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Of the coast of the South China Sea, Vietnam narrows between the Red River and the Mekong Delta. Vin Mok, a village of 1200 farmers in Fisherman, lies just north of the Ben-High River, once the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. American Air Force pilots remember this area as one of the most dangerous parts of the country. Captain Robert Biss flew 135 missions in Vietnam in the 1960s.
There was a lot of North Vietnamese activity across the DMZ, where just across the border you have a larger south of Vietnamese American dold up. The area to the North and South of the river was supposed to be a demilitarized zone. In reality, villages here along the coast, like Vin Mok, just north of the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, were the most heavily bombed in all of Vietnam. It was the longest war in U.S. history, and the only one we ever lost. What you are about to see is a chapter of the Vietnam War that has, until now, been known only to the Vietnamese. The rockets collapsed our houses, they collapsed the pig pens and burned the pigs. Everything went to pieces. How could a village survive such an onslaught of firepower from the air as
well as from ships off the coast? 25 to 50,000 tons of bombs in artillery shells tore through this tiny village. Yet the people survived by digging into the red soil and creating another Vin Mok, with markets, theaters, schools, and hospitals, a world of subterranean survival, a world beneath the war. A lot has changed in Vietnam since the war years for Dr. Nguyen Dong Quang.
Now in his late fifties, he practices medicine at the Atso Hospital in Hanoi. During the war, Dr. Quang worked in a mobile medical unit in and around Vin Lin District. Here he operated underground in tunnels in Vin Tak, Vin Kim, and Vin Long, as well as in Vin Mok tunnels, and delivered more than 30 infants. We ate and drank in the tunnels. We conducted all our activities in the tunnels. We taught classes, sang in the tunnels. After a while, we got used to living there. We had forgotten we were living underground. It was at that time that my wife gave birth to our first born in the tunnels of Vin 2, and we named her 2 Lin in remembrance of the village of Vin 2 in Vin Lin.
Dr. Quang's close friend, the painter, Pham Tan Diem, lives and works in his own home and teaches art at the University of Hanoi. His wife, Twa, is a physician, so the family lives comfortably. Their lifestyle today, as Vietnam moves toward a market economy, represents a radical departure from their lives during the 1960s. Liam and Twa waited until after the war to marry. During the war, Liam was assigned to depict life in the Vin Lin area by the Ministry of Culture. In 1964, at the age of 18, he traveled south from his home in Hanoi. During the war, we artists had to contribute our part too. I had to record events on the spot as well as to design banners to mobilize people, because
we were counting on them. We had to endure hardship and fight for independence and reunification of the country. And I think that was essential to the war effort. I did the work as if I was a soldier fighting with all my heart. There were few distinctions drawn between art and propaganda during those years. There were stories of love made in the tunnels, featuring people who were not sure if they would live through the night, and stories of lovers digging connecting tunnels. This is all part of the folklore passed along to the next generation.
For Liam's case, to his two sons, Lin and Vaughn. For years, Liam promised Vaughn that he would take him to meet a former militia commander, back to Vin Mock, back to 1964, back to the war. Liam decided to travel by train, south, to the coast. After a 16-hour ride through a rural landscape, they found themselves in central Vietnam, one of the least industrialized and poorest parts of the country. There is no public transportation out here, so Liam and Vaughn rented a motorbike for their
journey to the tunnels. I felt excited as my father and I drew near the Hien Long Bridge on the southern bank of the Ben Hai River. This was the historic dividing point between North and South for more than 20 years, and this was my first time crossing it. This is the Hien Long Bridge, after peace was reestablished, we rebuilt this bridge. During the bombing, it was broken in half. The bridge is the symbol of a country long occupied and divided. Vietnam's myths and legends are filled with references to heroes and heroines who resisted foreign invaders, mainly the Chinese, but also the Mongols, Japanese, French, and more
recently the Americans. The Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese called the American War, was a vestige of French colonialism. As French allies, the United States was drawn into it after the Vietnamese, a nationalist communist coalition took the French by surprise, defeating them in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. The country was then divided along the 17th parallel in an effort to bring an end to the war. Reunification elections under the terms of the Geneva Accords promised for 1956 never materialized. The North was called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh.
In the South, the Republic of Vietnam, an anti-communist regime, was established under no Dien Ziem, backed by the United States. Resistance to the Ziem regime was led by a coalition called the National Liberation Front. Ziem's forces referred to them as Viet Cong. Their allegiance was to Ho Chi Minh. After sending many advisers, the United States actively joined the war in 1963. The fighting lasted until the US withdrew in 1973. Two years later, communist troops captured Saigon, the southern capital. By 1977, the country was re-unified. The Geneva Agreement called for re-unification after 20 years, but it turned out to be 20 years.
Calling from the Hien Lung Bridge out to the coast is a cluster of 12 villages. Every village here had its own tunnels, and some of them were connected. But not all were as well constructed as the tunnels had been mocked. One of the many tragedies of this world beneath the war is the story of the Vinh Kim tunnels. You can still find many bomb craters at the site of the old tunnel complex about two miles west of Vinh Moc. Wind and Dic was born here, helped to dig the tunnels, and lived underground.
Dic's family split up, scattering throughout neighboring villages, so that if one tunnel complex was bombed, there would be some survivors. His family's strategy paid off, and they survived the collapse of the Vinh Kim tunnels. No one knows how long the villagers were trapped underground before they died. Some fear it could have been several days. On the 20th of June 1967, the Americans started to bomb this area, and this tunnel where 65 people took shelter. When it collapsed, we were able to rescue four, so there were 61 deaths in this tunnel. Mrs. Ho T. Trong, who was among the survivors, honors the memory of the victims every year on the anniversary of the collapse.
It was the tunnel entrance, is now a monument and centerpiece of the village. We just used seven big and small people from other villages came here to rescue them. We tried to rescue them for several days, but planes continued to bomb the area so after a while it could rescue them anymore. Mrs. Trong was rescued by a medic, Nguyen Tau Hoa, who still works at the clinic in Vinh Quang. During a tunnel collapse, the fumes from the bombs are asphyxicity, and the pressure from the bombs knocked you out, so we had to carry people above ground and give them artificial respiration. We also cleaned sand and dirt from their eyes and noses, then we'd give them a shot to bolster their strength before moving them to a medical station. No Van Quay is one of the village elders. He escaped death during the Vinh Quim tunnel collapse and cannot forget the horror.
When we dug up the bodies, they had lost all human form. Some of them looked like a round mass of flesh, missing all their limbs. Others had their heads sunk into their chest. After the war, I hallucinated about the presence of planes overhead. I was walking and thought I heard airplanes, and there were no airplanes. Once in a while I still have nightmares, scenes of bombing of myself coming to their rescue. Yes, sometimes I still see those images. We often operated on the ground, once when we were doing surgery at Vinh Long on a year old woman who was wounded by shreds.
We had finished sewing up her stomach, and it felt like someone hit us in the head with a plank of wood. When the tunnel collapsed, I lost consciousness. When I awoke, I called out, but no one answered. Six of us in the operating room, but no one answered me. It was pitch dark, and I was covered with earth. After what I realized that the room was very different, I drank some liquid that I found. That liquid turned out to be liquid that had been drained from the patient during surgery. I was so thirsty that I drank the liquid that caused my chronic intestinal infection. Then I saw a source of light in the corner of the tunnel.
All the tunnels collapsed, but there was a ray of light. So I picked up a gun and fired at the light source for a few seconds, but there was no response. Then I heard running footsteps above me, so I knew that people were there, and then I started shouting for help with all of my strength. So they started to dig, and they dug for three hours. Then I continued to shout for hope, and to call out to the others and the tunnels, and they started to regain their consciousness, because the flung, are you alive, are you alive Miss Ho? Are you alive, Mr. Track? Are you alive, Miss Nian? All of my assistants were alive. So I said we should look for the patient, and we all moved around in the dark looking for her. When we found her, she still had a pulse.
