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Seabees: The History of U.S. Naval 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.

For the Navy’s construction units, 2017 was a milestone year – the 175th anniversary of the founding of Naval Facilities Engineering Command, or NAVFAC (as BuDocks, the Navy’s oldest systems command), the 150th anniversary of the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, and the 75th anniversary of the Seabees.

“For 75 years, Seabees … a fighting group that I’ve been proud to be a part of for the past 32 years … have been protecting the nation and serving the Navy and Marine Corps with great pride and dedication,” said Rear Adm. Bret Muilenburg, who holds the same posts as Seabee founder Moreel – commander of NAVFAC and Chief of Civil Engineers.

“[It is] a proud legacy that has played a major role in every significant military engagement since World War II. Whether it has been enabling the warfighter, providing disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, or building camps and taking care of facilities and equipment for special operations forces, [Seabees] have taken care of the Navy and Marine Corps’ business.”

Although best known for their exploits in the Pacific, the Seabees also were active in the Atlantic/European theater, such as assisting in the construction of an artificial harbor at Normandy after D-Day.

Overall, more than 325,000 Seabees were recruited, trained, and deployed worldwide during World War II, the largest number in Seabee history. About 14,000 Seabees were sent to Korea during that war, another 26,000 to Vietnam a decade-plus later, about 5,000 to the first Gulf war, and some 20,000 deployed to Southwest Asia in the 16 years since 9/11. Today, about 11,000 men and women continue to provide construction support to U.S. Marines and naval forces around the globe.

Raiders and Seabees

A sign posted by Marines of the Third Marine Division, Second Raider Regiment with a tribute to the Seabees, Jan. 1, 1944. The Seabees and Marine Corps had a special bond of mutual respect, having shared much of the same hardships and dangers in the Pacific War. National Archives photo

In a message commemorating their anniversary, Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, stressed the Seabees’ importance to the successful history of the Navy.

“The Seabees were established in the dark days following the attack on Pearl Harbor to answer the crucial demand for builders that could fight. The Seabees have a longstanding tradition of support to the National Military Strategy through contingency construction since their establishment in 1942. The Seabees are a proud and dedicated force with proven warfighting competence and character,” he said.

Even as the Navy cut its overall personnel level in the past decade, it has bolstered its investment in the Seabees, who have been in constant demand from Combatant Commands (COCOMs) to assist with combat infrastructure, work with allied and friendly nations to improve their facilities, and provide humanitarian aid. In recent years, the latter has included aiding victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, a major Pakistani earthquake, and hurricanes – from Katrina and Sandy to Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Rhino Ferry-Normandy

Rhino ferry RHF-12 underway off Normandy during the first days of the invasion, June 6-9, 1944.

Seabees built roads and drilled wells to help Iraqi Kurdish refugees after the first Gulf war, helped the Philippines clear tons of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, provided humanitarian aid to Somalia and Haiti, and worked with local officials to build schools, orphanages, and medical facilities in Asia, Africa, and South America. During the Vietnam War, in addition to a massive combat construction effort, 13-man Seabee Teams concentrated on helping the South Vietnamese build dams, schools, and libraries, dig wells, grade roads, and more.

Major Seabee construction projects since World War II have included:

  • construction of Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines, where half a mountain was removed to extend the runway;
  • Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, where they spent years creating a viable base that proved invaluable during both Gulf wars;
  • Operation Deep Freeze in Antarctica, where in yearly deployments since 1955 the Seabees have built and expanded scientific bases, a 6,000-foot ice runway, and, in 1962, Antarctica’s first nuclear power plant; and
  • the formation of Seabee underwater construction teams (UCT) in the late 1960s to build Tektite, a joint NASA/Navy/academia undersea research facility, and place it on the ocean floor 49 feet beneath Great Lameshur Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

As Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said, “The problem with Seabees is there just aren’t enough of them.”

 


NAVY CONSTRUCTION BEFORE THE SEABEES

Although it would be another 130 years before the stand-up of the Seabees, U.S. Navy seamen were called on to build the nation’s first overseas naval base during the War of 1812, shortly after the USS Essex rounded Cape Horn to become the first U.S.-flagged military ship in the Pacific. The Essex mounted a successful campaign, capturing several British ships and merchantmen, but after a year away from port – and by then under pursuit by a British naval squadron – Capt. David Porter selected a bay on Nukuhiva Island in the Marquesas for a safe harbor to repair and re-equip the Essex and convert some of his captured prizes into fighting ships.

