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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Archivist’s Attic: Conquering the Cliffs of Despair with the Doodlebug in WWII

What do you get when you combine sugar mill parts, a tactical nightmare and Seabee ingenuity?

You get the Doodlebug!

Now don’t be scared the doodlebug is not an actual bug, lay down the pesticides.

The Doodlebug was one of the “secret weapons” attributed to helping the Seabees overcome the supposed impassable coral cliffs of Tinian during World War II.

Tinian, located in the Mariana Islands near Guam, is an island with two small pinhead beaches guarded by the Japanese during WWII. The rest of the water line was marked by jagged coral cliffs ranging up to 15 feet high. This was not a pleasant picture for the tactical experts on Saipan planning the Tinian invasion. Senior leadership decided that in order to gain control of the island, the cliffs would have to be scaled. The problem of how to overcome this natural obstacle was given to Capt. Paul Halloran, commander of the Seabees.

Halloran set about designing and implementing a Land Vehicle, Tracked (LVT) using surplus materials from a Japanese sugar mill on the island, naming it the Doodlebug. A mere 54 hours elapsed between original conception and the first test!

Capt. Paul Halloran's Doodlebug concept.

Capt. Paul Halloran’s Doodlebug concept.

The reason why the Doodlebug worked was that it carried its own ladder with which to scale the cliffs. Four CEC officers and 30 Seabees joined the assault waves on Tinian, scouting the shoreline for points of landings on the cliffs.

Once those points were identified, the Doodlebugs moved in with their tracks gripping the sand to hold them close to the cliff-side. Hooks caught on the cliff-tops and the Doodlebugs were reversed. As they backed out from under the ramps, one end of the ramp would fall into the water to rest on the coral bottoms. Ramp crews leaped out to determine if the ramps were firmly anchored. Once secured, the Doodlebugs rumbled up out of the water and over the cliffs. Seabees remained to maintain the ramps and to assist in building the access roads to them.

The Doodlebug.

The Doodlebug.

As the ramps were put into place and made ready, a flow of amphibious equipment “walked” up the coral barriers behind them. Soon a steady stream of American motorized might was pouring onto the island spreading out and driving the already frustrated Japanese defenders back from their beach positions. This tactical advantage helped the Marines capture the beachhead and soon after, Tinian was under American control.

The Doodlebugs were so successful they were required for only a short period of time. Proving that when faced with cliffs of despair all you need is a little sugar and a little skill, something of which the Seabees on Tinian had plenty!

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150225-N-JU810-001Meet the Archivist: Ingi House
Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from K.U. and M.L.S. from E.S.U. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast.  In D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Admiration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history lead her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison

Curator’s Corner: Ship-to-Shore Part 2, Marston Matting

Section of Marston Matting in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Collection.

Section of Marston Matting in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Collection.

Have you ever enjoyed a day at the beach having to carry your chair, umbrella, and cooler; only to struggle with dragging your cooler across the sand because the wheels are digging in?

On a much larger scale, this was a major dilemma for the Seabees when it came to their ship-to-shore responsibilities of getting troops, their equipment, and vehicles off ships, across pontoon causeways, and on to a beach. This concept is also known as an amphibious landing.

The ability to move heavy vehicles and equipment across the short distance from a landing craft ramp or pontoon causeway to solid ground was crucial to the success or failure of a landing force in gaining a foothold on the enemy shore.

One of the complications connected with amphibious landings during WWII involved moving heavy equipment across mushy beach sand. Tires mired in and cut deep ruts in the sand, stalling equipment and making some exits from the beach impassable.

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Seabees bringing supplies off a pontoon causeway onto a beach landing using Marston Matting and DUKW’s (“Ducks”). (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archives)

Two amphibious vehicles- the amphibious tractor and the DUKW (also known as a “Duck”) were designed to overcome these complications, and were relatively successful. But even equipment with sufficient traction to plow through the soft, spongy earth was slowed down, greatly increasing the time required to get supplies ashore.

The question came down to this: How to achieve a hard beach surface in minimum time, at minimum cost, with minimum equipment and personnel, and with material which would not be in critically short supply during war time?

One of the creations during the war to overcome this obstacle was called Marston Matting, also known as Pierced Steel Planking or PSP. It became the standard steel matting utilized by the Seabees to construct not only sand beach landings, but also to build airfields and temporary roads.

It got its name from the town of Marston, NC where the invention, by a Pittsburgh steel specialty engineer named Gerald G. Greulich, was tested.

