Artifacts on Exhibit—Nothing to Brush Off

Capable of submerging below water, and of lifting a 2,800 ton naval vessel, at 389 feet long the Auxiliary Repair Dock Concrete (ARDC) Type Dry-dock, like the model located in our Civil Engineer Corps exhibit, was developed in the 1940s. At 3 ½ feet long, the model was constructed by the Design Division of the Bureau of Yards & Docks and is pushing and possibly exceeding 75 years in age. The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum began collecting, exhibiting, and caring for Seabee and CEC artifacts in 1949. The ARDC Type Drydock has been with us for at least 50 of those years.


The Auxiliary Repair Dock Concrete (ARDC) Type Dry-dock before conservation.

Removed from exhibit and from its case earlier this year, the Dry-dock received much needed tender loving care. With major help from one devoted volunteer (a retired Seabee), the painstaking task of making this piece of naval history shine was underway. Our experienced volunteer started the project with artifact conservation brushes for dusting; then moved to distilled water and Q-tips and cotton cloths to remove dirt and grime; next with toothpicks in hand began applying conservation glue to parts, repairing and reassembling railing wires, and loose, time-worn pieces.

“This is going to take a while,” our volunteer said. “There’s no rush,” the curator replied.


(ARDC) Type Drydock during conservation.

Approximately 50 hours and over 400 Q-tips later, the conserved 3½ feet long (ARDC) Type Drydock is back in its newly painted case and on exhibit. While many of the museum’s artifacts are stored in cases with clear Plexiglas vitrine covers, each artifact requires regular conditioning and cleaning care with the occasional “Temporarily Off Exhibit,” sign.


(ARDC) Type Drydock after conservation and back in CEC exhibit.

Next on our seasoned volunteer’s list, the WWII model of the “Seabee Special,” at 15 ½ feet long. “I’m not going to use Q-tips on this one,” he told the curator while holding a large package of sponge brushes.

The Seabee Special in storage at Seabee Museum.

USS Marvin Shields: The “Can Do” Ship

By: Julius J. Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

Ship’s crest of USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066)

On April 10, 1971, USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066), a Knox-class frigate, was commissioned at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard with Commander William J. Hunter in command.  Marvin Shields was built at Todd Shipyards in Seattle, Washington.  With a design based around the large AN/SQS-26CX sonar, she was armed with an eight round ASROC (anti-submarine rocket) launcher forward.  She also carried a Mk 42 5”/54 caliber naval gun for air and surface targets.  The Shields and her sisters were designed to provide the US Navy with a potent anti-submarine warfare platform.  While designed to carry the QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone, the cancellation of the program led to the class carrying the SH-2 Seasprite Helicopter.  This helicopter included LAMPS (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System) an advanced anti-submarine and anti-ship scouting and attack system, which added to the already potent anti-submarine warfare suite contained on the ship.

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Crossing the Line: The First Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group during the Invasion of Iraq

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

Insignia of the I MEG. It consists of a Castle to symbolize the Army Corps of Engineers and the Marine Corps Combat Engineers, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor of the USMC, and the Seabee insignia to symbolize that the bulk of personnel assigned would be Seabees.

On March 21, 2003, Seabees crossed the Line of Departure into Iraqi territory as part of the First Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group (I MEG). According to “Forward Together!”: I MEG in Operation Iraqi Freedom, “This marked the first time that Seabees crossed into enemy territory in Regimental strength as members of a Marine Expeditionary Force order of battle.” The First Naval Construction Division provided the bulk of personnel for the I MEG. This unit consisted of four Seabee Battalions (NMCBs 4,7, 74, and 133), three reserve Heavy Air Detachments, a Naval Construction Force Support Unit (NCFSU 2), a Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU 303), an Underwater Construction Team, two Army Engineer Battalions (478th and 1092d Eng Bn), and a Korean Engineer Battalion (1100th ROK Eng Group).

