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The Seabees

Lithographer 1st Class Edward S. Kessler/U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy Seabees assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion Two clean-up debris from Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, MS.

It's no secret that the large scale construction and reconstruction efforts going on along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Louisiana were spearheaded by the Navy Construction Battalion or "Seabees." In response to Katrina, the Seabees had 2,230 construction workers and more than 675 pieces of equipment mobilized and in use eight days after the storm. Seabees "train by doing" so some projects are essentially training exercises.

Navy Capt. Eric Odderstol, commander of the 22nd Naval Construction Regiment in Gulfport, said the Seabees are renowned for the speed at which they respond to emergencies and other circumstances in which their services are required. "It takes 48 hours to mobilize a 100-person detachment and six days for a full 650-person battalion," Odderstol said. "If the work's being done by a Seabee, it's usually because the operating environment is too dangerous for contractors [some parts of Iraq, for example], or because the nature of the emergency dictates that the work be done immediately."

An inscription on a Seabee Memorial in Arlington, VA, captures the essence of the organization's response time: "...the difficult we do at once ... the impossible takes a bit longer." According to Daryl Smith, a public affairs officer of the 1st Naval Construction Division based in Norfolk, VA, approximately 16,000 Navy Seabees make up the ranks of the First Naval Construction Division. "There are about 3,000 Navy Seabees currently in the Gulf Coast region and about 1,500 Navy Seabees are currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan," Smith said.

The Seabees were established during World War II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Until then, civilians were allowed to work in war zones. The need arose for a militarized naval construction force to build forward-positioned bases. In January 1942, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell gained authority to activate, organize and man Navy construction units. The Bureau of Navigation granted Moreell the power to recruit men from the construction trades for assignment to a Naval Construction Regiment composed of three Naval Construction Battalions. Moreell came up with the Construction Battalion's official motto: Construimus, Batuimus - "We Build, We Fight."

A uniformed military force, Seabees are called upon to defend what they build. A number of Department of Defense civilians and contractor employees round out the force to support operations throughout the world. "We are all Sailors in the U.S. Navy, enlisted or commissioned directly into the Seabees," Odderstol said. "We are male, female, young, old, of many races, religions and ethnicities - mostly U.S. citizens, but many are not. Many of us are reservists who work in or own construction or engineering businesses but volunteer to wear the uniform of the Seabee when our nation calls. Some of us are the children and grandchildren of Seabees. The Arlington Seabee Memorial - the other part of the inscription - states: 'With compassion for others we build - we fight for peace with freedom.' Those inspired by this thought usually become Seabees."

The first recruits were the men who helped build Boulder Dam, the national highways, and New York's skyscrapers. They were miners, and worked in quarries and dug subway tunnels. They built docks and wharfs, worked in shipyards building ocean liners and aircraft carriers.

By the end of the war, 325,000 such men had enlisted in the Seabees. They knew more than 60 skilled trades, not to mention the unofficial ones of souvenir making and "moonlight procurement." Nearly 11,400 officers joined the Civil Engineer Corps during the war, and 7,960 of them served with the Seabees.

According to Odderstol, the officers typically graduate from an accredited four-year engineering or architecture program and are directly commissioned into the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) - a part of which includes Seabee officers. "A good percentage of our officers, myself included, transferred into the CEC from the 'line' community early in our careers," Odderstol said. "The majority of our enlisted personnel enlist into one of the Seabee ratings upon graduation from high school. As with all professions, we have those who found their calling a bit later in life and joined us after having started careers in other professions - or in the civilian sector of construction. All Seabees received technical, leadership, and management training throughout our careers."

As commander of the 22nd Naval Construction Regiment stationed at Gulfport's Seabee base, Odderstol was, and continues to be, at the epicenter of the activity throughout disaster relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. "Day one was pretty difficult," Odderstol said. "It was as bad as it gets - nothing worked."

All communications were cut off, according to Odderstol, and tactical radios were the only devices available to link them to the outside world. "The destruction on the coast was at a level of severity that I'm not sure has ever been seen," Odderstol said. "Every road was blocked. Emergency generators that provide power for medical treatments were flooded out."

During the first couple of days after Katrina hit, the Seabees had to clear the base of road-blocking debris before they could assist the community and the surrounding region. Once they were stabilized, the Seabees shifted into basic recovery operations.

Odderstol said an additional 1,500 personnel were called to the area to aid the 1,500 Seabees that are home-ported at the Navy Mobile Construction Battalion base in south Mississippi. "They are starting to return to their home ports now, but we have had people here from Norfolk, VA; Jacksonville, FL; Key West; and King's Bay, GA," Odderstol said. "We had a dive team here from the Naval Amphibious Base in Norfolk."

