Seabees in Vietnam
Beginning in 1964 the United States military buildup in South Vietnam interrupted the normal peacetime deployment pattern of the Naval Construction Force. The Seabees were slated to play an important and historic role in the growing Southeast Asian conflict. By autumn of 1968, when Vietnamese requirements reached their peak, world-wide Seabee strength had grown to more than 26,000 men, serving in 21 full-strength Naval Mobile Construction Battalions, 2 Construction Battalion Maintenance Units, and 2 Amphibious Construction Battalions.

In 1965 the steadily increasing insurgency of the National Liberation Army (Viet Cong), made the large scale commitment of U.S. troops a necessity. Although Seabee Teams had been active in the Republic of Vietnam since 1963, it was not until 1965 that larger Seabee units were deployed to aid in the Vietnamese struggle. Not since the Second World War had the need for the Seabees been so great and not since Korea had Seabees worked under enemy fire. The first full Seabee battalion arrived in Vietnam on 7 May 1965 to build an expeditionary airfield for the Marines at Chu Lai. Others soon followed. From 1965 until 1969 the Seabee commitment in Southeast Asia rapidly increased, necessitating first the transfer of Atlantic Fleet battalions to the Pacific through a change of home port, then the deployment to Vietnam of Atlantic Fleet battalions, and later, the reestablishment of nine additional battalions. This effort culminated in the recall to active duty of two reserve battalions in May 1968, bringing to 21 the number of battalions rotating to Vietnam at one time or another. In addition, there were two Amphibious Construction Battalions lending support to the Vietnam effort. During the same time period, to meet a requirement for Seabees to support such installations as the Naval Support Activities at Danang and Saigon, the two Construction Battalion Maintenance Units, the two deployed Naval Construction Regiments, and the deployed Third Naval Construction Brigade rapidly increased their size.

During the war the total Seabee community grew from 9,400 in mid-1965 to 14,000 in mid-1966, to 20,000 in mid-1967 and, finally, to more than 26,000 in 1968 and 1969. To help meet the great need for personnel, the Navy recruited skilled construction workers at advanced pay grades. The Direct Procurement Petty Officer Program, reminiscent of early World War II recruiting efforts, proved highly effective both in terms of total numbers recruited (more than 13,000) and quality of input.

Seabee accomplishments in Vietnam were impressive. They built roads, airfields, cantonments, warehouses, hospitals, storage facilities, bunkers and other facilities which were critically needed to support the combatant forces. The mobile "search and destroy" strategy adopted by the United States during the first years of the war shaped the two-fold mission of the Seabees in Vietnam. In addition to the many Seabee Team activities in remote locations, construction battalions built large coastal strongholds in the I Corps Tactical Zone which embraced the northernmost provinces of Quang Tri, Thua Thien, Quang Nam, Quang In, and Quang Ngai.

In 1965 the Seabee portion of the Vietnam Construction Program was concentrated at three northern coastal points, the ports of Danang, Chu Lai, and Phu Bai. The first six construction battalions sent to Vietnam were deployed to these three points and, by 1966, as the construction program gathered momentum, eight battalions were at work simultaneously in the I Corps Area.

At Danang the Seabees built three badly needed cantonments. Temporary facilities which included strongback tents, mess halls, shops, sheds, bathroom facilities, and a water distribution system were the first to be completed. In addition, Seabees repaired the important Danang River Bridge, rendered technical aid to South Vietnamese troops who were building ramps for tank landing ships and small boats, and constructed warehouses and petroleum storage tanks. Fortification of the cantonments was also essential because of frequent enemy attacks. Despite Seabee-built machine gun positions and bunkers for perimeter defense, one such attack succeeded in destroying the newly built advance base hospital, killing two Seabees and wounding over ninety. In true Seabee tradition, the men rapidly rebuilt the entire hospital complex.

At Phu Bai, near the ancient imperial capital of Hue, the Seabees developed yet another coastal point into an advance base. There, the construction men built a fleet logistic support unit cantonment. Besides camp construction, the project entailed raising, widening, and surfacing a low peninsula which jutted 1,500 feet out into the South China Sea. The causeway served as an unloading ramp for cargo-laden landing ships. In addition, the Seabees built a large antenna field which substantially modernized communication systems in the war-torn northern provinces. Two smaller cantonments, one for a medical battalion, were also constructed.

As U.S. Marines based at Danang pushed search and destroy operations into the interior of the I Corps Area, the need arose for increased air cover and, thus, an additional air strike facility. It was decided that the Seabees would build a 3,500-foot expeditionary airfield at Chu Lai, 50 miles south of Danang. Since the Viet Cong controlled the surrounding mountains and there were no nearby port facilities, the Seabees landed on the beaches of Chu Lai in the first major U.S. Navy amphibious operation since the Lebanon crisis of 1958. Matching the feats of their fabled Second World War predecessors, the Vietnam-era Seabees laid the last aluminum plank on the airfield only 23 days after coming ashore. The very next day planes began operations against the Viet Cong from the newly-built airstrip. The Seabees continued their work at Chu Lai by adding a parallel taxiway, four cross taxiways, and parking aprons. Before their task was completed, the Seabees had rapidly erected two cantonments, warehouses, hangars, and a host of other vital facilities.

By the end of 1965, Seabees had pioneered and laid the ground- work for three major advance bases in the northern provinces of the Republic of Vietnam. From these bases, combatant forces received the critical support necessary for increasing attacks into the interior. In the words of Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze, the Seabees had "contributed mightily to constructing the vast infrastructure necessary for a major war in a primitive, remote area." The bastions built on the upper coast of South Vietnam demonstrated their worth in 1966 and 1967 when Allied forces, supplied from these points, crushed major North Vietnamese offensives through the Demilitarized Zone and Laos.

During 1966 the Seabees continued to build at Danang, Phu Bai and Chu Lai, expanding these bases and erecting more permanent structures for the men and equipment assigned to them. At the same time, Seabees entered the troubled, northern-most province of Quang Tri to build a hill-top fort of concrete bunkers at Lang Vei. This vital outpost overlooked a feeder line of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also built facilities at the Marine base at Dong Ha and the Army artillery post at Comm To.

Among the numerous construction projects completed in 1967 was an alternate airfield at Dong Ha and the famed Liberty Bridge, 80 miles southwest of Danang. Even though the northeast monsoon season had already begun, the airstrip was completed in only 38 days. The Liberty Bridge, which spanned the Thu Bon River, was one of the most impressive undertakings of the war. Built to withstand the incredible expansion of the river during the monsoon season, the completed bridge was 2,040 feet long and towered 32 feet above the low water level. While construction of such a bridge would have been difficult under normal circumstances, the Seabees were required to work in a remote area of Vietnam known to contain large concentrations of enemy forces. Despite tremendous difficulties, the bridge was finished in only five months.

During the bitter struggle of the Tet offensive in February of 1968, Seabees built and fought in direct support of the Marine Corps and Army. While the battle for Hue raged at fever pitch, Seabees from Phu Bai were summoned to rebuild and repair two vitally needed concrete bridges. When enemy snipers drove the Seabees from their work, they organized their own combat teams which silenced the snipers and let them complete their important task. In the spring, the Seabees went to work on the Danang to Hue railroad and put it quickly back into service. Constant enemy harassment had suspended service on this line since 1965.

Naval Construction Force strength reached its peak shortly after the beginning of the 1968 Tet Offensive. During that and the following year there were more than 11,000 Seabees serving in South Vietnam. Although the Navy's construction men continued to labor in the northern provinces, building city-like cantonments and upgrading previously constructed facilities, the priorities of the war also began to demand more and more of their skills in the south.

After responsibility for conducting the war was turned over to the South Vietnamese and American military operations in the north were significantly reduced, the Seabees labored to prepare the Vietnamese for the ultimate withdrawal of all American combatant troops. In the Mekong Delta they built a string of coastal bases and radar sites which would allow the Vietnamese Navy to completely take over coastal surveillance in this area of "brown water" warfare. As thousands of American troops were returning home, Seabees continued to build. Only now, however, they built hospitals at Danang, Chu Lai, Phu Bai, Quang Tri and many other towns and villages throughout the country.

When in 1970, Seabee activity drew to a close and the withdrawal of the last units commenced, the Navy's builder-fighters had made a lasting contribution to the people of South Vietnam. In a war where winning the hearts of the people was an important part of the total effort, Seabee construction skills and medical assistance proved powerful weapons in the Vietnam "civic action" war. The recitation of events and the quoting of statistics fail to reveal the true nature of the Seabees' involvement during the Vietnam years. True, they supported the Marines at Chu Lai and Khe Sanh, reopened the railroad line between Hue and Danang, struggled with the logistics problems of the Mekong Delta, constructed a new naval base on a sand pad floating on paddy mud, and built staggering quantities of warehouses, aircraft support facilities, roads, and bridges. But they also hauled and dumped numerous tons of rock and paving on roads that provided access to farms and markets, supplied fresh water to countless numbers of Vietnamese through hundreds of Seabee-dug wells, provided medical treatment to thousands of villagers, and opened up new opportunities and hope for generations to come through Seabee-built schools, hospitals, utilities systems, roads and other community facilities. Seabees also worked with, and taught construction skills to the Vietnamese people, helping them to help themselves and proving that the Seabees really are "builders for peace."
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