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

This TME Looks Back: Vietnam features a three-part article on “Military Construction in Vietnam,” incorporating a Navy Civil Engineer Corps perspective, a contractor’s view, as well as Army troop construction insights. The three-part article was published in the September-October 1966 issue of The Military Engineer . 

The article appears below in mobile-friendly format.

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 for more information or click here to contribute editorial content. Contact Stephanie Satterfield at for sponsorship/advertising inquiries.]



Military Construction in Vietnam
The Construction Agent

By Rear Adm. H.N. Wallin, CEC, USN


The Naval Facilities Engineering Command (formerly the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks) is the construction agent in Southeast Asia for the Department of Defense. Under the accelerated buildup of military construction in Vietnam, the contract construction there is now about equal to the normal annual world-wide construction program of the Navy. To keep pace with this rapid expansion, contracts have been negotiated with a joint venture consisting of four large American construction firms,” and the officer strength of the Civil Engineer Corps of the Navy in South Vietnam has been greatly increased. All of the construction in Vietnam is co-ordinated by an officer of the Army Corps of Engineers who is on the staff of the commander, USMACV. This officer establishes priorities and issues the construction directives based on guidance from the commander.

The construction program includes large cantonments composed of hundreds of barracks and administrative structures, aluminum-mat and concrete airfield runways, water-front structures and harbor projects, communication systems, and POL, ammunition, and many other facilities to support the American troops in Vietnam. Contractors are working at more than forty sites—from the Delta Region in the south to Da Nang in the north, including Saigon, Cam Ranh, Phan Rang, Nha Trang, Pleiku, and Chu Lai.




Many and varied problems naturally arise in a program of this magnitude. Planning, design, and construction time all have to be telescoped—the work to be conducted practically concurrently. This requires the closest of working relations between the OICC (officer in charge of construction), the design engineers, and the contractors. The monsoons and enervating weather, security of life and material, importing of equipment, acquisition of real estate, and the moving of graves from job sites, as well as the unusual soil conditions, add to the normal engineering problems. The rapid build-up of military forces and supplies has created additional requirements such as the development of port facilities to unload, transport, and store vast quantities of materials.

The supply of labor needed to prosecute such a huge program is drawn from many sources. Local personnel, both skilled and unskilled, are employed to the greatest possible extent. The labor force consists of over 35,000 Vietnamese workers, about 3,000 American employees, and 3,000 from other countries, mainly Koreans and Filipinos. It is expected that the total force may eventually reach 50,000.

Equipment, too, is needed in vast amounts. The contractor has nearly 3,700 pieces of construction equipment in the country and probably will increase this to about 4,000 pieces on hand by autumn. The many qualified equipment operators needed are being acquired by the contractor through a highly successful training program for indigenous personnel.

The complexities of logistics have demanded that a concerted effort be made to achieve simplicity, especially in buildings. The simplest structure and the easiest technique that will do the job are constantly sought. Pre-engineered metal, wooden, and concrete-block structures, whichever are easiest, quickest, and most suitable for a particular site are used.



At Binh Thuy in the Delta Region, where an airfield was constructed, a 6,000-foot flexible asphalt strip was built in 1964. It actually floats—on a 3-foot sand blanket which rests on 100 feet of organic silt. It is holding up well, but has settled somewhat, as predicted.


Legal entanglements and delays are encountered in acquiring any real estate which is not already within the bounds of established Vietnamese military bases. Real estate acquisition is handled through the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, as it involves direct government-to-government negotiations.


At Cam Ranh Bay one of the major problems to be overcome when building the airstrip was the fine sand which covered the peninsula. It was necessary to install a piping system, and pump large quantities of sea water over the site to flood it and thus enable the engineers to begin compaction. By this method 95 percent compaction of the subgrade was obtained. Another serious problem faced in Vietnam is that of getting materials and equipment to the construction sites. Practically all supplies are shipped to Vietnam by sea, but since most of the roads and railroads are either impassable or controlled by the Viet Cong, the supplies arriving in the country usually must be transshipped by air or sea. For example, at Pleiku, an airfield in the central highlands, the replacement of a Marston matting strip with asphaltic concrete was held up because a rock crusher could not be moved to the site over the highways which were in the hands of the Viet Cong. To get the work done, all the Vietnamese labor, both male and female, that could be found were hired to collect rock fragments from the countryside, and break them to aggregate size with hammers. Although this sounds like a slow method, it was possible with the overwhelming quantity of local labor to produce the total amount of aggregate required in a short period. The amount of aggregate acquired was sufficient to pave 6,000 feet of runway with parallel taxiways and parking aprons.

