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Engineers at War

Engineers at War

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Base construction in III and IV Corps made great strides in 1967 thanks to
the arrival of a second engineer brigade headquarters, a sixth group headquar-
ters, and six newly raised construction battalions from the United States. On
3 August, the 20th Engineer Brigade headquarters, commanded by Brig. Gen.
Curtis W. Chapman Jr., arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base from Fort Bragg. Two
days later, Engineer Command placed the 34th, 79th, and 159th Groups under
the 20th Brigade. The new brigade’s mission encompassed operational sup-
port, troop construction, and civic action in III and IV Corps. This command
arrangement simplified Engineer Command’s span of control to two brigades
with each brigade commanding three groups. Each brigade also supported the
field force in its area of responsibility.33
Headquarters, 20th Engineer Brigade, was a new unit activated only
three months before deploying to Vietnam. Despite several problems, the bri-
gade headquarters company was able to meet the requirements for overseas
deployment. Based on the experiences of the 18th Engineer Brigade, changes
were made to the table of organization and equipment to fit the situation in
Vietnam. An intelligence section was established, and the operations branch
was expanded to four sections dealing with plans, construction operations,
operational support, and liaison. General Chapman decided that most design
work was to be done at group, battalion, and port construction company level.
Standard drawings, such as barracks, mess halls, and showers, that had been
developed by the three groups were catalogued for use by all the groups. A
maintenance section was organized within the S–4. In so doing, the brigade
put itself in a position to give technical help and speed up delivery of spare
parts.34

Noteworthy among the many bases under development in III and IV Corps,
Long Binh continued to grow into a major logistical and headquarters com-
plex. By mid-1967, General Westmoreland’s campaign (Operation moose) to
reduce the U.S. troop presence in Saigon resulted in relocating approximately
half of the soldiers to Long Binh. On 15 July, U.S. Army, Vietnam, head-
quarters announced its move from Saigon to Long Binh even as construction

32

Heiser, Logistic Support, p. 171; MACV Complex Review, 15 Jan 68, pp. 4-5, 4-6, 4-12;
MACV History, 1967, vol. 2, p. 833; CINCPAC Port Development Plan, 12 Jan 67, p. 17,
Historians fles, CMH.

33

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 156–60, 221; ORLL, 1 Aug–31 Oct 67, 20th Engr Bde, 31 Oct
67, p. 2, Historians fles, CMH; Ploger, Army Engineers, p. 138.

34

ORLL, 1 Aug–31 Oct 67, 20th Engr Bde, pp. 2–6, 12–13.

Engineers at War

280

workers rushed to finish the new facilities. Other major headquarters, includ-
ing U.S. Army Engineer Command and the 1st Logistical Command, had also
taken up residence on the base. During 1967, more requirements for storage,
airfield, maintenance, and community facilities were added to accommodate
some 35,000 troops. This number would eventually increase to over 40,000.
There was enough room, for the base covered over twenty-six square miles,
nearly ten undeveloped. As a result, there was a large backlog of work facing
the 5,000-man 159th Engineer Group.35
To carry out this work, Colonel McConnell, the group commander, relied
on four construction battalions. By midyear, the 62d Engineer Battalion,
which had completed its move from Phan Rang in January, finished expanding
the II Field Force tactical operations center at Plantation and built the Long
Binh central dial telephone facility. One of the challenging projects assigned
to the 169th Battalion entailed shoring up the failing upper structure of one of
the U.S. Army, Vietnam, headquarters buildings erected by RMK-BRJ. The
46th Engineer Battalion devoted much of its effort to the Long Binh ammuni-
tion depot. Considered to be one of the largest ammunition storage areas in
the world at the time, the depot contained 225 storage pads offering 250,000
square yards of storage and thirty-nine miles of roads. Following a spring Viet
Cong attack on the depot, the battalion’s Company B repaired damaged pads
and improved the protective berms around the pads. Work assigned to the 92d
Engineer Battalion included landscaping around the new U.S. Army, Vietnam,
headquarters and building bunkers at the MACV headquarters at Tan Son
Nhut.36

