Tarawa: The “Curtain-raiser of the Central Pacific Campaign”

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

Marine Corps map of the Tarawa Atoll, with the main target of the assault, Beito, in the Southwest corner
Map of the main target of the American thrust into the Gilbert Islands, the island of Beito, showing the landings made by the US Marines

On November 23, 1943, three days after the US Marines Corps invaded the coral atoll of Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, the 74th Seabees were cleared to offload from their LSTs.  Since the invasion on the 20th, the men of this unit had been waiting patiently off shore watching the aircraft of the US fleet pound the island as the assault forces attacked the Japanese on land. When the island was declared secured by the Marines, the Seabees came ashore to find a landscape that only war can create.  “Beito, (the main island of Tarawa atoll) an island of only 285 acres, was a mass of ruins and strewn with the unburied dead” relayed the cruise book for the 74th Naval Construction Battalion. Every tree on the island had been destroyed or toppled by the relentless naval and aerial bombardment that had been unleashed on the island in the days prior to the invasion and that had killed half of the island’s Japanese defenders.  Supply dumps destroyed during the bombardment, and full of rotting food, created a breeding ground for the flies and mosquitos that swarmed across the island in a pestilent cloud.

A scene of the devestation encounted by the Seabees on Tarawa

            Though secured, the island was far from safe from the Japanese.  Hidden pockets of defenders attacked the defensive lines at night, while the island remained under constant threat of attack from the air and from the Japanese fleet that still lurked in the waters around the island.  The Seabees, who had finally buried the Japanese and American dead in a makeshift cemetery and cleared enough of the island to begin airfield construction, soon found themselves at the mercy of Japanese snipers who still remained on the island.  Though this threat was quickly neutralized,on December 3, the fear of air attack that had been in the minds of every man on the island came to fruition. Between that night and January 17, the island’s new inhabitants were subjected to sometimes nightly bombing raids aimed squarely at the island’s new airfield. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the men on the island received a present of four separate raids in a 48-hour period.   

            The life of the Seabees on Tarawa paints a portrait of the austere conditions that many soldiers, sailors, and marines faced throughout Pacific Theater.  Lack of sleep, poor food, and an absence of any recreational facilities were the norm upon invading a new island.  Sleeping quarters for the assault troops also left much to be desired with foxholes that flooded in the torrential rains of the tropics eventually giving way to organized camps with weather and insect proof tent areas. Showers and clean clothes were also a luxury, with the initial troops relegated to stripping naked in the rain with a bar of soap to clean themselves, while using special soap to “clean” their clothes in the brackish or salt water found on and around the islands.

An image of the 74th Seabee’s tent covered foxholes

            Throughout the bombings and horrible conditions, the men continued to carry out their duty to upgrade the captured Japanese airfield on the island.  Though it was usable for fighters, it would take a lot of work to make the coral concrete airstrip useable for its intended purpose of handling medium patrol bombers. The entire surface of the runway, which was not built to handle bombers, soon gave out and had to be replaced in a manner not to encumber flight operations. The Seabees also lengthened and widened the runway, and enlarged and upgraded the tarmac and taxiways that were already built by the Japanese.  Though the Seabees anticipated to be finished 45 days after the invasion, they completed their work 18 days early.

Airfield construction on Tarawa
A line of B-24 Mitchell medium bombers on the completed airfield

The story of the Seabees on Tarawa mimics the story of many units throughout the Pacific in World War II.  They faced terrible challenges, witnessed horrible scenes of carnage, and fought bravely under the most severe conditions. Yet, despite all this, they prevailed and won out. Through their victories, whether great or small, the Allies triumphed against their enemies.

Seabees at the South Pole 1956-57

Seabee Beginnings at the South Pole

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Task Force 43 represented the U.S. Navy’s contributions to the International Geophysical Year. The four quadrants of the shield depict the Fleet, Naval Air, Seabees and Antarctica.  U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Seabees began construction on the first South Pole Station during the “Summer Season” of 1956-1957 – almost 20 years before their famous South Pole Dome. Early construction on Antarctica supported the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a first coalition of 39 nations committed to an 18-month systematic investigation of the Earth’s environment using the latest technologies. Along with seven ships from the Atlantic Fleet and an air wing with extreme cold experience, US Navy support of IGY – designated Task Force 43 – included a special unit of Seabees created to build-up the facilities required to do the science. Seabees were specifically tasked with constructing research facilities between the Ross Ice Shelf and the South Pole.

