Dolls simulate the living conditions of the Vietnamese who fought in the Vietnam War and hid in the Cu Chi tunnels around Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. Photo: AFP / Joaquin Gomez / Sastre / NurPhoto

Ken Olson followed his Vietnamese guide into the tortuously twisted tunnels beneath Cu Chi, Vietnam. Olson, who had spent a career studying soils in America’s Midwest, touched the walls of the underground cocoon. “They were smooth, hardened soil, like concrete,” he recalls. “I could only imagine what it must’ve been like in the dark tunnels when the bombs were dropping.”

Now 72 and retired, Olson has presented a paper in Lubbock at the Texas Tech Vietnam Center and Sam Johnson Archive, which houses the largest collection of information on the Vietnam War outside the US National Archives. One of the center’s events was the forum “1968 and the Tet Offensive” on the 50th anniversary of that battle that many believe doomed the US cause in the war.

Earlier, Texas Tech University had created the Institute for Peace and Conflict to help support the Vietnam Center and Archive. In 2018 the institute said in a news release that events of recent years “have brought the issues of peace and conflict to the forefront of American society.”

Olson’s paper was called “Why Were the Soil Tunnels of Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle So Resilient?” (The Iron Triangle region was north of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.) He gave a copy – translated by three scholars in Hanoi – to Vietnamese officials attending the Texas Tech conference.

Last October he traveled to Hanoi to present his second Vietnam War–related paper at Vietnam National University.

That one focused on soils and sediment contaminated in Vietnam by the deadly Agent Orange dioxin used by US forces as a defoliant. The paper is being translated into Vietnamese and will be placed in national archives and public libraries in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

The tunnels comprised a crucial strategy for the Communists. The Viet Cong used these tentacle-like labyrinths to attack American forces in Saigon and elsewhere during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, in 1968. The subterranean passages stretched for hundreds of kilometers.

Today they are a national memorial, replete with rifle range and gift shop. When he crawled through them two years ago, Olson marveled at how the Viet Cong survived. “They had to deal with snakes, scorpions, malaria – and when American bombs fell, the tunnels were echo chambers which caused the Vietnamese soldiers to lose their hearing,” he says.

Olson was an army enlisted man from 1969-73, serving at bases in the US but hyper-aware of Vietnam, where he could have been deployed any time. US involvement in the war dwindled and Olson never got there. Years later, he became a professor of soil science at the University of Illinois. His years studying the landscapes along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers revived his interest in the make-up of the sprawling Mekong River and its delta in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

He continued to research the 4,300-kilometer-long Mekong River, then wrote four academic papers analyzing the soil, landscape, flooding and geology of the region. They’re available in English, and the Vietnamese version can be downloaded from open-source sites. He’s also seeking Hanoi’s approval to have them distributed in Vietnamese universities “as an educational and historical gift.”

Today, thanks to this soft-spoken professor emeritus, more people in both the US and Vietnam can better understand how tunnel vision shaped the destinies of two nations.

Mike Tharp

Mike Tharp is a former Tokyo-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review and US News & World Report. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star. He now writes about veterans and other issues for The Dallas Morning News.

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