Preparations for Engineer Operations
in Vietnam

As the number of American advisers and the amount of technical aid to Vietnam increased, commands at Pentagon and Pacific theater level as well as small advisory detachments already in Vietnam prepared contingency plans against a substantial troop buildup in Southeast Asia. The purpose of the planning, a routine military practice, was to establish an adequate base from which realistic detailed planning could proceed. Operational concepts stating numerous alternatives were prepared, as were programs for expanding logistical support throughout the area. Obstacles that might become decisive factors in operational planning were described and assessed.

A construction program developed by the staff of the Commander in Chief, Pacific, during 1964 called for the use of tents from D-day to D plus six months, except for hospitals, and a minimum of temporary or emergency facilities to be constructed for extending the established mission beyond D plus six months. Provisions were made for the forecast troop effort to be managed first by the Army command in the Ryukyu Islands, then by a logistical command, which was to be cadred from the resources of the U.S. Army Support Command already in South Vietnam. Construction before D-day was to be financed under the normal peacetime procedures of the Military Construction, Army, program. Anticipating a change after combat operations began, the plan left post-D-day construction programming and funding to the discretion of the Department of the Army. The existence of civilian contractors in Vietnam was noted, but they were not expected to furnish a significant amount of military construction.

In spite of this initial stab at preparatory planning, few authorities were willing to address the subject of engineer support prior to a national commitment. No commander wished to prescribe the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in supplies alone without a clear mandate. Unfortunately, this unwillingness resulted in almost unavoidable planning inadequacies, especially in long­range building programs.

Planners estimated correctly that the Vietnamese economy was


incapable of providing the construction material necessary to support U.S. troops, but failed to give adequate consideration to the severely limited port capacities in South Vietnam. Plans for port facilities to receive the massive shipments of supplies and equipment necessary to sustain a large military buildup were not fully developed before the initial deployment of American troops.

One reason for the lack of planning for port facilities can be credited to the numbers of American troops finally sent to Vietnam and the timing of their arrival. Early contingency plans called for rapid movement of the majority of American fighting forces (a number much smaller than that finally sent to Vietnam) within a period of sixty to ninety days. The decision to deploy troops gradually and in numbers far exceeding original estimates invalidated much of the work done by planners.

Financing procedures mentioned in the contingency plans echoed preliminary experience from military deployments of the recent past. It was expected that military construction funds, which had been in use in Vietnam since American advisers first arrived there, would be used until the deployment of American troops began in earnest. Thereafter, complete flexibility in the use of all military funds was anticipated. The planners had no way of knowing that there would be no national mobilization for the war effort. Resistance in Congress to large budgetary requests for construction funds without specific statements of purpose and destination pushed the rigid peacetime accounting system of the Military Construction, Army, program into the war zone. The needs of the construction program in Vietnam and the requirements of the accounting system plagued Army engineers during some of the early and most critical periods of the war.

At the beginning of 1965 the Army command in Vietnam drew up a set of plans suggesting priorities for a large-scale construction program in the event of a large troop buildup. Airfields were considered of vital importance. General Westmoreland realized that aviation would play a key role in jungle warfare, and the mobility of troops and supplies could very well depend uporfthe availability of airfields at strategic points throughout the country. Next in importance were the construction and maintenance of supply routes-roads and railroads that would provide the Army with safe routes for convoy travel and give the citizens of South Vietnam the means to bring produce to market. Port facilities were ranked third. Finally, logistic bases and support facilities were to be built. The theme of the entire program was to be austerity and utility; no money was to be wasted and every ounce of material was to be used. Though the plans drawn up at all levels of the Army command


system were basically sound, they failed to provide the latitude that was necessary for operations in the unconventional war in Vietnam. When troop deployment surpassed levels described in contingency plans, many plans were nullified. Base development plans, geared closely to expected troop levels, became obsolete when the scale of operations differed substantially from the specified force level upon which construction plans were based.

