Confirming reports this week that a little-known Alhmabra (Calif.) heavy construction company, Vinnell Corp., has a $77-million contract to train Saudi Arabian forces to defend Saudi oil fields, the Defense Dept. managed to shed little light on the deal. The Pentagon sidesteppped any probing questions about the contract, shunting them to the State Dept., which had approved it.
Officials at State, clearly hoping to allay fears of U.S. military involvement or CIA-type intrigue in the touchy Middle East, treated it as part of routine policy to assist friendly governments with internal security. State confirmed, for instance, that Bell International is training an Iranian "sky cavalry" brigade using Bell equipment. Vinnell itself was maintaining the lowest possible profile. Neither President John F. Hammill nor Bob Montgomery, the company's general manager for special projects, was available for comment. Experienced
Industry sources familiar with Vinnell, however, are not surprised at the reticence. They know Vinnell as a publicity-shy contractor that has had many government jobs. It has not only had similar training assignments in the past, they say, but has been active in Saudi Arabia since 1957, when the U.S. Air Force brought it there to manage engineering at the Dhahran air base.
The company has never acknowledged that it trains foreign nationals in anything other than equipment handling and maintenance. But as the chairman of one multinational company remarks, "Like many construction companies abroad, they tend to take on broad responsibilities."
The venture in Saudi Arabia -- if not canceled by the Senate Armed Services Committee -- appears to fit the Vinnell mold. Founded by the late A. S. Vinnell back in 1931 to pave roads in Los Angeles, the company has handled a number of large domestic government projects, but its thrust in recent decades has been overseas.Between 1946 and 1967, it completed some $350-million of contracts in Southeast Asia. It handled equipment for the Republic of China in 1946, was the major contractor in Okinawa, overhauled Air Force planes in Guam in the early 1950s, and sent men and equipment onto the battlefields of the Korean War.
For years, Hammill was boss of operations in Vietnam, where Vinnell operated floating power barges, land-based power plants, and electrical distribution systems through the height of the fighting. With overseas operations now spread from Bangladesh to Mexico, Vinnell is still operating electric plants in Vietnam.