Curator’s Corner- The Legacy of Rear Admiral Lewis B. Combs

Photo 1

Rear Admiral Combs with Seabees while on a visit to Trinidad to preform inspections on the 30th and 80th Construction Battalions, March 1944 (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Rear Admiral Lewis B. Combs is a celebrated Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officer best known for his many accomplishments spanning two world wars and assisting in the establishment and organization of the Naval Construction Force (NCF), better known as the Seabees, during World War II.

Combs graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY in 1916 with a degree in civil engineering and quickly joined the war effort when America entered World War I and served as an assistant civil engineer officer in charge of field construction in the Navy.

Photo 2-Combs Wedding-1925

Wedding portrait of Lewis B. Coms and Laura B. Warden with Lt. Ben Moreell, to his left,  as his best man, April 1925. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

During peacetime service, he worked many overseas assignments, including the Republic of Haiti, where he met and became good friends with Lt. Ben Moreell, who would later become the “father of the Seabees”. Their friendship would span the rest of their lives as their careers each experienced an upwards path.

In 1938 Admiral Combs became the assistant chief at the Bureau of Yards and Docks (Budocks) serving under his good friend Rear Admiral Ben Moreell for 8 years through the duration of World War II and received the rank of Rear Admiral (RADM) in 1942.

In 1943, Combs received an opportunity to serve as the technical advisor during the making of the film The Fighting Seabees (1943) and formed a lifelong friendship with lead actor John Wayne. He went on to advise Wayne during the production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Home for the Seabees (1977).

Photo 3-The Fighting Seabees

Combs on the set of The Fighting Seabees, Camp Pendleton, Calif., with actor John Wayne, 1943. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

As the second in command of Budocks, Combs was responsible for administering the Navy’s shore construction and development program. Throughout 1944 to 1945, he conducted inspections of construction battalions in the Caribbean and Pacific, traveling more than 100,000 miles to personally meet with Seabees, boosting morale and welfare, listening to problems, and bringing information from the field back to headquarters. Before the war, he liked to say, he knew every one of the Navy’s 120 civil-engineering officers, by name. Before the war was over his engineering command included 10,000 officers and more than 325,000 Seabees.

Photo 4

Rear Admiral Combs and CEC officers riding around Tinian Island on an amphibious wheeled vehicle while performing inspections on the 6th Seabee Brigade, February 1945. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

RADM Combs finished his naval career in 1947 as the director of BuDocks Atlantic operations in New York.  He returned to Troy, NY where he became the head of the Department of Civil Engineers at RPI until his retirement in 1961. Nearly 400 military officers earned bachelor degrees in civil engineering under his guidance, predominantly CEC officers who went on to lead the NCF for decades to come.

Rear Admiral Combs passed away in May, 1996 at the age of 101. His legacy can be measured in the people and organizations he touched, and he directly influenced, either in uniform or as an academic, perhaps more civil engineers in the Navy’s history than any other man. Rear Admiral Lewis B. Combs has proudly earned the name “uncle” of the Seabees.

Photo 5

Portrait of RADM Combs, created by artist Elaine Hartley Levine during WWII. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

The portrait of RADM Combs, created by artist Elaine Hartley Levine during WWII, depicts Combs in the popular style of portraitures during that period; shown half-length, in a colorful descriptive setting. The small Seabee on his desk was a suitable emblem to represent his duties in NCF. The portrait is currently hung in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s exhibit CEC before Seabees. Come visit the Seabee Museum and see our new additions and old treasures added to the CEC before Seabees exhibit.

Special thanks to historian Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr. for his extensive knowledge and research on RADM Combs which was essential to creating this blog.

 

photo-of-robyn-for-curators-cornerMeet the Curator: Robyn King is pursuing her master’s degree in Museum Studies and Nonprofit Management through Johns Hopkins University. She earned her Bachelors in History and Anthropology from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She has experience working at state museums, historic sites, the National Park Service, and most recently the Navy. She is an expert in collection management, and has worked closely with both natural and cultural collections. Robyn loves all museums and sharing her love of history. When she is not working, she is volunteering her time with the National Peace Corps Association, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from West Africa.

Curator’s Corner: Making a Donation to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

 

Behind the scenes view of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Collection Facility

Behind the scenes view of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Collection Facility

Have you ever thought about donating heirlooms to a museum? Have you cleaned out your attic or a family member’s home and come across scrapbooks, photographs, uniforms, or other memorabilia you think a museum may be interested in? Museums are the gatekeepers of the past, the interpreters of history, and the conservators of historical artifacts.

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s mission is to collect, preserve, and display historical material relating to the history of the Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps. We cannot fulfill our mission without donations and no one wants to come to an empty museum. The artifacts and archives bring history to life.

Trench art jewelry fashioned out of Plexiglas from a downed Japanese aircraft donated to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum by a Seabee who was assigned to the 51st Naval Construction Battalion which operated near Saipan during WWII.

Trench art jewelry fashioned out of Plexiglas from a downed Japanese aircraft donated to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum by a Seabee who was assigned to the 51st Naval Construction Battalion which operated near Saipan during WWII.

Why donate your heirlooms to a museum?

There are many reasons to donate your heirlooms to a museum because they have a historic or regional significance, relate to a significant person or event, and offer resources for future researchers. Preservation is also another reason why people donate their heirlooms. Museums provide housing for artifacts through climate controlled storage facilities and safe environments away from sunlight damage, daily wear, and mold contamination for future generations to enjoy.

