Summary and Evaluation

Merely to declare, as have several senior U.S. commanders in Vietnam, that no operational mission failed for lack of adequate engineer support is to understate the many contributions of U.S. Army engineers to the tactical and strategic successes of the U.S. military forces. Myriad requirements, from issuing urgently needed maps to installing permanent bridges, were satisfied in timely and professional fashion throughout the varied regions of South Vietnam. Wherever their expertise or assistance was needed, the engineers were there. While individual commanders sometimes bemoaned an insufficient number of engineers at their disposal, those engineers who were available always seemed capable of doing the essential. Their responsiveness, eagerness, and competence in handling an overwhelming work load quickly earned the Army engineers the respect of every branch of the service.

American commanders, recognizing the history of success through an application of engineering to practically any type of problem, often called upon engineers to solve problems which probably could have been solved by other means such as changing logistical arrangements, modifying tactical deployments, or changing the timing or distribution of resources. While this tendency was usually evident to the engineer, it involved matters outside his responsibility, and his characteristic response in South Vietnam was to accept the resultant complications and heavy demands on his own resources.

An early example of a typical engineer response occurred during the initial development of the base camp at Cu Chi for the 25th Infantry Division. Within hours after some major elements of the division arrived at the cantonment site, a thunderstorm struck and lightning killed two soldiers. Engineers on their own initiative immediately went to work finding and emplacing long poles and copper conductors to act as lightning arresters.

The desired manner of performance of the engineer mission throughout United States Army, Vietnam, was established early in the fall of 1965 with publication of the objectives and standards of the 18th Engineer Brigade. (See Appendix E.) At a USARV staff


meeting in late September General Norton, the deputy commanding general, asked his subordinate commanders to outline objectives and standards for each element of the command. A few days later an eight-paragraph letter was distributed to all units of the 18th Engineer Brigade over the signature of the brigade commander. The letter emphasized the engineers' primary responsibility to those whom they supported, and called attention to the importance of conservation of materials and equipment, safety measures, and respect for the local populace. This statement of command intent continued to be disseminated to all newly arriving engineers in South Vietnam and helped to provide basic policy guidance to them throughout their tour.

The Principle of Dual Responsibility

The policy of entrusting to one man the dual responsibilities of USARV staff engineer and command of all Army engineer units which were not organic to other commands received lively attention during the buildup of forces and beyond. When the 18th Engineer Brigade headquarters arrived in the Republic of Vietnam, General Norton elected to assign both responsibilities to the commanding general of the brigade. As Army Engineer, General Ploger, like his successors, was concerned with developing requirements, allocating materials, establishing priorities, and coordinating effort between divisional and nondivisional engineer units and other major Army commands such as the 1st Logistical Command. The USARV Engineer had an important voice in making decisions at staff level. Few problems, particularly in an underdeveloped country, are without engineer implications. As the engineer troop commander, the same individual had to cope with the problems of command, direct all of the operations of subordinate engineer elements, and insure lateral coordination with other Army forces, all of whom were subordinate to the commanding general of U.S. Army, Vietnam.

In South Vietnam this command responsibility eventually involved directing nearly thirty thousand engineer officers and enlisted men. To manage and coordinate all of the activities of such a large force obviously required a rather extensive staff. It soon proved desirable to have two different groups on the engineer staff, one serving the command function and the other serving the USARV staff function. Under a single engineer, the opportunities for overlap and duplication were effectively squelched. With the arrival in August 1967 of the second engineer brigade, after the establishment of the provisional Engineer Command, the reduced span of control made it comfortably feasible to operate with one


man at the head of both the staff and command elements. Moreover, when the Engineer Command headquarters later was located along with Army headquarters at Long Binh the ease of coordination improved greatly and one staff was able to perform both functions. The dual responsibility arrangement precluded the possibility of technical or pseudotechnical battles between two distinct senior engineer elements, battles which then would require resolution by a nonengineer. Every engineer should seek to protect his commander, if the commander is not an engineer, from being put in such a spot. If the source of engineer authority both on the staff and within the command organization is vested in one man, a significant contribution is made toward consistency, fast response, and elimination of friction. Moreover, such authority can reduce requirements for multiple staffing by eliminating the need for specialists in all the fields of engineering at both the theater staff level and within the command itself. For a time in South Vietnam the engineer staff function of programming was placed under the direction of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, U.S. Army, Vietnam. In spite of the closest personal relationship between the engineer commander and the deputy chief, there was a tendency to redo the staff review of proposals within the higher headquarters whenever it came from the subordinate headquarters. Such a policy introduced inevitable delays in the execution of engineer work.

