What do Seabees have in common with Ancient Egyptians?

Left – A Quonset hut in Korea, circa 1953.
Right – An Ancient Egyptian pyramid, circa 2600 BCE.

If your answer to this question is, “I plumb do not know.” You might be onto something…

Let me give you another hint. This week at the US Navy Seabee Museum, I am cataloging objects on display in our Tools of the Trade exhibit. Cataloging objects: to measure, photograph, name, describe, and give each object/artifact its own identification number. Museum staff catalog every object that is on and off exhibit. For the Seabee Museum staff, this adds up to over 14,500 objects and ID numbers that we keep track of and over 500K  photographs that must be identified, described, and tracked. The numbers attached to each artifact include the year the object was donated, when it was donated that year and then its special ID number on top of that totaling about 12 digits long. It can be plumb challenging to keep number combinations straight.

To be perfectly straight with you, sometimes the simplest tool may be one of the best tools. The plumb bob:  is a weighted objected tied to the end of a string/cord or piece of leather that is used to gain a vertical reference line when surveying sites, as wells as planning and performing construction. While the plumb bob dates back to at least the time of the Ancient Egyptians and the building of pyramids, there are three plumb bobs/plummets on exhibit in the Seabee Museum. They are on display in the: Civil Engineer Corps exhibit, the Pacific WWII tools, and in the Grand Hall at the Tools of the Trade exhibit displaying the types of tools Seabees use (including the plumb bob) based on their rate or job in the Navy.

Lee James Higgins used his plumb bob while surveying sites from Pearl Harbor to Sasebo, Japan during his time with the Seabees during WWII.
Robert E. Peary, RADM, CEC, USN used this plumb bob for a straight vertical line while performing surveys in the Arctic region, circa pre-WWII.
Plumb bob on display in the Tools of the Trade exhibit.

What are We Doing at the Seabee Museum?

Though we may be temporarily closed, the Seabee Museum’s staff are busy taking care of Seabee and CEC history. As many of you may know, the mission of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum (USNSM), a Department of the Navy museum, is to ensure that the construction and engineering accomplishments of the Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps are not forgotten, remain relevant, and inspire as many people as possible.

How are we doing that (caring for objects, as well as sharing and protecting history) during this social distancing time?

We are working on bringing exhibits digitally to you.

What does this involve?

Our team is researching different types of software that is easy for everyone to use. Software that will smartly display both archival material (documents, photographs), and artifacts (3-dimensional objects). During the process, we have experimented with turning PowerPoint slides into movies, as well as taking panoramic and spherical gallery photos where we layer closer views of objects on top of the photos. While doing this we are also conversing in online talks with museum educators and curators from across the country.

This challenging time has encouraged us to add more tools to our previous toolbox, where we are working towards building new as well as familiar exhibits to share online with you.

While we are working on this…Did you know?

During the time we are closed, objects (artifact and archival material) get a break from those museum everyday lights. That’s right, little social distancing can also actually be good for objects and lengthen their lifespan! While we work towards keeping gallery lighting soft on the objects, there’s nothing like a bit of no light, to give them a breather from being on display. That’s why sometimes you can’t find your favorite object on display.

That gets us back to what the museum staff is doing while we’re closed. We’re working on rotating objects off exhibit to bring out new ones, answering historical requests, a bit of housekeeping (yes, you read that right, Houskeeping), and of course those future digital exhibits.

The BEES Swarm Inchon

At the end of World War II, the Seabees, which had been a temporary reserve force created for wartime, reduced in number from over 250,000 at the height of the war to less than 10,000 by the end of 1946. What was once a force of over 500 units diminished to three Naval Construction Battalions and 26 Construction Battalion Detachments spread out across the globe. Two battalions evolved to construct bases and perform pontoon operations with one battalion located on each coast. It was from this diminished stance that the Seabees swarmed into action to take part in the Invasion of Inchon on 15 September 1950.

Origins of War

The Korean War began after years of violent altercations along the border that escalated to war. On 25 June 1950, approximately 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army crossed over the 38th parallel between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the north and the Republic of Korea to the south.

Seabees deployed with ACB-1 working on pontoon causeways, circa fall 1950.
Seabees deployed with ACB-1 working on pontoon causeways, circa fall 1950.

Shortly after the Surrender of Japan at the end of WWII, the US and Soviet Union agreed to divide the Korean Peninsula, which had been a Japanese possession, at the 38th parallel with the Soviet Union administering the north and the United States administering the south. In 1948, the north became a socialist state under the control of Communist leader Kim Il-Sung, while the south became a capitalist state under the presidency of Syngman Rhee. Both leadership parties claimed to be the sole legitimate party of all Korea, with neither accepting the border as a permanent divider.