Engineer Advisers

While contingency planning was the principle concern of the staffs of major commanders both overseas and within the United States, individual Army advisers worked diligently to assist the Vietnamese in strengthening their national military forces and in developing a stable, politically viable society.

Under guidance from staff members of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, engineer advisers persuaded the Vietnamese to organize a workable engineer structure in their own armed forces. In the Military Assistance Command staff organization, the engineer branch was responsible for every aspect of advice in engineer planning and direction. Alongside their counterparts in the Vietnamese Army, American engineer advisers assisted in operational matters pertaining to the receipt, storage, and issue of engineer and transportation equipment, material, and repair parts. Equipment maintenance, repair, and the management and utilization of materials, and equipment received particular emphasis. As Military Assistance Program funds became available, engineers aided the South Vietnamese Army, in the determination of construction needs and in the preparation of priority statements necessary for allocation of funds.

The American engineer advisers worked with their Vietnamese military counterparts across the full range of engineer functions and at every level of the command structure. Assisting in the planning and advising on engineer operations in the field were only two aspects of the engineer role. To overcome cultural and educational differences that often generated distrust, engineer advisers were constantly briefing their American chiefs on problems that confronted them in the field. In addition to their other duties, they were responsible for collecting military geographic intelligence that could contribute later to full-scale engineer operations in their local areas.

Civic action projects constituted another important part of the engineer advisers' responsibilities. With funds made available from a provincial office of the U.S. Operations Mission – a branch of the


State Department responsible for military and technical aid to Vietnam – cement, reinforcing steel, and galvanized roofing could be purchased for use in repairs and small construction projects. Advisers were encouraged to provide local citizens with engineer hand tools and construction equipment for small projects in hamlets. The resulting cooperative building projects improved relations between the American military and local citizenry.

The engineer advisers played an even more important part in larger military construction projects at the local level. Their influence and assistance in defining building needs and characteristics aided Vietnamese engineers in securing funds for such projects.

Three times a year funds were released by the Agency for International Development to meet routine Vietnamese maintenance needs. An after-the-fact check was made on the use of these funds, and it became the job of the engineer advisers to make sure that funds were used for materials for self-help programs and approved construction projects. They often found themselves spending as much time supervising the accounting for construction funds as supervising actual construction.

The advisory detachment of the Vietnamese Engineer School at Phu Cuong, fifteen miles north of Saigon, aimed at improving the effectiveness of the school, whose purpose was to train officers, officer candidates, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted men of the Vietnamese Corps of Engineers and associated agencies in the techniques, procedures, and methods of military engineering. Officer instruction included courses in preventive maintenance, demolition, and soils engineering. Enlisted courses covered the operation of air compressors, wagon drills, cranes, dozers, and scrapers; carpentry; engineer supply; and a host of related subjects.

Civilian Contractors

Before 1962 construction and facility maintenance support for American advisers in Vietnam was provided by a management structure organic to the U.S. Naval Support Activity and patterned after the public works and utilities organizations found on military installations in the United States. Directed from a central headquarters in Saigon, working detachments were stationed and operated at locations where there were concentrations of American advisers. In 1962 Lieutenant General Paul D. Harkins, then head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, desiring to free more troops for advisory duties, requested that the U.S. Army and Japan negotiate a contract for facilities engineering services for the advisory installations in Vietnam. In May 1963 a cost-plus-a-fixed­fee contract was awarded to Pacific Architects and Engineers.


Photo: Vietnamese Soldier Guarding a Footbridge
VIETNAMESE SOLDIER GUARDING FOOTBRIDGE erected as a local civic project.

This first contract provided for the support of military installations at Tan Son Nhut, Da Nang, Pleiku, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and the central office of the Military Assistance Command in Saigon. In the initial phase requirements were minimal, consisting of normal maintenance and repair to leased facilities housing some five thousand advisers and their dependents. Water and electricity were provided from commercial sources and necessary equipment was furnished by the Military Assistance Command. The contractor was expected to make repairs, operate equipment, and fill needed management positions.