Value of Engineer Tasks Performed

Assessing the specific value of a particular engineer task to over­all military success is difficult. Such an assessment would seem to demand answers to questions like the following: How many combat soldiers' lives will be saved by building a refrigerated warehouse at Pleiku? How much can the war be shortened by the installation of one, two, three, or fourteen culverts along the route from Qui Nhon to An Khe? How many dollars can be saved by placing concrete floors under the tents in a brigade base camp? In the interests of strategic efficiency, the sum total of work performed by all engineers in Vietnam on any one day should, theoretically, make the maximum marginal contribution on that day toward success in military operations.

One of the major problems that plagued the engineers during the first years of U.S. involvement was that of shifting local work loads. Pressure to work on those projects which provided the maximum marginal improvement was countered by the difficulty of shifting men and materials from place to place and from task to


task. Such shifts were inefficient and time-consuming. Considerable local judgment was needed to avoid waste motion.

Construction priorities published in November 1965 afforded subordinate engineer commanders broad guidelines on what work to begin next while each headquarters was to insure that no area advanced too far beyond another in completed construction. This practice was contrary to that of normal civilian construction wherein effort is allocated to a project until it is completed. A hypothetical situation can illustrate the dilemma. Suppose a brigade cantonment is under construction and work has progressed to the point where plumbing and waterborne sewage systems are about to be installed. At that point a logistical unit arrives in an adjacent area and has no facilities. Should work on the brigade cantonment cease while minimum facilities are constructed for the newly arrived unit, or should the new unit be expected to fend for itself until work on the brigade cantonment is finished? Obviously there are many intermediate alternatives.

In the spring of 1966 the Army Engineer seriously attempted to obtain new answers to the questions of priority through the use of an operations research organization under contract to Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam. At a briefing of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Harold K. Johnson, the Army Engineer asserted that by the end of 1966 he expected to be able to present the finite value of each engineer project measured against future success in operations. After several months of concerted effort including development of detailed data, the operations research investigation produced inconclusive results which would have required the display of several hundred construction status reports. There still remains a need for a firmer determination of the relative sequence in which specific construction assignment should be performed in order to make the best use of engineers.

The Principle of Delegation of Responsibility

The tremendous work load with which the engineer was faced necessitated a wide dispersion of authority and responsibility among lower echelon engineer commanders. Seldom were responsibility and trust misplaced. Company officers and noncommissioned officers worked with a determination and sense of purpose that consistently produced outstanding performance. Mistakes resulted in some cases, but they generally could have been avoided if time had not so often been of the essence and if closer supervision had been more feasible. Fortunately, these mistakes were measurable in terms of dollars and not in terms of lives. Responsibility was delegated even outside the


Engineer Command to people whose competence the command relied upon. From time to time the Army Engineer was pressed to inspect the work performed by contractors under the supervision of the Navy's officer in charge of construction. A prohibitive number of technically qualified engineers could have been absorbed in such an inspection routine. The Army Engineer avoided such a commitment of manpower by establishing as policy a presumption of competence on the part of any federal engineer agency. While many individuals and organizations continue to decry and disparage the policy, the cost of providing sufficient supervision and inspection to insure against the slightest mistake would have dwarfed the cost of actual errors.

The Divisional Battalions

Although the Army Engineer retained responsibility for technical performance of engineer missions by the divisional battalions, any semblance of attempted control or supervision over the engineering activities within subordinate tactical elements was studiously avoided by the engineer command. Nondivisional engineers provided instruction and guidance to their divisional counterparts. In turn, elements of divisional battalions not fully committed to operational support frequently contributed to base development projects, even though such tasks rested primarily with the nondivisional support battalions.

The strict cost accounting procedures forced upon the engineer command were cumbersome, time-consuming, and totally out of place in Vietnam. Strenuous efforts were made to avoid embroiling divisions and their engineer components in the cost accounting quagmire that bogged down the nondivisional engineer units. The situation occasionally resulted in serious competition between divisional and nondivisional engineer units for scarce supplies and spare parts. Since the approved list of priorities for the allocation of manpower, equipment, and materials was used to control the application of engineer effort, subordinate Army engineer commanders occasionally took issue with the tasks being performed by divisional engineers. In such cases the Army Engineer again invoked the principle of presumption of competence and seldom attempted to delay or interfere with the internal activities of the divisional units.