As he arrived in the village of Vin Mark, Liam was overwhelmed by nostalgia. It is exactly 25 years since I used to live and work here. There were times when I wanted to cry on this trip, because so much time has elapsed. Birdong beach is over there, and also Vin Mok. Was there more than one tunnel entrance to the sea? Yes, there were several, seven in total. My son, Van, has learned about the American War through books and documentary films,
and now he can see the tunnel as well as the village of Vin Mok and its people. I have told him about my experience during the war, and now he can see for himself. I have told him about my experience during the war, and now he has learned about the American War through books and documentary films. I have told him about my experience during the war, and now he can see for himself. I have told him about my experience during the war, and now he can see for himself. I have told him about my experience during the war, and now he can see for himself. Look up at the ceiling here, it's in the shape of a dome.
Look at the wood here, it was used for reinforcement. It's like in your painting. When the US escalated the war by bombing the north, we dug tunnels about 10 meters deep, and people saw that the bombs were not able to penetrate them. So then we had the confidence to organize the village use, to dig more tunnels, and whoever was able-bodied became part of a team, and that's how the tunnels evolved. Nguyen Tree Fung was born here in Vin Mok, and has lived off the sea of his adult life. But as a youth, he lived in the land, and under the land, and came of age underground.
When we started digging the tunnels, I was 16. We didn't care if it was day or night. We used mainly holes, shovels, and baskets, big and small. Under the direction of village leaders, we used compasses to try to connect the tunnels. Tran Min Noi was just a child when the tunnels were constructed. His father was among the first to pick up a shovel. The tunnels have 13 entrances, each about 1 kilometer apart. But underground, they are all interconnected and form one large complex.
There were three levels, each with a different function. Some chambers were set up for sleeping, others for cooking or storage. In some villages, tunnels had air raid shelters designed to amplify the sound of approaching aircraft. Although Vin Mok villagers were not the only ones to build tunnels, they succeeded in building the biggest complex in North Vietnam. They began digging in 1966, primarily for self-protection. The famous Kuchi tunnels in the south near Saigon eventually became military. While Vin Mok tunnels, which extend for more than a mile, housed the entire village of 1200 people. Later, these tunnels became an important storage and staging point for the southern battlefield and Kohn Ka Island, the first line of defense against ships.
In the case of the area north of the Demoletrize Zone, as elsewhere in North Vietnam, villages were off-limits to bombing. Over the course of time, we did develop targets in and near the villages because they became to be regarded as simply armed camps. When US ships came close to the shore, we had to prepare ourselves to be ready in the event of invasion. So we waited at the entrances of the tunnels in case soldiers disembarked from the ships. We had good cooperation from the people here.
They allowed us to take apart their houses in order to use the wood to reinforce the tunnels. That lasted for 600 days and nights and due to the many tunnels in this area, we were able to safeguard the lives of 1200 people. This included storing supplies for Kohn Ka Island and a southern battlefield. And so this was a very important storage area. And the North Vietnamese ability to invade South Vietnam largely depended upon being able to build up the supplies and troops in this area to a degree where they had an invasion force and could keep its supply during an invasion. During the war, we were just fighting.
There were other activities. Those other activities were to soothe people's minds. This is an opening used to hold oil lamps. Here you can still see traces of smoke.
Life in these tunnels was very harsh, but we had no choice. We didn't have any schedule to date really. We dug when we were flexible. Sometimes I waited until I finished my artwork. The common problem for most people living in the tunnel was the vitamin deficiency. This was due to the lack of sunlight, for example vitamins A and D. So after spending a long time in the tunnel, people had difficulty seeing and had to adjust their eyes to the glare. We lived in the tunnels for a long time with arthritis because of this humidity. Like myself, I suffer from mild arthritis.
