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USAF combat airfields in Korea and Vietnam.

Between 1950 and 1953 and again between 1964 and 1973, American armed forces took part in Far East conflicts, one in Korea and the other in Vietnam. While each of the wars was unique, they also shared some common characteristics. The United States supported a non-Communist South against a communist North. In both conflicts, U.S. Air Force units and aircraft played significant roles. Those roles depended greatly on the acquisition, improvement, construction, and maintenance of combat airfields.

When it was born in 1947, the Air Force lacked an organic engineering capability. According to the National Security Act of that year, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy Civil Engineer Corps shared responsibility for Air Force construction. In peacetime, the arrangement saved money by avoiding senseless duplication, but the Far Eastern conflicts exposed the need for the Air Force to have its own engineers for forward airfield construction. (1)

Air Base Construction in Korea, 1950-1953

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the Far East Air Forces (FEAF) had limited theater airfield construction capability. Installations squadrons were prepared to repair and maintain airfields, not to build them. In the course of the conflict, USAF tactical unit commanders eventually gained responsibility for air base development, but adequately trained personnel and stockpiles of spare parts were always in short supply. (2)

The engineer aviation battalions of the Korean War were similar but not identical to those of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. By 1950, aviation engineering personnel were somewhere in between the Army and the Air Force, serving as "Special Category Army Personnel with Air Force" (SCARWAF) troops. When the Korean War broke out, five of these battalions were active in Japan, Okinawa, and Guam, organized under the 930th and 931st Engineer Aviation Groups. In April 1951, the Air Force organized an Engineer Aviation Force under the Continental Air Command to provide operational training for construction battalions expected to deploy from the United States to Korea. (3)

Early in the Korean War, FEAF utilized existing airfields in Japan and South Korea. Many of these were formerly Japanese military airfields, and some of them had been converted to civilian airports. Before long, almost all of South Korea had been taken over by the invaders, leaving only a handful of airstrips in the southeastern corner of the peninsula available for USAF use. The most important of these were Taegu, Pohang, and Pusan West. The 930th Engineer Aviation Group and its 811th and 822d Engineer Aviation Battalions, deployed from Japan to Korea to keep these fields operational. Aviation engineers in Japan improved airfields at Itazuke and Tsuiki for tactical fighter missions to Korea, just across the Korea Strait. (4)

In late 1950, United Nations forces pushed the North Korean invaders out of South Korea and marched northward. Expectation of a quick victory, acquisition of North Korean air bases, and concern about the defense of western Europe restricted airfield construction in Korea. The North Koreans, reinforced by thousands of fresh Chinese troops at the end of 1950, resumed the offensive by early 1951 and invaded South Korea again. (5)

The shortage of operational airfields in South Korea was especially crucial during the spring Communist offensive of 1951. The introduction of Soviet-made MIG jet fighter aircraft into the war created a demand for the newest U.S. fighters in Korea, along with airfields able to accommodate them. Runways at Taegu, the most active of the USAF airfields in South Korea, failed at the end of May. Pierced steel planks placed on unstabilized ground could no longer support the F-80s that were based there. USAF fighters based in Japan could reach the front in Korea, but not quickly enough to be very effective. Furthermore en-route fuel consumption considerably reduced time over the target area. Moreover, even in Japan, only four airfields were suitable for jets. (6)

The 931st Engineer Aviation Group joined the 930th in Korea by the end of May 1951. Not until June were there enough aviation engineer battalions in Korea to build or repair all of the airfields that the Fifth Air Force required. Eventually, aviation engineer battalions operated throughout South Korea under the 417th Engineer Aviation Brigade and three engineer aviation groups, the 930th, the 931st, and the 934th. The 930th Engineer Aviation Group handled new construction and heavy maintenance of airfields in deep southern Korea, such as Taegu, while the 931st managed air base construction in the Seoul-Suwon and Kimpo areas and in central Korea. The 934th labored on a new jet airfield near the village of Osan-ni, the only major USAF facility in Korea built from scratch.