Divisional commanders constantly feared the consequences of inadequate engineer support from nondivisional units which were not under their direct control. Though these fears reportedly never materialized, certain divisional battalions, particularly those in


fixed base camp areas, accumulated large amounts of engineer equipment from various sources outside the normal supply channels. With equipment far in excess of their organic allotment, these battalions had to accept the increased burden of operating the equipment. Further, divisional maintenance men found themselves swamped with the maintenance needs of this unauthorized equipment. One engineer battalion commander within a division was taken to task by the U.S. Army Chief of Engineers for building his unit's equipment up to nearly that of an engineer group without a corresponding increase in manpower and spare parts to support the equipment. While such practices undoubtedly increased the capability of certain divisional battalions, the diversion of manpower and spare parts had repercussions on the over-all effectiveness of nondivisional engineers. In general, however, the performance of divisional battalions showed the same flexibility and responsiveness that was a hallmark of the nondivisional organizations.

Effectiveness of Resources

The decision not to employ the vast resources of the Army Reserve in the expansion of the active duty Army in 1965 stripped from the active Army engineer structure a source of skilled craftsmen that engineer planners relied upon heavily. Until that decision Engineer Reserve units filled with civilians skilled in construction crafts had been looked upon as the prime source of engineer troops in the event of a military buildup. Suddenly the Army faced the necessity of training soldiers and officers of its Regular Army engineer units to supervise and build major construction projects far more complex than any they had undertaken in the past.

Government regulations related to military construction in the United States have long restricted the size and complexity of construction tasks that could be assigned to active duty Army units. These regulations severely limit the opportunity for on-the-job training of highly skilled engineer craftsmen. The same regulations inhibit the training of unit commanders and equipment operators in the activities and procedures that are necessary for the operation of men and machines over prolonged periods at very high rates of production. Nevertheless, when the need for a higher level of training became known and the requirements for new plateaus in engineer proficiency were realized, the engineers reacted promptly. The responsiveness of both men and machines to the innumerable demands and requirements placed upon them in a combat zone rife with adverse physical conditions was both remarkable and gratifying.


The introduction of the first engineer troops to South Vietnam magnified the already large requirement for engineer support. Impeded by obstacles of every variety, engineer soldiers and officers often reacted with heightened originality, inspired by impatience, in an effort to meet the demands placed upon them. In the early, hectic days of 1965 and 1966, it was not unusual for engineer maintenance and supply officers and equipment operators to write directly to companies and military installations in the United States for specific parts needed to keep pieces of equipment operating. Before the red ball system became fully effective and the spare parts pipeline from the United States became operable, the U.S. mails served as a supply route for many of the smaller products so necessary for early construction at installations like Cam Ranh Bay and Qui Nhon.

After the 18th Brigade headquarters arrived in South Vietnam and the magnitude of the task facing the engineers was fully appreciated, steps were taken to insure the highest level of engineer performance throughout the country. The role of the infantryman required that he spend two, three, or four days at a time trudging through steaming jungles or muddy rice paddies in sweltering heat and torrential rains. In their support capacity, the engineer soldiers could not allow their efforts in base camp construction to stop at a level less than that exerted by the infantrymen in the field. The need for construction equipment and the ever-increasing pressures of work requirements also demanded that procedures be developed to insure the largest degree of productivity possible per man and machine available in Vietnam. The result was a decision that every engineer soldier would work ten hours a day every day of the week except for time allowed for religious services, and that equipment would be kept working at least twenty hours a day, leaving four hours for maintenance.

Though plagued by a severe shortage of developed skills, the first engineers in Vietnam were quick to respond to the pressures placed upon them. At Phu Loi, the 588th Engineer Battalion (Construction) was given the responsibility for building an aircraft hangar with a prefabricated steel superstructure. When the concrete foundations were in place, the battalion commander discovered that he had only one soldier, a noncommissioned officer, with any experience in structural steel erection. However, within a matter of days a large number of engineer soldiers had learned from the sergeant how to mount, balance on, and connect members of a steel skeleton for a building. Before the towering steel structure was half-built, they were climbing about and working with safety, confidence, and growing competence.


