Archivist’s Attic- Seabees, Classifications, & Life Skills during WWII

With the formation of the newly created Naval Construction Battalions in 1942, Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers needed to create new qualifications for each Seabee rank and rate in order to recruit civilians into the force.  When recruited, men were recommended for a certain rank and rate based on age, education, previous experience, and hobbies: CPO Draftsman, minimum age 32; CBM (Diver), must be a diver with considerable experience on waterfront work; Navy Mail Clerk, must be trustworthy; Carpenter’s Mate, related civil job–cabinetmaker; musician, etc. While recruits had a general idea of what they rated, “[t]he day following a recruit’s arrival at Camp Peary’s Seabee training center (opened in 1942) a trained interviewer reclassified by them.”

 

While at Camp Peary, the interviewer asked the recruit a series of focused questions and information requests specific to certain duties and jobs/ranks such as: MM1c (Bulldozer Operator), Milling Machine Operator, Carpenter’s Mate… which needed filling for Seabees.

 “Would you be able to pull a 3 foot diameter stump with caterpillar 60, and how would you set the machine to do so?”

“What do you call the circle on a dividing head that you use to turn the work a definite amount?”

 “Name two knots used to tie together the ends of ropes to make a safe hitch for scaffolding.”

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Seabee Recruiting Cruiser Contingent in Parkersburg, West Virginia, October 1943. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum archives)

While in the Seabees during WWII, enlisted men between the ages of 17 and 50 earned from $54.00 to $126.00 a month depending on rate and rank.

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Statistical Report/graph of CB personnel, 1942 through 1945. (U.S.Seabee Museum archives)

The first Seabee Detachment departed the U.S. January 27, 1942. In November that same year, President Roosevelt authorized the Seabees be expanded to 210,000 men from the initial force of 99 men nearly a year earlier. By the end of the war, more than 325,000 Seabees served on 6 continents and 250 islands.

 

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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.

Curator’s Corner- Seabee Recruitment Caravan & Exhibit Truck

 

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Seabee Exhibit Truck (reproduction), used during the WWII Seabee nation-wide recruitment campaign (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

The U.S. Seabee Museum, with the help of the CEC/ Seabee Historical Foundation, has acquired a WWII reproduction of a Seabee Exhibit Truck which was used during the Seabee Nation-Wide Recruitment Campaign.  An original 1942 exhibit diorama from the museum’s collection is displayed in the truck.

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Recruitment Poster (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The recruiting campaign began in October 1942 and nation-wide tours launched in 1943 to spearhead the enlistment of 100,000 Seabees into the Naval Construction Battalion by the first of the year.  The Seabee recruitment caravans, also known as a “recruiting stations on wheels,” consisted of an exhibit truck and a recruitment cruiser. The caravans was accompanied by four enlisted men and two commissioned CEC officers who provided full information about enlisting with the Seabees. Men from ages 17 to 50 with construction experience were needed immediately to build bases on distant battlefronts.

 

“…one of the most interesting [exhibits] to have ever been produced by the navy department…The purpose of the display is to stimulate interest in enlistments in the Seabees, the construction battalion of the navy.”

                                                                                            -The Times Leader, August 1943

The exhibit truck’s diorama, depicted through the medium of miniature wax figures*, shows a complete landing operation carried out by the Seabees on Island “X” in the South Pacific. The dioramas showed Seabees clearing away tropical trees, building barracks, landing supplies and performing multiple other duties required of them in establishing island bases.

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Newspaper article announcing the arrival of the recruitment caravan, Middletown, OH Journal August 16, 1943

Prior to the Recruitment Caravan’s visit to each city, arrangements were made in advance to distribute special posters, have newspaper articles written, and to have announcements made by local radio stations of its arrival. Further publicity was made through local labor organizations and social clubs.

Upon arrival to visiting cities, the caravan was escorted into the city by a police escort and station wagon, accompanied by fanfare, music, and crowds. The vehicles usually “docked” in front of the county courthouse or city hall. In the evening the caravan would “anchor” at a local park where concerts were held before the showing of the Seabee motion picture “Builders for Battle” and “Sports of Sailormen”. The entire community was invited to see the movies free of charge and inspect the exhibit.

