WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — Private First Class Nelson Ritter, a combat infantryman with the 1st Division Air Cavalry [Airmobile], leaped out the frying pan into the fire when the “Point Man” in a rifle squad volunteered to become a “Tunnel Rat” during the Vietnam War.
Tunnel Rats were soldiers who crawled headfirst into tunnels and caves the Viet Cong used as storage and staging areas against U.S. forces in the Central Highlands where PFC Ritter was based.
“You didn’t have anything on except a .45 caliber pistol and a flashlight when you crawled into a hole in the ground,” said Ritter.
1911A semi-automatics like the one the Rat below is carrying were disliked because of the muzzle blast that temporarily blinded and deafened them in a tight tunnel. That’s why many Rats preferred silencer-equipped .38 Specials.
Ritter says being a tunnel rat was one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Army because death was only a heartbeat away and the enemy always had the advantage.
“Their eyes were acclimated to the darkness,” said Ritter, “And we were in broad daylight descending into total darkness. So it took a while for our eyes to adjust.”
Rats depended on their sense of hearing and smell to determine where the enemy was lurking.
“I hear Charlie [the name GIs used to describe the Viet Cong] releasing the safety on his SKS assault rifle,” Ritter said.
He said that he could also smell the enemy’s bad breath long before they came face to face.
“I’ve been almost eye to eye with ’em; closer than you and I are sitting during this interview,” said Ritter.
Tunnel Rats only used flashlights they carried to explore tunnels and caves after they silenced enemy sentries. Ritter says the one who fired first usually survived, “Or the one who was the scaredest.”
At one point, he came upon a Viet Cong guerilla pointing a rifle at him in a tunnel, but both the “Hunted and the Hunter” didn’t open fire. Instead, Ritter said, “We backed away from each other.”
Once outside, Ritter hurled some grenades and explosive charges into the tunnel but doesn’t know if the enemy soldier survived
“It was unreal,” said Ritter.
Tunnel rats slithered into holes in the ground like snakes that the Viet Cong would hang from the ceilings of tunnels they dug underground. The Bamboo Pit Viper was one of their favorites.
Americans called the highly-poisonous reptiles “Two Step,” because two steps were about all U.S. soldiers could take before they dropped dead after being bitten by a Bamboo Pit Viper. The Viet Cong would hang them at eye-level in tunnels to make sure they didn’t miss unwanted guests.
Some of the larger tunnel complexes in the Central Highlands contained a hospital, sleeping chamber and storeroom. This one could house more than one-hundred Viet Cong guerillas.
It took a special kind of soldier to become a tunnel rat.
“Usually the person who became a tunnel rat in my unit was small enough to get down into the entrance hole,” said Ritter who was very skinny; 5’8″ and 120 pounds.
Once in a while Ritter, who has been diagnosed and treated for PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, says he’ll have a dream about something that went on over there, “But I’ve never had nightmares or anything like that.
It took almost two years before Nelson Ritter felt comfortable talking about his experience as a tunnel rat.
“When you came home, you didn’t talk about it,” said Ritter at the end of our interview at American Legion Post 21 in Winchester where his common-law wife is the post commander. “But sometimes it gets a little rough talking about it.” Tears welled up in his eyes and he hung his head down.
When WDVM’s Ross Simpson asked why it hurts so much after so long, Ritter said he wished he could answer that question.
“If I could, it would solve a lot of problems.”
Ritter doesn’t expect the pain to ever go away, saying, “I don’t think anybody who goes to war ever loses what they have experienced.”
Ritter was awarded an Air Medal for 80 hours of flying combat missions in a 1st Air Cavalry Division helicopter and was written up for a Bronze Star that he never received.
According to the Department of Defense, a total of 700 soldiers served as Tunnel Rats during the Vietnam War. Of the number, 36 were killed and 200 injured.
Ritter says it just depended on the situation and where you were. Some areas were okay. Some areas were hot spots. And you never knew what awaited you below ground.