The United Nations Security Council denounced the invasion by North Korea, authorized the creation of a UN Command, and approved the dispatching of forces to defend South Korea. Twenty-one countries joined the UN force with the US providing approximately 90% of the military personnel.

The Seabees Swarm Again

In August 1950, the personnel and equipment of the 104th Naval Construction Battalion, soon to be re-designated Amphibious Construction Battalion One, embarked aboard transports for Yokosuka, Japan. The Seabees spent months assembling pontoon formations and staging equipment for the invasion. In early September, the Seabees embarked on amphibious assault ships as part of the Task Force assigned to take part in the Inchon landing.

Causeways and barges were loaded “side-carry” on LSTs and heavy-duty cranes, bulldozers, and equipment were loaded onto the ships. Crews linked warping tugs and dock sections into long tows for the voyage. Within 8 days, the Seabees were underway headed for Inchon.

Invasion of Inchon - photograph from the water inland, circa September 1950.
Invasion of Inchon – photograph from the water inland, circa September 1950.

Invasion of Inchon

On the morning of 15 September, the Marine Landing Force made its assault at Inchon. An hour and a half after the first Marines hit the beach, Seabees hurriedly laid down a 400-foot pontoon pier and causeway that enabled amphibious troops and their equipment to pour ashore.

Seabees working on a Rhino Ferry near pontoon causeway, Inchon, circa 1950.
Seabees working on a Rhino Ferry near pontoon causeway, Inchon, circa 1950.

Seabees dodged intermittent rifle fire from snipers while setting to work installing causeways and piers. All the while straining against a four-knot current and a tremendous thirty-foot tidal range, which made linking the causeways together challenging.

Seabees survey area surrounding Inchon, Korea, circa 1950.
Seabees survey area surrounding Inchon, Korea, circa 1950.

Once the causeways were installed and in working order, the construction company from the 104th NCB worked to build a camp on Opal Beach consisting of 50 tents, a galley, a mess hall, and head, all built in eight hours. Builders set up range towers on Wolmi-do to guide ships navigating in the unknown harbor. Another group of Seabees installed temporary wiring, hauled water from 8-miles away, and set up a theater for 1000 men.

Seabees with ACB-1 in newly built bunker, Inchon, circa 1950.
Seabees with ACB-1 in newly built bunker, Inchon, circa 1950.

The Great Seabee Train Robbery

In one of the Seabees most infamous actions, on D-Day plus seven, a patrol of six chiefs and four enlisted men with railroad experience volunteered to go inland to locate several locomotives located at the Kirin beer station. Making their way to the station under sniper fire most of the way, the Seabees recaptured eight locomotives – and possibly fifteen kegs of Korean beer – which they procured to take back to Inchon in an effort to move quickly supplies and equipment inland to awaiting forces.

During the Korean Conflict, the Seabees earned the Presidential Unit Citation, nine of the ten authorized Korean engagement stars, and the Korean Presidential Unit Citation. The Seabees deployed with the 104th Naval Construction Battalion, re-designated Amphibious Construction Battalion One in October 1950, showed once again that Seabees are ready, anywhere, anytime and always demonstrate their CAN-DO spirit, ingenuity, and expertise no matter the task at hand.

CBD 1804 offloading supplies in Pohang Harbor, circa fall 1950.
CBD 1804 offloading supplies in Pohang Harbor, circa fall 1950.
Seabees help recover damaged aircraft, fall 1950.
Seabees help recover damaged aircraft, fall 1950.
Seabees leave Inchon, circa 1950.
Seabees leave Inchon, circa 1950.

Seabees Aid in the Passage to Freedom

The Geneva Accords of 1954 came in the aftermath of the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Phu, and resulted in the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel north.  It also contained a provision to allow the Vietnamese populace 300 days to choose whether they would live in the North Vietnamese communist government of Ho Chi Minh, or the Democratic government backed by France and America, in the south.

Operation Passage to Freedom refugees board ship to South Vietnam, October 1954
Courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Operation Passage to Freedom was the term used by the U.S. Navy for the mission that would ultimately evacuate over 310,000 Vietnamese civilians, soldiers and non-Vietnamese members of the French Army from Communist North Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) to South Vietnam (the State of Vietnam) in 1954 and 1955. The United States Task Force 90 (TF-90) was tasked with the mission of providing transportation from Haiphong to Saigon. This multi-national endeavor was comprised of 50 ships, with the South Vietnamese government building reception centers and providing basic amenities, the French suppling ships and planes, and the British providing an aircraft carrier.

