#20 The Cu Chi tunnels, and Steven Stofko — for my Nam vet friends

A smile of relief after getting out of the tunnel

Post # 20 from SE Asia

February 23rd, 2010

The Cu Chi Tunnel Complex, and my high school friend, Steven Stofko

The Cu Chi Tunnel Complex:

45 km. north west of Saigon lies the most extensive tunnel complex ever made by man for habitation. All told, at its peak usage, there were 200 km of tunnels and over 500 rooms. There were underground hospitals, kitchens, munitions manufacturing complexes, food storage, and all the other things needed for living and sustaining a war. The complex was up to 12 meters deep. It withstood direct hits by B-52 bombing. The US did not begin to realize its size and complexity until after Bob Hope performed ON TOP OF IT. Our guide today, Binh, said that the Viet Cong heard the performance.
The US had at least 3 military camps on top of it. They could not figure out where the hostile fire was coming from for a long time. Initially US had some success with trained dogs finding the minuscule entrances. But the VC quickly found that if they spread soap and shampoo that they bought at the US military PXs, the dogs would ignore the entrance. The tunnels now smelled friendly to the dogs. The US also had our ‘tunnel rats’. They were wiry, tough, smaller soldiers who actually volunteered to enter the tunnels and fight. I could not imagine a more horrific means of combat. The tunnels were literally booby trapped with bombs, spikes, traps, poison, scorpions, and COBRAS! It was their psy-ops against our troops.
So I paid $9 for a 6 hour tour of the complex. On a large, completely booked bus, I was the only US citizen on it. We were first treated to a black-and-white documentary filmed in 1967 showing them fighting. At one point, a young girl of about 14 years old is receiving a reward for killing an American. They had medals for killing a man, destroying a tank, and shooting down helicopter or plane. The rhetoric of the film was wartime propaganda at its strongest.

Then we went to the bamboo-lined entrance of a tunnel. It was about 10″ by 18″ straight down into a black hole. Binh asked if anyone was willing to go. “It is only a 15 meter crawl. Take the first right and the second left, and just keep going and going until you find the exit”. Binh said that the VC always made false branches at the beginning of a tunnel where the wrong way led a stranger into some terrible trap. “But we have dismantled this trap” he smiled.
I had forgotten to bring my flashlight. One look and I thought ‘no f*ing way am I going in’. It didn’t help that I truly do suffer from a very real claustrophia from having spent about 41 days in solitary confinement in a black, 5′ X 5′ prison punishment cell in Mexico. PTSD imprinted into me for life. Then two young slender Brits slide in the hole. They come out a minute later saying that they were lost. I think to myself “Go with your fear. Face it straight on.” Impulsively I go up to the entrance and try to slide down. I can barely fit in. You have to hold both of your arms straight up to slip thru. Remember, these tunnels were made by people considerably smaller than us. They deliberately made it tight for them so that it would be impossible for us. Three crawls into the tunnel and it is complete darkness. The air is hot and humid and very heavy. I feel with my hands. It is about 2 feet wide and 30 inches high. I keep moving until.my head hits a dead end. I turn right and the tunnel descends. The two Brits had re-entered the tunnel behind me. They have their cell phones out and are using them for light. But it doesn’t help me, the blind leader. I keep going. I hear a flutter. A bat is in my hair! I shake my head and brush it loose. Dirt falls from the roof of the cave into my hair, on my back, all over. My head hits the wall. I am at a dead end. I must have missed the left turn. I want to turn around and leave. I am talking constantly to the Brits. I pull up into a ball and manage to turn around. I tell the Brits I have missed the turn and let’s get out. As I am coming back, I feel a large hole now on my right. Maybe that is the passage that I missed. But I no longer want to find out. The Brits want to follow it, but I want out. NOW. I am panicking. Not pleasant to say, but true. I tell the Brits to turn around and go out. They comply, simply because they have no choice. They cannot pass by me. There is not room for that. Forever later to me, we climb out of the hole. I am soaked with sweat and the dirt and fear that has dissolved into mud all over me. I push out of the hole and breathe the fresh air. Oh I would rather die on the surface than live in a hole like that. The two Brits go back in for a third time. A few minutes later, they emerge from the exit hole. One of them tells me that the passage I found at the end was it. I was just 3 meters from the exit. I’ll take their word for it.

