Apr 4

The Great Seabee Tank Caper

Thursday, April 4, 2019 12:01 AM

By

There was a significant, if not historical event, that took place during the height of the Vietnam War. It went completely unreported and was never mentioned again anywhere in the annals of the illustrious Seabee history archives. I am here to correct that error before everyone involved forgets or considers it too minor to mention anymore.

Sometime around March 1968, U. S. Navy Seabee history was made when the Mobile Construction Battalion-121, Alpha Company became the only military unit in the history of the Vietnam War to capture an enemy battle tank!

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

But before I go into detail on how that epic achievement was accomplished, I must give you, the reader, a little background and a lesson on military terms.

First and most important is the definition of a “Sea Story”. Although this is a true story, a sea story is not a lie, nor is it completely the truth. There could be an involuntary embellishment (which Seabees hardly ever make) of facts and figures, all with a certain amount of provable facts in support of the truth, with a plausible deniability.

It has been said that the difference between a fairytale and a sea story is the way they begin, a children’s fairytale begins; “Once upon a time”, and a Seabee sea story starts “This ain’t no shit”.

This story is told in the first person, because I was there, and that’s no shit. My name is Dick Jones and I was a member of Bravo Company, MCB 121 of the 32nd NCR, 3rd NCB, 3rd Marines in the I-Corps region of South Vietnam during the war.

All Seabees had their Battalion responsibilities as their primary job. Those jobs encompassed the full spectrum of what you would expect to see in a construction company building air fields, ports, roads, pipe lines, electrical distribution, barracks, etc. Alpha Company was made up of drivers, heavy equipment and such. Bravo Company was plumbing, electrical, steam production and such. Charlie Company were carpenters, and building trades. Delta Company were draftsmen, planners, etc. Then there was Hotel Company where the C.O. and staff personnel and supply sat. My job was mainly the operator of a large portable boiler used in steam production used in every aspect of battalion life.

As is the case with Seabees, we all had two jobs depending on the circumstances. I was a watch stander, an operator for the steam plant. Many of us had routine watch standing jobs, every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every week, someone was on watch in our primary areas of responsibility.

In my case, I had a choice of watch standing times and I always took the late night duty looking after a huge boiler for the battalion. As the boiler I was caring for had full automatic controls and safety switches with alarms, at night, I would hide in a loft of the boiler room and sleep the night through. Then bright and early after the next watch stander took over, I would head off to Alpha Company area where all the daily convoys were formed up and offer my services as a “Shotgun” rider on any convoys heading out, North or South of our combat base.

On some days if there was no need for a Shotgun rider, then I would head over to the Battalion Chaplin who often needed armed body guards to escort him when he went off to local churches and orphanages located in Hue, Dong Ha or at the furthest point North of our area down to Phu Loc, South, just before you get into the Danang valley. That area included such places as QuangTri city and to the East as far as the Rock Pile and of course Khe Sanh.

This story is confined to Route 1 heading South from the Combat base at PhuBai to the quarry near Phu Loc. I was riding shot gun on the refueler, as I often did on these rides. About 5 miles south on highway 1, at XaLoc Bien was an old concrete bridge over a small river. Guarding that bridge was an old French tank, which had been there since the Indochina War some 15 years earlier. The tank was an old Chaffee M-24 given to the French Army during our post-war military assistance program.

For months we drove past that tank with more or less passing interest and the driver and I often spoke of dragging the tank on a lowboy trailer and taking it back to the battalion main camp. We fantasized about what the NVA or the VC would think if they saw a tank on our firing line?

Finally, one day on a deadhead trip back to the main camp, we had an empty lowboy trailer in front of us! And sure enough the tractor driver turns into a loop and backs up to the tank. A few Seabees, including myself hook up the tank to the lowboy winch and drag the tank onto the lowboy, and the driver jumps back into the tractor and pulls out, back onto the MSR road and head’s North. The whole operation from the tractor pulling in to get the tank and back out with the tank onboard, took only 10 minutes at most.

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

Finally, when we pulled into the main camp the tractor pulled over to the heavy equipment storage area, where broken things wait to get fixed. He off-loaded the tank and pulled away. What happened next, I’m not real sure, but it seems to me, with a 50 year old memory of this, that someone later that night painted the tank pink, ending the shock value of having it on the firing line.

So MCB 121 was the only American military unit in Vietnam to actually capture a tank and bring it into their battalion area in working order. Up on further inspection it was found that the tank still had about 30 rounds of 75mm rounds stored on the inside of the turret and under the floor platform. Had the NVA or VC ever been aware of that fact, one can only guess the havoc that could have played on any American convoy traveling over that bridge.

Lo and behold, 50 years after the fact, I recently went to my first battalion reunion, October 2018. As we were trading sea-stories I told this one about the Great Seabee Tank Caper and no one there remembered it… until the Master Chief of Alpha Company, EQCM Green came in and confirmed the story to my skeptical audience.

There were many Seabee veterans of that first deployment who could not, for one reason or another, attend this 50th anniversary reunion. If any one of you can flesh this story out, please do. MCB133 was the battalion that relieved MCB121 at Phu Bai, anyone in that battalion remember the Chaffee tank left for their protection and amusement?

It is after all, Seabee History!