Seabees in Thailand: Helping Others Help Themselves

BPP3

January 1967: Signs erected by the BPP at the entrance to 0405 camp area.

In June 1962, the first of the Seabee Teams stationed at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme began training for their new assignment.  The mission of these State Department sponsored 13-man teams was to deploy to underdeveloped and emerging nations in Southeast Asia, and provide on-the-job training in construction projects to benefit the community, and medical assistance. Seabee Teams began their work in Thailand in May of 1963, and until June 1966 they worked under the Accelerated Rural Development (ARD) program, teaching Thai nationals construction equipment operations and maintenance, dam and bridge construction, and road surveying.

BPP6

November 1966: 0909 Team and counterpart Border Patrol Police Team.

In the fall of 1966, this mission changed to unite these Seabee Teams with their new counterparts, the Border Patrol Police (BPP) officers of the Royal Thai Government. The focus of this program was to develop remote border areas in Thailand, as these areas represented the first line of defense against the political unrest and hostile forces from Communist agitators and terrorists. The program also had the aim of extending the lines of Thai government presence, and establishing more of a connection and greater support between the remote villages that otherwise had little to no contact with the government.

BPP8

UT1 J.C. Storer of 0806 instructs BPP in the proper operation of the water purification unit.

The 13-man structure of the Seabee Teams remained the same, while the BPP teams consisted of 15 men organized into a BPP Construction Platoon. These platoons preferred to be called Thai Seabees, and were broken down into 5 basic construction trades and the medical profession. Seabee Teams instructed their counterparts according to their assigned trades, to include working with construction materials, maintenance and repair of small engines, operations and maintenance of generators, plumbing, sanitation and other water related trades, and surveying. Two of the BPP men were assigned as medics and were trained by their Seabee counterparts on how to conduct sick calls, treatment of ailments, and establishing preventative health programs within the villages.

 

The Seabee-BPP program was considered “for and with the villagers”, and centered around active cooperation and participation of the local population in completing projects to benefit their village.

BPP5

March 1967: UTC Wesley W. Page and BUR2 David E. Snay of 0405 pour first section of culvert in town as a demonstration for the villagers. From then on the villagers poured their own sections.

Thais were trained by the Seabee-BPP Teams to construct things they needed and wanted, using tools and materials that were available to them in their remote environments. The medical portion of the team provided sick call visits to the villages, but only with the support of the village Chiefs, who were required to be present in the village to show their active support of the BPP team. Medics provided basic first aid training to the villagers and education about simple illnesses and the availability of free care provided by Government facilities in nearby cities, to support more serious ailments.

BPP1

January 1967: UTA2 Holloway of 0909 observing local villagers while they are dragging a log which will be used for post on water wheel rice pounder.

BPP2

January 1967: Local BPP and villagers placing rope handles on suspension footbridge built by Seabee/BPP team 0909 and villagers. The old bridge can be seen at the right. The new bridge will endure the rainy season because it is constructed with 3 cables.

The first Seabee-BPP teams, 0405, 0806, and 0909 arrived at the Bangkok headquarters of COMCBPAC Detachment RVN/THAI in early November 1966. Among the projects they completed were water purification and well construction, building of sanitary latrines, and construction of suspension bridges. They helped the villages to identify and put together long range plans for community development, along with providing instruction on practical application of those goals. Seabee Teams also built new schools, provided playground equipment, established dispensaries, constructed dams, and built airstrips.

BPP4

Local mother brings her sick infant for medical care provided by 0405 medic.

BPP7

December 1966: Children attending classes at Ban Nong Chok school. As soon as the villagers get the required lumber cut, this school would be enlarged under the guidance of the Seabee/BPP Team 0806.

The BPP program was phased out starting in 1970 as a new program in support of the Royal Thai Marines under the sponsorship of the U.S. Military Assistance command, Thailand (MACTHAI) was instituted.

Learn more about Seabee Teams on our Online Reading Room: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/seabee/explore/online-reading-room/Publications/commander-construction-battalion-pacific-reports.html

 

 

Robert Stethem: An Unbreakable Spirit

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

stethem

SW2 Robert Stethem

Among the hundreds of thousands of men and women that have served in the Seabees, there are two men who have become legends due to their courage, personal valor, and devotion to duty. Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, but each gave their lives for this nation. This is the second installment of a two-part series and discusses Robert Stethem.