Photo: Aircraft Hangar Under Construction Near An Khe

The on-the-job training of the soldiers of the 588th was typical of the programs that made the performance of engineers throughout Vietnam remarkable. Working through the self-help program, individual soldiers with little more than basic combat engineer training often found themselves advising and supervising large groups of infantry or artillery soldiers as they erected billets or barracks for their own use. The labor for mixing, pouring, and finishing concrete slabs was provided by the unit that was to use the building, but the entire construction project was carried out under the watchful eye of an engineer soldier.

Engineers also found themselves instructing and guiding Vietnamese workmen unfamiliar with the intricacies of construction as practiced in the western world. The patience and perseverance of these men contributed greatly to the mutual respect and confidence that usually existed between American engineer soldiers and the Vietnamese.

The problems associated with troop training were compounded by the practice of limiting duty assignments in Vietnam to one year. The turnover at the conclusion of a unit's first year in South Vietnam was particularly traumatic. Commanders were often faced with a nearly 100-percent turnover inside of one or two months. The knowledge a soldier had acquired during twelve months of dealing with Vietnamese local policies and practices and his famili-


arity with the terrain could not be transferred to his replacement. Looking back on the problems that developed because of rotation of the individual soldier one year after his arrival, it appears that another system might have been used to advantage for engineer units. A plan that should be considered if substantial numbers of engineer troops are sent overseas again is the rotation of complete battalions and separate companies into the combat zone for a predetermined time. This plan would allow units to work and train together in the United States, thus increasing their efficiency on the job. Equipment needed for construction would not be rotated with parent organizations. Rather, incoming units would assume responsibility for all equipment on the construction site until they were replaced by a newly rotated unit. The time lost in the transfer of personnel of entire organizations would be more than compensated for by the higher level of efficiency a well-trained and organized unit would bring to the combat zone.

The Army needs to do more in the future to equip each engineer soldier with the best background possible in construction skills to meet the kinds of pressure put upon engineers in such an environment as Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, engineer officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers proved in Vietnam that they could respond to the demands placed upon them both in the finest tradition of engineer workmanship and with a great team spirit.

The Engineer Support System in South Vietnam

The command and control of nondivisional engineers was a matter for debate and discussion between tactical and engineer commanders from the moment the first engineer units disembarked in Vietnam. The engineer command structure that developed corresponded closely to the principle of general support used by artillery units in past wars. The need for engineer troops in critical tactical circumstances was given first consideration in this centralized system, while requirements of key construction projects remained the determinant for unit locations and distribution. The system was designed to cope with the unusual situation in South Vietnam, and cannot be recommended for different circumstances.

Unquestionably, in South Vietnam every division commander felt the shortage of engineer troops from the time he arrived. His organic engineer battalion was not designed, either in manpower or equipment resources, to deal with the problems of base development. Yet adequate facilities for his troops had to be provided. Merely to move the equipment of a division or a brigade from a road into a bivouac area or base camp required substantial engi-


neer effort and materials, particularly rock, sand, culverts, and fill material, beyond the reach of any organic engineer battalion. Experience soon indicated that at least one battalion-month of construction was needed to prepare a given piece of land for occupation by one division. The 70th Engineer Battalion's attempt to prepare the base camp for the 1st Cavalry Division in less time pointed out the necessity for additional engineer troops both for site preparation and for continued assistance to organic engineer units. The 70th remained in the An Khe area long after the arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division, improving facilities and generally up­grading the layout and environment of the division. In time, as additional engineer battalions arrived in Vietnam, a division often found a nondivisional engineer battalion located at or near its base camp. However, as in the case of the 70th at An Khe, the nondivisional battalion remained assigned to the engineer brigade. The reason for this disregard of the traditional practice of assigning engineer units in support of tactical organizations grew out of the peculiar combat situation in Vietnam. The new concept of airmobility that played a key role in the tactical operations of divisions and brigades simply could not be matched by airmobile engineers. Although troops were located at a specific base camp, tactical operations, relying heavily on helicopters, sent brigade-size elements in any direction at a moment's notice and sometimes for a very short time. Engineer equipment, even that specifically designed for airmobile operations, was not capable of that kind of mobility. Attached as direct support units, engineers would have spent more time traveling about the countryside than working as engineers. When initial computations in the late fall of 1965 disclosed that some 490 battalion-months of engineer construction work would be needed to meet existing requirements, it was clear that no time could be wasted. With an assumed complement of ten battalions of engineers, the work would take more than four years, even without deducting time for tactical operations. Consequently, every hour and every day engineer troops spent away from the work site constituted a serious waste. The centralized engineer support system dictated that the engineer battalion closest to a tactical operation should support that operation.