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Marston Matting being quickly assembled to construct an airstrip in the Pacific Islands. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archive)

Marston Matting had many advantages. A single piece measured 10 feet long and 15 inches wide. The hole pattern for the sheets was 3 holes wide by 29 holes long resulting in 87 holes per plate. The circular holes allowed the planking to be laid on top of a surface that has been roughly graded.

Marston Matting allowed rapid construction; it was pre-fabricated and fit together quickly. It was lighter and required less cargo space than other matting, and could be used in all-weather conditions because it was highly resistant to corrosion.

Seabees were fond of Marston Matting because it enabled them to do their jobs quickly and efficiently.

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Amphibious landing utilizing Marston Matting to move heavy machinery across the beach. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archives)

Often, Seabees were subject to enemy fire while laying down the matting. The benefits of using this matting were substantial when in the course of it being subject to enemy fire and destroyed as a result, the sectional matting could be quickly replaced.

The creation of Marston Matting helped the Allies transport their equipment faster from ship-to-shore, build roads on any terrain necessary and fastened together quickly to construct airstrips. It gave the Allies an advantage in Normandy on Omaha Beach, and throughout the Pacific Theater.

Marston Matting helped win the war.

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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.

Our Cultural Expanse: Women in the Navy, 1992-Present

We offer our final entry into Our Cultural Expanse: Women in the Navy.

Today’s Navy is full of opportunity for women, whose force currently stands at 68,000 active and reserve members. The final restrictions of women serving in combat were removed in 2013 by then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Adm. Michelle Howard is currently serving as the first female Vice Chief of Naval Operations and first female four-star admiral. Rear Adm. Katherine Gregory is serving as the first female chief of the Civil Engineer Corps and the commander for Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC).

And as of January of this year, the Navy began accepting applications for enlisted women to serve on submarines. Previously, only female officers had begun being integrated into the community in 2010.

Whether on land, at sea, underwater, or in the skies above, no job in the Navy, at peace or war, will be limited to a certain gender. The Navy has worked through the barriers of the past to ensure equal opportunity for ALL service members. Panel6b

Explore our parent command, Naval History and Heritage Command‘s historical presentation: Women in the Navy.

For non-military presentations, visit the official website for Woman’s History Month.

Our Cultural Expanse will continue in May as we present similar graphical presentations honoring Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Our Cultural Expanse: Women in the Navy, 1961-1972

In the 1960s and early 1970s, opportunities for women in the Navy were expanding, but they weren’t quite fully accepted yet. There existed a restriction on women leading men, but President Johnson signed legislation that allowed them to become flag officers that ultimately led to the removal of that restriction.

The Seabee community also saw the first women being integrated, the first of which was Constructionman Camella Jones. Most other communities opened up opportunities for women including aviation, Chaplain Corps, and Civil Engineer Corps, among others.Panel4B

Explore our parent command, Naval History and Heritage Command‘s historical presentation: Women in the Navy.

For non-military presentations, visit the official website for Woman’s History Month.

Archivist’s Attic: History of Women in the Seabees and the Civil Engineer Corps

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World War II, particularly the island hopping nature of combat in the Pacific requiring constant construction of bases, demonstrated to America the need for combat ready construction workers, which gave rise to the organization of the Seabees. World War II also created a need for women to fill in the ranks of various military branches, including the newly created Seabees, the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) and Navy as a whole. While the first officially designated woman Seabee didn’t join the ranks until 1972, the steps towards admitting women into the Seabees began in World War II.

Ens. Kathleen F. Lux, paved the way by being the first female Civil Engineer Officer. She entered the Naval Reserve on November 28, 1942 and received her commission after training at U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School in Northampton, Massachusetts. Lux served as an assistant in the office of Commodore C.P. Conrad, director of the Construction Department.

After World War II ended, women’s involvement in all branches of the military declined, and it wouldn’t be until the end of another major war before that they were once again encouraged to take a more active role in the military. As the Vietnam Conflict drew to a close, women began to enter the armed services as more opportunities were made available. This increase in female servicemembers affected not only the CEC, but it also paved the way for women to join the Seabees. 1972 had the distinction of not only seeing a female officer rejoin the CEC, the first since World War II, but also seeing the first female Seabee being selected for duty. Ensign Jeri Rigoulot became reported to Officer Candidate School at Newport, R.I. in October 1972 and was commissioned as an ensign in the CEC Naval Reserve in February 1973. During that same summer, Constructionman Camella Jones became the first female Seabee by cross-rating as an Equipment Operator.

