TME Looks Back: Vietnam – “Elephants and People Power”

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. 

In the inaugural post, TME Looks Back: Vietnam revisits January-February 1963 for “Elephants and People Power,” a story by Lt. Cdr. Malcom Mooney of the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps on the limitations of local construction methods and the local topographic and weather challenges in Southeast Asia during the early years of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 

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Elephants and People Power

By Lt. Cdr. Malcom S. Mooney, CEC, USN


In the Military Assistance Program, which has been under way in Southeast Asia since 1956 over half of the construction work has been by local contractors, and unique construction methods have been encountered. In this area men and women toil ten hours a day seven days a week, using primitive and ingenious practices which are natural in an un-mechanized society where labor is cheap and plentiful.

Considering the resources available and the technological limitations, the results obtained are remarkable.



About half of the Southeast Asian peninsula consists of rice paddies and the rest comprises high plateaus and mountainous regions. Vegetation ranges from nothing to scrub brush to dense jungle. The construction season is generally from October through April or May with the summer months bringing the monsoon season with its accompanying heavy rains. In the northern part of South Vietnam, the seasons are nearly reversed with rains occurring from October through March. During the rainy seasons the lowlands are flooded and the earth turns to ooze several feet deep and completely unworkable for heavy construction equipment. In the construction season, this same material, so high in clay content, hardens and bakes in the tropical sun to a solid base covered with several inches of fine dust.

Construction materials that are readily available are lumber, cement, clay, river and beach sand, riverrun gravel, crushed rock, and laterite. Common brick, masonry tiles, and concrete blocks are used with reinforced concrete as the standard elements for basic construction. Steel and other metal materials and petroleum products must be imported from other Far Eastern sources or the United States; hence, design standards have been developed to make maximum use of the local materials.



Clearing and Grubbing.—Clearing the ground in preparation for construction provides a splendid opportunity for work for the multitude of unskilled coolies available. They are quite willing to put their backs into the heavy work for a small daily wage. Apparently living by the adage that “haste makes waste” they are in no hurry but are slow and very steady. If speed is required, the rate of progress is increased by the addition of workers.

In clearing operations the elephant is particularly valuable. Under the skillful guidance of his owner, trainer, provider, driver, and maintenance mechanic (all the same person) the elephant is useful in tree and boulder removal and in hauling heavy loads. Here is a vegetarian bulldozer that refuels off the local greenery, washes itself, and requires no spare parts support. But, unique as construction equipment, the elephant is emotional and sensitive. The elephant handler must therefore serve also as a psychiatrist for his charge. One report tells of a particular elephant that had been born with a defective trunk. This handicap made him self-conscious over the years because he was suitable only for hauling jobs and was not used on the choice lifting work being done by his fellows. His neurosis on this account finally overwhelmed him to such a degree that he ran headlong into a stone wall at full speed, thus removing himself from an intolerable life. So, while the risk of mechanical breakdown is slight, the possibility of a nervous collapse has replaced it.

Excavation and Grading.—Digging holes is still practiced in this area in its most ancient form. With a short-handled type of hoe a good digger can dislodge and load sufficient material to keep three or four coolies busy hauling it in small woven bamboo baskets on the ends of their carrying poles. Of course, the number of coolies per digger will depend upon the depth of the excavation and the haul distance. If the hole is deep, it is often necessary to employ a middle man (or woman) to hand up the filled baskets and lower the empty ones.

A variation on this method has been found at the site of a ground-water well installation. There, water was located about 12 feet below the surface under a sand overburden. To preclude digging a hole two to three times larger than the final necessary size in order to place forms for concrete, a reinforced concrete ring about 10 feet in diameter, 4 feet high, and with 6-inch wall thickness was cast on the well site. After stripping it of the forms, some half dozen coolies jumped inside the ring and began excavating the sand by hand. As the soil was removed from inside the ring and from under its rim, its weight caused it to settle into the ground. When the top of this ring reached ground level, a second one was cast on top of it, and work continued as before. A small hand winch with a bucket was added as the excavation deepened, to remove the material which was then hauled off by coolies with shoulder poles and baskets. When sufficient depth was reached, the piping was put in, a top was cast, and pumps were installed.

Some type of equipment is usually involved in grading and compacting operations. It may be only an old dump truck or two being loaded by hand. Compaction requires something more than hundreds of bare feet, so an ancient steam roller is used. A convenient supply of boiler firewood is found at the carpenter shop where scraps are gathered and loaded into the steam roller cab. The equipment operator doubles as fireman during operations.

