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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Archivist’s Attic- Seabees, Classifications, & Life Skills during WWII

With the formation of the newly created Naval Construction Battalions in 1942, Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers needed to create new qualifications for each Seabee rank and rate in order to recruit civilians into the force.  When recruited, men were recommended for a certain rank and rate based on age, education, previous experience, and hobbies: CPO Draftsman, minimum age 32; CBM (Diver), must be a diver with considerable experience on waterfront work; Navy Mail Clerk, must be trustworthy; Carpenter’s Mate, related civil job–cabinetmaker; musician, etc. While recruits had a general idea of what they rated, “[t]he day following a recruit’s arrival at Camp Peary’s Seabee training center (opened in 1942) a trained interviewer reclassified by them.”

 

While at Camp Peary, the interviewer asked the recruit a series of focused questions and information requests specific to certain duties and jobs/ranks such as: MM1c (Bulldozer Operator), Milling Machine Operator, Carpenter’s Mate… which needed filling for Seabees.

 “Would you be able to pull a 3 foot diameter stump with caterpillar 60, and how would you set the machine to do so?”

“What do you call the circle on a dividing head that you use to turn the work a definite amount?”

 “Name two knots used to tie together the ends of ropes to make a safe hitch for scaffolding.”

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Seabee Recruiting Cruiser Contingent in Parkersburg, West Virginia, October 1943. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum archives)

While in the Seabees during WWII, enlisted men between the ages of 17 and 50 earned from $54.00 to $126.00 a month depending on rate and rank.

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Statistical Report/graph of CB personnel, 1942 through 1945. (U.S.Seabee Museum archives)

The first Seabee Detachment departed the U.S. January 27, 1942. In November that same year, President Roosevelt authorized the Seabees be expanded to 210,000 men from the initial force of 99 men nearly a year earlier. By the end of the war, more than 325,000 Seabees served on 6 continents and 250 islands.

 

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Archivist’s Attic – Seabees at D-Day

The invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944 involved an immense effort by Seabees before, during and immediately following D-Day. The actions of these heroes are documented in one of the Seabee Museums most unique item, the map of Omaha Beach on display in the Atlantic Theater section of the museum.

Normandy D-Day Map

This D-Day map shows the landing and various actions conducted by the Seabees to insure the Allies victory.

The map, (actually two connected) shows the invasion beaches where the Seabees constructed the Mulberry harbor. Issued to Commander Douglas C. Jardine, commander of the 25th Naval Construction Regiment, he marked the map with the location of the Gooseberry blockade of ships, the Phoenix caissons, the pontoon causeways, German POW camp, emergency airfield, and Seabee camp at Omaha Beach.

Display of Normandy map at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Display of the map at the Seabee Museum. Directly in front of the map is a model of a Landing Ship, Tank, referred to as the LST. These ships served as the critical means for transporting the construction supplies and equipment required by WWII Seabees.

The map is also marked with the words “TOP SECRET – BIGOT.” BIGOT was a security classification used in World War II to designate security at the highest levels, even higher than “TOP SECRET.” It was an acronym: British Invasion of German Occupied Territory, selected by Prime Minister Winston Churchill prior to American entry into World War II. A select group of people, anyone with working knowledge of the D-Day planning for Operation OVERLORD, had to have Top Secret – Bigot clearance.

Directly north of the words “EASY RED,” on the bottom left hand section of the map, shows the location of the beach obstacles to the left of causeway no. 2. Prior to the main landings at Normandy thousands of beach obstacles had to be cleared. Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) were paired with Army combat engineer units to form Gap Assault Teams (GAT) to clear Utah and Omaha beaches in the initial minutes of the D-Day landings. Ensign Karnowski, CEC, commander of NCDU 45, and his core team of five (including two Seabees) landed on Omaha Beach at sector EASY RED at 0625 hours. The team successfully blew 50 and 100-yard gaps in the obstacles, the only ones on the eastern half of Omaha Beach. These enabled members of the First Infantry Division to assault the bluffs overlooking EASY RED. As the battle progressed, this became the principal egress from Omaha Beach on D-Day.