Unlike Marvin Shields, Robert Dean Stethem came from a military family. Both of his parents and two of his brothers, including one who was also a Seabee diver, all served in the U.S. Navy.  After graduating basic training and follow on training, Stethem was assigned to NMCB 62 in Gulfport, Mississippi, as a Steelworker.  After several deployments to Guam and Diego Garcia, Stethem attended Navy dive school, becoming a Second Class Diver, and was assigned to Underwater Construction Team One (UCT 1), in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

On June 14, 1985, Stethem and five other members of UCT 1 Detachment November Mike ’85 were flying home after completing an assignment at the Naval Communication Station, Nea Maki, Greece onboard TWA flight #847.  The flight was hijacked shortly after take-off from Athens, Greece by Lebanese nationals alleged to have been members of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah.  The men demanded: the release of 766 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel; 17 members of the Iraqi Shiite group Da’wa responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait; and, a condemnation of the United States and Israel by the international community.  Infuriated when their demands were not met, the men began threatening and attacking the crew and passengers.  While the other members of his unit were regularly beaten, Stethem was singled out and subjected to brutal beatings and torture.  Through the ordeal he remained silent and steadfast which only angered the terrorists more. Upon landing in Beirut, Lebanon, which was in the middle of a sectarian civil war, Stethem was shot in the temple, had his lifeless body thrown down onto the tarmac, and then was shot again.

 

Stethem-parents-225x300

Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. Ray Mabus, posthumously awards the Prisoner of War Medal to Robert Stethem in 2009

For his actions while held captive, Robert Dean Stethem was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Prisoner of War Medal.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery Section 59, Grave 430, near others who were victims of International terror.  In 2010, Stethem also was named an honorary Master Chief Constructionman by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy onboard the Arleigh Burke-Class Guided Missile Destroyer USS Stethem (DDG-63), which was named in his honor.

While Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, grew up on opposite coasts, and served at different times, they exemplified the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.  Their actions will not be easily forgotten by those that knew them and Seabees that came after them.  Today they serve as reminders of conduct before the enemy, and represent the willingness of those who preserve this nation to give all in its defense.

Discover more at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

What is Hezbollah?

What class of ship is the USS Stethem (DDG-63)?

What is the motto of the USS Stethem (DDG-63)?

 

Marvin Shields: Hero of Ððng Xoài

By:  Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

Marvin_Shields

CM3 Marvin Glenn Shields

Among the hundreds of thousands of men and women that have served in the Seabees, there are two men who have become legends due to their courage, personal valor, and devotion to duty.  Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, but each gave their lives for this nation. This is the first installment of a two-part series and discusses Marvin Shields.

Marvin Glenn Shields was born in Port Townsend, Washington on December 30, 1939. After graduating High School, and after a stint working at a gold mine in Alaska, Shields joined the Navy on January 8, 1962.  After basic training and apprenticeship training, he reported to the Naval Construction Training Center in Port Hueneme, California for training to be a Construction Mechanic.  After graduation, Shields was assigned to Company A, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11 and was deployed to Okinawa between September 1963 and November 1964.

1104

Seabee Team 1104 at Port Hueneme, California in 1965

Shields then was selected to become a member of Seabee Team 1104, a special Seabee unit consisting of ten Seabees and one officer.  Seabee Team 1104 arrived in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam on February 1, 1965, where their first assignment was constructing a U.S. Army Special Forces camp at Ben Soi. In May 1965, the team was tasked with assisting in the repair and construction of a compound for U.S Army Special Forces, Seabees, Montagnard fighters, and South Vietnamese Army troops at Ððng Xoài, some 55 miles northwest of Saigon.

DONG XOAI

A view of one of the camp buildings after the battle

On the night of June 9, 1965, the camp, which was still under construction, was attacked and mortared by over 2,000 uniformed cadres of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong).  Shields, despite being wounded by the mortars raining down on the compound, assisted the Special Forces soldiers by bringing up badly needed ammunition to the firing line.  Shields, who was once again wounded by shrapnel and shot in the jaw, then helped carry the badly wounded commander of the camp to a relatively safer position.  Despite his weakened and exhausted state, Shields volunteered to assist the acting base commander to destroy an enemy machine gun position that threatened the entire compound.  Armed with a 3.5 inch rocket launcher, the two men managed to destroy the machine gun, saving many lives, and while returning back, were both wounded in the legs.  Shields, despite his wounds, continued to hand ammo to his comrades, told jokes, and did all he could to encourage the men that were still engaged in heavy fighting.  Though evacuated by helicopter along with five other wounded Seabees, his wounds would prove mortal and he would die en route to Saigon.