Placement of fill is also largely a coolie operation supported by horse and truck hauling. Pavement base courses often consist of a first layer of relatively large, hand-broken rock which is also placed by hand. This is then chinked with smaller crushed stone (hand spread and broomed), rolled, and shot with asphalt in typical macadam fashion.

Drainage structures are generally either open surface ditches or precast concrete pipe. Some of the headwalls and open spillways become beautiful examples of masonry construction. Because of heavy runoffs during the monsoon seasons, erosion prevention necessitates masonry or hand-sodded ditch linings.




Pile Driving.—This is one of the most fascinating construction procedures. On small jobs the piles are usually of teak or other local hardwood. The technique and equipment used for driving will depend upon the nature of the soil and the degree of inventiveness of the contractor.

One system involves a large woodblock with handles on either side which is lifted and dropped by two men standing atop a staging. The fall of the weight is probably not more than 12 to 18 inches but it does the job in rice paddy areas underlain with saturated soil. The pile leads consist of one or two men at a lower level holding the pile erect until it is sufficiently embedded to remain upright.

A slightly more advanced method involves a concrete block as the hammer and several coolies as the motive force on the end of a line that runs over a pulley. Pile leads may be the same as in the woodblock method.

Another method employs a concrete weight that is operated by an engine-driven winch instead of manpower. An A-frame, which is usually skid mounted, supports the pulley arrangement and leads. Rebar dowels, several feet long, extending out of the hammer at its four corners enclose the pile when driving and ensure hitting the target. Reinforced concrete piles are driven by this method.

To the more specialized contractors in this field, there are available in limited quantity the usual assortment of steam hammers and conventional pile driving rigs which are used for the large jobs requiring extensive piling.

Concrete Placement.—Concrete is mixed in moderate-sized, portable, engine-driven mixers at the site. When more volume is required, more units are used. The aggregate and cement are measured out in boxes by coolies and loaded into the drum. Water is added by pail or dipper for control. When mixing is complete, the load is dumped on a prepared surface near the unit and then shoveled into buckets or baskets for transportation to the job. Various systems are used for placing the mix, depending upon the height of the forms or pour level. They range from ramps for the coolies to bucket-brigade operations. One contractor who was placing concrete at a third-floor level had a power unit attached to pulleys over which ran a steel wire rope with hooks on it about every 3 feet. The worker on the ground floor attached buckets of concrete by letting the hooks catch the handles; when they reached the third floor they were grabbed and removed by another worker. He passed them to a coolie who delivered them to the site, returning with empty pails which were lowered on the hooks on the opposite side of the wire rope circuit. At one concrete job an inspector noted the apparently weak formwork at the base of a column. The contractor assured him that there was no danger since the pour was so slow that the concrete would set up before any reaction from hydrostatic head would be a problem. All vibration is by hand rodding of the mix after placement. Finishing is by hand.



Other Phases.—Masonry, carpentry, and electrical, plumbing, and mechanical work are as might be expected. The tendency is toward minimum mechanical methods and maximum manual work. In Cambodia, where no general contractors are available, it is necessary to let separate contracts for each particular phase of a project. This requires patience and timing in order, for example, to see that the structure is in place before the plumbing and electrical contractors go to work, or that the floor is not finished before a drain or other fixtures are installed under it. In view of this situation, conduits and pipe will often. be surface mounted. The aesthetic values of interiors and exteriors are somewhat reduced by such practices but maintenance is simplified.

Safety.—The standards of safety customary in the United States are not observed by the local Southeast Asian contractors. A conscientious safety engineer would be completely frustrated if given the task of enforcing American standards in this area. Scaffolds are usually of bamboo lashed together with local materials. These structures will extend upward to any required height and the natives scramble up and down without ladders, stairs, or other contrivances. That there are not more accidents in all phases of the work may be partially attributed to the dearth of mechanical equipment.



A few American and foreign contractors have moved Southeast Asia bringing with them modern equipment and methods. These firms employ large numbers of local personnel who are being trained to handle various kinds of mechanical construction equipment.

While construction practices in this region may improve in efficiency and modernization, the progress will be slow and gradual because of the large pool of hand labor available. In such conditions, it cannot be said that replacing a hundred coolies with one bulldozer is necessarily a good thing. On some projects a local contractor with a large labor force has been known to surpass the foreigner in flexibility, responsiveness, and speed of construction, and with far less trouble over the cost and effect of a change order on his job.


 [Reprinted from TME / January-February 1963] 

VietnamFlyer-TMETME Vietnam Commemorative Issue

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 TME Vietnam Commemorative Issue. Contact TME Editor Stephen Karl at for more information or click here to contribute editorial content. Contact Stephanie Satterfield, SAME Marketing Sales Manager at for sponsorship/advertising inquiries.]