Who were these men?
Amazingly, these tunnel rat soldiers were volunteers. Why they volunteered varied person to person, but one American soldier speculated volunteers were trying “sometimes to make up for problematic lives back home or to prove their manhood in truly testing conditions.” The same soldier noted that once rats conquered their fear, “assuming they survived, some even came to like their workâ¦ for the rats, the light at the end of the tunnel was usually a VC with a candle.’
In general, volunteers had to have common sense, be exceptionally brave, have an inquisitive mind, and have an even temperament. After all, it was a very stressful and dangerous job. A lot of the time, other soldiers thought these volunteers also had to be a certain type of crazy. In one interview, tunnel rat soldier CW Bowman recalled how his fellow colleagues bet money on the fact he would not live through his whole tour as the job was so dangerous. However, Bowman said that he was never that scared of the tunnels; he was so young he believed he was invincible.
In most cases, tunnel rats were engineers, infantrymen, cavalry scouts, or chemical specialists. They carried out tunnel rat duties as and when they needed in addition to any other duties they performed. A lot of the time it really depended on the size of the soldiers in the infantry division. Of course, the local Vietnamese population designed the tunnels with their own size in mind. Consequently, given the average smaller size of Vietnamese men, tunnel rat soldiers, by necessity, were the shortest, skinniest, and most limber men in the army: a maximum height of 1.58 meters.
Men most often explored these tunnels in pairs. One soldier would crawl about five meters behind the other to minimise the chance of death or injury if their leader activated a trap or a mine. This also allowed soldiers to help find and collect any wounded or dead comrades. The enemy used this to their advantage. In a 1977 interview with the Associated Press, a Vietcong survivor recalled how the Americans wasted so much time pulling their dead back that it gave them time to re-group and prepare accordingly.