Engineer battalions were deployed throughout South Vietnam at locations determined by construction work loads. Most projects were "located near base camps or at logistical centers where troops were located. However, the building of roads, pipelines, airfields, helicopter landing fields, and waterfront facilities both on ocean frontage and inland waterways required that some units be stationed at a considerable distance from major troop centers. Though the


distribution of troops seldom bore any relationship to projected tactical operations, the knowledge of local terrain and conditions gained by engineer units working at a given location over a period of time did benefit mobile tactical units operating in their area of responsibility.

The centralized control of engineer battalions by the 18th Engineer Brigade greatly reduced the need for engineer units to be moved over great distances, thereby giving the enemy fewer opportunities to stage ambushes against the slow-moving convoys carrying construction equipment. Engineers were also able to benefit from extended stays in an area. Knowledge gained from weeks and months of work in the Mekong Delta, for instance, would not be negated if the tactical situation required the movement of the parent division to another place. The Army engineer battalion already based near the new home of the relocated division could provide valuable local intelligence while the engineer battalion in the delta could continue to apply its experience in that particular terrain to the benefit of the tactical organization near it.

The final factor in the determination of engineer control centered around the requirement for cost accounting on all construction projects. Accounting procedures specified that an accurate record be kept indicating the dollar value of material installed and the number of man-hours expended on a given project at any point in time. This latter figure was particularly important because it was used to measure the state of completion of a particular project. Keeping a running account of total costs and manpower used on a project was a difficult procedure even when handled through the unit reports passed up the engineer chain of command. If this function had been carried out by divisional battalions or organizations assigned to divisions or corps, separate reporting chains would have been necessary. Along with this responsibility would have gone the problems of verification and enforcement which would only have complicated the already stringent demands put upon tactical organizations in the field.

Though tactical commanders needed more engineer support at their disposal, they were not willing to accept the added responsibility of cost accounting. Even in the construction of self-help projects the engineer unit providing supervision and guidance assumed responsibility for all cost accounting. This was made possible by limiting the flow of construction materials to the supply channels of the engineer structure, allowing accurate bookkeeping with little duplication of effort. The magnitude of the paper work that would have been necessary if the material accounting procedure had been placed outside the engineer command would have been an intoler-


able burden on U.S. Army, Vietnam, tactical commanders, and the engineer structure.

The implementation of the kind of engineer command and control structure utilized by the U.S. Army in South Vietnam should be considered only under similar circumstances. When combat areas are more clearly defined and rear areas are only incidentally entered by tactical forces on tactical missions, the traditional deployment of engineer battalions and brigades in support of divisions and corps should be followed. The method of employing engineer troops in Vietnam should be the exception, not the rule, in planning large-scale tactical and engineer operations in the future.

Construction Accounting

Because Military Construction, Army, was the source of funds for the engineers' construction program in Vietnam, strict accounting requirements were placed upon the Engineer Command. Although the accounting system was devised to eliminate any need for cost accounting at platoon, company, and even battalion level, the necessity for counting man-hours, which were applied to each project to measure the state of completion, brought every engineer commander into the accounting picture. The number of men needed to follow such accounting procedures can never be determined precisely but it was certainly substantial.

In spite of the remarkable amount of work completed by the engineers, even more could have been done had it not been for the detailed bookkeeping procedures. The problem was compounded by the necessity to retain projects on the books even when effort had been totally diverted to more urgent tasks. As new organizations arrived in Vietnam, they required immediate engineer support. Some construction battalions, for instance, had to abandon a particular project temporarily to help establish a base camp for a newly arrived unit. The partially finished construction project, however, was retained on the books of the battalion until it was completed. Projects often remained on the books for months, and in some cases even years, before they were completed and scored out.

Some idea of the magnitude of the accounting problem is exemplified by the fact that in July 1967 a complete report of projects in progress by nondivisional engineers in South Vietnam required 266 pages from an IBM computer. The summary printed below covered one-third of a page of that report. It is obvious that considerable engineer effort was expended in compiling such extensive accounting computations. Although the accounting procedure above


was a simplified one specifically designed for Vietnam, it was still far too complex. Such accounting appears to contribute little or nothing to military success and creates a significant drag on manpower resources. It represented the minimum effort possible in response to laws and regulations. The matter of devising an expedient, efficient, accounting system for the engineers in a combat environment deserves close attention at the highest military levels. A possible solution might be the development of field service regulations applicable to engineer operations in a combat zone or in a combat support zone outside the continental United States.

