TME Looks Back: Vietnam – “Army Engineers in Vietnam” & “Operations at Cam Ranh Bay”

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This week in TME Looks Back: Vietnam, we feature two articles from the January-February 1966 issue of The Military Engineer: “Army Engineers in Vietnam,” by Maj. Gen. T.J. Hayes III, USA; and ” Operations at Cam Ranh Bay” by Capt. Lindbergh Jones, USA.

The articles appear below in mobile-friendly format.

In the summer of 2016, SAME will publish a special issue of The Military Engineer commemorating the service and contributions of military engineers in the Vietnam War. As part of the run-up to the publication, over the next several months we will be featuring on Bricks & Clicks a special series entitled TME Looks Back: Vietnam featuring past articles, photos, advertisements, covers, and other material that first appeared in the magazine during the 1960s and early 1970s. [The TME editorial staff welcomes input as we develop the Vietnam Commemorative Issue. Contact TME Editor-in-Chief Stephen Karl at editor@same.org for more information or click here to contribute editorial content. Contact Stephanie Satterfield, SAME Director of Sales & Business Development at ssatterfield@same.org for sponsorship/advertising inquiries.]

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Army Engineers in Vietnam

By Maj. Gen. T.J. Hayes III, USA

 

TME.JanFeb1966-photoCamRanhBay


 

The Army Engineers in Vietnam are conducting their usual wide range of combat, engineering, construction, and mapping tasks in support of combat operations of the United States Army, Vietnam (USARV). The 18th Engineer Brigade serving in Vietnam consists of three Engineer Groups—the 937th with headquarters at Qui Nhon, the 35th based at Cam Ranh, and the more recently arrived 159th in the Bien Hoa area. Their operational areas correspond roughly to the three sectors of the Vietnamese Army (ARVN) II and III Corps (Figure 1). In the I Corps zone in the north, where the Marines are operating, engineer support is provided by the Naval Component Command. The north half of the II Corps zone is the 22d ARVN Division Sector, the highland region where the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) is operating. The 1st (Big Red 1) Infantry Division is conducting operations in the III Corps zone, north of Saigon.

The increased strength and rapid deployment of American troops to Vietnam created a soaring requirement for logistics and air support. Military air facilities and port facilities at Saigon are particularly needed. But even if the port of Saigon could handle the volume of Army supplies, their distribution would be difficult. Most of the highways in the country (Figure 1) are controlled by the Viet Cong, have been cut, or are under harassment by guerrillas much of the time.

To provide the essential facilities, three additional port complexes are being developed, and logistics and air bases are being constructed at four enclaves which can be supplied by sea transport and also are located so that they can support the combat forces in action against the Viet Cong. Bases in the interior are to be constructed also, to serve as jumping-off places for airborne combat troops, such as the 1st Cavalry now based at An Khe in the Central Highlands between the coastal base at Qui Nhon and Pleiku. The latter is at the strategic intersection of Highway 19 and the north-south highway that connects Da Nang with the important areas in the II and III Corps Zones.

 

CAM RANH BAY

The 35th Engineer Group hit the beaches at Cam Ranh Bay on June 9. The 84th Engineer Battalion landed at Qui Nhon on June 11, with one of its elements proceeding south to Vung Tau. Thus started the construction of these three ports and logistic depots.

 

The increased strength and rapid deployment of American troops to Vietnam created a soaring requirement for logistics and air support. Military air facilities and port facilities at Saigon are particularly needed.

  

When the 35th Engineers landed,” the soldiers found a village with a few Vietnamese civilians, small detachment of Vietnamese soldiers who provided security for the landing operations, and a masonry buildings built by the French, which are being used as part of the Vietnamese Naval Commando Training Center.