Constructionman Camella J. Jones learns how to operate a large crane from a Chief Petty Officer. She was the first woman of the Navy to qualify as a Heavy Equipment Operator and to be assigned to a U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, November 1972. Photograph by PH3 Paul Mansfield, USN. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 106746.

Constructionman Camella J. Jones learns how to operate a large crane from a Chief Petty Officer. She was the first woman of the Navy to qualify as a Heavy Equipment Operator and to be assigned to a U.S. Navy Construction Battalion, November 1972. Photograph by PH3 Paul Mansfield, USN. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 106746.

In the following years, women continued to take active roles in Navy and Seabee operations. In 1984, Chief Builder Carol Diane Keehner is believed to have been the first female Seabee to make Chief.

The 1990s saw great strides in the advancement women in the Seabees. In August 1990, female Seabees were assigned to Construction Battalion Units (CBU) 411 and 415 and their mission sent them to Saudi Arabia to erect and maintain a fleet hospital. In fact, both CBU’s had female CEC officers in charge during their deployment that marked the first time female CEC officers led troops in a combat zone. In 1992, Keehner was the first female Seabee to make Master Chief and there were at least ten women in the ACB 1 (Amphibious Construction Battalion) designated as Seabees deployed to Somalia in December 1992.

Though women have long been ready and willing to take on the “Can Do” spirt of the Seabees, one of the major obstacles in their way was the very thing that made the Seabees special, the fact that they are not only construction workers but also designated as combat units. Though women were already serving in ACBs they were still barred by law from serving in Mobile Construction Battalions (MCBs). As war realities have changed, the idea of what was considered a combat zone has also been evolving. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, women were limited to non-combat support roles such as communications, transportation, medicine, administration, and military police work, but often found themselves in harm’s way. As the Gulf War has shown us, in the modern era almost any type of military unit, even ones miles behind what used to be called the front lines, can find themselves subject to attack. Although no American women were killed in the Gulf War, some were injured by enemy attacks and several assigned to transportation units were taken prisoner by the Iraqis.

These changes in warfare lead to the 1994 National Defense Authorization Act, which finally allowed women to be legally assigned to surface combat ships and mobile construction battalions. The Bureau of Naval Personnel began drawing up plans to integrate female Seabees and CEC officers into mobile construction battalions. The first woman ordered to an MCB was Chief Builder Cheryl Hundley, who reported to MCB 5 on April 5, 1994. Later that month, Lt. j.g. Michaela Bradley became the first female CEC officer assigned to a MCB when she reported aboard MCB 133. By June 1994, more than 100 enlisted women and 14 women officers were assigned to mobile construction battalions, and by October all eight MCB’s had women on board. This change was significant because it opened up more than 4,000 seagoing positions to women, which could only have a positive effect on their military careers. Before this change in assignment policy, most female Seabees were confined to shore positions, such as public works departments and construction battalion units.

In 1996 the Seabee’s had another first, this time underwater. Petty Officer Margret Cooper became the first woman Underwater Construction Team (UCT) Seabee. As the CEC and Seabees integrated women into their workforce, they continued to prove that no matter their gender, Seabees and CECs have the spirit and determination to fulfill every role, no matter what locations or challenges they faced.

Not only did women prove they could do the same jobs and meet combat ready requirements, they also proved that they could lead and command forces and battalions.

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Rear Adm. Kate Gregory, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Chief of Civil Engineers

The commanding career of current Rear Adm. Katherine Gregory began when she became the first female CEC to lead battalion on June 11, 1999 when she reported to NMCB 133 as their Commanding Officer. She then served as commander to the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific, and Chief of Staff for the First Naval Construction Division, and the Pacific Fleet Civil Engineer. On October 26, 2012, having achieved the rank of rear admiral, she assumed duties as commander of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command and Chief of Civil Engineers.

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Rear Adm. Paula Campbell Brown, Deputy, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Deputy Chief of Engineers

A contemporary of Gregory is Rear Adm. Paula Campbell Brown who was the first female commander of a Seabee regiment in combat when she took the helm of 30th Naval Construction Regiment (Forward) in Iraq. She command this post from September 2005 to March 2006, proving not only could Seabee women fight in combat, but that they could lead as well. Brown also served as Commanding Officer of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 18 and Commander of the First Naval Construction Regiment (1st NCR). During Operation Iraqi Freedom, she mobilized as the Commander, 30th NCR (rear) for seven months in Pearl Harbor with the Pacific Seabees. She made history again as the first female Deputy Commander of the First Naval Construction Division in 2010.