Amphibious Construction Battalions One and Two took part in this task force. Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB) 1’s mission was install and operate pontoon piers near Haiphong, on the Do San Peninsula. The purpose of the piers was to provide additional docking spaces to accommodate the transportation of refugees. The Seabees arrived in Haiphong on August 22, 1954, ready to complete their mission, but were stopped by French officials due to the terms of the truce agreement, which prohibited the landing of foreign military units or the establishment of foreign military installations in Vietnam. Seabees could not operate until all military insignia and U.S. identification were removed from their uniforms and equipment.

80-G-649031 Refugees crowded on dock at Haiphong waiting to board an LSM for their trip to Saigon, September 1954. National Archive and Records Administration

While the majority of work done by the Seabees would be concentrated at Haiphong, a detachment of Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion ONE (ACB 1) were sent to Da Nang to build and operate a rest and recreation area for U.S. personnel and merchant mariners taking part in the ferrying operation. Another detachment from the same battalion constructed a refugee tent camp and accompanying water and power supply facilities at the mouth of the Saigon River. This Seabee-built camp served as a reserve living area for the overflow of refugees from Saigon. As a result of their humanitarian efforts, the Seabees of Amphibious Construction Battalion One were awarded the Vietnamese Presidential Unit Citation.

80-G-644449 August 1954 – At Haiphong, Indochina, a ladder is lowered to a French LSM alongside USS MONTAGUE (APA-98) to take aboard refugees for the journey from Haiphong to Saigon and freedom during the Operation “Passage to Freedom.”
National Archive and Records Administration

Detachments from Amphibious Construction Battalion Two were originally scheduled to build a causeway across the beaches adjacent to the North Vietnamese city of Haiphong. However, because of French opposition and the unsuitability of the selected beaches for such a causeway, that project was cancelled. Loading operations were carried out from the Haiphong waterfront instead, and the Seabees were diverted south to assist with the construction of the massive refugee camp.

The Seabees labored for about one month in Vietnam, before being relieved. Their actions were an important contribution to the success of this historic “Passage to Freedom”, not just in the building of camps but in the mass migration of several hundred thousand Vietnamese and their possessions.

The Bureau of Yards and Docks Technical Mission to Japan

by Gina Nichols, Head of Collections/Supervisory Archivist

The Secretary of War established the United States Strategic Bombing Survey on 3 November 1944 to conduct an impartial and expert study of the effects of aerial attacks on Germany. On 15 August 1945, President Truman requested the survey team conduct a similar study of the effects of all types of air attacks in the war against Japan. The survey team operated from headquarters in Tokyo early in September 1945, with field headquarters in Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, and with mobile teams operating throughout Japan, numerous Pacific islands, and Asia.

Front page of the Report of The Bureau of Yards and Docks Mission to Japan 1945: Part III - Incidents in Hiroshima Section 1
Front page of the Report of The Bureau of Yards and Docks Mission to Japan 1945: Part III – Incidents in Hiroshima Section 1

Separate reports were issued covering each phase of the study including Japan’s military planning and execution, war production and economy, overall strategic plans and her background into the war, and the effects of the aerial attacks and atomic bombs.

Immediately after the surrender of Japan, then Vice Admiral Ben Moreell, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, recommended to Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal that a group of qualified officers and technical experts be assigned to special duty to survey damage wrought by the atomic bombs and other aerial bombing attacks. Moreell explained to Secretary Forrestal that a unique opportunity had been presented to the Bureau – to gather solid data on the effects of bombardment from the complete spectrum of weapons. Once approved, the Bureau of Yards and Docks assigned and deployed a group of structural engineers and Seabees to survey the damage inflicted by atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as damage caused by high explosive and incendiary bombs.

Southeast quadrant of Hiroshima as viewed from Penthouse of Bldg 40
Southeast quadrant of Hiroshima as viewed from Penthouse of Bldg 40

The Bureau of Yards and Docks Technical Mission to Japan was established to investigate and report of the effects of the atomic bombs, aerial bombs, and gunfire on structures; and to secure data for design for bombproofing, fire protection, and other defense against such forms of attack. The plan was to survey the atomic damage to determine the effects on various above-ground and underground structures and use it to develop structural protection against this type of explosive in future construction.

Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bomb detonation. Formerly restricted. Declassified 9/10/1959. Photograph taken March 17, 1948. John H. Lawrence Collection-355.
Nagasaki, Japan after the atomic bomb detonation. Formerly restricted. Declassified 9/10/1959. Photograph taken March 17, 1948. John H. Lawrence Collection-355.

The survey party visited the major cities and military installations in Japan to assess damage according to weight, size, and type of bombs and ordnance used against them. The team took comparative photographs of all damaged structural shapes hit by the bombardment. The survey party was interested in noting the difference in damage inflicted by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as compared to the high explosive 2K to 10K pound bombs dropped in prior raids. The team also noted damage inflicted on ship repair and public works units at the Kure naval shipyard near Hiroshima as well as the heavy damage to large buildings in Nagasaki.