The timely flow of the right type of construction supplies to the 159th
Group’s project sites still had hurdles to overcome. The combined efforts
of engineer units and self-help programs exhausted stocks of electrical and
plumbing supplies, water tanks for mess halls and showers, and two-inch
lumber as soon as they arrived. This shortfall took place despite the large
quantities of supplies reaching the depots. Asphalt and peneprime needed at
Long Binh, Bien Hoa, and Bearcat for dust control on roads and helipads
were in short supply. Getting rock and sand remained a problem because of
the lack of convenient sources and transportation. A contract with a Korean
company to deliver 100,000 cubic yards of rock from Korea was plagued with
problems of gradation control, shipping schedules, port facilities, equipment
availability, and Vietnamese bureaucracy. By April, only 23,000 cubic yards
had been delivered, and the 159th Engineer Group cancelled the contract.
Hiring a Vietnamese contractor to haul rock from the Vung Tau quarry by

35

MACV Complex Review, 1 Dec 66, p. 197; ibid., 15 Jan 68, pp. 13-1 to 13-2; “Long Binh
Post,” Army 23 (April 1968): 48; Dunn, Base Development, p. 145.

36

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 182–83, 224–25; ORLLs, 1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67, 159th Engr Gp,
pp. 7–10, 1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67, 46th Engr Bn, pp. 1–5, 1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67, 62d Engr Bn, pp. 1–2,
1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67, 169th Engr Bn, pp. 2, 5–8, 1 May–31 Jul 67, 62d Engr Bn, 31 Jul 67, pp.
1–6, 1 Aug–31 Oct 67, 62d Engr Bn, 31 Oct 67, pp. 4–6, 1 Nov 67–31 Jan 68, 62d Engr Bn, 31
Jan 68, pp. 2, 5–8, 1 Aug–31 Oct 67, 169th Engr Bn, 11 Nov 67, pp. 2–9, 1 Feb–30 Apr 67, 46th
Engr Bn, 15 May 67, pp. 1–5, 1 May–31 Jul 67, 46th Engr Bn, 14 Aug 67, pp. 1–6, 1 Aug–31 Oct
67, 46th Engr Bn, 1 Nov 67, pp. 1–8, last seven in Historians fles, CMH.

281

Completing the Bases

truck helped somewhat, but that contract expired without renewal on 30 June.
Using barges to haul rock from Vung Tau to Dong Tam and Long Binh was
only partially successful at first because tugs were not readily available to move
loaded barges. Overcoming this problem and the Vietnamese bureaucracy
resulted in gradually improved barge traffic. While a search continued for suit-
able quarry sites, the group was able to procure much of the rock for Long
Binh from RMK-BRJ’s University Quarry outside Saigon. Then there was the
constant challenge of keeping up with rising standards of living, especially at
the large Long Binh base. Standards were elevated nearly to those used in the
United States.37

The contractors working at Long Binh took much of the strain off the
159th Group. During 1967, RMK-BRJ carried out approximately $25 million
of work on the base. Most visible were the headquarters and support facilities
for U.S. Army, Vietnam, and 1st Logistical Command. Building the headquar-
ters complexes involved erecting six 2-story buildings forming an “H” for the
Army headquarters and four 2-story buildings for the logistical command;
adding asphalt roads and parking; and installing water, storm, and sewer lines.
The buildings featured amenities such as air conditioning, indoor plumbing,
and vinyl tiled floors, things that customers now expected and incorporated
into designs. Such items were not readily available, and U.S. Army, Vietnam,
and U.S. Army Engineer Command, Vietnam, recognized this problem and
focused on getting the materials rather than lowering standards. Construction
on this priority project for the U.S. Army, Vietnam, headquarters complex
started in December 1966. After working day and night, the contractor had
two of the buildings ready for occupancy in early July 1967. All six build-
ings were ready by the end of the month. Three of the logistical command’s
buildings were completed in late October and the fourth the following month.
Since the windows of these buildings were designed not to open, occupancy
was held up until air conditioning was installed in December. Other projects
related to the arrival of the two headquarters were quarters for officers and
enlisted men, dispensaries, chapels, support buildings, and utilities, including
water and sewer distribution systems. Another high-priority project was con-
structing two buildings for the 14th Inventory Control Center, which managed
the Army’s depot assets. The hope was that the third-generation computers
expected in late 1967 would bring some order out of the tremendous influx
of supplies coming over the beaches and arriving at the ports. One building
housed the computers, and the other contained the administrative center.
Using Army-furnished materials, RMK-BRJ met the beneficial occupancy
date of 28 June.38

