Robert Stethem: An Unbreakable Spirit

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

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SW2 Robert Stethem

Among the hundreds of thousands of men and women that have served in the Seabees, there are two men who have become legends due to their courage, personal valor, and devotion to duty. Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, but each gave their lives for this nation. This is the second installment of a two-part series and discusses Robert Stethem.

Unlike Marvin Shields, Robert Dean Stethem came from a military family. Both of his parents and two of his brothers, including one who was also a Seabee diver, all served in the U.S. Navy.  After graduating basic training and follow on training, Stethem was assigned to NMCB 62 in Gulfport, Mississippi, as a Steelworker.  After several deployments to Guam and Diego Garcia, Stethem attended Navy dive school, becoming a Second Class Diver, and was assigned to Underwater Construction Team One (UCT 1), in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

On June 14, 1985, Stethem and five other members of UCT 1 Detachment November Mike ’85 were flying home after completing an assignment at the Naval Communication Station, Nea Maki, Greece onboard TWA flight #847.  The flight was hijacked shortly after take-off from Athens, Greece by Lebanese nationals alleged to have been members of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah.  The men demanded: the release of 766 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel; 17 members of the Iraqi Shiite group Da’wa responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait; and, a condemnation of the United States and Israel by the international community.  Infuriated when their demands were not met, the men began threatening and attacking the crew and passengers.  While the other members of his unit were regularly beaten, Stethem was singled out and subjected to brutal beatings and torture.  Through the ordeal he remained silent and steadfast which only angered the terrorists more. Upon landing in Beirut, Lebanon, which was in the middle of a sectarian civil war, Stethem was shot in the temple, had his lifeless body thrown down onto the tarmac, and then was shot again.

 

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Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. Ray Mabus, posthumously awards the Prisoner of War Medal to Robert Stethem in 2009

For his actions while held captive, Robert Dean Stethem was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Prisoner of War Medal.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery Section 59, Grave 430, near others who were victims of International terror.  In 2010, Stethem also was named an honorary Master Chief Constructionman by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy onboard the Arleigh Burke-Class Guided Missile Destroyer USS Stethem (DDG-63), which was named in his honor.

While Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, grew up on opposite coasts, and served at different times, they exemplified the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.  Their actions will not be easily forgotten by those that knew them and Seabees that came after them.  Today they serve as reminders of conduct before the enemy, and represent the willingness of those who preserve this nation to give all in its defense.

Discover more at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

What is Hezbollah?

What class of ship is the USS Stethem (DDG-63)?

What is the motto of the USS Stethem (DDG-63)?

 

Marvin Shields: Hero of Ððng Xoài

By:  Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

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CM3 Marvin Glenn Shields

Among the hundreds of thousands of men and women that have served in the Seabees, there are two men who have become legends due to their courage, personal valor, and devotion to duty.  Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, but each gave their lives for this nation. This is the first installment of a two-part series and discusses Marvin Shields.

Marvin Glenn Shields was born in Port Townsend, Washington on December 30, 1939. After graduating High School, and after a stint working at a gold mine in Alaska, Shields joined the Navy on January 8, 1962.  After basic training and apprenticeship training, he reported to the Naval Construction Training Center in Port Hueneme, California for training to be a Construction Mechanic.  After graduation, Shields was assigned to Company A, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 11 and was deployed to Okinawa between September 1963 and November 1964.

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Seabee Team 1104 at Port Hueneme, California in 1965

Shields then was selected to become a member of Seabee Team 1104, a special Seabee unit consisting of ten Seabees and one officer.  Seabee Team 1104 arrived in Saigon, Republic of Vietnam on February 1, 1965, where their first assignment was constructing a U.S. Army Special Forces camp at Ben Soi. In May 1965, the team was tasked with assisting in the repair and construction of a compound for U.S Army Special Forces, Seabees, Montagnard fighters, and South Vietnamese Army troops at Ððng Xoài, some 55 miles northwest of Saigon.