The Seabee Museum’s Exhibit Truck is modeled after one of the original trucks that toured the Midwest during the summer of 1943.  The recruitment caravan visited numerous cities in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana during the two-month tour where an estimated 140,000 people viewed the exhibit diorama.

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Before displaying one of the original dioramas in the newly procured exhibit truck, the Naval History & Heritage Center (NHHC) Conservation Branch performed conservation treatment on the diorama with the goal to stabilize it and improve its aesthetic integrity for its upcoming exhibition.  The diorama was cleaned, distorted figures were stabilized, fallen or broken palm fronds were re-attached, and its background was fixed and painted.

Come visit the Seabee Exhibit Truck at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum today and check out the newly conserved diorama.

*Miniature figures were made out of different materials including wax, putty, and paper mache

 

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- Blue Star Mother Flag

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Courtesy of the War Manpower Commission

Blue Star Mother Flags, also known as Service Flags or Blue Star Flags, represent a symbol of love, pride, hope, and grave concern for families who have members serving in the military during any period of war the United States is engaged in. The tradition of displaying the indoor flag began during World War I. The flag was originally designed and patented by Army Captain Robert L. Queisser of the 5th Ohio Infantry who had two sons serving on the front line. The flag would hang in the front window of the home with a blue star (or multiple blue stars) representing the number of their children or family members serving in a war.

During World War II, the practice of displaying the Blue Star Flag became much more widespread. On February 1, 1942 the first meeting of the Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc. was attended by 300 women in Flint, Michigan. The organization was founded as a Veteran Service Organization and was part of a movement to provide care packages to military members serving overseas and to assist families who encountered hardships as a result of their son or husband serving in the war. Quickly, chapters formed around the nation, and the Blue Star Flags of WWI reappeared in the windows of American homes once again. There were over 300,000 Seabee families in World War II who could display the Blue Star Mother’s official banner.

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum has many Blue Star Mother artifacts within its collection including two which are currently on exhibit in the WWII Home Front display. The three blue stars on the flag represented the Baker sons fighting in WWII, and was proudly displayed by their mother. The pin was worn by the mother of WWII Seabee Chief Robert D. Jacobs. It is unique in that it combines the Seabee insignia, Navy anchors, and the Blue Star Flag.

Come visit the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum on Tuesday April 4, 2017 from 2-4pm to see the Blue Star Mother artifacts and other rarely seen artifacts from the collection at the Curator’s Corner event.

 

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Meet 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- Davisville Stained Glass

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Original stained glass window from the Chapel in the Pines in Davisville, Rhode Island (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

Davisville, Rhode Island is the birthplace of the Seabees and was a strategic location for Seabees serving during the Cold War. The Navy acquired the property in 1939, and built the Naval Air Station Quonset Point. In 1942, adjoining properties were developed for training Seabees, including Advanced Base Depot (ABD) Davisville. After WWII, ABD Davisville was placed in caretaker status until August 8, 1951, when it was reactivated as Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Davisville due to the intensification of the Cold War. The base played a significant role during the Cold War by supporting advance base construction, emergency public works, and participating in special task force projects. The active duty mission of the base was disestablished in 1974. All active duty units were transferred to Gulfport or Port Hueneme and NCBC Davisville was changed to reserve status. Reserve NCBC Davisville officially closed on April 1, 1994.

 

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Chapel in the Pines, base chapel in Davisville, Rhode Island (Courtesy of the CEC/ Seabee Historical Foundation

“The Chapel in the Pines” was the base chapel of NCBC Davisville built by the Seabees in 1963. At construction, it was the only poured concrete chapel in the world. A large, circular stained glass window was featured in the chapel. The stained glass is about 7 feet in diameter and lights up with vivid shades of green, blue and red. The words “Praise Ye The Lord” are crafted into the stained glass along with a small Seabee insignia in the lower right-hand corner.