37

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 184, 225, 227; ORLLs, 1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67, 159th Engr Gp, p.
11, 1 Feb–30 Apr 67, 159th Engr Gp, 14 May 67, pp. 18–19, 1 May–31 Jul 67, 159th Engr Gp,
14 Aug 67, pp. 14–15, last two in Historians fles, CMH.

38

Quarterly Hist Rpts, 1 Jul–30 Sep 67, MACDC, p. IV-15, 1 Oct–31 Dec 67, MACDC, 21
Jan 68, p. IV-12, Historians fles, CMH; Diary of a Contract, pp. 278–82; Army Construction in
Vietnam, 11 Aug 67, incl. 8, p. 5, OCE Liaison Offcer Trip Rpt no. 8; Galloway, “Essayons,” p.
184; Heiser, Logistic Support, p. 23; Dunn, Base Development, pp. 114–15.

Engineers at War

282

The power plant at Long Binh begun the previous October by Vinnell
started coming online in 1967. The firm’s responsibility in this project included
not only the design, which Vinnell subcontracted, but also the construction,
operation, and maintenance of the plant claimed to be the only one of its kind
in the world. For the first time, twenty-one 1,500-kilowatt generators were con-
nected and synchronized to work simultaneously on one power system, or in
electrical terms on a single loop. As soon as pole lines were strung, power was
made available to users. Because of the strong possibility of enemy attacks,
extra measures and precautions were designed into the system. Ten-foot-high
revetments were built around generator complexes. If enemy fire hit one com-
plex, the damage would be confined to that one complex. Besides physical
protection, the plans called for fail-safe devices to ensure that power would
continue to flow to the major headquarters, the hospital, and the computer
center. In case any one part of the plant or distribution system was damaged,
a series of reclosers would lock that part out of the remaining system. Work
continued, and by November 1968, 19,000 kilowatts of power were being
delivered. Vinnell also built power plants and distribution systems at Long
Thanh, Bearcat, Di An, Xuan Loc, Bien Hoa, Phu Loi, and Cu Chi.39
Fifteen miles northeast of downtown Saigon, RMK-BRJ carried out proj-
ects at Bien Hoa Air Base for Army and Air Force tenants, and the 159th

39

“Vinnell Makes History at Long Binh,” pp. 8–10.

At Long Binh, RMK-BRJ built several headquarters complexes, including U.S.
Army, Vietnam, which were ready for occupancy by the end of June 1967.

283

Completing the Bases

Engineer Group committed forces to improve the Army side of the base. A
long-delayed authorization to begin a second 10,000-foot concrete runway
(parallel to the one built by the contractor in 1962 and 1963) was finally made
in early April 1967. This work was justified, for Bien Hoa had become the
busiest air base in South Vietnam. Excavation soon began, and a night shift
was added. Concrete work started in the second week of June, but by then
annual rains held up progress. Work on the new runway, taxiway, warm-up
aprons, and perimeter roads extended to April 1968.40

