Almost every time I am asked what I did in the military, my response is met with the same puzzled look, a confused dull stare and then the question, what is that? It seems apparent that little or nothing is known by the general public about a relatively small group of sailors serving within the US Navy, the US Naval Construction Force, known as the Seabees. This article will provide the reader with a thorough history of the Seabees and what it is they do. From their inception in 1942 to current world events, the Seabees have been an active part of the US Navy, a unique group of men and women working on civil and military construction projects all over the world.
Prior to World War II (WWII), all of the construction and maintenance of US Naval bases was provided by civilian contractors. Overseas, the US Navy mainly used friendly ports and coaling stations, usually belonging to the British. When the intentions of the Japanese Empire became obvious in 1938, the United States had very few bases in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As the bases they did have were so few and quite limited, construction of American bases began on the Pacific islands of Midway, Wake and Guam. The work was contracted to civilians.
Immediately after their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began seizing all of the islands in the Pacific, which included Midway, Wake and Guam. Over 1,100 unarmed American civilian workers were taken as Prisoners of War; they were imprisoned in Shanghai for the duration of the war. This left the US Navy completely without a construction force, a force which would be needed to construct and maintain the docks, fuel farms, airstrips and bases to support to impending war. Another problem facing the Navy was that international law prohibited the arming of and resistance of civilians under enemy attack, as they could be executed as guerrillas. Another means of construction and maintenance would have to be established.
Fortunately, about six weeks prior to the US declaring war on Japan, a small group of three hundred sailors began training for a construction assignment in Iceland. Normally civilians would have been contracted for the work, but the bad weather and less than cordial locals were a giant detractor, and contractors refused the assignment. These sailors would never see Iceland. Admiral Ben Moreel, US Navy Civil Engineering Corps, was now tasked with providing construction men to the Pacific theatre of war. The three hundred men were immediately dispatched to the Pacific island of Bora Bora, to construct an airstrip. These men named themselves the Bobcats. In the mean time, the Navy rushed the planning of a military construction organization.
As the new construction force would almost always be on or near the front lines of combat and under enemy attack, it was determined that they, unlike the Bobcats would require additional training. Not only would they require construction training, they would also require combat training, just like that of the Army and Marines. So, on December 28, 1941 Admiral Moreel officially requested authority to organize and man a special organization that would support the Navy and Marines, and have the ability to defend themselves if attacked.
The birth of the Seabees, Admiral Moreel was given authorization on January 5, 1942 to form his combat ready Construction Battalions (CB’s); these initials are where the name Seabees came from. With the start of the war and the formation of these new Construction Battalions all transpiring in a matter of weeks, one can imagine the organizational problems faced; training facilities had to be found and or built, supplies and equipment had to be acquired, and above all else, men with construction skills had to be recruited.
The National Youth Administration (NYA) came to the rescue by providing the many camps they had scattered throughout the country for training, until the Navy could build bigger and more permanent training centers. Equipment and supplies were an enormous problem for the first two years of the war; not only was the military short on weapons and ammunition, construction equipment such as bulldozers and cranes would have to be manufactured, purchased and transported all over the world. Recruiting younger, less skilled men would not be a problem, the older more experienced men would be. As the older, more skilled, and higher paid men were most often married and providing for their families, junior pay in the Navy would not support their families if they went away to war. And as the men were older, most above the age required for the draft, they would have to enlist voluntarily. The Navy developed a sliding pay scale, the first ever for the military; it was to be based on skill and experience, so men could now enlist at a higher rank with greater pay and allowances. The sliding pay scale was quite effective in the recruitment of older, more skilled construction men; this however resulted in the average age of a Seabee in WWII as thirty seven.
As the Seabees were a new organization, America was unaware of their existence. In an effort to inform the public, the Navy asked Hollywood to produce a feature film on the newly formed Seabees. The result was the classic WWII film, The Fighting Seabees, starring John Wayne. The film was loosely based on a book by William Huie’s, The Story of the Seabees, and according to Huie, “most of John Wayne’s best scenes recount the heroics of many real Seabees”.
As with all US military forces the Seabees needed an official motto, Latin is the language used by the military for their mottos. Admiral Moreel was given the honor, and he chose: “Construimus, Batuimus”, meaning, “We Build, We Fight.” The Seabees also have several unofficial mottos, but they are most recognized for “Can Do”, given by Alexander M. Patch, Major General, US Marine Corps (USMC). During one particular assignment on the island of Guadalcanal, the Seabees were tasked with carving out an airstrip from a dense, enemy infested jungle in four weeks. Under constant attack by the Japanese, sometimes up to four times a day, and short on supplies and equipment, the Seabees had to improvise with the little they had, had captured and in some cases had stolen or borrowed. Even under such adverse conditions, the men completed the airstrip, four fuel farms and several small buildings in only nineteen days, nine days less than allotted. In the book, The Story of the Seabees, Huie writes, “It had been a constant source of wonder … how the Seabees could accomplish so much, with so little, so quickly”. For their actions in Guadalcanal, the Seabees forever earned the respect of their brothers in the USMC.