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Seabee insignia crafted into the stained glass (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

 

After the closing of Davisville in 1994, the stained glass was removed from the Chapel of the Pines and relocated to the Seabee base in Gulfport, Mississippi where the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Annex resided. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, it severely damaged the museum’s building and all the historical artifacts were removed. The stained glass was relocated to Gulfport’s chapel for safe keeping until its official move to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, California where it is prominently displayed in the museum’s Cold War Gallery.

Come visit the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum and see the new Cold War exhibition which is now open to the public.

 

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- Artifact Spotlight: Trench Art Shot Glasses

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Trench art, 20mm brass shot glasses, donated by SF1c Ralph E. Nichols of the 73rd Naval Construction Battalion (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

The men of the Naval Construction Battalion (NCB), better known as the Seabees, are known to have collected and brought home many souvenirs and war trophies from WWII. The Seabees of the 73rd NCB were no different. They spent most of their time during WWII on the islands of Munda and Peleiu in the South Pacific, known only as Island X to their loved ones back home. They worked on projects such as malaria control, road construction, construction for beach landings and airfields, and built camps including housings, hospitals, churches, and mess halls.

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Seabees from the 73th NCB playing baseball or watching a boxing tournament in their free time (73rd Seabees cruise book, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archives)

Nights the Seabees were not in foxholes being bombed by “Washing Machine Charlie” (a term given by U.S. allied forces to Imperial Japanese aircraft that performed nighttime missions and bombings over allied occupied islands in the South Pacific), they would enjoy recreational activities such as watching movies and participating in sporting events such as boxing tournaments, baseball or basketball. Many of the men also began to create trench art in their spare time. The Seabees have always been noted for their ability to improvise and make something out of any pile of scrap.

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Trench art souvenirs illustration from the 73rd Seabees cruise book (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum Archives)

The souvenir craze first hit the 73rd NCB on Guadalcanal with the abundance of Imperial Japanese shells, sea shells, and grass skirts. As they island hopped around the Pacific Ocean to Roviana, Sasseville, Munda, Banika, and Peleiu, they kept the desire for souvenirs with them. With projectile casings all around them as they worked, they spent their down time collecting them and crafting trench art.

Ship Fitter First Class (SF1c) Ralph E. Nichols of the 73rd NCB donated his collection of memorabilia to the museum in the 1970s which included a set of 6 trench art brass shot glasses made out of 20mm projectile casings from cannon shells. The bottom of each shell casing is marked “S.M.C. 1943 20mm M21A1”. They were most likely manufactured by the Symington Machine Corporation in Rochester, N.Y. Each shell casing measures a height of 2 inches.

Each shot glass is marked inert which means they are chemically inactive. As material potentially presenting an explosive hazard (MPPEH), every piece of ordnance donated to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum must go through the process of becoming inert certified before being displayed in the museum.

Come visit the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum for the grand opening of two new exhibitions, WWII Pacific Theater and Cold War on Saturday January 21, 2017 and see the different types of trench art and trophies the Seabees brought home with them.

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Meet 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- The W. Reynolds Collection

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Trench art coconut lamp, made out of three coconuts and inert ammunition (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

 

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum will be officially opening the WWII Pacific Theater Exhibit in January 2017 to kick off the Seabees 75th Anniversary. Among the new exhibits will be a World War II trench art exhibit.

The Seabees are known to have created unique examples of trench art during WWII. Trench art, or decorative items made by soldiers during times of war, were created by Seabees during their off duty hours while deployed to pass their time. Seabees used the materials around them to create trinkets for them to send home as gifts and to remind them of their time as Seabees.

Many unique examples of trench art have been donated to the Seabee Museum. W. Reynolds, a Seabee who served in the Pacific Theater, handmade many pieces of trench art which have been donated to the museum by his family. A few examples from his collection include a handcrafted coconut lamp made from three coconuts and inert ammunition, and a cigarette holder and letter holder made out of Imperial Japanese shell casings and hammered brass. The museum unfortunately has very little information regarding the donor’s battalion and where he was deployed.

Come visit the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum and see W. Reynolds collection and an array of trench art on display throughout the museum.

photo of robyn for curator's corner.pngMeet 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.