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Prime BEEF


The Year 1966, began with the air and ground war in Vietnam growing much larger and in wider areas of the country. The steady increases of American personnel there were also an urgent and ever increasing need for providing housing to accommodate a bed down of those personnel also to replace tent cities which the bases had been using to support our American personnel being rapidly assigned to Vietnam.

USAF Base Civil Engineering would some how have to organize and equipt Engineering Specialist from stateside squadrons to support the continuing build up either already in Vietnam or on their way. It was a major challenge for the in-country Base Civil Engineering personnel to keep up with the routine mission of the established bases and subsequent maintenance and repair requirements on existing structures. Therefore, any new construction was out of the question due to limited workforces assigned.

Headquarters, USAF Civil Engineer, was tasked to develop and implement a course of action where as the Major Commands would send small independent units called Prime BEEF Teams to Vietnam for assisting established bases with their construction needs and complete a project requirement in support of the mission. To be a workforce of Air Force Specialist, adaptable to a multi-skilled capability also perform individual tasking requirements necessary of each craftsman on a specific project.. They would work with little command or supervisory oversite. Each member of these teams would be as a minimum a 5-level in on-the-job training skills accquired during peacetime. However, not remarkable little experience was readily available with in the Air Force. Since most enlisted personnel in Civil Engineering at that time routinely accomplished mostly minor maintenance and repair/replacement of structural deterioration or modifications to established stateside base structures. Any new construction was always contracted out to civilians. Training opportunities on-the-job (OJT) had not prepared Civil Engineering craftsmen adequately for the mission tasking for constructing Theater-of-Operations Facilities (TOF) necessary for providing a complete and usable building made up of a wooden super structure and covered walls and roofing made of corrugated cement sheets, placed on a solid and continuous slab of wire re-inforced concrete. The Barrack was a two-story design partly screened in for ventilation and insect control.

The major problem facing Major Commands was what enlisted Civil Engineering airman or non-commissioned officer possessed the required skills to accomplish such a massive undertaking but also do it under combat conditions. Well, fortunately some airman and NCO's were there but scattered throughout different stateside bases. In my own situation, I was assigned to Mather Air Force Base, California, an Air Training Command (ATC) base, having returned back from a tour of duty in Taiwan, on February 1965. It was said that each team member had been hand picked not only for their speciality requirements to get the job done but it had to be some luck putting together a successful team otherwise to make it work. Three members of the ATC Prime BEEF Team came from Mather AB. The three of us were SSgt's, in rank, two were Masonry and Concrete Specialist and the other an equipment operator. We deployed with only an Air Force Issue Toolbox containing some 72 items. All hand tools nothing more except our clothing.

We departed Mather AFB in February 1966 with orders to report to Nha Trang AB, 37th AB GP Base Civil Engineer but first we had to go by way of Tan Son Nhut AB, RVN. We were joined there by our Officer-In-Charge and a Senior NCO assigned from Lackland AFB and others on the Team #10. Upon arrival in country, we were told that there were no materials or equipment available at the base so we essentially could not begin any work at Nha Trang. We boarded a C-130 airplane departed Nha Trang and flew off to Da Nang AB, RVN, further north since there were materials and supplies and a project already under way, the construction of Gunfighter Village, for the 366th TFW. A compound of completed and partially completed barrack. One had been hit by a 122 mm VC rocket and had burned out completely also there were several millitary members killed. Seeing such tragedy, we then realized the seriousness and the reality of war, and now our being in a war zone. That was when without a doubt it was the first step of becoming a team of professionals and not individuals. We went to work immediately.

Soon our jobs began to overlap awaiting the skills needed from others to complete their tasking. And as soon, we realized that we must all become carpenters, electricians, painters, concrete finishers, plumbers, equipment operators, and yes laborers when the need presented a challenge causing a delay. By then we had become friends supporting each other and that made the concept workable. Each of us possessed a piece of the puzzle, the key element to get us through. We also learned from each other and new terms like a topping called that when the roof trusses were in place ready for the roof covering. A tree branch was placed on one truss, a time to step back and see what had been accomplished and the beginning the roof panels nearing the completion, drying in of the building. A shelter as such then came the interior finishing.

All the while, our OIC kept in constant contact with 7th Air Force, on the status and availability of materials and equipment for our original project at Nha Trang AB. Progress was being made after all and within weeks we would return there, a construction team, ready for meeting any challenge. Our team completed two barrack and a partial before we left Da Nang and the compound called "Gunfighter Village". After the fourth week, we boarded a C-130 and returned to Nha Trang.

With our return, we brought back a sense of achievement as we had accomplished much and also survived in Rocket City. From knowledge learned from teamwork, dedication to purpose, we had developed a trust and respect for each other that would carry us through any and all hardships. There was no doubt we could and would achieve anything asked of us. Setting a pace and schedule, establishing our goals, to realize maximum productivity since already learning the importance of our mission while working at Da Nang (rocket city.) The team began to use all of the specialist assigned to it now that we had began with a new project site. One that had to be developed from the ground up. We started with leveling the soil and site preparation work, excavation, and forming of the pad, on which the two-story barrack was to be built.This was new work for us since the former project at Da Nang already had concrete pads on which to build. We all learned by doing but as time passed, we improved our methods. It can be stated here and now that there were difficulties to over come for some. The site developers, equipment operators, concrete finishers, plumbers, and electricians were up to all their tasking but as for the carpenters major new construction skills were lacking no fault of their own since as pointed out all new construction was contracted out. It is one thing to continue with a project already under construction but having to begin one of your own is another thing.

