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.

Pop-up Museum at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum: Community Curation

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum will host a “Pop-Up Museum” on March 3rd, 2018 from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Pop-Up Museums are an aspect of “Community Curation,” a community event where people bring in their personal artifacts for display. We are asking participants to bring artifacts directly related to the Seabee and CEC experience. Examples include war trophies, trench art created in a combat zone, personal pictures and letters, items collected in the field, specialized tools and other items of interest.

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Breaking Down Barriers: The 34th Naval Construction Battalion

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

References

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

Curator’s Corner- Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist Insignia

Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist Insignias; the gold insignia is worn by an officer and the silver is worn by enlisted Seabee (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist Insignias; the gold insignia is worn by an officer and the silver is worn by enlisted Seabee (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Becoming a Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist (SCW) is earned and is not a privilege. Earning a SCW pin is an amazing achievement in a Seabee’s career and is important to gaining access to other opportunities within the Naval Construction Force (NCF).

The SCW program dates to a Master Chief’s conference in 1992, which concluded that the Seabee community should have a warfare designation to recognize the Seabees’ past accomplishments to the Navy.

The SCW insignia pin features an armed Seabee over a crossed sword and rifle atop oak leaves. The silver insignia is for enlisted personnel and gold is for officers.

To qualify to become a Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist is no easy task. To earn this pin the service member must complete Personal Qualification Standards (PQS) which include Seabee Combat Warfare volume I & II, Naval Construction Force 1&C, and Navy Safety Supervisor from the Navy’s Non-Resident Training Course (NRTC) website. In addition, the Seabee must be within physical standards, qualified with the M-16 rifle or M-4 carbine, and must be currently assigned to a unit of the Naval Construction Force. The Seabee must also take a written exam and a field exercise. Upon completion of all prescribed training, a “murder board,” committee of questioners who help someone prepare for a difficult oral examination, is usually held. Upon completion of the murder board, the final board which lasts about two hours is given. The boards are a way to measure confidence and gauge potential leadership within the Naval Construction Force. If nominees pass the board, they are given the title of a Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist.

Seabees place heavy emphasis on tactical field training and basic combat skills. The Seabee Combat Warfare insignia expresses the motto of the Seabees, “We build, We fight.” Come see the SWC Insignia pins and many other Seabee related memorabilia at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.

Robyn King, curator

Robyn King, curator

Meet 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.

Archivist’s Attic: The Fastest Seabees – The Forgotten Fifty-five

In 1943, the Navy was buzzing around the top coast of New Guinea on their way towards the Philippines. At Mios Woendi the Navy ordered a PT-boat Base to be built. Lieutenant Harold Liberty handpicked fifty-five of the best construction men who were experienced in all phases of construction and eager to work hard.

“Each man had a place in at least three operations,” Liberty explained “The cook could drop his skillet and run a winch or string a pipeline. The hospital corpsman didn’t tie his last bandage and go to bed – he manned a crane or drove a truck.” And each one of them was a potential gunner. Each man could pick up and do another man’s job and do it well.

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Just like a swarm of bees, everyman also knew his position and what was expected of them the second they hit the ground. There was no fumbling, no lost motion. Like bees building a hive, the men went in and began going through the hard work of base building.

And build they did, they worked so well together that they started setting records! The Mios Woendi base was built in just 21 days. That feat set the pace for the rest of their operations; soon the detachment was zigzagging from island to island building entire Naval Operating Bases in just 20 days.

With all this speed one wonders, how could they ever be forgotten!? The answer is the same as the question, speed! The outfit moved so quickly, so many times and to so many different places that the men hardly ever got any mail. Forgotten! More like the fast-fifty five or the flashing forward fifty-five.

Whatever you want to call them the Fifty-five lived up to the Seabee standards of Can Do! They just flew by faster than anyone could see them!

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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.

Archivist’s Attic: Headquarters Construction Companies

October 31, 1941, like Halloween itself, war loomed on the forefront as the U.S. scrambled to get bases built in order to help out her allies. In order to prepare for the possibility of war the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BUDOCKS) decided to organize military units known as “Headquarters Construction Companies.”

Map of the Philippines that “Headquarters Construction Companies” worked on.

Map of the Philippines that “Headquarters Construction Companies” worked on.

Up until 1941 construction work done on U.S. bases was done by contracts utilizing civilian labor. Civilians that were not part of the military, had no military training, and would be caught like a deer in a headlight in combat situations. Furthermore, under military law, the contractor’s forces in their status as civilians could not offer resistance when the bases they were constructing were under attack, if they did, they would be considered guerillas and would have been liable to summary execution if captured.

Map of Puerto Rico, 18 March 1941.

Map of Puerto Rico, 18 March 1941.

The “Headquarters Construction Companies” were designed to give the military oversight on to base construction until another solution could be worked out. These units were composed largely of rated personnel that were utilized as administrative units by officers in charge of construction at advance bases in case war interrupted contract operations. One company was organized by the Bureau of Navigation and granted authority for the enlistment of its personnel in Class V-6 of the Naval Reserve. That company formed the nucleus of the First Naval Construction Detachment, the Bobcats, which became the first unit of the newly formed Seabees.

The Seabees officially came into being on December 28th, 1941, and the “Headquarters Construction Companies” became a part of history. While the companies were only used for a short time, they set up the organization and most importantly contributed the men that would become the Seabees. As we head into the early holiday season, remember that even the scariest of times can have a very merry ending.

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.