Week of February 18
On February 19, 1962, the U.S. Navy established a new type of unit, composed of Navy Construction Battalion (Seabee) teams, with the goal of countering Communist insurgents in South Vietnam with civic action construction and rural infrastructure projects. These teams became known as Seabee Technical Assistance Teams, or STATs.
In the years before direct U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, the United States worked feverishly to keep President Ngo Dinh Diem’s Sài Gòn government afloat. The United States believed one way to stave off South Vietnam’s defeat was to provide the rural population with new homes, roads, schools, hospitals, medical assistance, and greater means of village defense. The construction projects that emerged from this policy were collectively referred to as “civic action” projects. U.S. officials hoped civic action projects would build support for the Saigon government in rural villages and thereby deprive the Viet Cong of their sources of support.
Each Navy STAT, composed of 13 men, worked with villagers to upgrade their defensive fortifications (especially as part of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group and Strategic Hamlet programs), dig new wells, construct and upgrade homes, hospitals, schools, and other communal structures, and to build infrastructure like roads and bridges. STATs also constructed and repaired military installations, both for U.S. advisory forces and the South Vietnamese armed forces. These activities were “nation building” programs designed to win the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people away from communism.
After the February 1962 decision to establish the STATs, the Navy set up a training program for Seabees in California in order to prepare them for the unique challenges they would encounter in Southeast Asia. The first STATs deployed to Vietnam in January 1963, and they operated throughout South Vietnam through to 1965. Civic action programs in general remained a critical part of U.S. “pacification” strategy in Vietnam through much of the war. Construction and infrastructure projects by the Navy STATs and other American military units did much to improve the daily lives of many South Vietnamese people. In general, though, their ability to win long-term support for the government in Sài Gòn—which was continually plagued by mismanagement and corruption—was greatly limited.1
1Edward J. Marolda, By Sea, Land, and Air: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and the War in Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1994), 30–33; Marolda, The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945–1965 (Washington, D.C.: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2009), 50–51; Marolda and Oscar P. Fitzgerald, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, Volume II: From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959–1965 (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1986), 113, 192–95; Tucker, ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, 742; Kenneth E. Bingham, Seabee Teams in Vietnam, 1963–1968 (COMCBPAC REPORTS, 2013), 24, 40.