The creation of the base at Osan was the largest single construction project of the war. Its 9,000-foot concrete runways were ready for F-86 jet fighters by the end of 1952. Engineers required 102 days to construct its runways. (7)

Improved air bases near the front in Korea gave relatively short-range jets the capability not only to hit their targets and return, but also to conduct reconnaissance and air superiority missions. Aviation engineers built fighter bases in Korea that dwarfed those of World War II. Jets required 9,000-foot-long runways, whereas World War II vintage propeller-driven fighters could operate from fields as short as 3,600 feet. Larger storage facilities had to be constructed to hold the jet fuel that the new aircraft guzzled so greedily. F-80, F-84, and F-86 aircraft not only required longer runways than the propeller-driven fighters they replaced, but also smoother and more durable surfaces able to withstand the erosion of jet exhaust. Jets worked better on concrete or asphalt than PSP. Older-surfaced runways failed under heavy use not only at Taegu but also at Pusan West and Kunsan. Eventually 9,000-foot runways, all made of concrete or asphalt, were available at four of the airfields in South Korea: Taegu, Suwon, Kunsan, and Osan-ni. (8)

C-124s flying to Korea carried an average load of more than 17 tons. Larger and heavier transports with complex landing gear demanded improved runways, taxiways, and ramps. It took three times as long to construct a typical airfield in Korea than it had in World War II--4.5 battalion-months versus 1.5 battalion-months. (9)

Natural obstacles also challenged the aviation engineers in Korea. High land was sometimes too rocky and low land too marshy for airfield construction. Heavy seasonal rain produced floods and mud, and alternately freezing and thawing ground threatened pavement stability. The extreme cold in Korea prepared engineers for the construction of Distant Early Warning sites in Alaska and Canada in later years. (10)

The Korean War also posed logistical problems, such as long supply lines. Equipment and spare parts for airfield construction and maintenance sometimes had to come all the way from the United States, 10,000 miles away from the theater. The most critical of the airfield construction problems in the Korean War, however, was the shortage of trained personnel. Commanders complained that as soon as their personnel became proficient in the use of their equipment, they rotated out of the theater. To mitigate the problem, the Air Force in November 1952 authorized Far East Air Forces (FEAF) to assign air installations personnel to engineer aviation units. (11)

Combat Airfields in Vietnam

Unlike World War II and Korea, the war in Vietnam started slowly as a guerilla conflict, with no clearly defined fronts. Partly for that reason, most of the initial airfield construction was performed by civilian engineers under contract. As the war intensified, there was good reason to increase the use of military engineers. Civilians sometimes failed to show up for work because of labor disputes or enemy action. At the beginning of 1964, the RMK-BRJ construction conglomerate had already suffered four workers killed and six wounded. Contractors sometimes faced difficulties in obtaining security clearances for their personnel, inflation in the costs of materials, and poor quality of equipment acquired in local markets. Moreover, theater commander General William C. Westmoreland wanted an airfield within 25 kilometers of any given point in South Vietnam. Military and civilian engineers had to work together to achieve that goal. (12)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 18th Engineer Brigade and 35th Engineer Aviation Group constructed facilities across South Vietnam. Between mid-1965 and mid-1967, U.S. Army engineers built or rehabilitated more than 80 airfields in South Vietnam, many of them designed for C-130 tactical airlift aircraft. For example, the U.S. Army's 62d Engineer Battalion constructed a 10,000-foot-long airstrip of aluminum panels (AM 2) for incoming USAF units at Phan Rang. (13)

