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DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
805 KIDDER BREESE SE -- WASHINGTON NAVY YARD
WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060
Seabee History: Formation of the Seabees
and World War II
the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United
States entry into the war, the use of civilian labor in war zones
became impractical. Under international law civilians were not
permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary
execution as guerrillas.This historic event sealed the fate of Japan. Realizing that
the war was lost, the Japanese government negotiated a cease fire
that went into effect on 16 August. On 2 September 1945 Japan
formally surrendered, and Allied forces occupied the Japanese
home islands in a peaceful manner. Thus, the Pacific roads to
victory reached their final destination.
The need for a militarized Naval Construction Force to build
advance bases in the war zone was self-evident. Therefore, Rear
Admiral Ben Moreell determined to activate, organize, and man
Navy construction units. On 28 December 1941, he requested specific
authority to carry out this decision, and on 5 January 1942, he
gained authority from the Bureau of Navigation to recruit men
from the construction trades for assignment to a Naval Construction
Regiment composed of three Naval Construction Battalions. This
is the actual beginning of the renowned Seabees, who obtained
their designation from the initial letters of Construction
Battalion. Admiral Moreell personally furnished them with
their official motto: Construimus, Batuimus -- "We
Build, We Fight."
An urgent problem confronting the Bureau of Yards and Docks
was who should command the construction battalions. By Navy regulations,
military command of naval personnel was limited to line officers.
Yet it was deemed essential that the newly established construction
battalions should be commanded by officers of the Civil Engineer
Corps who were trained in the skills required for the performance
of construction work. The bureau proposed that the necessary command
authority should be bestowed on its Civil Engineer Corps officers.
However, the Bureau of Naval Personnel (successor to the Bureau
of Navigation) strongly objected to this proposal.
Despite this opposition, Admiral Moreell personally presented
the question to the Secretary of the Navy. On 19 March 1942, after
due deliberation, the Secretary gave authority for officers of
the Civil Engineer Corps to exercise military authority over all
officers and enlisted men assigned to construction units. The
Secretary's decision, which was incorporated in Navy regulations,
removed a major roadblock in the conduct of Seabee operations.
Of equal importance, it constituted a very significant morale
booster for Civil Engineer Corps officers because it provided
a lawful command authority status that tied them intimately into
combat operations, the primary reason for the existence of any
military force. From all points of view, Admiral Moreell's success
in achieving this end contributed ultimately to the great success
and fame of the Seabees.
With authorization to establish construction battalions at
hand and the question of who was to command the Seabees settled,
the Bureau of Yards and Docks was confronted with the problem
of recruiting, enlisting, and training Seabees, and then organizing
the battalions and logistically supporting them in their operations.
Plans for accomplishing these tasks were not available. Workable
Plans were quickly developed, however, and because of the exigencies
of the war much improvising was done.
The first Seabees were not raw recruits when they voluntarily
enlisted. Emphasis in recruiting them was placed on experience
and skill, so all they had to do was adapt their civilian construction
skills to military needs. To obtain men with the necessary qualifications,
physical standards were less rigid than in other branches of the
armed forces. The age range for enlistment was 18-50, but after
the formation of the initial battalions, it was discovered that
several men past 60 had managed to join up, clearly an early manifestation
of Seabee ingenuity. During the early days of the war, the average
age of Seabees was 37. After December 1942 voluntary enlistments
were halted by orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and
men for the construction battalions had to be obtained through
the Selective Service System. Henceforward, Seabees were on average
much younger and came into the service with only rudimentary skills.
The first recruits were the men who had helped to build Boulder
Dam, the national highways, and New York's skyscrapers; who had
worked in the mines and quarries and dug the subway tunnels; who
had worked in shipyards and built docks and wharfs and even ocean
liners and aircraft carriers. By the end of the war, 325,000 such
men had enlisted in the Seabees. They knew more than 60 skilled
trades, not to mention the unofficial ones of souvenir making
and "moonlight procurement." Nearly 11,400 officers
joined the Civil Engineer Corps during the war, and 7,960 of them
served with the Seabees.
At Naval Construction Training Centers and Advanced Base Depots
established on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Seabees were taught
military discipline and the use of light arms. Although technically
support troops, Seabees at work, particularly during the early
days of base development in the Pacific, frequently found themselves
in conflict with the enemy.
After completing three weeks of boot training at Camp Allen,
and later at its successor, Camp Peary, both in Virginia, the
Seabees were formed into construction battalions or other types
of construction units. Some of the very first battalions were
sent overseas immediately upon completion of boot training because
of the urgent need for naval construction. The usual procedure,
however, was to ship the newly- formed battalion to an Advanced
Base Depot at either Davisville, Rhode Island, or Port Hueneme,
California. There the battalions, and later other units, underwent
staging and outfitting. The Seabees received about six weeks of
advanced military and technical training, underwent considerable
unit training, and then were shipped to an overseas assignment.
About 175,000 Seabees were staged directly through Port Hueneme
during the war.
As the war proceeded, battle-weary construction battalions
and other units in the Pacific were returned to the United States
to the Construction Battalion Recuperation and Replacement Center
at Camp Parks, Shoemaker, California. At Camp Parks, battalions
were reformed and reorganized, or as was the case in several instances,
the battalions were simply disestablished and the men assigned
to other battalions. Seabees were given 30-day leaves and also
plenty of time for rest and recuperation. Eligible men were frequently
discharged at Camp Parks. On a much smaller scale, the Advance
Base Receiving Barracks at Davisville, Rhode Island, performed
similar functions for Atlantic battalions.
The construction battalion, the fundamental unit of the Seabee
organization, comprised four companies that included the necessary
construction skills for doing any job, plus a headquarters company
consisting of medical and dental professionals and technicians,
administrative personnel, storekeepers, cooks, and similar specialists.
The complement of a standard battalion originally was set at 32
officers and 1,073 men, but from time to time the complement varied
As the war progressed and construction projects became larger
and more complex, more than one battalion frequently had to be
assigned to a base. For efficient administrative control, these
battalions were organized into a regiment, and when necessary,
two or more regiments were organized into a brigade, and as required,
two or more brigades were organized into a naval construction
force. For example, 55,000 Seabees were assigned to Okinawa and
the battalions were organized into 11 regiments and 4 brigades,
which, in turn, were all under the command of the Commander, Construction
Troops, who was a Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer, Commodore
Andrew G. Bisset. Moreover, his command also included 45,000 United
States Army engineers, aviation engineers, and a few British engineers.
He therefore commanded 100,000 construction troops in all, the
largest concentration of construction troops during the entire
Although the Seabees began with the formation of regular construction
battalions only, the Bureau of Yards and Docks soon realized the
need for special-purpose units. While the battalion itself was
versatile enough to handle almost any project, it would have been
a wasteful use of men to assign a full battalion to a project
that could be done equally well by a smaller group of specialists.
The first departure from the standard battalion was the special
construction battalion, or as it was commonly known, the Seabee
Special. These special battalions were composed of stevedores
and longshoremen who were badly needed to break a bottleneck in
the unloading of ships in combat zones. Their officers, drawn
largely from the Merchant Marine and personnel of stevedoring
companies, were commissioned in the Civil Engineer Corps. The
enlisted men were trained practically from scratch, and the efficiency
of their training was demonstrated by the fact that cargo handling
in combat zones compared favorably to that in the most efficient
ports in the United States.
Another smaller, specialized unit within the Seabee organization
was the construction battalion maintenance unit, which was about
one-quarter the size of a regular construction battalion. It was
organized to take over the maintenance of a base after a regular
battalion had completed construction and moved on to its next
Still another specialized Seabee unit was the construction
battalion detachment, ranging in size from 6 to 600 men, depending
on the specialized nature of its function. These detachments did
everything from operating tire-repair shops to dredges. A principal
use for them, however, was the handling, assembling, launching,
and placing of pontoon causeways.
Additional specialized units were the motor trucking battalions,
the pontoon assembly detachments that manufactured pontoons in
forward areas, and petroleum detachments comprised of experts
in the installation of pipelines and petroleum facilities.
In the Second World War, the Seabees were organized into 151
regular construction battalions, 39 special construction battalions,
164 construction battalion detachments, 136 construction battalion
maintenance units, 5 pontoon assembly detachments, 54 regiments,
12 brigades, and under various designations, 5 naval construction
SEABEE ROADS TO VICTORY IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
During the Second World War, the Seabees performed now legendary
deeds in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of Operation.
At a cost of nearly $11 billion and many casualties, they constructed
over 400 advanced bases along five figurative roads to victory
which all had their beginnings in the continental United States.
The South Atlantic road wound through the Caribbean Sea to Africa,
Sicily, and up the Italian peninsula. The North Atlantic road
passed through Newfoundland to Iceland, Great Britain, France,
and Germany. The North Pacific road passed through Alaska and
along the Aleutian island chain. The Central Pacific road passed
through the Hawaiian, Marshall, Gilbert, Mariana, and Ryukyu Islands.
The South Pacific road went through the South Sea islands to Samoa,
the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Philippine's. All the Pacific
roads converged on Japan and the Asiatic mainland.
SEABEES IN THE ATLANTIC THEATER OF OPERATIONS
Along the Atlantic front, the Seabees helped forge two roads
to victory. From tropical Caribbean climes to the ultimate destination
of Germany, they played a crucial role in initially opening and
later maintaining bases of critical importance to the war effort.
On the South Atlantic road to victory, Seabee contributions
in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America were the
first of many milestones. When the United States found itself
enmeshed in a two ocean war, the Panama Canal suddenly became
the most strategic point on the globe. The convergence of naval
and merchant fleet traffic at this point offered German U-boats
a vital and tempting target. As a result, it became necessary
to ring the canal's ocean approaches with protective bases.
Agreements with the governments of Caribbean, Central American,
and South American countries made it possible to secure sites
for new bases throughout the area. The Lend Lease Agreement, consummated
with Great Britain in September of 1940, yielded still other possible
bases in this crucial locale.
Not only were new base sites rapidly acquired, but United
States bases already in existence were enlarged. Under the Greenslade
Program of 1940, the three pre-1939 naval installations located
in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Panama Canal Zone were all expanded.
The construction program undertaken in Puerto Rico was perhaps
the most ambitious. The Naval Station at Roosevelt Roads, seat
of the Tenth Naval District, was developed into an installation
of major proportions. It was so enlarged that it became known
as the "Pearl Harbor of the Caribbean."
Most of the construction on existing, as well as on the newly
established Caribbean, Central American, and South American bases,
was carried out by civilian contractors. By late 1943, however,
the Seabees had arrived in these southern reaches to complete
unfinished construction jobs and keep this vast, naval network
in smooth, technical operation. Along the Atlantic coastal regions,
these bases formed a barrier from Bermuda to beyond the Brazilian
bulge. On the Pacific side of the Americas, United States bases
stretched from Honduras to Ecuador. Seaplanes, patrol bombers,
blimps, and surface craft operating out of the new and enlarged
harbors and airfields hunted down and destroyed roving enemy submarines.
At the big Carlsen airfield on Trinidad, Naval Construction
Battalion 80 paved runways and built a giant blimp hangar. Naval
Construction Battalion 83 helped cut an eight-mile, S-curved highway
up Trinidad's jungled mountain slopes. Beginning at the sea level
town of Port of Spain and climbing to a height of 1,300 feet,
the construction of this road required that the Seabees move one
million cubic yards of earth and rock.
On the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, Naval Construction Battalion
Detachment 1012 outfitted a seaplane base with tank farms, pontoon
piers, and a water system. Once this mission had been successfully
accomplished, the detachment moved to Salinas on the Ecuadorian
main- land. There they completed the southernmost seaplane base
of the crucial Pacific sea patrol arc.
More often than not, however, the construction battalions,
detachments, and maintenance units that served in these areas
manned bases already completed. Although far from the receding
fronts of war, their tours of duty were, nonetheless, exacting
From the Caribbean and the Americas, the South Atlantic victory
road led to North Africa where the Seabees faced combat for the
first time in the Atlantic Theater of Operations. After landing
with American assault forces on 7 November 1942, they proceeded
to rapidly construct military facilities at Oran, Casablanca,
Safi and Fedala. Later, while the Allied armies moved toward Tunisia
and their final showdown with the Afrika Korps,
the Seabees built a string of staging and training areas along
the northern coast. Also active on the west coast of Africa, they
constructed a huge naval air station at Port Lyautey, Morocco.
After the Allies had driven the Axis forces out of Tunisia,
the Seabees began a large scale buildup at their new base in Bizerte.
There they prepared a new weapon of war, the steel pontoon, that
was to be used for the first time on the invasion beaches of Sicily.
