By late 1967, there were 485,600 American troops in South Vietnam; over the course of the war, nearly 2.6 million American service members would serve in country. While much of the historical discussion around the American military effort has focused on the immense firepower and destruction it entailed, an equally awe-inspiring aspect of the war has been overlooked: logistics.
Moving more than two million people — along with their weapons, aircraft, food and medical supplies — in and out of the country was an almost unfathomable challenge. Early in the war, South Vietnam, which even after a century of French rule remained a largely rural nation, simply did not have the seaports and airfields required to receive this level of manpower and sustain military operations. America would have to build those facilities, and much more, from scratch. It would be, in the words of The New York Times correspondent Hanson W. Baldwin, “probably the most massive construction effort ever organized and put into the field in so short a time and the ‘largest military construction contract in history.’”
Early on, Gen. William Westmoreland, the man in charge of the American war effort in Saigon, recognized that Vietnam would be a conflict with no fronts — the war would have to be executed in all areas of South Vietnam at the same time. The solution was to construct “logistical islands” along the coast to receive personnel and matériel for distribution to inland logistics centers, often by air.
By the end of the war, American forces had constructed six new major airports, with 10,000-foot concrete runways, at Bien Hoa, Cam Ranh Bay, Chu Lai, Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa and Phu Cat, and enlarged the two French-built airfields at Da Nang and Saigon; six new airports were also built in Thailand. Some 100 smaller airfields were built around South Vietnam to accommodate helicopters and supply aircraft.
Shipping early in the war was confined to the single deepwater port on the Saigon River, and ships had to wait at sea for months to offload. So Westmoreland’s logistical islands focused on new ports to be constructed first, as well as supporting airfields and supply depots.
American construction teams built six new seaports with 29 berths for deep-draft transport ships at Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, Qui Nhon, Vung Ro, Vung Tau and Newport, in Saigon; six new naval bases, with slips for amphibious shipping, were also built. In many cases, pier sections were prefabricated in the Philippines and floated over.
To care for the growing number of American and Vietnamese service members, Americans built 26 hospitals with 8,280 beds. To receive and hold the millions of tons of supplies shipped over, contractors built 10.4 million square feet of covered storage, as well as 5.5 million square feet of ammunition storage and enough tanker farms to hold 3.1 million barrels of petroleum products. Finally, the military built 26 major base camps around Vietnam, some with shopping malls and movie theaters, as well as hundreds of smaller combat firebases.
Conventionally, the design and construction of such facilities would be handled by military construction teams. But the size and urgency of the project were too much for the military’s engineers (many of whom were in the reserves, and so were not called up in time). Therefore, the Pentagon decided to rely on civilian construction contractors. In 1962, the Navy, which oversaw most of the large construction efforts, signed a contract with a joint venture between two large firms, Raymond International and Morrison-Knudsen, to build jet-capable airfields at Saigon, Da Nang and Pleiku.
By mid-1965, it was clear that the construction program was growing beyond the joint venture’s capacity, so the Navy broadened the construction consortium by adding Brown & Root, Inc. and J. A. Jones Construction Company. The consortium was then known as RMK-BRJ, and was managed by Morrison-Knudsen. By July 1966, the consortium had 51,000 employees, more than two-thirds of whom were Vietnamese. At its high point of activity, in March 1967, the consortium was spending $64 million a month, or $478 million in 2017 dollars.
Construction materials and equipment were provided to the contractor by the government. In 1966, the Navy put in an order for 196 million board-feet of lumber to build troop barracks — an order that, to be fulfilled, absorbed virtually all of the West Coast’s timber capacity for the entire year. The Navy also ordered 10,000 doors and 750,000 tons of cement. To construct the various facilities, the government provided RMK-BRJ with 5,560 pieces of equipment; the consortium also leased or chartered 16 aircraft, two landing ships, 10 landing craft, 14 dredges, 30 barges and 10 tugboats.
Alongside the contractors, at the peak of activity in 1968 more than 55,000 military engineers were in South Vietnam, including Navy Seabees, Army engineers, Air Force “Red Horse” squadrons and Marine combat engineers. In addition to building the forward combat bases, the military engineers constructed roads in operational areas as well as cantonment facilities — i.e., barracks, dining halls and training sites — at major bases. Later in the war, the Seabees and Army construction units participated in the largest single military construction effort, a network of highways strung around the country called the Lines of Communication, which cost about $500 million, or $3.7 billion today.
These units didn’t just build big; they built fast. In 1966, Navy Seabees rebuilt the damaged airfield at Khe Sanh in four days, with 3,900 feet of 60-foot-wide aluminum matting to serve cargo planes. Westmoreland “called it one of the most outstanding military engineering feats in Vietnam.”
As the war wound down, the construction program grew again to build up the ability of South Vietnam to prosecute the war and boost the economy. The Lines of Communication construction program was central to this effort in order to provide access for farmers to markets, comprising 1,750 miles of highways and bridges. The Americans also built housing for 450,000 Vietnamese servicemen and their families to improve the morale of the Vietnamese military, and thereby increase military capabilities.
The Navy closed out the RMK-BRJ construction contract in July 1972, for a grand total of $1.9 billion (equivalent to $14 billion today), not including government-furnished materials and equipment. While this contract allowed the combat mission of the Americans to proceed, it also left in place projects that continue to serve the Vietnamese people today, especially the seaports, airports, highways and bridges.
It also developed a Vietnamese construction industry, which allowed the Navy to award fixed-price construction contracts to Vietnamese contractors in 1971 and 1972. RMK-BRJ trained 200,000 Vietnamese employees in construction trades as well as administrative services, creating a skilled work force that remained long after the Americans had left.
At the July 3, 1972, closeout ceremony for the RMK-BRJ contract, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker stated: “Construction in the cause of war has also brought construction in the cause of peace and progress.” Amid the terrible destruction of nearly a decade of conflict, he called the American military’s construction blitz “one of the finest episodes in our nation’s history.”
Source: New York Times