More than 325,000 men served in WWII as Seabees. They filled over sixty skilled trades, working on six continents and over 300 islands, mostly in the pacific. Seabees have always gone in with the USMC on amphibious beach landings or right behind them. The Seabees were tasked with capturing, designing and building airstrips, bridges, roads, fuel storage depots and Quonset Huts for warehouses, hospitals and housing, as well as frequently engaging in combat. To this day they remain the major roles of the Seabees, and are unique to any other branch of the US military or any other nation.
Following World War II, the bulk of the Seabees were either separated from service or transferred to the Naval Reserve, leaving approximately 3,500 Seabees on active duty. Over 40,000 WWII Seabee veterans chose to continue their military careers in the Navy Reserve. This turned out to be a good thing, as the Korean War was about to begin and the Seabees would be needed again.
In June 1950, following the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, the Seabees found themselves at war again. Slightly over 10,000 men were called back to active duty. Again, the Seabees were tasked with building camps, roads, runways, hospitals and bridges. Rarely were they called on for a mission that wasn’t on the front lines or in the most hazardous conditions imaginable. The tradition of the Can Do Seabees continued on through the duration of the war. After the signing of the Korean Armistice in July 1953, the Seabee force was not reduced like it was after WWII; by 1955, the number of men needed would remain at approximately 13,000, due to the onset of the Cold War, and anticipated projects for the Navy and Marines. Projects ranged from establishing new Naval Bases all over the world to building a nuclear power plant in Antarctica. The Seabees would also find new roles in the peacetime Navy; humanitarian missions to help rescue, restore and rebuild communities after a natural disaster, they would also travel to poor developing nations and teach construction skills.
In 1965, they would again be called to war, this time to Viet Nam. Seabees again carried on their proud tradition of completing projects under the most difficult of circumstances. A battle in 1965 marked a first in Seabee history; Petty Officer Marvin G. Shields was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest award, The Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH), for conspicuous gallantry. While wounded himself, and under machine gun fire, Shields carried several wounded soldiers and sailors to safety, and then went on to destroy the enemy machine gun emplacement at the cost of his own life. Shields, to date, is the only Seabee to have ever received the CMH.
The last Seabee left Viet Nam in 1972, and post war would again allow the Seabees to return to humanitarian, disaster relief and construction projects. The largest project completed was the construction of a 42,000 acre Naval Communication and Air Station in the middle of the Indian Ocean, on the British island of Diego Garcia. They also built a refueling depot, with a storage capacity of over 500,000 barrels of oil, to support both the US and British fleets, as well as aviation units. During the 1980’s, as relations between the US and Middle East worsened, the Seabees were tasked with almost doubling the bases capabilities. They had to enlarge the island to create longer runways, build additional housing for increases in personnel, and build a fully functioning port to anchor Naval Warships.
1972 also marked a milestone for women in the Navy, which included the Seabees. On June 15th of that year, the US Navy Chief of Naval Operations announced that female naval personnel would be granted entry into all Navy Ratings. That same year a female sailor had her request to cross-rate approved and subsequently became the first female Seabee. Many more would follow her, and by the 1990s women had become common in the ranks of the Seabees. This was a new beginning for the women in the military, and women in combat units. However, it would be another twenty plus years before a female in any branch of the US Military would actually be sent to and participate in ground combat actions.
The US Navy Seabees continue to serve with distinction and pride, at home and abroad. An article in the Fall 2009 edition of Seabee Magazine on rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Seabees were praised for their contributions in the wake of a truly devastating hurricane, “By their truly distinctive achievements and unrelenting perseverance … Seabees provided the necessary effort and work to restore normalcy and repair facilities after the disaster”. Today more than 200 Seabees are serving on a humanitarian mission to Haiti, helping to rebuild after the enormous earthquake that destroyed the country. In combat operations, in support of The Global War on Terrorism, Seabees are currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two-thirds of the approximate 18,000 Seabees serving today are reservists called back to duty from their civilian lives.
Huie, William B. Can Do! The Story of the Seabees. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944. Print.
Huie, William B. From Omaha to Okinawa: The Story of the Seabees. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1944. Print.
History of the SeabeesWashington DC: Naval History & Heritage Command