Unfortunately, the engineers found only one small pier which could be used. This can accommodate only two ships at a time, and is so narrow that true have to back onto it. Thus, unloading is slow until additional facilities can be built. Meanwhile, a De Long floating pier,” towed from the United States, is being installed. It will serve ships in the harbor where water is deep enough for deep-draft vessels. A large floating crane which can lift 100 tons is being
issued by the Transportation Corps units operating the port to unload ships at the small permanent pier.

 

QUI NHON

The 1st Cavalry (Airmobile) Division with some 400 aircraft went ashore at Qui Nhon, and in October a Republic of Korea (ROK) Division landed there. The 937th Engineer Combat Group is building a port and logistics complex for the support of their operations. So far, the engineers have graded and surfaced a 100-acre storage area; laid some 100,000 square yards of concrete floor slabs for troop camps; built a large ammunition storage area; and constructed many miles of roads. Work now in progress includes a POL tank farm, a tanker discharge jetty, buildings for troop camps, and a field hospital.

The engineers are having problems with stabilization of roads and the beach area. As at Cam Ranh Bay, the immediate solution is laterite. The 84th Engineer Battalion is literally digging away a mountain of laterite at the rate of about 8,000 cubic yards a day, seven days a week, with dozers, power shovels, and scrapers.

 TME January-February 1966; Army Engineers in Cam Ranh Bay


 

AN KHE

Some 40 miles west of Qui Nhon is the Am Khe Valley, where the 70th Engineer Combat Battalion and an advance unit of the 8th Engineer Battalion cleared a camp site of 50 square kilometers. Before the base camp for the 1st Cavalry could be built, the two engineer battalions cleared, stripped, and graded about 1,000,000 square yards of the area and lengthened the airfield. Work now going on includes additional temporary airfields and helipads for the numerous aircraft of the division.

The enormity of this project and the speed with which it was accomplished are especially noteworthy since the 70th Engineers first had to build a 13-mile,two-lane access road through jungle and rough terrain to reach the valley. The access road starts at Route 19, which is a favorite target of the Viet Cong (Figure 1). In building the road, the engineers first had to find a rock deposit and develop a quarry. They hauled in six thousand 5-ton truckloads of fill and installed forty culverts. On another An Khe engineer job a flying crane was used to carry dozers to the hilltops to clear sites for communication stations and strong points for local security.

One special problem met in nearly all tropical climates is snakes. One battalion killed over a dozen bamboo and silver vipers the first day at a new camp site. In another area, a king cobra more than 10 feet long was killed while trying to get into a tent. And the record catch probably is the huge 18-foot python that was bagged in the An Khe area. 

An Khe, Qui Nhon, and Cam Ranh Bay are typical of engineer operations in Vietnam, Engineer troops are engaged in various types of construction in many other places such as Dong Ba Thin (on the mainland across the bay from Cam Ranh), at Phan Rang, Vụng Tau, and near Bien Hoa. Still others are engaged in mapping, replacing bridges destroyed by the Viet, Cong, installing ship moorings, and clearing sunken ships. And there are a variety of other engineer units—utility, well drilling, power generating, fire fighting, pipeline construction, gas generating, water purification—all contributing to the fight against the communists.

Serious problems are presented by the terrain, the long supply lines, the language barrier, and now the coastal monsoon season. Nothing is easy there!, Most of it is hard, unglamorous work. But the engineers are making good progress despite the many difficulties encountered.

[reprinted from TME / January-February 1966]


 

Operations at Cam Ranh Bay

By Capt. Lindbergh Jones, USA

TME January-February 1966 Cam Ranh Bay


 

The construction of a major logistics base and port facility on the Cam Ranh Peninsula in Vietnam, under conditions of warfare, has posed many difficult engineering problems. This base is urgently needed to support the American military operations there and, additionally, as an economic benefit to the civilian communities adjacent to the peninsula.

The 35th Engineer Group (Construction), assigned the construction of this project, landed in a barren, unpopulated area on Cam Ranh Bay on June 9, 1965.

