number one: I learned about tunnels. Before, I had an intellectual understanding. Now I had gut level knowledge.
Number two: I gained a grudging respect for the enemy we were facing.
And, number three: I learned that I never, ever wanted to be a tunnel rat!
Years later I gained another insight. There are times in our lives when we are in the middle of a stressful, difficult, and frightening situation. And, as with a dark tunnel, the only way to get through it is to keep moving. You keep going until you eventually reach the light.