A construction battalion maintenance group from King's Bay, whose principal mission is to build, maintain and support fleet hospitals, also was deployed to Gulfport. Life safety and public health issues were at the forefront of concerns among first responders, Odderstol said. "Getting sewage back where it belonged was a concern of the entire Gulf Coast - we repaired over 100 lift stations that were all flooded out."

Approximately 200 water mains were damaged as well, and the Seabees repaired the piping that ranged from 2 to 6 in. in diameter. Off base, the Seabees provided water for victims and fuel for all emergency vehicles. According to Odderstol, the service members hauled gas and water around the clock for several days.

While the exact number is classified, Odderstol said the Seabees have in excess of three equipment sets in Gulfport ready for shipment world-wide to wherever it's needed. "Each set includes approximately 325 pieces of construction, material-handling, and weight-handling equipment," he said.

Seabees cleared the port of Gulfport to allow Coast Guard boats back into the area. Clearing the port also opened the way for commercial shipping traffic, relieving economic concerns for the community. The Seabees pitched in to repair area schools in the Gulf region. There were approximately 40,000 students attending approximately 100 schools who were affected when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast on Aug. 29. "People won't move back into the area until schools reopen," Odderstol said. "We made temporary repairs so they could start getting back into the classroom."

Some communities were completely flattened by the storm - down to concrete slabs. The Seabees were not only instrumental in the clean-up and relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; they also were personally affected by the storm's impact on the Gulf region. "Seven hundred Seabees lost their homes and 1,300 had damage of some sort," Odderstol said.

As they were placing tarps on roofs and removing water-damaged carpet in an effort to stabilize the homes of the first responders, the Seabees also helped neighbors who had sustained wind and water damage. "There were lots of elderly and disabled people - several hundred - who needed our help," Odderstol said.

The Seabees erected "C" huts, shower units and laundry units for emergency responders. They also set up fabric shelters for city and county workers. "We did the site preparation for temporary tent camps until FEMA can come in with mobile homes for the victims," Odderstol said.

The 16- by 32-ft. tents have wood deck floors with utilities installed. "It's still far from normal, but we're a lot better off than we were a few weeks ago," Otterstol said. "Most of the water is potable, the roads are passable and there's no sewage in the streets."

When asked what stands out the most throughout the ordeal, Odderstol said, "The spirit of cooperation has just been the best." Seabees provide a unique expeditionary construction capability to the Joint and Naval forces of the United States throughout the world. "We train to provide horizontal and vertical construction services in any environment, throughout the full spectrum of Joint Operations - peacetime, disaster response, humanitarian assistance, stabilization, peacekeeping, insurgency and war," Odderstol said. "To maintain this capability, Seabees are continuously deployed around the world as a ready, on-station construction force to provide immediate response. For example, two days after the Pakistan earthquake, a Seabee Air Detachment was deployed to provide support to the affected region and to aid workers in the area."

While deployed, Odderstol said Seabees hone their skills through construction of projects specified in a prioritized list of the Fleet Commander. "During operations, the Operational Commander tasks the Seabee Commander for the engineer support needed," he said. "Typical construction projects include roads, bridges, forward operating bases, operations centers, water wells, utility distribution systems, field galleys, field hospitals, port facilities and so on." Upon return to homeport and as a 'work up' for the next deployment cycle, Odderstol said Seabee battalions will execute projects that enhance the attainment of construction, project management, equipment operation and other related skills.

Four more companies were authorized by 16 December. But by that time the situation had drastically changed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December. The men recruited for the Headquarters Construction Companies quickly received another assignment.

With the U.S. having entered a state of war in December 1941, the civilian contractors who had been doing much of the Navy's construction could no longer work overseas. International law kept civil ians from fighting an enemy in a combat zone, even in defense of their lives. Any armed civilians who were captured after a fight could be executed as a guerrilla.

In December 1941, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, then 45 and the youngest man in the Navy to hold that rank, was the chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. On 28 December, Admiral Moreell sought the authority to create a new kind of Navy construction unit to meet the wartime demands. On 5 January 1942, that authority was granted. Men were recruited to form the new militarized Naval Construction Battalions. The men who were originally slated to go to the Headquarters Construction Companies found themselves in the new units.

Command of the new units was given to the officers of the Civil Engineer Corps by the authority of the Secretary of the Navy effective 19 March 1942. Admiral Moreell, who had been an officer in the Civil Engineering Corps, gave the new units their official motto: Construimus Batuimus - "We Build, We Fight."

