This week, TME Looks Back: Vietnam heads to 1966 and a Da Nang camp site for an inside look at the work of Seabees with Mobile Construction Battalion 8. “MCB-EIGHT in Vietnam” by Lt. Roger G. Martin, CEC, USN, was published in the July-August 1966 issue of The Military Engineer .
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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, 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 Stephen Karl at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or click here to contribute editorial content. Contact Stephanie Satterfield at email@example.com for sponsorship/advertising inquiries.]
MCB-EIGHT in Vietnam
By Lt. Roger G. Martin, CEC, USN
Upon the decision, in August 1965, to increase military and economic aid to the free Vietnamese, a 75-man advance party of the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion EIGHT was sent to its newly assigned eamp site at Da Nang, Vietnam, and the rest of the battalion was transferred to ‘Port Hueneme, California, for a period of intensive training. Late in September MCB-EIGHT was airlifted to Da Nang, joining three other battalions already in Vietnam. The advance party had thrown a defensive perimeter around the camp site, and was well ahead of schedule with construction of the base.
The camp site, at the rear of a migrating sand dune about a half mile from the coast of the South China Sea, was some 6 miles southeast of Da Nang. The rear perimeter was established along the western extremity of the dune where there was a 60-foot drop to the Tourane River (Figure 1). Having taken the best advantage of this naturally defensible position, the Seabees completed a camp with berthing, messing, medical, dental, administrative and limited recreational facilities.
Meanwhile, a 50-man detached unit of MCB-EIGHT was assigned to projects at Hue Phu Bai, some 50 miles north of Da Nang. Construction projects assigned to MCB-EIGHT varied widely in scope and complexity. Some, such as road maintenance, were colorless but often as important to the military mission as the most complicated ones. Projects at Hue Phu Bai were an emergency operating facility for Company A of the Third Medical Battalion, warehouses for various users, and Marine cantonments (Figures 3 and 4). Key projects at Da Nang included a 1,000-man galley and mess for the Naval Support Activity (NSA), a cantonment for the 5th Communications Battalion, and Tourane River bridge repairs. Joint efforts of several units and the employment of indigenous labor were necessary on major projects to provide enough manpower and equipment for completion in time to meet operational requirements. Adverse weather conditions, enemy actions, and interruptions for immediate higher priorities temporarily hampered the work and increased the need for added support. These factors came to bear in varying degrees upon MCB-EIGHT. The meshing of joint efforts naturally posed some problems, but they were soon overcome and the work was greatly expedited.
NSA STORAGE FACILITY
The site for this complex, about 2 miles east of Da Nang, was carved from a barren sandy area, pocked with small ponds and lakes. Thousands of yards of sand were moved in the grading operations. Twelve warehouses, each consisting of eight 40-by-100-foot Butler buildings and related facilities, were erected over an area of some 83 acres. A 160-by 200-foot concrete pad was laid to form the foundation for each warehouse cluster. A concrete batch plant with a capacity of 1,000 cubic yards per week was installed at the site.
MCB-EIGHT is also constructing access roads and driveways to the buildings now in operation. In addition, two Butler buildings for administrative offices, a block ice plant, a 225,000-square-foot open storage area (crushed rock surface), a water treatment plant and storage tank, and foundations for seventy-eight additional 1,200-cubic-foot refrigerators and twelve 4,000-cubic-foot refrigerators are to be built by the Seabees.
MCB-EIGHT stationed a team of guards on the site at night to prevent sabotage until the NSA had sufficient manpower at the base to assume this duty. Two dozen Vietnamese laborers were hired to apply siding and roofing under the supervision of a Seabee builder. They proved to be an industrious and efficient crew. However, one predicament arose which was as much a source for amusement as for consternation. The Vietnamese greeted the Seabees one morning with a strike—for longer hours! Having seen the Americans working a 10-hour day, the local workers politely removed themselves from the job while their spokesman demanded the workday be increased from 9 1/2 to 10 hours. Their demands met, the Vietnamese returned to their work.
The use of a patented fastening system combined with a little ingenuity aided in cutting completion time for each warehouse by 25 to 45 percent. A workman inside the building at ground level inserted a center punch (attached to the end of a pole) through the factory-punched hole in the roof purlins. A workman on top of the roof, by tapping on the sheet metal roofing around the protruding punch, marked the sheet for a fastener, and then punched the hole. A third workman followed the two-man “punch crew” with a fastener gun, thus fastening the sheet metal to the purlins and eliminating the cumbersome stove bolts and the need for interior scaffolding.
To move surface cargo ashore at Da Nang, four small-to-medium craft landing ramps will be built, separated by docks or wharves. Behind these structures and the 1,700-foot steel-sheet-pile quay wall wharf will be a 40-acre paved area for cargo storage and handling. A heavy timber pier, 314 feet long, being constructed off the end of one wharf, will be used for direct ship-to-shore movement of cargo from deep-draft vessels.
Vietnam has a long coast line and excellent deepwater harbors, but lacks adequate water-front facilities for handling supplies. The site chosen at Da Nang is in the estuary of the Tourane River and was a marshy lowland, inundated at high tide. Operations began with the pumping of hydraulic fill into the site. This material was dredged from the river channel by a Vietnamese-operated dredge.” Suitable fill material, principally sand, was hauled around the clock from as far as 6 miles away. Vehicles moving at night in unsecured territory required armed guards. As soon as a fairly stable substructure was provided, the Seabees and their machinery were poured into the project. The monsoon rains and their related high tides also poured into the project, and the race with time was compounded by a battle against the elements and enemy snipers.
The site for this complex, about 2 miles east of Da Nang, was carved from a barren sandy area, pocked with small ponds and lakes. Thousands of yards of sand were moved in the grading operations. Twelve warehouses, each consisting of eight 40-by-100-foot Butler buildings and related facilities, were erected over an area of some 83 acres.
As the quay wall was completed, an additional dredge was obtained from the Navy’s construction contractor and hydraulic fill was dumped over the large area behind the quay wall.
With coordination by MCB-EIGHT, a Vietnamese contractor supplied rock for base courses and riprap ; MCB-FIVE crushed rock for surface courses and provided concrete for deadmen; and the Seventh Marine Engineers assisted fill operations at critical points and provided miscellaneous equipment. Eleven weeks after arriving in Vietnam, the Seabees were prepared to land the first shallow-draft vessel.
In addition to their construction work, the Seabees provided a security force, formed by rotating men from the construction companies on a carefully controlled program to stand guard around the camp twenty-four hours a day, with reinforcements at night. A comprehensive defense plan assured quick defensive action by the entire battalion. Thus a vigorous construction program was maintained while a real defensive punch was held in readiness for the unseen and unpredictable enemy.
The “building program” of the Seabees comprised civic actions as well as military construction. Activities included the treatment of nearby Vietnamese villages by the Navy doctor and dentist, and the distribution of various supplies donated by organizations in the United States to the people of Vietnam. MCB-EIGHT has now deployed a 13-man Seabee Team for civic action into the jungles of Vietnam and another into Thailand. There, in a coordinated program with teams from other battalions, the Seabees will live and work among the people of the two countries to train them in construction methods and provide facilities to help meet the needs of an expanding economy.
[reprinted from TME / July-August 1966]