Hiroshima after Atomic Bomb. Circa 1945-46.
Hiroshima after Atomic Bomb. Circa 1945-46.

In order to obtain the most comprehensive data possible, the group interviewed Japanese civilians who were in the target areas at the time of the bombings as well as city officials, architects, engineers, contractors, and owners of damaged buildings.

Aerial view of the destruction of Mitsubishi Aircraft Factory near Nagasaki, Japan. Photograph taken by 31st Naval Construction Battalion in January 1946.
Aerial view of the destruction of Mitsubishi Aircraft Factory near Nagasaki, Japan. Photograph taken by 31st Naval Construction Battalion in January 1946.

The Civil Engineer Corps officers and Seabees attached to the Bureau of Yards and Docks Technical Mission to Japan worked in cooperation with the US Strategic Bombing Survey, British investigators, officers of the Bureau of Ordnance, the Special Weapons section of the Navy, Army officers, the Bureau of Standards and scientists connected with the development of the atomic bomb. The seven volume report complete with charts, drawings, and photographs was submitted to the United States Naval Technical Mission to Japan team in 1946 and was a key document used to design and construct future structures capable of withstanding the pressures created by an atomic bomb under specific situations.

The Seabees in Japan After V-J Day

by Gina Nichols, Head of Collections/Supervisory Archivist

At noon on August 15, 1945 (Japan Standard Time), Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender in a radio broadcast. Victory over Japan or V-J Day celebrations broke out throughout the Pacific Ocean Area, and across the United States and other Allied nations as news spread. The formal surrender agreement was signed on September 2, aboard the battleship USS Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay. The Allied occupation of Japan at the end of World War II was led by General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, with support from the British Commonwealth.

On V-J Day, thirteen Naval Construction Battalions (NCB), three Special Naval Construction Battalions (stevedores), and one Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) awaited assignment to Japan, where they were to aid naval forces at Hiroshima, Kabayana, Yokosuka, Omura, Nagasaki, Sasebo, and Kure. Their tasks included constructing, repairing, and maintaining Naval and Marine Corps bases throughout Japan to support US armed forces in occupying the country.

Signal Tower at Misarazu Air Station, Japan reconstructed by the 136th NCB. Photograph taken 15 October 1945.

Construction in Yokosuka

On 15 August 1945, Seabees with the 136th NCB embarked in 12 LSM’s at Guam headed for Iwo Jima and onto Yokosuka, Japan. They arrived at the badly damaged Yokosuka navy yard on 30 August 1945, where they established their camp at the Japanese navigation school. In preparation for the arrival of additional forces, the Seabees repaired housing, electric and telephone systems, and roads at the naval base; graded fields and remodeled buildings for the fleet recreation area; repaired housing and surfaced an airstrip at Kisarazu airfield.

Meanwhile, the 602nd CBMU arrived at Yokosuka to maintain runways and roads at the Marine Corps air base. They constructed a 2000-man galley, restored barracks and facilities for personnel, constructed a chapel and recreation facilities, completed a sawmill, public works shops, a cold-storage plant, and a chlorination plant for water treatment, and installed hot water showers in all barracks.

Aerial view of galleys and mess hall built by the 136th NCB for Naval Headquarters Group in Yokosuka, Japan, 14 November 1945.
Aerial view of galleys and mess hall built by the 136th NCB for Naval Headquarters Group in Yokosuka, Japan, 14 November 1945.

During the month of September, the 41st Regiment, consisting of the 9th, 28th, 62nd, and 90th NCB, and the 28th Special Battalion, joined the 136th NCB at Yokosuka. Among the major projects included repairing and maintaining the naval base at Kisarazu naval air station, which included overhauling the gasoline system and providing housing facilities for air station personnel and repairing and maintaining the airstrip. They also repaired buildings and erected Quonset huts for housing and messing facilities for port director activities at both Yokosuka and Tokyo, and loaded gravel from the Atsugi River for use in repairing roads and runways.


Sasebo on the island of Kyushu, not far from Nagasaki, was the other big center of Seabees activity in Japan. For some time, the 7th Naval Construction Regiment, consisting of 4 NCBs and the 31st   Special, were working simultaneously at Sasebo to construct the naval base, clear the dock area in the navy yard and provide space for roadways and facilitating the unloading of ships. This required removal of large quantities of scrap metal, heavy marine equipment, and other debris. The Seabees used a Japanese floating crane and Japanese barges, together with some Japanese laborers, were used on the task.