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A view of one of the camp buildings after the battle

On the night of June 9, 1965, the camp, which was still under construction, was attacked and mortared by over 2,000 uniformed cadres of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong).  Shields, despite being wounded by the mortars raining down on the compound, assisted the Special Forces soldiers by bringing up badly needed ammunition to the firing line.  Shields, who was once again wounded by shrapnel and shot in the jaw, then helped carry the badly wounded commander of the camp to a relatively safer position.  Despite his weakened and exhausted state, Shields volunteered to assist the acting base commander to destroy an enemy machine gun position that threatened the entire compound.  Armed with a 3.5 inch rocket launcher, the two men managed to destroy the machine gun, saving many lives, and while returning back, were both wounded in the legs.  Shields, despite his wounds, continued to hand ammo to his comrades, told jokes, and did all he could to encourage the men that were still engaged in heavy fighting.  Though evacuated by helicopter along with five other wounded Seabees, his wounds would prove mortal and he would die en route to Saigon.

For his conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin Glenn Shields was posthumously presented this nation’s highest military decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor, on September 13, 1966.  The award was presented to Shield’s widow Joan and their daughter Barbara, who was accompanied by his father, mother, and brother, by President Lyndon Baines Johnson at the White House.  He is buried at Gardiner Cemetery in Gardiner, Washington and has his name listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Panel 02E, Row 007.  The Knox-Class Frigate USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066) was also named in his honor.

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USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066)

Discover more at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

For what battle was Marvin Shields awarded the Medal of Honor?

Did the USS Marvin Shields (FF-1066) serve in another nation’s navy? If so, which?

To whom did President Johnson present Shield’s Medal of Honor?

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.

The Seabees in Da Nang

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

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Camp Haskins, Da Nang, Vietnam, served as headquarters of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, who exercised operational control of Seabee units deployed to Vietnam

While the Seabee’s exploits in Vietnam would carry on the tradition set during the Second World War, their work in Southeast Asia actually began shortly after the end of the Korean War, in 1954.  When France’s colonies in Southeast Asia gained their independence with the signing of the Geneva Accords, a major humanitarian crisis unfolded.  The Accords granted the Vietnamese people 300 days to travel to either the Communist led North Vietnam, or the Democratically led South Vietnam, before the border was to be sealed. The U.S. Navy would lend assistance under the auspices of Task Force 90.  While the majority of work done by the Seabees would be concentrated at the major port city of Haiphong, at Da Nang, a small port city near the border of North and South Vietnam, a detachment of Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion ONE (ACB 1) built a rest and recreation area for U.S. Navy personnel and merchant mariners taking part in what became known as Operation Passage to Freedom.  Just as in Haiphong, the French authorities refused to allow foreign military personnel on shore to do work, therefore, in order to complete their mission, the Seabees of ACB 1 had to remove all military identification from their uniforms and equipment and complete their tasking incognito.  Operation Passage to Freedom, was made up of 50 U.S. ships and transferred 310,000 refugees fleeing from the Communist North.

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Monkey Mountain Facility

In May, 1965, Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 began construction of a road between the north and south peak of Son Tra Mountain. Known as “Monkey Mountain” to U.S. military personnel, the mountain would house a joint Air Force and Marine Corps air control radar and intelligence installation.  The job the Seabees faced proved very difficult due to the fact that the area of the south peak was smaller than an office desk.  The Seabees blasted the top of the mountain off and created an area of about 15-20 acres to house an air defense missile battery, several workshops, and a barracks. NMCB 3 was relieved midway through the project and the work was completed by NMCB 9.