Ian, the Brit in front of me, got this pic while using his camera as a flashlight

Then we go and visit a replica of a hospital, a weapons factory,and a smokeless underground kitchen. More fascinating to the guests were the examples of all the traps that the VC made. They were as elaborate as the were threatening. These spiked traps could and did literally kill. They used the body’s weight in falling to impale and poison. Binh said “this was psy-ops too. The opposition learned not to run fast or chase. And when they slowed down, we had better shots at them.” Binh said that there was one tunnel where the men had to crawl 7 kilometers to exit. The troops would then surprise attack, and then crawl 7 kilometers back to safety. And I broke down at 10 meters.
Later we go to a larger tunnel, of about 3′ wide and 40″ high. It is a 100 meters long. This one has some electric lights. I go back in with the two Brits. It is extremely hot and muggy from the start. The tunnel drops down into a few large underground rooms, tightens to about 2 feet wide, gets completely dark again, then climbs back up. It takes us about 10 minutes I think to complete it. It may have been faster than that, but it seems longer. Thruout its length, there are 4 ‘panic’ exits. Several Swedes behind me took the panic exits. When we exit, I am again so relieved.
The guide Binh and I talk. He asks me not to be offended at the first film. He says that they must show this film. Orders from above. He says that many US veterans have come here. He asks them not to be offended either. He says that they understand. He says that this experience is much more emotional for US veterans than for Vietnamese veterans.

Steven Stofko 1965

Steven Stofko in Vietnam

But there is one US veteran who came here once, and will not be coming back again.

Anyone from Highland High School remember Steven Stofko, class of 1965? Well, Steve and I were good friends. Our older brothers, Wayne and Jody, ran around together and were best of friends. I knew their parents, and our parents knew each other.

In the late summer of 1967, my mother called me to tell me that Steve had been killed in Vietnam. Silence. What would I say to their parents, to Jody? I didn’t know how to deal with this at all.
My brother Wayne was in the navy when he had a non-military accident while driving in Highland, Indiana. On November 15th, 1964, Wayne was left paralyzed quadriplegic for life, with organic brain damage that caused anterograde amnesia. This meant that Wayne had good memory up until the accident, but he could not remember events after the accident. Wayne was unconscious at Heins Veterans Hospital in Chicago for 7 months. We visited him regularly. He slowly came out of it. And what came back was nothing close to my dear brother Wayne. He was now forever a ‘basketcase’. As my dad and I regularly visited, we watched all of the other ‘basketcases’ arriving from Vietnam. With them, we saw their terribly grieving relatives. Their shock and pain, their broken hearts, their depression, tears and devastation. Why, they looked just like us.
“This war don’t make no sense” my dad barked at me one day in the hospital. My dad hardly ever cried. The men of my father’s generation, the World War II generation, were like that.  They had already seen enough to harden them forever.  I had only seen my dad cry once in my life, when my baby brother Dale died. But now, dad cried all the time when he saw Wayne. And the war didn’t make any sense to me either. I was against it early on.

Later, I would get arrested in an anti-war demonstration.  When I saw my dad the next time, he was raging at me. His face was red as he charged up to me, like he had done so many times before.

“‘You GODDAMNED COM-MA-NIST!  I ought to punch you good.”‘

If he had, it wouldn’t have been the first time.

‘”Now git outta here!”‘  He pointed to the door.

So I left.  We hardly talked for six years, until I made about the worst phone call a son could ever make to his parents, from deep within a prison in Mexico.  I was now asking for help.  And dad would be there for me 100% all the way.  But this is another story.

When we brought my brother Wayne home from the hospital, Jody Stofko came by to visit.  Wayne spoke hesitatingly to Jody about high school things.  Wayne’s speech was forever damaged.  They joked together.  Jody was happy to see Wayne.  Then Jody came by a few weeks later to visit Wayne again.  But Wayne had absolutely zero recall of Jody’s first visit.  Jody appeared devastated.  For Wayne, the date would forever be November 15th, 1964.  It was difficult for Jody to visit again.

Corporal Steven Stofko was stationed in Dau Tieng, in Tay Ninh province. As best as I can gather to this point, on the night of August 1st, 1967, his platoon was on night patrol when they were attacked. They were near the Cu Chi tunnel complex when it happened. And Steven died. Since all military actions by the VC in this province were headquartered in the tunnels, most likely Steve’s opponents used these very tunnels.

