Engineer support of Special Forces operations from 1961 through 1965 came from three sources: the noncommissioned officer engineer of the A detachment, an engineer construction advisory team, or a naval Seabee technical assistance team.
The engineer noncommissioned officer of each A detachment was basically a demolitionist and usually had no particular training or experience in construction. In some cases, however, he had previously served with conventional combat engineer units where he had acquired essential combat construction skills.
Engineer construction advisory teams provided engineer support on a temporary duty basis from both Okinawa and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. These units were detachments formed under Table of Organization and Equipment 5-500C; each consisted of two officers and two noncommissioned officers equipped with hand tools only. The teams were used primarily in civic action projects such as improving sanitation facilities, schools, and agriculture. That they were obliged to borrow equipment from both the U.S. Operations Mission and the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Works points to an unfortunate deficiency in the table of organization and equipment.
Naval Seabee technical assistance teams, highly skilled, having organic mechanized equipment, and tailored for specific kinds of construction tasks were used during this period with great success. They played a major role in airfield and camp construction.
From 1965 through 1968 engineer support shifted from cellular teams to units of the Free World Military Assistance Forces, as conventional units arrived in Vietnam. Although cellular engineer teams from all sources were used during most of this period, less emphasis was placed upon them because of a reduction in the number of men assigned to temporary duty in Vietnam. By late 1967 the 31st Engineer Detachment, which was organized under Table of Organization and Equipment 5-500E, had arrived in Vietnam, was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group, and was operational. Thereafter it was the primary source of engineer cellular teams for the 5th Special Forces. The engineer detachment
was composed of two control teams and four advisory teams and proved deficient for the kind of mission assigned. The mission encompassed all engineering activities in the four corps tactical zones of South Vietnam, including facilities maintenance support for each company as well as backup support in the Special Forces Operational Base. Some of the deficiences were made up by reorganizing the available teams, some by contracting with Eastern Construction Company, Inc., a firm in the Philippines, for certain professional and technical skills. The teams were used as designed and as needed countrywide, with the goal of one in support of each company.
At the peak of engineer activity in the period from the summer of 1968 through the winter of 1971, the engineer of the 5th Special Forces Group was concerned with sixty-nine installations including fifty A detachment camps. The camps often housed more than 1,000 civilian irregulars and their dependents, and had all the attendant problems of communities of such a size. Although very few of these camps were constructed during the period, those that were reflected greater concern for the adequate protection of all the inhabitants. Rehabilitation and improvement projects of the time stressed better protection, water sources in the camps, more adequate dispensaries, and better living conditions in general.
From the latter part of 1969 on, much effort went toward bringing all facilities to a high state of maintenance so that they would require little immediate work when they were turned over to the Vietnamese Army. At the same time the Vietnamese were successfully trained to operate and maintain the installations. The Philippines continued to be the primary source of hard core professional engineering and technical skills absolutely necessary for the construction, operation, and maintenance of relatively sophisticated facilities. Local Vietnamese contractors were used whenever they were available; near the large urban areas it was possible to fill most construction needs efficiently by this means, thereby lessening the demands passed to Free World Military Assistance Forces engineer units.
Engineer functions continued to remain under the staff supervision of the G-4 of the Vietnamese Special Forces high command. Although a Vietnamese Special Forces staff officer was designated to monitor engineer activities during a part of this period, he had no qualified counterparts below the high command level. Most engineer actions were therefore taken unilaterally by U.S. Special Forces after superficial combined planning and co-ordination.
On at least two occasions during this period attempts were
made to convince the Vietnamese Special Forces high command of the necessity for a Civilian Irregular Defense Group engineer unit. The plan called for either a centrally located unit in the vicinity of Nha Trang to be deployed as required countrywide or a unit with each company for use in its own area of responsibility. These attempts were unsuccessful because of the troop ceilings imposed and the unwillingness of the Vietnamese Special Forces high command to trade off some existing spaces for the additional manpower. Since the greatly increased needs generated by the construction of more heavily fortified camps were almost without exception taken care of by engineer units of the Free World Military Assistance Forces, there was no real incentive to make the necessary trade-offs.
When camp construction or rehabilitation projects did make use of CIDG labor, it was on a rotational basis. That is, one third of the men were standing down in camp at any given time—released from their mission—and these men worked on the project. This procedure made it very difficult to execute a training program which would impart some construction skills to the civilian irregulars, but the situation improved considerably toward the end of the period.
