Seabees in the Battle of the Atlantic

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

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.

bermuda building

Construction of the base warehouse by the 49th NCB

 

 

bermuda shark

Chief Dunn and Chief Connors enjoy some of their well earned time off

 

bermuda ship

Seabees assigned to the 49th NCB arrive home from Bermuda on January 18, 1944.

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.

Iceland snow truck

Iceland snow truck broke

The weather and terrain wreaked havoc on both men and equipment

Iceland paving

Seabees lay down porous base to allow steam to escape from frozen ground when hot asphalt was laid down on top

Iceland snow ops building 1

Iceland snow ops building 2

Seabees work through the winter of 1943 to construct the Air Field Operations building

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.

Seabees in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope

Somalia map

Map of Somalia in Africa.

In 1992, the United States sent military support to provide relief to the war-torn nation of Somalia. That December, the Seabees deployed as one of the units forming the United Nations’ coalition force in support of Operation Restore Hope. The main objective under Operation Restore Hope was to create a protected environment to conduct humanitarian operations in the southern half of Somalia and bring food and water to starving Somalians.

MCB40_6-Somalia-crop

Seabee and local people pumping water in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope

Seabees supported this effort through establishing and constructing base camps at humanitarian relief sites. To connect the camps, Seabees repaired and improved main supply routes by clearing debris from city streets including bridges. However, one of the largest projects was renovating and expanding the Baidoa airstrip. This project involved removing 300,000 square feet of asphalt surface, pulverizing and mixing it with cement, and then grading and compacting the mixture. More than 600,000 square feet of AM2 matting was also laid for aircraft turnarounds, parking aprons, and helipads. The airstrip enabled the coalition’s C-130 relief flights that brought food to local people.

Furthermore, Seabees provided humanitarian support by drilling and restoring water wells, and completing work on schools and orphanages. These daily humanitarian efforts nurtured connections with local people, their daily life, and art forms. Such is displayed through these Somali baskets, which Seabees brought home from their time in Africa during Operation Restore Hope. These baskets do exactly that, restore hope. Using their traditional artistry, local people gathered available grasses and wove these three baskets with lids. One of which is located in our 1990s gallery as part of “The History of the Seabees in 75 Objects,” temporary exhibit is open February 2018 through January 31, 2019.

baskets

Somali Baskets crafted in Somalia and brought back to the United States in 1993. NMCB 40 and 30th NCR transferred the baskets to the U.S.N. Seabee Museum.

 

 

 

 

A Memorial to those that “CAN DO!”

 

Memorial Seabee and child

A Seabee and a child: “A builder, a fighter, and an ‘Ambassador of Goodwill’ “

 

March 5th, 2018 marks the 76th birthday of the U.S. Naval Construction Force. To celebrate this occasion, Naval Facilities and Engineering Command (NAVFAC) will lay a wreath at a memorial dedicated to men and women whose esprit de corps and ability to do the impossible made them legendary. Though many visitors may name the Vietnam War Memorial, the Washington Monument, or the Lincoln Memorial, there are many other monuments and memorials that also hold a place in the proud history of the United States. Among these is the memorial dedicated to the U.S. Naval Construction Force, the Seabees. As the founder of the Seabees, ADM Ben Moreell, CEC, USN (Ret), remarked, “I have seen this force at work under oppressive and dangerous conditions and I have observed its great potential. It is akin to that faith from which stems the ‘power to remove mountains,’ faith in God, in country, in shipmates and in one’s self.”

Instead of being the work of the United States government, the money needed to bring this memorial to fruition came through the tireless efforts of Seabees past and present. In March 1970, a call went out among the active duty, retired, and veteran Seabee community to donate $4 million to a memorial foundation created to build a fitting monument to honor all Seabees, especially those who had lost their lives, since its founding in 1942, and to also establish a scholarship fund.

