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.
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!"
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