The Seabees in Da Nang

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

danang camp haskins

Camp Haskins, Da Nang, Vietnam, served as headquarters of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, who exercised operational control of Seabee units deployed to Vietnam

While the Seabee’s exploits in Vietnam would carry on the tradition set during the Second World War, their work in Southeast Asia actually began shortly after the end of the Korean War, in 1954.  When France’s colonies in Southeast Asia gained their independence with the signing of the Geneva Accords, a major humanitarian crisis unfolded.  The Accords granted the Vietnamese people 300 days to travel to either the Communist led North Vietnam, or the Democratically led South Vietnam, before the border was to be sealed. The U.S. Navy would lend assistance under the auspices of Task Force 90.  While the majority of work done by the Seabees would be concentrated at the major port city of Haiphong, at Da Nang, a small port city near the border of North and South Vietnam, a detachment of Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion ONE (ACB 1) built a rest and recreation area for U.S. Navy personnel and merchant mariners taking part in what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom.  Just as in Haiphong, the French authorities refused to allow foreign military personnel on shore to do work, therefore, in order to complete their mission, the Seabees of ACB 1 had to remove all military identification from their uniforms and equipment and complete their tasking incognito.  Operation Passage to Freedom, was made up of 50 U.S. ships and transferred 310,000 refugees fleeing from the Communist North.

Monkey_Mountain_SIGINT_facility_in_Vietnam

Monkey Mountain Facility

In May, 1965, Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 began construction of a road between the north and south peak of Son Tra Mountain. Known as “Monkey Mountain” to U.S. military personnel, the mountain would house a joint Air Force and Marine Corps air control radar and intelligence installation.  The job the Seabees faced proved very difficult due to the fact that the area of the south peak was smaller than an office desk.  The Seabees blasted the top of the mountain off and created an area of about 15-20 acres to house an air defense missile battery, several workshops, and a barracks. NMCB 3 was relieved midway through the project and the work was completed by NMCB 9.

danang sea hut

Seabees constructing an Southeast Asian (SEA) hut at one of the camps in Da Nang

The increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam caused a major expansion of the U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA) in Da Nang.  The base would serve as the major supply base nearest South Vietnam’s border with the North.  Besides building piers, warehouses, supply yards, and manning the equipment to support the major logistical effort needed to support the war, the Seabees, as in previous conflicts, built many facilities to support the increasing number of Marines that were now arriving in theater.  They built three critically needed camps, which included building strongback tents, food service facilities, workshops, bath and shower areas, and a water distribution system. One of these camps Camp Tien Sha, provided everything needed to house and support 4000 men. Because Da Nang was in an area under constant enemy attack, the Seabees also built fortifications to help protect the base.

danang bridge

The new Da Nang Bridge that connected the eastern and western parts of the city built by the Seabees

The Seabees of NMCB 9 also built an advanced base hospital to help care for men wounded in combat.  This 400 bed hospital was constructed from WWII surplus materials and supplies, including Quonset huts.  On October 28th, the half completed hospital was destroyed by an enemy attack involving 150-200 Viet Cong fighters with a loss of two Seabees, and the wounding over 100 others.  Before dawn the next day, the now determined Seabees were hard at work rebuilding the destroyed portions and salvaging what was less damaged, completing the rebuilding of the hospital in less than a month.  Besides doing work for the Marines, the Seabees also gave assistance to the South Vietnamese.  In addition to rebuilding the Da Nang River Bridge, they also built ramps for Tank Landing Ships and small boats, warehouses and petroleum storage tanks.

danang hospital

The damage caused to the Naval Hospital by a Viet Cong attack on October 28, 1965.  Two Seabees, including SD3 Restituto P. Adenir, were killed and 93 others were wounded.  The Seabees renamed their camp near the hospital “Camp Adenir” in their fallen comrade’s honor.

The Seabees stationed at Da Nang also made up a large portion of the NSA’s 6,000 person Public Works Department, the largest unit of its kind in the world. Seabees attached to Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 301 in Quang Tri, the Public Works shops in Chu Lai, and the NSA Detachment in Phu Bai, were also under the operational control of Da Nang’s Public Works department. The majority of manpower was concentrated in the operations group which handled the myriad maintenance, utility and transportation duties this large facility required.

danang map

A 1969 Map of the facilities in an around Da Nang

Due to the hard work and ingenuity of the Seabees, Da Nang would grow from a small anchorage to a deep draft sea port handling a total of one million tons of cargo every three months, and became the Navy’s largest overseas shore command. The supply yards and camps the Seabees built throughout the area supported the 80,000 U.S. Marines in the northern five provinces of South Vietnam.