 

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Seabees routinely tested the ice foundations of supply trails as part of convoys across the Antarctic. Crevasses and other dangers could be hidden under a thin sheet of ice, endangering both lives and equipment. U. S. Navy Seabee Museum

Construction on the first Amundsen-South Pole station began in November 1956. Seabees faced unbelievably difficult conditions in Antarctica, which were amplified by the remote conditions of the South Pole. Common Seabee activities, such as transporting simple construction materials or maintaining a runway, became dangerous when crossing a frozen continent to supply the new Station. Blog Antarctica White OutSeabees faced extreme weather, extreme cold, and extreme geographical features such as crevasses, as they sought to make the pole habitable.

 

 

 

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This set of pants and hooded jacket, official known as inclement weather gear, were worn by a Seabee during the 1956-1957 Summer Season. Many of the vehicles were also painted a shade of red to make them easier to spot against the icy blues and whites of Antarctica.  U. S. Navy Seabee Museum

In order to keep Seabees safe while they completed construction, the Navy waived some their standard uniforming and grooming regulations. Seabees could wear almost anything that helped them to work comfortably in the extreme conditions. This included a wide variety of headgear, undergarments, wool shirts and “longer than regulation” hair and beards. In addition, special clothing was issued so that work parties in white out conditions could be easily located.

 

 

Approximately 25 Seabees began construction at the station with Jamesway hut berthing – basically insulated arched tents based on a Quonset hut design. These temporary structures were almost immediately replaced with flat-roof prefabricated Clements buildings. Knowing that the original structures would be buried within years by blowing snow, a second story was added to many of these structures. These buildings, along with pitched roof buildings known as T-5 huts, were used until the iconic South Pole Dome replaced the original or “Old Pole” Station.

The Amundsen-South Pole Station has been in continuous use since the first Jamesway hut was set-up by these intrepid Seabees. Officially commissioned and dedicated on January 23, 1957, the success of the Amundsen-South Pole stations that replaced the first are intricately woven with the Seabee spirit. Their “Can Do” attitude ensured operational stations remained in place since that first winter-over season of 1957, continuing long after Seabees departed Antarctica that final time in 1994.

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The U.S. Navy Seabees who built the first South Pole Station beginning in late November and finishing in late December 1956. Standing: Siple (civilian), Speirs, Williamson, Tyler, Wagner, Bevilacqua, McCormick, Randall, Patton, Roberts, Goodwin, Bowers. Kneeling: Scott, Chaudoin, Hisey, Prescott, Powell, Nolan, Montgomery, Hubel, Woody, McGrillis, Slaton. Not pictured: Tuck. Paul Siple was the chief scientist at the South Pole during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-1958. U.S. Navy Lieutenant junior grade Richard A. Bowers was the Officer in Charge of construction. Bill Bristol, Navy photographer, took the photo. The shadow of the South Pole marker can be seen down the middle. Photograph by U. S. Navy, NSF

 

 

 

Bougainville Diary: The Naval Construction Battalion First Marine Amphibious Corps (53rd Seabees) on Bougainville

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

53rd emblem

While the Seabees were formed, in great part, to support the Marines as they moved across the Pacific, several battalions became intimately linked with the Marine units they fought with.  One of these units was the 53rd Naval Construction Battalion, or as it became known, the Naval Construction Battalion First Amphibious Corps.  This blog will discuss the months the 53rd spent on the island of Bougainville, and will use many pictures from their unit’s cruise book to help tell their story.

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“Service with Compassion”: Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 during Operation Sea Signal

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

The success of every military operation is dependent on the cooperation and the teamwork of the various military units taking part.  Operation Sea Signal, which took place between August, 1994 and February, 1996 was no different.  This humanitarian operation was in response to the massive influx of Cuban and Haitian migrants leaving their native shores by sea to find a new life in the United States.  While the achievements of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4 during this time are more well known, they were not the only Seabee unit to take part in this difficult mission.

