By Patricia Sullivan
THE WASHINGTON POSTMarch 22, 2008
Former Lt. Gen. Robert Haldane, an Army officer who led the battalion that discovered the infamous Cu Chi tunnels during the Vietnam War, died of cancer March 5 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 83. Gen. Haldane was a lieutenant colonel on Jan. 7, 1966, when he was in charge of the American infantry contingent of the 8,000-man U.S.-Australian Operation Crimp. His troops came under fire as soon as they landed near a rubber plantation about 25 miles northwest of Saigon and were mystified when the large numbers of enemy soldiers seemed to vanish in relatively open terrain.
For three days, the battalion combed the area. Troops found a large trench, cache after cache of rice and salt, a classroom for 100 men, minefields, foxholes and anti-aircraft artillery emplacements. The area was clearly home to a regiment-size force, but few Viet Cong were seen. Yet snipers continually harassed the Americans from within their own lines.
It wasn’t until Sgt. Stewart Green sat on a nail, which turned out to be attached to a wooden trap door perforated with air holes, that an ingeniously camouflaged tunnel entrance was found. Green, a wiry, 130-pound soldier, dropped into the tunnel and reported spotting 30 Viet Cong hiding just feet below the U.S. troops.
Gen. Haldane ordered red smoke grenades dropped into the entrance, and within minutes, “reports came in from every direction of red smoke appearing from numerous holes in the ground,” according to “Infantry in Vietnam” (1967), edited by Albert Garland. The smoke didn’t rout the enemy, so Gen. Haldane ordered his troops to pump in CS, a nonlethal riot control gas. The Viet Cong stayed put. Finally, Green re-entered the tunnel with a demolitions specialist, placed charges and hustled out of the tunnel before the earth exploded.
The tunnels twisted and turned to minimize the effect of explosions and to restrict assaults. They also contained booby traps. Ventilation holes were disguised as anthills. In the tunnels, baskets of grenades hid trap doors to three lower levels. Service records of 148 Viet Cong were found, as well as operating rooms, supply dumps, armories – everything needed to keep a large fighting force supplied.
The 125 miles of tunnels were later the scene of fierce hand-to-hand combat as American “tunnel rats” fought the Viet Cong in the dark, vermin-infested earth. In Operation Cedar Falls in 1967, 30,000 U.S. troops tried to destroy the tunnels, but historical sources say the Viet Cong used remaining parts of the underground complex as a staging area during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In 1970, B-52s dropped thousands of delayed-fuse bombs that buried deep into the ground before exploding, which finally ended the tunnels’ utility. The remnants of the Cu Chi tunnels are now a major tourist attraction in Vietnam.
Even as the tunnels were being discovered, fighting raged in the area. Gen. Haldane was awarded the Silver Star for his actions Jan. 15, 1966, when he rushed an enemy position while under fire to give first aid to wounded troops. The Viet Cong blocked his efforts to evacuate the wounded. His Silver Star citation said that “armed only with a .45 caliber pistol, Lieutenant Colonel Haldane fearlessly charged the principal Viet Cong strong point, firing his weapon as he ran forward. His dauntless courage inspired his men to complete the assault, and ensured the successful evacuation of the casualties as well as the seizure of the objective.”
Gen. Haldane served a second tour in Vietnam in 1968 as commander of the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division.
A native of Glen Rock, N.J., Gen. Haldane served in the Army Air Forces in England during World War II. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1947 and served in Germany, the United States and Korea before going to Vietnam in 1965.