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Seabees: The History of U.S. Navy Construction Battalions

 

As the prospect of war with Japan loomed in the late 1930s, the U.S. Navy began a massive base-building program on islands scattered across the Pacific, using unarmed civilian contractors. When war was declared following Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the use of civilians who were neither trained to defend themselves nor allowed to carry weapons became untenable, even as the Navy’s construction needs became paramount.

On Dec. 28, 1941, Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, commander of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks) and the Navy’s Chief of Civil Engineers, requested authority to activate, organize, and train a new Naval Construction Regiment comprising three Naval Construction Battalions – men recruited from the construction trades and trained by the Marines in ground combat.

Officially designated “Seabees” on March 5, 1942, they were given their motto by Moreell – Construimus, Batuimus (“We Build, We Fight”) – and their emblem, a bee in Navy uniform, carrying both construction tools and a submachine gun. As they continue to expand their heritage into the 21st century, the Seabees have adopted a second, unofficial, motto – “Can Do Since ’42” – reflecting the official theme of the 75th anniversary: “Built on History, Constructing the Future.”

But cutting through military tradition and bureaucracy to create an entirely new kind of fighting force was no easy task. Navy regulations at the time said only line officers could exercise military command over naval personnel, but the new construction battalions were designed to be commanded by officers of the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), who were trained in construction. BuDocks called for the CEC officers to be given command, to which the Bureau of Naval Personnel strongly objected.

Ben Moreel

Then-Rear Adm. Ben Moreel, who was commander of the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Navy’s chief of civil engineers, created the Naval Construction Battalion concept, and is known as the “Father of the Seabees.” National Archives photo

Moreell took the question directly to the secretary of the Navy, whose decision to give the CEC full military authority over all construction unit officers and enlisted men became part of Navy regulations. From Moreell’s perspective, this both enabled the necessary means by which the Seabees needed to operate and gave a significant morale boost to the CEC officers, connecting them directly to combat operations as part of the military force. Moreell’s achievement in that regard is widely seen as a significant factor in the success of the Seabees and, ultimately, the U.S. victories in both theaters of war.

After the war, Moreell was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, with a citation that captured the spirit and determination the “King Bee” had instilled in his unique new warrior builders: “Displaying great originality and exceptional capacity for bold innovation, he inspired in his subordinates a degree of loyalty and devotion to duty outstanding in the Naval Service, to the end that the Fleet received support in degree and kind unprecedented in the history of naval warfare.”

Because of their civilian work background requirements, the first World War II Seabees were older than most Navy recruits; the average age was 37. However, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered voluntary enlistments, based on construction experience, halted in December 1942, with all future personnel for the construction battalions drawn from the Selective Service System, which significantly lowered both the age and skillsets of subsequent recruits.

Seabees Guadalcanal

Seabees carry sections of pressed steel runway surfacing, while constructing Torokina airfield, Bougainville, in December 1943. National Archives photo

 

The new organization also attracted enlistees from Middle America, many of whom had never seen a body of water larger than a lake. A large number of those were from states – such as Arizona and Oklahoma – whose state namesake ships were sunk or heavily damaged at Pearl Harbor, leading them to join the Navy to fight in the Pacific and avenge the crews of those ships. As a land- rather than ship-based force, many also felt more comfortable as Seabees.

A typical example was Ralph Clayton Wilson, who enlisted in Oklahoma shortly after his 26th birthday in January 1942. He was just finishing Navy bootcamp when he learned of the Seabees and immediately volunteered. However, in those early weeks, the Navy was still working out who they wanted and what kind of training to give them, so the initial volunteers often were temporarily reclassified as regular Navy, then brought back to the Seabees. Wilson’s wife, Wilma, joked that she got so tired of changing the patch on his uniform, she almost told him to request a transfer to the Army.

When they finally received permanent orders, the new Seabees were a bit surprised to learn they were returning to bootcamp – this time with the Marines, with whom they had more in common than with regular Navy sailors. After their weapons training, they were sent to short, but intense, Navy combat construction and engineering schools, then, for the most part, to the South Pacific, where they spent the next four years building airstrips, supply and repair depots, and other badly needed facilities for the Navy and, especially, the Marines, then deconstructing them at war’s end.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...