Although he was shot at twice and survived a mortar attack while serving in Vietnam, Maynard Brown considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Brown, a Powell native, enlisted in the Navy in April 1963 to avoid the draft after having moved to California to attend college.
“The selective service man saw my dad uptown here and said ‘I haven’t seen your son around. Where is he? I have a piece of paper to send him,’” said Brown. “My dad called me that night and said I was going to get my draft notice, so I went down and joined the Navy. I was actually in boot camp when I got my draft notice and I said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve missed me!’”
Becoming a Navy ‘Seabee’
The Navy was an easy choice for Brown, who heard stories of the Navy CBs (Construction Battalion) or “Seabees” when he was young.
“My dad was in the sand gravel business and he had a lot of people who worked for him that were in the CBs,” said Brown. “And I always dreamed of being a CB but wasn’t even thinking about it when I first went into the Navy. But when you are in your third week in boot camp, they classify you. I was one of two out of 600 people that got classified into the CBs.”
Brown attended boot camp in San Diego and was trained as a utilities man, specializing in plumbing and related skills, such as pumps, compressors and purifiers.
Shortly after his graduation day, which coincided with his one year wedding anniversary, he headed to his first duty station in Okinawa, Japan for nine months. He returned to the U.S. for five months and was able to spend 30 days with his wife, Evelyn, who was attending college in California.
Dispatched to Vietnam
In spring 1965, he was dispatched back to Okinawa for three months then on to Vietnam for a six-month tour of duty. He lived in Saigon for 39 days before being assigned to Pleiku in the central highlands.
“I was in Saigon the day the embassy got blown up,” said Brown. “We were about a half mile away and it felt like an earthquake.”
Two Americans and 19 Vietnamese were killed in the attack, with more than 180 others injured.
Drilling for water
Upon his arrival in Pleiku, he and his unit served as advisers to Vietnamese engineers, teaching them how to drill water wells. Working in shifts, the men would spend their days alternating between running the drill and instructing the novice engineers and preparing meals for the rest of the crew.
“At Pleiku we used a percussion rig,” said Brown. “The percussion rig is where you are driving down into the ground and you have a piece of equipment to bail out the water and the dirt, so you go very, very slow. We spent the full five months on one well.”
Brown again returned to the U.S. for five months and shipped back to Vietnam in 1966 for another nine-month tour. He and his unit were assigned to the Da Nang area and using a rotary rig, which is much faster than the percussion rig he had used in Pleiku, began drilling a series of water wells within a 30-mile radius of Da Nang.
The wells provided water for base camps, hospitals and other necessary operations.
“Almost all of the wells in the Da Nang area, you had 70 feet of sand, 70 feet of clay and then you would hit another layer of sand,” explained Brown. “You go through that and then you hit the good drinking water. Usually, we could punch out a hole in about two days. One day would set up, drill for two days and then we would put in a water pump and pump that well out and make sure it was working. We’d take the equipment back to our base, clean it up and the next week we would go to another location.”
Though they were setting up new wells quickly, their services were in demand and couldn’t come soon enough for some.
“We went on an Army base one time, and they were in formation that morning and as we drove on, the commanding officer stopped the formation and said ‘Gentleman, see those trucks coming on? Those are CBs. They come here to drill us a water well,’” said Brown. “And everyone cheered because they were on water rations at the time.”
Bringing in the pier
Brown and his crew drilled dozens of water wells in and around Da Nang before receiving a unique assignment for his last 10 weeks in Vietnam.
The Da Nang River was an important route for small ships bringing in supplies. However, to expand the supply line, a large pier was brought to Vietnam from the Philippines using tugboats. But when it arrived, it was discovered that larger ships meant to use the pier, could not get through the shallow channel of the river. And because the river bottom was granite and coral rather than mud, a dredger brought in to help was useless.
“The civilian contractor had come and asked us what they could do about making it deeper,” said Brown, adding that the contractor had a new piece of equipment that was ideal for the project. “Our lead person told him about drilling the holes. He asked us if we could do it. … There were five of us that volunteered to go operate it.”
With the drilling equipment mounted to a barge, the small crew began drilling 100 holes ten feet deep in a 100- by 100-foot grid, 12 hours a day, Monday through Thursday.
“It was very hot during this period of time, about 120 degrees,” said Brown. “You could only work on the well as driller for approximately 10 minutes, and after that you had to go into this little dog house we had (on the barge) to cool off.”
On Fridays, the week’s work paid off. Working with the civilian contractor’s diver, Brown’s crew prepared the area for dynamiting.
“Our steel worker took a piece of what we called sucker rod and put a piece of metal on the end of it and we would put three sticks of dynamite together, ten high and wrap det cord (detonating cord) around it,” said Brown. “And the diver would go in the water, and we would lower it down in to him and he would put it down into the hole. Then we would move the barge away from the area. We had a little rowboat that the diver would get into and set off the det cord and row the boat out of danger.”
As the blasts took place each week, more and more rock and coral was dislodged, finally allowing the dredger to come in and deepen the channel.
Brown left Vietnam at the end of his nine-month tour in 1966 and returned to California. Though he loved the military, he left active duty in April 1967 due to the grueling schedule that kept him away from Evelyn.
“My wife was still going to college at the time,” he said. “I saw her only three to four months a year, weekends only. I would have stayed on active duty if I hadn’t been married.”
However, he did remain in the Navy reserves for 23 years, retiring in 1990.
The Browns stayed in California where they raised two sons, settling outside Los Angeles where he worked for the county parks and recreation department and later in private business as a journeyman plumber and a maintenance supervisor, before retiring in Powell 13 years ago where one of their sons now lives.
The couple travels the country regularly, and in the summer months, they head up the North Fork of the Shoshone River to serve as hosts at a Forest Service campground.
During the rest of the year, they reside in a retirement home where the skills he learned in the military are still in demand.
“Living in this retirement home, they don’t have ‘honey-do’ jobs, they have ‘Maynard-do’ jobs!” he said, noting that he enjoys continuing to use his expertise to help others. “The Seabees motto is ‘can do.’ You tell us it can’t be done and we’ll prove you wrong.”