The best feature of the tunnels of Vin Mock was the circulation of air. The circulation was good because some entrances faced the sea. In most tunnels in the area, water was scarce, but in Vin Mock tunnels, there was an abundance of water. People had to wait until the bombing was over to get married. There was cave, candies and flowers. There was no beer, but there were some alcoholic beverages made local. About 20 people usually came. The bride did not wear a veil or have beautiful clothing, but would wear something neat and clean. There was a militia commander who acted as master of ceremony or judge for the occasion and pronounced a man and wife.
These are some of the 17 healthy infants that were born in the Vin Mock tunnels. Some of them still live in Vin Mock village and now have children of their own. When Tisung, who was born in the tunnels, is now 30 years old, and the mother of two. Although she was too young to remember, she often hears stories about the hardships of life underground. She heard about the 11 kitchens where people came to eat and drink from Tronte Kong, who was 17 years old in 1966.
Most activities underground were meetings. To keep the tunnels safe, we didn't eat at noon because we were afraid that the smoke from cooking might be seen by planes. When the villagers cooked, they used a smokeless kitchen to disperse the smoke through several air holes so that planes could not spot them. That kind of kitchen was invented during the war against the French. We had to carry rice quite a distance from here, from Vin To and in Nam. And on our way back, a lot of us were killed or wounded, so we substituted cassava and sweet potato for rice. What kind of work did people do in these tunnels? Well, we read. We would have meetings and would talk about how to dig trenches about ground. And we discussed how to plant cassava and where to fish the next day.
The day belonged to the Americans, the night to the Vietnamese, when darkness offered a protective covering. We let the fishing nets down about 5pm and put the nets back up at 4am before the reconnaissance planes came. This is the auditorium. It's about 36 feet long and 7 feet high. We used to put up a sheet for performances. We also saw films.
To take the time to sell the house. Hello, yet I listen to the plays in the you only and you You see here, the earth is very firm.
That's why we could dig wide passages. If we dug two wide, it would collapse. My family is buried down there. I can only tell you what I know, what happened before and after I can't say. I can only tell you of my pain. The American war is what caused my suffering and the death of my family. How Tom Don was a schoolteacher in Vin Kwong during the war? For him, one single day remains frozen in time.
That afternoon, we cooked a nice meal with a chicken dish. Afterwards, about 5 pm, my wife and I took refuge in the A-frame shelter in the tunnels. At first, she was sitting outside and I was in the A-frame shelter. Then the ships off the coast started shelling and I began to feel scared. So I asked her to go sit under the A-frame shelter and I moved outside. At that time, it seemed like the safest thing to do. Unexpectedly, a shell from the seventh fleet hit the tunnels and exploded underground right on top of the A-frame. Shrapner from the shell hit her spine. At that point, I heard her yell, I'm wounded. I picked her up and found that her legs were paralyzed and I moved her to the next tunnel. Later on, the militia came to transport her to a medical station.
She died on the way and she died a second time because her remains were bombed. Everyone here seems to have their own personal story of disaster and Pham Tan Lim is no exception. I was living at a house near Vin Mok in Vin Tan village. There I dug a shallow tunnel in a hill, a shelter with the people you see in this picture. I spent most of my time there painting and drawing posters to lift the villagers' morale. I used to be with the painters group but that day I went to visit some friends who were part of the writer's group. I had to walk in the trenches to get there. While I was talking to them, shells from the southern shore started to fall, hitting my tunnel's studio full force and burning a nearby house with a patched roof.
The woman who lived there died. The house I lived in burned, as well as the paints and easel I had brought from Hanoi. The house was full of fire. Liam said that he was able to save about one-fifth of the paintings for those years. From Vin Mok, Liam and Vaughn set out to visit the local war hero Trung T. Quay in Dong Ha. On the way, they were surprised to discover parts of a salvaged helicopter used to support the roof of a cafe. And in this provincial capital, there is a war museum, one of the many in the country, where Vietnam remembers its wars and salutes its heroes.