By the end of 1965, there were 14 construction battalions of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps in addition to 22,000 construction contract personnel working in South Vietnam. The Air Force lacked an organic forward airfield construction capability at the beginning of the conflict. The service did, however, survey airfields in South Vietnam to determine their ability to accommodate USAF aircraft. For example, in March 1962, the 315th Air Division determined that 75 of South Vietnam's airfields were suitable for twin-engine C-123 cargo aircraft. In 1966, the Seventh Air Force established a permanent airfield survey team, and noted that 66 airfields were already in use by four-engine C-130s. In May of that year, the Seventh Air Force and a U.S. Army working group developed a master plan for forward airfield development and chose 20 airfields for improvement, including Khe Sanh. Air Force delivery of more than 12,000 tons of equipment and supplies there between January and April 1968 helped Marines at that base survive weeks of Communist encirclement and avoid another Dien Bien Phu debacle. C-130s also delivered numerous 500-gallon helicopter fuel bladders from Tan Son Nhut and Qui Nhon to Pleiku. (14)

In the midst of the war, the Air Force reorganized its civil engineering structure to allow some forward airfield construction capability. SCARWAF units had inactivated in 1956, depriving the service of assigned Army engineers. By 1963, the Air Force had as many as 44,000 of its own civil engineers in uniform, mostly in the Strategic Air Command, but responsible to the Air Force Director of Civil Engineering, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Curtin. When Congress began questioning the need for so many blue-suit engineers, Curtin authorized a Civil Engineering Manpower Study Group. The group justified keeping the Air Force military engineers but recommended the establishment of Prime BEEF (Base Engineer Emergency Force) teams to make them more supportive of the combat mission. Enemy mortar and rocket attacks on USAF-used airfields in Vietnam hastened the organization of the Prime BEEF teams, which began deploying to Southeast Asia in August 1965. By mid-February 1968, more than 40 such teams, composed of from 25 to 50 men each, had deployed to the combat theater. They undertook emergency airfield construction projects, such as the building of aircraft revetments. (15)

The Prime BEEF teams were not enough. As early as 1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara asked Secretary of the Air Force Eugene M. Zuckert if the Air Force, like the Marine Corps, could create a multi-squadron airfield from the jungle in Vietnam within a month. In response, General Curtin created from the best of the Prime BEEF teams two new civil engineer squadrons, heavy repair (CES, HR), the 554th and the 555th, for heavy construction duty in Vietnam. They became the first Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron-Engineering (RED HORSE) units. In February 1966, the 554th began runway repairs at Phan Rang Air Base (AB) in Vietnam, and the next month the 555th started similar work at Cam Ranh Bay. The Air Force directed the 2d Air Division to manage the two squadrons. (16)

Although the work of these squadrons was designed to supplement and not replace the work of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and contractors working under the U.S. Navy, neither the Army nor the contractors could keep up with the demand for airfield facilities in Vietnam. In 1966, the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam and the Military Assistance Command in Thailand assigned to the Air Force's heavy repair civil engineer squadrons certain construction projects normally assigned to contractors. The same year, General Curtin established the Civil Engineering Construction Operations Group (CECOG) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, as single manager for assignment of the Prime BEEF teams and RED HORSE squadrons. (17)

By 1967, five RED HORSE squadrons were serving in South Vietnam under the 1st Civil Engineering Group. A sixth RED HORSE squadron worked on several air bases in Thailand. At the peak of their operations, the six RED HORSE squadrons in Southeast Asia contained 2,400 military personnel and managed 6,000 local nationals. At each of the major USAF airfields in the combat theater, the squadrons undertook a variety of construction projects, including repairing damage caused by enemy mortar and rocket attacks and constructing or upgrading operational facilities such as runways, taxiways, roads, and buildings. RED HORSE Engineers also built aircraft shelters composed of steel corrugated shells covered with 15 inches of concrete to protect fighters from enemy attacks (Project Concrete Sky). (18)

In order to train replacements for the six RED HORSE squadrons in Southeast Asia, the Air Force organized the 560th Civil Engineering Squadron, Heavy Repair, at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, whose Auxiliary Field #2 became the "Home of Red Horse." As early as 1967, the squadron also evaluated civil engineering field construction techniques, including "bare base" methods involving the rapid construction of air bases almost from scratch. Such experiments laid the foundation for future expeditionary civil engineering operations. (19)

