Seabees from Okinawa help counterparts get by in muddy S. Korea
PYONGTAEK, South Korea — Navy Constructionman Wesley Newell recalls being a bit dubious when he learned the battlefield engineering task he and 29 fellow-Seabees would have to carry out when they deployed from Okinawa to South Korea.
Members of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 were to go to a muddy area near a South Korean river and lay down heavy-duty plastic mats that can help troops and combat vehicles cross marshland, swamps or other wet, mucky terrain.
Known as Dura-base mats, they weigh 1,000 pounds each, measure 8 feet by 14 feet and are about 4 inches thick.
“I was skeptical,” Newell, 19, of Laconia, N.H., said Tuesday. “Because we were told of the weight, and I thought of it as very heavy. And the sheets are so large. I thought it would be bulky to work with. I’d never worked with them before, until we got here.”
Seabees are Navy engineers trained to perform a variety of war-zone engineering tasks — construct bridges on the battlefield, lay or repair runways or major roads — especially in support of U.S. Marines.
They arrived earlier this month with some 400 Marines from Okinawa for a month of combat engineer training with South Korean marine and army units. The Marines, from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, deploy twice a year to South Korea under the Korean Incremental Training Program, or KITP.
The mats have been used in Iraq and elsewhere by the U.S. military but, until now, never had been tested in South Korea’s terrain and weather conditions, said Navy Lt. Phil Levallee, officer in charge of the Seabee element taking part in KITP.
“What we came out specifically for is to figure out how they can be employed” in South Korea’s terrain, Levallee said.
On Oct. 11, the Seabees tested the mats on a muddy stretch near the Yom-ha River northwest of Seoul, Levallee said. First, using forklifts and other heavy equipment, the Seabees laid down their mats. Then they drew on their engineering know-how to lock the mats to each other.
“It links together with metal pins,” said Newell. “These sheets can then provide stability over marshy areas or wetlands or where there’s a low tide.
“The sheets have a lip on them … each sheet overlaps the other sheet by about 12 inches and the pin is dropped so it goes through both sheets,” he said. On the bottom is a T-shaped piece of metal, he said. “A large Allen wrench is placed in it — it’s about 4 feet tall — and the Allen wrench is twisted, so that it is brought sideways, perpendicular to the sheets of Dura-base. … That’s when those sheets are locked together.”
“Then came our first real test of the material,” said Levallee. “The Korean marines launched 30 amphibious assault vehicles down this matting. Then, after they launched off of there, the Korean army was able to use it to launch some of their assault bridging rafts off of it.”
The next day, the Seabees again worked with the mats. That day, a South Korean tank went over, also successfully. Also that day, a South Korean military officer who’d watched some of the training asked the Seabees if they’d demonstrate it for a South Korean general.
The demonstration is set for Thursday at a point along the Han River east of Seoul, Levallee said.
Coming to South Korea to take part in KITP carries important training benefits for the Seabees, Levallee said.
“There’s a very large benefit, not only training with this new material but establishing that relationship with U.S. Marines and South Korean forces,” Levallee said, “in the event we ever have to stand side by side and work together for real.
“And you hear about the DMZ, about North and South Korea, and you have the opportunity to traverse the terrain and see the challenges that are encountered in the area. I think it is a very valuable opportunity for these Seabees,” he said.
“The most beneficial part that I got out of it,” said Newell, “was one, learning how to use this new product, and two, being able to work hand-in-hand with the South Koreans.”
He was especially impressed, he said, when he got to work with South Korean combat engineers in assembling a medium-girder bridge.
“The way they staged it, and laid out their bridge, was to a T,” said Newell. "They had everything planned. Everything was staged, so it could be picked up, put in place, and moved onto the next piece. Their operation was … precision. And putting up that bridge was done very fast.
Living in the field and eating the field rations known as Meals, Ready to Eat “wasn’t the greatest,” he said. “But it was definitely a good learning experience.”