War Within, War Beneath—Part 1

posted Jan 26, 2021, 11:58 AM by Bruce Rowe

During the Vietnam War, “tunnel rat” became an unofficial specialty for volunteer combat engineers and infantrymen who went into enemy tunnel complexes. These underground structures included hospitals, training areas, storage facilities, headquarters, and barracks. These diverse facilities allowed Viet Cong guerillas to remain hidden underground for months at a time.

Besides enemy combatants, the tunnels themselves presented many potential dangers to tunnel rats. Sometimes they were poorly constructed and would simply collapse. Tunnels were often booby-trapped with hand grenades, antipersonnel mines, punji sticks, and poison gas. The Viet Cong would also use rats, venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions.

During the First Indochina War against French colonial forces, the Viet Minh constructed an extensive system of underground tunnels, which were later expanded by the Viet Cong. There were two types of tunnels.

The expedient tunnel was simple in construction and ranged in size from twenty to several hundred feet long. They had carefully camouflaged entrances to facilitate evasion and escape.

The name for the second type, complex tunnels, was misleading. They were actually elaborate underground structures which housed hospitals, sleeping quarters, training areas, and arms depots. Sophisticated ventilation systems allowed soldiers to stay underground for sustained periods of time. One example of a complex tunnel was Cu Chi. Located 20 miles north of Saigon, it housed thousands of troops, had four levels, and stretched all the way to the Cambodian border.

The tunnel rats’ basic mission consisted of one or all of the following: destroy the underground structures, gather intelligence within them, and kill or capture the enemy, often in conditions of close combat. Typically, a tunnel rat was equipped with only a standard issue M1911 pistol, bayonet, a flashlight, and explosives. Most of these underground warriors disliked the intense muzzle blast of the large .45 caliber round because its sound could cause temporary deafness when fired in a confined space. Some chose a .22, .25 or .38 caliber pistol instead.

A legend among the tunnel rat culture was Sergeant Mason Flynn of the United States Marine Corps. His weapons of choice were a .38 caliber pistol with a sound suppressor, sawed off 12-gauge pump shotgun and a Ka-bar combat knife. To protect himself from insects, Flynn would rub a mixture of axel grease and bug repellent over his face and neck before entering a tunnel.

Most tunnel rats were small in stature, standing 5 foot, 6 inches or less. Sergeant Flynn was five-foot-eight and he was able to move through confined spaces that others couldn’t, because he was double jointed. He was diagnosed with hypermobility when he was a young boy and the condition permitted him to bend and contort his body in a variety of ways. The collagen abnormalities that made his joints extremely flexible also brought Mason to the verge of a fight-or-flight reaction in a split second. In this particular Marine’s case, he always chose to fight.

Flynn learned to control his fear and he made it another weapon in his arsenal. He took each movement with infinite care, even when his adrenalin was pumping like a raging river. Once inside the tunnel, Flynn could hear his heart beating in the deadly stillness and after a while he learned to slow it down. As he crawled, his keen sense of smell would alert him to the presence of another human in the tunnel, often waiting to kill him.

Because of his unique skills, command left him alone when he was in the rear area. He was assigned his own hooch and was often called when a unit found a tunnel entrance. He was invaluable to the 1st Marine Division because there were never more than 100 tunnel rats in South Vietnam at any one time. Not many volunteered for the hazardous duty and they were not easily replaced.

*  *  *

Sergeant Flynn had just spent three days and nights in a tunnel complex. He killed fourteen enemy soldiers and blew up the structure. When he exited through the escape hole, he had to put on a pair of sunglasses because his eyes were so sensitive to the light. There was hardly a time that Flynn didn’t sustain some type of injury while underground. Most tunnel rats were happy to finish one tour, then get the hell out of ‘Nam. Flynn was approaching the end of his second tour and already had seven Purple Hearts.