Vaughn has read about the heroes and heroines who form the tapestry of folklore of the war. While most young men joined the armed forces, women joined the militia to defend the home front. Trung T. Quay was a militia commander during the war. militia were villagers who armed themselves in self-defense and often cooperated with the North Vietnamese army. They formed the land, fought to protect their land, dug tunnels, and in turn, the land sheltered and protected them. Hello, brother. Hello, sister Quay. It's been 25 years. Do you remember me?
I remember you most when you were practicing your singing. This is my son, Van. He's 23. He just graduated from the University of Fine Arts. Trung T. Quay now represents Quang Tree Province in the National Assembly and heads the Women's Union here in Dong Ha. You're still in the same profession, aren't you? I'm a professor now at the Fine Arts University in Hanoi. Look, these are the tunnels in Vin Mo in 1968. Liam's drawings brought Quay back to the day she gained the respect of the people of Vin Lin and recognition by Ho Chi Minh. The documentary cameraman, Ma Van Quung, was there that very day, November 11, 1966, and recorded the historic battle. Three members of his film crew were later killed in the course of documenting the war.
In 1966, the B-52s have not been allowed to bomb the DMZ. They're not bombing North of DMZ. Their efforts are combined to South Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail area to the west of this area and Laos. But finally, there's enough intelligence, so the State Department has finally convinced in the summer of 1966 that yes, we ought to start bombing in that area. Among the weapons used were the Phantom F4s and 105 Thunder Chiefs, like this one, an icon of the Vietnam War, now part of the landscape at Bowling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. At 6 a.m., an L-19 suddenly appeared. During the war, this kind of plane was terrifying. It would fly around to find targets. This low flying plane marks the target by dropping a small bomb which explodes.
The L-19 is an advanced plane, determining the targets for other planes. After they dropped the small bomb, a group of four F4s started to bomb. We're staying on November the 11th. We're on a single target, two F4s, shot down. Very unusual to have two shot down on a single target. When the rescue planes go in, one of the small A1 planes, which helps the rescue effort, also shot down. As Commander, I yelled fire and everyone in the anti-aircraft unit shot at the target. They were flying in pairs. The first two were shot down right away. Between the time that my aircraft was hit on fire, until the time I ejected, I think I was afraid.
Robert Biss was one of the pilots shot out of the air. I remember the violence of being forced out of the airplane, and I do remember the force of the ejection of the seat coming out of the airplane, and it doubled me over pretty badly. The next thing that you're aware of is that you're in your parachute. They were hit and went down right there. Four pilots ejected from those two planes. Along with Bob Biss, there were three other pilots. Their story is told here by both sides for the first time. When I hit the ground, it was a hard thud. I felt like I had the wind knocked out of myself. But didn't really have time to do very much about that, because immediately there were people around me with guns. In this case, I think, militia. They had the weapons, and they had the North Vietnamese Army insignia with them, although not in uniform.
The helicopter was shot down. The pilots captured so they couldn't be rescued. Other three people that I spoke with that day about a parachute, and we all felt that we had been shot at in our parachutes. The airplane in front of me, I had seen both the crew members in their parachutes in the air, and only one ever showed up on the ground or in a prison camp. We have no way of knowing it, but we more or less concluded that the other person had been killed while it was in his parachute. When this pilot parachuteed down, he went into our A-frame bomb shelter nearby to hide. We called him. He refused to come out and stayed. Stayed inside the shelter. At that time, the policy of our government was that the militia and the armed forces should not kill but capture any enemy alive.
He fought back, and so we had to defend ourselves. That's what happened. Thank you very much. We had to take prisoners into the tunnels, not with Mock, but into a nearby tunnel. We could not leave them on the ground, or else they would be killed.
Sometime during the early evening hours, we were taken inside the caves, our tunnels. In these tunnels, there were very small rooms. I think I was eventually put in a room, maybe three or four feet wide, and six or seven feet long that had a clot in it. Of course, I was still tied and I was still bound. So I was put on this bed and left there for the night, except giving me an occasional drink of water. I think they tried to take relatively good care of me, water, a little bit of food, but mostly I wasn't the rest. The following morning, the men began their journey to prison camps further north. In 1973, Robert Biss, Ben Ringsdorf, and Harold Monlux returned home after six and a half years.
