So said Winston Churchill and of course it is true.
Yesterday Jan 21st 46 years ago the Viet Cong began a series of attacks close to the Cambodia border having travelled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. The idea was to draw the American troops out of the cities to handle them. It was the start of the Tet offence that changed the way the U.S. public viewed the war and bought about it’s conclusion several years later.
For some time the American army had been telling the public at home and their own troops that the Viet Cong had taken such a beating they were no longer able to mount a large attack. General Westmoreland was fighting to a simple tactic . If he could kill more Viet Cong than they were able to recruit and train then he would win the war. The only two unknowns he had unfortunately were that he had little idea how many Viet Cong were being recruited nor how many were actually already in their Army.
The Tet offensive was yet again a massive defeat for the Viet Cong but the idea that they could put over 80,000 troops in the field and attack most major towns including seizing the consulate building in the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with ease put paid to the story the war was being won.
The U.S. public started to really believe they were in an unwinnable war and so too did many of the troops.
To mark the date I took a trip some 85 kms out of Saigon to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and see how the Viet Cong moved around areas underground .
The tunnels were started in the 1940’s by farmers wanting to store their crops but were first used militarily during the independence war against the French after the French retook Vietnam at the end of WWII .
The Viet Cong then really developed the tunnel system in the area and at their peak there were some 200 kms of tunnels on three depth levels.
On arrival you are led down into a large bunker and then sit through a film of the victors history of the war on a large screen. Afterwards a guy with one of those 5 foot long pointers that you see in WWII movies when the chap in charge says “gather around gentlemen ” and the points out on a large chart the objectives, did the same thing showing where the tunnels were and where the American troops were and how they were continually out fought and thought.
Then we started the tour. First the bobby traps built to maim but not kill the U.S. troops so demoralising them.
Covered with leaves and twigs these did terrible damage to feet and legs.
The tunnels were incredibly small and today most Vietnamese wouldn’t be able to fit into them and move around the way their fathers, mothers and grandparents did . This is a typical entrance
My guide’s shoe almost covers the door .
The area was chosen because the soil is mainly clay giving the walls and more importantly the ceiling strength . By building three levels they were able to bobby trap tunnels and offer up dead end tunnels . The two lower levels could withstand heavy bombing and shelling as well as drain off monsoon rains into the Saigon River . There were cookhouses, dormitories, command rooms and weapon store rooms all underground and connected by tunnels. All very Great Eascape.
I crawled through 25 metres of tunnel almost on all fours just to see what it was like
That is my small Vietnamese guide in front just standing up to go up a tunnel to the next level. It was tight even though these had been expanded for westerners and a little claustrophobic in the darkened areas.
But I passed the test and was taken for a slap up meal of ……….roots
The root is in fact something most of us had at primary school for lunch and hated with a vengeance. Tapioca pudding . Here they just peel it and cut it into pieces and dip in peanut sauce. Quite nice really with a cup of tea.
Why didn’t my dinner lady do that .