Only weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the U.S. Navy decided that the combat use of unarmed civilian construction workers was unacceptable. Many of those civilian construction workers already working in war zones, as well as newly enlisting experienced workers, volunteered for three new Naval Construction Battalions (NCBs), which quickly adopted the name Seabees.
On Oct. 23, 2009, Rear Adm. Mark A. Handley, a Seabee combat warfare officer, took command of the 1st Naval Construction Division (NCD), created at the start of the most recent U.S. war by the merger of the Atlantic Seabees of the 2nd NCB and Pacific Seabees of the 3rd NCB under a single global command.
A 1981 graduate of Villanova University, with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a commission through the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, Handley went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering (construction) from Stanford University in 1986 and attended the University of Michigan’s Executive Management Program in 2002. Prior to returning to the Seabees, he was deputy commander of Navy Installations Commandand director of ashore readiness for the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Logistics).
As the Seabees celebrated their 70th anniversary, Handley spoke with Defense Media Network senior writer J.R. Wilson about the evolution and future of his command, including the prospect of yet another major postwar drawdown.
J.R. Wilson: What was the impetus for the creation of the Seabees at the start of World War II?
Rear Adm. Mark A. Handley: It became evident we would need bases at the various islands throughout the Pacific. They began with civilian labor but quickly found they were not trained to protect themselves from enemy attack and, by international law, were not even allowed to carry arms. So the head of the Civil Engineer Corps came up with the concept of organizing and manning Navy personnel in what became known as the Seabees. We enlisted people with construction skills and gave them combat skills.
How large did the command become at its World War II peak?
At the height of World War II, we had 250,000 Seabees, with some 325,000 sailors overall serving as Seabees on six continents throughout the war. They were part of every major invasion in the Pacific and also at Normandy. The most frequent use was when the Marines captured an island in the Pacific; as they pushed off the shore, the Seabees would begin building an airfield, then defended those airfields so they could remain operational.
How have those numbers varied through two Pacific wars, the changing global military/political environment, and perceived future needs?
The best way to put it in perspective is to say the Navy is constantly challenged to reorganize and restructure before, during, and after a conflict. Immediately after World War II we made a huge reduction, down to less than 20,000, eventually as low as 5,000, then built back up to 14,000 in Korea and 26,000 during Vietnam. There was a slight decline during the 1980s and ’90s, then restructured to give us more capability with the 16,000 we have today in Afghanistan and deployed throughout the world.
In the future we expect further reductions. We have two battalions being decommissioned this year, one that is currently deployed into Afghanistan, along with another that is deployed across the Pacific. [Both units were decommissioned in September.] But as we do that, we will focus on maintaining our core capabilities so we can regrow, as we have in the past, as the Navy needs us. And we will continue working with the Navy with the forces we do have.
We are looking to reduce about one-third of our active force and about half our Reserve in future years. That will take us down to about 10,000, active and Reserve.
How did the role of the Seabees in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam compare?
The scale of what we did in World War II is beyond comparison, from the numbers to the requirements. Vietnam was about 10 percent of the World War II numbers. There was an element in Korea, with the landing at Inchon, that was similar to World War II, and the Seabees helped make that successful for the Marines. In Vietnam, we built a number of airstrips and bases, but on a much smaller scale than in World War II.
We also started our first civic action projects in Vietnam, which began a legacy of humanitarian assistance to developing nations. We replicated that throughout the Pacific today, especially on remote islands, and engagements with the different governments out there.
The Naval Facilities Engineering Command and the Army Corps of Engineers are the lead agencies overseeing contractor work. The Corps is the lead agency in Korea, but where there are more naval facilities, such as Italy, it is done by the Navy.
But when it comes down to combat engineers, there are significant differences, including our underwater construction capabilities. Army combat engineers have great capability and focus on combat engineering, with some construction; the Seabees’ core capability is construction, with full combat capability. I would say we complement each other; the Seabees may have a bit more capability on complex construction projects and vertical projects.