Tunnel Rats Redux

A Vietnam veteran tunnel rat has some thoughts about the battle for Gaza

4 mins read
An Israeli army officer shows journalists a tunnel reportedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks from Gaza into Israel, July 25, 2014. (Reddit)

Stephen “Shorty” Menendez has a piece of advice for Israeli troops faced with clearing out Hamas tunnels in Gaza: Don’t. Don’t volunteer to go down there. You will never get over it.

Menendez, now 73, is very proud of his harrowing work crawling down guerrilla tunnels in Vietnam 53 years ago, armed with only a flashlight and a single .45 caliber pistol, but he wouldn’t wish it on anybody. 

“Of course, I’ll tell you the truth. I was scared,” he said in a telephone interview from his rural Tennessee home on Wednesday. But he ended up doing 30 tunnel missions over his year in Vietnam, occasionally coming face to face in the dark with an enemy soldier. 

Decades later, hardly a day goes by that some memory shard of his personal combat hell doesn’t flush up into his mind. 

“Anything on the news will bring it up,” he says. “You never—you never forget those days.”

But the repeated references to the tunnels of Gaza over the past few weeks have added sparks to his memories. 

“When the bombings and stuff happened, it was like, God, I remember when this happened there, or when this happened there, you know, in Vietnam.” 

He chuckles.  “Hey. yeah, it just puts you back in the show again, you know?”

 But he can’t stop watching the news out of Israel..

“I tell you, for me, it’s hypnotic,” he said. “If it’s going on, I’ll be in front of the TV to watch it.”

Call of Duty

Menendez’s fate to be a tunnel rat was pretty much ordained from the time he volunteered to join the Army in the summer of 1969, a time of fierce fighting in Vietnam. He was 4-feet-10 and 92 pounds. When he arrived at his combat post west of Saigon, a zone heavily infested by battle hardened communist guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army troops, a sergeant took one look at the freshly minted, half pint infantryman and gave him the news: he was going down under. The job title was already legendary: tunnel rat. 

His tools? A flashlight and a handgun. 

Outside of infantry school, Menendez, then 19, had no specialized training, much less specialized tools, for crawling down into the labyrinth of tunnels which, like the ones Hamas has dug beneath the Gaza Strip, were often boobytrapped and led to subterranean rooms where the enemy rested, stockpiled weapons and food, operated makeshift hospitals and even mortuaries or a sort..

“They would pull wounded guys down into these tunnel complexes, and if they died, instead of taking ’em back up and exposing themselves…they would dig a hole deep enough in the sidewall, put him in a fetal position and repack it with that clay sand, real hard. And that’s what his epitaph would be.” 

The trap door entrances to the  tunnels were often no more than 14 by 14 inches, the tunnels maybe three or four feet high, and the dome-like rooms not much larger, Menendez said.  

The tunnels of Gaza are far more elaborate, judging by the account of one of the 240 or so hostages the militants seized on the first day of their savage assault, Oct. 7.

“We arrived in the tunnel and walked for kilometers on wet dirt,” 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz told reporters. “There is a giant system of tunnels, like spiderwebs. . . .We started walking in the tunnels, the dirt is damp and everything is always damp and humid. We reached a hall with 25 people in it … They guarded us closely.”

Tunnel Tech

The Israelis are said to have advanced technology to map the tunnels, including tiny drones and hyperspectral sensors, which can confirm the presence of people, weapons, explosives and other objects deep beneath the ground, SpyTalk’s Jonathan Broder reported last week.  But the sensors cannot penetrate tunnels reinforced with concrete or metal rebar, an informed source told him, nor can they distinguish between Hamas fighters and hostages. 

The Army eventually sent Menendez a device with antennae-like  wands to stick into the ground and detect tunnel activity. But it had such a limited range it was useless, he said. 

The dim, L-shaped army flashlight he was issued didn’t help, either. When he pointed it around a corner, it would draw instant fire. What he needed was a standard flashlight he could roll deceptively across a tunnel intersection. 

“So of course I wrote home to mama, and mama sent me a flashlight she got at Kmart,” he chuckled. “And if there was an enemy around the corner, of course they would shoot at the flashlight instantly.” 

His best weapon, actually, was a preternatural sense of an enemy fighter’s presence close by in the darkness—and quick reflexes. Once he eliminated a fighter with his handgun, he could toss a fused C-4 brick or two ahead of him before beating a hasty retreat, he said.

He envies the Israelis with devices that can fill a tunnel with foam that hardens into something like concrete.  

“But their dangers are the same life and death dangers, checking out those tunnels and stuff,” he said. “And now with them trying to find the prisoners, you’d hate to come around the corner and they have the civilians there, and they open up on you, because the soldier’s reaction is going to shoot back.” 

Asked for any advice he had for his Israeli counterparts, he just had two. The first: “Don’t get chosen to be a tunnel rat,” he said, only half joking.

Another: Think of a Hebrew song to sing when you’re on the way back out. “I’d sing Yankee Doodle before I got to the top of the hole so that they knew it was me and not a VC or NVA (North Vietnamese Army) coming out,” he said.

Getting Higher

Evidently, nothing ever scared Menendez too much after that. Despite his short stature and just a high school education, Menendez married and became a successful businessman in Wisconsin. He then semi-retired to Florida and started a second, 10-year career as a volunteer with the Tampas police department. But he never left Vietnam entirely behind, staying in touch with his army buddies.

One week in 2006, he and his wife and a couple buddies visited his old sergeant from the war. Wayne Brown owned a 680-acre farm in the gorgeous mountains of northeast Tennessee. He said he was ready to sell off chunks of it.

Menendez was tempted. About an hour and a half into the drive back home, he and his wife, Linda, pulled over at a rest stop to make a call.  

“I called him up and I says, ‘Wayne, I’ll be back in two weeks with a check to buy that hilltop.’ And that’s what I did.” 

A hilltop was where he wanted to be, high above ground.

Stephen “Shorty” Menendez has written two books about his Vietnam tour of duty: Journey Into Darkness: A Tunnel Rat’s Story, and Battle at Straight Edge Woods.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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