Summary of Extract from Construction Accounting Report, July 1967
United States Army Engineer Command

Ammunition Storage Area  

Number: 8720808 T5s


Location: Vung Tau


Priority: (unspecified)


Construction Unit 69

Using Unit 148
Component Facility  

Pads with apron, 30 each


Scope: 300,000 square feet


Unit Cost: 6˘ per square foot


US Man-hours expended to date: 25310; this month: 6885


US Man-hours remaining 15,900


Beneficial Occupancy Date 15 June 1967


Estimated date of Completion 21 October 1967


Percent Complete 62%


Administrative Space (Similar data as contained under "Pads")


Road Network (Similar data as contained under "Pads")

Totals: Man-hours to date US Vietnamese

Man-hours this month

US Vietnamese


US Vietnamese

Man-hours remaining

Scheduled next month

Total current working estimate

Total work in place

Percent engineer effort completed

Percent last month

Percent by end of next month


Advance Planning for Base Development

The fallacy of the contention that U.S. Involvement in the war in Vietnam was inspired by the military is probably nowhere more evident than in the utter inadequacy of initial U.S. base development plans in support of American troops. It was plain from the outset of the buildup of U.S. forces in early 1965 that there had been little advance planning for the arrival of men, materials, and equipment in South Vietnam. Initial supply channels were inflexible and material moved sluggishly, causing frustrating delays in construction projects. Even civilian contractors, trained and organized for the procurement and shipment of materials, were unable to secure delivery of certain necessary materials sooner than five months after they were ordered. When large quantities of construction materials were involved, the Army's logistical system met with similar delays.

The first engineer units should have arrived in Vietnam at the head of a pipeline full of materials-enough to insure continuous constructive engineer activity. It is essential to optimum employment of engineer resources that the pipeline be kept full, that materials needed first arrive first, and that successive increments follow in the proper sequence. Such a system would have allowed construction in Vietnam to proceed step by step and would have helped to eliminate the disruptive suspension of projects which occurred when materials were not available when needed.

For such a supply system to function properly it is essential that the theater commander define his requirements and specify the sequence of construction. Facility requirements must be translated by the staff engineer in terms of material, equipment, and manpower, which must be appropriately balanced if they are to be utilized efficiently.

Ideally, a sequential supply system would eliminate storage requirements for construction supplies in the theater and promote the optimum commitment of resources to the desired end. Theater commanders would have to take care to program a certain degree of flexibility into their statements of requirements to allow for unforeseen modifications that might become necessary between the time of the original requisition and completion of the project. However, the more flexibility demanded by a commander, the greater the need for storage of construction materials in the theater. It should be the job of the engineer to advise field commanders in keeping demands for flexibility within reasonable bounds and maintaining storage requirements at lower levels.


Geographic Area Responsibility for Engineers

In the combat zone, Army engineers have responsibility for both advising commanders and carrying out projects being built in support of the combat effort. The key to proper exercise of this responsibility is the collection and evaluation of engineer intelligence relating to the physical and military environment of the area under consideration. Since the accurate forecasting of engineer requirements in a theater of operations is difficult at best, it is important to establish in every tactical area a repository of information capable of supplying engineer intelligence throughout the area.

The absence of significant prior planning for engineer operations in Vietnam made it especially important that engineer units be given geographic areas of responsibility with the mission of accumulating information pertaining to possible engineer operations in their sector. In South Vietnam this responsibility for collecting and evaluating local engineer intelligence was given to engineer commanders of groups whose areas of responsibility combined to cover every square foot of the country. By keeping close tab on engineer activities within their sectors, even on work being performed by agencies not under their immediate control, group commanders were able to coordinate the engineer effort down to the lowest level. This system also guaranteed against costly duplication in support operations.

The construction of the base development complex at Nha Trang affords an excellent example of the difficulties that can arise from inadequate coordination and control of engineering tasks during the development of a major base. Over an extended period of time, the tightly constrained area available for construction in and around Nha Trang saw the building of a port, a major airfield serving both the Army and Navy as well as Vietnamese armed forces, and a major Army logistic base with its associated cantonments.