Earlier, in January 1942, at the Naval Air Station in Quonset Point, Rhode Island, some 250 recruits were gathered to man the new Construction Battalions. At the request of the officer-in-charge of the new recruits, plan file clerk Frank J. Lafrate designed an insignia for the new unit. The final design showed a sailor-capped bee in flight, holding a stylized Thompson submachine gun in its front arms and tools in its hands. Below the bee were the initials of the Construction Battalions - CB -and thus the name "Seabee" was coined.

The first groups of men recruited specifically for the Seabees were trained and experienced civilian construction workers and engineers. Selection of the new recruits was based on their experience and skills, not their physical condition. The normal Navy physical standards were lowered in order to bring on board capable, otherwise-qualified individuals. During the first year of the Seabees' existence, the average age was thirty-seven, much older than the average sailor or soldier. The range of age for enlistment into the Seabees ran from eighteen to fifty. But a number of over-sixty men had managed to get through the enlistment boards and were serving in their units.

These recruits were construction men who had built bridges, roads, and dams. Men with experience in building skyscrapers, roadways, and tunnels and in working quarries and mines could all be found among the ranks of the Seabees. Quarrymen, hard-rock miners, blasters, powdermen, and others came into the unit, bringing with them years of invaluable experience in explosives handling and demolition. Military discipline, drill, and weapons handling were taught to the recruits so that they could defend themselves in some of the frontline construction sites they would operate at.

Initial Seabee boat training was given over three weeks at Camp Allen, Virginia. Later the training was moved to a much better site at Camp Peary, located northwest of Norfolk, on the shores of the York River near Williamsburg. Camp Peary soon became the basic training camp for most of the Seabees during the early part of the war.

By December 1942, the older volunteers could no longer directly enlist in the Navy and the Seabees. A presidential order required all of the new men entering the Construction Battalions to have come through the Selective Service System. Experience and skill levels lowered as the age of the new Seabee recruits dropped. An additional six weeks of advanced military and technical training was included in the basic training course. This was over and above all the additional training the new Seabees would receive once they arrived at their new units.

The men of the Seabees quickly earned a reputation for toughness and skill. They operated in every theater of the war. Roadways were cut and airfields opened by the Seabees, even while under the direct fire of the enemy. (Some airfields were made operational and U.S. fighter aircraft worked from them while the sounds of battle could still be heard over the roar of the engines.)

During the war, Seabees filled 151 regular construction battalions, 39 special construction battalions, and a host of additional battalions, detachments, regiments, brigades, and forces. By its end, 325;000 men had enlisted in the unit, along with almost 8,000 officers. These men built and fought on six continents and over 300 islands. The majority of their construction efforts took place in the Pacific, where the Seabees built airstrips, bridges, roads, hospitals, oil tank farms, barracks, and buildings.

Following some of the first waves of landing U.S. forces onto enemy beaches, the Seabees would immediately set to work. Some Seabee volunteers would find themselves going in to enemy beaches even before the first landings took place.

Following the victories in Europe and Asia, the U.S. Armed Forces rapidly demobilized. The Seabees were part of this demobilization, and by June 1946 their number had fallen from a peak strength of more than 250,000 men to approximately 20,000. In the continental United States, the web of training bases and depots dissolved, and all Seabee activity was concentrated at the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, California. As Seabee ranks continued to thin, the early postwar years saw only a few battalions and small construction battalion detachments scattered at naval bases and stations abroad.Despite the diminished strength of the force, Seabee peacetime activities took on a unique and diversified character. Besides maintaining advanced bases built during the war, they were confronted with many unprecedented construction assignments.

Beginning in 1955 Seabees began deploying yearly to the continent of Antarctica. As participants in Operation "Deep Freeze," their mission was to build and expand scientific bases located on the frozen continent. The first "wintering over" party included 200 Seabees who distinguished themselves by constructing a 6,000-foot ice runway on McMurdo Sound. Despite a blizzard which once destroyed the entire project, the airstrip was completed in time for the advance party of Deep Freeze II to become the first men to arrive at the South Pole by plane. The Seabees next assignment was to build a permanent scientific base on the continent. Over the following years, and under the most adverse conditions, Seabees added to their list of accomplishments such things as snow-compacted roads, underground storage, laboratories, and living areas. One of the most notable achievements took place in 1962 when the Navy's builders constructed the continent's first nuclear power plant at McMurdo Station.

In 1971, the Seabees began their largest peacetime construction on Diego Garcia, a small atoll in the Indian Ocean. This project took 11 years and cost $200 million. The complex accomodates the Navy's largest ships and the biggest military cargo jets. This base proved invaluable when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm were launched.

