It's Armed Forces Day, and Memorial Day is not far behind.

Ever hear of tunnel rats? They might just have been some of the most courageous U.S. military men in Vietnam. Only small men were allowed to execute this job, but their contributions were huge and their courage unquestioned.

Bobby Carpenter graduated from James Island High in 1964. Two years later, he joined the Marines. In January 1969, he was sent to Vietnam, all 5 feet 4 inches and 140 pounds of him.

The Vietcong built an elaborate network of tunnels throughout the countryside. They were specialists in delivering hit-and-run raids. Escape was facilitated by vanishing into a tunnel. Some of these tunnels might lead to air-raid shelters, hospitals and kitchens. The tunnels were used for surprise attacks and to store weapons and food. What the enemy didn't want in their tunnels were Americans.

For reasons that still don't make sense to Carpenter, now 66, he “got elected” to jump down a hole while his unit was on patrol one day. From that moment on, Carpenter was a tunnel rat.

Dangerous mission

A pistol, flashlight and hand grenade. That's all the tunnel rat would have when he dropped into the hole. That, and a deep understanding that each trip might be the last one. Tunnel entrances often were booby-trapped. A few feet into the darkness, there might be a stick-triggered grenade. Sometimes, snakes were placed in bamboo tubes. A trip-wire would release the hungry, poisonous snake into the tunnel.

The Army tried gassing and flooding the tunnels, but with little success. The only sure way to make that tunnel nonfunctional was to send in the “rat” and set off explosives.

For Carpenter, what he hated most was a tunnel with a curve in it. It was tough enough in the darkness with only a flashlight, .45 pistol and a hand grenade. On most trips, he would be lowered into the hole by his ankles and would be gone about 30 minutes. His buddies waited up top for his return. Luckily, Carpenter always came back. Not all tunnel rats did.

He spent a year in Vietnam, most of it on his hands and knees crawling in the darkness. A gunshot in that confined space was deafening and left a horrible ringing in the ears. But this Marine still bristles more at what he heard when he came back home.

Even now, Carpenter struggles to understand why people would yell hurtful things to those who fought at that time. As he says, “I did my time and served my country.”

'This is what I did'

Carpenter returned to James Island after his four-year hitch and took a job at the Navy yard and started raising a family. He doesn't deal with nightmares or bad memories and will talk about some of the experiences, but only if prodded. He never mentioned his tunnel rat days in letters back home to his wife. She didn't even know he got a Purple Heart until she noticed a scar where shrapnel was removed from his back.

The Marine from Riverland Terrace remains proud of his service but rarely reveals his role as a tunnel rat. As he recalls, “A lot of people did different things; this is what I did.”

It takes an uncommon sense of duty and a giant helping of courage to do what he did. When Carpenter's patrol unit would discover a hole, the sergeant often would bark, “Get the rat up here!”

We should raise a glass and give words of thanks to all who answered the call. If you ever bump into a tunnel rat, keep in mind how big a contribution these little guys made.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com