1st tour RVN (Republic of Vietnam) 11/1970-7/71. Initially assigned as to Head Quarters Company and performed administrative and operations duties as directed. Served TAD (temporary duty) assignments in Nam Cam, Cho Moi and Da Nang focused on constructing military facilities such as expeditionary runways, petroleum storage facilities, river marine facilities and troupe bed-down/dining facilities. Second Tour RVN 12/1971-6/1972 as OIC (Officer in Charge) Seabee Team 7411 (13-person Civic Action Team) building of military/civilian facilities such as schools, roads, bridges and other projects aimed at improving relationships with civilians and stabilizing communities in rural South Vietnam.
I was commissioned on June 3, 1970 and was permitted 10 travel days to drive my ‘starter-car’ to Port Hueneme, California for Civil Engineering Officer School (CECOS) – to attend a 12-week school to teach us how to be Navy Seabees, Public Works Officers & Construction Managers – we also spent 3 weeks with the Marines to learn how to become a part of their defensive perimeter and reserve when assigned to their command. Junior Officer life in California was delightful, but that life ended abruptly in September when I learned that I was assigned to a Construction Battalion scheduled to deploy to Vietnam. By November 30, 1970, I had graduated from Tulane, been Commissioned, attended CEOCS, driven across country twice, had my pre-deployment physical, had my wisdom teeth pulled, received more shots than I thought possible and arrived in Saigon for an eight-month deployment with 800 people I had barely met. I must confess that this was only the second trip I had ever taken on a commercial airplane. I was green but learning fast. I was also the last officer to arrive before deployment, so all the ‘choice’ junior officer jobs had been assigned and so I started pretty much at the bottom doing things I never imagined.
As an ‘extra’ officer, arriving last before deployment, I worked in headquarters doing admin, security and pretty much whatever the CO, XO and Ops Officer needed. I traveled extensively to help put out fires and temporarily relieve Detachment OICs when it was there time for R&R, etc. I learned a lot. First, I learned if you travel with the senior officers, you have communication and privilege. People in jeeps meet you when you arrive and depart. They have a place for you to bed down. Things seem to work. However, when you travel alone as an Ensign, they do not. You have no priority or leverage. You scrounge helicopter/boat rides with US military personnel whenever you can – and hope they are going where you need to go. Frequently, I was forced to travel with locals – and had no idea who they really were or what they were saying – only needed to be somewhere and was willing to take a risk to be there. No cell phone, no pay phones and generally, no map – always an adventure and never one to enjoy. Christmas Day 1970, I was stuck in a small US Army ‘helicopter airport’ and didn’t see or talk to a single person I knew for over 24 hours.
I did learn that the officers with the most remote locations from headquarters had more control and less supervision. I deemed that desirable, so as a result of that knowledge, when we returned to home port and my CO asked my preference, I asked for ‘the most remote’ detachment. I couldn’t believe it a week later when he told me the Battalion was deploying to Puerto Rico, by my Seabee Team was needed in Vietnam. I had to start recruiting 12 men of various rates to field the team – people willing to Volunteer to go back to Vietnam. Then we attended 3 weeks of Vietnamese Language School, physical endurance training and finally, a week of SERE School (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape ) – a miserable experience conducted by the Marine Corps! It mainly taught me never to be taken prisoner of war in the orient. I did learn how to skin a rabbit, skin a snake and survive water boarding. Within 5 months of leaving Vietnam, I was back with a different mission. At least this time I had my own jeep and a Vietnamese Interpreter.
We (the 13 of us) learn more about Vietnam in this tour than we ever imagined. We had a small, well defended, compound next to a Vietnam Army compound in a location about 60 miles SW of Saigon – within about 30 miles of the Cambodian border. We traveled in about a 40-mile radius to small villages and offered aid/assistance to the village chiefs – to build things they needed, that they could not afford. (I think they thought we might be crazy, but they never refused our gifts.) We used ‘US Aid’ money for procurements (State Department) and we made them provide labor while we provided the material, equipment and know-how. When a job ended, we gave the tools to the workers who truly helped us. We made friends during the day and wondered if they were the same people who were shooting at us at night.
I came back from Vietnam older, wiser and with a feeling that I could do almost anything as the Seabee Expression Complains: “We have been doing so much for so long with so little; that now, they expect us to do everything, forever, with nothing.” It has been the single most experience that has shaped my life. I thank God for the experience and always remember and pray for the souls of 57 thousand plus who served and did not come home to the freedom and lives that we enjoy.
James M Walley Jr. Rear Admiral CEC USN (Retired)
Class: 1970 Degree: BS Civil Engineering
Years of Service: 11 Active Duty, 23 Reserve.
Years in Vietnam: Fall 1970-Spring 1972