Legal entanglements and delays are encountered in acquiring any real estate which is not already within the bounds of established Vietnamese military bases. Real estate acquisition is handled through the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, as it involves direct government-to-government negotiations. Added to all the construction problems, and of major concern, are the actions of the enemy and the political unrest of the country. The Viet Cong interdict supply lines, steal supplies and materials, and harass equipment operators and truck drivers, especially in isolated places such as at rock quarries. 

The political unrest slows up production through the disturbances which prevent many of the thousands of Vietnamese workers from getting to the job. In twelve days during one month in the Da Nang area, very few of the Vietnamese showed up for work.



In spite of these and many other problems in Vietnam, progress is being made through the excellent teamwork between all services—the Navy contract construction program, the troop construction by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy’s Seabees, and the work of the Air Force Prime BEEF and Red Horse Teams.

The military construction work in South Vietnam constitutes a huge, fast-moving program. It is a difficult job but it is essential to the success of the military effort. In addition, the Vietnamese are rapidly learning new trades and skills which will enable them to help their country to improve its standard of living. Although the program is military construction, there are collateral benefits to the civilian economy, such as improved piers, harbors, roads, and airports which eventually will help this small country in its national development.


 A Contractor’s View

By W. Stuart Potter


A basic necessity in the engineering and design of large projects in Vietnam is the ability to adjust quickly to changes in conditions. Without this flexibility, the military objective of providing interim operational facilities at the earliest possible date probably could not be met. In order to design usable facilities for construction at the lowest possible cost in the shortest possible time, the major interrelated factors that must be considered by the contractor are time and the availability of materials, equipment, and labor. A most critical design problem is to obtain firm and timely criteria. This is complicated by sudden changes in strategy, continual expansion of the particular military mission, and procurement difficulties. Since speed is essential, it is not feasible to stop work during review periods. As a result, any major changes or delays during the review constitute a severe threat to the schedule. Relief from this problem will be afforded when some standardization of repetitive structures is achieved.

The experience of a contractor with the early development of the Cam Ranh Bay airfield, which will be the largest Southeast Asian air base, is probably typical of that at other Vietnam installations.
The contractor’s team of about 125 people, including at least nine different nationalities, approached the project in stages. The first efforts were concentrated on the design of a temporary tactical aircraft runway of aluminum matting (AM-2), with the barest essentials for support and operational facilities, quarters, and utilities around the runway. The only available topographic map of the site was at a scale of 1:5,000, with 5-meter contour intervals, hardly conducive to an economical design in establishing grades and alignment. But the runway was required as quickly as possible rather than as economically as possible. This was a typical situation in which the substitution of funds for time was advantageous.

Because of the need for speed the contractor must have a thorough knowledge of materials readily available in the local market, warehouses, and yards; in the Philippine Islands staging area; and in nearby countries. When a design project is started, the best possible use is planned for such materials. Other supplies that will take a long time for procurement are specified first and the requirements are sent to the purchasing agency as quickly as possible.




A close working relationship must be maintained between the architect-engineering firm and the construction agency. If, for instance, the generators on hand are of 200-kw capacity, the power plant must be designed with these in mind. The design also must allow for changes in equipment availability. At the Cam Ranh Bay airfield where, because of insufficient land area, the approach lighting system was designed to extend out into the bay, it was assumed that a dredge would be available to place a fill for this purpose. Suddenly, the dredge was needed elsewhere on a more urgent priority, and it vanished, thus making it necessary to redesign for a pile-mounted approach lighting system.

In the case of base course material for roads and runways, it was reported that there was sufficient quarry equipment to supply crushed rock. But the crushed rock later proved unavailable, and an altermate design using soil cement was provided. Cement shipments were then delayed. Where a base course could not be circumvented, a third design was prepared utilizing varying thicknesses of laterite, and reduced amounts of crushed rock and soil cement.

Also affecting initial design was the availability of labor. Many construction techniques which are considered routine in other areas of the world are unknown to the Vietnamese workers. Simplification of all installations and equipment is therefore a requisite for efficient employment of the local labor. The use of standardized prefabricated buildings wherever they will meet the criteria is advantageous.



A prime difficulty in Vietnam airfield development is that of firm and timely criteria. For a large air base the criteria involve a great many specialty groups, and schedules are so urgent that the assembly of all criteria before the completion of the design is highly desirable. Transmittal of criteria in fragments is difficult to avoid, but can be a serious handicap. Constant changes in equipment lists cause continual design changes to accommodate new requirements, particularly with regard to navigational aids, airfield lighting, and communications facilities.

Just as the designer must have knowledge of material, equipment, and labor availability, so must those developing the criteria. For example, the installation of side doors or other modifications to
pre-engineered buildings, which have already been procured for Vietnam in quantity, is expensive and time consuming. If the requirements of various facilities can be satisfied with few modifications to standard buildings, time and money will be saved.