In 1987, we drive to Washington DC. I visit the most profoundly noble war memorial I have ever seen, the Vietnam War Memorial. A very polite, helpful uniformed soldier there takes me to Steven’s etched name. I make a number of etchings. When I return home, I mail copies of the etchings along with a long letter to the Stofko family. It had been 20 years coming.  I simply have not had the whatever to visit them. Too much sadness. Shortly thereafter I get a long hand-written letter from Mrs. Stofko. She is so kind and decent. I could feel the mother’s tears in the paper I then held.  Sorrow, sorrow, and more sorrow. Enough to make a grown man cry.  I did.

I leave the Cu Chi tunnel tour early and go off into the woods alone. I make a little mound of dirt and leaves. I open a plastic bag I have brought with me and I take out of it a photocopy of a photo I found of Steven. I put the photo on top of the little mound. I pull out some flowers I had brought along with me, now wilted, and set them around the photo. I light a stick of incense and set it into the mound. Then I take a rice ball and I spread it out around the mound. I put my hands in prayer position and bow to Steven.

I hear the tour bus driver calling.

I still miss you Steven, wherever you are. Mostly in my memories, I guess.

9 Responses to #20 The Cu Chi tunnels, and Steven Stofko — for my Nam vet friends

  1. Dwight, don’t know if you remember me or not, my brother (John) was in your class? I do remember your brother (so sorry to hear of his tragedy) and Jody Stofko, don’t know that I knew Steven. I was touched by your ceremony for him in that never to be forgotten foreign land (was stationed in Siagon in’72), I am sure he was looking down and watching it all. Lanny Wells pointed out your website, I have enjoyed reading of your trip and am very envious, will continue to read more as posted, thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us.

  2. Dwight
    what a great journey dont ever get to the
    destination just keep going forward.You
    are a very good rider and writer when you
    put it all in place life is very good.
    god bless you on your journey.

  3. Dwight! I am still following the journey and read everything you put down on paper. It is like reading a novel and I don’t want the story to end. You need to think about when you return getting that book started. Keep pedaling my friend and stay safe. Your friend! Lanny

  4. Great blog! I want to see your “About” section have a photo of you and your bike though… 🙂

  5. Hi Dwight,
    Ian (one of the Brits in the tunnel), it was great to meet you on the tunnel tour. It was good to hear about your exploits so far and now we know your blog will read the remaining adventures to come.
    Well done for doing the tunnels, if you want I can send a copy of the bat photo.
    All the best for the future,
    Ian & Paula

  6. Robert Bennett (Class of 66)

    Dwight, like you, I was a close friend of Steves. In fact I visited his grave two weeks ago while I was in Indiana. I was also one of Steve’s Pallbearers. Four years ago I was posting on the Vietnam Memorial site and I had a guy who was with Steve in Vietnam contact me. The grenade story that the Government gave us was a lie. Steve was diving for his foxhole while under attack. A new recruit who had just came in that day accidentally shot him while he was running to his foxhole. He was killed by friendly fire. I just thought you would like to hear the truth about how our friend died. Sorry to hear about your brother.

    • dwight

      Hello Robert
      Thank you for responding about my HS buddy, Steve Stofko. His death disturbs me even more. As you know, I did visit the tunnels of Cu Chi and I left him a memorial. It was hard for me to face his family. Just too much grief. If we live long enough, that is one of the feelings we have left. I appreciate your being Steve’s pallbearer.
      Fighting over the tunnels of Cu Chi had to be living hell. You never knew where you would be attacked next. There was no safe ground.

      I wish you well in your current life, Robert.


      Dwight Worker

  7. Marvin Plumlee

    Hello Dwight, I became interested in the person you are After watching the program Locked Up Abroad. I was curious to see if you were still with your angel that saved your life in Mexico. You must have nerves of steel and what a fantastic woman to help you. I stumbled upon your story of visiting the tunnels and I must say you are a great storyteller and writer. Your way of storytelling is very compelling and kept me engaged and wanting more. I’m sorry you had some rough times in your life. I guess we all do. I hope all is going well for you now and I just wanted to say happy trails my friend. You never know what life is going to throw at us but it’s all about how you take it on.
    Best regards, Marvin Plumlee , California U.S.A

    • dwight

      Hello Marvin
      Thank you for your kind words. Barbara is now living in France, with, unfortunately, some serious health problems. I am loyal to her, but unfortunately, after many years, we are not together. Mostly her decision. I am here , sending much time with kids and grandkids. I want you to know that I have kept a ‘clean nose’ since Mexico, working the whole time until retirement, paying taxes, no arrests at all. Scared straight.
      Tell me, Marvin, are you a Nam vet? You sound like you might be.


      Dwight Worker

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