DeWeldon IWO

Painter Second Class Felix W. de Weldon presents his bronze model of the United States Marine Corps Memorial to President Harry S Truman

 

seabee memorial 1

de Weldon’s hand drawn design of the completed monument

 

To create this monument, a commission was offered to Felix de Weldon, an Austrian born sculptor and Seabee veteran, most famous for the creation of the United States Marine Corps Memorial, known by many as the Iwo Jima Memorial. De Weldon’s design called for a memorial made up of four separate parts. At the forefront would be a nine foot tall sculpture of a Seabee, armed with an M1 Garand, whom had just stepped off his unseen bulldozer to greet a small child. This image depicted the Seabees as builders, fighters, and as “Ambassadors of Goodwill.”   The statue would stand on a finished piece of black granite into which would be carved the words:

   “WITH COMPASSION FOR OTHERS

               WE BUILD – WE FIGHT

FOR PEACE WITH FREEDOM

            Behind the statue would be a bas-relief that showed Seabees trained in the various construction trades. Depicted are builders, equipment operators, engineering assistants, Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers and others working together to complete missions such as airfield, bridge, and watch tower construction. Above the relief, the Seabee motto, “SEABEES – CAN DO”, would be etched in gold. Below the a relief would be a paraphrase of a sign made famous on the island of Bougainville during WWII: “With Willing Hearts and Skillful Hands the Difficult We do at Once, the Impossible Takes a Bit Longer.” On either side of the previously mentioned portions were to be granite pillars inscribed with a dedication, the Navy Hymn, and sites where Seabees had deployed from WWII to the then present day.

Memorial Seabees can do

The bas relief behind the main statue that shows Seabees and CEC officers engaged in various labors.

 

seabee memorial 2

Construction workers and artisans work to complete the memorial before its dedication in 1974.

 

At first the money came in slowly, but by 1973, due to the hard work and perseverance that are a hallmark of the Seabees, the $250,000 needed to create the memorial had been collected by the foundation. After delays in site approval, both houses of Congress passed the bills that authorized construction thus allowing the installation of the finished pieces, which until then, had been stored in Mr. de Weldon’s Washington, DC workshop. On Memorial Day, 1974, the memorial was unveiled and dedicated. Among the speakers and distinguished guests were ADM Moreell, the current and former commanders of NAVFAC, the sculptor, and the Acting Secretary of the Navy.

The National Seabee Memorial is located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, across from the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall. It stands on Memorial Avenue, the road that visitors and mourners alike take to reach this nation’s most hallowed ground, Arlington National Cemetery.

Pop-up Museum at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum: Community Curation

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum will host a “Pop-Up Museum” on March 3rd, 2018 from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Pop-Up Museums are an aspect of “Community Curation,” a community event where people bring in their personal artifacts for display. We are asking participants to bring artifacts directly related to the Seabee and CEC experience. Examples include war trophies, trench art created in a combat zone, personal pictures and letters, items collected in the field, specialized tools and other items of interest.

Continue reading

Breaking Down Barriers: The 34th Naval Construction Battalion

While “African Americans have served in the U.S. Navy during every declared war in American history” 1, in June 1940, only 2.3% of Navy personnel were black, and rated primarily as stewards and messmen. The Selective Service Act of 1940 provided that in the selection and training of men “there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race or color.”2 In the summer of 1942, the Navy opened all general service ratings to African-Americans, with the caveat that they be segregated in training schools, quarters, and military units. An exception to this came with the establishment of Naval Construction Battalions.

34th-logo

34th Naval Construction Battalion logo.

The 34th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), established on 23 October 1942 at Norfolk, Virginia, was the first battalion primarily comprised of African-American personnel who had previous construction experience in over 50 trades including electricians, carpenters, blacksmiths, riggers, painters, draftsmen, and steelworkers. The 34th NCB consisted of 880 black men and 280 white men, with all white officers, chief and first-class petty officers. These new enlistees began basic training with their battalions, and eventually were deployed together overseas.

