World War II, particularly the island hopping nature of combat in the Pacific requiring constant construction of bases, demonstrated to America the need for combat ready construction workers, which gave rise to the organization of the Seabees. World War II also created a need for women to fill in the ranks of various military branches, including the newly created Seabees, the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) and Navy as a whole. While the first officially designated woman Seabee didn’t join the ranks until 1972, the steps towards admitting women into the Seabees began in World War II.
Ens. Kathleen F. Lux, paved the way by being the first female Civil Engineer Officer. She entered the Naval Reserve on November 28, 1942 and received her commission after training at U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School in Northampton, Massachusetts. Lux served as an assistant in the office of Commodore C.P. Conrad, director of the Construction Department.
After World War II ended, women’s involvement in all branches of the military declined, and it wouldn’t be until the end of another major war before that they were once again encouraged to take a more active role in the military. As the Vietnam Conflict drew to a close, women began to enter the armed services as more opportunities were made available. This increase in female servicemembers affected not only the CEC, but it also paved the way for women to join the Seabees. 1972 had the distinction of not only seeing a female officer rejoin the CEC, the first since World War II, but also seeing the first female Seabee being selected for duty. Ensign Jeri Rigoulot became reported to Officer Candidate School at Newport, R.I. in October 1972 and was commissioned as an ensign in the CEC Naval Reserve in February 1973. During that same summer, Constructionman Camella Jones became the first female Seabee by cross-rating as an Equipment Operator.
In the following years, women continued to take active roles in Navy and Seabee operations. In 1984, Chief Builder Carol Diane Keehner is believed to have been the first female Seabee to make Chief.
The 1990s saw great strides in the advancement women in the Seabees. In August 1990, female Seabees were assigned to Construction Battalion Units (CBU) 411 and 415 and their mission sent them to Saudi Arabia to erect and maintain a fleet hospital. In fact, both CBU’s had female CEC officers in charge during their deployment that marked the first time female CEC officers led troops in a combat zone. In 1992, Keehner was the first female Seabee to make Master Chief and there were at least ten women in the ACB 1 (Amphibious Construction Battalion) designated as Seabees deployed to Somalia in December 1992.
Though women have long been ready and willing to take on the “Can Do” spirt of the Seabees, one of the major obstacles in their way was the very thing that made the Seabees special, the fact that they are not only construction workers but also designated as combat units. Though women were already serving in ACBs they were still barred by law from serving in Mobile Construction Battalions (MCBs). As war realities have changed, the idea of what was considered a combat zone has also been evolving. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, women were limited to non-combat support roles such as communications, transportation, medicine, administration, and military police work, but often found themselves in harm’s way. As the Gulf War has shown us, in the modern era almost any type of military unit, even ones miles behind what used to be called the front lines, can find themselves subject to attack. Although no American women were killed in the Gulf War, some were injured by enemy attacks and several assigned to transportation units were taken prisoner by the Iraqis.
These changes in warfare lead to the 1994 National Defense Authorization Act, which finally allowed women to be legally assigned to surface combat ships and mobile construction battalions. The Bureau of Naval Personnel began drawing up plans to integrate female Seabees and CEC officers into mobile construction battalions. The first woman ordered to an MCB was Chief Builder Cheryl Hundley, who reported to MCB 5 on April 5, 1994. Later that month, Lt. j.g. Michaela Bradley became the first female CEC officer assigned to a MCB when she reported aboard MCB 133. By June 1994, more than 100 enlisted women and 14 women officers were assigned to mobile construction battalions, and by October all eight MCB’s had women on board. This change was significant because it opened up more than 4,000 seagoing positions to women, which could only have a positive effect on their military careers. Before this change in assignment policy, most female Seabees were confined to shore positions, such as public works departments and construction battalion units.
In 1996 the Seabee’s had another first, this time underwater. Petty Officer Margret Cooper became the first woman Underwater Construction Team (UCT) Seabee. As the CEC and Seabees integrated women into their workforce, they continued to prove that no matter their gender, Seabees and CECs have the spirit and determination to fulfill every role, no matter what locations or challenges they faced.
Not only did women prove they could do the same jobs and meet combat ready requirements, they also proved that they could lead and command forces and battalions.
The commanding career of current Rear Adm. Katherine Gregory began when she became the first female CEC to lead battalion on June 11, 1999 when she reported to NMCB 133 as their Commanding Officer. She then served as commander to the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, and Chief of Staff for the First Naval Construction Division, and the Pacific Fleet Civil Engineer. On October 26, 2012, having achieved the rank of rear admiral, she assumed duties as commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command and Chief of Civil Engineers.
A contemporary of Gregory is Rear Adm. Paula Campbell Brown who was the first female commander of a Seabee regiment in combat when she took the helm of 30th Naval Construction Regiment (Forward) in Iraq. She command this post from September 2005 to March 2006, proving not only could Seabee women fight in combat, but that they could lead as well. Brown also served as Commanding Officer of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 18 and Commander of the First Naval Construction Regiment (1st NCR). During Operation Iraqi Freedom, she mobilized as the Commander, 30th NCR (rear) for seven months in Pearl Harbor with the Pacific Seabees. She made history again as the first female Deputy Commander of the First Naval Construction Division in 2010.
Seabee women have proven that they can do anything their male counterparts can do, including going back to basics. In 2012, almost by accident, the first all-female construction team took on a construction job from start to finish, a first in the Seabees’ 70-year history. They were able to complete it in record time in the barren rocky mountains of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the focus of recent combat efforts.
As we move forward, women will continue to show their strength and capability. With a strong history and the “Can Do” attitude, the women of the Seabees and CEC will continue to break barriers with honor, purpose, and integrity.
Meet the Archivist: Ingi House
Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from K.U. and M.L.S. from E.S.U. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast. In D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Admiration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history lead her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison