At 5-foot-6 and 134 pounds, Tom Wityak could get into places his fellow Marines couldn’t. This was a valued trait in Vietnam.
They needed guys who could squeeze into the intricate network of tunnels where the enemy troops used to hide while storing and transporting their weapons, food and equipment.
Wityak became a tunnel rat.
“It was like a maze. You had to go by your wits,” the Southbury, Connecticut, resident said. “All you know was there’s a sun, and I hope to see it again.”
This was a voluntary unofficial duty. He was an infantryman, a so-called “grunt,” who walked point – at the front of his patrol – for his first month in Vietnam in September 1969. He would later carry a machine gun. When his unit asked for a volunteer to descend into a tunnel, he spoke up and described how he used to venture into the mountain caves in his hometown Seymour, Connecticut.
“The first time I ever went down they gave me a lighter and a Ka-Bar knife,” Wityak said. After that he told them he wouldn’t go back without a .45 pistol and a flashlight.
The mountainous tunnels he entered, from Danang all the way north to the Laotian border, were usually 2-by-2-feet and various depths – from hundreds of yards to thousands. They were more for hiding weapons and food. The infamous tunnels of Cu Chi and further south were more for moving men and equipment.
Armed with his .45, his knife and a flashlight, Wityak would descend into the hole face first. Sometimes the tunnel would go straight about 50 yards and then turn left or right. There might be a dead end and then an opening leading into another tunnel. He had to watch out for booby traps.
“Sometimes you kept going deeper and deeper. And you got to the point where you said there’s no sense in going any further because you could get stuck down there and they couldn’t get you out of there,” Wityak said.
As he descended, the hole would get smaller and smaller. Wityak, who received training in explosives, would find his way out, set a charge, and run to safety before the tunnel exploded.
In his six months as a tunnel rat, Wityak estimates he captured about 10 enemy fighters in their hideaways. He liked being able to transport his prisoners back to headquarters and then enjoy some needed rest in Danang.
“I don’t remember how many I killed,” he said. “I don’t really think that way.”
He entered one small tunnel which suddenly opened into a room which was about 5 feet high. Inside was a North Vietnamese soldier, wearing bandages and lying on a mat. Wityak and the soldier both looked at the soldier’s nearby AK-47 but Wityak reached it before he did. The soldier became Wityak’s prisoner. On another occasion, Wityak captured an NVA officer and two subordinates.
His most unusual find was a U.S. made Thompson machine gun. Wityak received a medal and citation for discovering a large cache of enemy weapons. He carried two sea bags which he filled with things he collected from tunnels but he didn’t get to bring most of them home.
The tunnels were all in the mountains including the Que Son Mountains, Charlie Ridge and Nu Son Sui.
“Some mountains we went on they wouldn’t tell us where we were. So we started putting names on them,” Wityak said. “In one month, in the summer of ’70, we had to climb 28 mountains in 28 days. So we called it Operation 28 Mountains in 28 Days.”
He spent a year in Vietnam with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division. The division was based in Danang and the regiment was based in An Hoa, which was about 30 miles southwest.
At 17 he graduated from Seymour High School in 1968. He joined the Marines when he turned 18 and entered with four friends from his Connecticut hometown: Steve Repko, Stan Ptak, Joe St. Onge and Terry Tabaka. They were recruited while playing pool at nearby Ansonia, Connecticut. All five returned home from their respective tours in Vietnam with the Marines.
“The smells, the heat, the humidity,” Wityak said of what he most remembers from Vietnam. “Everything and every animal was out to kill you.”
After returning to the U.S. in September 1970, he left the Marines as a lance corporal. He worked for a while in a factory and then other jobs. He and a buddy backpacked across Europe in the summer of 1972. That September he started working seven years in a machine shop. In the mid-1970s, he earned degrees in accounting – an associate degree from Mattatuck Community College and a bachelor’s from Post University – but he decided that field wasn’t for him. He started his own business as a construction contractor doing remodeling and building houses and barns. He retired about four years ago.
Wityak, 69, and his wife of 34 years, Tami, have two daughters. Allie, the youngest, works in homeland security in Portland, Maine; and Lara Stauff and her husband reside in Virginia.
He enjoys traveling and working on his house and yard. Wityak belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in Oakville, Connecticut, and the First Marine Division Association. He has attended most of his battalion’s reunions since 2000.
Wityak shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think they just want to forget about it, like it just never happened and move on,” he said. “The politicians, the war protesters, the American people just got tired of hearing about it and seeing it on TV.
“I’ve tried to live a decent life for those people (the more than 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam) that never got to live.”
Editor’s note: This is the 262nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.