While “African Americans have served in the U.S. Navy during every declared war in American history” 1, in June 1940, only 2.3% of Navy personnel were black, and rated primarily as stewards and messmen. The Selective Service Act of 1940 provided that in the selection and training of men “there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race or color.”2 In the summer of 1942, the Navy opened all general service ratings to African-Americans, with the caveat that they be segregated in training schools, quarters, and military units. An exception to this came with the establishment of Naval Construction Battalions.
34th Naval Construction Battalion logo.
The 34th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), established on 23 October 1942 at Norfolk, Virginia, was the first battalion primarily comprised of African-American personnel who had previous construction experience in over 50 trades including electricians, carpenters, blacksmiths, riggers, painters, draftsmen, and steelworkers. The 34th NCB consisted of 880 black men and 280 white men, with all white officers, chief and first-class petty officers. These new enlistees began basic training with their battalions, and eventually were deployed together overseas.
1943: Construction of Ilu River bridge on Highway 50 at Guadalcanal, by men of the 34th NCB.
The 34th NCB served on Espiritu Santo, Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Okinawa. At one point, the 34th was split into small detachments and spread throughout the Northern and Central Solomon Islands, where they constructed airstrips, roads, warehouses, hospitals, and other military facilities. At the height of the war, there were more than 12,000 black Seabees, nine black battalions, and 15 predominately black stevedore construction battalions, or “specials”.
November 1943: three 34th NCB divers working on the marine railway at Gavuta. Note the improvised diving gear made from gas mask. From left to right: H.M. Douglas, Slc (CB); T.A. Blair, CM2c (CB) and I. Philip, SF2c (CB).
Despite the progressive nature and success of the 34th NCB, they struggled to gain equitable treatment from their superiors. In October 1944, after a 20 month overseas deployment, the 34th NCB returned to Camp Rousseau in Port Hueneme, California. Their Commanding Officer instituted such policies as separate quarters, mess lines and mess huts for white and black enlisted personnel.He also refused to rate blacks as chief petty officers, and black petty officers were used to perform unskilled, manual labor, and were never placed in charge of base working details, unlike their white counterparts. In response, over 1000 black Seabees staged a hunger strike from March 2-3, 1945, refusing to eat, yet continuing to perform their assigned duties. A subsequent investigation by the Chief of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, stated that “if the present commanding officer persists in his policy regarding the non-rating of Negro chief petty officers, the filling of all vacancies in the grade of petty officer first class will cause virtual stagnation in the advancement of negro petty officers of a lower rating and will have the effect of suppressing all ambition within the Negro personnel.”3 The Bureau determined that “although there may be some degree of natural segregation in a mixed group, under no circumstances should there be segregation or discrimination forced by reason of quartering, messing, and assignment to duty.”4 As a result of the investigation, the CO, his executive officer, and twenty percent of the officers and petty officers were relieved of their duties.
February 1944: Joseph E. Vaughn, MM3c, Harry E. Lash, CM3c, and William A. Shields, GM3c, members of the 34th NCB. Awarded Purple Heart medals for wounds received during enemy bombing on 22 February 1943, Kukum, Guadalcanal.
The new commanding officer instituted a training program designed to allow for enlisted personnel to be rerated, and provide greater opportunities for qualified black Seabees of this groundbreaking battalion to receive the promotions that were previously denied to them. All but three Seabee battalions were deactivated following the end of WWII. The 34th NCB was deactivated in October 1945.
1. NAVFAC Historian’s Office (1988). Black Americans in the U.S. Navy 1776-1946.
2. NAVFAC Historian’s Office (1988) . Black Americans in the U.S. Navy 1776-1946.
3. Naval Inspector General letter (1945). Conditions at Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme, California, Investigation of.
4. Chief of Naval Personnel letter (1945). Conditions at Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme, Calif., Investigation of.