Beginning in 1965 Army engineers designed and began installing the depot complex. During the construction phase many weeks were devoted to providing deep drainage ditches to conduct the normal expected rainfall away from the areas chosen for depot use. Several months later a contractor serving the Air Force was charged with developing an airport adjacent to the depot. Before the onslaught of the rainy season, it was discovered that the drainage designed to accommodate the airfield almost completely negated the effectiveness of the previously installed depot drainage system. Only the crash allocation of equipment and manpower to relocate the


drainage facilities prevented a major disaster from flooding which would have occurred with the first heavy rains.

While ultimate coordination between the respective services resided in Military Assistance Command headquarters, some engineer should have been at the local level with authority to control work there. The inherent interrelationship of all engineering works in a given area, particularly where drainage and utilities are involved, makes it important that the Army continue to assign geographic responsibility to specific engineer commanders, at least at the group and possibly at the battalion level.

Future Engineer Training Requirements

The Vietnam experience demonstrated a clear need for the revitalization of training procedures for construction specialists in the active Army. With the reservoir of skilled men at a low in the civilian construction industry, the active Army can expect a decreasing number of competent engineer tradesmen. Yet the Army provides few formal advanced individual training courses for engineer soldiers, preferring to rely instead upon on-the-job training programs. Such programs are probably the cheapest method of providing advanced skill training to construction engineers, but the training cannot be done properly without rather extensive expenditures.

From experience in South Vietnam it was found that a construction battalion, when fully employed, consumed approximately a quarter of a million dollars worth of materials during each month of operation. Assuming that two months of annual training for each skilled soldier would be adequate, every installation commander with a construction battalion assigned to his station should seek an annual appropriation of half a million dollars for construction materials to be consumed by the battalion. The resulting construction should remain as a permanent facility of the installation and not be dismantled upon conclusion of training. Properly programmed, the funds and the facilities could be derived from ongoing Military Construction, Army, appropriations.

The over-all competence of individual engineer soldiers must also be considered in future training programs. In Vietnam engineer troops found themselves in advisory and supervisory positions in the self-help program as well as in instructional roles training Vietnamese in modern construction methods. Support of this concept, however, will require that engineer soldiers receive instruction on teaching American practices and on the supervision, control, and administration of small crews. If adequately trained and directed, indigenous labor forces could substantially reduce


the need for highly trained American soldiers in any overseas area of operation. With the proper preparation, engineer troops could play an important role in reducing the number of American soldiers committed to engineer support.

Special Areas of Engineer Expertise

Three particular areas of special engineer expertise merit close attention in peacetime against future contingencies. Port development, power sources and distribution systems, and subsurface water resource development are areas in which the Army must retain a complement of skilled and experienced men. Special equipment such as the DeLong piers which served so effectively in South Vietnam should be retained and exercised by troop units to insure the capability of Army engineers to install or employ it without forcing dependence on contractor assistance.

The DeLong piers saved months of the time required to erect conventional piers. In allowing the early operation of deep-draft ports, they more than proved their value to support and logistic military operations in foreign countries. The utilization of the DeLong pier and the extensive port development program in South Vietnam brought to light a shortage of U.S. Army staff officers competent in port construction. Many officers with such competence were produced and will continue to be produced through the civil works function of the Corps of Engineers. In light of experiences in Vietnam, it might indeed prove desirable to keep records on all individuals in the Army who have gained experience in port development. The importance of such experience is underscored by the fact that in 1966 the inadequacies of South Vietnam's ports became a matter of personal concern to the Secretary of Defense of the United States.

Another area that demands extensive study and preparation before any conflict arises is the training of men in the installation of power generators and their associated switching stations and distribution lines. While all tactical organizations carry organic power sources with them, such sources are generally inadequate for anything but tactical operations and local support. Procurement of any major piece of electrical generation equipment requires long lead times. In late 1965 the engineers of U.S. Army, Vietnam, computed total future power requirements to be approximately 290 megawatts. Generators of 1,500-kilowatt capacity and greater were seldom available in less than eighteen months and very large units might require several years to fabricate and install.

Without high capacity generation equipment, the distribution


of electrical power throughout South Vietnam promised to be a complicated operation. Again, few officers and enlisted men were skilled and fully knowledgeable in the field of power production and distribution. As commander of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, General Frank S. Besson, Jr., sought to resolve the problems he foresaw through the employment of seven ships of the T-2 tanker class. His proposal called for the ships to be taken out of mothballs, sent to South Vietnam, and anchored offshore near major installations where their generators could provide a substantial portion of the total electrical power required. However, initial estimates of time required for placing the tankers on line proved optimistic and the first electric power from the tankers became available only a short time before that from some large capacity generators ordered at the same time.