Port camp for the 31st NCB at Sasebo, Japan, January 1946.
Port camp for the 31st NCB at Sasebo, Japan, January 1946.

In addition to repairing and maintaining the Marine Corps camp at Ainoura, the 116th NCB rehabilitated and constructed 5 miles of road from Ainoura to Sasebo, together with an alternate 5-mile stretch and operated two quarries to support road work construction. The Seabees also constructed a Quonset hut camp to house 400 men at the former aircraft factory at Sasebo. Seabees with the 72nd NCB constructed a 2000-man camp, two 200-bed hospitals, and recreational facilities in Sasebo to support naval forces.

View of Naval forces camp at Omora, Japan, built by the 31st NCB, January 1946.
View of Naval forces camp at Omora, Japan, built by the 31st NCB, January 1946.

Upon its arrival in Japan, the 31st NCB had been sent to Omura, about 28 miles from Sasebo. At Omura, the battalion was given a former Japanese hangar for temporary barracks, messing, and work space, and assigned a former Japanese garrison force compound for permanent barracks and work space. The area was deliberately destroyed in an attempt to inconvenience occupation troops; all the latrines were in disreputable condition, lighting fixtures had been torn out, and the general litter and debris throughout the area was so extensive that a 40-man cleaning crew worked for more than a fortnight removing debris and trash.

Seabees with the 31st NCB piling Japanese aircraft for destruction, Omora, Japan, in January 1946.
Seabees with the 31st NCB piling Japanese aircraft for destruction, Omora, Japan, in January 1946.

Atomic Bomb Survey

One of the most unique duties the Seabees undertook in Japan after the war ended was working on the Bureau of Yards and Docks Technical Mission to Japanto survey damage wrought by the atomic bombs and other aerial bombing attacks. This group consisted of structural engineers and Seabees sent to Japan to survey the damage inflicted by atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as damage caused by high explosive and incendiary bombs.

Photograph of Nagasaki, Japan, taken by 31st NCB in early 1946.
Photograph of Nagasaki, Japan, taken by 31st NCB in early 1946.

Unknowingly, these men exposed themselves to radiation and many died young of cancer, leukemia, and unknown illnesses all in an effort to assist the US in understanding the devastation atomic bombs leveled on a major city and industrial areas, and how to build facilities in the future to withstand atomic warfare.

Hiroshima after Atomic Bomb. Circa 1945-46.
Hiroshima after Atomic Bomb. Circa 1945-46.

By mid-1946, all Seabee units stationed in Japan were disestablished and the men were discharged from active duty. The Seabees were part of the demobilization plan, and by June 1946 their number had fallen from a peak strength of more than 250,000 men to approximately 20,000. The Seabees that served in Japan, during this time, played a key role in the construction of bases, roads, facilities, and infrastructure necessary to assist Japan in rebuilding their economy and country in the post-war years.

The Seabee Museum and Masks

Today we find ourselves in a new normal under the cover of protection—wearing masks—not only for our family and ourselves, but as humanitarian’s taking care of our neighbors. While the world may seem geographically larger through social distancing—less travel, it might also seem smaller by our common activism to take care of each other. Over the last few months people and multiple institutions including museums, have donated personal protective equipment (PPE). Scavenging their hearts, homes, and museum collection supply rooms they made and gathered PPE ranging from homemade masks, to nitrile gloves, and N95 masks that curators and conservators wear while caring for artifacts and archival collections.

Recently, while teleworking I attended a virtual collection’s talk where the presenter spoke about the journey of artifacts; specifically, a ball-bearing marble and that of an unopened letter—written by son, traveled by post overseas, and returned by post back to the boy’s home. The speaker encouraged listeners to not only consider an object’s final use, but how it got there. Example: how did the mask get from “A” to “B,” and what did it do once it was there? In the case of the speaker, the ball bearing/marble began as a piece of gunshot; and a son wrote the letter to his deployed father. The unopened letter is now on exhibit in a museum where inspired students imagine what words are inside the envelope based on the letter’s story/journey.

“OKINAWA, Japan (April 9, 2020) Utilitiesman 1st Class Nicole Grieve, deployed with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5, sews cloth face coverings at NMCB-5’s mask-making workshop at Camp Shields in Okinawa, to comply with Navy requirements. NMCB-5 is deployed across the Indo-Pacific region conducting high-quality construction to support U.S. and partner nations to strengthen partnerships, deter aggression, and enable expeditionary logistics and naval power projection. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Stephane Belcher/Released)” Image and text from Navy.mil.

