The first thing I noticed when I got off the airplane at Tan Son Nhut in August 1970 was the intense heat. Led into the airport terminal, I watched all the different kinds of soldiers and civilians moving through the building. After a long wait, I boarded a green bus with screened windows with some other soldiers, and we were driven to Long Binh where we joined a replacement company to await further orders.
After a few days at Long Binh, I was put on a transport plane and flown down to Binh Thuy in the Mekong Delta, where I reported to 523rd Engineer Company, Port Construction, 20th Engineer Brigade, 34th Group. The company clerk said I would be going out to the 1890, whatever that was, and to get my stuff and jump on the deuce-and-a-half outside for the ride out. So far I had been in country about a week, and I still did not have a weapon and had no idea where I was or where I was going.
As the truck pulled off the main road, we headed across a quarter-mile or so of flat paddies to what was known as the American Pier. There I saw what was to become my new home for the next year— the 1890. It was an odd-looking barge with a huge crane, a lot of machinery and a building on it that was painted different colors in a camouflage pattern. Grabbing my gear, I crossed the gangplank onto the barge and began what would be the most adventurous year of my life. It was on that barge, that aging hunk of steel and machinery, that I would make some of the closest friends I would ever have.
The 1890 was a pile-driving barge, and the crane was built in the year from which it got its nickname. It was an oceangoing vessel purchased by the U.S. Army from a private contractor. The barge itself was big, about 100 feet long and 40 or 45 feet wide. The crane was originally steam operated but had been converted to air, and was powered by two Ingersoll Rand 600 cubic feet-per-minute air compressors that sat on deck. The pile driver was a nine-ton hammer mounted in 100-foot high leads that towered over the barge. The crane had foot brakes on the cable drums and long work handles to release the air to get the machine powered up. There was a two-story hooch on board with a mess hall, kitchen and NCO quarters downstairs and the crew’s quarters on the second floor. A latrine and shower hung off the back of the barge with direct deposit into the river below and a 55-gallon drum with a water heater on the roof of the shower supplied the hot water. Potable water was stored in the hull and then pumped into an overhead water tank that supplied the barge through gravity feed. Also on board were a diesel-powered cable winch and two small air-operated “chuggle” winches that were used for tying off and moving the barge into position to drive pile.
The barge also had a “bridge boat,” which was a work boat used for a variety of purposes. There was a sandbag bunker, two .50-caliber machine guns, an M-60 machine gun and M-79 grenade launchers; all the men had M-16 rifles and a supply of concussion grenades to toss in the river at night for suspected enemy sappers—or for fishing. The barge was a self-contained unit, and the crane itself was definitely a classic piece of 19th-century technology. A 9K generator supplied the electricity to operate security lights at night as well as for personal needs. All in all, I thought things didn’t look too bad: I had a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. I had been imagining much worse.
The 523rd had its headquarters at Binh Thuy, south of Saigon, not far from the provincial capital of Can Tho. Closer to the American Pier was the Binh Thuy air base, where we sometimes went for a good breakfast or a show at night, and an engineer company had a compound nearby. There were two work barges in the 523rd as well as a diving barge. I never saw the other work barge while I was there, but the diving barge came to our location once. When we were at a work site, material and supplies were brought to us on “Mike boats,” landing-type craft with drop-down fronts, or if there was a road nearby, supplies were brought by truck and transferred to the barge on the bridge boat. Materials such as steel pile were sometimes brought up on a smaller barge drawn by a tugboat and tied off to us.
The 1890 had a crew of 12 or 13 men and an NCO in charge. The jobs on board varied from riggers and crane operators to welders and a cook. When I first came on board there was not much going on so we were chipping and painting the barge deck, performing maintenance to the equipment and pulling guard duty at night. While at the American Pier, we drove pile to construct dock bumpers that were called “dolphins.” Dolphins are a ring of six or seven wooden piles (telephone poles) with a steel pile in the center, wrapped with steel cable to hold them all together. They served as bumpers for barges and ships that could also tie off to them while at the pier for resupply, loading or unloading.
