Has it been a lifelong dream of mine to crawl through old Viet Nam war tunnels? Of course not. But.
Some of you know that umpty-ump years ago, I worked in New York City as a comic book editor. One of the books I helped Howard Zimmerman edit was a series of war comics, a revival of the classic war comics series TWO-FISTED TALES, called HARVEY KURTZMAN’S NEW TWO-FISTED TALES.
One of my favorite stories I worked on was written and drawn by a Viet Nam war vet (two tours), the gruff but amicable writer/artist Don Lomax. Don churned out a half-dozen eight-to-twelve pagers for us with lightning speed, each one a note-perfect TFT-style two-thirds-splash-page-with-twist-ending war-is-hell tale about ‘Nam.
But my favorite one was “Queen of Cu Chi,” a tale about the tunnel rats of the Vietnam war (soldiers assigned to flush out the network of underground tunnels the Viet Cong established to get around the US Army), and the dogs who were trained to support those soldiers. A heart breaker, not least of which because it had a dog in it. And you know me.
But little did I know that I’d get a chance to visit the place where the story was set. Our two days in Saigon stretched into three, and with that our chance to take a couple of tours into the outerlying areas. I saw a half-day trip to Cu Chi and the next day we were off.
The historical background you need to know is this: The Viet Minh dug tunnels in the 40s and 50s in order to hide from, escape from, and otherwise fight the French. In the 60s & 70s, the Viet Cong used them to do the same for the US.
The tunnels were narrow, dark, claustrophobic, and made it extremely difficult for the US Army to find the Viet Cong. So the Army trained soldiers, called Tunnel Rats, to fight the Cong in the tunnels. Grim stuff.
And now, for the price of a movie and popcorn, we took a boat up the Mekong delta, trekked through the jungle, and crawled around the tunnels.
N & I took a motor boat up the Mekong, to the Cu Chi area, where we hooked up with another tour group, led by an oder Vietnamese guy who as it turns out worked with the U.S. agaist his own people. He later came back to Viet Nam (or was he captured? I forget) where he underwent “rehabilitation” –for which he has no regrets–and now likely makes decent scratch as a tour guide with all the cheesy jokes a tour guide is likely to make. Mostly about how all tourists in Vietnam eat hamburgers and drink Tiger Beer. Oh, and he made the obvious “booby trap” joke, which offended my wife to no end.
So our guide led us through this jungle path, on which were a number of exhibits along the way, including:
-A below-ground sniper hole that would freak out even the slightest claustrophobe.
-A display of a variety of spike traps (hence the “booby trap” line)
-Several tableau of VN soldiers doing typical VN soldier activities, like cooking food, sharpening sticks, sawing open unexploded shells for explosives & scrap metal, etc.
-A firing range where you could shoot an AK for something like a dollar a shell.
-Oh, and there was a fantastic VN propaganda film praising the local villagers and soldiers for building the Cu Chi tunnels and killing so many American Soldiers. I’ll upload video I took of that, and photos for the above, when I can.
All with lots of jokes from our guide among all the seriousness. So the tour was not without cheese. And the thing I came there for, the tunnels themselves, was of course held until the end.
There were over 200 kilometers of tunnels in this area, and we were allowed to crawl through about 200 meters of them. There were a series of “chicken exits” every 10 meters or so, and most of the tourists bailed out early. Not me. I insisted on crawling every dirty step of the way.
Was I able to “put myself in their shoes?” Hell no. Okay, maybe a little. Those tunnels are pretty scary. Even the big slavic guy who hung on our guide’s every word and egged him on at every gory joke bailed out after the first exit.
So it was fun, if touristic in a morbid sort of way. But here’s what I realized: after working my ass off on HARVEY KURTZMAN’S THE NEW TWO FISTED TALES and having the publisher pull out after just two issues, maybe it helped me get a little closure on that whole part of my life. Whether it needed it or not.
So I’d like to dedicate this post to my old boss at Byron Preiss, Howard Zimmerman, who edited HKTNTFT and let me cut my editorial teeth on it, and my co-worker at BPVP, Steven Roman…because they were there, man. In the shit.