The Initial Engineer Command

The 18th Engineer Brigade

In mid-June 1965 Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara announced that a substantial troop buildup was about to begin in Southeast Asia. Within a month orders were received at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, returning the Headquarters, 18th Engineer Brigade, to active duty. Movement orders arrived at brigade headquarters on 30 July and the unit left for Vietnam one month later.

The 18th Brigade, under acting commander Colonel C. Craig Cannon, spent its first six weeks at Fort Bragg frantically gathering a staff of 34 officers and 110 enlisted men qualified to fill its table of organization. The brigade command staff, most of whom came from the already alerted 159th Engineer Group, would have to provide the manpower necessary to coordinate the construction activities of three to four engineer groups and their battalions. The mission of the brigade also required that it provide a technical staff capable of handling the engineer planning and design problems encountered by its subordinates. These technicians were an important addition to the limited planning and design staff already supporting engineer troops in Vietnam.

During the course of Colonel Cannon's preparations for the 18th Brigade's move to Southeast Asia, steps were taken to assign an engineer general officer as the brigade commander. The lot fell to Brigadier General Robert R. Ploger, then in command of the New England division of the Corps of Engineers. Almost totally unaware of plans for the detailed development of the engineer buildup in South Vietnam, in August he was just four months into an engrossing assignment with responsibility for Corps of Engineers participation in water resource development and shore protection in the six New England states.

At 11 p.m. on 12 August (which happened to be his birthday) General Ploger received a phone call from the Chief of Engineers, Lieutenant General William F. Cassidy, who informed him that he had been selected to command the 18th Brigade and that he should plan to be in Saigon on 1 September to meet the brigade's advance party. Little more than a week later, General Ploger met in Wash-


Photo: The 18th Brigade is Greeted at Vung Tau
by General Robert R. Ploger and Colonel C. Craig Cannon with an honor guard.

ington with members of the staff of the Office, Chief of Engineers, and with Colonel Cannon to discuss his new assignment and to be briefed on the situation he could expect when he arrived in Saigon.

The briefing lasted a day, with the general being given a quick review of the capabilities of engineer units of all kinds, the expected nature of his command responsibilities, and the scope of the task facing him. He was also deluged with maps, intelligence reports, and accounts of problems encountered by the engineers already in Vietnam. Colonel Cannon briefed General Ploger on the activities under way at Fort Bragg to ready the newly activated 18th Brigade for deployment. Plans were made for General Ploger to stop briefly in Hawaii en route to Saigon for further briefing from the Engineer, U.S. Army, Pacific, Colonel Joseph H. Collart.

The brigade's advance party arrived in Vietnam by air on 3 September, and General Ploger, arriving from Hawaii, reported to Brigadier General John Norton, Deputy Commander, U.S. Army, Vietnam. The next day he was assigned as Army Engineer and commanding general of the 18th Brigade. Over the next several days, while members of the advance party found office and living space to accommodate the headquarters operations, General Ploger established contact with staff elements in superior headquarters in the immediate Saigon area and visited Cam Ranh, Qui Nhon, and Vung Tau. On 16 September, still without its main body,


the brigade headquarters took command of the two group headquarters, six battalions, and nine separate companies that composed the non­divisional engineer structure in Vietnam. (Table 2)

The brigade's main body arrived in Saigon on 21 September, and within a week General Norton had assigned to the brigade operational planning and supervision of all Army construction projects in Vietnam. (See Appendix E.) Until that time operational planning had been handled by the small engineer section in the 1st Logistical Command. The brigade was also given command and operational control of all non-divisional Army engineer units in Vietnam and responsibility for the physical security of all personnel, equipment, facilities, and construction sites belonging to units assigned to the 18th Brigade.

The immediate command and control of forty-four projects at nine separate locations spread throughout the II, III, and IV Corps Tactical Zones proved to be a sizable task for the newly arrived brigade. Since the brigade had no organic aviation section, its staff members were forced to hitchhike on transient Air Force planes or support aircraft belonging to Army headquarters whenever they had to travel to distant subordinate commands. Communications, too, posed difficulties because the brigade had only one outgoing phone line during its first few weeks of operation.