Seabee women have proven that they can do anything their male counterparts can do, including going back to basics. In 2012, almost by accident, the first all-female construction team took on a construction job from start to finish, a first in the Seabees’ 70-year history. They were able to complete it in record time in the barren rocky mountains of Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and the focus of recent combat efforts.

First Female Seabee Team

First Female Seabee Team

As we move forward, women will continue to show their strength and capability. With a strong history and the “Can Do” attitude, the women of the Seabees and CEC will continue to break barriers with honor, purpose, and integrity.

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150225-N-JU810-001Meet the Archivist: Ingi House
Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from K.U. and M.L.S. from E.S.U. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast.  In D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Admiration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history lead her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison

Curator’s Corner: Ship-to-Shore Part 1, The Magic Box

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U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Curator Robyn King stands next to a pontoon, currently on display in the Atlantic Theater presentation in the museum, to demonstrate the size.

Not only as a museum professional, but on a personal level, I am fascinated in any history that has incredible stories and holds interest in which I would like to gain knowledge so I may share it with others. I am a museum curator; I want to show you the amazing history behind the Seabees!

Over the next couple of weeks, we will share the incredible ingenuity and construction behind the concept “Ship-to-Shore.” Moving men, trucks, and all of their equipment off Landing Ship, Tanks (LSTs) onto land in the most efficient way possible – it’s quite ingenious.

This week we’ll discuss the “secret weapon” of the Navy: pontoons. They came to be called “magic boxes” and were nothing short of a miracle. A simple steel box which helped lead the way to victory during WWII.

By 1943 the U.S. was immerged in war on two fronts; the Atlantic and the Pacific. Thousands of men, trucks, armament, and equipment needed a fast and efficient way to offload from ships, most often under enemy fire.

A frequent challenge surrounded the LST’s, which were vessels that could drive their ramps clear to a beach and offload machines with no time lost. Unfortunately, many of the LST’s were getting stuck in the water hundreds of feet before reaching the beaches causing equipment to drive off the ships and become submerged.

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Capt John N. Layock demonstrates his miracle box for Admiral Ben Moreell, chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. [1943]

The task of finding a solution to this dilemma was given to Capt. John M. Laycock, Naval Civil Engineer Corps, pictured above with Adm. Ben Moreell. He derived the idea of the “magic box.” He had discovered a way to string the 5 x 7 x 5 foot pontoon boxes together and keep them strung rigid and capable of sustaining great weight in a heavy sea. Placing two pontoons side by side and thirty deep, they strung together to create causeways which could attach to the LST’s ramp and offload thousands of men, trucks, and all their equipment to shore within minutes of landing.

Seabees, whose jobs mostly consisted of land construction of airstrips, roads, and oil tanks, were then able to engage in sea operations. The Seabees were responsible for the operation of the pontoons and the transport of men and equipment from LSTs.

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A rhino ferry of assembled pontoons married to an LST during the Normandy invasion. [1944]

What is fascinating about the concept behind pontoons is not only could they create causeways, but when fastened together in different capacities, they took numerous other forms! To name a few, pontoons could assemble into self-propelled barges also known as “rhino ferries,” floating dry docks, seaplane ramps, floating cranes, and pontoon bridges.

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Crane on top of a pontoon being used to dredge a lagoon. [1943]

New useful combinations were constantly being discovered and each combination contributing to the victory of the war.

The creation of the pontoon was a large contributor to the success of D-Day on the beach of Normandy. Under fire from the Nazis, Seabees assembled sections of the pontoons to become piers which turned into floating roads for the fighting men and armored vehicles leading the beach attack.

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Troops coming ashore from the landing craft over the pontoon causeways. Normandy France. [1944]

With the advantage of the Navy’s “secret weapon,” mobile bases could pop up and disassemble all over the pacific. In a war fought on islands from naval bases over long distances, pontoon structures like the floating dry docks could be assembled to assist the nearby raids. Troops could be readily supplied with food, Seabees would have their equipment, damaged planes and boats could be repaired, and oil rigs could be available.

There was no end to the possibilities of these pontoons!

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Desk model of a floating dry dock currently in the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s collection.

It is intriguing to discover the Navy’s creativity designing and using these “magic boxes” as well as learning the role they played in the road to victory for WWII. Knowing something as simple as a steel box could be assembled into more intricate designs is one of the many characteristics of the Seabee culture we are passionate about sharing.

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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.