Seabees in Thailand: Helping Others Help Themselves

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Pop-up Museum at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum: Community Curation

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum will host a “Pop-Up Museum” on March 3rd, 2018 from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Pop-Up Museums are an aspect of “Community Curation,” a community event where people bring in their personal artifacts for display. We are asking participants to bring artifacts directly related to the Seabee and CEC experience. Examples include war trophies, trench art created in a combat zone, personal pictures and letters, items collected in the field, specialized tools and other items of interest.

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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.

 

 

U.S. Navy Seabee Museum gives TLC to Seabee Heritage Center in Gulfport, MS

It’s that time of year—a time for goodwill, for giving thanks, and lending a helping hand. With many holiday seasons or projects, they do not happen overnight as we prep for cooking a great meal, make travel plans to spend time with family, or take time off our normal work to help others. Similarly, the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s exhibit plan for the Seabee Heritage Center did not happen overnight, and took numerous people, from museum staff and volunteers, and yes—Seabees, to make the magic happen.

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Seabee Heritage Center, Gulfport, MS, March 2017.

Beginning in March, Seabee Museum staff looked through the museum’s collection database, and archives to choose specific artifacts and materials to tell the Seabee story. Each item was pulled, text written, and the artifacts shipped for a weeklong mission at the Seabee Heritage Center at Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport. While there, staff revitalized more than twenty-five exhibit cases and assessed what steps to take next in the exhibit space.

Springing forward few months to summer, museum staff began planning for a December 1st celebration rounding off the Seabee 75th anniversary at the NCBC Gulfport Seabee Heritage Center.

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Digital drawing of new exhibit layout for Seabee Heritage Center, November 2017.

In preparation for the exhibit and celebration, much like earlier this year, museum staff considered artifacts, how to best tell the Seabee story, and when staff could fly to Gulfport for a weeklong installation. Before staff could consider a layout of the artifacts, they gathered an understanding of how the heritage center will be used in the present and future, along with taking into consideration the artifacts already on display. Moving forward with these facts, Seabee Museum staff designed a digital 3-D layout of the exhibit space and cases, figured out what and where artifacts might fit, as well as designed art panels telling the Gulfport battalions’ and the Seabee story from WWII to present.

Packing-up artifacts and exhibit supplies at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, November, 2017.

Packing-up artifacts and exhibit supplies for shipment from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, November, 2017.

As November rolled around, with yards of bubble wrap in hand, museum staff and volunteers packed and shipped three pallets of artifacts, art panels, and exhibit supplies to the Seabee Heritage Center in Mississippi. As with most events, timing is everything. Museum staff flew to Gulfport the night before the shipment arrived and in the morning Seabees helped move large exhibit cases and prep the space for exhibit.

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Newly completed exhibits at Seabee Heritage Center at Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport, MS, November 2017.

Over the next four days, two museum staff members unwrapped and displayed over forty-five newly shipped artifacts, more than twenty-five textual art panels, then cleaned and spruced-up more than twenty-five exhibit cases in the main room and the entryway display honoring the fallen. At which time, the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum staff wrapped up the week flying back home to Port Hueneme, California and Thanksgiving with their families.

Happy Holidays.

Seabee Heritage Center entryway, November 2017

Seabee Heritage Center entryway, November 2017