To enable all Army Engineer Corps troops to understand what they were expected to contribute to military success, General Ploger in October issued a statement titled Objectives and Standards. Prepared in response to a suggestion made by General Norton in an Army of Vietnam staff meeting, it served as a blueprint for carrying out the Army engineer mission in Vietnam. The primary effort was to be directed toward making the infantryman's "environment more responsive, secure, and comfortable" so that he could devote full attention to his own principal mission. The construction program was to be dedicated to providing the "greatest benefit to the operational effectiveness of the 'man with the rifle.'" Army engineers were enjoined to use good workmanship, competent design, and quality construction to erect "compact, efficient, and well organized facilities." Drainage, roads, and utilities associated with the construction of new buildings were to be given special attention.

Engineer units were expected to devote their first efforts to the environmental needs of others. Their own base camps could be constructed, but only as self-help programs, on their own time. Their own accommodations were at no time to be refined beyond those of the units they supported. Beyond their mission of construction support, engineers were cautioned that they must always be ready to "pick up ... weapons and aggressively engage and







18th Engineer Brigade





   35th Engineer Group (Construction)





62d Engineer Battalion (Construction)





87th Engineer Battalion (Construction)





864th Engineer Battalion (Construction)





102d Engineer Company (Construction Support)





497th Engineer Company (Port Construction)





513th Engineer Company (Dump Truck)





553d Engineer Company (Float Bridge)





569th Engineer Company (Topography)





584th Engineer Company (Light Equipment)










   937th Engineer Group (Combat)





19th Engineer Battalion (Combat)





70th Engineer Battalion (Combat)





84th Engineer Battalion (Construction)





362d Engineer Company (Light Equipment)





509th Engineer Company (Panel Bridge)





511th Engineer Company (Panel Bridge)










Grand Total






counter any enemy threat to the accomplishment of their mission." Finally, General Ploger reminded his engineers that they were visitors in a foreign land. Though their work would be directed primarily toward the success of military operations, their attention must extend to a consideration for the "development of a sound economy and an improved environment" for the citizens of Vietnam. (See Appendix E.)

On 4 November General Ploger gave as his first engineer briefing to General Westmoreland an overview of the engineer situation in Vietnam. At this meeting General Ploger discussed the magnitude of the construction program and gave General Westmoreland an idea of the limitations that were already hampering the building effort. He also described in some detail the peculiar problems faced by the 18th Brigade and the unique circumstances surrounding engineer operations in Vietnam. (See Appendix A.)

The mission of all Army engineer operations in Vietnam was characterized simply as an effort to "enhance and promote" the ability of the U.S. Army and its tactical allies to win. Of primary significance was engineer support of tactical operations; the importance of responding to the needs of tactical commanders was to be kept foremost in every engineer's mind. The construction effort that would augment the tactical support of combat units was designed first to meet the minimum needs of all units in Vietnam, then gradually to refine existing facilities. To insure standardized development, six precisely defined levels of physical improvement were outlined. They ranged from Standard 1, with no site preparation, to Standard 5, Modified, which was substantial enough to permit occupation for longer than twelve months. (See Appendixes A and B.)

Limited funding for building materials and the severe shortage of engineer soldiers in Vietnam placed many unavoidable limitations on this construction program. Considering the available manpower resources, the initial goal of the Army engineers was to provide all supported units with troop cantonments and administrative centers equal to the Standard 4 level before further upgrading. Wooden frame buildings would be built to house all administrative functions and piped water from central storage tanks would be available at each cantonment site for infirmaries, bath houses, and kitchens. Troops would be quartered initially in tent-covered frames with floors. Electricity would be provided to both administrative buildings and troop quarters.

The difficulty of moving heavy construction machinery and the lack of adequate stocks of spare parts were to hamper the efforts of the engineers. Weight limitations placed on airmobile operations


made the movement of heavy pieces of equipment such as scrapers, graders, and tractors from one part of the country to another virtually impossible except by relatively slow water transport. Most roads in Vietnam were either in poor repair or ran through areas heavily infested by the Viet Cong, making convoy traffic both difficult and susceptible to interception.