He had just returned from China Beach. He liked to go and sit in the salt water of the South China Sea. It helped heal his wounds and take the itch out of the numerous bugbites he received from being underground for hours or days at a time. He was crashed out on his rack in the middle of the day when the newly arrived company commander, Captain Phillip Warner, came walking by and saw him sprawled out. The officer’s initial reaction was that he had caught a gold-bricking leatherneck.

Captain Warner stormed into the hooch and stood next to Flynn’s cot, “What’s your name, Marine?”

Flynn rolled over, looked up and mumbled, “Who the hell are you?”

“Stand up when you’re talking to me! What unit are you with?”

When Flynn didn’t answer, Captain Warner angrily kicked a wooden leg of the cot with his boot. Sergeant Flynn was up in an instant. He grabbed the officer by his shirt, threw him out the door, and went back to sleep.

Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Clark Whittington looked up from his desk, “The 1st Sergeant informed me that you want to file assault charges against a Marine. Is that correct?”

Captain Warner responded quickly, “Yes sir. He threw me out of his hooch. He wouldn’t tell me his name, but I found out it was Sergeant Mason Flynn. That’s who I want to file charges against.”

Colonel Whittington laughed, “I heard you landed face first in the dirt. I would have liked to have seen that. I’m surprised you got off that easily. What did you do to provoke him?”

“He was sleeping in the middle of the day. I told him to stand up when he was talking to me and then kicked his cot when he didn’t.”

“Let it go, Captain, consider yourself lucky that Flynn didn’t do more.”

“I can’t expect to lead my men if a non-com can do this to me and not suffer any punishment. It’s bad for discipline. You should know that sir.”

“You would have a valid point if it was anybody else but Sergeant Flynn.”

“What’s so different about him?”

“You’ve been in country about 5 months, right?”

“Six, sir.”

Whittington looked down at a file, “Came over from supply, huh?”

“Logistics, sir.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to do you a favor, I’m going to give you two weeks to familiarize yourself with your command. In that time frame, ask about Sergeant Flynn. If you still want to file charges, come see me.”

Warner started to speak, but Whittington stopped him, “This conversation is over. A little advice, Captain . . . don’t over-estimate your own importance. Don’t let your arrogance get in the way of your common sense. Now get out before I throw you out too!”

Two days later, Flynn was sitting outside his hooch, his feet were resting on an ammo box, with a cooler of ice and beer next to him. A large tarp stretched over four tall wooden poles, providing shade from the Asian sun. Flynn wore shorts, a t-shirt, and sunglasses.

Captain Warner couldn’t resist the temptation to confront Flynn again. “Who the hell do you think you are! What do you think this is, a resort?”

Flynn looked up and remarked, “Step aside, you’re blocking the breeze.”

“I told you once before to stand up in the presence of an officer. I won’t tell you again.”

“I thought you looked familiar. You came into my hooch the other day. You got a thing for standing up, don’t you? This is ‘Nam, there’s enough ways to get killed around here without getting bent out of shape over B.S. No hard feelings. Have a beer and lighten up.”

Warner was outraged. “I went to the Battalion Commander to file charges against you and he suggested that I wait. He thinks I’ll change my mind. That is not going to happen.”

Flynn chugged the rest of his beer and peered over the top of his sunglasses. “A Marine’s gotta’ do what he’s gotta do. If you came here asking for my permission, you got it.”

Before Warner could react, a jeep pulled up. There were three stars on the red flag, mounted on the front bumper. Two Marines exited the jeep and walked over to where Flynn was sitting. Captain Warner immediately recognized the officer as Lt. General Lewis Walt, Commanding Officer, III Marine Amphibious Force. Sergeant Major Eric McRaney, was the other Marine. Warner snapped to attention and rendered a crisp salute. Flynn remained seated and offered, “Take a load off, LG (short for Lieutenant General).”