While organizing his management and work forces along the same lines as the repair and utilities sections in the Army, the contractor hired a staff of 5 Americans, 284 local citizens, and 9 experienced, free-lance engineers of other nationalities. The initial contract, valued at $384,000, was administered by the U.S. Army Support Group purchasing and contracting officer in Saigon.

The number of troops receiving contract engineer maintenance support increased from 5,000 at six sites in 1964 to 48,000 at eleven


installations by the end of 1965. The funded cost increased from $384 thousand to over $4 million, while total employment rose from less than 300 to over 2,000. By the end of 1965 some 700 U.S. Army troops had been assigned throughout Vietnam to administer the contract and supplement the activities of the contractor.

The decision to use civilian contractors to assist in the construction program caught most of those contractors already in Vietnam in the process of closing down their operations. In October 1963, it had been anticipated by some that the major role of U.S. forces in Vietnam would be over by 1965. The construction combine of Raymond International and Morrison-Knudsen, mobilized in Vietnam in 1962, was preparing to disband its organization during the spring of 1964. By July of that year the value of work performed by the contractors had been reduced to a monthly rate of about $0.9 million from a previous peak of about $2 million. Material stockpiles had been depleted and no construction equipment was on order. Logistical base building had been cut back and construction was slowly coming to a halt. There were no construction troops in Vietnam and plans to send them were being held up by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

While the Army and the Department of Defense were attempting to settle the questions of whether to introduce engineer units into Vietnam and how many, civilian construction began to pick up speed. Military Assistance Program funds became available in September 1964 and additional construction equipment was ordered. A Saigon stockpile was authorized and a contractors' supply system from San Bruno, California, to Saigon was put in operation. The contractors' capabilities were expanded in an attempt to push the rate of performing construction above $5 million value per month. Even at this work rate only the most critical projects assigned to civilian contractors in the last half of 1964 could be completed by January 1966. Less critical projects funded by the Military Assistance Program and the Agency for International Development and assigned to these contractors were of necessity deferred, hopefully to be completed by Vietnamese contractors, Army engineers, or Navy construction battalions (Seabees). At that time nearly all Army engineers and most Seabees were still in the United States, with a scattering of Seabee elements on bases throughout the Pacific Command.

Until May 1965 the planning for engineer support of a general troop buildup was characterized by the same lack of definition suffered by operations planning. The absence of precise operational plans could be expected to force solutions that were less than satisfactory on the engineer as well as the logistician. The latter was in


Photo: Vietnamese Villagers Building a Bridge
VIETNAMESE VILLAGERS BUILDING A BRIDGE. U.S. Army provided materials, equipment, and technical aid.


a poor position to estimate his own requirements for construction; this in turn lessened the ability of the Army engineers to prepare a well-reasoned response. The presence of some engineers, including competent contractors, in Vietnam perhaps fostered a false confidence that needs would be met. All available engineer resources were actually already committed. When there is competitive pressure to complete current tasks while devoting attention to potential tasks, the long-range problem too often is set aside. The cost can be tragic. In South Vietnam, the Army engineers were introduced at the latest possible moment that could permit success.

Readying of First Engineer Units

The primary source of units for rapid deployment to the Republic of Vietnam was the Strategic Army Forces whose units were presumably ready to respond quickly and professionally to short notice commitments anywhere in the world. Such units were intended to provide an immediate source of highly trained and capable soldiers and outstanding leaders. Through the Unit Readiness Report system, the Department of the Army received information on the degrees of readiness of all combat, combat support, and combat service support units of the active Army. Through this information, the Department of the Army sought to insure that each unit had its full complement of men with the required skills, that it had all authorized equipment on hand in operating condition, and that it maintained a state of training that would permit it to accomplish its normal mission. The index rating assigned a unit to reflect the actual level of readiness was called REDCON (readiness condition). Each Strategic Army Forces unit was assigned a REDCON rating from 1 to 4, with REDCON 1 designating the highest state of readiness.