After all the sixties were the era of the smudge pot (a round metal container filled with diesel fuel and a wick to light up construction sites and roads at night.) It was but for the one carpenter assigned with the team, SSgt Hale, and the knowledge of contruction he possessed that eliminated the major problem for us. Thankfully, for us SSgt. Hale had gained the necessary skills, as a young carpenter while serving in another war in Korea. He soon taught us all how to prepare a layout, pre-cut structural wooden members needed to form the walls, column, beam supports, roof trusses, most with angle cuts and bird mouth to fit on top plates and the end wall framing. He set up a production line and had all the lumber pre-cut and trucked to the site ready to assemble. Saving time making each cut at the site unnecessary. This method allowed the use of all the team members as carpenters resulting in a productivity increase. Nailing lumber together was not the challenge, to keep from hitting ones thumb was. We had one Sergeant whom had not mastered it correctly but survived multiable smashings of his thumbs. After witnessing the severe blows we all were being extra careful not to become the next guy with a swollen and bleeding thumb. He did however continue to work even with a bandage wrap covering up the injury. We probably should have taken away his hammer but we needed the help.

All work was now becoming routine; we were continuing on schedule of six days, twelve hours a day, but we had become comfortable with the work and with each other. Never did any of us get use, however, to that big orange horse pill; we took to prevent malaria. It must have worked, but it also as often made more and frequent visits to the latrine. Not a good experience having to run and I mean run to make it there in time. Our working hours from 6:00am to 6:00pm had a direct impact on our getting to breakfast. We were taking a duce and a half to an off base military club but the new working hours prevented us getting there and back an impossibility so we scrounged for Army C-rations. We were not allowed to eat in the Air Force Dinning Hall because we were drawing seperate ration pay of $9.00 per day extra so it was C-rations or nothing. For a while, C-rations were suitable until all of the good tasting contents were eaten and that left lima beans and soda crackers unless you could trade the candy or cake for something else. Slim chance.

We were located in the Air Force compound but adjacent to us was the 5th Special Forces compound. The wire fence had barbed wire on the top and a gate opening into the compound but it was closed at night and guarded. After a while we began to forge for food and learned that their mess hall opened up at 5:00am and that if we purchased a weekly meal ticket that we could eat there. There was one catch, however, their compound gate opened every morning at 6:00am the time we had to be at roll call and work. Now again also not able to get to the military club and back but also prevented from eating at the Special Forces mess hall for the same reasons. I was now down to eating the lima beans and crackers exclusively. Faced with several more months of that, I and another NCO decided to take matters into our own hands. Getting up enough courage, we approached the Special Forces gate guard, a foreign national, and asked entrance into the compound. He stated that he had orders to shoot anyone attempting to enter the compound before duty hours. We both tried to reason with him but to no avail. With time passing and communications becoming more difficult, I informed him that I would attempt to climb over his gate for the purpose of going to the mess hall. Again explaining to him that Air Force personnel had to be at work early. He restated his orders to shoot anyone attempting unauthorized entry. By this time, it was living solely on lima beans and had not had a hot meal in what seemed like weeks, I looked him over closely; then I said I'm climbing over the gate and did so. The guard thankfully took no actions to stop me, but the event was timely noticed by the Sergeant of the Guard. He came riding up in his jeep angrily telling the guard what his standing orders were and was probably thinking that I was a fool. He took us both to the mess hall for breakfast. Further discussion with him on the way and the reason for taking such a risk was not taken lightly for he must have discussed our situation with command. The gate opening was soon changed to 5:00am.

With hot meals again, all was right with the world and the long working hours were not a problem, if anything we could always go to the club to unwind. They had a good house band, cold drinks, good food, USO shows, and you could be among friends. On Sunday we sometimes went to the beach, being young and alive, life was good. I can rightly say the Navy has some of the best food or at least the admiral did and some of his steaks and lobster tails ended up being eaten at someone's Sundy cookout on the beach. It was a real treat enjoyed by all lucky enough to have something to trade for. The beach had many small one room bars located up and down it an opportunity to socialize and to relax with a cold drink. Sometimes it got interesting with Air Force, Army, Special forces and R-Van troops ending up in the same small room. Several of these bars were blown up using a handgrenade. It was strange to be sitting outside under a make-shift canopy, a parachute, placed under a palm tree and to have something, not knowing what, fall onto the netting. Not knowing to run or not or to stay put. You were finally conditioned to react by looking at the guy next to you and wait it out, hoping that it would just be a coconut. Things did happen often, but that was just the Vietnam experience.

Our teams' efforts continued with building barrack after barrack and soon a compound of many structures was standing. Some were being occupied, others in various stages of completion. The Wing Commander was pleased that our team had accomplished so much quality construction in such a short period while there on temporary duty away for home with only a tool box. An Air Force Civil Engineering member was now all Prime BEEF. Teams small in number, but large on accomplishments, were recognized for their outstanding work as we departed Vietnam in July 1966. Most of us would return later to these same bases serving in Base Civil Engineering Squadrons or in that new outfit starting up calling itself RED HORSE.