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American Archives Month at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

October is American Archives Month, when archivists nationwide highlight their collections and remind the public that their history is being preserved. The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s archive selects, collects, preserves and displays materials that highlight the history of the Seabees. The archives primarily consist of:

-Newsletters                                                                      -Ephemera

-Photographs                                                                    -Maps

-Deployment Completion Reports                               -Monthly Reports

-Rosters showing the movement of personnel

These were all meant to be temporary records, but have been retained by our archive, as they reflect the history of the Seabees from 1942 to the present. They’re important because of real property and land ownership issues and questions that arise and also because of the details of the construction and humanitarian aid that Seabees have accomplished.

Our records are mainly used for:

  1. VA Claims: veterans contact us to obtain documentation that they were in a certain place at a certain time. They may have been exposed to something or experienced a traumatic or physically damaging event that still affects them today, and they need proof that they were at a location and with a unit, in order to receive VA benefits and services.
  2. Environmental Cleanup: various governmental and private agencies contact us to see what kinds of projects were happening in specific locations, in order to address environmental concerns in those areas.
  3. National Landmarks: people contact us in order to receive more information about a specific place and the events that occurred there, to see if those locations may be eligible to be added to the register of National Historical Landmarks.
  4. Individuals looking for information about their family. We often receive questions from people looking for information about their fathers or grandfathers service. Often these family members didn’t talk much about their service, so they want to find out more information. We tell them that although we don’t keep records of individual men, we do have unit records. From these, they can find out where their family member was stationed, and what they may have experienced while there.
  5. Governments trying to determine what happened and where. For example, the Japanese government recently contacted us to see if we had specific information about where their cemetery was located on the island of Peleliu.

While we have collections that researchers typically expect, such as records for specific units and commands, there are also uncommon collections, such as our back wall of geographical and subject files. These files were compiled by past historians and give a quick glimpse into certain aspects of Seabee history. They are organized by units, subjects, geographical location, and also contain personal collections and files for certain CEC officers and Seabees. Often these files can provide insight into a subject that will lead the researcher to other paths of inquiry that they may have not previously considered.

 

Backwall

The files that line the back wall of our archive contain documents, photographs, newsletters, clippings, ephemera, and correspondence. Scanning the back wall files can yield surprising finds.

Reagan

From the Honorary Seabee File, a 1967 clipping naming California Governor Ronald Reagan as Honorary Seabee.

Seabee-Float

From the Anniversary, Seabee – Rose Bowl Float File, a photographs of the 1967 25th anniversary Rose Parade Seabee Float

 

Drawing

From the personal collection of Seabee Donald Taylor of Pontoon Assembly Detachment 2, a sketchpad with drawings

Korea-Train

From the geographical files for Korea, a clipping detailing the Great Train Robbery of 1953

This collection provides a way for people, who may not know a great deal about their research question, or who may not usually interact with a military archive, to connect with the materials and explore different avenues of Seabee history that they may not have considered exploring.

 

 

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 8 and their “Wonder Arch”

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

During the Vietnam War, one of the many missions that the Seabees undertook were military construction projects in support of US Marine Corps operations in Southeast Asia.  One of the major centers for this support were the multiple US military facilities in and around the South Vietnamese port city of Da Nang.  Like many locations throughout the Republic of Vietnam, both Da Nang Air Base and the nearby Marble Mountain Air Facility came under attack during January, 1968’s Tet Offensive.  These attacks resulted in the deaths of seven Marines, the wounding of twelve others, and the destruction and damage of almost thirty aircraft.  The aftermath of the Viet Cong offensive began a concerted effort to find a way to better protect the millions of dollars in aircraft and equipment that was stationed at these and other bases throughout South Vietnam.  The answer proved to be a project that had been in testing by the US Air force for the past several years: the Wonder Arch! Continue reading

The Seabees and their “Other Birthday”

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

While the US Navy celebrates its birthday on October 13, did you know that there is a Navy community that celebrates a different birthday? Like the US Navy as a whole, this community was formed out of need and has a storied history of its own.  That community is the US Navy Seabees!

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Ben Moreell, the Father of the Seabees

It all began on December 8, 1941.  The United States was now at war against Japan, across the Pacific, and Germany, across the Atlantic.  Then RADM Ben Moreell, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, understood that to sustain a war across such great distances, bases, supply depots, hospitals, and air fields would have to be built to support the Allied advances against the enemy.  Therefore, on December 28, 1942, Moreell requested the authority to recruit enlisted personnel with previous construction experience to form a new naval construction force. This date, December 28, become the first Seabee birthday, and so it would remain for the next twelve years.

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