The following elements went into the calculation of a unit's readiness condition: the strength of the unit as compared to its full table of organization and equipment; the proportion of individual fillers capable of performing in designated military occupational specialties; the percentage of refresher training, squad or crew proficiency training, and unit proficiency training that had been accomplished; the readiness rating the unit had received in field exercises and in technical proficiency inspections; the equipment in hand as compared to the authorized equipment on the unit's table of organization and equipment; and the equipment's suitability for deployment. Before the troop buildup was complete, almost every element of engineers in the Strategic Army Forces would be sent to the Republic of Vietnam. (See Chart 2.)


On 10 April 1965 the headquarters of the 35th Engineer Group (Construction) at Fort Polk, Louisiana, with a readiness condition of 1, was alerted for deployment to Vietnam. Colonel William F. Hart, Jr., commanded the group, to which was assigned the 46th Engineer Battalion (Construction) , the 168th Engineer Battalion (Combat), and a maintenance company. However, neither of the assigned battalions was selected to accompany the group headquarters to Vietnam. Instead, the 864th Engineer Battalion (Construction) from Fort Wolters, Texas, and the 84th Engineer Battalion (Construction) from Fort Ord, California, were chosen to go to Vietnam with Headquarters, 35th Engineer Group. The original two battalions of the group soon followed.

Deployment criteria contained in Department of the Army movement directives brought about considerable changes in the 35th Group headquarters. The criteria dictated that before deployment an individual must have at least six months time remaining in service and be outside prior commitments of troops to other assignments. A significant number of men in the 35th Group headquarters and headquarters company failed to qualify for deployment; as a result there was an initial turnover of 30 percent in officers, 66 percent in warrant officers, and 23 percent in enlisted men. Ultimately only four officers, two of them field grade, of the original staff of twenty were sent to Vietnam: Colonel Hart himself, the executive officer, the adjutant, and the commander of the aviation section. The vacancies created by reassignment of the ineligibles from the unit were filled before embarkation, but Colonel Hart and most of his staff did not get really acquainted nor did they work together until they were aboard the USNS Eltinge, bound for Vietnam. Further, since the two battalions that were to be assigned to the 35th Engineer Group were not from Fort Polk, Colonel Hart first met their commanders and staffs after boarding the transport Eltinge. In fact, although the commanding officer of the 84th, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph J. Rochefort, was on board the Eltinge, the commander of the 864th, Lieutenant Colonel James E. Bunch, was not. He had left with an advance party from his battalion for Cam Ranh Bay where he was to prepare for the arrival of the transport.

While the 35th Group was busy preparing to embark for Southeast Asia, a flurry of activity was taking place at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the 70th Engineer Battalion (Combat), commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Edelstein, was located. Originally alerted for possible deployment in August 1964, the battalion spent the next year as a "One-Buck" unit–a code designation applied by the Continental Army Command which required


the battalion to be in readiness for deployment on 48-hour notice. The 70th Battalion finally departed its home station on 2 August 1965, arriving at Qui Nhon seventeen days later.

Despite the imposed rules for readiness, the battalion's posture in mid-June 1965, when the actual movement order was received, had dropped considerably below the required status. This was due, in part, to the protracted waiting period, which created inefficiencies in manpower utilization. Other factors forced local exceptions to rules and use of administrative shuffling to meet requirements. Nevertheless, almost all the key men were on hand and the battalion staff had worked together for nearly a year when the unit left for Vietnam. The equipment, also kept prepared during a year for a 48-hour deployment notice, was ruled inadequate for deployment until the arrival of new standard road graders and the multifuel series of vehicles.

Movement of battalion equipment of the 70th to the port of Mobile, Alabama, began on 15 July. Approximately two days were required for the move, for which only a few railroad flatcars were called into service. The use of commercial trucks lessened many of the burdens inherent in the overland movement of a battalion's equipment. Loading, chocking, and bracing were much more easily accomplished on truck transports than on railroad flatcars.