The complexity of the electrical power problem is perhaps best reflected in the residual difficulties experienced by the Vietnamese in taking over American power installations for their own use. The marginal competence for operation, maintenance, and repair of major power generation systems in the U.S. Army far exceeds that within the Vietnamese armed forces. For the future, the entire question of generator equipment, spare parts, and development of supporting skills within the Army merits careful attention.

The third area of engineer responsibility deserving particular attention with regard to adequate preparation for future contingencies is water resource development systems. The tactical situation in South Vietnam dictated that water sources be developed within the defensive perimeters of base camps and logistical installations. Water sources isolated in the countryside were vulnerable and inviting targets for the enemy. Early efforts were made to develop wells within each military installation in South Vietnam. While drill rigs with two-man operating teams appear among the lists of U.S. Army detachments in South Vietnam, there was a general lack of training in the proper procedure for locating suitable drilling sites. Moreover, the available well-drilling teams were not equipped with the materials they needed. Each prospective well required casing, screens, and pumps, but it was months after the arrival of the first drilling detachments before these materials were available in Vietnam. Even then there were few engineer officers or noncommissioned officers who possessed the necessary knowledge and experience to locate the best sites for drilling productive wells. The U.S. Army deserves something better than the equal of a divining rod for selection of a deep well.

Properly trained, such units as well-drilling detachments can contribute greatly to obtaining acceptance by the local populace


of allied military forces. Their abilities could be and were ultimately applied in the civic action program to finding and developing local sources of water for the indigenous population. From the point of view of pacification and civic action as well as from the obvious necessity to support the troops, additional effort should be devoted to water resource development in the Army training program.

Future Real Estate Implications

Many military planners are prone to incorporate in the preamble of a set of contingency plans a statement to the effect that "it is assumed that maximum use will be made of all existing facilities in the area." To assume today that any existing facility will not be already fully utilized or that it can be successfully requisitioned for use by U.S. Forces indicates either an unwillingness to address a complicated problem or extreme naivete.

In Vietnam even the projection of possible future operational sites for tactical activities frequently became a real estate exercise. With the continuous growth of population in all parts of the world and with the growing commitment of land resources to personal or economic use, a more reasonable presumption would be that few if any facilities adequate for U.S. Military purposes will be available. It is also realistic to assume that future bivouac areas, tactical dispersal sites, and tactical airfields will have to be situated in the least desirable real estate in any region. Unless the implications of such prospects receive the detailed analysis they deserve, some future engineer may find himself less prepared to protect his commander's forces from an unfriendly natural environment than his predecessors in South Vietnam.


It has been charged in the past that the Army enters each new conflict prepared to fight the one before. There appears to be little basis for the charge in South Vietnam, and there is little sentiment in Army circles to build the future Army solely around experiences in South Vietnam. Certainly the engineer contingent of the Army translated lessons from World War II and Korea to the advantage of our military. One can look to the employment of the DeLong piers and our beginning posture in mapping as examples of applied developments. (See Appendix G.) It would be most imprudent, however, to deprive future engineers of an appreciation of the nature of engineer contributions in South Vietnam. Thus,


while recognizing the unique character of warfare in which we were engaged between 1965 and 1970, the engineers of our Army should address themselves to the applicable features of the conflict with the objective of making further improvements in any future operation where their expertise may be needed. It is hoped this monograph will spur attention to the subject.

In spite of restraints in manpower, finance, management, and materials, the Army engineers have added new laurels to their history of support. All Americans can again take pride in the flexibility of thought, the responsiveness to need, the ingenuity, the diligence, and the adaptability of their engineer soldiers and units. That pride should extend to those elements of the Army outside of the forces assigned duty within South Vietnam: the planners, trainers, advisers, researchers, designers, purchasers, and shippers who fought their war at desks within the United States in an essentially peacetime environment. Their dedicated efforts made possible the tremendous accomplishments of the engineers in particular, allowing the latter to give substance to the motto of the Corps of Engineers: "Essayons."


Go To:

Previous Chapter

page updated 19 June 2003

Return to the Table of Contents

Return to CMH Online