By: Julius Lacano
Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.