TME Looks Back: Vietnam – “Construction Program in Vietnam”

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In summer 2016, SAME published a special issue of The Military Engineer commemorating the service and contributions of military engineers in the Vietnam War. To accompany the publication, we are featuring on Bricks & Clicks a special series entitled TME Looks Back: Vietnam featuring past articles, photos, and other material that first appeared in the magazine during the 1960s and early 1970s. 

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Construction Program in Vietnam

By Rear Adm. Paul E. Seufer, Civil Engineer Corps, United States Navy

 

Some years ago, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Property and Installations) divided world-wide responsibility for military construction for all military services between the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) and the Army Corps of Engineers. This assignment was limited to construction by contractors, and did not relate to construction to be done by troops. Southeast Asia was among the areas assigned to the Navy.

As the designated Department of Defense contract construction agent, NAVFAC had an Officer in Charge of Construction for Southeast Asia based in Bangkok, Thailand, with a branch office in Saigon, Vietnam; and, at the start of the current military build-up, had a contract to provide facilities for the advisory groups and for the Vietnamese Armed Forces. In July 1965, the area was divided, and the Officer in Charge of Construction (OICC), Republic of Vietnam, was established. At the time, the civilian contractor, Raymond, Morrison-Knudsen, was mobilized in Vietnam but, by the summer of 1965, after American troops were to enter the conflict, rapid increases in construction to support the forces were required, and other contractors were added.*

The construction was to provide such conventional facilities as ports, airfields, storage areas, ammunition dumps, housing, et cetera, for the allied forces in South Vietnam. These had to be provided rapidly under extremely adverse conditions. Military construction forces were limited at the outset, so the major construction work had to be conducted by civilian contractors.

South Vietnam possessed no industrial base; even its lumber resources, which are considerable, were in the hands of the Viet Cong, as were many of the sources of construction aggregates. Only one deepdraft port facility (at Saigon) existed and its layout and traffic were well known. Roads, such as they were, were interdicted by the Viet Cong, and it was necessary to rely on coastal or air shipping. The logistic pipeline was 10,000 miles long.

Hostile environment, local customs and traditions, and unskilled labor were some of the obstacles faced. Real estate, on which to build, was difficult to secure because the country is thickly populated in the arable areas and there are graves everywhere, held sacred in the ancestor worship which is deeply ingrained.

 

South Vietnam possessed no industrial base; even its lumber resources, which are considerable, were in the hands of the Viet Cong, as were many of the sources of construction aggregates.

 

 

Another complication in the construction program was in the use of military construction funds. This meant that every requirement had to be reviewed all the way up the chain to the Congress.

The results of this construction program, successfully completed on time, are now history.
At the peak of the work—in late 1966 and early 1967—some 57 000 tons per month of cement in bags were imported. The contractor had mobilized over 5,000 Americans, 7,500 third-country nationals, and 38,500 Vietnamese workers who were engaged on 600 projects at over 40 sites in Vietnam.

The OICC had to operate its own ports, using contractor tugs, barges, two chartered LST’s, sixteen contractor aircraft, its own camps and depots, and a guard force of over 1,200 men.

 

AIDS TO VIETNAM

The number of deep-draft port facilities has been increased from one to seven, and the number of deepdraft berths from seven to twenty-nine. Some of them, particularly Project Newport in Saigon, which has four berths, will have a long-range effect on the Vietnamese economy. These berths have complete supporting installations, including barge piers and LST slips, open storage, transit sheds, warehouses, and utilities. Similarly, four of the six berths at Da Nang are lasting public works.

Deep-water berths were also constructed at Qui Nhon (four berths), Cam Ranh (ten berths), and Vung Ro (two berths), by the Army Corps of Engineers. The required dredging at Qui Nhon and Cam Ranh was provided by the Navy contractor. These berths are all in addition to the coastal facilities provided under United States Agency for International Development (AID) funds at Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and Ba Ngoi.

The improved airfields, as well as some of the logistical facilities and utilities, provide added resources that will have a lasting beneficial impact on the national economic progress of Vietnam. But as public works, probably the greatest impact has been upon the Vietnamese people themselves, who have been shown new methods and equipment. Over 50,000 Vietnamese were trained in American techniques and in the use of American tools and machines. These intelligent people learn easily and well. Among them now are accomplished welders, electricians, bulldozer operators, plumbers, and carpenters.