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Seabees constructing an Southeast Asian (SEA) hut at one of the camps in Da Nang

The increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam caused a major expansion of the U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA) in Da Nang.  The base would serve as the major supply base nearest South Vietnam’s border with the North.  Besides building piers, warehouses, supply yards, and manning the equipment to support the major logistical effort needed to support the war, the Seabees, as in previous conflicts, built many facilities to support the increasing number of Marines that were now arriving in theater.  They built three critically needed camps, which included building strongback tents, food service facilities, workshops, bath and shower areas, and a water distribution system. One of these camps Camp Tien Sha, provided everything needed to house and support 4000 men. Because Da Nang was in an area under constant enemy attack, the Seabees also built fortifications to help protect the base.

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The new Da Nang Bridge that connected the eastern and western parts of the city built by the Seabees

The Seabees of NMCB 9 also built an advanced base hospital to help care for men wounded in combat.  This 400 bed hospital was constructed from WWII surplus materials and supplies, including Quonset huts.  On October 28th, the half completed hospital was destroyed by an enemy attack involving 150-200 Viet Cong fighters with a loss of two Seabees, and the wounding over 100 others.  Before dawn the next day, the now determined Seabees were hard at work rebuilding the destroyed portions and salvaging what was less damaged, completing the rebuilding of the hospital in less than a month.  Besides doing work for the Marines, the Seabees also gave assistance to the South Vietnamese.  In addition to rebuilding the Da Nang River Bridge, they also built ramps for Tank Landing Ships and small boats, warehouses and petroleum storage tanks.

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The damage caused to the Naval Hospital by a Viet Cong attack on October 28, 1965.  Two Seabees, including SD3 Restituto P. Adenir, were killed and 93 others were wounded.  The Seabees renamed their camp near the hospital “Camp Adenir” in their fallen comrade’s honor.

The Seabees stationed at Da Nang also made up a large portion of the NSA’s 6,000 person Public Works Department, the largest unit of its kind in the world. Seabees attached to Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit (CBMU) 301 in Quang Tri, the Public Works shops in Chu Lai, and the NSA Detachment in Phu Bai, were also under the operational control of Da Nang’s Public Works department. The majority of manpower was concentrated in the operations group which handled the myriad maintenance, utility and transportation duties this large facility required.

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A 1969 Map of the facilities in an around Da Nang

Due to the hard work and ingenuity of the Seabees, Da Nang would grow from a small anchorage to a deep draft sea port handling a total of one million tons of cargo every three months, and became the Navy’s largest overseas shore command. The supply yards and camps the Seabees built throughout the area supported the 80,000 U.S. Marines in the northern five provinces of South Vietnam.

Seabees in the Battle of the Atlantic

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, USNSM

The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest military campaign of the entire Second World War spanning from the Declaration of War against Germany by France and the United Kingdom on September 3, 1939 to Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.  Though technically neutral in the conflict, the entrance of the United States into this battle actually preceded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Beginning with the recommendations of the Hepburn Board in 1939, the United States began a massive defensive program to better protect the Atlantic coast and the Panama Canal from Axis aggression.  While the initial bases in places like San Juan, Puerto Rico; Trinidad; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were constructed completely with civilian labor, the entry of the U.S. into the war brought the Seabees unto the scene.

The development and construction of Naval Air Station (NAS) Bermuda, for example, was started in February of 1941 under a civilian contract.  Its design called for an air base, a fuel depot, an anti-aircraft training school, and a base for both ships and submarines.  The civilian contractor had difficulty getting construction workers to Bermuda. The slow arrival of contractors and an overall manpower shortage resulted in the contractors doing “extraneous work having no connection with the permanent air station” according the Officer-In-Charge of Construction.

The first Seabees to arrive were members of the 31st Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) on December 5, 1942.  Two months later they were joined be 49th NCB.  While most of the major construction was already finished, these two battalions completed the build-up of the naval and air base and brought them to full operation.  They also completed unfinished projects such as building roads, setting up utilities, and cleanup from the massive construction effort.  Once construction was finished these two units served under the Public Works Department and took over maintenance, repair, and operational duties for all U.S. Naval activity in Bermuda.

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Construction of the base warehouse by the 49th NCB

 

 

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Chief Dunn and Chief Connors enjoy some of their well earned time off

 

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Seabees assigned to the 49th NCB arrive home from Bermuda on January 18, 1944.

