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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.