In May 1967, 40 Soldiers out of Fort Lewis, Washington, were flown to Vietnam as the advance party for 93rd Engineer Battalion.
Their job was to build a base camp from scratch. They included a 24-year-old first lieutenant, Ric Laycock, the construction coordinator.
“We were deposited by the side of the road and there was nothing but a grassy area and some trees,” Laycock said. “And we were on our own.”
The Soldiers had nothing but the rucksacks on their backs. They had no showers, no latrines. They cooked on camp stoves and ate meals-ready-to-eat. “It was just a (challenging) three weeks,” Laycock said.
They had to set up tents to stay out of the rain; and it rained every day about 2 p.m. Laycock’s duffel bag, containing his 35mm camera, got soaked by rain which destroyed the camera. The Soldiers began laying out the 30-acre area with a survey crew. The rest of the battalion, about 1,000 Soldiers, arrived by ship in June 1967. Their base camp was about a mile and a half south of Bearcat, home of the 9th Infantry Division, and east of Saigon and south of Cam Ranh Bay.
“I’ve been in construction most of my life,” Laycock, now retired and splitting his time between Pennsylvania and Florida, said. “It was what I most liked to do. It was a lot of work. It was good work. The troopers were pretty good guys.”
_With the arrival of the entire battalion’s men, equipment and material, construction of the battalion’s Camp Castle soon came together. The squads of carpenters, electricians, masons, plumbers aided by earth moving platoons, produced a battalion size camp complex with laterite roads, wooden sidewalks and adequate drainage.
Their main but not sole project was to construct a 6,000-foot airfield. The Soldiers took a 100-yard dirt airstrip and turned it into a paved 6,000-foot runway. By the time Laycock left for Dong Tam six months later, he saw a C-141 Starlifter land there.
“We built rotary wing hangars, avionics buildings, a control tower, a lot of troop billets,” he said. “We built a lot of water fill stands (with the help of Navy Seabees). It was a pretty successful construction schedule.”
The Soldiers also repaired old roads and drainage and built new roads and concrete and steel bridges on the rice route between Saigon and the Mekong Delta. As an old Soldier of the 93rd Engineer Battalion, Laycock said he is most proud of “the record of successes with respect to construction.”
The Lawrence, Massachusetts, native became commander of C Company in November 1967. Around mid-January 1968, during the Tet Offensive, the 205-Soldier company traveled by road in convoy to Dong Tam. “We did lose a couple of vehicles, not due to enemy action, but ultimately arrived in Dong Tam reasonably intact,” Laycock, who was promoted to captain, said. “We had our base camp set up in one week.”
Construction projects progressed through the second half of January, all of February and into the first half of March. But one night in mid-March, a mortar attack sent the Soldiers scurrying for their bunkers. Laycock was slightly injured in his right chest from a piece of shrapnel from an 81mm shell. Another Soldier took a piece in the arm. They continued doing their jobs and notified the division headquarters by radio that their area received several incoming rounds. Two months later, in May 1968, Laycock left the Army as a captain in Oakland, California. He received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
Laycock graduated from Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, in 1965 with a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and was a distinguished military graduate. After the Army, he headed to Syracuse, New York, to resume his civilian career at Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation. He left Niagara Mohawk in 1988. For the next 21 years, he worked for five different companies, all dealing with the design and construction of electric utility control centers in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, California, Florida, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. He retired in 2009.
He and his wife of 53 years, Maggie, have seven children, the two youngest adopted, and 12 grandchildren. The couple split their year between Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, and Bonita Springs, Florida. At 76 Laycock still enjoys construction work, like redoing a ceramic-tile bathroom, and he volunteers two days a week at Habitat for Humanity in building houses.
“(Military) service is not for everybody,” he said. “But it certainly has a place for many. And depending on where you’re stationed, your outlook on life is probably going to get changed.”
Editor’s note: This is the 216th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.