Don Miller was a Vietnam “Tunnel Rat.” It had to be the worst job an American soldier could have in the Southeast Asian war.
“I was a ‘Tunnel Rat’ three times. I got volunteered to be a rat because of my size,” he said.
“They gave me a .45 pistol, a flashlight, a pair of ear plugs and sent me down into those tunnels the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) and VC (Vietcong) dug. I was scared,” the 67-year-old North Port, Fla. man admitted decades later.
“I searched three tunnels,” he said. “The first one started as a cave opening in the jungle two-feet wide and four-feet tall. I went in a short way, found nothing, turned around and came back out.”
It was his second adventure underground that frightened him most. He discovered three enemy in the dark at gun point.
“When I climbed into the tunnel I could hear someone yelling, ‘Cho Lai, Cho-Lai’ –‘We Surrender, We Surrender.’
“I found a North Vietnamese hospital underground in that tunnel. And these three guys were apparently working as nurses. They had no guns and there were no patients,” he said.
“When I got to the three guys I was holding my .45 in my shaking hands pointed their way. I checked ’em out but they had no weapons. I made them walk out of the tunnel in front of me.
“The underground hospital was an area about four feet square and it ran back into the tunnel,” Miller recalled. “The hospital equipment, right down to the gauze, was our stuff they had captured.
“The VC or NVA hung deadly ‘Step-and-a-half vipers’ from the top of the tunnel. They would tie them by the tails so they could bite you in the back of neck. If they did that was it for you. That’s why they called ’em ‘Step-and-a-half vipers,’ Once you got bitten you were good for about a step-and a half,” Miller explained.
“I saw a few of the snakes hanging in the tunnel, but they were all dead.”
For his bravery as a “Tunnel Rat” Miller received no recognition. It was all in a day’s work in Vietnam.
He went to ‘Nam in July 1967, right out of high school, as a member of the 365th Engineering Battalion. His official military assignments were mechanic and truck driver. What struck Miller when he arrived in Saigon aboard a civilian airliner was the smell.
“The stench was so bad when I got off the plane I could hardly believe it. Eventually you got use to the smell and didn’t think much about it,” he said.
“We were taken by truck to Red Beach. The 365th battalion headquarters was midway up the coast at Red Beach. They put us aboard another truck when we got there and trucked us 34 miles up into the mountains to a small base camp about 50-acres in size at Don Duong.”
He spent the first few months in Vietnam helping to build a black top road that ran from Red Beach to the Cambodian border. It was a distance of approximately 25 miles.
“I had to drive back and forth on the road from Red Beach to Don Duong with equipment. It wasn’t a good job because I was targeted by the NVA and the VC on several occasions while driving,” he said. “Bullets were flying by my head.”
Miller put in for a new assignment. They made him a tower guard with an M-60 machine-gun at the battalion’s mountain camp. He liked the job because he fell in love with his machine-gun.
After working as a tower guard at Don Duong, he was transferred to a similar position at An Khe. An Khe was a huge Army base that encompassed 18 miles around its parameter.
It was there Miller survived the “Tet Offensive.” Tet was when thousands of NVA and VC attacked most of the major military installations in South Vietnam at one time. It was a military disaster for the troops of the north, but they scored a substantial political victory that eventually resulted in the U.S. pullout of Vietnam.
“The enemy began their attack at An Khe by shooting mortars into the compound. Then they broke through the perimeter fence and were running around inside. They blew up the ammo dump, but none of them escaped alive,” he said.
“One Sunday we were sitting in the compound at An Khe playing cards and drinking beer when we heard this swishing sound fly over. We looked up and saw a giant artillery round going over. It was from one of our battleships off shore firing at coordinates on a map 32 miles away,” he said. “All of a sudden the next round hit close to us with this humongous explosion. They hadn’t put enough powder in the charge and it fell short.
“Booby traps were another problem. The enemy hid punji sticks all over the place. They were bamboo sticks dipped in feces. If you got cut by one your foot or leg would become infected,” he said.
“My sergeant and I were walking in the jungle during a search and destroy mission when he stumbled and fell. About the time he hit the ground a spring-loaded punji stick flew right over his head. He was lucky to be alive.”
Miller would often volunteer to hide out in the bush and protect bridges his outfit just installed. The enemy worked overtime to blow them up.
“I was pretty good with an M-16 rifle,” the old soldier said.
On his way home from Vietnam, instead of taking a Army truck to Da Nang, he hitchhiked. It was a dumb, risky thing to do, but he did it anyway.
“I had a couple of grenades, four clips of M-16 ammunition for my rifle and a shotgun with me. A Vietnam guy in a pickup stopped and drove me all the way to Da Nang. He dropped me right outside the base.”
Miller flew into San Francisco, changed into civilian clothes at the airport and escaped the confrontation with Vietnam War protesters. After spending a few days with a war buddy in California he flew back to Oneida, N.Y., his home town.
“I got my old job back at Oneida Silversmith Co. I had been a mail boy when I left. Eventually I worked my way up to Mail Manager for the company,” he said. “I had to retire early because of Parkinson’s Disease.”
He and his wife, Cheri, moved to North Port this year, 2015. They have two children: Megan and Kristen.
Name: Donald Charles Miller
D.O.B: 4 Aug. 1947
Hometown: Oneida, NY
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: July 1967
Discharged: 13 May 1969
Rank: Specialist 4th Class
Unit: 365th Engineering Battalion
Battles: Vietnam; Tet
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, June 15, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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