In only three months, nearly 300 skilled Essex crewmen, aided by an estimated 4,000 friendly natives, completed construction of “Madisonville,” named for then-President James Madison. It included houses for Porter and his officers, a cooper’s shop, a sail loft, a bake shop, a guard house, a simple medical dispensary, a stores building, an open-shed shelter for the Marine sentries, a rudimentary dock, ramps to haul the ships high onto the beach, and Fort Madison, to protect the new facility from attacks by unfriendly Typee natives. As with the Seabees to come, the American sailors often had to lay down their tools and take up arms to defend their work.

When the project was completed in December 1813, Porter sailed his two primary ships out to meet the British squadron. They became trapped in Valparaiso Harbor, Chile, then were captured trying to break the British blockade in March 1814.

Back on Nukuhiva Island, fewer than 25 Marine Corps officers and men had been left to defend the new base, but repeated attacks by thousands of Typee warriors forced them to abandon it. Seven survivors managed to sail one of the captured ships nearly 2,500 miles to the Sandwich Islands, only to be captured by the same British warship that had previously captured Porter and his men.

Despite the ultimate outcome, that effort in the Marquesas Islands set a number of precedents that led to and still inform the operations of the Seabees, beginning with the need for an overseas naval construction force to support U.S. Navy operations far from home. The building of that first base by the crew of the Essex and their need to fight to protect themselves would be the template for the Fighting Seabees of World War II and beyond.

However, it would be another century before uniformed sailors were called upon again for naval construction work in a combat environment.

Power shovel-Seabees

Dust and steam rise from the hot earth as Seabees of the 62 nd Naval Construction Battalion use a power shovel to load a dump truck on Iwo Jima, March 25, 1945. National Archives photo

With the entry of the United States into World War I, the Twelfth Regiment (Public Works) was formed at the Great Lakes (Illinois) Naval Training Station to build facilities to house, process, and train some 50,000 recruits. Beginning with only 100 enlisted Navy craftsman, the public works officer at Great Lakes used a combination of screening incoming recruits for skilled craftsmen and recruiting qualified local civilians to create a force of nearly 600 sailor-builders by July 1917.

Even as they worked to build the Great Lakes station, the men in the new regiment were given military training so they could transfer, as needed, to other naval stations and bases, in the United States and abroad, or to fighting ships. As the war in Europe progressed, most remained at Great Lakes for only three or four months before taking their construction and military skills to war. By April 1918, the regiment had grown to 2,400 men in five battalions.

Throughout 1917 and ‘18, hundreds of men from the Twelfth were sent to various parts of Europe. One group helped assemble the Naval Railway Batteries at St. Nazaire in France while fighting alongside operational gun crews along the nearby German lines. Others built and repaired docks and wharves in France, laid railroad tracks, built communications facilities – including converting the Eiffel Tower into a “Marconi wireless transmitting station” antenna – and constructed air bases along the coast.

Continued training operations and construction at Great Lakes provided more than 125,000 recruits by November 1918 to supply the major naval buildup that had begun in spring of 1917. The Twelfth Regiment and Public Works Department grew apace, reaching a peak strength on Nov. 5, 1918, of 55 officers and 6,211 enlisted men, formed into 11 battalions.

All of that ended with the war’s conclusion in mid-November 1918, and the Twelfth Regiment (Public Works), never recognized as an official unit of the U.S. Navy, gradually faded away, leaving behind a legacy of organizational, operational, and training efficiency and success – attributes that, a generation later, would come to be closely identified with the Seabees.

Although the Twelfth Regiment was gone, the idea of using experienced craftsmen, with military training, for naval construction remained alive in the years between the two world wars. In the early 1930s, BuDocks began including “Navy Construction Battalions” as part of their contingency war plans. However, a plan adopted by the War Plans Board in 1935 proved severely limited, with a divided command structure and no provisions for recruiting, enlisting, training, or even developing training facilities for construction battalion enlisted personnel.

