Stories from wars past: Clarence Medeiros reflects on crawling through tunnels in Vietnam

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KAILUA-KONA — It’s been 50 years since Americans were fighting in the jungles, swamps and highlands of Vietnam, leaving a generation of veterans often ignored or derided by their fellow citizens.

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KAILUA-KONA — It’s been 50 years since Americans were fighting in the jungles, swamps and highlands of Vietnam, leaving a generation of veterans often ignored or derided by their fellow citizens.

The young men have aged, but for many, their time in Vietnam is graven on their memory in a way faded photographs, worn uniforms and battered equipment cannot compete.

Hawaii was not even a state when the fighting in Vietnam began, but its children would be part of the nearly 20 years of conflict. One of those men is Clarence Medeiros, who knew he was going to Vietnam from the moment he enlisted, no matter how old he was.

He enlisted at age 17, a natural step for someone whose male relatives had served in the armed forces.

But the U.S. Army was not going to send someone too young to vote to fight in Vietnam and stationed him outside of Washington, D.C., instead. While there he went to his commander, then the commanding general’s office, to get redeployed. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga both made sure he wanted the transfer.

He was given a form and told to turn it in when he turned 18. Until then, he was deployed to Germany. He remembers being told “you’ve got it made here” while he was there. His response was “I never joined the Army to stay here. I got in to go to Vietnam.”

A colonel tried to dissuade him again, but relented.

“You’re going into the devil’s ass,” the officer said, a phrase Medeiros remembers nearly 50 years later.

He wasn’t sure what that meant, and then discovered the transfer would put him in the combat engineers, particularly clearing tunnels. The tunnels have a reputation as one of the most vicious parts of the war, where the engagements were solitary and death came outside the small circle of a flashlight.

The North Vietnamese dug tunnels throughout the country, as they were one of the best ways to avoid American firepower. Their construction included multi-level complexes, secret passageways and fortifications. Booby traps, poisonous snakes and on-guard Vietnamese all took their toll on the men who went into the tunnels.

Medeiros wasn’t solely a tunnel man, as he was part of a group of specialists that recovered broken tanker trucks, built defenses, destroyed those defenses and what would be a public works project in a peacetime area.

That capacity wasn’t always safe, as seen during a firefight out of an abandoned LZ, but the tunnels have a special place for him. He avoided injury through the observation that delay was dangerous. If there was a lag between the tunnel being found and the soldier going in, the North Vietnamese would turn the tunnel deadly. So, whenever a service member found a hole, he was there as soon as possible.

“They were studying us as much as we were studying them,” he said.

They would vacate the area when the Americans showed up.

Sometimes the unit would send the unit’s dog in first to check to see if there was a trap or anyone down there. But it always came down to Medeiros going down into the unlit system, checking the way ahead with a flashlight, periodically prodding the tunnel for traps with his bayonet, with a .45 caliber pistol ready.

There is one in particular that has remained in his memory.

He was called in and went down into the complete blackness only possible in a hand-dug tunnel. The tunnel seemed to go on forever, but nothing sprang up at him. No traps poisoned him, no North Vietnamese shot him. Unexpectedly, the tunnel opened into a space with two coffins that was large enough to stand up in.

Now, he was in a dark room with no idea where he actually was. It was a continual risk for him. Often it was a field or a piece of jungle, but there was nothing preventing the exit from being in a NVA forward base.

It wasn’t the nicest place for a young man from Hawaii to find himself, alone. He found it spooky to crawl through a tunnel and find himself inside a large room with two coffins.

Getting over the innate disgust of touching a coffin, he popped one open with his bayonet.

There was no body inside, which was not entirely a surprise to Medeiros. Instead, it was filled with weapons, ammunition and explosives, which he expected were intended to supply the assault forces that were about to try and kill him.

He’d seen a pole with crossbars earlier and now used it to climb out, just like the people who had dug the network.

When he got outside all he saw was a Vietnamese village and a ridge. Calling for backup, he discovered he’d gone a quarter-mile underground and under the ridge near the camp.

To disguise the massive supply of earth coming out, the Vietnamese military had built a whole new section of the village.

Medeiros still struggles with the fact that these people, whose weddings he’d seen and who lived nearby, were supporting the people trying to kill him.

For many Hawaiian Vietnam veterans interviewed by West Hawaii Today, that’s a continual tension. The service members were there, trying to improve people’s lives. And those same people could easily be the ones trying to kill them as they slept in their bunks.

And wrapped in that conflict is a feeling of betrayal by their government.

One of Medeiros’s engagements reflected the conflicted feelings of Vietnam, because he was destroying what had become a symbol of American victory over the North Vietnamese.