The contractor also ran
into delays in the ammunition storage area originally authorized to be built
in 1965. Work begun in April 1966 lasted to mid-1967. Other facilities built
for the Air Force included an engine test stand; blast pads; a fire station; a
10,000-foot-8-inch welded-steel fuel pipeline from the Dong Nai River to the
air base; water; utilities systems; airmen’s dormitories; and runway shoulder
rehabilitation and replacement airfield lighting cables. RMK-BRJ also built a
telephone exchange building and drilled nine water wells on the Army side of
the base. Projects carried out by the 159th Engineer Group included building
a communications center with air conditioning, general officers quarters, and
a road that would provide a direct link between Bien Hoa and Long Binh.41
Also greatly improved was the string of bases for the 1st and 25th Divisions
defending Saigon from the north. The 79th Engineer Group at Plantation
under Colonel Gelini, who was replaced by Col. Joseph A. Jansen in July,
continued to carry out base camp construction simultaneously with its opera-
tional support missions and roadwork. Work at the divisions’ base camps
progressed from minimum essential facilities to more sophisticated and more
permanent support facilities. Making this possible was the arrival in April and
May of the 554th Engineer Battalion (Construction) from Fort Knox and the
34th Engineer Battalion (Construction) from Fort Stewart. The two construc-
tion battalions increased the group’s construction capability and allowed the
group’s combat engineer battalions to boost operational support to the 1st and
25th Divisions during a period of increased combat activity.42
East of Saigon, the 27th Engineer Combat Battalion took up the develop-
ment of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Blackhorse base camp at Xuan
Loc. Along with its attached units—the 591st Light Equipment Company
at Blackhorse, the 94th Quarry Detachment at Gia Ray, and two sections of
the 2d Platoon, 67th Dump Truck Company, at Blackhorse—the battalion’s
strength was almost 1,100, with about 870 men in the battalion and over 200 in

40

Bien Hoa was not only the busiest airport in Vietnam in terms of landings and take-
offs (over 70,000 in January and over 83,000 in September 1967), but Bien Hoa and Tan Son
Nhut even exceeded Chicago’s O’Hare, the busiest airport in the United States, which averaged
slightly over 47,000 landings and takeoffs per month in 1966. MACV Complex Review, 15 Jan
68, app. V.

41

Tregaskis, Building the Bases, p. 252; Quarterly Hist Rpts, 1 Oct–31 Dec 67, MACDC, 21
Jan 68, p. IV-11, 1 Apr–30 Jun 68, MACDC, 24 Jul 68; ORLL, 1 Aug–31 Oct 67, 1st Log Cmd,
11 Nov 67, p. 114, Rpts and ORLL in Historians fles, CMH; Diary of a Contract, pp. 203–07;
Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 224; ORLL, 1 May–31 Jul 67, 159th Engr Gp, pp. 9, 11–12.

42

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 184–85, 187–89, 233, 235, 239; ORLLs, 1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67,
79th Engr Gp, pp. 2–5, 1 Feb–30 Apr 67, 79th Engr Gp, 13 May 67, pp. 2–5, 1 May–31 Jul 67,
79th Engr Gp, 8 Aug 67, p. 2, last two in Historians fles, CMH.

Engineers at War

284

the attached units. Company A concentrated on building a 1,500-foot airstrip
and a sixty-bed surgical hospital, while Company C helped build cantonment
areas. East of Xuan Loc at Gia Ray, Company B did cantonment construction
and ran a quarry from the base of Nui Chua Chan.43
When the 34th Engineer Group (Construction) from Fort Lewis under
Col. Joseph M. Palmer arrived at Vung Tau in late March, it assumed a wide
area of responsibility for southern III Corps (less the Long Binh–Saigon area)
and all IV Corps. During the late spring and the summer of 1967, the group
expanded to five battalions with the May, June, and September arrivals of the
69th, 93d, and 36th Construction Battalions. At this time, the group’s con-
struction commitments increased with the assumption of responsibility from
RMK-BRJ for work at Vung Tau and Can To on top of expanding the base
camps at Dong Tam, Long Thanh, and Xuan Loc. Despite this and the addi-
tion of the construction units, the group’s ratio of operational support to base
construction showed a significant increase, from 16 to 33 percent by the end
of July.44

