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Guest Column: The Day We Found the Tunnel
Guest Column: The Day We Found the Tunnel

 
DefenseWatch

This article is provided courtesy of DefenseWatch, the official magazine for Soldiers For The Truth (SFTT), a grass-roots educational organization started by a small group of concerned veterans and citizens to inform the public, the Congress, and the media on the decline in readiness of our armed forces. Inspired by the outspoken idealism of retired Colonel David Hackworth, SFTT aims to give our service people, veterans, and retirees a clear voice with the media, Congress, the public and their services.

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September 8, 2003

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this commentary? Sound off here.]

By Michael E. Wikan

The ongoing tensions between North Korea and its neighbors and the United States are deeply rooted in the 50-year standoff on the divided peninsula. And if the crisis should tragically erupt into another war, one particular North Korean ploy from a quarter-century ago could come back to haunt the U.S. and South Korean militaries.

That is the suspected network of several dozen infiltration tunnels North Korea is feared to have dug beneath the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two nations.

While most probably a subject of ongoing concern within the United States and South Korean military and intelligence, most Americans are unaware of the plot. It is a subject that has fascinated me for more than 27 years.

That's because I was there when we found one of the first tunnels.

The incident occurred at a time in the mid-1970s when North Korea was engaged in repeated acts of hostility and violence against the South. They included three landings of assassination teams from North Korean submarines, several gunboat clashes off the northeast coast of the peninsula, heavy troop movements of North Korean Army forces to locations near the DMZ, a six-hour fighter jet standoff over the U.N.-controlled offshore islands, as well as bellicose rhetoric at Panmunjom during scheduled Armistice talks.

I was a major assigned to the newly created joint command that sagged under its extraordinarily lengthy title of United Nations Command/U.S. Forces Korea/Eighth U.S. Army (UNC/USFK/EUSA). Gen. Richard Stilwell was the commanding general. I worked in the J-3 Directorate, Current Operations, Ground Operations Division.

That unassuming staff job was what thrust me without warning into the mystery of the tunnels.

One Monday morning in March 1975, I arrived at my office in the far back confines of Yongsan's underground command bunker to find my boss, Lt. Col. Bailey Talbot, already at work reading messages and planning our week's efforts. Our South Korean liaison officer also was awaiting my arrival. He rose from his desk after the standard exchanges and told me that one Colonel Kim, the ROKA G-3 Operations Officer, would like me to come to his office that morning. Talbot looked quizzically at us, and I asked what the colonel wanted to see me about. Major Kim said he did not know the reason for the request. Less than an hour later I was at ROKA headquarters and Col. Kim invited me to his office for a cup of coffee and a private conversation. After pleasantries, he dropped a bombshell in my lap.

Kim's previous assignment was as a battalion commander of a ROK infantry battalion behind the DMZ. Years before that, he had been a company commander with the Whitehorse Division when it served in Vietnam. He was a blooded, veteran soldier who was educated as an engineer and who spoke excellent English.

The story Kim told had begun more than a year before. One day, one of his company commanders reported to him that his men were reporting sounds that were coming from underground. The company commander said that he had gone to the area his men identified but had not heard the sounds himself. Kim went to the field and visited the men who had reported the sounds and then went to that location himself with them. Upon arriving at the site, they heard sounds that sounded like very muffled pops.

From that day on, Kim directed a squad to camp over the area and report the time of the sounds, numbers and any patterns and locations. Over the next several weeks, the squad reported that there were two periods of sound activity each day, and - more interesting - the location of the sounds had moved south from the DMZ itself a measurable distance to the rear.

Kim quickly theorized that the North Koreans were digging a tunnel under the DMZ into South Korean territory. When he had collected enough information about the underground sounds, he went to his division commander, who then reported it up the ROKA chain of command.

But this was not an isolated incident Within a few weeks, ROK patrols reported sounds coming from the ground at multiple sites all along the DMZ.

During our meeting, Kim told me he estimated that the tunnels would be 6-8 feet tall and wide enough for a four-man front to double-time a battalion through the tunnels. He theorized that the enemy's ultimate plan was to extend the tunnels about a mile and a half behind the ROK Army front lines. They would remain concealed until the time of an attack from the north, when North Korean sappers would blow open each tunnel, allowing up to 35 battalions of North Korean infantry to suddenly materialize behind the South Korean front lines and envelop the ROK defenses. This would make a North Korean victory all but certain, Kim said.

Kim's revelation stunned me. In particular, I wondered as I walked back to my office, why did Kim tell this to me instead of my boss? Why hadn't the ROKA generals briefed this to the J-3 or to Gen. Stilwell directly? Was Kim's story credible? I decided that it was, but concluded that Kim's own superior officers themselves were not really certain of the theory. They must have directed Kim to tell someone who could convey the report to higher headquarters at United Nations Command but in such a way that if it turned out to be wrong, no one would be embarrassed and no one would "lose face."

Returning to Ground Ops, I related Kim's account to Lt. Col. Talbot. We kicked it around for a while then agreed that I would take the information to his boss, the Chief of Current Operations. Marine Col. Floyd Savage's response was the same as Talbot's: "Damn. Do you believe the story?" He asked me if I wanted him to come with me to see the J-3 Deputy, but I said that wasn't necessary.

I went across the hallway to wait in the J-3 Deputy's office and wait five minutes to talk with Maj. Gen. William Webb. The general was a smoker and when he got thoughtful, he lit a cigar instead of his normal cigarette. Before I left his office, his cigar was about finished and mine (thank you sir, I believe I shall) was about half-smoked. But I noticed I was walking upstairs alone to relay Kim's information to the CG. Webb called the Chief of Staff and less than ten minutes later, I was retelling Kim's story for the fourth time, to Stilwell himself.