During 1940 and ‘41, large naval bases were under construction on Guam, Midway, Wake Island, Hawaii, Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda, Trinidad, and numerous other locations throughout the Pacific, Atlantic, and Caribbean. The work was still being done by civilian contractors, but military Headquarters Construction Companies, comprising two officers and 99 enlisted men each, were assigned as draftsmen, engineering aides, inspectors, and supervisors, although they did no actual construction work.

After Pearl Harbor, those men came under heavy attack from Japanese forces. The lessons the Navy learned, from the War of 1812 through World War I’s Twelfth Regiment, paved the way for a new and more comprehensive effort – the Navy’s first official uniformed Construction Battalions (or CBs).

 

WORLD WAR II

World War II saw the creation of the Seabees, their rapid record-setting growth, situational development of tactics, techniques, and procedures and concepts of operations, and the birth of a modern legend.

The need for an armed, military construction battalion was driven home forcefully as the Japanese seized Wake Island in the days immediately following Pearl Harbor, capturing more than 1,200 civilian construction workers. Under international law, civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack; to do so meant summary execution as guerrillas. Even so, 98 of those captured were executed and many others died in captivity. The Japanese commander who ordered the executions was himself executed after the war.

Similar attacks occurred throughout the Pacific as the Imperial Navy moved swiftly to capture as much territory as possible – especially islands America and its allies might use as bases – while the U.S. Navy was still recovering from the attack on Dec. 7.

Marine-trained and combat ready, Seabees often went ashore with the first wave of amphibious assault troops, fighting enemy air and ground attacks and seemingly never-ending snipers as they built bases, roads, airfields, harbors, and fuel, weapons, and other supply storage facilities on hundreds of undeveloped islands, some barren, some covered with jungles or mountains, some measuring only a mile or two wide and long.

Their primary structure was the Construction Battalion: four companies with all the skills needed for nearly any job, plus a headquarters company that included medical and dental care providers, administrators, storekeepers, cooks, and other support specialists; typically, 32 officers and 1,073 enlisted.

As the Seabees grew in number to meet increasingly larger and more complex projects, more than one battalion frequently was assigned to the same base. In such cases, they were organized into a regiment. Occasionally, two or more regiments were combined into a brigade and even two or more brigades into a Naval Construction Force.

 

Seabee Tinian B-29s

A Seabee watches from his steamroller as B-29 Superfortresses arrive above Tinian. U.S. Navy Seabee Museum photo

The men in those units had the requisite skills, training, and intuitive versatility for whatever mission the Navy gave them, but BuDocks decided it was a waste of manpower to assign a full battalion to a project a much smaller special-purpose unit could do just as well. The first of those was the Special Construction Battalion – aka, Seabee Special – comprising stevedores and longshoremen needed to bring order to the unloading of ships in combat zones. Under the command of officers commissioned from the Merchant Marine and stevedoring companies, they soon had combat cargo handling at levels comparable to the most efficient ports in the United States.

Other Seabee Special units included:

  • construction battalion maintenance units, about a quarter the size of a regular battalion and organized to take over maintenance of new bases once the full Construction Battalion had completed its work and moved on to the next mission;
  • construction battalion detachments, which, based on function, could be as few as six or as many as 600 men, primarily assigned to assembling, handling, launching, and placing pontoon causeways, although they also took on other specialties, from repairing tires to dredging;
  • motor trucking battalions;
  • pontoon assembly detachments, which manufactured pontoons in forward combat zones; and
  • petroleum detachments, manned by experts in pipeline installation and petroleum facilities.

The Seabees gained further fame for ingenuity in the face of often severe lack of materials; for example, using Coke bottles in place of glass insulators on power lines, turning metal ammo boxes into makeshift replacement radiators to keep captured Japanese trucks running, and using thin sheets of metal and paper to replace gaskets on bulldozers. Their determination to succeed, regardless of the obstacles, was summed up in a sign they posted at a newly constructed base on Bougainville: “The difficult we do now; the impossible takes a little longer.”

Seabee speed was demonstrated on the island of Espiritu Santo, near Guadalcanal, where U.S. forces needed an airfield from which to attack a nearly completed Japanese airbase that threatened the sea lanes to Australia. It took the Seabees only 20 days to carve a 6,000-foot airstrip out of the island jungle, soon enough for U.S. planes to help support the capture of Guadalcanal and the U.S. campaign in the Solomon Islands.

