For 45 years, Army veteran Nick Sanza was unable to speak about his experiences during the Vietnam War, saying his job was too dangerous and the required security clearance needed to be read in was too high.
On Saturday, Sanza informed a crowd of fellow veterans and community members gathered at the Rowland Freedom Center in Vacaville that the information has since been declassified, allowing him to speak freely about being a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam.
He opened up during Rowland’s latest “Faces of Freedom” speaker series, which drew a throng of about 50 to the military and aviation museum.
Through videos and his own memories, the tale of the tunnel rats was finally revealed.
As Sanza tells it, he comes from a lineage strong in military service.
His great, great grandfather fought in the War of 1812,; his grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War; his father, Francis “Jeep” Sanza, was General George S. Patton’s personal driver in World War II; he served in Special Ops during Vietnam; and his son, Tony, was a sniper in Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia.
“I was 18,” Sanza explained, of when he began his military career. “I was 5’4, 130 pounds.”
A significant detail, considering the cryptologist, based in Germany, was chosen to undergo highly specialized training by the Defense Intelligence Agency to become a tunnel rat.
The job had initially seemed intriguing, he said, as he’d grown up loving the outdoors.
“On my grandma’s ranch she had hills,” he told the crowd. Hills and valleys that he climbed and tunneled into.
“No one knew what we did,” he recalled, adding that he was guarded by a team at all times.
He explained that he would enter tight, darkened tunnels dug by the Vietnamese and enter quarters used for hospitals, equipment storage and hiding prisoners of war. His job was to find, potentially rescue, or document the deaths of POWs.
By all accounts it was a job requiring extensive skill, quick thinking and mental and physical toughness. A skinny blade and a simple bamboo pole were his weapons of choice, the easier to get in and out and do what needed to be done.
Sanza talked about using the pole to detect potential booby traps, disengage snakes hiding near the ceiling to kill with their venom and more. If the ground was wet, he wouldn’t enter, he advised, as that meant the area could have been flooded at one point. However, if the dirt was dry, it likely was used as a pathway.
“You never knew what was gonna be there,” he emphasized, including landmines. Indicating the pole, he added, “This thing really saved my life many, many times.”
When POWs were killed, they were often left in the tunnels, Sanza said. The remains of those who have yet to be found are likely still there.
“I went into 28 tunnels and eight caves and I found 21 dead,” he pointed out.
An American team is currently in Vietnam in search of POWs in the tunnels. Sanza has been tapped to head over if necessary, he said, explaining that he is duty bound to help.
“Will I go into the tunnels?” he pondered. “Yes.”
Anything for the POWs, he said.
The work was hard and isolating, he continued, and one did what they had to do to survive.
“It was a different world and people didn’t understand what we did,” he mused, adding that early tunnel rats had little training and had a 3% survival rate.
He remembered a time when he accidentally set off a booby trap and had time to back up, but a spike shot through one leg. Other times, he crawled in on his back because the tunnels were so narrow.
Sanza documented finds with a tiny camera and passed the information on before continuing on his journey.
Just a quarter of those that served as tunnel rats are still alive, he said.
Sanza is currently working on a book about the tunnel rats and he already has a publisher lined up. He is also a volunteer with the Rowland Freedom Center.
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