Operations were further complicated by the lack of construction material. Enemy activity in the countryside and the absence of a significantly productive lumber industry in Vietnam necessitated ordering and shipping all wood products from points outside Vietnam. Few rock quarries were in operation; potential quarries would have to be developed and provided with men and machines if they were to supply the needs of the proposed construction program. Even sand of the proper consistency was scarce or inaccessible from work sites.

Goods could not be allowed to arrive in Vietnam haphazardly. Since 15 percent of all expected materials was related to construction needs, these materials would have to be carefully distributed to points of intended use. The arrival of supplies in Saigon that were need in Cam Ranh Bay, for example, would only create yet another logistic exercise for an already severely taxed support system. Tactical operations dependent on the timely arrival of supplies for bridge building, road improvement, and other combat engineer services demanded advance attention to unloading priorities.

Engineers in Vietnam were forced to cope with a number of distinct environmental features. The high water table that resulted from heavy rainfall and the low terrain in much of Vietnam created problems in drainage and earthmoving.

Weather and the Viet Cong were constant foes in the battle to open and maintain lines of communication throughout the country. Roads were washed away as heavy rains drenched the countryside in the monsoon season. The previously extensive nationwide rail network had been chopped up by enemy action, rendering it totally ineffective for either military or civilian purposes. Enemy saboteurs disrupted even the local residual rail traffic around Saigon by attacks on bridges and sections of track. Fortunately the railroad directorate of the government of the Republic of Vietnam proved to be one of the most aggressive and competent government agencies and continued to thrust spur lines outward from many of the former rail­served population centers. The rail system expanded without help from U.S. and allied engineers but was limited by need for major rail bridges which had been destroyed by enemy forces and which could not be replaced until structural materials arrived.

The planning of logistic centers and troop cantonments was


hampered by the inaccessibility and poor quality of land made available to many military construction projects. Only the least valuable land could be obtained, and it always came encumbered with an imposing variety of engineering handicaps.

The local economy could offer only insignificant assistance in overcoming engineering and construction difficulties. The population was small and relatively unskilled. The civilian contracting firms which had been in Vietnam since 1962 had absorbed most of the skilled labor force. The Army had to train and then manage any people who were available for hire. The local market afforded no source for construction supplies for anyone but local inhabitants. The already inflated economy could ill afford the injection of more American dollars, nor could the Vietnamese farmer or consumer hope to compete with the Americans, whose demands were so great, in the open market for the scant stock of building tools and materials. It was early evident that the U.S. military would have to import to meet its needs.

The entire military procedure being followed in Vietnam put pressures on the Army engineers that they had never before experienced. Providing base camp security at night by floodlighting the surrounding area demanded generators capable of producing sustained electric power. Construction plans called for sophisticated products, while the draftee-soldier and even many of the Regulars provided for the job had limited training and virtually no experience at the level of sophistication demanded. In short, expectations directed toward engineer troops were at a new high, while the preparedness of engineer soldiers appeared to be approaching a new low. The credit for engineer success rightfully belongs to those engineer leaders, officers and noncommissioned officers of the Regular Army, who applied education and experience with dedication to overcome shortcomings in their subordinates.

General Westmoreland on 4 November 1965 approved the suggested list of priorities that guided engineer officers in the field in the accomplishment of their mission through the next two years. In late 1966, as a separate action, he gave high priority to the development of port facilities and the expansion of rock production.

To ease the strain generated by supply shortages in both construction materials and repair parts available to units in the field, the 18th Engineer Brigade took advantage of the establishment of a red ball shipping system designed to expedite the movement of specific urgently needed items of supply by air delivery from the United States to Vietnam. The pressure for spare parts led to air delivery of complete bulldozer tracks and other heavy items seemingly inappropriate for airlifting across the Pacific. As early as


October 1965 goods were being tied up offshore because port facilities were incapable of meeting the heavy demands being placed on them. The materials for building improved port facilities would be many months in arriving.

