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.
U.S. Navy and Seabee
activity in Southeast Asia, however, long predated the Vietnam
War. In fact, the first U.S. Navy involvement in Vietnam took
place as early as May 1845. In that year, the USS Constitution,
while on a world cruise, anchored in Danang Bay to take on water
and foodstuffs. While there, Captain John Percival, USN, the Constitution's
skipper, received a request for assistance from Bishop Dominique
Lefevre who had been imprisoned and condemned to death by Thieu
Tri, Emperor of Cochin China.
In response to the bishop's plea for help, Captain Percival
led a rescue party of 80 sailors and marines ashore. After seizing
three Mandarins as hostages, he quickly dispatched a letter to
the Emperor demanding the release of Lefevre. The message either
went unheeded or undelivered, because a reply was never received.
Deciding on an alternative course of action, Percival released
the three Mandarins when they steadfastly promised that they would
personally seek Lefevre's release. Still later, after hearing
no more from the Mandarins and fearing that he had been tricked,
Captain Percival set sail for Macao, where, nine days later, he
apprised the French authorities of Lefevre's plight. A warship
was promptly dispatched and, as a result, Bishop Lefevre was finally
rescued. Thus, the story of the first United States intervention
in Vietnam ended happily.
The second instance of significant of U.S. Naval activity
in Vietnam took place 108 years later and, this time, the Seabees
were prominent participants. The 1954 Geneva agreements, which
recognized the North Vietnamese communist government of Ho Chi
Minh, also contained a provision which gave the Vietnamese populace
an opportunity to choose whether they would live in the north
or the south of a country newly divided roughly at the 17th parallel.
Prior to 18 May 1955, the expiration date of this provision, nearly
800,000 Vietnamese emigrated from north to south. Their exodus,
in which four nations participated, has since come to be known
as the "Passage to Freedom." During the mass migration,
the South Vietnamese government built reception centers and provided
basic amenities, the French supplied ships and planes, and the
British provided an aircraft carrier. For its part, the United
States organized Navy Task Force 90, comprising more than 50 ships.
Through the concerted effort of these four governments, 310,000
refugees were evacuated from North Vietnam. In addition, 68,857
tons of military equipment and 8,135 military vehicles which,
furnished to France under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program,
were kept from North Vietnamese hands.
As members of Task Force 90, Amphibious Construction Battalions
One and Two took part in the "Passage to Freedom." In
Danang, where the USS Consititution had stopped more than
a century before, a detachment from Amphibious Construction Battalion
One built and operated a recreation facility for U.S. personnel
involved in the ferrying operation. Another detachment from the
same battalion constructed a refugee tent camp and accompanying
water and power supply facilities at the mouth of the Saigon River.
This Seabee-built camp served as a reserve living area for the
overflow of refugees from Saigon. Since the Geneva accord specifically
prohibited the landing of foreign military units or the establishment
of foreign military installations in French Indo-China, the Seabees
of this detachment were required to wear civilian clothes and
to remove all U.S. markings from their equipment. Nevertheless,
as a result of their humanitarian efforts, the Seabees of Amphibious
Construction Battalion One were awarded the Vietnamese Presidential
Unit Citation. Detachments from Amphibious Construction Battalion
Two were originally scheduled to build a causeway across the beaches
adjacent to the North Vietnamese city of Haiphong. Over this causeway
military equipment and refugees were to be transferred to the
many ships lying offshore. The plan, however, was soon abandoned
because of French opposition and the later discovery that the
previously selected beaches were unsuitable for such a causeway.
Instead, all loading operations were carried out from the Haiphong
waterfront, and the Seabees were diverted to the south to help
their comrades with the construction of the massive refugee camp.
The Seabees labored for about one month in Vietnam and, before
being relieved, made an important contribution to the success
of this historic "Passage to Freedom."