If the items you are considering donating are not your own, it is recommended that you discuss your intentions with all family members prior to donating your relative’s memorabilia to a museum. It is important that everyone is in agreement.

Finding the Right Museum

Once the decision has been made to donate items to a museum, the next step is finding the right institution for your objects. Museums have different missions and themes. Museum types vary including: history, natural history, science, or children’s museums. It is important to find a proper institution where your heirlooms will be safe and appreciated. Think locally for your heirloom’s new home and visit near-by museums to discuss donation potentials.

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum is under the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). This Command oversees 10 Navy museums around the country with the shared mission to collect, preserve, protect, and make available the artifacts, documents, and art that embody our naval history and heritage for future generations.

(For a complete list of the navy museums, please visit http://www.history.navy.mil/visit-our-museums.html )

At the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, we consider all donations that relate directly to the U.S. Naval Construction Force and the Civil Engineer Corps. If you or your relative were a Seabee, CEC Officer, or were directly associated with them, we would be happy to consider your donation.

Letters written by a Seabee to his wife back home during WWII. These were donated to the Seabee Museum by a Seabee’s relatives.

Letters written by a Seabee to his wife back home during WWII. These were donated to the Seabee Museum by a Seabee’s relatives.

Proposing the Donation

Before contacting an institution about your potential donation you need to gather the item’s story, we call that provenance. In the museum world the word provenance refers to an object’s history, who owned the object, when and where, and any other information on the object. Objects alone may have historical value, but the stories that accompany the object bring them to life.

We need to know as much information on the Seabee or CEC officer. For instance, which battalion they served in. If you do not know the answer, the national archives have made it easier for you to request Military Service Records by visiting their website at http://www.archives.gov/veterans/military-service-records/. We also capture oral histories, documentation proving the item’s authenticity, letters, journals, diaries, photographs, record of importation, manufacture, or sale, and legal documents like deed or wills.

Making Contact

Once you have chosen a museum, call to find out who handles the donations, most likely it would be a curator or registrar. At the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, the curator is responsible for accepting new donations. I can be reached by telephone at 805-982-6191 or by e-mail at robyn.king1@navy.mil. We ask that you contact the museum before you drop off any donations. They will not be accepted as walk-in donations. I will ask you to describe the item, its history, and why you think it belongs in the museum. If it is of interest to the museum, I will then ask to see a photo of the object to see its condition.

Each donation is presented to the Museum Collection Committee who ultimately decides to accept the donation or not. The museum may take temporary custody of the item while it makes its decision. This process usually takes 3 months due to our current backlog. You will be notified if your object was selected to be included in our collection.

Accepted: Transferring Ownership

If the Seabee Museum accepts your donation, the paperwork is simple. You sign an official Deed of Gift form and your heirloom becomes property of the Department of the Navy. If your donated item has a copyright, this process will be further discussed with our archivists at that time.

What happens after the donation?

                After you have transferred ownership, the Director of NHHC at the Washington Navy Yard must accept your donation to the museum. This may take a few weeks to process. Once the Seabee Museum receives back all appropriate paperwork we will then accession (accept your donation into the Seabee Museum Collection), catalog (individually number each object), photograph, and prepare the object for exhibition or storage. Your name, as donor, will be linked to the donated items in the collection database. If the item is included in an exhibition, museum staff might have to do additional research on the object.

Fallen Soldier Battle Cross and eagle hand carved onto an antler as a dedication to the Seabees of NMCB 25 that passed away in 2006. This was donated to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum and currently on exhibit in the Hall of Heroes.

Fallen Soldier Battle Cross and eagle hand carved onto an antler as a dedication to the Seabees of NMCB 25 that passed away in 2006. This was donated to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum and currently on exhibit in the Hall of Heroes.

Is your donation guaranteed to go on exhibit?

The simple answer is no. It may never go on display. Only about 2% of a museum’s collection is on display in the museum at any given time. The majority of collections are in storage for preservation and to be studied by scholars and researchers.

Rejection

No matter how much your heirloom means to you, it may not be right for the museum. It might be declined because it is in poor condition, or it does not fit the Seabee Museum’s mission, falling outside the museum’s scope of collection or the museum already has similar items.

Every museum has storage and capacity issues. We cannot accept every donation and have collecting priorities. If our museum collection is unable to accept your donation, you may have the option to donate it to our education department for learning purposes.

If the Seabee Museum declines your donation, consider offering it elsewhere. Local maritime museums collect navy related artifacts; state archives collect diaries, letters, maps, photographs and some artifacts; and the NHHC has 9 other museums that may be interested in your donation.

Thank You to the Donors

                The donation process is a detailed process, mostly done behind the scenes at a museum. With your help and knowledge of your items, together we can work together to make the process as smooth as possible. By contacting the museum first, we can tell you right away if your donation is something we may be interested in acquiring and go from there. The entire processes from start to finish may take about 3 months. You will receive a thank you letter from our museum director showing our appreciation and gratitude.

Your donations help our museum fulfill its mission to collect, preserve, and display historical material relating to the history of the Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps. Please consider donating to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum if you think you may have objects relating to the Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps. I look forward to speaking with you over the phone to start the donation process!

150225-N-JU810-010Meet the Curator: Robyn King Robyn King earned her Bachelors in History and Anthropology from the State University of New York at Oneonta. She has experience working at State Museums, Historic Sites, the National Parks Service, and most recently the Navy. She’s an expert in collection management, and has worked closely with both natural and cultural collections. Robyn loves all museums and sharing her love of history. When’s she not working, she’s volunteering her time with the National Peace Corps Association, as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from West Africa.