The peninsula is 28 kilometers long and 8 kilometers across at its widest point. The terrain consists of large sand dunes, barren in the southwest, and covered with low shrubs in the north. The southeastern tip is dominated by mountainous masses of granite and sand dunes thickly covered with forests.

As the troops began to unload on the day of their arrival, it started to rain heavily and kept up until the early hours of the following morning. However, this was unusual for it was the dry season, and very little precipitation could be expected in the months ahead.

The engineer units found themselves ashore in a hostile land without infantry lines securing the front. A small screening force of Vietnamese troops had been provided for security in the early critical stages of establishing the bivouac. The first night, temporary machine-gun positions were established and listening posts were placed well in front of the lines and on high ground. It was an apprehensive first night, with many inexperienced young soldiers in this strange environment. The presence of seasoned NCO’s, some of them veterans of previous wars, strengthened the morale of the troops. One unit received several rounds of long-range sniper fire, but having been trained in the engineers’ traditional secondary mission, “to be able to reorganize and fight as infantry,” the soldiers took appropriate action without wild random firing of weapons or other signs of excitement.

The immediate problems that faced the engineers were deep sand (which immobilized much of the heavy equipment); a lack of natural materials (such as river run gravel for use in the stabilization of roads and hardstands); and security (to make the area safe for continuous engineer construction operations).

 

SAND AND STONE

The problems resulting from the sand seemed insurmountable at first. The sand has a high silicon content and the grains are round with very little gradation and are extremely difficult to stabilize. In digging open water wells, it was found that the sand was 15 to 20 feet deep over the rock formations with no plastic clays in evidence. This sand provides unlimited material for filling sandbags, which are used to build everything conceivable, such as bunkers, machine-gun emplacements, walls, barriers, sidewalks, and even stairs. But otherwise it is a nuisance, and an expensive nuisance. Heavy rubber-tired equipment such as 5-ton trucks and truck-mounted cranes were nearly immobilized. In order to move equipment from the ships to the work areas, trails had to be cut through the enormous dunes by bulldozers.

The dozers were then left along the road in critical areas to tow stalled vehicles through the sand.

Thus the sand has been a constant, implacable enemy from the first day. The troops found the sand difficult to walk in, and the calves of their legs ached after trudging through it for any distance.

TME January-February 1966 Cam Ranh Bay


 

Fortunately, the mountain tops jutting out of the dunes provide ample rock and some laterite for binding the sand and providing a surface. Laterite is a decomposed rock, containing iron oxide, that is plentiful in Southeast Asia. A quarry was opened about a mile and a half from the engineer camp.

As soon as crushing equipment could be unloaded and set up, Company A of the 864th Engineer Battalion” started quarrying and crushing operations. Quarry teams are taking out granite, which is crushed by four 75-tons-per-hour plants working around the clock. Larger units are in transit to increase the production rate. The crushed rock was added to the existing roads as an interim solution to provide some stabilization in the shortest possible time. The roads are generally built with a 3- to 4-inch course of crushed rock and a 2- to 3-inch surfacing of laterite.
Better trails speeded the movement of equipment, supplies, and personnel, and released the tractors from stand-by duty to high-priority construction work. Even the tailings (waste product) of the quarry, which contained some laterite, were used for road stabilization. As asphaltic materials become available, the 102d Engineer Company (Construction Support) will bring the roads to final grade and pave them.

The sand not only stalled traffic but in addition to the corrosive climate bred of heat, salt air and humidity, it also caused serious maintenance problems through its abrasive action on moving parts of the equipment. The pusher-type fan on some of the tractors drew the flying sand from the tracks into the engine compartment and pushed it through the radiator at a very high velocity. This had the effect of a sand blaster, severely damaging the fins and tubes of the radiators. Track rollers, track drive sprockets, pins, bushings, and sheaves all wore much faster than is normal. Field expedients kept the equipment rolling. Side covers of canvas or sheet metal were used to close the engine compartments to help keep out the sand. Drive sprockets were built up by welding, and the unit machine shops fabricated pins and bushings. One use of the sand is for making a low-grade concrete, which is adequate for floor slabs and hardstands. Near the quarry a central batch plant has been set up, using four 16-cubic-foot mixers in battery. Concrete is hauled from them in 5-ton dump trucks to the job sites. Approximately 300,000 square yards of concrete floor slabs have been placed, and metal prefabricated and wooden-frame buildings are being erected on the slabs as rapidly as the materials arrive. Meanwhile, the troops will remain in tents.