Two years later, Seabees were to visit Vietnam one more time
before the conflagration of the 1960s. During the summer of 1956,
a team from a Seabee construction battalion was sent to the newly-
established Republic of Vietnam to conduct a survey of some 1,800
miles of existing and proposed roads. Two solid months of seven-day-a-week
labor in extremely rough territory yielded valuable results.
When the Seabees returned almost ten years later, these results
helped them build many of the roads that were then crucial to
the conduct of the war.
As tension continued to mount in Southeast Asia during the
1960s, the Seabees first returned in the form of thirteen-man
Seabee Teams, capable of performing a great variety of tasks.
Although small in size, these units possessed unique capabilities
never before assembled in such compact but highly effective and
In 1963 Seabee Teams were sent to Thailand to assist in the
Royal Thai Government's Accelerated Rural Development Program.
In the northern provinces these diversified units taught and advised
local Thais in an effort to help them form the cadre of essential
rural public works organizations. Three years of diligent work
in this region was finally concluded in May 1966.
In early November 1966, the Seabee Team program in Thailand
shifted from rural development to the Thai Border Patrol Police
Program for the development of remote area security. The program's
underlying aim was to win village support for the government in
regions continually plagued by communist insurgency. Before the
termination of all Seabee Team efforts in Thailand in 1969, these
skilled units had made significant progress toward the attainment
of this national aim.
Also in 1963, two years before the first full Seabee battalion
arrived, Seabee Teams were laboring in South Vietnam. They constructed
small support points throughout the interior of South Vietnam
to counter Viet Cong political influence in the villages. The
teams built U.S. Army Special Forces camps, performed civic action
tasks, and conducted military engineering projects under the Civil
Irregular Defense Group Program.
Seabee Team activity in South Vietnam continued to grow. Generally
working in remote rural areas, away from large population centers,
the Seabees served throughout twenty-two provinces scattered from
the Mekong Delta, along the Cambodian border and the Central highlands,
to the North Vietnamese border.
In the early years,
only two teams at a time were employed in these regions, but by
1969 the number of teams in-country had grown to 17.
Seabee Team accomplishments were many and varied. The U.S.
Army Special Forces, who were engaged in training and advising
Vietnamese Strike Forces and the Civilian Irregular Defense Group
in anti-guerilla fighting and defense tactics, required fortified
camps in advance areas able to withstand recurring ground and
mortar attacks. Besides constructing these special camps, Seabee
Teams were called upon to build access roads and nearby tactical
airstrips. Further, in South Vietnamese hamlets and villages,
teams carried out numerous civic action projects. From training
local inhabitants in basic construction skills to providing desperately
needed medical assistance, the Seabees made a significant impact
on the Vietnamese populace.
While they were primarily builders and instructors, Seabee
Team members were sometimes directly involved in battle. Perhaps
the most famous such battle occurred in June 1965 at Dong Xoai,
55 miles northeast of Saigon. When Viet Cong troops overran a
Special Forces Camp containing 400 South Vietnamese and allied
Asian troops, 11 men of a U.S. Army Special Forces team and nine
men of Seabee Team 1104, seven of the Seabees were wounded and
two killed. One of the dead was Construction Mechanic 3rd Class
Marvin G. Shields, USN, who was posthumously awarded the Medal
of Honor for conspicuous gallantry in carrying a critically wounded
man to safety and in destroying a Viet Cong machine gun emplacement
at the cost of his life. Not only was Marvin Shields the first
Seabee to win the nation's highest award, but he was also the
first Navy man to be so decorated for action in Vietnam.
Beginning in 1970 Seabee Teams departed from South Vietnam
without relief. This initiated a phase-down program which corresponded
to United States troop withdrawals. Finally, on 18 April 1972,
the last Seabee Team site located in Ham Tan, Binh Tuy Province,
was closed. Although these unique units were physically gone,
the common people of Vietnam continued to reap the benefits of
their many civic action projects.
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
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
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
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."