At Vung Tau, RMK-BRJ, Vinnell, and DeLong transformed the once
small port into a key base. Several miles north of the city at Cat Lo, which
served as a hub for Game WaRden naval patrol activities, RMK-BRJ built
a base camp and storage and repair facilities for U.S. and South Vietnamese
naval forces. At the port, the firm dredged a turning basin for deep-water
ships and a 12,700-foot-long channel. Other jobs included facilities for Page
Communications and the Signal Corps and included antenna and microwave
antenna footings; slabs for communications trailers and buildings; water and
sewage lines; and roads, drainage, and walkways. These jobs were finished in
March 1967. DeLong completed the pier facility on 22 April. In late 1967,
Vinnell finished installing both primary and secondary electrical distribution
systems, and two power ships were online providing a generating capacity of
11,000 kilowatts. Simultaneously, Pacific Architects and Engineers hooked up
buildings to the system.45
Vung Tau was one of the places selected to phase down RMK-BRJ opera-
tions. The 69th Engineer Battalion from Fort Hood arrived at Vung Tau on
1 May and took over the contractor’s projects at the ammunition depot and
the fuel storage area, which involved building a 50,000-barrel addition to the
existing tank farm. The battalion also built a barge-loading facility to support
the movement of supplies to the Mekong Delta. On 20 September, the 36th
Engineer Battalion from Fort Irwin, California, reached Vung Tau, marking
the sixth and final construction battalion scheduled for Vietnam in 1967. On

43

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 185, 187, 227, 229; ORLLs, 1 Nov 66–31 Jan 67, 27th Engr Bn,
13 Feb 67, pp. 3–5, 1 Aug–31 Oct 67, 27th Engr Bn, 8 Nov 67, pp. 3–4, 10–14, 1 Nov 67–31 Jan
68, 27th Engr Bn, 8 Feb 68, pp. 1–2, 8–13. ORLLs in Historians fles, CMH.

44

ORLLs, 1 Feb–30 Apr 67, 34th Engr Gp, 18 May 67, pp. 5–9, and 1 May–31 Jul 67, 34th
Engr Gp, 10 Aug 67, pp. 1–3, 5–11, both in Historians fles, CMH; Galloway, “Essayons,” pp.
227, 244–45.

45

Quarterly Hist Rpts, 1 Jan–31 Mar 67, MACDC, p. 41, 1 Apr–30 Jun 67, MACDC, pp.
IV-17, IV-19, 1 Jul–30 Sep 67, MACDC, pp. IV-17, IV-23, 1 Oct–31 Dec 67, MACDC, p. IV-14;
Diary of a Contract, pp. 222–24.

285

Completing the Bases

1 October, the battalion took over the projects at Vung Tau, and the 69th
Battalion moved to Dong Tam and Can To. The 36th Battalion continued
work on port facilities, a 5,000-man cantonment, rehabilitated the airstrip, and
designed and built three 50,000-barrel fuel storage tanks and their concrete
pads, a manifold system, and a jetty for off-loading T–2 tankers.46
Meanwhile, the 34th Group began moving more units into the delta region
to take over projects started by RMK-BRJ and to build the bases for the 9th
Division and support units. In May, company-size task forces from the 27th
and 69th Engineer Battalions were on the job in Vinh Long and Can To doing
airfield and cantonment construction. By midyear, one company from the
Long Thanh–based 86th Engineer Combat Battalion moved to Dong Tam to
help the building effort, and the rest of the battalion deployed to delta bases to
work on base construction and support the 9th Division in the field. When the
69th Engineer Battalion moved to Dong Tam in October, it assumed construc-
tion responsibility for the base.47
The Viet Cong made concerted efforts to hinder construction at Dong
Tam. The insurgents knew the base held a commanding position in the
delta and could hamper their control of the region. By the end of 1966, the
dredges had made substantial progress in filling in the base area and clearing
approach channels. On 9 January 1967, Viet Cong sappers succeeded in sink-
ing the Jamaica Bay, the largest dredge in Vietnam. This attack prompted
General Westmoreland to send elements of the arriving 9th Division to the
partially filled Dong Tam site to take over security from the South Vietnamese
and begin work on the base. Two companies of the division’s 15th Engineer
Battalion accompanied the advance elements. Within a few weeks, Company
C, 577th Engineer Battalion, moved from Long Binh to build facilities for the
7,500-man camp and operational base. Company C also replaced a weak Eiffel
bridge with two panel bridges connecting the camp with the city of My Tho
to the east.48