Because the 1890 barge had no way to move itself, we were taken to the work site by tugboats run by crews from the Philippines. They would tie off to us and pull us along behind them or tie on to the side of the barge and move us to wherever we had to go. A crazy but hardworking bunch, the crews on the tugboats were usually fun to be around. I took a ride with them on one of the tugs upriver until I could see the rugged mountains of Cambodia in the distance. We dropped off a buoy and then returned to the pier.
We were usually kept in the dark about exactly what was going on, but a rumor started circulating that we were heading out to the boonies, to a place where a bridge had been blown up, and we were going to rebuild it. Making preparations, we loaded up the barge with supplies and ammunition and waited for the tugboats to come and tow us to the work site. Tying on to the barge, the tugboat moved us away from the American Pier and down the river. Once we left the main river—I later found out it was actually called the Bassac River—we traveled up a pretty narrow channel to get to the bridge site. The crane leads were lowered, resting over the hooch when we traveled, but the barge was still quite a sight, and the locals lined the bank as we moved up the tributary. The bridge was located within a small village. When we arrived we tied the barge off to the shore using the four cable lines and prepared to begin the process of driving wooden pile for a new bridge support in the middle of the river.
The 1890 could drive different types of pile—wood and steel—and also interlocking sheet pile to build sea walls. Because of their shape and friction against the soil around the pile, wood piles were often hard to drive straight or to even drive at all. They were often not long enough and they would drive too far into the river bottom, so we would use steel pile— I- or H-shaped beams. The steel beams could be driven, and then another beam was raised and stood on its end and welded together with steel plates, then driven farther.
We began building the bridge support with wood piles, but they were not long enough. So the diving barge attached to the 523rd came up, set some charges and blew it up, and we drove steel pile instead. Diving in those waters was a dangerous business. Only one foot below the surface, the world turned black in the muddy water. A rope was always tied to the diver for communication when he went into the river.
When we were driving pile the barge was a busy, noisy place. Riggers attached cables to the pile and picked up the cables by the number one line on the crane until the pile was standing up vertically in the leads. The hammer was raised with the number two line and set on the pile, and the top part of the hammer would rise and fall and drive the pile into place. Steel pile, because of its low profile, would often slide into the river bottom without even being driven under the weight of the huge hammer, so another steel beam had to be set on top and welded in place and driven until it reached stable footing. The whole barge would rock and roll when piles were being driven, and the noise from the crane and the two air compressors was deafening. Once a pile had been driven, the hammer was raised and another pile set in the leads, positioned and driven in place. It was hot, loud, heavy work. The crane was welded to the 1890’s deck, so in order to move it the whole barge had to be moved. The four corners of the barge were attached to the shoreline with cables, and the barge was moved into position by taking up on or letting off of these cables. It was awkward at best, and for this reason the 1890 was finally scrapped.
We moved on to a smaller cubicle-type barge with a track crane that was more mobile. The hooch on the 1890 was disassembled and used to build a one-story hooch on the new barge, but it was never the same as the old 1890. The last time I saw the 1890 crane, it was lying on its side near the engineer company by the American Pier. It was kind of sad because it was one awesome piece of machinery.
Life on the 1890 wasn’t bad for a war zone. The generator provided electricity for music, lights and fans when we were not working. During slow times we were able to visit nearby towns and villages, or sometimes get back to base camp to visit the NCO’s club or call home from the USO. Occasionally we would go for a swim, but the currents were dangerous and the water was constantly a dark, muddy brown. Mostly we were out there on our own, and we knew that an attack on the barge could be the end. We did our job in the daytime and pulled guard duty at night, staring out into the darkness, listening to the generator run and the river water moving by, slapping against the side of the barge.
We lost two members of the 1890. On July 25, 1971, Robert Miranda and Danny Lee Lightsey were lighting a gas stove on the barge when it exploded, severely burning both men. Lightsey died that day and Miranda on August 2.
Ten years after coming home, I received a Christmas card from a guy who had been on the 1890. That began a string of reunions. Every year since 1991 I have traveled to the Indiana Vietnam Veterans’ Reunion in Kokomo to meet with some of the men from the 1890 and their families.
Even though we were together for only a very short time aboard the old barge, we developed a bond that is hard to describe. We were just a bunch of young soldiers, not only doing our jobs but also making lifetime friends.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.