“PORT HUENEME, Calif. (April 14, 2020) Steelworker Constructionman Cody Mossow, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4, cuts out the inner layer of a 3-D printed face mask on Naval Base Ventura County. Personnel assigned to NMCB-4 are creating 3D-printed face masks to support COVID-19 relief efforts. (U.S. Navy photo by Construction Electrician Constructionmen Alexzander Petitt /Released)” Image and text from Navy.mil.

Looking at the Seabee Museum’s exhibits, there are at least seven masks (PPE) with a story on display. The masks range from gas masks from WWII and the 1990s, to face protection used in Antarctica; and a Jack Browne diving mask, that Browne—a diver—designed in the 1940s. The Jack Browne style was used until the 1970s. The masks were built for extreme conditions; they traveled from maker to Seabee, to deployment location (Pacific Theater, Arctic/Antarctica, or Southwest Asia), and potentially fulfilled the mission and protected the user, and later entered into the museum’s collection for future visitors to learn about. Today, with helping hands and ingenuity, Seabees are busy at work making new stories while providing relief in our challenging times by sewing and printing PPE including ear guards and protective masks. There is a need, people designed and built the PPE, people delivered it, and people are being protected. Stay Safe…

A Seabee used this ND Mark IV Gas Mask while stationed in Kodiak, Alaska during WWII. The diaphragm gas mask with head harness improved the users field of vision compared to when using the Mark III. The user wore the filter at the back of the neck and attached to the mask with a metal clip.

A Seabee used this mask and helmet liner while deployed in Antarctica during 1980s. The balaclava, which exposes only the eyes and mouth, protects the wearer’s face from freezing in subzero temperatures.


“Jack Browne” Mask – Named after diver/designer of this triangular mask around 1940, its distinctive feature is a three-way valve to ease breathing.



Seabee News from “Island X”

By Amber DelaCruz, Archivist

The Seabee News Service was created during World War II by the Bureau of Yards and Docks. It was a semi-monthly news service that was intended to encourage battalions to publish their own newspapers, assist with providing content, and to inform Seabees at home and abroad of the projects and accomplishments of battalions deployed throughout the world.

News 1

Seabee News Service, Issue 1, 15 Sep 1943

Most battalions had contests to come up with a name for their newspapers, and some ended up changing the name of their newspaper during the course of the war. For example, Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) 1 had three names for their newsletter:

news 5The typical newsletter consisted of information concerning battalion hails and farewells, commendations and promotions, medical officer memos, news from home, chaplain’s messages,

news 6

NCB 7 Newsletter, The Buz, 11 November 1943


information about recreation (sports, musical performances, movies),  original drawings by battalion members,





and messages from the battalion Commanding Officer.

news 7

NCB 1 Newsletter, The Pioneer, 27 January 1944

Battalion newsletters were often mailed home, so most contained a statement that they had been reviewed and approved by Navy censors. Maintaining base location anonymity was essential to victory. In an effort to preserve secrecy, Seabees used the name “Island X” to describe their location when writing home or creating base or command newsletters. The term was used for any location they were serving, to include a small island, Africa, Great Britain, Sicily, South America, Iceland, or Alaska. Newsletters also provided detailed reminders of what kind of information to exclude from letters to the homefront.

news 8

Censor comments from the 7th NCB Waterfront, 23 January 1945

After the war, Seabees created local alumni organizations named Island X-#, with different numbers, (i.e. Island X-7 Port Hueneme) which are still running. Although the units referred to their locations as “Island X”, researchers can now use the appendix in Building the Navy’s Bases and the Unit Histories  located on the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum website, to determine where they were based upon the dates on the newsletters. Researchers can also use the newsletters to search for possible stories about family members, and in conjunction with digitized WWII Cruisebooks, learn more about the battalions they served with. The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum is currently in the process of scanning and digitizing the World War II newsletters, and plan to make them available on our website in the future.

news 9

Original artwork by NCB 1 member Tony Lane from the unit newsletter, The Pioneer, 27 January 1944



Seabees Crossing the Rhine River

By Dr. Lara Godbille, Director

During World War II, more than 50,000 Seabees served in the Atlantic Theater where they participated in all the European amphibious landings, including Anzio, Salerno, and Normandy.  In addition, the Seabees supported the Allied troops’ march across Europe. While the most celebrated Seabee story recalls how they ferried General George Patton’s armored units during his famous crossing of the Rhine River in March 1945, the Seabees also experienced some relatively unknown adventures.

In November 1944, three Construction Battalion Maintenance Units (CBMUs) — CBMUs 627, 628 and 629 — were commissioned for assignment to an enemy location in a future operation. While all three CBMUs participated in the crossing of the Rhine River, only CBMU 629 was involved in front-line activities while the other two were with the rear echelon.

Every man does his job as a team, checking and loading weapons a

Although they came from different branches of the armed services, Seabees of CBMU 629 serving with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army Division did the job as a team, checking and loading weapons and supplies before making the Rhine River crossing in March 1945.