In early 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, North Korea seized the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo, generating a new crisis that called for the rapid construction of airfield facilities in Korea to accommodate a buildup of forces there under Operation COMBAT FOX. At first, Air Force Prime BEEF teams deployed to Korea to build tent cities. In April 1968, the Air Force set up the 557th CES (HR) at Osan, which managed airfield construction detachments at five other locations across South Korea. (20)

During the Vietnam War, Prime BEEF and RED HORSE engineers faced some of the same problems that challenged their counterparts in earlier conflicts. To combat the problem of mud generated by monsoon rains, engineers covered airstrips with waterproof and dustproofT-17 membrane and used solid steel plank (M8A1) and aluminum panels (AM-2). Enemy forces often attacked air bases with mortars and rockets, usually concentrating on aircraft rather than on pavements because they knew that rapid runway repair was becoming a USAF art. New bulldozers were equipped with cabins to better protect their operators from enemy snipers. As in World War II and Korea, the 10,000-mile supply line across the Pacific challenged engineers logistically, but larger and faster cargo air craft such as C-141s and C-5s shortened delays in delivery of equipment and supplies. (21)


During its first 26 years, between 1947 and 1973, the U.S. Air Force depended on the acquisition, improvement, and construction of overseas airfields for the projection of its air power resources. While the Air Force continued to depend on the other services and on civilian contractors for much of its forward air base construction, it continued to develop its own engineering personnel, organizations, and techniques. In Korea, Army troops in the service of the Air Force (SCARWAF) and installation squadrons largely met the need, while in Vietnam, the Air Force activated Prime BEEF teams and RED HORSE squadrons. In Korea, jet aircraft required longer, wider, smoother, and more durable runways, and asphalt and concrete largely replaced the pierced steel plank that was so popular in World War II. In Vietnam, engineers of the Air Force and its sister services experimented with the use of solid steel planks, aluminum panels, and waterproof membranes. The development of new aircraft that could be refueled in the air increased the speed with which equipment and supplies could be delivered. While allowing a reduction in the number of airfields, larger and faster aircraft also demanded that remaining airfields be larger and more robust. By 1973, the Air Force had taken a leading part in two major wars, and was more ready than ever to project its resources globally on the foundation of its forward airfield experience.


(1.) Major P. J. Toussaint, "AAF-USAF Airfield Construction, 1939-1982," Air Command and Staff College Student Report (AFHRA call no. K239.043-26 1939-1982), p. 50.

(2.) Toussaint, pp. 49-51; Robert F. Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953 (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), pp. 61-62, 636.

(3.) Futrell, pp. 61-62, 393.

(4.) Ibid., pp. 109-12; Toussaint, pp. 58, 61; A. Timothy Warnock, editor, The USAF in Korea: A Chronology, 1950-1953 (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2000), pp. 8-18.

(5.) Warnock, Korea Chronology, pp. 14-36. American Military History (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1989), pp. 553-65; Toussaint, p. 60.

(6.) Futrell, pp. 389-90. Capt. Peter C. Bahm and Capt. Kenneth W. Polasek, "Tactical Aircraft and Airfield Recovery," Reading 8 in vol. 6 of Air Command and Staff College Seminar and Correspondence Lesson Book (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University, 1994), p. 60.

(7.) Futrell, pp. 499, 635; Toussaint, pp. 59-60; "Osan Air Base," Fact Sheet, 51st Fighter Wing Public Affairs, Osan AB, Korea

(8.) Futrell, pp. 635-36; Toussaint, pp. 56-57; Bahm and Polasek, p. 60.

(9.) Toussaint, p. 57; Futrell, pp. 419, 563, 635.

(10.) Ibid., pp. 58, 62, 66.

(11.) Futrell, pp. 61-62, 636-37.

(12.) Toussaint, pp. 69-70, 77.

(13.) Maj. Gen. Robert R. Ploger, U.S. Army Engineers, 1965-1970," (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1974), pp. 36, 46, 55, 84, 108, 110-11.