During the Gulf War, more than 5,000 Seabees (4,000 active and 1,000 reservists) served in the Middlle East. In Saudi Arabia, Seabees built 10 camps for more than 42,000 personnel; 14 galleys capable of feeding 75,000 people; and 6 million square feet of aircraft parking apron.

For more than 60 years the Seabees have repeatedly demonstrated their skills as fighters and builders. From the islands of the Pacific to the jungles of Vietnam, to the mountains of Bosnia and to the sands of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, they have built and fought for freedom. In peacetime, they have been goodwill ambassadors. In peace and in war, they have lived: "Can Do!"

In almost every conflict the U.S. Navy had been involved in, it needed to build, modify, improve, or just repair shore facilities quickly in order to support the fleet. By the early 1930s, the Navy's Bureau of Yards and Docks had started laying the groundwork for the Navy Construction Battalions, but for most of the decade, preparations for the new units never got very far beyond an idea and a name. The beginning of World War II changed that situation drastically.

The international situation at the start of the war forced the U.S. government and military to increase their preparedness. By the end of the 1930s, the U.S. Congress had authorized an expansion of naval shore facilities. In the Caribbean and the Central Pacific, new naval construction projects were begun in 1939. In the Pacific, on Guam, Midway, and Wake Island, as well as at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, larger naval base construction had begun by the summer of 1941. In the Atlantic, new bases were being built or existing Navy facilities were being enlarged in Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda, Trinidad, and a number of other sites.

To aid in the work of these projects, the Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks organized the military Headquarters Construction Companies. Each company consisted of two officers and ninety-nine enlisted men. Instead of their personnel doing the actual construction work, men from the Headquarters Constructions Companies were to supervise the civilian contractors who did the actual work. On 31 October 1941, Rear Admiral Chester W Nimitz, the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, authorized the first Headquarters Construction Company. The men were recruited and undergoing Navy boot camp training by the beginning of December 1941.

The first units were recruited from the civilian construction trades and deployed to Pacific and Atlantic fronts in support of the nation's warfighting efforts in World War II. From building airstrips and roads to hospitals and homes, the Seabees were credited for constructing all of the essentials for forward-base facilities, and playing a significant role in the success of the World War II and other conflicts that followed.

"World War II signalled the Seabee's entry into the Pacific theater," said Ensign Michael Warren, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 40. "Thousands of Seabees were instrumental in paving the way for warfighters."

In 1944, during a three week battle for Guam, the Seabees participated by unloading ships and performing vital construction jobs directed at eventually turning the island into the advanced headquarters for the United States Pacific Fleet, an air base for Japan-bound B-29s, and a huge center of war supply, according to the official NCF Web site.

The invasion of Tinian called for yet another exhibition of Seabee ingenuity. Because its narrow beaches were covered with low coral cliffs, Seabees devised and operated special movable ramps which made the landings possible. Once ashore, and even as the battle raged, their bulldozers accomplished feats of construction on the damaged and unfinished Japanese airfield.

More than six decades later, the Seabees continue build on their proud heritage. Today there are 16,336 Seabees in the NCF providing central command support with multiple Seabee regiments and battalions providing contingency operations throughout Iraq, Afghanistan Kuwait, and Bahrain in direct support of Marine Expeditionary Force – Forward, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan, and various special operations force efforts. Projects include construction of base camps and forward operating bases; road, airfield and bridge repairs; building renovations; and electrical and force protection upgrades. Task-organized units of various sizes provided force protection and mission support projects such as hardened dining facilities, Southwest Asia huts, and tension fabric structures at established camps and expeditionary forward operation bases (FOBs).

Battalions also continued to run convoy security teams through the dangerous streets of Iraq, ensuring that supplies are safely and successfully transported to all camps and FOBs in Iraq.

Continued emphasis will be to construct camps and bases throughout Afghanistan and facilities for Iraqi Security Forces proved the value of Seabees operating in austere, dangerous environments.

"With our motto "Construimus, Batuimus" or "We Build, We Fight" the Seabees have been alongside fellow Navy and Marine Corps units in every major conflict the U.S. has been involved in since World War II," said Warren. "Equipped with a "Can Do" attitude, our Seabees are accomplishing every construction task that is asked of us."

Brian Kern. For Navy Seabees, Impossible Just Takes a Little Bit Longer. Construction Equipment Guide. Publication Date: 10/31/2005.

Can Do! The Story of the Seabees. Huie. Can Do!

Originally published during World War II, this book tells the spirited story of the U.S. Navy Construction Battalion "Seabees," who landed with the Marines at Guadalcanal, Wake Island, Sicily and Salerno, bringing heavy equipment ashore to build roads, bridges and airfields and repair whatever they could - all while under enemy fire! Includes lists of awards and casualties.




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