A Seabee Solution

Ben H. Swett
Colonel, USAF (retired)

I was a navigator in C-123 aircraft and Civic Action Coordinator for the
315th Tactical Airlift Wing at Phan Rang, Republic of Vietnam, in 1970

Phan Rang AB, Civic Action Report, 6 April 1970, Thap Cham water system. Two 350 gallon per minute, gas-driven water pumps were delivered to the An Son Village Chief this month. The huge, and getting bigger, well continues to be a difficulty. A MACV Team 45 army engineer and his demolitions expert assistant have blasted several times during the month to get through the layer of rock. To date, the work has been unsuccessful in penetrating the rock layer completely. Ideas have been exchanged on a different course of action, and the suggestion that will probably be implemented is to dig a canal from the river to the well.
29 April 1970 -- I picked up 6 sewing machines at Tan Son Nhut and delivered them to Da Nang. We had an hour on the ground before returning to Phan Rang, so I went to the Seabee outfit, talked with a Master Chief about the Thap Cham well, and asked him what should be done.  He said he had a few days of in-country R&R and we had a nice beach at Phan Rang where it didn't rain all the time, so if I could get him a ride both ways and a place to stay for a few days, he would come and fix the problem. I asked him how soon he could come, and he said, "In about 20 minutes." I waited while he cleared it with his boss and got his seabag. He rode to Phan Rang with us.

We got a truck to the well. He studied the site, then told the engineers to drill a one-and-one-half-inch hole in the middle of the bottom of the well, as far down as their longest bit would go. When that was done, he got down in the well, took a small vial of something out of his breast pocket, taped a blasting cap and wire to it, and lowered it -- gently -- to the bottom of the hole. Then he climbed out of the well and told the engineers to rig a water hose from the river to the well and start pumping.

When the water in the well was about five feet deep, he said that was enough. He told everyone to stand clear, took a small detonator out of another pocket, connected it to the wire, said "Fire in the hole!" and twisted the handle of the detonator. There was a loud but muffled THUMP and a column of water shot up about a hundred feet. Immediately, the water in the well started to rise. The layer of granite was cracked in a spider-web pattern and what had been a dry well was now an artesian well. It soon overflowed and began cutting a channel downhill. The locals were ecstatic and the engineers were laughing: "Liquid tamp! Should have thought of that!"

I asked him, "What do you drink?" He said, "Jack Black." I took him to the NCO Club, introduced him to the NCO Club Chief, and said, "He needs a place to stay for a few days and transportation to the Club Annex at the beach, and I figured you would take good care of him." The NCO Club Chief said, "Sure, Major Swett, no problem." I bought us each a drink and then bought him a bottle of Jack Daniels. He said, "You don't have to do that, Major." I said, "Yeah, I know, but I want to. Let me know when you're ready to go back to Da Nang." He said he would get a ride back. I said, "Thank you for your help. Now I know why Seabees have a reputation for doing the impossible." As I left, I heard the NCO Club Chief ask him, "What did you do?"

What he did was an elegant solution to the problem, but I still get cold chills when I remember that he flew on our airplane with a vial of nitroglycerine in his pocket.

1970 Log