Navy in Vietnam

Navy Seabees in Vietnam

Deployments of Construction Force Units

 by Larry DeVries, CAPT CEC USNR (Ret.)

 

The story of the Navy Seabees in Vietnam is one that stretches over a number of years and includes many, many accomplishments. The first Seabees were deployed there as Navy Seabee Technical Assistance Teams, (later named Seabee Teams) at the behest of the State Department for civic action as early as 1956. Other Seabee teams followed, but without a continuous presence, during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

 

Seabee teams (officially called naval construction units) arrived again in South Vietnam in January 1963, first in support of U. S. Army Special Forces and later in support of U. S. Agency for International Development. They worked to construct small, fortified camps for Army Special Forces and to assist Vietnamese civilians living in rural areas. Special Forces personnel worked in remote sections, training and advising Civilian Irregular Defense Groups in guerrilla tactics; thus, they needed stronger base camps that could withstand Viet Cong ground and mortar attacks.

 

ACB-1, assigned under the Amphibious Command of the U. S. Navyís 7th Fleet, was the first commissioned unit to land in South Vietnam in April 1964 in Da Nang. They remained there until May 1965.

 

The major expansion in U. S. military engagements began in 7 May 1965 when the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade landed at Chu Lai, Republic of South Vietnam (the Seabee Camp there was later named Camp Shields). That landing force was the largest since Inchon, Korea, and included MCB-10, with 24 Officers and 738 Enlisted authorized but manned at about 500 men, including nearly 200 Reservists. Their deployment was from 7 May 1965 and would last, with several redeployments to homeport, until 16 September 1970.

 

Action in June 1965 resulted in the only Seabee to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor when Seabee Team 1104 and a U. S. Army Special Forces unit were assaulted by the Viet Cong. The battle occurred at the crossroads village of Dong Xoai (pronounced Swy) on June 10, 1965. CMA3 Marvin G. Shields, USN, died in the assault and was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously.

 

The Seabee era for units could be said to include the period from 1964 to 1973, when the last unit left Vietnam, or about nine years. The extended period, including Seabee Teams, would be from 1956-1973, or 17 years.

 

The Chiefs of Navy Civil Engineers and Heads of the Bureau of Yards & Docks during the Vietnam era were: RADM Peter Corradi, CEC, USN, from 12 February 1962 to 31 October 1965 and RADM Alexander C. Husband, CEC, USN, from 1 November 1965 to 29 August 1969. The change in title was made and the Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command was RADM Walter M. Engler, CEC, USN, from 29 August 1969 to 11 May 1973.

 

In the spring of 1965 there were 9,400 Seabees on active duty at various sea and shore locations. Most of the Seabees were assigned to ten peace-time (reduced) strength MCBs. They were split between Atlantic Seabees, Davisville, RI & Gulfport, MS, and Pacific Seabees, Port Hueneme, California, and their deployment sites.

 

A major training and logistics base for the Pacific Command was at Subic Bay in the Philippines where the Navy and the Bureau of Yards and Docks (later, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, renamed in 1969) had maintained a significant presence in the Far East dating back to the Korean Conflict buildup and basing of regiments and mobile construction battalions.

 

During the Vietnam era the total Seabee force grew from 9,400 in mid-1965 to 14,000 in mid-1966, to 20,000 in mid-1967, and finally, to more than 26,000 at the peak in 1968 & 1969. In 1969 the strength in Vietnam was about 11,000 consisting of units of all types (below). To help meet the great need for personnel the Navy recruited skilled construction workers at advanced pay grades. The direct procurement Petty Officer program was reminiscent of early World War II started in early 1966. Recruiting efforts proved highly effective both in terms of total numbers recruited (more than 13,000) and quality of input.

 

Two Reserve Seabee battalions were to make history as attention turned in 1967 to potential reserve battalion call-up planning. Of the eighteen reserve battalions, MCB-12, located in Davisville, Rhode Island, and MCB-22, located in Dallas, Texas, received orders in the month of June 1967 to prepare for recall to active duty. They reported aboard Construction Battalion Center, Gulfport, Mississippi. They served for about seven months each in Vietnam returning in July and August 1969.

 

In all, the following commissioned Seabee units served in Vietnam:

        MCB-1, -3 through -11, 12, 22, 40, 53, 58, 62, 71, 74, 121, 128, & 133,

        3d Naval Construction Brigade,

        30th  Naval Construction Regiment,

        32nd Naval Construction Regiment

        CBMU-301 and CBMU- 302, and

        ACB-1 & ACB-2.

 

Seabee details, of various sizes but normally 50 men or less, were working in many places away from the parent unit throughout Vietnam. Seabee Teams were normally about 15 men with a CEC officer were normally engaged in USAID projects. Seabee Teams also operated from Thailand. Other units included CBPAC Det RVN and CBPAC Det Thai (Bangkok) which provided support to teams and units. Seabee equipment overhaul support was provided at Guam, Okinawa, and Yokosuka, Japan, as well as state-side at Treasure Island and Port Hueneme, California.

 

In addition there were two thousand plus Seabees assigned to Naval Support Activities (NSA) and their detachments throughout the country.

 

Units were generally on an eight-month deployment and a return to home port for six months before deploying again.

 

The strength of the Seabees decreased from 1969 until 1973 during the period of the Nixon Administrationís policy of Vietnamization, announced on 8 June 1969, until the last unit, CBMU-302, left South Vietnam in 1973. Two years more would elapse before the North Vietnam invasion forceís Final Offensive overwhelmed the South Vietnam military in April 1975.

 

The accomplishments of the Navy Seabees in Vietnam are too numerous to list in any short summary such as this. This is true because of the significant length of the conflict, the number of teams and units involved, and the length of the deployments. The work accomplished for the Navy, the Marines and other branches of service and the overall contribution to the mission was astounding.

 

 

Reference: "Southeast Asia: Building the Bases, The Construction History in Southeast Asia.", by Richard Tregaskis, Government Printing Office, 466 pages, 1975, softcover; (out of print). Very good reference book. May be available for sale on http://www.abebooks.com and similar web sites.
(c) by Larry DeVries, 2004-2011. All rights reserved. Do not copy. Hyper links to this web site are encouraged. Copy, cut and paste, and other forms of  reproduction are prohibited.