An interesting turn in the U.S.’s defensive preparations was Iceland’s request for the U.S. military to occupy and defend the island nation.  Even though the British had made a preemptive invasion in 1940, and had received de facto support from the Icelandic government, they had neither the manpower nor the resources to maintain an occupation. Therefore, on June 16, 1941, the U.S. took over an occupation of Iceland that would ultimately involve over 30,000 U.S Army and Navy personnel.

In an effort to support the British war effort, while remaining out of the conflict and abiding by the Neutrality Act, the U.S. hired contractors to construct fuel-oil storage facilities as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement. U.S. contractors arrived in Iceland during the summer of 1941 to build the fuel oil facility, and an air station for patrol planes.  When the U.S. joined the Allies, the size of the air base was increased and a hospital and larger fuel facility were added to the plans.

The distance between Iceland and the U.S. made maintaining the supply chain problematic, and combined with a lack of trained contractors, the short building season and challenging terrain, construction was slow going and difficult.   The Seabees arrived in July 1942 and had completely taken over construction of the fuel tank farm and air field by October.

Throughout the winter, the Seabees built the airfield and used their legendary ingenuity to solve the many problems associated with its construction.  One issue they encountered was when hot asphalt was poured on the frozen ground it caused pools of mud to form under the runway making them unusable.  To compensate, the Seabees first laid down a porous material as a base that allowed the water to escape as steam.   Through their ingenuity, tenacity, and dedication, the Seabees fought the harsh climate and terrain, the lack of roads and maps, and the need to replace both their asphalt plant and their rock crusher and delivered a completed airfield on March 26, 1943, five days early.

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Iceland snow truck broke

The weather and terrain wreaked havoc on both men and equipment

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Seabees lay down porous base to allow steam to escape from frozen ground when hot asphalt was laid down on top

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Seabees work through the winter of 1943 to construct the Air Field Operations building

Though the war in the Pacific was a larger undertaking than the Battle of the Atlantic it was, nonetheless, a hard fought, costly, and important Allied victory that was assisted greatly by the Seabees and the bases they built.

Seabees in Somalia for Operation Restore Hope

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Map of Somalia in Africa.

In 1992, the United States sent military support to provide relief to the war-torn nation of Somalia. That December, the Seabees deployed as one of the units forming the United Nations’ coalition force in support of Operation Restore Hope. The main objective under Operation Restore Hope was to create a protected environment to conduct humanitarian operations in the southern half of Somalia and bring food and water to starving Somalians.

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Seabee and local people pumping water in Somalia during Operation Restore Hope

Seabees supported this effort through establishing and constructing base camps at humanitarian relief sites. To connect the camps, Seabees repaired and improved main supply routes by clearing debris from city streets including bridges. However, one of the largest projects was renovating and expanding the Baidoa airstrip. This project involved removing 300,000 square feet of asphalt surface, pulverizing and mixing it with cement, and then grading and compacting the mixture. More than 600,000 square feet of AM2 matting was also laid for aircraft turnarounds, parking aprons, and helipads. The airstrip enabled the coalition’s C-130 relief flights that brought food to local people.

Furthermore, Seabees provided humanitarian support by drilling and restoring water wells, and completing work on schools and orphanages. These daily humanitarian efforts nurtured connections with local people, their daily life, and art forms. Such is displayed through these Somali baskets, which Seabees brought home from their time in Africa during Operation Restore Hope. These baskets do exactly that, restore hope. Using their traditional artistry, local people gathered available grasses and wove these three baskets with lids. One of which is located in our 1990s gallery as part of “The History of the Seabees in 75 Objects,” temporary exhibit is open February 2018 through January 31, 2019.

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Somali Baskets crafted in Somalia and brought back to the United States in 1993. NMCB 40 and 30th NCR transferred the baskets to the U.S.N. Seabee Museum.