Coca-Cola and the Art of Seabee “Acquisition”

It’s no secret that Seabees “Can Do”, and during WWII, this extended to Seabee ingenuity with Coca-Cola bottling and bottles. While assigned to the Marianas, J.E. Lerch, a Chief Shipfitter with the 13th Naval Construction Battalion, designed a water carbonating unit after finding an adequate source of carbon dioxide. Lerch used objects he found onsite, a Japanese searchlight, oxygen tanks from a grounded B-25, scrap brass from which he fashioned a piston pump, hoses from a beached landing craft, and a motor from a damaged electric saw.  This fountain was capable of carbonating sixty gallons of water an hour, and was able to produce two thousand Cokes and other favorite soft drinks, a day.


Water Carbonating Machine, Tinian Island. U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. 13th NCB Collection.

By the time the U.S. entered WWII, Coca-Cola was an established symbol of American life. To American forces, soft drinks were a simple reminder of home. In an effort to improve troop morale, General Dwight D. Eisenhower requisitioned 3 million Coke bottles to be shipped to North Africa and the equipment to refill them twice a month. This inspired Coca-Cola to create bottling plants throughout the Pacific and Atlantic theaters. Over 5 billion servings of Coca-Cola were distributed to U.S. troops during the war, and true to form, Seabees found inventive ways to make use of the bottles for their projects.



The staff of the Coca-Cola bottling plant established on Saipan. Courtesy of the National WWII Museum.


In Milne Bay, New Guinea the 115th Battalion incorporated Coca-Cola bottles into their bus rack construction. This enabled them to use ½” brass pipes as sub-feeders, in lieu of cables, to carry the full capacity of the generators.


Coca-Cola bottles used as bus supports. U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Walsworth Collection.


Ernest Schefer, Chief Electrician’s Mate was on Bora Bora in 1942 when he came up with the idea and designs for using Coca-Cola bottles as insulators. Early in his deployment, he observed an electrician-lineman up in a coconut tree, securing the wire with nails. These power lines carried 440-volts, and Schefer identified the current practice as being high risk, but there were limited options to do otherwise, as insulators and other appropriate equipment were not immediately at hand. Soon after, he noticed some Coca-Cola bottles lying along the beach, and began to conceive of a way to use these as insulators. He devised a system of using a metal band to hold wire loops at each ends of the bottle, and soon after, Coke bottles were being converted into insulators. He discovered that hanging the bottles downward allowed for variations, and greater flexibility in the heavy winds.


Coca-Cola bottles used as dead end insulators in lieu of porcelain standard insulators for overhead line work. U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Walsworth Collection.

The Seabee Museum Archive is fortunate to have the Personal Collection of Ernest Schefer, which contains several original drawings for his Coca-Cola bottle insulator. These drawings highlight the ingenuity and “Can Do” spirit of the Seabees.






Artifacts on Exhibit—Nothing to Brush Off

Capable of submerging below water, and of lifting a 2,800 ton naval vessel, at 389 feet long the Auxiliary Repair Dock Concrete (ARDC) Type Dry-dock, like the model located in our Civil Engineer Corps exhibit, was developed in the 1940s. At 3 ½ feet long, the model was constructed by the Design Division of the Bureau of Yards & Docks and is pushing and possibly exceeding 75 years in age. The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum began collecting, exhibiting, and caring for Seabee and CEC artifacts in 1949. The ARDC Type Drydock has been with us for at least 50 of those years.

The Auxiliary Repair Dock Concrete (ARDC) Type Dry-dock before conservation.

Removed from exhibit and from its case earlier this year, the Dry-dock received much needed tender loving care. With major help from one devoted volunteer (a retired Seabee), the painstaking task of making this piece of naval history shine was underway. Our experienced volunteer started the project with artifact conservation brushes for dusting; then moved to distilled water and Q-tips and cotton cloths to remove dirt and grime; next with toothpicks in hand began applying conservation glue to parts, repairing and reassembling railing wires, and loose, time-worn pieces.

“This is going to take a while,” our volunteer said. “There’s no rush,” the curator replied.

(ARDC) Type Drydock during conservation.

Approximately 50 hours and over 400 Q-tips later, the conserved 3½ feet long (ARDC) Type Drydock is back in its newly painted case and on exhibit. While many of the museum’s artifacts are stored in cases with clear Plexiglas vitrine covers, each artifact requires regular conditioning and cleaning care with the occasional “Temporarily Off Exhibit,” sign.

(ARDC) Type Drydock after conservation and back in CEC exhibit.

Next on our seasoned volunteer’s list, the WWII model of the “Seabee Special,” at 15 ½ feet long. “I’m not going to use Q-tips on this one,” he told the curator while holding a large package of sponge brushes.

The Seabee Special in storage at Seabee Museum.

Operation Crossroads and the 53rd NCB

53rd-logoThe 53rd Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was established on December 22, 1942 and served throughout the remainder of WWII, primarily on the Pacific Islands of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Guam. As post-war activities were nearing completion, the battalion was scheduled for inactivation on March 1, 1946. The inactivation was cancelled when the unit was selected to participate in Operation Crossroads, a series of nuclear weapon tests conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, in mid-1946. Operation Crossroads was the first test of a nuclear weapon since the Trinity nuclear test in July 1945, and the first detonation of a nuclear device since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. Its purpose was to investigate the effect of nuclear weapons on naval warships, equipment, and material.

The 53rd NCB arrived at Bikini Atoll on March 13, and then transferred to the USS St. Croix, which was anchored in the atoll lagoon. This ship served as the battalion headquarters throughout the Bikini operation. Drawing on their wartime experience in fast construction, nearly 1,000 Seabees with the 53rd NCB transformed Bikini Atoll into a huge laboratory where instruments and structures were set up to record the blast.

The composite battalion of stevedores, pontoon builders, and construction men began the main construction projects which included the erection of several 90-foot towers and protected steel huts for housing the instruments used for recording the blast data, the day after they arrived on site.


Offloading of supplies and equipment

Heavy equipment, to include bulldozers, trucks, and cranes were brought by LST, along with more men and supplies arriving from Pearl Harbor and Port Hueneme, CA.


Seabees with the 53rd NCB constructing a tower to hold automatic camera as part of Operation Crossroads. The towers were built on an island near Bikini Atoll to document the Atomic Bomb explosion.

Seabees built 15 steel towers for photographic observation, several wooden frame towers, and advanced base magazines measuring 20 feet by 20 feet.


The Bikini Atoll is comprised of 30 islands, and Seabees completed projects on 9 of these. Among these projects were demolition operations to remove coralheads to enable LSTs and small craft to land on the beaches, along with the construction of recreational facilities for 35,000 men, to include baseball fields, basketball courts, tennis courts, and an archery range. Construction efforts were made extremely difficult by the constant churning of the black, sandy soil on the beach, which became choking dust clouds as vehicles were transported back and forth. DDT, then unknown to be hazardous to health, was sprayed repeatedly from low-flying planes to combat the hordes of flies that were constantly plaguing the Seabees as they worked.


Aerial view showing one of the many construction sites operated by the 53rd NCB at Bikini Atoll

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The Baker Day explosion of the fifth atomic bomb, Bikini as recorded by an automatically operated camera on a nearby island. Characteristic atomic clouds forms, altered by steam from sub-surface detonation

Operation Crossroads consisted of two detonations, each with a yield of 21 kilotons of TNT (96 terajoules): ABLE was detonated at an altitude of 520 feet (160 m) on July 1, 1946; BAKER was detonated 90 feet (27 m) underwater on July 25, 1946. A third burst, CHARLIE, a deep underwater detonation planned for 1947 was canceled due to the inability to decontaminate the target ships following the Baker test.

With the completion of Operation Crossroads, the battalion was inactivated on August 3, 1946 after 38 months of continuous overseas duty. Some battalion members were transferred back to the United States for separation from the Navy, while others remained onsite for cleanup and restoration duties on Bikini. These members were assigned to the newly activated Naval Construction Battalion Detachment 1156.

The Civil Engineer Corps and Relative Rank

On 2 March 1867, just 31 words tacked onto a Congressional appropriations bill gave the President of the United States the authority to commission Navy civil engineers, creating a new Navy staff corp.  The Civil Engineer Corps, or CEC, received their commissions from the President like other naval officers. Yet the 8 men of the CEC couldn’t wear Navy uniforms or rank devices in the 14 years immediately following their creation. These newly created officers suffered from discrimination In the United States Navy rooted in the concept of “relative rank”.