General Walt reached into the cooler, pulled out two beers and handed one to the Sergeant Major. The three Marines tapped beer cans and the Sergeant Major made a toast, “If you cheat, may you cheat death. If you steal, may you steal a woman’s heart. If you fight, may you fight for a brother. If you drink, may you drink with me.”

General Walt looked at the young officer still standing at attention, “Sit down, Captain, you’re making me nervous.”

For about five minutes, the three combat veterans made small talk until General Walt said, “Give Flynn his promotion warrant. You are now a Staff Sergeant.”

Sergeant Major McRaney handed the large manila envelope to Flynn who quipped, “I told you I didn’t want to be promoted. If I get too much rank, I’ll begin to think that I won’t have to work for a living.”

“Hey!” Sergeant McRaney protested.

“Present company excepted, of course. As much as I appreciate that you hand-carried the paperwork, you could have sent it through the chain of command. Is there something else on your mind, LG?”

General Walt began to explain, “We’re planning a search and destroy operation.”

“I know, Operation Oklahoma Hills. There’s a lot of infiltration tunnels around Happy Valley and Charlie Ridge. I’ve been out there a few times.”

“I should have figured the scouts would tell you before they told me,” General Walt smiled.

“Don’t take it personally. It’s just professional courtesy.”

General Walt continued, “I’ll let you know when I need you. In the meantime, I’d advise you to get some rest. If you need anything or have any problems, you know how to find me.”

“Roger that, LG.”

General Walt and Sergeant McRaney got up to leave and Flynn said, “There is one thing that you can do for me, General.”

“Name it.”

“Got any advice for this hard-charging leatherneck. He’s new to the unit,” Flynn said.

“What’s your name, Captain?” General Walt asked.

“Phillip Warner, sir.”

“The best advice I can give any officer is listen to your Sergeants, especially this one.”

After General Walt and Sergeant Major McRaney left, Captain Warner asked, “Why didn’t you tell the General about me wanting to file charges against you?”

Flynn responded matter-of-factly. “A few reasons; first being that the General has enough on his plate, second, I don’t need anybody to fight my battles for me and last, I’ve got a lot of enemies in ‘Nam, one more won’t matter that much.”

Warner thought for a second, then said, “I’ll have that beer now . . . that is if you’re still offering.”

Flynn reached into the cooler and handed the young officer a can of beer. A minute later, Colonel Whittington came walking by. Seeing Sergeant Flynn and Captain Warner, sitting next to each other, he smiled. He walked over and asked in a stern voice, “What’s going on, here?”

Warner didn’t know how to respond, but Flynn quipped, “Just waiting for you.”

“Wait no longer.” Colonel Whittington sat down, pulled out a beer from the cooler and began to drink it.

*  *  *

Scuttlebutt began to circulate through the infantry units that they would be going out to the “bush” soon. Flynn knew exactly when, because General Walt told him, but he kept the Intel to himself. He walked over to the Motor Pool and approached Gunnery Sergeant Jim Garza, “Do you think I can get a jeep for the day?”

Gunny Garza pointed to a row of vehicles, “Take what you want.”

Flynn drove to the small village of Bac Lieu. The Vietnamese people waved to him as he passed by. Staff Sergeant Lee Starkey was in charge of this particular Combined Action Program unit. It consisted of a thirteen-member Marine rifle squad, augmented by a Navy Corpsman and strengthened by a Vietnamese militia platoon of older boys and elderly men. Its purpose was to combine a Marine squad with local forces to form a village defense platoon. The CAP units were effective in denying the enemy a sanctuary at the local village level.

Mason spoke in Vietnamese to one of the village elders about the whereabouts of the Marines. He was told they were on patrol and should be back soon. One of the mama-sans brought him a cup of tea and he settled in to wait for his fellow Marines.

This tunnel rat had an intense hatred for the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas. They were a brutal and merciless enemy that would torture and kill any man, woman or child who did not adhere to the communist philosophy. On the other hand, Flynn had respect and affection for the pro-American Vietnamese who just wanted to live in peace. He would often come into the “ville” when he had a hankering for a combination of Vietnamese and American food, which the CAP units were known for creating.

