COLUMBIA, S.C. – They were called “tunnel rats.” Their job was to crawl, alone with a flashlight and pistol, into the tight, claustrophobic tunnels that the Vietcong dug to hide in – and kill the enemy.
The job was voluntary. But once a soldier volunteered for the duty once, he became the expert, and again and again, he’d be called on to slither down into the nightmarish dark.
C.W. Bowman of 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 25th Division, was one of them. He will tell his story on Friday, March 29, at noon at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia. The free lecture, part of the museum’s Lunch and Learn series, is open to the public.
“Once you go in a tunnel, then any time we found another tunnel, they’d say, ‘Hey Bowman!’” he recalls. For a while there was another “rat” in the unit, but then he stepped on a Bouncing Betty mine, after which Bowman had the job exclusively.
“There weren’t that many tunnel rats. It’s not for everybody,” he notes. “You kind of get marked. You get the mystique of kind of being an insane person. Nobody messes with you.”
That’s not all he did that not everyone would want to do. When his unit was on the move, he always preferred to be the point man. “I’d rather walk point than with the noisy people in the back,” he says.
Aside from that, it was another job where experience counted: “I could see things other people wouldn’t see – booby traps and such,” he said. “You develop a sixth sense. You do. You start reverting back to your animalistic instincts.”
Today, when he tells someone he was a tunnel rat, they look him over with doubt in their eyes. That’s because those tunnels were tight, and he now weighs about 225 pounds. “They look at me kinda funny and get a grin on their faces.” So he tells them they’ve probably put on a few pounds in the last 52 years, too. When he was in Vietnam, he weighed 138 pounds, and had a 28-inch waist.
All of that happened during his first tour, from January-December 1967. When he came back for a second tour, “I got a jeep shot out from under me in Saigon.” It was the beginning of the Tet Offensive.
If you look up the Tet Offensive, you’ll realize that was just weeks after his first tour ended. Yes, he says, “I stayed drunk for 30 days and I went back.”
Originally from Bordentown, N.J., C.W. Bowman has called South Carolina home since 1973. He was drafted into the U.S. Army on Aug. 10, 1966, a month shy of his 20th birthday. After his Vietnam service, he was a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson.
He has a lot of interesting stories to tell. Come hear them on March 29.
About the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum
Founded in 1896, the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum is an accredited museum focusing on South Carolina’s distinguished martial tradition through the Revolutionary War, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the War on Terror, and other American conflicts. It serves as the state’s military history museum by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting South Carolina’s military heritage from the colonial era to the present, and by providing superior educational experiences and programming. It is located at 301 Gervais St. in Columbia, sharing the Columbia Mills building with the State Museum. For more information, go to https://crr.sc.gov/.
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