During the Vietnam War, the Americans discovered the vast tunnel complexes the Viet Cong had built underground. Steadily increasing pressure from American ground and air power had literally pushed the Reds underground, and they had carved out a subterranean Viet Nam that was every bit as complex as the surface one.
At first, American troops simply destroyed the Red tunnel complexes. Then it became evident that intelligence, food, even weapons could be retrieved from them. Thus four-man teams called "the Tunnel Rats" were formed.
The Tunnel Rats were combat engineers. They were volunteers and had to be small and thin, and highly skilled at hand-to-hand combat. The job was to kill, capture or entomb Viet Cong with explosives.
The tunnel rats didn't have much with them when they enter the tunnels. A tunnel rat was equipped with only a standard issue .45 caliber pistol, a bayonet and a flashlight PLUS a whole lot of guts, although most tunnel rats were allowed to choose another pistol with which to arm themselves. They were forbidden ever to fire off more than three shots in a row so that the enemy wouldn't know if they had run out of ammunition.
Smoke grenades were for use when the Tunnel Rats are ready to emerge, and want to avoid a bullet from a startled American's rifle.
I got the basic nude 12-inch figure from China Square Central and kitbashed my own 1:6 version of a Vietnam Tunnel Rat. This figure is actually from the 21st Century Toys Ultimate Soldier 1st Air Cavalry Division "Tunnel Rat" (Vietnam) boxed set which had the Figure with mask (one piece molded), Type 1 OG-107 utility shirt, Type 3 tropical combat uniform trousers, Tropical combat boots, Leather Belt, Rope, Rat, Cutdown M1 carbine with 30-round magazine, 1 quart plastic canteen with M1956 cover, MX-991/U anglehead flashlight, .22 cal. Hi-Standard pistol with holster, Suppressed .38 revolver with holster, Square tip bolo knife and sheath, M7A3 CS riot tear gas grenades (x2) and Baker knife and sheath. I couldn't get hold of the boxed set but figured I only needed the nude body with the molded mask to kitbash a Vietnam war tunnel rat.
21st Century Toys 12-inch Ultimate Soldier figures were popular back in the late 90s because there just wasn't any other 1:6 offerings then but as the collectors' market grew, more and more 1/6 companies got on board and offered better quality stuff than what 21st Century Toys were producing and so demand dwindled and soon supply slowed until 21st Century Toys stopped producing 1/6 scale figures.
What made this figure unique was the molded gas mask which was a 1969 Riot Control Gas Mask issued to troops in Vietnam. The Vietnam Gas mask was issued as a ONE TIME USE gas mask but the mask had the capabilities of being used more than once due to the high quality and high grade products used in making these masks.
The mask made the wearer look like a rodent. Perhaps that's how the moniker came about. Instead of equipping the figures with removable masks, 21st Century Toys' 12-inch Ultimate Soldier figures usually came with molded masks. The mask also makes this figure most ideal for a Post-apocalyptic era kitbash.
These guys would hold the torchlight away from their bodies when they were crawling in the tunnels. That way when the enemy shoots at the light in the utter darkness, there's a better chance of survival.
Lean and as ascetic as the VC they hunted, the Tunnel Rats eschewed anything that would deaden their senses, even cologne or chewing gum. The knife or bayonet, weapons as old as war itself, determined whether they lived or died. Booby traps had to be felt for in pitch darkness. Long dormant instincts were rehoned. Fingertips and ears became what walking sticks are to the blind.
"Massive fear - that was the key," recalled Jack Flowers, a one-time war resister who became a highly decorated Army officer. Flowers served as "Rat Six" in in 1969, commander of the crack Tunnel Rat unit of the 1st Infantry Division. He went down 97 holes after Viet Cong, each time in terror.
"You had to control and direct the fear. You made each movement with infinite care. Your senses never were more acute. In the tunnels, your adrenalin was pumping like a river. I swear I could hear my heart beating. We'd enter the tunnel one at a time, separated by several feet, so a grenade wouldn't get us all. You'd feel your way along for booby traps. It got so you could sense them. The same for VC. You could smell another human being in the tunnel. You knew he was waiting for you in the dark. Many times, I tried to talk VC into surrendering. They never would."
Besides VC, Charlie also would tie a bamboo viper inside a piece of bamboo with a piece of string. As the Tunnel Rat went through, he'd knock it, and the snake would come out and bite him in the neck or face. The VC also set out boxes of scorpions with a trip wire that would open the box. Hornets, centipedes, great moving masses of black spiders, bats and even rats that carried bubonic plague were encountered in the tunnels.
Once explored, the tunnels are ready for demolition. A crystallized riot agent called CS (O-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), developed by the British for mob control, is blasted throughout the tunnel, sticking to walls and floors. When it is disturbed by returning Reds, it gets into the respiratory system and causes nausea and painful burns.
UPDATE January 31, 2012 - Click HERE to see pictures of the original 21st Century Toys 1st Air Cavalry Division Tunnel Rat (released 2002) which I managed to snag for just FIVE Singapore dollars :) - see also picture below (clicking it will bring you to the blog post as well - CHEERS)