The fourth pilot, Richard Butt, who was shot in the bomb shelter, never made it home. His remains were returned 20 years later. His name is now on the wall in Washington. Trung T. Quay was decorated. President Ho Chi Minh was busy with national matters, but he learned about people who made meaningful contributions. I met him under these circumstances and he gave me orchids from his garden. I met him three times on that occasion. He was invited to have dinner with him. When we saw the food, it was so simple. He personally served the rice. Our leader was very simple. He wore a pair of thong sandals and peasant pants.
He didn't even have a belt. Very simple, very humble. At that time, how old were you? 21 years old. This picture of Uncle Ho was taken September 1968. One year later, he died. During the war years in Vinlin, we had a common practice of singing to drown out the sound of bombs. At night, we gathered to sing to tell stories of fighting during the day, to keep up our spirits, to have a sense of optimism. During the B-52 raids, the older people told us to scatter throughout the tunnel, not together in one place.
But we were young and impulsive, and so we would gather in groups of five to seven, and to fight our fear, we would shout and sing while bombs exploded above us. If there was still a war, we'd still be living underground. The heavier the bombing, the deeper we would go into the earth. No matter how badly they showed and bombed, we were not going to leave Vinlin.
When you are facing difficulties, sometimes you are forced to develop your intelligence. I divert my anger and sorrow in a constructive way, that teaching children about their duty to their homeland. During the war years, the circumstances made us enemies. But now, for me personally, as well as the rest of the people here, we don't see the Americans as enemies. We see them as friends. As warriors, they deserve a good deal of credit. They were formidable opponents. The idea of independence and freedom for our country, especially for women, helped overcome all obstacles. There is a folk song close to the hearts of the people in this district, about a mother who started digging the tunnel when her hair was dark. But when she finished, her hair was white.
This is our story. It's called Medau-Hum. Mother digs the tunnel. The tunnels will be preserved for future generations, as a legacy of Vin Mox special contribution to the war effort. In the words of the writer Hu Tin, the purpose was to let the younger generation know what we've gone through, so they don't take peace or their parents for granted. Vin Mox tunnels have become a national shrine. In this part of Vietnam, they are a metaphor for memory for the living, and symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of the many communities that went underground. Some will remain tombs with secrets that can never be told, by those who did not live to tell their stories of life underground.
In this part of Vietnam, they are a symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of the sacrifice and tenacity of life underground.
In this part of Vietnam, they are a symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of the sacrifice and tenacity of life underground. In this part of Vietnam, they are a symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of life underground. In this part of Vietnam, they are a symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of life underground. In this part of Vietnam, they are a symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of life underground. In this part of Vietnam, they are a symbol of the sacrifice and tenacity of life underground.
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A World Beneath the War
Contributing Organization
Center for Asian American Media (San Francisco, California)
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Program Description
A documentary about the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. The film contains interviews with survivors of the war who inhabited the tunnels, including archival footage, and photographs. The filmmakers visit the tunnels in current day to explore the way so many Viet Cong lived during the war. The documentary features an interview with Robert Biss (American P.O.W. captured in 1966, who was at the "Hanoi Hilton"), and the Viet Cong member who captured him, explaining the events and emotions surrounding the event.
Broadcast Date
Asset type
Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Ho Ch Minh, Thnh Pho; Tet Offensive, 1968; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Prisoners and prisons, Viet Cong
Janet Gardner
Media type
Moving Image
Producer: Gardner, Janet (Janet P.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
Center for Asian American Media
Identifier: 00004 (CAAM)
Format: U-matic
Color: Color
Duration: 00:55:59
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Chicago: “A World Beneath the War,” 1996-00-00, Center for Asian American Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 21, 2024,
MLA: “A World Beneath the War.” 1996-00-00. Center for Asian American Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 21, 2024. <>.
APA: A World Beneath the War. Boston, MA: Center for Asian American Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from