Curator’s Corner: The “Ash Kick’n’ Seabees” and Mount Pinatubo

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Monument unveiled at Naval Air Station Cubi Point in the fall of 1991 for the Seabees of Operation Fiery Vigil who “kicked ash” and removed volcanic ash from Subic Bay and Cubi Point. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

It’s been almost 25 years since Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted and covered the U.S. military bases, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay, in volcanic ash. Only the courageous and skilled Seabees could handle a job of this immense proportion to clean up the aftermath of this volcanic eruption.

On the morning of June 15, 1991, Mount Pinatubo, which resides in the Zambales Mountains on the island of Luzon (the largest and most populous island of the Philippines), erupted with fury after remaining dormant for more than 600 years. This was the second largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.

Map of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. (Photo from U.S. Geological Survey)

Map of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo. (Photo from U.S. Geological Survey)

The 4,800 foot tall volcano stood only nine miles away from Clark Air Base which was the home to over 15,000 military personnel and dependents who were all directly in the path of the intense ash fall. Approximately 25 miles to the southwest stood Subic Bay and Cubi Point, both locations which had been deemed safe and outside the range of serious damage.

Within minutes of the eruptions, Clark Air Base and most of central Luzon fell into total darkness due to the giant ash cloud which would continue to travel and cover an area of 48,000 square miles.

As if this natural disaster was not bad enough, it was monsoon season and Typhoon Yunya made landfall on the island that same day. Yunya’s winds and rain mixed with Pinatubo’s ash, creating gray mud which acted as a cement-like substance as it fell.

Between both military bases, over 600 buildings either collapsed or were severely damaged by the lahar flow of the volcano. Lahar is a type of mudflow or debris flow composed of a slurry of pyroclastic material (cement-like volcanic materials), rocky debris and water. They are extremely destructive and wreak havoc upon anything in its path. Anywhere from 6 to 18 inches of wet volcanic ash covered everything in sight of the bases. The enormity of this cleanup task from the volcano seemed insurmountable and impossible, until the “kick ash” Seabees arrived.

Seabees assigned to NMCB 4 are using a bulldozer and front loader to remove wet ash from Subic Bay and Cubi Point. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Seabees assigned to NMCB 4 are using a bulldozer and front loader to remove wet ash from Subic Bay and Cubi Point. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Thankfully due to the predictions of the volcano’s eruption in the proceeding days, on June 10, 1991 Joint Task Force Operation Fiery Vigil was activated to help evacuate personnel and bring relief supplies. Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3, 4, 5, and Construction Battalion Mobile Unit 302 had arrived within days of the eruption to start clearing off runways. Over the next month the number of Seabees increased to over 500 men tasked with clearing roads, repairing fallen electrical lines, restoring power, cleaning out drainage channels, and demolishing damaged buildings to build new ones.

Working around the clock, the “ash kicking” Seabees had removed over 250,000 tons of ash from over 50 miles of paved surfaces at Subic Bay and Cubi Point Airfield by the end of October 1991. Due to the irreparable damage by the volcano at Clark Air Base, the base was ultimately abandoned by the United States. After the cleanup at Subic Bay, the base reverted back to the Philippine government in 1992 after the breakdown of lease negotiations.

This plaque commemorates the joint cleanup effort of the Seabees for their relentless dedication to Mount Pinatubo Disaster Recovery June – October 1991. This plaque resides in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum collection. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

This plaque commemorates the joint cleanup effort of the Seabees for their relentless dedication to Mount Pinatubo Disaster Recovery June – October 1991. This plaque resides in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum collection. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Before the Seabees left the Philippines after their gallant cleanup effort, they wanted to commemorate their immense operation. At a park appropriately named Seabee Point overlooking the South China Sea, Seabees unveiled a monument to the joint cleanup effort. The Plaque read: “SEABEE POINT – Dedicated to the ‘Ash kick’n’ Seabees of the Naval Construction Force for their relentless dedication to Mount Pinatubo Disaster Recovery ‘Operation Phoenix’ June – October 1991.”

When the United States turned the naval bases back over to the Philippines in 1992 the Seabees brought the plaque back to Port Hueneme and resides in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum collection.

——– 150225-N-JU810-010

Meet the Curator: Robyn King Robyn King earned her Bachelors in History and Anthropology from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She has experience working at State Museums, Historic Sites, the National Parks Service, and most recently the Navy. She’s an expert in collection management, and has worked closely with both natural and cultural collections. Robyn loves all museums and sharing her love of history. When’s she not working, she’s volunteering her time with the National Peace Corps Association, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from West Africa.

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