In the North, Central, South, and Southwest Pacific, the Seabees built 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals to serve 70,000 patients, tanks for the storage of 100 million gallons of gasoline, and housing for 1.5 million men.

Overall, they served on four continents and more than 300 islands, organized into 151 regular Construction Battalions, 39 Special Stevedore Battalions, 164 Construction Battalion detachments, 136 Seabee maintenance battalions, five pontoon assembly detachments, 54 regiments, 12 brigades, and five Naval Construction Forces.

While best known for their operations in the Pacific, where 80 percent of the Naval Construction Force served, the Seabees also were an integral part of the war in the Atlantic, building, expanding, and maintaining bases in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, with a special emphasis on protecting the Panama Canal, essential to America’s conduct of a two-ocean war and supporting U.S. and allied forces in Africa and Europe.

One of the largest efforts in the western Atlantic was the construction of the Naval Station at Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico. Home to the Tenth Naval District, it had grown so large by the end of the war that it became known as the “Pearl Harbor of the Caribbean.”

Farther south, the Seabees built a vast network of coastal bases from Bermuda to beyond the Brazilian bulge, creating a barrier protecting vital shipping lanes from German U-boats. They also worked on the Pacific side of Latin America, building airfields, blimp hangars, and new and enlarged harbors from Honduras to Ecuador, providing bases from which seaplanes, patrol bombers, blimps, and surface craft could hunt down and destroy enemy submarines.

Seabees saw their first Atlantic theater combat when they landed in North Africa with U.S. assault troops in November 1942. As Allied tanks and infantry pushed toward Tunisia and Germany’s famed Afrika Korps, the Seabees built a line of staging and training areas along the northern coast and a huge naval air station at Port Lyautey, Morocco, on Africa’s west coast.

Mobile Repair Base

A SeaBee mobile repair shop on a large pontoon, used to support the Mulberry artificial harbor off the Normandy beachhead in mid-1944. Note the USS “Can-Do” emblem, tent, quonset hut, tattered U.S. ensign and Jeep on the pontoon, plus the shipping in the distance. National Archives photo

For the invasion of Sicily, they drew from ancient history and the pontoons Xerxes had used to cross the Hellespont in his 5th century B.C. invasion of Greece. As usual, the Seabees added their own twist, creating steel pontoons of standard size that could be assembled quickly to form causeways, piers, and other structures required by amphibious warfare. The new pontoons turned what had been considered an impossible site for a major amphibious landing into a safe path for large numbers of men and equipment to move ashore in a surprise attack.

Seabee efforts were crucial to later Allied victories at Salerno and Anzio, where they were under constant German bombardment, and the invasion of southern France.

As important as those projects were, they were eclipsed by the Seabees’ role in the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, an effort that had begun two years earlier with construction projects in Iceland, Newfoundland, Greenland, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Ultimately, a huge arc of naval air stations and bases across the North Atlantic enabled the Navy to take control of the seas and freed the Seabees to build invasion bases and make preparations for D-Day.

Seabees were among the first to go ashore on June 6, 1944, working with U.S. Army engineers, under heavy German fire, to destroy an intricate network of steel and concrete barriers the Germans had built, from the beaches to well offshore, to block any attempt at an amphibious assault. Despite taking heavy casualties, they set their explosive charges on schedule and blew huge holes in the enemy’s defenses. It was through those breaches that some 10,000 Seabees once again employed pontoons, enabling Allied troops and tanks to get ashore and push the Germans inland.

Their next task was building a huge port, using more pontoons and prefabricated concrete structures shipped from England. The temporary, artificial “Mulberry” harbors were used to land hundreds of thousands of tons of war materiel daily – and more than a million warfighters – in the four weeks following D-Day.

The Seabees’ skills were severely tested as they sought to rebuild harbors at Cherbourg and Le Havre, which had been destroyed by the retreating Germans. They began receiving cargo at Cherbourg within 11 days of landing, and within a month, the harbor could handle 14 ships simultaneously, a feat duplicated at Le Havre. Ports all along the French coastline were rapidly restored to handle huge shiploads of war materiel.

In March 1945, Seabees faced the swift and unpredictable currents of the Rhine River, one of the final barriers in the Allied march on Berlin. Once again employing their by then ubiquitous pontoons as ferries, they assisted Gen. George S. Patton’s successful crossing of the Rhine, helping force the Third Reich to surrender the following month.

By the end of the war, nearly 300 Seabees had been killed in action and another 500 in construction accidents. Individual Seabees were awarded five Navy Crosses, 33 Silver Stars, and 2,000 Purple Hearts as the warrior builders literally paved the way across the world’s two great oceans to Berlin and Tokyo in the nearly four years of deadly conflict that followed Pearl Harbor.

 

THE CYCLE BEGINS: BUILD UP IN WAR, DOWNSIZE IN PEACE, THEN BUILD UP AGAIN

Throughout U.S. naval history, construction units were created on the fly in the midst of combat, grew quickly and substantially, then faded away as peace replaced war. Unlike its predecessors, the Seabees were not disbanded at the end of World War II, but declared a permanent component of the regular peacetime Navy in 1947 (during the war, the Seabees were considered a Naval Reserve organization).

Still, along with the rest of America’s massive wartime military, their numbers were drastically reduced to only 3,300 active duty sailors by 1949. However, they were supported, as needed, by a newly created Seabee Reserve Organization, organized into a number of divisions, comprising five officers and 40 enlisted reservists.

They worked a variety of tasks in the late 1940s, ranging from rebuilding Japan’s bombed-out infrastructure and building a fleet weather station in far eastern Russia, to preparing Bikini Atoll for upcoming atomic bomb tests, and building new facilities to support U.S. research efforts in Antarctica.

 

Deep Freeze

Cover image from a 1960 brochure on Operation Deep Freeze, an ongoing mission that began in 1955, when Seabees built the first permanent structure at the South Pole. U.S. Navy Seabee Museum photo

Expanded once again to 14,000 men (mostly called-up reservists), the Seabees went back to war in 1950, following the invasion of South Korea by the communist North in June of that year. Their reputation was confirmed as they joined United Nations-sanctioned troops in the amphibious invasion of Inchon, battling 30-foot tides, treacherous currents, and nonstop enemy fire to position pontoon causeways to move troops, tanks, and other equipment ashore.

During the Korean War, the Seabees were organized into 13 battalions of two distinct types: Amphibious Construction Battalions to support the landing of men, equipment, and supplies safely and efficiently, and Naval Mobile Construction Battalions to handle land-based construction of camps, roads, airstrips, and other facilities.

The end of hostilities in July 1953 saw a new paradigm for the Seabees. Rather than another major size reduction, calls for military construction to deal with a growing number of hotspots – from Berlin to Cuba to Southeast Asia – led to a restructuring and an increase in non-Reserve numbers. Working on six continents and focused on building rather than fighting, the remainder of the 1950s were filled with innovations, experimentation, and what often seemed impossible construction efforts, from overcoming blizzards and far below zero temperatures on Antarctica to moving mountains and reclaiming swampland for a major air station and massive port in the Philippines.

That period also saw the growth of the Seabee Reserves to 242 divisions of 4 officers and 50 enlisted, and, in 1960 – the first U.S. operations in Vietnam – creation of 18 reserve battalions, eventually leading to establishment of the 1st Reserve Naval Construction Brigade, in charge of all Seabee Reserve elements, in September 1969. At the same time, the Seabees took on yet another new mission as an operationally ready disaster relief force, helping earthquake, typhoon, hurricane, and tidal wave victims, from Greece to Guam and Alaska to the Azores, rebuild, as well as battling major forest fires in the United States.

 

Seabees-Vietnam

Seabees assigned to Seabee Team 1104 in a group image taken prior to deployment to Dong Xoai, Vietnam. CM3 Marvin Shields and SW2 William Hoover were killed and 7 members of the team were wounded in action in one of the bloodiest and hardest
fought battles of the Vietnam War. Shields was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. U.S. Navy Seabee Museum photo

Following the discovery of electronic surveillance devices throughout the new U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1964, the State Department called on the Seabees for all future construction and renovation work involving security-sensitive Foreign Service facilities around the globe. The Naval Support Unit-State Department, created in 1966, quickly became a permanent part of State Department operations abroad.

 

THE SEABEES AT WAR IN SOUTHEAST ASIA

From 1964 through 1968, Seabee strength worldwide grew to more than 26,000 men in 21 full-strength Naval Mobile Construction Battalions, two Construction Battalion Maintenance Units, and two Amphibious Construction Battalions.

Thirteen-man Seabee teams spent much of the early 1960s in Thailand, helping rural development efforts, then development of remote area security by Thai border patrol police. In South Vietnam, teams also were at work throughout the decade, performing civic tasks, such as training locals in basic construction skills and providing medical assistance, and military engineering projects in 22 largely rural provinces from the Mekong Delta to the North Vietnamese border.

For the larger Seabee battalions, from their first deployment in 1965 to their withdrawal in 1970, Vietnam marked the largest number of warrior/builders since World War II, ultimately peaking at 26,000 in 1969. It also was the most massive construction effort since World War II, as it entailed building roads, airfields, cantonments, warehouses, hospitals, storage facilities, bunkers, harbors, coastal strongholds, water distribution systems, communications infrastructure, and advanced bases throughout Vietnam.

After the war, the Seabees once again were reduced in number, with most of those remaining working on major peacetime projects that had been put aside to deal with the necessities of war. Despite their smaller numbers, they were in increasing demand from Europe to the Indian Ocean to the bottom of the sea itself.

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the Seabees were kept busy with numerous projects, large and small, in Greece, Crete, Sicily, Italy, Spain, England, Scotland, Germany, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Newfoundland, Micronesia, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guantanamo Bay, and Antarctica, as well as undersea projects performed by two Seabee Underwater Construction Teams.

Construction of a major naval complex on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia – a tiny (6,700 acres), rain-soaked coral atoll 7 miles south of the Equator – occupied Seabee Naval and Amphibious Construction Battalions for more than a decade and constituted the largest peacetime construction project in Seabee history.

 

BACK TO BATTLE IN THE 1990s

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the subsequent “first Gulf War” – officially six months of mobilization and preparation as Operation Desert Shield, concluding with three days of “shock and awe” as Operation Desert Storm – saw the largest Seabee military action since Vietnam.

On Aug. 13, 1990, 210 Seabees of ACB-1 arrived in Saudi Arabia, followed by personnel of Naval Mobile Construction Battalions 4, 5, 7, and 40, to provide construction support for the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF). They were joined a short time later by 100 members of Amphibious Construction Battalion 2, which worked with the Marines to prepare for an amphibious assault on Kuwait. Next in were Construction Battalion Units 411 and 415 – both with female officers-in-charge, a Seabee first – who built and maintained a 500-bed medical facility at Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia.

The air detachments of the four deploying Seabee battalions arrived in mid-September. By early February 1991, 2,800 Seabees were in the region, building vital facilities at four airfields being used by the Marine Air Combat Element, as well as a headquarters complex for the First MEF and a 15,000-man camp for the Second MEF, the largest wartime multi-battalion Seabee project in two decades.

With the launch of a massive Allied air campaign of more than 40,000 sorties in January 1991, the Seabees prepared to move into Kuwait to support advancing ground forces, building and repairing roads and airfields. Other units did the same across northern Saudi Arabia, creating the main supply routes for a Marine ground assault. Priorities were multiple: providing water, roads, and galley facilities for 30,000 Marines and building camps to hold up to 40,000 prisoners of war.

Following the Iraqi surrender on Feb. 28, 1991, forward-deployed Seabees returned to Kuwait. But the warrior/builders were back in Iraq in April as part of a United Nations relief effort to protect minority Kurds who had rebelled against Saddam Hussein’s government and declared independence for their home region in northwest Iraq.

Camp Bastion survey

Engineering Aide 3rd Class Rayante B. Taa records the information being relayed to him from Steelworker Constructionman Lisa W. Majzoub, who is taking measurements during their surveying project at Camp Bastion. Both Seabees are assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5.

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 133 deployed to the Kurdish region and worked 12-hour days building latrines, providing electrical and water-well support, grading roads, and a host of other “emergency service relief work” to support thousands of Kurdish refugees until they could return to their villages.

The remainder of the 1990s saw a “typical” mix of Seabee humanitarian and disaster relief missions, from clearing an estimated 250,000 tons of ash dumped on the U.S. Subic Bay Naval Complex and Clarke Air Force Base by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991 to supporting the U.S. contingent of a UN military force combating armed gangs stealing relief supplies sent into famine-ravaged Somalia in 1992 to repairing hundreds of buildings and schools damaged when Hurricane Andrew hit Dade County, Florida, in August of that year.

In 1993, the Seabees participated in planning for peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia, were involved in a UN mission to Haiti, played a major role in a counter-narcotics program in South America, and aided disaster recovery following an 8.1 earthquake in Guam. The rest of the decade was similar: building a UN field hospital in Croatia, drilling water wells in Morocco and Honduras, and providing hurricane disaster relief to eastern Caribbean islands and aid to earthquake victims in Japan.

To support Haitian and Cuban disaster refugee efforts in 1994, the Seabees worked as part of a multi-national/multi-service “Operation Sea Signal” at Guantanamo, ultimately building two tent cities to house nearly 20,000 people, which required 100,000 man-days of construction in a harsh environment while refugees were arriving.

Bosnia and Croatia were primary Seabee missions in 1995 and 1996 as part of UN-sponsored humanitarian relief in those war-torn nations that had been part of Yugoslavia. Those ranged from completing the Navy’s contribution to the Joint Fleet Hospital in Zagreb to constructing five tent camps in Croatia. In a major deployment to Bosnia in September 1996, Seabees tore down 14 base camps as part of the withdrawal of U.S. Army troops from the region and completed 19 force sustainment projects.

 

21ST CENTURY SEABEES

The Seabees returned to Southwest Asia in late 2001, supporting the Marine invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 and of Iraq in 2003. Their participation in America’s longest war was marked by numerous “build-and-fight” missions – as well as some precedent-setting events.

In 1972, with the opening of all Navy ratings to women, the first female Seabee had joined their ranks, starting a trend that would see women common among the Seabees within two decades. Forty years later, in Afghanistan, an all-female team of eight Seabees forever laid to rest any question about women warrior/builders as they became the first all-female unit to take a project from start to finish.

Bridge Const-Iraq

Seabees prepare a site for the construction of a bridge. Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Four Zero (NMCB-40) were tasked with rebuilding a damaged bridge used heavily by Iraqi citizens. NMCB-40 was deployed to support Coalition Multi-National Forces throughout Iraq. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John P. Curtis

The team was assigned to build four two barracks at a post in the rugged mountains of Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold that had seen near-constant combat. Despite typical Seabee working conditions – a tight three-week deadline, freezing temperatures, a rice-and-beans diet – they decided to double their task by adding an operations center and a gym to the construction effort. Two weeks later, after installing electricity and utilities in the finished structures, the job was done – in record time.

Throughout Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Seabees provided critical construction skills in the effort to rebuild – or, even more often, build – infrastructure, along with numerous forward operating bases for U.S. and coalition forces.

The continued battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, ongoing terrorist activities worldwide, a record-setting hurricane season, more devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and rising tensions with North Korea, China, and Russia – along with new basing requirements in the Pacific for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps – mean the demand for Seabee skills and ingenuity remains high.

The U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017 – an extensive report on the status, requirements, and possible future missions of the Navy and Marine Corps – notes the Seabees’ value in support of Navy commandeers, joint force and combatant commanders, and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force:

“Forward-deployed Seabees enable the surge of task-tailored engineer forces and equipment sets to enhance the MAGTF and other naval and joint forces on land. …In operations other than war, forward-deployed Naval Mobile Construction battalions hone construction skills through humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery operations, participate in foreign engagement exercises, and complete construction projects that support sustainment, restoration, and modernization of Navy and Marine Corps forward bases and facilities.

“The Navy has developed a long-range plan to recapitalize the tables of allowance of all Seabee units. The initial priority is to correct existing inventory deficiencies and replace aging tools and equipment that are no longer parts-supportable. During the next several years, [the Seabees] will be outfitted with modern and recapitalized tactical vehicles, construction and maintenance equipment, communications gear, infantry items, and field-support equipment.”

All of which means the Seabees can expect another 75 years of service to the military and the nation. And while the Seabee of 2092 might seem to have little in common with his or her 1942 ancestors, the “can do” spirit, on-the-fly inventiveness, and determination to complete whatever task is assigned, usually in record time, is likely to endure.

 

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

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