By: Julius Lacano
Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum
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.
Painter Second Class Felix W. de Weldon presents his bronze model of the United States Marine Corps Memorial to President Harry S Truman
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.
The bas relief behind the main statue that shows Seabees and CEC officers engaged in various labors.
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.