(14.) Ray L. Bowers, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia: Tactical Airlift (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1983), pp. 163, 214, 230, 232, 235-36, 315.

(15.) Oral History Interview of Brig. Gen. William T. Meredith by Lois E. Walker, AFHRA call no. K239.0512-2428, vii-viii; Carl Berger, editor, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973: An Illustrated Account (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1984), p. 251.

(16.) Meredith interview, viii-ix. Ronald Hartzer, A Horse with Wings: RED HORSE History (HQ AFCESA) cited in John Pike, RED HORSE ( military/agency/usaf/redhorse.htm) 2 Aug 2004; Air Force Regulation 85-25, 27 Nov 1967 "Project Red Horse."

(17.) Meredith interview, viii; John Pike, RED HORSE (http://www.globalsecurity. org/military/agency/usaf/redhorse.htm) Aug 2, 2004

(18.) John Pike, RED HORSE ( military/agency/usaf/redhorse.htm) Aug 2, 2004; Toussaint, pp. 72-76; organizational records of the 554th, 555th, 556th, 819th, 820th, and 823d Civil Engineering Squadrons (Heavy Repair) at the AFHRA; Berger, 251; History of the 1st Civil Engineering Group (AFHRA call no. K-GP-AB-1-HI [CE]) Apr-Jun 1969, v. 2.

(19.) History of the 560th Civil Engineering Squadron, Heavy Repair, Jul-Dec 1967 (AFHRA call no. K-SQ-INST560-HI), pp. ix, xii, 1, 111.

(20.) John Pike, RED HORSE ( Aug 2, 2004

(21.) Toussaint, p. 77; Berger, p. 250; Bahm and Polasek, p. 60; Ploger, pp. 55, 112-15, 119.

Dr. Daniel L. Haulman is a historian at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, at Maxwell AFB, Alabama, where he has worked since 1982. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Auburn University in 1983 after earning previous degrees from the University of Southwestern Louisiana and the University of New Orleans. In the course of his degree work, he taught high school history for five years. Since 1982, Dr. Haulman has taught several history courses as an adjunct professor at Huntingdon College, Auburn University in Montgomery, and Faulkner University. He is the author of two books four Air Force pamphlets, has published many historical articles and has presented papers at more than a dozen historical conferences.
Major USAF-used Bases in SE Asia, 1965-1973

Air Base Country Civil Engineer Squadron, Heavy Repair
 (Red Horse unit) or detachment

Ban Me Thuot South Vietnam 554 (det)
Bien Hoa South Vietnam 823
Cam Ranh Bay South Vietnam 554,555
Da Nang South Vietnam 554,820
Nha Trang South Vietnam 554 (det)
Phan Rang South Vietnam 554
Phu Cat South Vietnam 819
Pleiku South Vietnam 819 (det)
Qui Nhon South Vietnam 819
Tan Son Nhut South Vietnam 823 (det)
Tuy Hoa South Vietnam 819,820
Vung Tau South Vietnam 823 (det)
Ban Satterhip Thailand 819
Korat Thailand 556 (det 5)
Nakhon Phanom Thailand 556 (det 3)
Takhli Thailand 556 (det 2)
U-Tapao Thailand 554,556
Ubon Thailand 556 (det 4)
Udom Thailand 556 (det 1)

Sources: 1st Civil Engineering Group Histories, 1968 and 1969
(AFHRA call no. K-GP-AB-1-HI); Carl Berger, The United States
Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1961-1973: An Illustrated Account
(Washington, D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1984), pp. 342-352;
Ray L. Bowers, Tactical Airlift (Washington, D.C.: Office of Air
Force History, 1983), pp. 176, 230, 669-670; Organizational
record cards and lineage and honors histories of the 554th, 555th,
556th, 819th, 820th, and 823d Red Horse Squadrons at the AFHRA
Research Division; "Red Horse, Thailand, 1966-1967," AFHRA call no.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Air Force
Author:Haulman, Daniel L.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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