Nevertheless, the engineers were making progress. By the end of the year the 18th Engineer Brigade had grown to three group headquarters, ten battalions, and twelve separate companies, all working, in spite of frustrations, at the steadily growing construction demands before them.


When the 18th Engineer Brigade took command of the engineer operations formerly directed by the 1st Logistical Command, it also assumed responsibility for a growing funding problem which had little precedent in the history of military construction. Traditionally, combat construction had been financed with military operating funds which demanded only limited field accounting. Seldom had construction operators been required to do any kind of cost accounting in the field.

Two aspects of construction in Vietnam altered the traditional flow of operational funds for the support of construction in the war zone. For the first time American contractors were used to a significant extent in a foreign combat zone. Though their work was done primarily in well-secured areas, the absence of a front line made their activities susceptible to interruption by the enemy. In 1964 the Office of the Secretary of Defense decided to centralize the approval of construction requests through the use of standard military construction programming and funding procedures. This decision meant that construction requirements in Vietnam would have to be estimated and programmed in dollars, then converted into material and equipment needs as well as work force and management requirements. The need to recognize construction requirements in terms of dollars introduced many new funding problems into the buildup.

The principal source of financing for construction work for the Army in Vietnam was the Military Construction, Army, account. Funds for this account were appropriated by the Congress to build facilities that were expected to become permanent structures in those projects estimated to cost more than $25,000. Features designed in master plans for base development usually fell into this category; the surfacing and drainage of access roads and internal roads, the deliberately installed sewerage systems, and the security lighting or fencing connected only incidentally with the defensive


fire plan of an installation were examples of items considered appropriate for charges to Military Construction, Army, funds.

Permanence of a completed facility was the critical determinant for the use of Military Construction, Army, funds. Water towers with metal tanks, power plants designed in accordance with base development plans, and structures intended to provide long-term service to installations dictated financing through these funds. Even self-help projects designed to conform to or be ultimately incorporated into base development plans or utilities designed for the semipermanent support of the facilities fell into this category.

The normal procedure for financing through Military Construction, Army, was extremely slow, tied as it was to the normal military budget cycle. Though the engineers pleaded that flexibility in applying funds would better serve tactical field commanders, Congress would not grant what was in effect a blank check for military construction in Vietnam. Military Construction, Army, funding required that requests be submitted in advance with a "reasonably defined project" in mind. In view of the tremendous scope of the proposed construction program, the Office of the Secretary of Defense had said, careful advance planning would have to become an important part of all military construction in Vietnam.

The requirement for detailed prior planning suggested a system of increment funding which in itself went well with the administration's policy of a "graduated response" to tactical needs as they arose. Problems began to develop when the time necessary to pass Military Construction, Army, fund requests through channels and the lack of manpower needed to compile the supporting information began to hinder tactical operations taking place in the field.

General Ploger had been in command of the 18th Engineer Brigade for only a few weeks when a message arrived from the Army command in Hawaii advising him that requests detailing the construction planned for Vietnam in the next year had to be sent forward immediately. Pentagon planners needed the information to prepare budget requests to be submitted to the Congress. Each project planned would be budgeted individually for review by Congressional committees in much the same manner that construction projects were funded for the Army posts in the United States.

The recent arrival of brigade headquarters personnel and their immediate concern for responding to the evident needs of U.S. troops already in South Vietnam or scheduled to arrive made the preparation of a precise budget request for the coming year's undetermined construction program nearly impossible. Funding regulations required that a detailed statement be drawn up for each prospective project, giving the precise location and user of each


site, the facility size, its cost, and the amount of construction needed to complete the project. Yet the planners in Vietnam had no clear idea of even the types of troop units that could be expected over the next year. Itemizing the construction requirements for an uncertain future buildup was a job the brigade was ill equipped and inadequately manned to handle, particularly when it was at the same time occupied with the pressing matter of keeping pace with the present military manpower and material buildup.

General Ploger immediately dispatched a message to Hawaii saying that he had neither the men to spare nor the expertise available in his command to prepare detailed projected planning resumes. He asked the engineer staff in Hawaii to send him men who had had experience in compiling the facts and figures needed to prepare Congressional budgetary requests. Within a week Colonel Joseph H. Collart arrived in Saigon with a staff of civilians trained in the preparation of Military Construction, Army, budget requests. Their work led to the allocation of funds with which the 18th was able to maintain its early construction momentum in Vietnam.