Destroying the Khe Sanh base

During a large-scale operation where South Vietnamese soldiers invaded Laos, supported by American airpower but not American ground troops, Medeiros was assigned to destroy the Khe Sanh base.

Khe Sanh was the center of a massive siege where 6,000 Marines, supported by air and artillery support, held off a 77-day siege by as many as 20,000 North Vietnamese. Finally, the Vietnamese lifted the siege, which led the American high command to call it a victory.

Barely three months later, the generals decided to pull the Marines out, leaving behind the trenches, bunkers, dugouts and command posts where they had lived and died. The decision was widely criticized, although then-Special Assistant for National Security Affairs W. W. Rostow wrote it was simply a change in strategy. The goal was to engage the enemy in the hinterlands, Rostow wrote, and the NVA lost about half of the troops deployed.

“There have been two significant changes in the situation since early this year. One is the increase in friendly strength, mobility and firepower, so we are now more capable than we were of conducting both a mobile offense and defense in western Quang Tri. The second is the shift in Communist strength and tactics, necessitated because their earlier tactics resulted in disaster in Khe Sanh.”

As both sides would continue to fight over the region for the rest of the war, committing local veterans several times, that rang hollow for many.

But to Mederios, it was a job to do. Higher command had decided to abandon the base, so he and others were going to take what they could and destroy the rest.

They buried barrels of Agent Orange and equipment that couldn’t be moved, along with destroying the defenses and what couldn’t be taken out. He remembered thinking, “we’re gonna get hit” on the way out.

One of the units in the column was the local military police unit, who wrote a report afterward.

“The escort duty was made exceptionally difficult by the narrow, muddy, 18-mile defile that traversed the mountainous terrain from Vandergrift Fire Base to Khe Sanh; only multi-wheel-drive vehicles could travel the route,” wrote the official historian for the military police.

A member of the unit, Specialist Andrew Ross, put it more directly in an article.

The convoys had to travel along “the single-lane, winding roads carved high into the sides of the mountains. The 18-mile defile would be muddy, with only multi-wheel-drive vehicles allowed. Some of the vehicles would bog down, and the combat engineers located in the middle of the defile used bulldozers to keep the convoy moving.”

The journey took them along one of the regional highways toward the safety of other American bases. With them was a unit of military police, a battery of artillery and a group of South Vietnamese.

Mederios’ intuition was right. When the convoy departed, the NVA were preparing to make sure they never left the valley.

With a unit of military police in the lead, Mederios and the rest headed out along the road. Manning the M-60 atop a truck, Mederios tracked the fields of buffalo grass and saw a grove of tall eucalyptus trees up ahead.

It was there he remembers being positive the attack would happen, in large part due to its military usefulness. Soon, fire from machine guns, rocket launchers and rifles swept the column.

Mederios remembers seeing two men crawling through the grass, one with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Knowing that his vehicle would be next, he swung the machine gun toward them.

“I took care of them,” he said.

From there, time blurs together in machine gun fire, Americans falling and helicopters roaring past with machine-guns and rockets.

The attack continued and he found himself without ammunition. Ahead was a jeep he knew was carrying more, although it had been hit earlier by enemy fire.

He made his way from his position, looking for ammunition and finding what appeared to be three corpses.

He flipped one man over and discovered his lungs were exposed. But that did not mean the man was dead. Madeiros got together as much plastic as he could to cover the injury. This would, hopefully, create a seal and allow the man’s lungs to keep working.

Another man had his throat shot through and Mederios tried to plug it with what he had — cigarettes.

But he was a combat engineer, not a medic, and his M-60’s silence was leaving a gap for the North Vietnamese to exploit. He rushed back to the gun and continued firing, until they were finally relieved by Sheridan light tanks.

The 17-ton tanks, designed to be dropped from the air and vulnerable to heavy machine gun fire, were enough to allow the Americans to make their way out. That was enough and the survivors left the area.

When Medeiros got back into base, he remembered going past the helicopter hangers.

Here, burned by a distant sun, filthy with foreign soil and drained by the battle, he heard the sound of ukulele music.

A longtime friend working on the same helicopters that had roared over Madeiros was there, re-arming the machines.

There were more engagements and efforts, including trying to save a leaking fuel tanker and removing mines, but Medeiros’ tour ended and he came home to his young wife. Since then Medeiros has become an activist for Vietnam veterans.

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He said he was fortunate that a lot of the more notorious parts of Vietnam happened to him because his base was somewhat isolated, limiting the contact with the local population. His immediate commander also made sure he had several trips out of Vietnam to see his bride.

Those helped him come through changed, but without many of the mental wounds his fellow veterans did.

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