Meanwhile, the Navy’s Officer in Charge of Construction diverted another
dredge from Cam Ranh Bay, and in March the Jamaica Bay’s sister dredge,
the New Jersey, arrived. On 7 May, the first LST entered the turning basin,
relieving the smaller LCMs supplying the base for other use. By then the
engineers had completed 20 percent of the planned construction, including
a runway for light Army planes and helicopters, a sixty-bed MUST (medical
unit, self-contained, transportable) hospital consisting of inflatable buildings,
and numerous cantonment buildings.49

46

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 230, 232–33; ORLLs, 1 May–31 Jul 67, 69th Engr Bn, 31 Jul
67, pp. 2, 6–8, 1 Nov 67–31 Jan 68, 36th Engr Bn, 13 Feb 68, pp. 2, 5–7, both in Historians fles,
CMH.

47

Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 185, 229–30, 232; ORLL, 1 May–31 Jul 67, 69th Engr Bn, pp.

2, 6–8.

48

MacGarrigle, Taking the Offensive, p. 402; Tregaskis, Building the Bases, pp. 292–93; Dunn,
Base Development, p. 53; Ploger, Army Engineers, p. 145; Galloway, “Essayons,” pp. 183–84;
Quarterly Hist Rpt, 1 Jan–31 Mar 67, MACDC, p. 41.

49

Tregaskis, Building the Bases, p. 293; Ploger, Army Engineers, pp. 145–46; Quarterly Hist
Rpt, 1 Apr–30 Jun 67, MACDC, pp. IV-17, IV-18.

Engineers at War

286

The builders of Dong Tam faced challenges found nowhere else in Vietnam.
At Dong Tam, the rain was severe enough that it almost halted construction
for two months, and all efforts went into saving what had been built. The insta-
bility of the ground in the delta and the high water table caused special prob-
lems. Large buildings required supporting piles. When underground storage
tanks popped out of the ground after removal of their contents, workers had
to place concrete collars around the tanks. Holes dug for communications and
power poles were shored up with fifty-five-gallon drums. Scarce rock moved
by barge from the Vung Tau quarry, a five- to ten-day trip, and was used only
on the most important concrete structures. Sand-cement sufficed for other
work. By June 1967, the growing base occupied 4.6 square miles. In addition
to the cantonment and storage facilities for the 9th Division’s 2d Brigade, the
installation had a 1,640-foot airstrip and a 0.8-square-mile turning basin for
shipping, with boat and barge landing sites. Summer saw the completion of
more permanent buildings, water and electrical distribution systems, a water-
borne sewage system, more ramps for landing craft, warehouses, hardstands,
and maintenance shops. The Dong Tam project would extend to late 1968
when it was officially declared complete.50

50

MacGarrigle, Taking the Offensive, p. 411; Ploger, Army Engineers, pp. 146–49; ORLL,
1 Feb–30 Apr 67, 159th Engr Gp, p. 19. For more on Dong Tam, see Maj. Bryon G. Walker,
“Construction of a Delta Base,” Military Engineer 60 (September-October 1968): 333–35.

After overcoming the challenging soil conditions, engineers completed the Dong
Tam base in late 1968.

287

Completing the Bases

Though the 34th Group had many of the same problems as the other engi-
neer groups, it had to put up with the challenges of working in the delta. Rain,
while not a major problem at the better-developed Vung Tau complex, played
havoc in the delta, especially at Dong Tam and the newer sections of Long
Thanh, areas that had been built since the 1966 monsoon. After assuming
responsibility for transporting construction supplies and rock to the delta from
the 20th Brigade, the group continued to work closely with Transportation
Corps officials in scheduling the tows of 300- and 700-ton barges to off-load-
ing sites. From May to the end of the year, twenty-four barges were hauling
approximately 7,000 tons of bulk construction material each month to the
delta. Rock requirements set up by MACV, however, were much larger, some
38,000 tons per month from Vung Tau to the delta. During an eight-month
period, the barges only moved 50,000 tons. Since the 1st Logistical Command
controlled the majority of barges, the group recommended that the logistical
command take over responsibility for moving the rock. On 15 January 1968,
the 1st Logistical Command took over the operation while the group retained
responsibility for the loading and unloading of rock, a task also under consid-
eration for transfer to the logistical command.51

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