He was socializing with the villagers when a truck full of drunk Army soldiers stopped on the way back from the Freedom Hill PX complex. The soldiers started to get aggressive with the young women and began bullying the old men.

Flynn attempted to reason with them. “Take it easy, this is a nice quiet village with good people. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.”

One soldier bellowed, “There ain’t no good Vietnamese!”

Flynn knew that there would be no compromising with these men, so he said, “Who’s the toughest man here?”

A soldier standing six-foot-four and weighing 200 pounds walked up. “That would be me, jarhead.”

Six inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than Flynn, the soldier did not perceive him as much of a threat. Flynn reached into his pocket and pulled out 200 dollars in military payment currency.

“Beat me and this is yours. If I win, then you and your buddies get in that truck and get the hell out of here.”

The soldier tried to act brave in front of his friends. “You’re a little small. Why don’t you come back when you grow up.”

“Why don’t I just cut you down to my size.”

The soldier raised his hands to fight, but Flynn stood there with his arms by his side and stuck his chin out. “I’ll give you the first punch.”

The soldier was confused by this offer. He threw an awkward punch that Flynn easily ducked. Flynn landed a crashing left hand to the right rib cage and a right hand of equal power to the left rib cage. The soldier screamed out in anguish and fell to his knees, doubled over in pain. He wasn’t knocked out, but the fight was definitely knocked out of him.

Right about this time the CAP patrol returned. Staff Sergeant Sharkey asked, “What happened?”

Flynn replied with a mischievous grin, “The guy fell into my fist.”

The soldiers picked up their comrade and loaded him into the truck. One of the soldiers commented, “I think that Marine is Flynn.”

The other soldiers responded, “You mean the tunnel rat? No frickin’ way!

Sharkey said, “I can guess what they wanted.”

“War brings out the best and worst in people,” Flynn shrugged.

“I heard a big op is coming up.”

“I heard the same thing. Don’t know how long I’ll be out this time. I thought I’d have a good meal before I go.”

“You’re always welcome here.”

Sharkey turned to one of the mama-sans and told her something. She went into a bamboo hooch filled with cases of American food and took some boxes out. That afternoon, Flynn, his fellow Marines and the villagers dined on Vietnamese soup, grilled pork, beef on rice noodles, summer rolls, and crepe wrap.

As Flynn got ready to leave, Sharkey commented, “Good luck.”

“See you when I see you.” Then Flynn drove off.

As they moved through their sectors of search in the beginning days of Operation Oklahoma Hills, the Marine combat units met sporadic resistance. The North Vietnamese would ambush the Marines, then disappear into the bush. The Americans were suffering losses and had very little to show for their efforts. When a patrol found an entrance to a tunnel, the word was passed: “Flynn!”

Flynn came up the trail, as casually as if he was going out for a Sunday stroll. Captain Warner was standing next to the hole with a group of Marines who were providing a defensive perimeter. The skilled tunnel rat wasted little time getting ready to enter the hole.

Warner suddenly realized something, “He’s not going down there alone, is he?”

Sergeant Cuneo replied, “He always does.”

Flynn looked up at Captain Warner. “I need a time check.”

Captain Warner looked at his watch. “Zero eight-forty.”

“If I’m not back by 1800 hours, then I’m not coming back.” Flynn disappeared from view.

Watching someone go beneath ground to face the enemy was the bravest thing Captain Warner had ever seen. To do it once was amazing enough, but to be told that Sergeant Flynn did it on a consistent basis, was beyond his comprehension.

* * *

Six hours later, two of the Marine Corps’ most deadly snipers, Sergeant Carlos Hatchcock and Sergeant Chuck Mawhinney came walking up the trail. When Hatchcock saw a group of Marines sitting around an open hole, he commented, “Flynn?”