 

HEAT

In this hot, dry season the daytime temperature was sometimes as high as 120 degrees. To temper the heat, intensified by reflection from the white sands, many innovations were tried. To reduce the temperature inside the tents, a common method was to line the roof with salvage parachutes. This was effective, but there was scant relief for the equipment operators and others working outdoors. The soldiers wore tropical sun helmets and were allowed to remove their jackets and work in T shirts. Operations were arranged in two 10-hour shifts, one from 1 to 11 a.m., and the other from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. This allowed the units to rest during the heat of the day and the shifts to receive the benefits of early morning and evening coolness.

Salt tablets and drinking water were liberally used by all personnel. In the first three months of operations, the engineers had no heat casualties.

TME January-February 1966 Cam Ranh Bay


 

SECURITY

When the unit had completed its defenses, the perimeter facing north was about 3% kilometers long. Observation posts were placed at points of vantage, and the line was reinforced with triple roll concertina, foxholes, and sandbag-covered machine-gun positions.

The southern perimeter, facing Cam Ranh Bay, was protected by bunkers, and walking posts kept watch at night for infiltration of the enemy from the sea. Guarding the perimeter quickly settled down to a routine task, interrupted occasionally by long-range sniper fire. The large number of soldiers required for security adversely affected the engineer work, until July 12 when elements of the 1st Infantry Division came ashore and secured the peninsula, releasing the engineers for construction.

 

The engineers have made great progress toward developing Cam Ranh into a major logistics base which will store and ship the supplies needed by the combat troops.

 

PRESENT PROGRESS

The population of the peninsula comprises some 200 fishermen and farmers living in the villages of Ap, Thuan Xuong, Thon Cam Ranh, Thon My Ca, and Vung Dua. These people live and work in the primitive fashion of their ancestors.

The village officers of Cam Ranh were very cooperative. Since the arrival of the Americans, no Viet Cong activity has been encountered in the village. The inhabitants soon recognized that the presence of American troops could be a bonanza to them; consequently, they built bars, photo shops, tailor shops, restaurants, souvenir stands, laundries, and other establishments which catered to the soldiers’ trade. After three months the effect is beginning to show. The villagers are better dressed; battery-powered portable radios and phonographs are in evidence, and there is now a market where previously there was none.

The engineers have made great progress toward developing Cam Ranh into a major logistics base which will store and ship the supplies needed by the combat troops. By November 1, over 30 miles of roads had been stabilized and opened; troop cantonment and storage areas have been established; an airfield has been repaired and lengthened for use by the CV-1 Caribou.

Until additional dock space is constructed, much of the unloading must be by LST and amphibious vehicles. A landing for LST’s has been constructed, and many other facilities have been installed.

The jet air base at the north end of the peninsula, with one runway completed and surfaced with AM-2 aluminum landing mat, is under construction by a joint venture of civilian contractors but Army Engineer units are assisting by training Vietnamese to operate equipment, by building roads and laying floor slabs, and by helping with the heavy equipment. They have installed 8 miles of POL pipeline from the pier area to the air base.

Also at the north end of the bay, an Engineer Float Bridge Company is operating ferries to the mainland, where the 35th Group recently opened a new laterite quarry. The ferries are operating around the clock, hauling the loaded dump trucks from the quarry to the projects on the peninsula.

The problems which have arisen are unusual, but the experience will be of tremendous value in future operations.

[Reprinted from TME / January-February 1966]