Ensign Karnowski his core team from NCDU 45.

Ensign Karnowski his core team from NCDU 45.

The Seabees also built offshore cargo and docking facilities, piers, and breakwaters. These were constructed out of old cargo ships, special prefabricated concrete structures that were floated over from England, and the ubiquitous steel pontoons. The huge port area that was formed out of this odd combination of materials became known as Mulberry A. Even after the artificial harbor was partially destroyed in a severe storm, the Seabees landed hundreds of thousands of tons of war material daily. In addition to these massive amounts of supplies, by July 4, only 28 days after D-day, they had helped land more than a million Allied fighting men.

Rhino Ferry on Normandy beach

A Rhino ferry being unloaded of its cargo on a Normandy beach, June 1944.

Come see the unique map yourself at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum and discover what other secrets it holds!

For more information please check out the Seabee History page on the Naval History and Heritage Command website located here http://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/s/seabee-history0/world-war-ii.html

 

Ingi Face

Archivist: Ingi House

Meet the Archivist: Ingi House Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from the University of Kansas and M.L.S. from Emporia State University. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast. In Washington D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Administration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history led her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison.

Archivist Attic – A Rocky Road

Heroes continue to inspire others long after their deeds are done. Even their name can mobilize and motivate men, units or even camps to produce, achieve and succeed in order to honor the hero they were named after. Such is the case with Camp DeShurley, a rock production facility pioneered, developed and operated by Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 9 Detail Echo. Camp DeShurley became a vital part road construction during the Vietnam Conflict and stood as a working testament to the Seabee hero and his fellow Seabees that gave their lives for their country.

NMCB 9 Detail Echo rock quarry - Camp DeShurley

Rock quarry where Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 9 Detail Echo was stationed that would later become Camp DeShurley, Republic of Vietnam 1968.

The year of 1968 was an important year during Vietnam and a peak period of Seabee deployment. One of the most important actions that occurred that year was the Tet Offensive. This required more Seabee units to deploy to Vietnam in order to build buildings, power supplies, and roads to expand the infrastructure and keep the war effort going.

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 9 Detail Echo moved in to a quarry and camp near Phu Loc in early 1968. By March the Tet Offensive had degenerated from bad to desperate. On March 1st the Viet Cong began strikes against the Seabees in Phu Loc. The strikes continued throughout March wounding several men, the heaviest blow on March 31st.

On that day the Viet Cong opened with 82mm mortar fire on various locations in the Seabee camp. The Seabees, along with their Marine brothers, fired back almost immediately. Unfortunately the enemy mortar rounds scored direct hits, immediately killing several Seabees including BUL3 George DeShurley, BULCN Mark E. Hodel, CMHCN James Galati, BUL3 Allan Mair, BUL3 John Peek and BUHCN James Rezloff, Jr. But before this catastrophe, the crew, including DeShurley, scored several direct hits on the enemy mortar position, killing at least nine members of the Viet Cong, preventing further attacks and potentially saving additional lives.

Monthly operations report NMCB 9 Camp DeShurley BUL3 George DeShurley

Monthly operation report from March 1968, item 6 shows that April 6 on Camp DeShurley was officially designated in honor of BUL3 George DeShurley.

The heroic actions of DeShurley, and his fellow Seabees, insured that the Viet Cong did not take the camp and stopped them from killing even more American men. Because of those actions the quarry and camp were officially named Camp DeShurley in his honor.

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Photo of sign designating Camp DeShurley.

Camp DeShurley itself took after its namesake in heroism by becoming instrumental in rebuilding and reconstructing the critically important Route 1 in the Republic of Vietnam. The high-quality rock that came from Camp DeShurley was so important that Rear Admiral James V. Bartlett, then Commander of the Third Naval Construction Brigade said that the rock and camp “Represents one of the most significant achievements of the entire Seabee effort in Vietnam.” This was due to the outstanding engineering and construction skills that were used to produce the rock in order to create various roads including the much needed and used Route 1.

NMCB 9 Detail Echo Camp DeShurley

Portions of the rock quarry inside Camp DeShurley being worked on.

The actions of BUL3 George DeShurley and Detail Echo inspired and motivated Seabees that deployed after them. They in turn honored his sacrifice by making it one of the most significant Seabee camps during Vietnam.

Heroes influence and galvanize us long after their heroic actions are done. Inspiring us to find the best in ourselves and giving us the courage to go after what we believe in. Sometimes the best way to honor those we admire most is to inspire others and become a hero ourselves!

Ingi Face

Meet the Archivist: Ingi House

 

Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from the University of Kansas and M.L.S. from Emporia State University. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast. In Washington D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Administration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history led her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison.

 

Archivist Attic – Feeding a Seabee

 

Everyone knows that Seabees work hard at making the Navy run. They build mess halls and galleys to make sure that everyone gets fed but building bases can make a Seabee hungry enough to eat a horse. Though horse is not on the menu Seabees do eat a variety of foods all designed to give them enough energy to keep ‘Can Do’ing.

3rd Construction Battalion Seabees enjoy "Turkey Day" in South P

“3rd Construction Battalion Seabees enjoy ‘Turkey Day’ in South Pacific.  (Horace W. Mooers, Newtonville, Mass.)”  Cook preparing turkeys for Thanksgiving.  New Caledonia, South Pacific, WWII.

You might think that cooking for a mess of Seabees is an easy thing to do, but the Navy created several cookbooks throughout the years instructing cooks and mess attendants on what to cook and why they needed to cook specific foods. The cookbooks came packed with information, everything from nutritional value of foods to baking guidelines and even how to troubleshoot common cooking difficulties. 

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Page 402 from “The Cook Book of the United States Navy” 1944.  ‘Trouble Shooting’ guidelines for cakes.

 

Menu planning was taken seriously and included tips on making sure nutritional needs were met, likes and dislikes of the sailors and making sure the climate was taken into consideration when preparing meals. Sample menus were also given for each season with a meal planned out for breakfast, dinner and supper for every day of the week. The sample menus even included drink options, most of which was milk or coffee. 

Other aspects of food preparation were also dealt with including sanitary needs, how to deal with canned and dehydrated foods, weight equivalents and baking. Each aspect was given a quick introduction and how to handle unique problems that might occur. Many tips given in these cook books are still useful today including what to do if your cookies spread out too much (tip: reduce the baking soda in the dough) to substitutions for the perfect barbeque sauce (tip: fruit juice or frozen sweet pickles can be used in place of vinegar).

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Page 120 from “The Cook Book of the United States Navy” 1944, a recipe for Beef Croquettes.  Notice the recipe states that this is for 100 portions, enough to feed a swarm of bees!

In the end the goal of these cook books was simply to give the Seabees, and the rest of the Navy, a good meal that would give them the energy to continue working. The difference between the Seabees and the rest of the Navy was that the Seabees not only got to eat what was cooked in the mess halls, but they also got to put them together. The Seabees worked quickly and efficiently in order to build the mess halls and galleys. To this day when the cooks hear the Seabees are coming to town they know they are about to get a kitchen and everyone knows they are about to get a hot meal. So thank you Seabees for making sure we have a place to chow down! 

34th CB bakery, Kukum, Guadalcanal, BSI

34 Construction Battalion Bakery, Kukum, Guadalcanal, Construction Battalion cooks and bakers May 13, 1944

Visit our Facebook page and tell us what some of your favorite, or least favorite, meals you have had while deployed! #SeabeeCanDo

Ingi FaceMeet the Archivist: Ingi House

Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from the University of Kansas and M.L.S. from Emporia State University. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast. In Washington D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Administration 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.