34th-bridge

1943: Construction of Ilu River bridge on Highway 50 at Guadalcanal, by men of the 34th NCB.

The 34th NCB served on Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Okinawa. At one point, the 34th was split into small detachments and spread throughout the Northern and Central Solomon Islands, where they constructed airstrips, roads, warehouses, hospitals, and other military facilities. At the height of the war, there were more than 12,000 black Seabees, nine black battalions, and 15 predominately black stevedore construction battalions, or “specials”.

34th-divers (1)

November 1943: three 34th NCB divers working on the marine railway at Gavuta. Note the improvised diving gear made from gas mask. From left to right: H.M. Douglas, Slc (CB); T.A. Blair, CM2c (CB) and I. Philip, SF2c (CB).

Despite the progressive nature and success of the 34th NCB, they struggled to gain equitable treatment from their superiors. In October 1944, after a 20 month overseas deployment, the 34th NCB returned to Camp Rousseau in Port Hueneme, California. Their Commanding Officer instituted such policies as separate quarters, mess lines and mess huts for white and black enlisted personnel.He also refused to rate blacks as chief petty officers, and black petty officers were used to perform unskilled, manual labor, and were never placed in charge of base working details, unlike their white counterparts. In response, over 1000 black Seabees staged a hunger strike from March 2-3, 1945, refusing to eat, yet continuing to perform their assigned duties. A subsequent investigation by the Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, stated that “if the present commanding officer persists in his policy regarding the non-rating of Negro chief petty officers, the filling of all vacancies in the grade of petty officer first class will cause virtual stagnation in the advancement of negro petty officers of a lower rating and will have the effect of suppressing all ambition within the Negro personnel.”3 The Bureau determined that “although there may be some degree of natural segregation in a mixed group, under no circumstances should there be segregation or discrimination forced by reason of quartering, messing, and assignment to duty.”4 As a result of the investigation, the CO, his executive officer, and twenty percent of the officers and petty officers were relieved of their duties.

34th-Purple-Hearts

February 1944: Joseph E. Vaughn, MM3c, Harry E. Lash, CM3c, and William A. Shields, GM3c, members of the 34th NCB. Awarded Purple Heart medals for wounds received during enemy bombing on 22 February 1943, Kukum, Guadalcanal.

The new commanding officer instituted a training program designed to allow for enlisted personnel to be rerated, and provide greater opportunities for qualified black Seabees of this groundbreaking battalion to receive the promotions that were previously denied to them. All but three Seabee battalions were deactivated following the end of WWII. The 34th NCB was deactivated in October 1945.

References

1. NAVFAC Historian’s Office (1988). Black Americans in the U.S. Navy 1776-1946.
2. NAVFAC Historian’s Office (1988) . Black Americans in the U.S. Navy 1776-1946.
3. Naval Inspector General letter (1945). Conditions at Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme, California, Investigation of.
4. Chief of Naval Personnel letter (1945). Conditions at Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme, Calif., Investigation of.

 

 

U.S. Navy Seabee Museum gives TLC to Seabee Heritage Center in Gulfport, MS

It’s that time of year—a time for goodwill, for giving thanks, and lending a helping hand. With many holiday seasons or projects, they do not happen overnight as we prep for cooking a great meal, make travel plans to spend time with family, or take time off our normal work to help others. Similarly, the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s exhibit plan for the Seabee Heritage Center did not happen overnight, and took numerous people, from museum staff and volunteers, and yes—Seabees, to make the magic happen.

gp march 2017

Seabee Heritage Center, Gulfport, MS, March 2017.

Beginning in March, Seabee Museum staff looked through the museum’s collection database, and archives to choose specific artifacts and materials to tell the Seabee story. Each item was pulled, text written, and the artifacts shipped for a weeklong mission at the Seabee Heritage Center at Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport. While there, staff revitalized more than twenty-five exhibit cases and assessed what steps to take next in the exhibit space.

