By: Julius Lacano
The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of the entire Second World War spanning from the Declaration of War against Germany by France and the United Kingdom on September 3, 1939 to Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. Though technically neutral in the conflict, the entrance of the United States into this battle actually preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Beginning with the recommendations of the Hepburn Board in 1939, the United States began a massive defensive program to better protect the Atlantic coast and the Panama Canal from Axis aggression. While the initial bases in places like San Juan, Puerto Rico; Trinidad; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were constructed completely with civilian labor, the entry of the U.S. into the war brought the Seabees unto the scene.
The development and construction of Naval Air Station (NAS) Bermuda, for example, was started in February of 1941 under a civilian contract. Its design called for an air base, a fuel depot, an anti-aircraft training school, and a base for both ships and submarines. The civilian contractor had difficulty getting construction workers to Bermuda. The slow arrival of contractors and an overall manpower shortage resulted in the contractors doing “extraneous work having no connection with the permanent air station” according the Officer-In-Charge of Construction.
The first Seabees to arrive were members of the 31st Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) on December 5, 1942. Two months later they were joined be 49th NCB. While most of the major construction was already finished, these two battalions completed the build-up of the naval and air base and brought them to full operation. They also completed unfinished projects such as building roads, setting up utilities, and cleanup from the massive construction effort. Once construction was finished these two units served under the Public Works Department and took over maintenance, repair, and operational duties for all U.S. Naval activity in Bermuda.
An interesting turn in the U.S.’s defensive preparations was Iceland’s request for the U.S. military to occupy and defend the island nation. Even though the British had made a preemptive invasion in 1940, and had received de facto support from the Icelandic government, they had neither the manpower nor the resources to maintain an occupation. Therefore, on June 16, 1941, the U.S. took over an occupation of Iceland that would ultimately involve over 30,000 U.S Army and Navy personnel.
In an effort to support the British war effort, while remaining out of the conflict and abiding by the Neutrality Act, the U.S. hired contractors to construct fuel-oil storage facilities as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement. U.S. contractors arrived in Iceland during the summer of 1941 to build the fuel oil facility, and an air station for patrol planes. When the U.S. joined the Allies, the size of the air base was increased and a hospital and larger fuel facility were added to the plans.
The distance between Iceland and the U.S. made maintaining the supply chain problematic, and combined with a lack of trained contractors, the short building season and challenging terrain, construction was slow going and difficult. The Seabees arrived in July 1942 and had completely taken over construction of the fuel tank farm and air field by October.
Throughout the winter, the Seabees built the airfield and used their legendary ingenuity to solve the many problems associated with its construction. One issue they encountered was when hot asphalt was poured on the frozen ground it caused pools of mud to form under the runway making them unusable. To compensate, the Seabees first laid down a porous material as a base that allowed the water to escape as steam. Through their ingenuity, tenacity, and dedication, the Seabees fought the harsh climate and terrain, the lack of roads and maps, and the need to replace both their asphalt plant and their rock crusher and delivered a completed airfield on March 26, 1943, five days early.
Though the war in the Pacific was a larger undertaking than the Battle of the Atlantic it was, nonetheless, a hard fought, costly, and important Allied victory that was assisted greatly by the Seabees and the bases they built.