In addition to formal training in the trades, on-the-job training was provided, as well as a very popular course—English. Technical consultation was provided to the few existing trade schools, and a summer employment program was in effect.

A Vietnamese-language newsletter was published which was very effective in building morale and in explaining to the Vietnamese the effect of the construction program upon their nation.

The American supervisors have contributed to Vietnamese charities and have given much time to a people-to-people program whenever they could. For a long time, there were no days off, but the work week was finally reduced to 60 hours, which allowed Sundays to be free.

 

SEABEES

At the start of the Vietnam operations, there were ten Mobile Construction Battalions and two Amphibious Construction Battalions of the Seabees. In May 1965, the first Seabee Battalion landed with the Marines at Chu Lai and constructed an expeditionary jet airfield in 23 days. There are now nineteen Seabee battalions commissioned, twelve of them in Vietnam, working in I Corps area, primarily on projects for the Navy and Marine Corps. Each construction battalion consists of approximately 800 officers and men.

Although the primary role of the Seabees is to build, they are trained by the Marines to defend the facilities on which they are working. The Seabees are also engaged in a Civic Action program in Vietnam, under which they have built orphanages, schools, and hospitals for the Vietnamese, have drilled wells, and have provided medical and dental aid as well as clothing and soap for the villagers.

 

A recent innovation has been the use of containerized freight in Vietnam at Saigon, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay. It is the latest improvement in reducing the backlog of shipping which has been an ever-present problem. For example, the normal time for unloading a cargo vessel has been about five days, but recently a 7,200-ton load of freight was off-loaded from a container ship in 15 hours.

 

Another type of unit, the Seabee Team, has been providing a different service. This unit is composed of twelve enlisted men and one Civil Engineer Corps officer who have been given special training in their own and other trades and in counterinsurgency. There are eight of these teams in Vietnam, and three in Thailand. Their primary purpose is to assist the local village governments. They work for AID, teaching the Vietnamese construction trades. At the same time, they improve facilities in the villages with local help. Their work has been very popular with both American and Vietnamese officials who are charged with the pacification of liberated areas.

 

LOGISTICS AND MAINTENANCE

The Navy is responsible for logistics in the I Corps area of South Vietnam where the Marines are operating. The Army has logistics responsibility for the other three Corps areas of Vietnam. This work is termed by the Navy as Public Works functions. As fast as facilities are completed, the task of maintenance and operation begins. The Navy Public Works Department at Da Nang which supports the I Corps area facilities has 51 Civil Engineer Corps officers assigned a work force of 4,000, and 2,600 pieces of equipment. In addition to this activity, NAVFAC has procured mobile generators totaling 30,000 kw, and over 4,000 pieces of transportation equipment for Vietnam.

Several innovations in Vietnam construction have helped the OICC to respond rapidly to the requirements. Interlocking aluminum matting planks are being used to surface jet airfields. Improved floating docks and bridges have been developed which are portable and easily erected by troops. For permanent port facilities and in bridges, a prefabricated pier, similar to that used in offshore oil drilling platforms, has been used. For protection of aircraft, pre-engineered steel revetments have been constructed and pre-engineered buildings have been used whenever possible.

A recent innovation has been the use of containerized freight in Vietnam at Saigon, Da Nang, and Cam Ranh Bay. It is the latest improvement in reducing the backlog of shipping which has been an ever-present problem. For example, the normal time for unloading a cargo vessel has been about five days, but recently a 7,200-ton load of freight was off-loaded from a container ship in 15 hours.

 

CONCLUSION

A tremendous amount of construction has been completed in a short time. Of the great number of facilities provided for American forces in Vietnam, many will remain as valuable assets to the country. In addition, a vast Vietnamese construction force has been trained that will eventually contribute greatly to the Vietnamese goal of economic stability.

*Brown & Root, of Houston, and J. A. Jones of Charlotte, North Carolina, added to the combine to form RMK-BRJ.


[reprinted from TME / May-June 1968]