Early in January 1968, during Six’s 1967-1968 deployment to Chu Lai, Vietnam, the Army requested that the Seabees undertake construction of a major hospital complex at Chu Lai. It was only some time later that we learned the Army was preparing for a major campaign and wanted this hospital available for anticipated casualties. Our Southeast Asia theatre command, the 1st Naval Construction Brigade, requested (“requested” is the Navy’s euphemism for “ordered”) Six to “partner” in a joint venture effort with MCB 40 to construct what would become a 400-bed medivac hospital for the Army’s 44th Medical Brigade, Americal Division. But that in itself is another story. The focus of this article deals with one small aspect of that hospital project, but which showcases Seabee Six teamwork.
Shortly after we started the overall project, my company commander, LT Gordon (Gordo) Gruhn; our company chief, SCSW George Phillips; and I were summoned to the Battalion operations hut. Upon arrival we found not only our operations staff, headed by LCDR Mike Carricado, but also our Commanding officer, CDR Robert Keegan, as well as a Brigade representative and a representative from the hospital unit.
As we went in SR. Chief Phillips whispered in my ear “This ain’t gonna be good”. I was a brand-new Ensign and about to get my first real lesson in Seabee ingenuity.
The purpose for all this horsepower was that the hospital wanted one particular building constructed on a rush basis with a deadline of 14 days from the date of this meeting. I have no recollection of what purpose the building was to serve, other than the hospital wanted to have it fast. The basic building was a standard double Butler building. Now, Butlers were prefabricated units ready to assemble for a number of uses, but typically such a building took 30 days to erect and on top of it, the hospital had a number of special features to fit out the building, and all this to be done within the 14 days also.
Our CO told the army/navy “dignitaries” Gordo that if anyone could do this project, our Charlie Company could. Gordo was doing his best to weasel out of any such 14-day commitment, but when he finally said we would accept this assignment, his caveat was “no guarantees”. Then, seeing an opportunity Senior Chief Phillips interjected and asked if there were any incentives to finish quicker than 14 days. After clarifying what kind of incentives, the CO and others agreed to 3 cases of beer for each day the building was finished earlier than 14 days. Ever an opportunist, Senior Chief Phillips also hit up LCDR Carricato and our Executive officer LCDR John Gunther for their contributions. The end result was that a significant amount of beer was now at stake, if we beat the 14 day deadline.
At this point one little anecdotal comment concerning Senior Chief Phillips negotiating skills and his command of the English language, will at best convey only a hint of the discussions that pulled off this deal. Suffice it to say that if one little, good old fashioned four letter Anglo Saxon word were to be eliminated from the English language, Senior Chief Phillips’ verbal communications would have been cut in half.
With the task and challenge accepted, Charlie Company immediately set to work. The first order of business was to assemble the Charlie Company brass, which included us as well as all the platoon chiefs. Chief Jesse Taylor’s platoon was assigned the lead role and their immediate assignment was to “mothball” their existing projects and start planning for the double Butler. My assignment was to coordinate work needed from other Six construction companies, such as earthwork by Alpha Company, utilities by Bravo Company and to make sure necessary supplies and equipment would be ready when the troops needed them. If any problems cropped up, Gordo would take care of them.
With an incentive like the prize at stake, the Charlie Chargers lost no time getting to work. Without getting into a lot of mundane details, I will note that Gordo staged crews to work around the clock in 12 hour shifts, and chow was brought to the site so food breaks were minimized. Many of the troops stayed on site beyond their 12 hour shifts just to lend a hand if needed. In addition to the assigned troops any number of people wanted in on the project. For example our Battalion doctor found an excuse to come out and helped to pour concrete one day. The work progressed exceptionally well. For night work, Gordo and one of our crew leaders found a way to shield the work lights so only the work would be lit directly and would not stand out as a target opportunity for enemy rockets.
The entire project, starting with an untouched piece of ground, to turning over the “keys” to the hospital administrator, took a grand total of 6 days. Or, 8 days ahead of schedule. Never modest about proclaiming our achievements, one of the chiefs had the following sign painted and ready to go. The picture is a bit faded, but states “Double Butler Building Erected by the Seabees of MCB-Six in Six Days” and in fine print on the bottom “On the Seventh Day We Rested”. In case you are wondering, yes, once we realized how well things were going, the goal was for Seabee Six to get this thing built in Six days.
Senior Chief Phillips also calculated that the resulting incentive payment from our 3 top leaders was a combined total of 38 cases of beer. Other than a lot of congratulations and the CO stating “duly noted” to Senior Chief Phillips, nothing more was said about Charlie’s feat. To give credit where credit is due, Charlie had help in all this. Alpha Company had equipment ready to go when we needed it for steel erection and kept the cement coming, Bravo had electricians running conduit and wire before the sides were even on, and we borrowed a few steelworkers from Delta.
However, at the next Sunday morning Battalion muster, the entire Battalion was formed and waiting for the CO to make his appearance. The next thing we saw was the CO driving his jeep with LCDR Carricato and a wagon full of beer in tow. He pulled up in front of our company, LT. Gruhn saluted; the CO said, “payment in full” and turned over the beer. Gordo turned to Senior Chief Phillips saying “take charge Senior Chief” whereupon the CO turned his jeep over and the beer was safely driven to Charlie Party Headquarters.
Needless to say, Charlie Company, and our cohorts, enjoyed a mighty fine party after the muster for the rest of Sunday.
There was also a certain curse associated with having set the new standard for such construction in a combat zone in that there seemed to be a rather continuous barrage of requests to repeat our performance. And, later when we were back at Davisville, the requests still continued. But as for Charlie Company, I think it’s safe to say we had achieved a certain infamy and all such requests were politely, or otherwise, declined by Gordo as he commented that we couldn’t possibly repeat our performance.
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