Because the 70th Battalion's alert status was prolonged, it was able to avoid many personnel problems that plagued other units. Soldiers who became ineligible for overseas deployment for administrative reasons were replaced in the unit by men capable of meeting the criteria fully. As a result, an abnormal number of personnel actions was processed during the year prior to deployment, but only a minimal amount after the receipt of final alert orders. By 2 August, when the troops were airlifted to Oakland for deployment to Vietnam by ship, the battalion was as ready as it could be.

All equipment was shipped out of Mobile aboard one of the new Lykes automated freighters and arrived in Vietnam before the main body of the battalion. The advance party, with the assistance of Colonel Rochefort's 84th Engineer Battalion, already at Qui Nhon, collected the battalion's equipment in an assembly area on the beach as it was off-loaded so that the men of the 70th upon landing were able to utilize their own equipment to move to their bivouac area. Two days later, on 23 August, the 70th was hard at work constructing access roads into, and assisting in the construction of, the base camp for the lst Cavalry Division at An Khe.

At Fort Belvoir the 87th Engineer Battalion (Construction) also spent the early summer of 1965 preparing for deployment to Vietnam. When Lieutenant Colonel John J. McCulloch assumed


command of the 87th in June, he was told by Lieutenant General William F. Cassidy, the commanding general of Fort Belvoir, that the unit would move to Vietnam in about ten days. The battalion had been alerted to such a move for more than a month.

In June of 1965 the personnel situation in the 87th was critical. Morale was low: the battalion was understrength both in officers and enlisted men, and the untimely retirement of the battalion sergeant major and one line company first sergeant had aggravated the situation. Immediate requests for relief from assignment due to physical and personal problems had to be evaluated. Fillers were coming in, and with them came administrative and assimilation problems. The most serious was the difficulty of obtaining men trained in construction engineer skills. This critical shortage of construction men was alleviated to some degree through assignment of men trained as combat engineers. These apparent mal-assignments later proved an advantage to the battalion when it was called upon to support various combat missions in Vietnam. The battalion was plagued with the usual inconveniences associated with the mass movement of a large number of troops to an overseas area. Housing for dependents, physicals, dental examinations, and insuring that all had their predeparture leaves were all part of preparing the unit for departure. Most of the problems in themselves were not unusual. The difficulty stemmed from the number of problems, all occurring at the same time.

The preparation of the 87th Battalion's equipment for movement was handled routinely for the most part, but trouble arose in finding substitutes for items in the battalion's normal stocks which would be out of place in Southeast Asia. Colonel McCulloch had talked to a few individuals who had recently returned from Vietnam and he had also studied intelligence reports of the area. Basing his selection on what he could ascertain through his own investigations, Colonel McCulloch sought to obtain additional tents, refrigeration equipment, and water distributors in place of much less practical items such as space heaters. The command at Fort Belvoir was most responsive to such attempts. Before the 87th left Fort Belvoir, it had secured through donation and salvage nine household refrigerators which were worth their weight in gold once the battalion landed in Vietnam.

Headed by Colonel McCulloch, the advance party of the 87th departed for Saigon in the latter part of July. The flight was rough and filled with delays. The advance party of fifty men arrived in Saigon quite unexpectedly to find that a decision on the initial location for the 87th had been delayed. While awaiting instructions from the commander of the 1st Logistical Command, Colonel Mc-


Culloch was able to obtain some of the items excluded from the shipment from the United States. He was successful in acquiring tentage for his entire battalion as well as a number of small electrical generators.

Word finally arrived indicating that the 87th was to be located at Cam Ranh Bay under the command of the 35th Group. The majority of the advance party and the equipment flew first to Nha Trang and then on to Cam Ranh Bay. The bulk of the equipment brought by the advance party was moved by barge to Cam Ranh Bay a short time later.

By September of 1965 the American buildup and, in particular, the buildup of U.S. Army engineers had been launched. Many more companies, battalions, groups, and even two engineer brigades would follow these first engineer units to the Republic of Vietnam in the months and years to come. Their efforts would provide a lasting tribute to the professional resourcefulness of Army engineers in the support of the allied military effort.


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