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William  P. S. Sanger and four of the first eight Civil Engineer Corps officers (circa 1871)

Line officers, those who sailed ships, jealously guarded military rank and argued staff officers receiving equal rank undermined morale, deteriorated discipline and were unsuited for leadership. Therefore, the Navy conferred “relative rank” on all staff corps officers. While corps officers “ranked with” corresponding line-officer pay grades, they held professional titles such as chief surgeon or assistant civil engineer rather than “line rank.” The CEC finally received authorization to wear rank in February 1881 in Navy General Order 263, and were authorized to wear Navy uniforms later that year.

Between 1881 and 1921, the relative rank debate raged within the Navy and caused divisions between line and staff officers. Although the Naval Reform Act of 1899 abolished the formal use of relative rank, the idea continued to influence line officers. From 1871 until WWI, senior line officers, including influential Commanders George Dewey and Alfred Thayer Mahan, argued to maintain relative rank standards. Senior staff officers from all the Corps argued they – like line officers – deserved equal rank, professional respect and leadership opportunities. CEC and other Staff officers served their commanding officer and the Navy’s chain of command.

1918 Budocks dining out

Nearly one third of all Civil Engineer Corps officers are in this 1918 photograph,  most of whom received degrees in Civil Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Despite being some the most educated members of the U.S. Navy, relative rank’s continuing effect set CEC apart from their sailing counter parts. But times were changing. By 1906, CEC officers, numbering less than 100, consolidated their technical control over naval shore facilities and public works. More line officers focused on technical skills and

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Harry H. Rousseau became Rear Admiral at the age of 36 while serving as the temporary Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks – he remains the youngest RADM in the US Navy’s history.

science degrees in order to sail modern ships, while the leadership skills of CEC officers like Mordicai Endicott, Robert E. Peary and Harry H. Rousseau positively influenced line officer opinions of staff officers.

Modernization of the Navy continued during World War One. Only 5 days after the end of WWI, on 16 November 1918, the Navy eliminated uniform designations that segregated the staff corps, and established a single set of uniform regulations for Naval personnel. After 1921, all U.S. Navy officers wore the same uniform, wearing line and staff devices on the sleeve or collar that did not distract. This uniform change visually equalized line and staff officers.

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Ben Moreell with former Chiefs of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, all of whom dealt with issues of relative rank and engineering authority while Chiefs of both BuDocks and the CEC. In the back row, from left to right are retired Rear Admirals:  Homer Stanford, Fredric R. Harris, Charles W. Parks, Luther E. Gregory, Archibald L. Parsons, and Norman Smith.

Commander Ben Moreell advanced to the rank of Rear Admiral in December 1937, completely skipping the rank of Captain without using relative rank. During his tenure as Chief of the CEC, Moreell focused on the leadership skills of CEC officers, knowing that their technical skills were well established. In WWII, he fought for the CEC to lead the newly formed Naval Construction Force known as Seabees. Changing attitudes among line officers, and the WWII success of the Naval Construction Force, other Staff Corps and their enlisted forces, helped end any further discussions on relative rank by 1947.

Today, relative rank no longer plays a part in the Navy. Each officer’s promotion is based on a selection committee’s determination of who is best and most fully qualified to fill available vacancies. This is especially true as an officer qualifies for promotion to the senior ranks, whether they are part of the line or corps. Leadership qualities and technical skill, core concerns of U.S. Navy officers over 150 years ago, merged and now strengthen today’s Navy.

Forged of Iron and Given in Friendship

With the warmth of the season, the staff and volunteers at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum are thinking about family and friends from past and present holidays as they prepare for a new year and upcoming exhibits. In keeping with the spirit of this time of year, recently one of our curators photographed a set of handmade andirons from the museum’s collection. Also known as fire dogs and usually made from metal, andirons have been in existence since at least as early as the 17th century B.C. during the Bronze Age, and are used to support firewood in a hearth.

An example of andirons in use.

An example of andirons in use.

This set of andirons forged of iron and bronze showcases both the CEC and Seabee logos; meant to symbolize the mutual friendship that existed between and the admiration in which Rear Admiral Alexander C. Husband, CEC, USN held while Commanding Officer of the Seabee Center at Davisville. The fire dogs were hand made by his secretary’s spouse and gifted by his secretary and her spouse to the Rear Admiral during his farewell visit to the Davisiville when he retired as Commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Washington D.C.  and also as Chief of Navy Civil Engineers in 1969.


Andirons in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s collection.

As shown on the hammered and anchor shaped andirons, the Naval service of Rear Admiral Alexander C. Husband, CEC, USN spanned 38 years from 1931-1969. The set of andirons helped warm the Rear Admiral’s home in Connecticut for many years. May the warmth of the season be yours whether your home or away from home.

Happy Holidays, from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum!


New at the museum, please come see the relocated 1990s exhibit.


The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s 1990s exhibit in its new location. #MuseumMonday, #SeabeeMuseum


The Airfield at Nakhon Phanom

By Gina Nichols, Supervisory Archivist

In mid-1962, to block further Communist gains in Southeast Asia and keep the civil wars in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam from reaching full-scale status, Thailand and the US agreed to build air bases along the Laotian/Thailand border. As part of a Military Assistance Program (MAP) funded project, the Secretary of Defense authorized construction of an airfield in Nakhon Phanom to improve logistic capabilities in Thailand.

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Seabees at the South Pole 1956-57

Seabee Beginnings at the South Pole

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Task Force 43 represented the U.S. Navy’s contributions to the International Geophysical Year. The four quadrants of the shield depict the Fleet, Naval Air, Seabees and Antarctica.  U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Seabees began construction on the first South Pole Station during the “Summer Season” of 1956-1957 – almost 20 years before their famous South Pole Dome. Early construction on Antarctica supported the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a first coalition of 39 nations committed to an 18-month systematic investigation of the Earth’s environment using the latest technologies. Along with seven ships from the Atlantic Fleet and an air wing with extreme cold experience, US Navy support of IGY – designated Task Force 43 – included a special unit of Seabees created to build-up the facilities required to do the science. Seabees were specifically tasked with constructing research facilities between the Ross Ice Shelf and the South Pole.


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Seabees routinely tested the ice foundations of supply trails as part of convoys across the Antarctic. Crevasses and other dangers could be hidden under a thin sheet of ice, endangering both lives and equipment. U. S. Navy Seabee Museum

Construction on the first Amundsen-South Pole station began in November 1956. Seabees faced unbelievably difficult conditions in Antarctica, which were amplified by the remote conditions of the South Pole. Common Seabee activities, such as transporting simple construction materials or maintaining a runway, became dangerous when crossing a frozen continent to supply the new Station. Blog Antarctica White OutSeabees faced extreme weather, extreme cold, and extreme geographical features such as crevasses, as they sought to make the pole habitable.




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This set of pants and hooded jacket, official known as inclement weather gear, were worn by a Seabee during the 1956-1957 Summer Season. Many of the vehicles were also painted a shade of red to make them easier to spot against the icy blues and whites of Antarctica.  U. S. Navy Seabee Museum

In order to keep Seabees safe while they completed construction, the Navy waived some their standard uniforming and grooming regulations. Seabees could wear almost anything that helped them to work comfortably in the extreme conditions. This included a wide variety of headgear, undergarments, wool shirts and “longer than regulation” hair and beards. In addition, special clothing was issued so that work parties in white out conditions could be easily located.



Approximately 25 Seabees began construction at the station with Jamesway hut berthing – basically insulated arched tents based on a Quonset hut design. These temporary structures were almost immediately replaced with flat-roof prefabricated Clements buildings. Knowing that the original structures would be buried within years by blowing snow, a second story was added to many of these structures. These buildings, along with pitched roof buildings known as T-5 huts, were used until the iconic South Pole Dome replaced the original or “Old Pole” Station.

The Amundsen-South Pole Station has been in continuous use since the first Jamesway hut was set-up by these intrepid Seabees. Officially commissioned and dedicated on January 23, 1957, the success of the Amundsen-South Pole stations that replaced the first are intricately woven with the Seabee spirit. Their “Can Do” attitude ensured operational stations remained in place since that first winter-over season of 1957, continuing long after Seabees departed Antarctica that final time in 1994.


The U.S. Navy Seabees who built the first South Pole Station beginning in late November and finishing in late December 1956. Standing: Siple (civilian), Speirs, Williamson, Tyler, Wagner, Bevilacqua, McCormick, Randall, Patton, Roberts, Goodwin, Bowers. Kneeling: Scott, Chaudoin, Hisey, Prescott, Powell, Nolan, Montgomery, Hubel, Woody, McGrillis, Slaton. Not pictured: Tuck. Paul Siple was the chief scientist at the South Pole during the International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-1958. U.S. Navy Lieutenant junior grade Richard A. Bowers was the Officer in Charge of construction. Bill Bristol, Navy photographer, took the photo. The shadow of the South Pole marker can be seen down the middle. Photograph by U. S. Navy, NSF