Other necessary criteria ingredients are an approved master plan of the entire facility and a description of its ultimate scope, so that planning for anticipated expansion and utilities may be done intelligently.

Reviews are essential as a check on criteria and design. Although problems caused by some changes are gradually being solved through standardization of some components, foundation requirements will continue to vary with soil conditions, utility systems will have to be adjusted to population changes, and petroleum, oil, and lubricant (POL) systems will have to be modified according to the type and number of aircraft to be supported.

The maintenance of a flexible and competent organization to cope with the continually changing conditions is the only way to ensure proper development and design of facilities to support the fighting men in Vietnam.


Army Troop Construction 

By Col. J.H. Hottenroth, USA


A major part of the military construction program in Vietnam is being conducted by Army Engineer troops. Since work was started by the 35th Engineer Group in the Cam Ranh Bay area in the summer of 1965,’ more engineers have arrived, deployed, and gained momentum in their construction and combat support activities.

The 159th Engineer Group was assigned in October 1965 to provide construction and engineer combat support within the Vietnamese III and IV Corps Zones. The combat battalions support tactical units. One combat engineer company is with each brigade or base of the infantry divisions, one construction company is at Vung Tau, and the remainder of the Group is in the Long Binh area for construction work in the Saigon-Long Binh region. The work in the divisional bases comprises cantonment construction with roads and utilities and facilities for C-130 four-engine planes, helicopters, and Army fixed-wing aircraft. Logistical facilities include hospitals, ammunition and supply storage areas, LST ramps, and POI, installations.



South Vietnam is divided into four corps tactical zones, each one under a Vietnamese Army Corps Commander who reports directly to the Central Government in Saigon. Under the four commanders are the chiefs of forty-three provinces, each one normally commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Within the provinces are the districts, similar to American counties, headed by district chiefs. Next are the chiefs of the eight to twelve villages in each district. The villages may include four to six hamlets, whose chiefs, in many cases, are appointed (others elected), but who will all be elected as the terrorist activities of the Viet Cong are suppressed, American military units have frequent contact, through the American advisers, with district and village chiefs, particularly in regard to civic action projects, such as support of orphanages and refugee settlements.

The 159th Engineer Group operates primarily in the area of the South Delta, where the elevation rarely exceeds 20 feet above sea level. This condition means a high water table which is a serious problem. It is difficult to find sites which are suitable from both the tactical and construction standpoints. Sites selected frequently have to be built up with 12 to 18 inches of firm material to provide the needed strength and stability, and large drainage structures are required to carry the heavy runoff from areas which have been stripped of vegetation.

Rainfall and extreme temperatures have a significant influence upon construction operations. January through March the rainfall in the delta is light, averaging less than an inch per month and falling on three days a month at the most. Twenty-four-hour extreme precipitation is 7.2 inches in June; approximately 5 in September, October, and November; and about 4 in April, May, and December. The highest temperatures are in February through May, with an average minimum of 91-94 degrees Fahrenheit and an extreme of 104. The minimum averages 74-76. In the remaining months the average maximum is 89, with an extreme of 99, and a minimum of 70 to 75 degrees.

The United States Army Vietnam (USARV) includes the 18th Engineer Brigade, the 1st Logistical Command, an Aviation Brigade, an Air Defense Artillery Group, a Signal Brigade, and Military Police Units. USARV is subordinate to the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), which also has Navy, Air Force, and Marine components, (In general, the 159th Engineer Group provides construction support to USARV, II Field Force and its Subordinate Divisions and Groups, and the 1st Logistical Command.) The vast amount of construction required demands the controlled and co-ordinated use of contractors as well as of military engineer elements of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. The Director of Construction, MACV, manages all Department of Defense construction in Vietnam.




Contract construction for the Army is conducted primarily by a joint venture which operates under contract administered by the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, designated the contract construction agent in Southeast Asia. Some minor new construction is under contract to the 1st Logistical Command, and the infantry, artillery, and other units construct some of their facilities. With these exceptions, the military construction of the Army is by units of the 18th Engineer Brigade.



The first object is to support the fighting men to make their environment more usable, secure, and comfortable so that the combined arms team can devote its effort to the combat mission. This is in accord with the system of priorities and standards of construction developed to assure that engineer resources are applied where they are most needed, so that a unit is able to shoot, move, and obtain the necessary supplies and facilities for effective combat operations. In order of priority, the engineer tasks are to clear and grub areas for incoming troops, to issue field fortification material, to clear fields of fire, and to provide water supply points. Further down the list are the provision of hospitals, ammunition storage areas, communication facilities, and so forth. This priority list is the basis for the allocation of resources.