Seabees in the Battle of the Atlantic

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of the entire Second World War spanning from the Declaration of War against Germany by France and the United Kingdom on September 3, 1939 to Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.  Though technically neutral in the conflict, the entrance of the United States into this battle actually preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Beginning with the recommendations of the Hepburn Board in 1939, the United States began a massive defensive program to better protect the Atlantic coast and the Panama Canal from Axis aggression.  While the initial bases in places like San Juan, Puerto Rico; Trinidad; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were constructed completely with civilian labor, the entry of the U.S. into the war brought the Seabees unto the scene.

The development and construction of Naval Air Station (NAS) Bermuda, for example, was started in February of 1941 under a civilian contract.  Its design called for an air base, a fuel depot, an anti-aircraft training school, and a base for both ships and submarines.  The civilian contractor had difficulty getting construction workers to Bermuda. The slow arrival of contractors and an overall manpower shortage resulted in the contractors doing “extraneous work having no connection with the permanent air station” according the Officer-In-Charge of Construction.

The first Seabees to arrive were members of the 31st Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) on December 5, 1942.  Two months later they were joined be 49th NCB.  While most of the major construction was already finished, these two battalions completed the build-up of the naval and air base and brought them to full operation.  They also completed unfinished projects such as building roads, setting up utilities, and cleanup from the massive construction effort.  Once construction was finished these two units served under the Public Works Department and took over maintenance, repair, and operational duties for all U.S. Naval activity in Bermuda.

bermuda building

Construction of the base warehouse by the 49th NCB

 

 

bermuda shark

Chief Dunn and Chief Connors enjoy some of their well earned time off

 

bermuda ship

Seabees assigned to the 49th NCB arrive home from Bermuda on January 18, 1944.

An interesting turn in the U.S.’s defensive preparations was Iceland’s request for the U.S. military to occupy and defend the island nation.  Even though the British had made a preemptive invasion in 1940, and had received de facto support from the Icelandic government, they had neither the manpower nor the resources to maintain an occupation. Therefore, on June 16, 1941, the U.S. took over an occupation of Iceland that would ultimately involve over 30,000 U.S Army and Navy personnel.

In an effort to support the British war effort, while remaining out of the conflict and abiding by the Neutrality Act, the U.S. hired contractors to construct fuel-oil storage facilities as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement. U.S. contractors arrived in Iceland during the summer of 1941 to build the fuel oil facility, and an air station for patrol planes.  When the U.S. joined the Allies, the size of the air base was increased and a hospital and larger fuel facility were added to the plans.

The distance between Iceland and the U.S. made maintaining the supply chain problematic, and combined with a lack of trained contractors, the short building season and challenging terrain, construction was slow going and difficult.   The Seabees arrived in July 1942 and had completely taken over construction of the fuel tank farm and air field by October.

Throughout the winter, the Seabees built the airfield and used their legendary ingenuity to solve the many problems associated with its construction.  One issue they encountered was when hot asphalt was poured on the frozen ground it caused pools of mud to form under the runway making them unusable.  To compensate, the Seabees first laid down a porous material as a base that allowed the water to escape as steam.   Through their ingenuity, tenacity, and dedication, the Seabees fought the harsh climate and terrain, the lack of roads and maps, and the need to replace both their asphalt plant and their rock crusher and delivered a completed airfield on March 26, 1943, five days early.

Iceland snow truck

Iceland snow truck broke

The weather and terrain wreaked havoc on both men and equipment

Iceland paving

Seabees lay down porous base to allow steam to escape from frozen ground when hot asphalt was laid down on top

Iceland snow ops building 1

Iceland snow ops building 2

Seabees work through the winter of 1943 to construct the Air Field Operations building

Though the war in the Pacific was a larger undertaking than the Battle of the Atlantic it was, nonetheless, a hard fought, costly, and important Allied victory that was assisted greatly by the Seabees and the bases they built.