Tunnel rat

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SGT Ronald A. Payne moves through a tunnel in search of Viet Cong with a flashlight and M1911 pistol.

The tunnel rats were American, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers who performed underground search and destroy missions during the Vietnam War.

Later, similar teams were used by the Soviet Army during the Soviet–Afghan War and by the Israel Defense Forces in campaigns in the Middle East.

Vietnam War[edit]

Cross-sectional diagram of Vietcong tunnel system used by the communist insurgents during the Vietnam War.
Australian soldier looking into a Viet Cong tunnel discovered during Operation Crimp, Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, "tunnel rat" became an unofficial specialty for volunteer combat engineers [1] and infantrymen from Australia, New Zealand, and the United States who cleared and destroyed enemy tunnel complexes. Their motto was the tongue-in-cheek Latin phrase Non Gratus Anus Rodentum ("not worth a rat's ass").[2] In the early stages of the war against the French colonial forces, the Viet Minh created an extensive underground system of tunnels, later expanded and improved by the Viet Cong. By the 1960s, the tunnels complexes included hospitals, training areas, storage facilities, headquarters, and barracks. These diverse facilities, coupled with sophisticated ventilation systems, allowed VC guerrillas to remain hidden underground for months at a time.

SGT Ronald A. Payne entering a tunnel in search of Viet Cong with a flashlight and M1911 pistol.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. and ANZAC troops uncovered a great number of enemy tunnels while patrolling or conducting larger operations. Tunnel rats were tasked with destroying them, gathering intelligence within them, and killing or capturing their occupants--often in conditions of close combat. Typically, a tunnel rat was equipped with only a standard issue M1911 pistol or M1917 revolver,[3] a bayonet, a flashlight, and explosives.

Many tunnel rats reportedly came to dislike the intense muzzle blast of the relatively large .45 caliber round, which could often leave one temporarily deaf when fired in a confined space.[4] Consequently, some preferred to clear tunnels armed with a .38 Special revolver equipped with a sound suppressor[5] and other non-standard weapons.[6] "A few of the OSS-ordered WWII era suppressed High Standard HD .22 automatics made they way into Tunnel Rat hands. But these weapons were very few in number and wanted by a number of other special units. Personal weapons were used by the rats, ranging from .25 caliber automatics to sawed-off shotguns."[7]

A Viet Cong soldier crouches in a tunnel with an SKS rifle.

Besides enemy combatants, the tunnels themselves presented many potential dangers to tunnel rats. Sometimes they were poorly constructed and they would simply collapse on the tunnel rat. The tunnels were often booby trapped with hand grenades, anti-personal mines and punji sticks. The VC would even use venomous snakes (placed as living booby traps). Rats, spiders, scorpions and ants also posed threats to tunnel rats. Bats also roosted in the tunnels, although they were generally more of a nuisance than a threat. Tunnel construction occasionally included anti-intruder features such as U-bends that could be flooded quickly to trap and drown the tunnel rat. Sometimes poison gases were used. A tunnel rat might therefore choose to enter the tunnels wearing a gas mask (donning one within was frequently impossible in such a confined space). According to U.S. tunnel rat veterans, however, most tunnel rats usually went without gas masks because wearing one made it even harder to see, hear, and breathe in the narrow dark passages.

Tunnel rats were generally men of smaller stature (5'6" and under), who were able to maneuver more comfortably in the narrow tunnels.[8] Tom Mangold and John Penycate, authors of one of the definitive accounts of tunnel warfare in the Vietnam War, reported that U.S. tunnel rats were almost exclusively white or Hispanic soldiers, many of whom were Puerto Rican or Mexican American.[9]

Video showing Cu Chi Tunnels complex

By Mangold and Penycate's account, the contributions of tunnel rats first garnered public attention in January 1966, after a combined U.S. and Australian operation against the Củ Chi tunnels in Bình Dương Province, known as Operation Crimp. The "Diehards" of the U.S. Army's 1st Engineer Battalion, whose exploits are featured in Mangold and Penycate's book, later claimed a special place for tunnel rats in American military history during their rotation through the Cu Chi District of Vietnam in 1969. [9]


Afghanistan features an extensive series of historic tunnels used for transporting water and the "kariz." During the 1979–1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan, such tunnels were used by Mujahideen fighters. The Soviet 40th Army therefore fielded their own tunnel clearance and demolition units, which were tasked with clearing the tunnels of enemy combatants, disarming booby traps, and destroying the underground complexes.[10] According to contemporary accounts, the U.S. Marine Corps and British Royal Marines are involved in similar work in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.[11][12]


SAMOOR ("Weasel"), a formation within Israel's Yahalom elite combat engineer unit, is charged with many of the same missions that tunnel rats performed during the Vietnam War.[13]


  1. ^ "Historical Vignette 062 - How Army Engineers Cleared Viet Cong Tunnels," U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, https://www.usace.army.mil/About/History/Historical-Vignettes/Military-Construction-Combat/062-Viet-Cong-Tunnels/
  2. ^ Tom Mangold and John Penycate, The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Harrowing Account of America's Tunnel Rats in the Underground Battlefields of Vietnam" (New York: Random House, 1986).
  3. ^ http://www.historic-firearms.com/m1917-revolver.html M1917 revolver
  4. ^ http://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=2423 TUNNEL WEAPON: THE BANG IN THE DARK By Kevin Dockery.
  5. ^ http://www.sadefensejournal.com/wp/?p=2724 WEAPONS LAB: SMALL ARMS DEVELOPMENT AT USALWL 25 August, 2014
  6. ^ Jones, Jonathon. Beneath the Bamboo: A Vietnam War Story. 
  7. ^ http://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=2423 TUNNEL WEAPON: THE BANG IN THE DARK By Kevin Dockery.
  8. ^ "The Tunnel Rats of Viet Nam". Viet Nam. Digger History: an unofficial history of the Australian & New Zealand Armed Forces. 
  9. ^ a b Mangold, Tom; John Penycate (2005). The Tunnels of Cu Chi. Presidio Press. ISBN 0-89141-869-5. 
  10. ^ Grau, Lester W.; Ali Ahmad Jalali (November 1998). "Underground Combat: Stereophonic Blasting, Tunnel Rats and the Soviet-Afghan War". Engineer. [permanent dead link]
  11. ^ "Taliban using ancient well and tunnel system" Archived 2011-07-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ "Taliban Secret Weapon: Ancient Irrigation Trenches"
  13. ^ "Israel's 'tunnel rats' brace for new guerrilla war", Mar 8, 2012 Reuters


  • Mangold, Tom; John Penycate (2005). The Tunnels of Cu Chi. Presidio Press. ISBN 0-89141-869-5. 
  • Rottman, Gordon (2006). Viet Cong and NVA Tunnels and Field Fortifications of the Vietnam War. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84603-003-X. 
  • Rottman, Gordon (2012). Tunnel Rat in Vietnam. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84908-783-4. 
  • Kirchner, Paul (2009). More of the Deadliest Men Who Ever Lived. Paladin Press. ISBN 978-1-58160-690-4. 
    • Marett, Jim (February 9, 2018). "My Life as a Tunnel Rat". New York Times. 

External links[edit]