Stilwell asked me if I believed the story and asked what I thought I should do. I told him I believed the story but had no idea what should be done next. After a minute of studying me he then said, "Well major, the project to find the tunnels is yours. Thank you." I saluted smartly and exited and then began climbing back down the chain of command, briefing Webb, Savage and Talbot on what Stilwell wanted.

The question was the same: "What did the CINC say?" I replied, "He told me to find a tunnel." Raised eyebrows: "Damn, how are you going to do that?" I did not know, of course.

But the hunt for the North Korean tunnels was on.

Talbot and I began by bombarding HQDA in the Pentagon with classified messages outlining the situation and requesting guidance from the Army Corps of Engineers. When the Corps responded with a message that essentially said, "Wait. Don't call us, we'll call you," we proceeded to ask HQDA to seek expert guidance from the civilian mining and oil-drilling industries.

But before we had a response to that message, fate intervened and we found our first tunnel!

At one location, the North Korean tunnel-blasters had screwed up and gotten too close to the surface, and a small bit of earth fell through from the top. Because it was winter and because the South Koreans still had squads camped out over the top of the suspected tunnel traces, one ROK soldier with sharp eyes noticed heat waves rising from the ground and went to the location to investigate.

When he heard voices coming up from the small hole, he fastened his bayonet to his rifle and probed - and more earth crumbled. When he fired his rifle into the hole, a volley of North Korean bullets flew back at him from the tunnel - and then silence. The South Korean squad reported the incident and dug a hole to open the tunnel, but no one entered.

I was oblivious to the event until Col. Savage called Lt. Col. Talbot to tell him of the discovery and to relate that members of the U.N. Armistice Commission were being sent to investigate the suspicious hole. I put on my coat, grabbed my hat and headed from the Ops Bunker to the Armistice Commission, where I found two of my friends, Navy Cmdr. Bob Bolling and Marine Maj. Tony Nastri, heading to catch a helicopter to investigate the tunnel.

I quickly filled them in on what was suspected, including the potential size and numbers of the tunnels. I also warned them not to enter the tunnel themselves until they had the South Korean troops enter to make sure no bad guys were there (as Armistice Officers, they could not carry arms themselves).

Less than two hours later I received word that Bob Bolling was dead and Tony Nastri was severely injured. There had been some sort of explosion. It wasn't until a week later that I was finally able to talk with Tony myself as he lay wrapped in gauze and plaster casts as a result of the multiple broken bones he had suffered in the blast.

Tony said that he and Bob had arrived to find a lot of South Koreans securing the hole in the ground but that none had entered and none wanted to enter the tunnel. The two officers shined flashlights into the hole and then, one at a time first Bob and then Tony entered the hole that had been dug by hand to get into the tunnel. Tony said they discussed my caution but had to ignore it in light of their mission to confirm the tunnel was what we suspected.

Bob lowered himself into the hole first, followed by Tony. Less than a minute later, a huge explosion went off that killed Bob instantly. The South Korean soldiers quickly pulled Tony out of the hole.

We never could determine the exact type of explosive device that was involved - whether a booby trap, mere blasting materials or a command-detonated mine. I have always believed they dug some blasting explosives into a sidewall and electrically detonated it from a distance.

For months afterwards, that tunnel was not entered and was just guarded by a company defending the opening.

Back at Yongsan the day after the tunnel opening, I was called to Maj. Gen. Webb's office where he told me that Gen. Stilwell was transferring responsibility for counter-tunnel operations to the J-2 (intelligence directorate) and that it was no longer my project. I was decidedly relieved to have been relieved of that duty.

Over the next few months, the command brought in a drilling crew and equipment to find and open more tunnels. The first tunnel found by the contract oil-drilling team was instructive, and set the tone for future finds.

The crew drilled a series of holes to a depth of about a hundred yards. The first hole was drilled off to the side, away from the suspected path of the tunnel. The second hole was drilled on the other side. Then the distances between the holes were halved and a third hole drilled, followed by halving the next distance until they figured the area had been covered. But there was a mystery: The drilling did not find an empty space where the tunnel should have been.

In the drilling, the core was brought to the surface where experts examined it. On one core, the nature of the content changed and, about 80-90 feet down a sharp-eyed driller spotted something unusual, so the core was broken apart and a few bits of straw were found embedded in the core sample.

The drillers' theory - later proved correct - was that the North Koreans had back-filled the tunnel some distance from where they calculated the counter-tunnel drilling was being done, and the backfill material included some straw, most likely residue from cooking fires.

By the time the summer had ended, the drillers had opened two additional infiltration tunnels, for a total of three.

What brought this memory back to me recently was a National Geographic magazine article on Korea noting that four tunnels have been detected, the fourth being found in 1990.

It made me realize that if North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il does attempt a military attack upon the south as a result of the current nuclear crisis, it could be that the tunnels of the Korean DMZ will yet play a role in that conflict.

You see, my South Korean acquaintance of so many years before, Col. Kim, did not believe that there were just a handful of infiltration tunnels reaching under the DMZ. Kim ultimately calculated that the North Koreans were digging 35 tunnels under the DMZ.

It's entirely possible that today they still wait, silent invasion routes leading behind the front lines of the South Korean Army.

[Have an opinion about the views expressed in this commentary? Sound off here.]

Michael E. Wikan retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1984 following a 20-year career that included service in Korea and Vietnam, where he earned two Silver Star medals and the Bronze Star for valor. He can be reached at hookfish@sprintmail.com. 2003 DefenseWatch. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.


 



 



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