The increasing sophistication of facilities at all levels probably peaked with the building of Camp New Bu Prang, occupied by Detachment A-236, on which construction actually commenced in January 1970. The old camp had come under a heavy, persistent, standoff attack ending in late November 1969. The damage sustained led to preliminary planning, including engineering surveys, to determine the scope of reconstruction necessary to make the camp stronger than it had been before the attack. In co-ordination with Headquarters, II Corps, the engineer of the I Field Force, Vietnam, and representatives of the 18th Engineer Brigade, an alternate site was selected in December because there was a likelihood that the II Corps commander would request construction several miles to the southeast of the existing site. Planning was begun for this alternate site upon assurance that all inhabitants of the camp would be fully protected, and a completion date of 15 April 1970 was set. Since the engineer of I Field Force recognized that work of this scope was outside the limited Special Forces capabilities, the project was tentatively assigned to the 18th Engineer Brigade, and thence through the 35th Engineer Group (Construction) to the 19th Engineer Battalion (Combat). The battalion was at this point prepared to start construction at either site.
During the planning process, an understanding that was particularly important to both the Special Forces and the Army Engineers was reached as to the division of work. Basically, the conventional U.S. engineer unit would provide all materials not immediately available through Special Forces channels and would accomplish all equipment work and most tasks requiring special skills on all aspects of construction except for utilities; Special Forces would provide an engineer KB team and, as available, a Detachment A team to advise and assist in the control of a minimum of 100 civilian irregulars per day. These irregulars would do much of the hard labor and unskilled tasks involved in the construction. Special Forces would also drill the wells and furnish the skills and materials necessary to install the electrical, water, sewage, and drainage systems, and the perimeter security wire.
In the latter half of January 1970, the decision was made to construct at the alternate site. Almost simultaneously, necessary orders were issued through both Special Forces and engineer channels. Although planning was far from complete, the initial engineer platoon, from Company D of the 19th Engineer Battalion, was quickly inserted, along with security forces provided from the assets of Company B. Special Forces Group.
At this time several logistical decisions were made. Because of restrictions and a lack of secure roads into the campsite, it was determined that construction materials would be flown into the site. This task was to be accomplished by moving materials from the Cam Ranh Bay Class IV depot to the Cam Ranh Bay Air Force Base and thence to Nhon Co via C-130 aircraft. At that location materials would be prepared for helicopter movement and lifted to the new campsite by Army CH-47 or CH-54 aircraft in a carefully controlled and phased operation.
Another logistical decision was to precutting all bunker materials at the Cam Ranh Bay Class IV depot. They would then be packaged and carefully marked for air shipment in the sequence required. An indication of the scope of the operation is found in the quantity of lumber that was precut and shipped by air to the new campsite—approximately 1.3 million board feet, or 2,000 short tons. This figure is exclusive of shipments of barrier materials, fuel, ammunition, and other supplies and materials.
Construction and final planning proceeded in a parallel fashion into February. During this stage airfield construction commenced along with work on the inner perimeter of the camp. The general plan called for early completion of certain inner perimeter structures, all of which were underground. Work would proceed on the
remaining structures within the inner perimeter, the bunkers on the outer perimeter, and the airfield.
Progress remained on schedule into February because a relatively low level of productivity was assumed during the early stages of work. However, productivity did not increase as scheduled in the latter part of February and onward due to equipment problems and the drain on air assets during the Cambodian incursion which commenced in March. Also, design changes on the airfield and construction deficiencies in the camp itself caused an extension of the schedule.
The 15 April completion date was established for two reasons: the first dealt with tactical considerations in that available forces were spread very thin protecting two campsites. The second very practical reason was that the monsoon rains could be expected to commence around that time. When the rains arrived, there was still much to be done that was directly hampered by the ensuing muddy conditions. Finally, after very slow progress, an unseasonal break in the weather provided the necessary respite, and the work was complete in early August 1970.
This camp was the epitome of a fighting camp, well sited on a commanding hill with all facilities underground. The fighting bunkers were placed so as to maximize the effect of defensive fire and at the same time protect civilian irregulars and their dependents against either direct or indirect fire. Because of its sophistication and isolation, construction of this camp proved to be a real challenge to the capability and ingenuity of all concerned.