Springing forward few months to summer, museum staff began planning for a December 1st celebration rounding off the Seabee 75th anniversary at the NCBC Gulfport Seabee Heritage Center.

_Gulfport-final-sketch-up-image-

Digital drawing of new exhibit layout for Seabee Heritage Center, November 2017.

In preparation for the exhibit and celebration, much like earlier this year, museum staff considered artifacts, how to best tell the Seabee story, and when staff could fly to Gulfport for a weeklong installation. Before staff could consider a layout of the artifacts, they gathered an understanding of how the heritage center will be used in the present and future, along with taking into consideration the artifacts already on display. Moving forward with these facts, Seabee Museum staff designed a digital 3-D layout of the exhibit space and cases, figured out what and where artifacts might fit, as well as designed art panels telling the Gulfport battalions’ and the Seabee story from WWII to present.

Packing-up artifacts and exhibit supplies at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, November, 2017.

Packing-up artifacts and exhibit supplies for shipment from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, November, 2017.

As November rolled around, with yards of bubble wrap in hand, museum staff and volunteers packed and shipped three pallets of artifacts, art panels, and exhibit supplies to the Seabee Heritage Center in Mississippi. As with most events, timing is everything. Museum staff flew to Gulfport the night before the shipment arrived and in the morning Seabees helped move large exhibit cases and prep the space for exhibit.

Seabee Heritage Center, November 2017

Newly completed exhibits at Seabee Heritage Center at Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport, MS, November 2017.

Over the next four days, two museum staff members unwrapped and displayed over forty-five newly shipped artifacts, more than twenty-five textual art panels, then cleaned and spruced-up more than twenty-five exhibit cases in the main room and the entryway display honoring the fallen. At which time, the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum staff wrapped up the week flying back home to Port Hueneme, California and Thanksgiving with their families.

Happy Holidays.

Seabee Heritage Center entryway, November 2017

Seabee Heritage Center entryway, November 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Navy Ghost Stories at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

scary

The ‘Seabee Zombie’ and his wife the ‘Mistress of the Night’ greeted the story telling guests to the event.

Halloween was celebrated at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum with a story telling session by the Seabee Zombie. The STEM Center was filled with fog, the guest arrived, and the Seabee Zombie with his wife, the Mistress of the Night, appeared to tell stories from Eric Mills’ book, “The Spectral Tide: True Ghost Stories of the U.S. Navy.”  Stories were told of brave sailors who fell victim to the wages of war.

One story was of the Sullivan brothers, who all five perished in the Solomon Islands after their ship the USS Juneau was bombed, torpedoed, and sunk.  Stories were told of the USS Hornet, the most haunted ship in the Navy, such as the angry captured Japanese pilot. A kamikaze pilot missed his mark, rescued by the Hornet’s sailors, thrown into the brig, and then committed suicide.  To this day the kamikaze pilot still roams the brig, attacking whoever spends the night there.

Seabee Zombie

The ‘Seabee Zombie’ telling the story about the USS Hornet, the most haunted ship in the U.S. Navy and the captured Japanese kamikaze pilot.

Other stories included the USS Lexington and their friendly ghost everyone calls “Charlie” and the guilt-ridden officer’s ghost, who keeps trying to get back to his station on the USS Arizona after he left it for some insignificant reason just before the sneak attack, and was killed on the initial wave.

One story is of the “Smoking Man,” a sailor who observed the gathering ships for the Battle of Midway from the Atoll’s dock, who is still seen there to this day.  Stories were told of the USS North Carolina which is presently moored in Wilmington, as a museum.  Tourist have been scared-off the ship when they observed chairs moving by themselves, or the caretaker and his girlfriend who saw a face looking at them from a padlocked room on the ship when they were on the dock.  All enjoyed the afternoon of storytelling and sharing ghost stories.

For about an hour museum visitors were captivated by stories of haunted Navy ships, and bases. However, most important was the stories of the brave sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice.