One Franco-American Vietnam War veteran’s military history

BREWER, Maine– My husband experienced a walk back in time during a memorable visit with author and photojournalist David Lyman! We were grateful for this encounter, where we met with Lyman, in Brewer, Maine!

Seabees in Chu Lai

WE met author David Lyman at the Brewer Public Library.

In the world of Mobile Construction Battalions, better known as the “Seabees”, the numbers included in this highly trained engineering and technical group of military personal are not enormous. That’s why, the happenstance of meeting the author who published a book about his personal experiences was an extraordinary occasion. Lyman wrote “Seabee 71 in Chu Lai: Memoir of a Navy Journalist With a Mobile Construction Battalion, 1967”, was a special first person shared military history experience.

Richard L'Heureux and David Lyman in Brewer Maine

Richard L’Heureux, USN, MCPO, Retired (left) with veteran Navy journalist and author David Lyman, at the Brewer, Maine Public Library on February 29, 2020. Lyman took two portraits of my husband while he was with MCB71.

My husband Richard L’Heureux (a Maine Franco-American retired Master Chief Navy veteran) was attached to MCB 71, during the deployment that is vividly described by Lyman in his journal. He published the book in 2019, but the descriptions about the day to day, living dangerously in Chu Lai, were reported with extraordinary clarity, as though the events happened in real time.

Navy Chief Richard L'Heureux photo by David Lyman.

Navy Chief Richard L’Heureux photographed by David Lyman 1967-68.

Richard was a U.S. Navy Personnelman attached to MCB71, in 1967, where he served with Journalist David Lyman. But, wait, there’s more!  To our joyful astonishment, we learned, after purchasing the book, that Lyman now lives in Camden Maine. Even more timely, he agreed to meet my husband and me at the Brewer Public Library on February 29, while he was attending a small group writer’s conference.

This circle of coincidences was an important milestone for my husband for several reasons. First of all, after he served with the MCB 71 Battalion, the “cruise book” he received about the deployment disappeared. It’s the journal where the memories about each deployment were recorded.  Thereafter, my husband had a difficult time recalling particulars about his tour in Chu Lai. For example, he had no recollection about where on the base mess hall was located and therefore had lost his memory about ever having eaten while he was in Vietnam. That is, until, we met David Lyman at the Brewer Public Library!

Almost instantly, a realization sparked between the two veterans, about how they shared in a rare military history experience during their Vietnam War.  This is how Lyman described serving with the Seabees in Chu Lai, summarized on the book’s summary page: “By summer 1967, Lyman was with a SeaBee unit on a beach in Chu Lai, Vietnam. A reporter in civilian life, Lyman was assigned to Military Construction Battalion 71 as a photojournalist. He documented the lives of the hard-working and hard-drinking SeaBees as they engineered roads, runways, heliports and base camps for the troops. Additionally, the Seabees also helped the local Vietnamese villagers with community building projects.

The author was shot at, almost blown up by a road mine, and spent nights in a mortar pit as rockets bombarded a nearby Marine runway. He rode on convoys through Viet Cong territory to photograph villages outside ‘The Wire’. The stories and photographs Lyman published as editor of the battalion’s newspaper, The Transit, form the basis of this memoir.”

This summary is exactly how my husband recounted his Vietnam experiences when he wrote and sent me audio tapes during his deployment.  Yes, spending nights in a mortar pit were part of the war experience, but in my husband’s situation, he had developed a leg injury, so the painful positioning of his injured leg contributed to the feelings of vulnerability, at the time.

Details about their Seabee deployment began to emerge, as though they happened yesterday. Moreover, and to our relief, Lyman published a map depicting the Seabee’s Camp Shields in the book and the location of the mess hall was located!  Certainly, the two veterans seemed to easily walk through their shared military history in Vietnam. Yes, Lyman’s journal sparked some of my husband’s lost memories.

In the world of Seabee Battalions, most are small units and they only ramp up during times of war. In fact, MCB 71 experienced just a few deployments to Vietnam. So, what were the chances that one of those deployments was published by photojournalist Lyman, and it just happened to be when Richard was attached to the Battalion?  After leaving the Seabees, my husband was advanced in rate to Chief Petty Officer and then assigned to the USS Intrepid, where the aircraft carrier was deployed back to the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of Vietnam.

My husband and I are grateful to David Lyman for documenting the military history about MCB 71 in Chu Lai.  Moreover, Lyman’s book included a photograph he took of Richard with a group of Seabees, when they were preparing to depart Chu Lai. Certainly, we were amazed to find that particular picture featured on the last page of Lyman’s journal.

Here is a short history about MCB71, snipped from excerpts published in the cruise book: During World War II, there was a sign on the Pacific Island of Bougainville. It was erected by the Marines of the Third Marine Division and it read:

So, when we reach the Isle of Japan, With our caps at a jaunty tilt, We’ll enter the city of Tokyo, On the roads the Seabees built!

That was in 1944, at the Bougainville Airfield, the Naval Construction Battalion Seventy-One built while fighting off the Japanese.

The battalion was officially commissioned in May, 1943, in Davisville, Rhode Island, under the command of Captain Austin Brockenbrough, Jr., a Civil Engineering Corps (CEC) officer in the United States Navy Reserves. Immediately, the battalion moved to the west coast and departed in early September 1943, for the South Pacific and the war zone. The Battalion was decommissioned, right after World War II ended. But, twenty-one years later, the Battalion was recommissioned, on October 4, 1966, in Davisville, in response to the build-up needed for military bases and airstrips, in Vietnam. Commander Richard Coughlin was the commanding officer at the commissioning.

We were sad to learn from Lyman that the Commanding Officer, Commander Coughlin and the Executive Officer Commander G.H. Brown have since died. In fact, Commander Brown attended Richard’s Navy Chief’s initiation.

My husband and I were married in 1965 and our family experienced two Vietnam War deployments during the first three years of our marriage.

To our new friend David Lyman, we say “Merci beaucoup!”, for signing your book for us. We extend our appreciation to you for writing an excellent military history about the Seabees in Vietnam. This accomplishment certainly helped to bring our family’s Seabee chapter about that era to helpful closure.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.