A Marine responded, “Yup.”

Sergeant Mawhinney asked, “How long has he been down there?”

“About six hours,” another Marine answered.

“When he comes up, tell him that Hatchcock and Mawhinney said hey.”

After the two snipers walked off, Hatchcock shook his head, “And they call me crazy.”

Inside the tunnel, Flynn killed two NVA soldiers with his knife and hid them behind some bags of rice. He knew it would only be a matter of time before they were found.

The ammunition stockpile he’d discovered was significant in size and Flynn knew he had to eliminate it. He had five pounds of C-4 plastic explosives with him and several timers. The first question was, how long would it take him to get out of the tunnel before it exploded? When he saw three enemy soldiers exit a hole closer to the ammunition, Flynn knew he wouldn’t have to make his way back to the hole that he originally came down. Who would be waiting for him when he came up on this new exit hole? That was the other question he didn’t have the answer to.

Flynn decided on his plan of action. He would place four pounds of his explosives with the ammunition stockpile and set the timers for ten minutes. He would keep the last pound as a diversion for his escape. There would be no room for error. Once the charges were in position, Flynn got ready to make his escape.

At nine minutes and 20 seconds, he started moving slowly toward the hole just as four enemy combatants entered. He would have to eliminate them in a hurry. He shot all of them with his .38. Then he set the timer for ten seconds on the last charge and threw it out of the hole. When it exploded, he made his escape. Only three seconds later, the other charges detonated with a thunderous sound, filling the tunnel with smoke and fire.

Back at the first hole, the Marines felt the earth shake beneath their boots and smoke bellowed out of the tunnel entrance. Everybody thought Flynn had breathed his last. Two minutes later, he walked up behind the Marines who were staring down the smoke-filled hole, wondering what to do next.

“What are you looking at?” Flynn asked.

Captain Warner instinctively hugged the famous tunnel rat, then pulled away. “Sorry about that.”

“I missed you too.”

*  *  *

Over the next two weeks, Flynn destroyed three more tunnels, but was injured when an enemy soldier slashed his leg with a knife. He refused to be evacuated until Operation Oklahoma Hills was completed. When the wound got badly infected. Corpsman ‘Doc’ Hancock warned, “No more delays…you need to get out of here or you’re going to lose that leg . . . or die! Wouldn’t you rather have the Cong kill you than some microscopic bacteria?”

Flynn smiled. “When you put it that way, I guess it is better to live to fight another day.”

While waiting by the LZ (landing zone) for a medivac to the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, Flynn heard small arms fire and explosions on the other side of the hill. Minutes later, wounded Marines began arriving at the LZ. Captain Warner was one of them. He had sustained serious shrapnel wounds from a rocket-propelled grenade. Both Marines rode on the same chopper to the ship.

Once aboard the Repose, Captain Warner underwent emergency surgery. While his wounds were not life-threatening, they were bad enough for him to be sent back to the “World.” Flynn limped over to the young officer’s bed while he was in recovery.

“How you feeling, Captain?”

Warner’s mouth was so dry, he could hardly speak. “Right now I’m feeling numb. Ask me again when the painkillers wear off. My first military operation in country and I’m already getting sent back home. Marines like you have been here almost two years. I don’t feel like I’ve done my part yet.”

Flynn reassured the young officer. “It isn’t how long you’re here that matters. You did your duty while you were here and that’s what counts. Semper Fi, Marine.”

“If anybody ever asks me what I remember most about being in Vietnam, I’m going to tell them that it was serving with Mason Flynn, the legendary tunnel rat. You are the bravest man that I’ve ever met.”

“Bravery means different things to different people. I know what I’m doing and I willingly take the risks, because I have a pretty good idea what to expect once I’m below ground. Bravery to me are the Marines who don’t know what to expect and still go into harm’s way to do their duty.”

End Part I


Come back next week for the conclusion of "War Within, War Beneath"

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