Seabee 71 in Chu Lai Cover

Seabee 71 in Chu Lai

Memoir of a Navy Journalist with a Mobile Construction Battalion, 1967

David H. Lyman

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 240 pages

Book Review published on: February 21, 2020

Seabee 71 in Chu Lai chronicles David Lyman’s seven-month tour in Vietnam as a Navy journalist assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 71. Lyman’s story begins when he enlists in the Navy Reserve to avoid the draft and stay out of a foxhole in Vietnam. He is aboard the USS Caloosahatchee, a Cimarron-class fleet oiler, when he receives notification of promotion to E-4, journalist third class petty officer, and reassignment to Mobile Construction Battalion 71. Lyman is one of the first members to report at the Seabee Base, Davisville, Rhode Island, where Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 71 (NMCB-71) is standing up. NMBC-71 undergoes four months of predeployment training that included combat training provided by Marine instructors as part of its preparation for Vietnam. The moment arrives on 4 April 1967 when NMCB-71 departs a chilly Rhode Island aboard a C-141 for Vietnam. They would land twelve hours later where they would be greeted with a Viet Cong mortar attack and the sweltering heat of Vietnam.

Through Lyman, we realize the uniqueness of Navy Seabees and their contributions to the war effort in Vietnam. NMCB-71 was a deployable self-sustaining battalion capable of both vertical and horizontal construction. The battalion’s rock-and-stone crew provided the capability of running its own rock quarry, crushing rock, and making asphalt for construction projects. The battalion also possessed an underwater construction team of divers qualified for underwater construction projects, underwater offshore pipeline repair, and sunken aircraft recovery. Over 80 percent of the eight hundred enlisted personnel were professional construction workers with various levels of valuable experience who were recently inducted into the Navy through the Navy’s Direct Procurement Petty Officers program. NMCB-71’s support to civic action programs endeared the battalion to the locals, who smiled when they recognized the Seabee emblems on vehicles.

Lyman’s memoir is unique among memoirs of military service. The stories and photographs Lyman published as editor of the battalion’s newspaper, The Transit, form the basis of Seabee 71 in Chu Lai, giving the reader a “you were there” view versus a recollection of memories. He includes a layout of the military enclave and facilities at Chu Lai in 1967 with a description and role of the major military units assigned there. His descriptions of events include quality photographs that capture the moment along with identification of the people pictured in them. Lyman’s journalistic skills in describing the major construction projects accomplished are a testament to the “can-do” attitude of NMCB-71. Major projects included the building of barracks for the Army of Republic of Vietnam, rebuilding and repairing the runway at Chu Lai, building observation towers for the army, and supporting civic action programs.

The author includes a chapter on the Vietnamese people that serves as a reminder to why we were there. Lyman concludes with his experience of leaving Vietnam and returning home. He mentions what happened the battalion and some of its members since Vietnam.

Seabee 71 in Chu Lai is more than Lyman’s memoir. It is the story of NMBC-71 and its accomplishments in South Vietnam during the Vietnam conflict. It is highly recommended to those interested in the Vietnam War or service in the Navy Seabees.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas