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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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

 

 

 

American Archives Month at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

October is American Archives Month, when archivists nationwide highlight their collections and remind the public that their history is being preserved. The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s archive selects, collects, preserves and displays materials that highlight the history of the Seabees. The archives primarily consist of:

-Newsletters                                                                      -Ephemera

-Photographs                                                                    -Maps

-Deployment Completion Reports                               -Monthly Reports

-Rosters showing the movement of personnel

These were all meant to be temporary records, but have been retained by our archive, as they reflect the history of the Seabees from 1942 to the present. They’re important because of real property and land ownership issues and questions that arise and also because of the details of the construction and humanitarian aid that Seabees have accomplished.

Our records are mainly used for:

  1. VA Claims: veterans contact us to obtain documentation that they were in a certain place at a certain time. They may have been exposed to something or experienced a traumatic or physically damaging event that still affects them today, and they need proof that they were at a location and with a unit, in order to receive VA benefits and services.
  2. Environmental Cleanup: various governmental and private agencies contact us to see what kinds of projects were happening in specific locations, in order to address environmental concerns in those areas.
  3. National Landmarks: people contact us in order to receive more information about a specific place and the events that occurred there, to see if those locations may be eligible to be added to the register of National Historical Landmarks.
  4. Individuals looking for information about their family. We often receive questions from people looking for information about their fathers or grandfathers service. Often these family members didn’t talk much about their service, so they want to find out more information. We tell them that although we don’t keep records of individual men, we do have unit records. From these, they can find out where their family member was stationed, and what they may have experienced while there.
  5. Governments trying to determine what happened and where. For example, the Japanese government recently contacted us to see if we had specific information about where their cemetery was located on the island of Peleliu.

While we have collections that researchers typically expect, such as records for specific units and commands, there are also uncommon collections, such as our back wall of geographical and subject files. These files were compiled by past historians and give a quick glimpse into certain aspects of Seabee history. They are organized by units, subjects, geographical location, and also contain personal collections and files for certain CEC officers and Seabees. Often these files can provide insight into a subject that will lead the researcher to other paths of inquiry that they may have not previously considered.

 

Backwall

The files that line the back wall of our archive contain documents, photographs, newsletters, clippings, ephemera, and correspondence. Scanning the back wall files can yield surprising finds.

Reagan

From the Honorary Seabee File, a 1967 clipping naming California Governor Ronald Reagan as Honorary Seabee.

Seabee-Float

From the Anniversary, Seabee – Rose Bowl Float File, a photographs of the 1967 25th anniversary Rose Parade Seabee Float

 

Drawing

From the personal collection of Seabee Donald Taylor of Pontoon Assembly Detachment 2, a sketchpad with drawings

Korea-Train

From the geographical files for Korea, a clipping detailing the Great Train Robbery of 1953

This collection provides a way for people, who may not know a great deal about their research question, or who may not usually interact with a military archive, to connect with the materials and explore different avenues of Seabee history that they may not have considered exploring.

 

 

Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 8 and their “Wonder Arch”

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

During the Vietnam War, one of the many missions that the Seabees undertook were military construction projects in support of US Marine Corps operations in Southeast Asia.  One of the major centers for this support were the multiple US military facilities in and around the South Vietnamese port city of Da Nang.  Like many locations throughout the Republic of Vietnam, both Da Nang Air Base and the nearby Marble Mountain Air Facility came under attack during January, 1968’s Tet Offensive.  These attacks resulted in the deaths of seven Marines, the wounding of twelve others, and the destruction and damage of almost thirty aircraft.  The aftermath of the Viet Cong offensive began a concerted effort to find a way to better protect the millions of dollars in aircraft and equipment that was stationed at these and other bases throughout South Vietnam.  The answer proved to be a project that had been in testing by the US Air force for the past several years: the Wonder Arch! Continue reading

The Seabees and their “Other Birthday”

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

While the US Navy celebrates its birthday on October 13, did you know that there is a Navy community that celebrates a different birthday? Like the US Navy as a whole, this community was formed out of need and has a storied history of its own.  That community is the US Navy Seabees!

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Ben Moreell, the Father of the Seabees

It all began on December 8, 1941.  The United States was now at war against Japan, across the Pacific, and Germany, across the Atlantic.  Then RADM Ben Moreell, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, understood that to sustain a war across such great distances, bases, supply depots, hospitals, and air fields would have to be built to support the Allied advances against the enemy.  Therefore, on December 28, 1942, Moreell requested the authority to recruit enlisted personnel with previous construction experience to form a new naval construction force. This date, December 28, become the first Seabee birthday, and so it would remain for the next twelve years.

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