Related to priorities are the standards of construction. Bases are developed with heavy reliance upon self-help by the using units, so as to advance progressively to Standard 4, as described below. Standards of construction are:

  • Standard 1: An unprepared site, with no access other than a trail.
  • Standard 2: A site cleared by engineer units and provided with minimum access roads. The using units erect tentage.
  • Standard 3: Included are floored buildings for infirmaries, kitchens, administration and storage, and showers. Floors are added to the tents used for housing. Interior roads are stabilized but not surfaced. Water is distributed to infirmaries, kitchens, and showers. Electricity is distributed to buildings. Burnout latrines are installed,
  • Standard 4: This is the limiting standard of construction without specific approval from MACV. It progresses to framed tents or austere framed buildings for housing. Floored buildings are authorized for other purposes such as mess halls and morale and welfare facilities. Electrical distribution is extended to tents. Progress to this standard is largely a matter of self-help.



The Long Binh area is being developed as a major logistical complex with maintenance facilities and with open covered storage for all classes of supplies. This development has involved the removal of many units and large tonnages of supplies from the Saigon area. The construction of storage facilities has had to keep pace with the arrival of shiploads of supplies which were moved directly from the landing to the storage areas. One of the main elements of this depot is an ammunition storage area under construction.


Many important aspects of the operations of the 159th Engineer Group are typical of engineer work in Vietnam. One such point is the dispersion of the companies of each battalion.


Another major facility is a 400-bed evacuation hospital consisting of 60 vertical-wall quonset buildings on concrete slabs, arranged normally in X-shape clusters of four, with the center portion used as a nursing station to serve four wards. This project is particularly noteworthy in that it was ready for the reception and treatment of patients approximately 45 days after the ground was broken. Also at Long Binh, 34,000 square feet of administrative buildings for a major headquarters were built in a period of about 50 days. Logistical facilities under construction at Saigon and Vung Tau include POL pipelines and bolted steel tank farms. At Vung Tau, LST ramps and timber pile piers are being installed and an onshore connection for a DeLong pier is being planned.



Many important aspects of the operations of the 159th Engineer Group are typical of engineer work in Vietnam. One such point is the dispersion of the companies of each battalion. The line companies of the combat battalions have been assigned distinct construction projects at separate locations. Of the nine sites at which elements of the Engineer Group are deployed, it is practically impossible to reach five of them for command, inspection, maintenance, and liaison purposes except by air. This condition taxes the limited air transport capacity of the engineers.

Interference with construction by the enemy and by heavy rains is a serious problem. Enemy action has been limited to harassment in the form of sniper fire and mines and booby traps of various types. During the season of heavy rainfall (which varies from one region of Vietnam to another) it is impossible to construct roads or hardstands until the ground has thoroughly dried. Heavy monsoon rains also delay building construction and damage incomplete buildings if linings are not covered with sheathing materials before a downpour starts.

Base development planning is another important operation. Engineer units are responsible for advising installation commanders on base layout from a construction standpoint, and for assisting with the survey for roads and drainage. Subsequently, architect-engineer firms design the central electrical distribution systems and water storage and distribution facilities.

The engineers also must obtain, manage, and haul construction materials for their projects. Only laterite and rock are available locally in sufficient quantities. Virtually all other construction materials must be imported from the United States or from Korea, Japan, and Malaysia. Hollow clay brick and small quantities of hardware and electrical and plumbing items may sometimes be obtained on the local market. The engineers must allocate the available construction materials among the various projects according to their priority. This pertains to facilities being constructed by units doing their own work (self-help) as well as to projects being constructed by the units of the 159th Engineer Group. The problem of assuring that jobs are mot held up by lack of construction materials is a real challenge to company and platoon commanders and supply officers.

Maintaining construction equipment in operating condition is a vital necessity. In secure areas, equipment is operated two shifts daily, seven days a week. This heavy usage and adverse soil conditions cause deadline rates somewhat higher than those incurred in American garrison or training operations. Well qualified maintenance warrant officers and noncommissioned officers are an important asset to each unit. The spare parts consumption is also greater than that expected in the United States, and the prescribed load lists are often inadequate.

Finally, when construction materials are used in permanent, semipermanent, or even temporary buildings, they are chargeable under the MCA Program; hence, all such materials must be accounted for. As a result, the construction units must record costs of materials, estimate man-hour requirements, and report construction progress as a ratio of man-hours utilized to total man-hours expected. Vietnamese man-hours utilized also must be recorded for each project.

Military engineer construction operations are stimulating to the professional military engineer. He has to contend with problems of short construction deadlines, material shortages, equipment problems, weather, and enemy actions. The experience in Vietnam indicates that he is getting the job done successfully in support of the combat arms team.

[reprinted from TME / September-October 1966]