After preparing the initial funding requests, Colonel Collart and his staff returned to Hawaii, but the accounting requirements remained. Once a project was approved by Congress, the administrative effort needed to sustain it had only begun. Monthly reports had to be forwarded to Washington indicating the dollar value of materials installed during the month and the percentage of work completed in terms of the value of materials in place compared to the final estimated total cost. The degree of accuracy and the detail called for by Military Construction, Army, accounting regulations placed demands on local field commanders that, if allowed to stand, would soon have detracted from construction progress.

After his initial exposure in South Vietnam to application of the complicated Military Construction, Army, procedures, General Ploger set about developing a system that would simplify the accounting load in the combat zone and still meet legal minimums. He acted first to remove cost accounting as a responsibility of engineer company and battalion commanders. Field engineer commanders were instructed to use their judgment, applying the set of approved priorities as a guide, in initiating construction projects. Commanders were required to keep the brigade, which managed all accounting procedures, informed of the start of each new project so that funds could be reprogrammed to accommodate materials withdrawn from stock for the necessary but yet unbudgeted projects.

A system for periodic progress reporting that incorporated the maximum use of bills of material and strength accounting was instituted. Routinely produced for other purposes, these still could


provide a general picture of the construction progress in Vietnam. Some relief came when a ruling from the Office of the Secretary of Defense required material accountability to be only as accurate as general engineering estimates. Indicators of work completed were to be measured by man-hours expended in comparison with the estimated total man-hour requirement. This was far easier to determine than the value of materials in place. Every change made was aimed at making reporting as simple as possible yet responsive to the variable of tactical operation as well as to the needs of military budget managers.

The problem of stockpiles of construction material was handled by permitting only one stock in the country. There was no attempt, as regulations would have dictated, to separate supplies originating from separate funds. All materials were placed in the same stockpile and the supply accountants were expected to see that no project suffered for lack of materials because it happened to be funded by a source not having a stockpile at the moment. Materials were costed to a particular funding source only when they were used on a project.

These simple adjustments in the control of Military Construction, Army, funding and costing saved many hours and much paper work for the war effort in Vietnam. Had the original system been allowed to stand, construction could not have met the tactical needs of the field commanders. Many men would have been drawn from the construction units in order to accomplish the detailed computations and reporting normally prescribed.

Costs of the day-to-day operation of the Army were paid from resources of the operation and maintenance, Army, fund. The principal engineer targets for these annual appropriations were projects directly associated with support of tactical operations. Tactical bunkers other than those sited on base development plans, security lighting for short-term defensive deployments, and expedient power installations, including temporary distribution systems, were authorized to be charged to these funds. Materials used to control dust, short of semipermanent surfacing; matting used to surface airfields; and materials expended in the installation of tactical bridging, regardless of location, also fell into this category.

Certain other minor construction projects could also be built with operation and maintenance, Army, funds. The critical determinant here was the degree of permanence the completed facility was to have. If the installation was to be replaced by a more lasting facility, it could be paid for with these funds. Structures designed to protect tactical tentage or to facilitate maintenance or storage, except when the design was intended to accommodate semiperma-


nent or prefabricated buildings, were also chargeable to these funds. Supplementing the operation and maintenance, Army, allocation were monies from funds for procurement of equipment and missiles, Army. Not an annual appropriation, these funds were part of the capital account of the Army. Theoretically, materials purchased with money from this account would someday be returned to the United States. In practice this was frequently not feasible because disassembling was usually more expensive than the original expenditure. Oil storage tanks, pumping equipment for oil pipelines, and tactical bridging were usually funded under this account.

Aid-in-kind funds also contributed to construction through the purchasing of labor services and materials that might become available locally, such as sand and rock. Contracts funded by this account were awarded occasionally to local contractors to carry out work in support of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, adviser detachments. The contracts seldom ranged above the $100,000 mark.


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