Photo: Sapper Jim Marett outside the ruins of a rubber plantation mansion in Vietnam in 1970.
This article originally appeared at the nytimes.com.
By Jim Marett.
Most of us who served as tunnel rats during the Vietnam War quickly realized that crawling through underground enemy bunkers would be the least of our worries. It’s the part of the job people want to hear about — they want to know what it was like to descend into the Vietcong’s subterranean pathways, storehouses, arsenals and barracks. But in fact, as dangerous as that work was, most of our casualties were aboveground, when we engaged in the other part of our job: finding and disarming mines and booby traps.
For the most part, the job of tunnel rat was a catchall name for the work that we did as combat engineers. We were trained at the Australian Army’s School of Military Engineering, located 20 miles west of Sydney. The three-month course covered a lot of ground: mine detection, booby trap disarming, tunnel searching and demolitions. Somehow, I had convinced myself that my job as a combat engineer was going to be more “engineer” than “combat” — that the truly dangerous stuff would be handled by real experts. I was wrong.
I arrived in Vietnam on June 11, 1969, with the rank of sapper, the Engineer Corps equivalent of a private in infantry. Our base was at Nui Dat, 70 miles southeast of Saigon. I was paired with an experienced tunnel rat, Cpl. Geoff Handley. We worked in pairs, with the more experienced “No. 1” — Geoff — passing on what he knew to me, his “No. 2.” After six months, we’d split up, and I’d become a No. 1 to an incoming No. 2.
After just four days, Geoff told me we’d be heading out into the bush for four weeks of mine clearing as part of Operation Esso, led by the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. On June 15, we were picked up by a troop of Centurion tanks already loaded up with a platoon of infantry. By the time we got to our destination we’d heard that one of the battalion’s other platoons had been decimated already, on the first day of the operation.
Many of the casualties were from mines; the area was full of them. Sgt. Rod Lees of 12 Platoon had stood on an M16 mine, also called a “Jumping Jack” because, when triggered, it would toss up an explosive to about waist level and detonate. It killed three soldiers and wounded 24 others. Although seriously wounded himself, Sergeant Lees was a lucky man, 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. Clearly, we had our work cut out for us.
Eight days later, just before midnight on June 23, a sentry detected movement just outside our perimeter. One of us opened fire, and we soon received a rocket-propelled grenade from the enemy in response. Fortunately the grenade hit a dirt mound, absorbing the explosion.
But all of this was just a distraction. The enemy was there that night to plant an anti-vehicle mine. The next morning a personnel carrier approaching our position hit that mine, flipping in the air with such force that it landed back on the crater created by the explosion. It was maybe 300 feet from our position.
Geoff and I 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.
Once we reached the vehicle we could see that the crew commander and the driver were the only ones on board, and they were both dead. The head of one of them had been crushed flat. I’d never seen a dead person before, and I still remember my shock that the human body could be so distorted and devastated.
On July 4 — 10 days later — at around 9 p.m., Geoff and I heard an explosion nearby, which Geoff recognized immediately as the sound of an M16 mine. We soon learned that the battalion’s 7 Platoon had hit the mine, and that about half of the 24-man platoon were casualties. Geoff knew that one of our fellow tunnel rats, Sapper Robert Earl, known as Yogi, was the No. 1 of the team attached to that platoon.
Thirty minutes later we soon heard another explosion, from the same direction. “The poor bastards have hit another M16 mine,” Geoff said, and at around 10 p.m. he was told we were to be taken out to the mine incident by helicopter, along with another tunnel rat, Rod Crane, plus some medics and infantry.
After we all scrambled aboard the chopper it eased off the ground in what was to be my very first chopper ride — then plopped straight down again. The pilot said the load was too heavy and that two or even three guys had to get off.
“Piss off, Jim,” Geoff said to me. “You haven’t been here long enough to see this, anyway.” Geoff and Rod, also a No. 1, could handle it.
I often look back on Geoff’s decision to toss me off the aircraft, thinking it’s very likely that he saved my life. In my naïveté and inexperience, I would have been a liability out there that night. In the darkness, amid the scene of human carnage created by the two mine explosions and with who knows how many live mines still in the area, my chances of making a mistake were high.
On arrival at the site, Geoff and Rod immediately got to work. Yogi Earl had been wounded by both mine explosions — in the shoulder by the first, then severely in the legs by the second. Despite his wounds, he continued to clear mines, helping to ensure the survival of his comrades. Out of the 24 men, three were dead and 15 wounded, 10 of them seriously enough to be evacuated to Australia.
“Yogi was just amazing,” Geoff recalled later. “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.”
Yogi was evacuated by chopper to the 36th Evacuation Hospital, at Vung Tau, and subsequently sent home to Australia. He was “mentioned in dispatches,” an honor for bravery in combat in the Australian military — which was nevertheless an appallingly inadequate recognition for the courage he showed that night.
Geoff returned the next morning, and he didn’t really discuss what had taken place out at the mine incident. It was all just treated as part of the job. It was a seemingly effective self-preservation mechanism, but one with long-term costs in the form of repressed memories.
During the final days of the operation, we heard how several other elements of the regiment and their tunnel rats had also been involved in mine incidents. Even today, Operation Esso remains infamous in Australian military history for the high casualty rate, largely from mines.
Geoff and I arrived back at our Nui Dat base camp on July 15, and we were greeted with the news that a troop barbecue would be held the following night. The first thing I noticed at the festivities was how the guys who had been in country for six months or more had a special bond. It wasn’t anything overt, but there was this underlying trust and confidence among them. They shared a sharp, seemingly cruel sense of humor, using phrases totally foreign to us new guys. We would soon learn that only hard time in this place could direct your humor 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 barbecue 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 longstanding ritual. We ate the steaks and sausages, 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.
It was all good-natured, and obviously a means of coping. I’m sure a psychiatrist could explain it in technical terms, but it was fairly obvious that the alcohol, the behavior and the special comradeship enjoyed by the “old hands” were all a means of shutting away the nasty stuff, enabling us to get on with the continuing task in the months ahead.
For me that first operation seemed to be one hell of an introduction to my tour in Vietnam, though 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.
Our tunnel rat unit was small, with at most 120 men in the country at any time, and a total of around 700 who served from 1965 to 1972. During that period 36 of us were killed and around 200 were wounded, giving us a casualty rate of 33 percent, high even by Vietnam War standards. One in three of us was either killed or wounded during our tour.
Given what we were engaged in, it’s a wonder that number wasn’t higher. I didn’t realize it then, but I survived largely unscathed thanks to the instructors and the education I received 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 we’d so recently left behind.
The last thing I remember about my time in Vietnam was the pills. When I reached the point of having only 10 days to go in my tour, I knew I was safe. The medics put me on a course of pills designed to flush out any tropical bugs and diseases lurking in my system. Despite the medication’s devastating laxative effect, troops called them “happy pills.” The ever-practical army figured it was best that I not move too far away from a decent toilet during this treatment, so I was confined to base. It was the end of ambushes and patrols beyond the wire. I would be heading home in one piece.