written by COL William R. Licht (USA, Ret)

Land Clearing bulldozer with a plow stopped against a tree

(US Army)

                        “There is only one ground offensive weapon in Vietnam: the Land Clearer.”                                                       – MG Talbot, Commanding General of the 1st Infantry Division

The 62d Engineer Battalion carved the Alaska-Canadian Highway out of the Yukon in World War II and built bridges in the Korean War. In Vietnam, it took on a new and unique mission: clearing jungles. William Licht served with the battalion in Vietnam and describes its operations here.

Land Clearing in Vietnam meant cutting down jungles used by the enemy as sanctuaries. Tropical rain forests were major obstacles to US and ARVN military movement and operations. The Viet Cong used the jungle to hide bases, operations, and supply lines. The defoliation program, using Agent Orange, of the early 1960s had the weakness of only killing off the tops of trees in the triple canopy jungle, leaving the bottom canopy that covers the jungle floor intact.

After experimenting with several method of jungle clearing, the Army settled on using the Caterpillar D7E tractor (standard Army tractor) equipped with the “Rome Plow” kit, manufactured by the Rome Plow Company in Georgia and already in use in the US for commercial land clearing.

The Rome Plow kit consists primarily of a cab to protect the tractor and Operator, and a special angled blade with a “Stinger” on the left for felling tree. The 2.5 ton blade was mounted at a 30-degree angle to cast debris to the right.

Land Clearing tractor with broken plow blade

A few additional items were included in the Rome Plow kit to protect the tractor and the operator from both jungle hazards and enemy activity, such as a radiator guard, hydraulic ram protector, and some armor plating.

In early 1967, the first Rome Plow kits arrived in Vietnam for use by engineer units. It was found that converting just a few D7Es to Rome Plows in an Engineer Combat Battalion was ineffective in clearing the massive jungle areas encountered.

In mid-1967, the first Land Clearing Team was born, with one officer, one warrant officer, 62 enlisted men and 30 Rome Plows. These teams were attached to Combat Engineer Battalions, but it soon became clear that the enormous logistical support required by the teams exceeded the capabilities of these battalions. Command and control of the teams was difficult, and it diluted the other staff functions of the battalion. In addition, these battalions did not have the required maintenance capability to support the Rome Plows.

In January 1969, the concept changed. The 62d Engineer Battalion (Construction), which had deployed to Vietnam in August 1965, was directed to deactivate its B, C, and D Construction Companies. They were replaced by three new Land Clearing Companies (60th, 501st, and 984th) that were activated using the resources of the Land Clearing Teams.

To complete the reorganization, A Co was tailored to provide the substantial maintenance and transportation capability required to support the new Land Clearing Companies. The only change to Headquarters Company was to increase the Battalion Maintenance Section from two men to one officer, one warrant officer, two NCOs and a clerk.

Tactical commanders determined the areas to be cleared. Commanders would recommend the type of cut and location up their chain of command to II Field Forces, which made the final decision.

The tactical commander, in whose area the cut was performed, was responsible for providing security for the operation and a light observation helicopter (LOH) for use by the Land Clearing Company.

It turned out that the best security arrangement was to assign a troop of armored cavalry to the operation. The armored cavalry had the mobility to keep up with the Rome Plows and the fire power to meet any challenge by the enemy.

A typical operation involved one Land Clearing Company working in a general area for 45 days. It was found that after about 45 days the efficiency of the unit fell off due to the need for higher level of maintenance on the tractors than could be performed in the field and the need to repair enemy damage.

The first day of the operation was to convoy to the initial location, where bulldozers would make a circular night defensive position (NDP) by plowing up an earth berm perimeter about 40 or 50 yards in diameter. Each morning after a hot breakfast, the plows’ operators would drive single file to the starting position of the day’s cut. Lunch was C-rations in the cut. At the end of the work day, the plows would return to the NDP for hot dinner and to perform repairs and maintenance to the plows.

As the operation continued, the cut became farther away from the NPD, so a new NDP would be created closer to the cutting operation.

On a typical day the lieutenant in charge of the cut would be in a LOH in radio communication with the operator of the first plow in the queue. He would guide the lead plow in tracing a rectangle to outline the area to be cut that day. It was important to have an experienced lieutenant, because the area a company that could cut that day depended upon the type and density of the jungle, the terrain involved, and the number of plows available.

The remaining plows lined up in echelon to the left rear of the plow ahead. This was because the Rome Plow blade was angled such that cut trees fell to the right. Once the initial traced has been made, the column of plows continued to go around the trace counter-clockwise until the entire area was cleared.

It was important to ensure that at the entire rectangle of jungle initially traced was cut that day. It was not prudent to come back the next day, since the enemy might booby trap the uncut area overnight.

At the end of the 45-day operation the company would be convoyed back to the Battalion area in Long Binh for a 15-day standdown for rest of the operators and repair and maintenance of their plows. The 45-day operations and 15-day standdowns were staggered such that only one Land Clearing Company was in standdown at a time. A Company did not have the capacity to service more than one Land Clearing Company at a time.

Jungle clearing was a difficult and dangerous task. The courageous land clearers earned high praise and recognition for their efforts. The hours were long and the work was hard. The plow operator had to be tough and dedicated. He operated in a cab that could routinely be over 110 degrees, as he got bounced around over rough jungle floor and was continually in danger of being bitten by scorpions or stung by bees.

Other hazards involved tumbling into bomb craters, detonating boobytraps or unexploded ordnance, or receiving enemy fire. A total of twenty-seven land clearers were killed-in-action and over 700 were wounded-in-action in Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, over 300,000 acres of jungle were cleared. Regarding the 62nd Engineer Battalion, LTG Julian J Ewell, Commanding General of II Field Forces stated: “I regard this battalion as the single most powerful tool we have in frustrating and defeating the communists.”

MG Williamson, CG, 35th Infantry Division, stated: ”For every operation I conduct in an area not cleared I lose 10 men as opposed to only one man in an area you’ve cleared”.