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Operation Crossroads and the 53rd NCB

53rd-logoThe 53rd Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was established on December 22, 1942 and served throughout the remainder of WWII, primarily on the Pacific Islands of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Guam. As post-war activities were nearing completion, the battalion was scheduled for inactivation on March 1, 1946. The inactivation was cancelled when the unit was selected to participate in Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, in mid-1946. Operation Crossroads was the first test of a nuclear weapon since the Trinity nuclear test in July 1945, and the first detonation of a nuclear device since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Its purpose was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on naval warships, equipment, and material.

The 53rd NCB arrived at Bikini Atoll on March 13, and then transferred to the USS St. Croix, which was anchored in the atoll lagoon. This ship served as the battalion headquarters throughout the Bikini operation. Drawing on their wartime experience in fast construction, nearly 1,000 Seabees with the 53rd NCB transformed Bikini Atoll into a huge laboratory where instruments and structures were set up to record the blast.

The composite battalion of stevedores, pontoon builders, and construction men began the main construction projects which included the erection of several 90-foot towers and protected steel huts for housing the instruments used for recording the blast data, the day after they arrived on site.

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Offloading of supplies and equipment

Heavy equipment, to include bulldozers, trucks, and cranes were brought by LST, along with more men and supplies arriving from Pearl Harbor and Port Hueneme, CA.

Bikini5

Seabees with the 53rd NCB constructing a tower to hold automatic camera as part of Operation Crossroads. The towers were built on an island near Bikini Atoll to document the Atomic Bomb explosion.

Seabees built 15 steel towers for photographic observation, several wooden frame towers, and advanced base magazines measuring 20 feet by 20 feet.

Bikini1

The Bikini Atoll is comprised of 30 islands, and Seabees completed projects on 9 of these. Among these projects were demolition operations to remove coralheads to enable LSTs and small craft to land on the beaches, along with the construction of recreational facilities for 35,000 men, to include baseball fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, and an archery range. Construction efforts were made extremely difficult by the constant churning of the black, sandy soil on the beach, which became choking dust clouds as vehicles were transported back and forth. DDT, then unknown to be hazardous to health, was sprayed repeatedly from low-flying planes to combat the hordes of flies that were constantly plaguing the Seabees as they worked.

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Aerial view showing one of the many construction sites operated by the 53rd NCB at Bikini Atoll

Operation Crossroads5

The Baker Day explosion of the fifth atomic bomb, Bikini as recorded by an automatically operated camera on a nearby island. Characteristic atomic clouds forms, altered by steam from sub-surface detonation

Operation Crossroads consisted of two detonations, each with a yield of 21 kilotons of TNT (96 terajoules): ABLE was detonated at an altitude of 520 feet (160 m) on July 1, 1946; BAKER was detonated 90 feet (27 m) underwater on July 25, 1946. A third burst, CHARLIE, a deep underwater detonation planned for 1947 was canceled due to the inability to decontaminate the target ships following the Baker test.

With the completion of Operation Crossroads, the battalion was inactivated on August 3, 1946 after 38 months of continuous overseas duty. Some battalion members were transferred back to the United States for separation from the Navy, while others remained onsite for cleanup and restoration duties on Bikini. These members were assigned to the newly activated Naval Construction Battalion Detachment 1156.

The Civil Engineer Corps and Relative Rank

On 2 March 1867, just 31 words tacked onto a Congressional appropriations bill gave the President of the United States the authority to commission Navy civil engineers, creating a new Navy staff corp.  The Civil Engineer Corps, or CEC, received their commissions from the President like other naval officers. Yet the 8 men of the CEC couldn’t wear Navy uniforms or rank devices in the 14 years immediately following their creation. These newly created officers suffered from discrimination In the United States Navy rooted in the concept of “relative rank”.

Sanger & Co

William  P. S. Sanger and four of the first eight Civil Engineer Corps officers (circa 1871)

Line officers, those who sailed ships, jealously guarded military rank and argued staff officers receiving equal rank undermined morale, deteriorated discipline and were unsuited for leadership. Therefore, the Navy conferred “relative rank” on all staff corps officers. While corps officers “ranked with” corresponding line-officer pay grades, they held professional titles such as chief surgeon or assistant civil engineer rather than “line rank.” The CEC finally received authorization to wear rank in February 1881 in Navy General Order 263, and were authorized to wear Navy uniforms later that year.

Between 1881 and 1921, the relative rank debate raged within the Navy and caused divisions between line and staff officers. Although the Naval Reform Act of 1899 abolished the formal use of relative rank, the idea continued to influence line officers. From 1871 until WWI, senior line officers, including influential Commanders George Dewey and Alfred Thayer Mahan, argued to maintain relative rank standards. Senior staff officers from all the Corps argued they – like line officers – deserved equal rank, professional respect and leadership opportunities. CEC and other Staff officers served their commanding officer and the Navy’s chain of command.

1918 Budocks dining out

Nearly one third of all Civil Engineer Corps officers are in this 1918 photograph,  most of whom received degrees in Civil Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Despite being some the most educated members of the U.S. Navy, relative rank’s continuing effect set CEC apart from their sailing counter parts. But times were changing. By 1906, CEC officers, numbering less than 100, consolidated their technical control over naval shore facilities and public works. More line officers focused on technical skills and

Rousseau 1907-1907

Harry H. Rousseau became Rear Admiral at the age of 36 while serving as the temporary Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks – he remains the youngest RADM in the US Navy’s history.

science degrees in order to sail modern ships, while the leadership skills of CEC officers like Mordicai Endicott, Robert E. Peary and Harry H. Rousseau positively influenced line officer opinions of staff officers.

Modernization of the Navy continued during World War One. Only 5 days after the end of WWI, on 16 November 1918, the Navy eliminated uniform designations that segregated the staff corps, and established a single set of uniform regulations for Naval personnel. After 1921, all U.S. Navy officers wore the same uniform, wearing line and staff devices on the sleeve or collar that did not distract. This uniform change visually equalized line and staff officers.

The Chiefs2

Ben Moreell with former Chiefs of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, all of whom dealt with issues of relative rank and engineering authority while Chiefs of both BuDocks and the CEC. In the back row, from left to right are retired Rear Admirals:  Homer Stanford, Fredric R. Harris, Charles W. Parks, Luther E. Gregory, Archibald L. Parsons, and Norman Smith.

Commander Ben Moreell advanced to the rank of Rear Admiral in December 1937, completely skipping the rank of Captain without using relative rank. During his tenure as Chief of the CEC, Moreell focused on the leadership skills of CEC officers, knowing that their technical skills were well established. In WWII, he fought for the CEC to lead the newly formed Naval Construction Force known as Seabees. Changing attitudes among line officers, and the WWII success of the Naval Construction Force, other Staff Corps and their enlisted forces, helped end any further discussions on relative rank by 1947.

Today, relative rank no longer plays a part in the Navy. Each officer’s promotion is based on a selection committee’s determination of who is best and most fully qualified to fill available vacancies. This is especially true as an officer qualifies for promotion to the senior ranks, whether they are part of the line or corps. Leadership qualities and technical skill, core concerns of U.S. Navy officers over 150 years ago, merged and now strengthen today’s Navy.

“Noise, Heat, Stench, and Dust”: The Seabees on Iwo Jima

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

Western Pacific

Map showing operations in the Pacific theatre in 1945,  what would be the last two major operations of the war, the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa are shown on the right and left sides of the map respectively

There may be no place more synonymous with the United States Marine Corps than the Japanese Island of Iwo Jima.  Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, has become an iconic image of both the Marine Corps, and of World War II as a whole.  But Marines weren’t the only members of the US military fighting to capture this small island located 750 miles south of the Japanese capital, Tokyo.  US Navy Seabees also fought, toiled, and died upon this “black hell”. Continue reading