From the book “The Tunnels of Cu Chi” by Mangold and Penycate, a quote by highly decorated Army officer Jack Flowers, commander of ‘Rat Six’, the crack Tunnel Rat unit of the 1st Infantry Division. Jack Flowers personally survived 97 tunnel explorations.
“I’m glad our story is finally being told,” he said. “Why did we do it? I wasn’t a tough guy. Nobody who knows me would ever suspect I could do what the Tunnel Rats did. I’d never want a son of mine to have to do it.”
In the movie “Forrest Gump,” the main character played by Tom Hanks, armed with an Army .45 automatic and flashlight, wiggled his way into a narrow tunnel in search of the VC (Viet Cong). Sergeant Elias Gordin, played by Willem Dafoe in the movie “Platoon,” also armed with a .45 automatic and flashlight, depicted the same tactic as practiced by the legendary Tunnel Rats in Vietnam.
The Viet Cong started digging tunnel complexes in the 1940s during the war against French colonial forces. By the time American boots hit the ground in the 60s, the V.C.’s extensive underground networks were big enough to accommodate storage facilities, training areas, headquarters units, hospitals, and much more. Some V.C., like warring moles, stayed underground for months.
Exploring this dangerous environment was the duty of the Tunnel Rats, usually soldiers of small stature (5’6” and under) in order to squeeze through the narrow passageways. The Tunnel Rat’s Latin motto “Non Gratum Anus Rodentum” — “not worth a rat’s ass” — accurately depicts one of the most treacherous jobs in Vietnam. Running into an enemy soldier was not the only hazard faced by the Tunnel Rats. In the dank cavities below jungle ground, our soldiers stumbled into booby traps, venomous snakes, spiders, rats (the four-legged type), ants, scorpions, bats, even poison gas. The names of numerous Tunnel Rats are etched in granite on a long black wall in Washington, DC.
A former Tunnel Rat, A. J. Perrone, penned a salute to all the names on the “Traveling Wall.” Perrone’s heartfelt tribute was recited at a recent event at the Walk of Heroes War Memorial in Rockdale County. A man who survived the tunnels of Vietnam can only write as one who looked death in the eye and lived to tell the story. These are his words.
“Once again we are gathered at this wall as we have been for several years to offer our respect and prayers for those whose names are written upon it. Many see this wall as a “thing” made by someone to be brought out each year, displayed, and then put away in some dusty place to wait until the next time it is put on display.”
“This wall is, in fact, a man-made object, but it is not just a thing. It is much, much more. This wall represents the very hearts and souls and spirits of those who are named upon it.”
“In reality, this wall is not complete. It should bear the names of the many gallant men and women who died long after the war’s end. They died from physical and spiritual wounds suffered in combat. Thousands died by their own hands because they were unable to bear the despair they felt after the war’s end. Thousands perished from the long-term effects of wounds sustained on the battlefield or from cancers eating at them which came from the use of Agent Orange. Thousands more are still dying as we speak. Therefore, this wall is more than the sum of its parts, because some of its parts are still missing.”
“This wall is the guiding light for all to see and to be touched by. The names on this wall represent the combined spirits of each and every one of them, and this wall carries with it the messages for all who look upon it. The messages are from the spirits of those courageous souls, and if we could hear them speak, this is what I think they would say:
“To our mothers we say: Please do not weep for us, for we are in a place of peace, love, light, and contentment. We did not want to bring sadness to your heart, but we saw a duty to God and Country that we could not turn away from. We will always be young in your mind and in your hearts. Try to gather strength from the knowledge that we will one day be together again and we will wipe away your tears, as you did ours when we were your little children.”
“To our fathers we say: We are looking down upon you, and through our love we can see in your eyes the pride and respect that every child hopes to see in the face of a father. But we see tears as well, and we know the love that flows with them. We too will be together again one day, and we will talk of all those father and child things we didn’t have enough time for.”
“To our sons we say: We are so sorry that we were not there to stand by you during hard times. But we loved you so much that we did what we felt we had to do, in the hope that you would have a life in which you would not need to have someone watch your back. One day when you have children, you can tell them of how much we loved you, and that we gave our all for that love. Then you will understand our need to protect you.”
“To our daughters we say: We are sorry that we never got the chance to scare away your first young man, or to see your first dance, or to walk you down the aisle in holy matrimony. But if you look in the mirror and look into the faces of your children someday, you will be looking at the reasons why we felt we had to do what we did. We are waiting for that distant day when we can hold and comfort our little girls once again.”
“To our wives and husbands we say: We love you, we have always loved you, and we shall love you for eternity. We know yours tears flowed and burned a path to your souls, but we had to do what we thought would keep you from ever having to say goodbye to our children, the way you had to say goodbye to us. There is a place waiting for you here and it is a beautiful place, free of pain and sorrow. If you have found a new love, we rejoice for you, for we love you so much that our greatest joy is knowing that you have found happiness again. Remember us, but the time to mourn is over.”
“To our brothers and sisters in uniform placed in Harm’s Way (past or present) we say: We are here, waiting for you. We wait to welcome you home. Do not feel ashamed because you survived and we did not. We are eternally young warriors and we did not have to suffer the ravages of old age and the pains of old wounds. Your bodies may be scarred and failing, but we have a special place prepared for you. It is a wonderful place of peace and tranquility where we will gather by the fire and tell each other the kinds of tales that only soldiers can tell and understand. Just as we are wrapped in the cloak of our creator, you too shall feel the warmth that is your just reward. Your final muster will be glorious.”
“Most importantly, to our country we say: We have loved you, we have honored you, we have protected you and we have given our all to ensure you will remain free. We would do it all again if called upon and we would feel privileged to do so. We know that after we left this world you honored us one way or another. Although we appreciate statues and walls and special ceremonies, there is something else we would rather have you do for us to truly honor us. Keep the faith with those who still live. Respect those young soldiers who have taken our place. Honor them and love them as they loved you, and never turn your back on them by protesting against them while they are engaged in war for you.”
“To our creator we say: Thank you. Now that we are in your presence we understand the purity of the love you have for us and for all of our children. We also feel the special love you have for your fallen warriors. You gave us the opportunity to offer the greatest love a human can give, being allowed to lay down our lives for the lives of others. We thank you for that blessing.”
“The spirits of this wall have now been heard, and they wish you only peace. They also know an undeniable truth: Life holds many rewards for those who fought for freedom that the protected shall never know.”
The Spirits of the Healing Wall” by A.J. Perrone, US Army Tunnel Rat in South Vietnam. Dedicated to everyone ever touched by Vietnam.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.