On Nov. 17, 1944, four pontoon training crew detachments were formed from CBMU 629, consisting of one officer and six enlisted Seabees, and deployed forward. The first detachment moved through Belgium and joined other small boat units attached to General Omar Bradley’s First Army Division in Aachen, Germany. They became the first Seabees to enter Germany on Dec. 26, 1944, and later played a significant role in the repair of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.

Prior to the war, 47 road and railway bridges spanned the Rhine. By 1945, only   the Ludendorff Bridge remained standing. On March 7, 1945, the U.S. 9th Armored Division captured the Ludendorff Bridge as part of Operation Lumberjack. One week later, Seabees moved forward to start working on pontoon barges to support the bridge.  Working without rest and under fierce enemy fire, the Seabees completed   one barge in less than 24 hours and a second the next day. Despite their best efforts, on March 17, 1945, the bridge collapsed taking with it the lives of 28 U.S. soldiers.

Seabees assist Patton cross the Rhine.

Seabees assist in pushing a portion of an Army bridge into place by LCVP on the Rhine River near the Remagen bridgehead in April 1945

The second detachment served under the command of Gen.  Patton in the Third Army Division. This detachment supervised the construction of a pontoon pile-driver barge by the Army Engineers to build a bridge across the Mosell River at Toul, France. The barge was later disassembled and transported overland to the Rhine River, where it was reassembled in preparation for Patton’s famous crossing in March 1945.

Seabees help Patton and Army cross the Rhine River.

Crossing the Rhine at Boppard, Germany. The boat crews are Seabees wearing Army uniforms at the request of General Patton.

The third detachment also served with Patton’s Third Army Division, and in early 1945 assembled Army sea mule barges and built pontoon pile-driver barges on the Meuse River near Maastricht in the Netherlands. This detachment also made “procurement trips” into Germany in search of tools, supplies and coal. These missions resulted in Seabees being among the first Allied troops to cross the Siegfried   Line, a defensive barrier of bunkers, tunnels and tank traps built by Germany, stretching nearly 400 miles along the German border.

The fourth detachment functioned as the faculty of the “River Rat Finishing School,” an Army school for barge and small boat assembly and operation on the Meuse River.

Landing craft are loaded onto flatbed trucks for transporting ov

Landing craft are loaded onto flatbed trucks for transporting overland.

The Legacy of Rear Admiral Lewis B. Combs

Abridged version of “Civil Engineer, Scholar, Naval Officer: The Life of Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs”     By Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr.

Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs, CEC, USN, 1895-1996. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs, CEC, USN, 1895-1996. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Ask any member of the Naval Construction Force (NCF) who is considered “the father of the Seabees” and they will answer Adm. Ben Moreell. Ask them who is the “uncle of the Seabees,” and they may give a quizzical look.

In a military career covering two world wars, the legacy of Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs can be measured in the people and organizations he touched. At the time of his death in 1996, Combs had directly influenced, either in uniform or as an academic, perhaps more civil engineers in the Navy’s history than any other man. Therefore, he was considered to be the “uncle” of the Seabees.

As the assistant chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks) during World War II, Combs served as Moreell’s deputy, responsible for administering the Navy’s shore construction and development program. At the time of his appointment as assistant chief for BuDocks in 1938, fewer than 120 Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers were on active duty. That number grew to more than 10,000 by war’s end, together with approximately 325,000 Seabees. Postwar, he became the “Dean of the Latter-Day CEC” while head of the Department of Civil Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Almost 400 military officers earned bachelor degrees in civil engineering under his guidance, predominantly CEC officers who went on to lead the NCF for decades to come.

Lewis Barton Combs was born on 7 April 1895, at Manchester Center, Vermont.  He went to college at nearby RPI, graduating in 1916 with his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Following graduation, the New York Central Railroad employed Combs as a maintenance engineer.

After America’s entry into World War I, Combs answered the call for national service. After scoring highly on a competitive examination for the CEC, Combs received an appointment as an assistant civil engineer in the Navy with the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) on 27 December 1917. The start of 1918 found him attending an indoctrination course at the U.S. Naval Academy before reporting on February 13 to the Washington Navy Yard for duty as assistant civil engineer in charge of field construction. Combs served in this assignment throughout the remainder of World War I until September 1919.

Combs peers through the nose of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, North Field, Tinian, Feb. 27, 1945.

Combs peers through the nose of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, North Field, Tinian, Feb. 27, 1945.
Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.

Peacetime service, however, provided Combs overseas assignments and renewed recognition for his engineering and organizational skills. From September 1919 to June 1924, he served as the assistant to the engineer in chief, Republic of Haiti, with duties as director of Highways and Bridges, Harbor Development and Lighthouse Service. As part of his responsibilities, Combs organized and developed the latter two departments and construction programs. For his services, he received a letter of commendation from the President of Haiti and the Haitian National Order of Honour and Merit (rank of commander). Promoted to the permanent rank of lieutenant in July 1920, Combs built a strong rapport in Haiti with a fellow CEC lieutenant, Ben Moreell. This friendship would remain a permanent fixture for the rest of their lives as their careers each experienced an upwards trajectory.

Returning to the United States in June 1924, Combs entered a period of service on both coasts until 1935. Through the remainder of the 1920s he worked at the Navy Yards at New York and Portsmouth, N.H. On 27 April 1925, he married Laura B. Warden with Moreell as his best man. By year’s end, the Navy saw fit to promote Combs to lieutenant commander. From 1929 to 1935, Combs served in Public Works for the 9th and 11th Naval Districts, and the Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, IL, and Naval Operating Base, San Diego, CA. In May 1935, Combs and his wife moved to the Republic of the Philippines for his assignment as Public Works officer of the 16th Naval District and Cavite Navy Yard. Promoted to the rank of commander, his work on the island of Luzon included surveying the southern islands, work which proved extremely valuable in the late 1930s. For these surveys and reports he was commended by the commander in chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet.

In June 1937, Combs returned to the United States and reported for duty at BuDocks in Washington, D.C. Here he served as officer in charge of construction, Naval Experimental Model Basin, Carderock, MD, until 28 January 1938, when he became assistant chief at BuDocks. Combs remained the assistant chief for eight years, the longest such tenure of any officer in the Navy. Elevated to the rank of rear admiral on 21 Septembr 1942, this latter promotion made Combs the first officer in the Navy to hold flag rank while an assistant bureau chief.

Throughout 1944 to 1945, he personally conducted inspections of construction battalions in the Caribbean and Pacific, traveling more than 100,000 miles to personally meet with Seabees, boosting morale and welfare, listening to problems, and bringing information from the field back to BuDocks headquarters. In the area of training, Combs’ guidance was invaluable in the development and establishment of the CEC Officers School, today located in Port Hueneme, CA. While at Port Hueneme in the fall of 1943, Combs entered the film industry, serving as a technical adviser during the making of The Fighting Seabees and forming a lifelong friendship with lead actor John Wayne. Wayne would call on Combs’ advice again during production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Home for the Seabees (1977).

Combs on the set of The Fighting Seabees, Camp Pendleton, Calif., with actor John Wayne, 1943.

Combs on the set of The Fighting Seabees, Camp Pendleton, Calif., with actor John Wayne, 1943.

After the formal surrender of the Japanese in September 1945, Combs’ wartime contributions received formal recognition. He received an honorary doctorate in engineering and delivered the commencement address at RPI on 24 October 1945. After he completed his tour as BuDocks’ assistant chief on 18 February 1946, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal for orchestrating the world’s largest integrated construction program in the building of more than 900 naval bases and stations, an investment of more than $15 billion. On March 1, Combs became director, Atlantic Division, BuDocks, N.Y., where he served until ordered home and relieved of all active duty on 23 October 1947. He was transferred to the Retired List of the Navy on 1 December 1947, at the permanent rank of rear admiral.

Following his retirement, Combs taught at RPI as a professor and made head of the Department of Civil Engineering 1 January 1948. Combs oversaw the undergraduate and graduate civil engineer programs, paying particular ate ntion to the “CEC Qualification Program” for Naval Academy and Coast Guard Academy graduates. This accelerated three-year program provided graduates with both a bachelors and masters in civil engineering. Combs retired in June 1961 as a professor emeritus.

While at RPI, Combs maintained close ties with his former CEC officers, as well as BuDocks. He returned to active duty twice, first in 1955 to accompany BuDocks Chief RADM John R. Perry on an inspection tour of the base construction program in Spain, and again in 1959 traveling to the Arctic with USAF Major General Augustus M. Minton for a tour of the Distant Early Warning line of radar sites. For his contributions to military engineer education, the Society of American Military Engineers presented Combs with the Bliss Medal on May 15, 1961, making him the first CEC recipient of the award.

Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs, CEC, USN, 1895-1996.

Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs, CEC, USN, 1895-1996.
Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

For the next three decades, Combs remained active in his community. A frequent guest speaker at Seabee Balls, high school graduations, engineering conferences and other community functions, his memory and compassionate nature remained hallmarks of his character. He died in Red Hook, N.Y., on May 20, 1996, at the age of 101, preceded in death by his wife of 71 years, Laura, on March 8, 1996.