For his conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin Glenn Shields was posthumously presented this nation’s highest military decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor, on September 13, 1966.  The award was presented to Shield’s widow Joan and their daughter Barbara, who was accompanied by his father, mother, and brother, by President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the White House.  He is buried at Gardiner Cemetery in Gardiner, Washington and has his name listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 02E, Row 007.  The Knox-Class Frigate USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066) was also named in his honor.

800px-USS_Marvin_Shields_(FF-1066)

USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066)

Discover more at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

For what battle was Marvin Shields awarded the Medal of Honor?

Did the USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066) serve in another nation’s navy? If so, which?

To whom did President Johnson present Shield’s Medal of Honor?

The “Large Slow Target”

Off the shore of Normandy, France during the D-Day invasion, June 1944 an enemy mine hit and sunk LST (Landing Ship Tank) 523. Known as the “Large Slow Target” by servicemen as LSTs traveled at 12 knots under a load of 2,100 tons its design fulfilled a critical need in WWII.

5546867099_e3f21b53db_b

Troops and equipment load aboard a Seabee Rhino ferry from LST at Normandy, June 1944.

During WWII, Allied forces needed an ocean-going ship capable of shore-to-shore delivery of vehicles, tanks, and cargo. With that goal in mind, the British began development of such a craft. In meeting with Americans November 1941, U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships (BuShips) agreed to design and build LSTs for Allied use. The LST vessel with its flat bottom, large ballast system, 14-foot wide ramp enabled Seabee Special battalions to drive tanks, vehicles, and unload construction equipment directly onto beaches or causeways. Normandy invasion forces needed an estimated 12,000 tons of daily supplies and 2,500 vehicles were needed for the first 90 days of combat operations.

5546867481_1051f38b5f_b

Seabees with the 1006th Naval Construction Battalion Detachment offloading equipment from LSTs on Utah Beach, June 1944. When high tide comes, the ships retreat from the beach.

IMG_2170

The LST-523 model made of balsa wood on display in the Atlantic Theater WWII gallery at the Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, CA. Scale of model: 1 inch equals 6 feet (1:72).

By the war’s end, BuShips built more than 1,050 Landing Ship Tanks. However, only 26 LSTs succumbed to enemy action and a further 13 were lost to weather or accidents. A model of the sunk LST-523 at 1:72 scale and 56” long sits proudly on display in the Atlantic Theater WWII gallery at the Seabee Museum, in Port Hueneme, CA.

Today, a WWII Landing Ship Tank is still in service as a Long Island Sound ferry for passengers and vehicles.

 

Questions:

What role did the Seabees play in off loading the LSTs?

How does 12 knots compare to land speed?

When and where did D-Day take place?

Why Midway?

By Gina Nichols, Head of Collections/Senior Archivist

The question often asked is “why Midway?” What made Midway so significant in US and naval history to cause two countries to vie for its possession during World War II?

The story began 83 years before the war started. The Midway Islands are geographically situated almost exactly in the center of the North Pacific making it a prime location to build a Navy base for refueling the new iron-hulled ships with coal. Captain N.C. Brooks “discovered” the Midway Islands in 1859 and claimed them for the United States. In 1869, the U.S. Congress claimed jurisdiction, passing an appropriations act on March 1 to acquire Midway for naval service. The Coaling Station never materialized, but Midway remained under Navy jurisdiction nonetheless.

Midway_5NCB_1942002

Men from Company B, 5th Naval Construction Battalion aboard a lighter, circa August 1942.

The Midway Islands consist of two islands, Sand and Eastern Islands, which are surrounded by 28 square miles of jutting coral reefs, lying about 1,200 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor. The desolate islands lacked people, boasted minimal vegetation, and lacked any water except brackish liquid flavored with rotten eggs from the Gooney Birds that inhabited the islands. The only feature the islands had to offer was location, which is why, in 1902, the Pacific Commercial Cable Company installed a relay cable station on Sand Island. Prior to this, the population was zero except for the random ship wrecked mariner.

