The life of a Tunnel Rat in the Vietnam War

MORNING AFTER: Vic Underwood (centre) with sappers Murray Walker (left) and two US Army Field Artillerymen in the flak jackets. The photo was taken the morning after the first assault on Fire Support Base Andersen. The burnt out truck in the background was hit by a mortar. Photo: Sapper Peter Macdonald

MORNING AFTER: Vic Underwood (centre) with sappers Murray Walker (left) and two US Army Field Artillerymen in the flak jackets. The photo was taken the morning after the first assault on Fire Support Base Andersen. The burnt out truck in the background was hit by a mortar. Photo: Sapper Peter Macdonald

One of the Australian motifs around the nation’s involvement in world conflicts is the true-blue Aussie bush boy, who leaves his small town behind to serve his country. Vic Underwood is the perfect example of that, and he has all of the Anzac traits that are so often mentioned in the media - good humoured, humble, brave, with a “get-it-done” attitude. The Leader spoke to Mr Underwood in the build up to the 2017 Anzac Day celebrations.

A tunnel in the middle of the jungle has been found – you don’t know if enemy soldiers are in there, but you do know it’s booby trapped and it’s your job to go down there and blow it up.

That was the life of a Tunnel Rat in the Vietnam War.

Vic Underwood, born in Inverell and now living in Moonbi, was just 21 when he served with the elite group, who dealt with “mines, booby traps and tunnels”.

“When they found tunnels we got flown out to search them, then we blew them up,” Mr Underwood said.

“If anyone got stuck in mine fields or pulled a bloody boob trap on themselves, we would get them out.

“It’s pretty scary – somebody's over there screaming and carrying on, and you’ve got to get them out of the mine field and you know you can’t do it quick.”

The guerrilla force in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, had an extensive network of tunnels that had been built over 25 years during the country’s resistance against its French colonists.

LUCKY: The return home was tough for all Vietnam veterans. Vic Underwood said he was luckier than most, because he's got a "pretty bloody good wife".

LUCKY: The return home was tough for all Vietnam veterans. Vic Underwood said he was luckier than most, because he's got a "pretty bloody good wife".

Armed with just a pistol, knife and a flash light, the Tunnel Rats would search the tunnel for enemies and intelligence, before destroying it.

“A lot of time they’d have a bit of an idea [we were coming], so they’d be gone, but they would leave them booby trap,” Mr Underwood said.

“Sometime they’d try to defend them, but once you got in there, they’d get going, which suited us.”

“It was a nerve-wracking job. Often you didn’t have terribly good lighting, because you would be an open target in the dark narrow tunnel.”

The booby traps ranged from hand grenades on trip wires to the more bizarre.

“They’d even be things like tendered snakes – they’d put a snake in there, tie him up and he’ll be nice and cranky when you’re sneaking along in the dark,” Mr Underwood said with a wry smile.

“Or even scorpions set up to fall from the roof that would bite like buggery.

“You’d strike the odd bat. We use to say the more bats we saw the less people we were likely to see.”

Vic Underwood tells the tale of mortar blowing up at his feet - then getting up and making a joke about it

The “bush-a-fied” country boy’s 12-month deployment started in November 1967 – smack bang in the middle of the Tet Offensive, which is when the war changed from skirmishes and guerrilla warfare to some of the biggest battles seen since WWII.

Mr Underwood was involved in some of the most intense fighting seen by Australian soldiers during the, at the Battle of Fire Support Base Andersen, where they repeated repealed attacks over three consecutive nights.

“That was three days with out much sleep, but you lived on adrenaline,” he said.

“The [enemy] numbers, they thought were 300 to 500, but ended up being 3500.”

Even in the midst of the fierce battle, Mr Underwood’s dry humour still shone through. He and fellow Sapper Norm Cairns heard the pop of mortars being fired. Just as they were about to investigate where they were being fired from, the field telephone rang. Mr Underwood picked it up and carried on.

“We crawled over the sandbag barricade, and the mortar come in and land right there [pointing at his feet],” he said.

The explosion blew the pair backwards, but luckily the sandbag had absorbed all the shrapnel and they were miraculously alive.

“I still had the phone in my hand and the officer said ‘I think we are being mortared’,” he laughed.

“I told him in no uncertain terms we actually were being mortared. I said ‘I can tell you with absolute f****** certainty we are being mortared, sir’. We got into a bit of trouble over that. Apparently there is protocol over the phone even if you’re dying.”

And despite the horrors of war, it was the return to Australia that was the toughest battle for many Vietnam veterans.

“It was very difficult in a lot of ways because you couldn’t talk to anybody and nobody wanted to know,” Mr Underwood said.

“The welcome home parade they put on was pretty much a farce. About four weeks later they welcomed the cricketers home [from England]. They spent about three times as much on their welcome home parade.”

While he looks forward to Anzac Day, that wasn’t always the case – his first march wasn’t until 25 years later.

“It's not a big war session or anything like that, it's just people having a few drinks, having a yarn. Vietnam very seldom comes up.” 

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