With the growth of travel to the Far East, Pan American Airways (Pan Am) realized the strategic importance of Midway as a refueling and layover station. In 1935, Pan Am signed a contract with the U.S. Navy to build a seaplane base on Eastern Island. Because of the importance of trans-Pacific air service to the industrial and commercial interest of the nation, the Army Corps of Engineers was tasked to blast the coral reef and clear the lagoon to allow draft vessels to enter and build a 500-foot-long steel pier. Pan Am constructed employee quarters, fuel tanks, a hotel for passengers, power plant, and water tanks to store rain caught on the roofs of buildings. Starting in 1902, the Pacific Commercial Cable Company and, later, Pan Am brought in soil, trees, and vegetation to add landscaping to the area around the hotel and other living areas. Civilization had come to stay.

Midway_5NCB_1942005

New Quonset huts being erected on Midway by Seabees with the 5th NCB, circa 1942.

In the fall of 1938, the U.S. had five island possessions northwest of Pearl Harbor that were of strategic importance as potential patrol-plane bases. In preparation for possible war with Japan, the islands of Midway, Wake, Johnston, Palmyra, and Canton were recommended for base development by the Hepburn Board. Midway was considered second in importance to Pearl Harbor for base development due to its strategic location. The Bureau of Aeronautics recommended it be developed as a secondary airbase with facilities for two permanently based patrol plane squadrons.

In a letter to then Vice Admiral Ben Moreell dated 20 September 1939, Admiral Earnest King recommended Midway, as the westernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, be developed not only as an air patrol base, but “be considered as a key naval base for submarines, destroyers, cruisers, tenders, and other auxiliary vessels.” He requested the lagoon dredging operation be enlarged to allow larger vessels to utilize the islands in the future.

Midway_5NCB_1942001

Seabees with the 5th Naval Construction Battalion in a gun emplacement on Sand Island, Midway, circa August 1942.

In 1940, the Navy contracted with a conglomerate of contractors known as Pacific Naval Air Bases (PNAB) to construct a pier; a channel 300 feet wide by 30 feet deep and a turning basin 1000 feet square within the lagoon to accommodate large tender or tankers; and personnel quarters, administration and living facilities. However, executing the work was difficult due to the geographic dispersion and isolation of the outpost.

The contractors moved onto Midway with a large organization and heavy equipment in three stages: 1) the rowboat stage where they initially approached in row boats and built a tent colony supported by off shore ships; 2) the erection of a rough tent camp buildings with portable power plants, distilling plants and radio; 3) the gradual enlargement of the camp culminating in the erection of permanent buildings.

Midway_5NCB_1942003

Seabees with the 5th Naval Construction Battalion standing by crane on Midway, circa August 1942.

By the time war began, Naval Air Station Midway had an airport with three paved runways on Eastern Island and a seaplane base on Sand Island with three ramps, a large paved parking area and two large hangers. Headquarters were built on Sand Island with barracks, a mess hall, ship’s services, a theater, officers’ quarters, a plethora of shops, a power plant, water evaporator, cold storage, and operating services. Moorings for two vessels as well as a 500-foot long steel pier and oil storage for ships and submarines were constructed.

On 7 December 1941, the Japanese, realizing the importance of the atoll, attacked causing considerable damage to the hangers and fuel storage facilities. After war was declared, the construction program changed to direct all efforts towards defense fortification and damage repair. By the end of December all 800 civilian worker were removed from Midway leaving only a small Marine garrison to continue repair work.

The Japanese attacked Midway again from 4-6 June 1942, in an attempt to conquer the northern Hawaiian bases. At the time, the chances of Midway holding off an invasion was small, but the timely arrival of the U.S. aircraft carriers quickly routed the Japanese fleet with staggering losses. However, the base suffered significant damage from carrier based aircraft including destroying the hospital, POL tanks, and partly destroying the torpedo shop, administration buildings and hangar.

On 17 July 1942, a detachment of 225 men and 12 officers from the 5th Naval Construction Battalion arrived to prepare living quarters and perform repairs to additional buildings. In August the rest of the battalion arrived along with two companies from the 10th Naval Construction Battalion in September. Construction began immediately on a bomber strip on Sand Island, damage cleanup, and constructing underground structures for living spaces and vital operations. The Seabees also began construction of a submarine base on the northern tip of Sand Island to support fleet forces as the conflict moved westward.

Midway_5NCB_1942004

Seabees and CEC officer with the 5th NCB on Midway, circa August 1942.

The Seabees worked industriously on Midway usually with insufficient numbers of poor and worn out equipment. Frequently, materials were not available and manpower was diverted from construction to base operations and stevedoring but work continued to progress. Construction continued on Midway throughout the war as it served as a key submarine and air station resupplying and maintaining the fleet across the Pacific and onto victory against Japan.