Actually, pontoons were not new to naval warfare. Xerxes had used
such devices to cross the Hellespont when he invaded Greece in
the 5th Century B.C. The Seabees, however, had added some new
innovations and cleverly adapted them to the requirements of modern
amphibious warfare. The classic pontoons were standardized in
size and fitted with special tackle so that they could be quickly
assembled to form causeways, piers, and other structures. As a
result, these versatile "magic boxes" could be used
to meet the exigencies of any number of situations.
The beaches of Sicily had previously been considered by both
the Allies and Axis as an impossible site for a major amphibious
landing. Nevertheless, with help of the Seabees and their new
pontoons, the Allies were able to carry off a surprise attack
on the weakly defended Sicilian beaches. The enemy was quickly
outflanked and overpowered as large numbers of men and huge amounts
of equipment poured ashore over pontoon causeways with a minimum
of casualties and delay. Thus, the Seabees were instrumental in
spelling the beginning of the end for the southern stronghold
of the Axis.
These same landing techniques were later used at Salerno and
Anzio on the Italian mainland. Unfortunately, the Germans had
learned their lesson from the Sicilian debacle, and this time
they were lying in wait. It was in the face of fierce resistance
and heavy bombardment that the Allies suffered heavy casualties
as they stormed ashore at both Salerno and Anzio, and the Seabees
absorbed their share of the casualties. At Anzio the situation
was particularly desperate. Anzio had been a diversionary landing
behind enemy lines and, when the Germans staged a massive counterattack,
the defenders were in critical danger of being pushed back into
the sea. It was the Seabees' task to keep essential supplies and
ammunition moving across their pontoon causeways to the struggling
forces on their precarious beachhead. Only with their vital assistance
were the Allies able to turn the tide of battle and push inland
in the wake of the slowly retreating Germans. For many months,
however, the Seabees remained at Anzio and, under continuous German
bombardment, built cargo handling facilities, unloaded tank landing
ships, and kept supplies moving to the front. German resistance
in Southern Italy finally collapsed and Rome was taken on 4 June
1943. Even so, the Seabees had one more task in the Mediterranean,
the invasion of Southern France through Toulon. While this was
a relatively important job, it was eclipsed by the much bigger
assignment they were handed on the North Atlantic road to victory,
the Normandy invasion.
Although Seabee accomplishments on the North Atlantic road
eventually culminated in the Normandy invasion, operations in
that area had begun as early as March of 1942.
The Seabees were first used on construction projects in Iceland,
Newfoundland, and Greenland at bases previously acquired by treaty
from Great Britain. Seabees in Newfoundland helped construct a
huge naval air station and naval base at Argentia. From these
installations, aircraft and surface ships set forth to protect
the many Allied convoys sailing the western sector of the North
To complete the huge arc of bases stretching across the North
Atlantic, even more Seabees were sent to the British Isles. At
Londonderry, Northern Ireland, they constructed a huge, deep water
facility for naval craft and a naval air station that was capable
of handling the largest aircraft. Lough Erne, Loch Ryan, and Rosneath
in Scotland were transformed into huge storage depots, tank farms,
industrial areas, and seaplane bases.
Only with the firm establishment of the Navy's control of
the seas, and the logistic battle of the North Atlantic under
control, did the Seabees move to the southwest coast of England
to prepare for the great invasion. From Milford Haven on the northwest
coast of Wales down to Plymouth and over to Exeter, the Seabees
built invasion bases which teemed with activity. There they prepared
for their most critical and multifaceted role in the Atlantic
Theater of Operations.
During D-Day of the Normandy invasion, 6 June 1944, the Seabees
were among the first to go ashore as members of naval combat demolition
units. Working with U.S. Army Engineers, their crucial task was
to destroy the steel and concrete barriers that the Germans had
built in the water and on the beaches to forestall any amphibious
landings. When dawn betrayed their presence, they came under murderous
German fire. Whole teams were wiped out when shells prematurely
detonated their explosives. Heedless of the danger, the survivors
continued to work until all their explosive charges were planted.
As a result of their heroic actions, the charges went off on schedule
and huge holes were blown in the enemy's defenses.
The arduous assignment of the combat demolition units was
only the beginning of the Seabees' work on Normandy's beaches.
After the invasion fleet had arrived off the coast, The approximately
10,000 Seabees of Naval Construction Regiment 25 began manhandling
their pontoon causeways onto the beach. It was over these causeways
that the infantry charged ashore. Under constant German fire,
directed at slowing or stopping the landings, the Seabees succeeded
in placing large numbers of these pontoon causeways. Allied troops
and tanks subsequently swept ashore in ever greater numbers and
pushed the German defenders inland.
The Seabee contribution to the success of the invasion was
not restricted to assembling and placing pontoon causeways. They
also manned the large ferries known as Rhinos that carried men
and supplies from the larger ships to the beaches. These ferries
were actually little more than floating pontoon structures powered
by giant outboard motors. Huge amounts of much needed equipment
were hauled ashore on Rhinos during the first few days of the
The Seabees also built offshore cargo and docking facilities,
piers, and breakwaters. These were constructed out of old cargo
ships, special prefabricated concrete structures that were floated
over from England, and the ubiquitous steel pontoons. The huge
port area that was formed out of this odd combination of materials
became known as Mulberry A. Even after the artificial harbor was
partially destroyed in a severe storm, the Seabees landed hundreds
of thousands of tons of war material daily. In addition to these
massive amounts of supplies, by July 4, only 28 days after D-day,
they had helped land more than a million Allied fighting men.
The liberation of Cherbourg and Le Havre led to the next big
Seabee project. Mulberry A, for all its impressiveness, was only
a temporary facility, and the established harbors of these two
cities were desperately needed by the Allies. Knowing of this
need, the Germans had cleverly devastated the harbors of Cherbourg
and Le Havre before retreating. It thus fell to the Seabees to
put these harbors quickly back into service. On the heels of the
liberating armies, the Seabees entered Cherbourg and Le Havre.
At Cherbourg the first cargoes were landed within 11 days and
within a month the harbor was capable of handling 14 ships simultaneously.
Seabee accomplishments at Le Havre were equally impressive.
As the front continued to move inland, other ports along the
northern and western coasts of France were restored. At Brest,
Lorient, and St. Nazaire, the Seabees rapidly cleared and rebuilt
harbors to handle additional vital shipments of cargo.
The final great Seabee effort in the European Theater took
place during the crossing of the Rhine River in March 1945. Many
times during the Second World War the Seabees had been called
upon to do odd jobs of an urgent nature, but this particular odd
job was of special significance. The U.S. Army, concerned about
the Rhine River's swift and tricky currents, called upon the Seabees
to operate many of the landing craft that were to be used in breaking
Germany's Rhine River barrier. The Seabees' first successful probe
across the treacherous river was at Bad Neuenahr near Remagen.
Further crossings followed in rapid succession as the Seabees
made their task appear to be little more difficult than a sightseeing
On 22 March 1945, General George S. Patton, with Seabee assistance,
put his armored forces across the Rhine at Oppenheim in a frontal
assault which swept away the German defenders. To support Patton's
advancing army, the Seabees built pontoon ferries similar to the
Rhinos of D-day fame and used them to transport Patton's tanks
across the river.
In all, the Seabees operated more than 300 craft which shuttled
thousands of troops into the heart of Germany. One Seabee crew
even had the honor of ferrying Prime Minister Winston Churchill
across the Rhine on an inspection tour.
The 69th Naval Construction Battalion had the distinction
of being the only complete battalion to serve in Germany. Arriving
at Bremen on 27 April 1945, the Seabees of this battalion set
up camp just outside the city. They immediately began the re-roofing
of damaged buildings, installing plumbing and lighting, setting
up shops and offices, and installing power lines. A detachment
also repaired facilities at the nearby port of Bremerhaven.
Later, a large detachment from the 69th battalion was sent
to Frankfurt-am-Main, which had been designated as the headquarters
of the U.S. Navy for the occupation of Germany. There the detachment
refurbished several buildings and performed considerable maintenance
work. In August 1945 the men of this detachment completed their
work and withdrew to Great Britain.
For the Seabees, the completion of this task marked the end
of the North Atlantic road to victory. They had reached their
goal. Their building and fighting exploits along the road had
been noteworthy and valorous.
SEABEES IN THE PACIFIC THEATER OF 0PERATIONS
Seabees in the Pacific Theater of Operations earned the
gratitude of all Allied fighting men who served with them or followed
in their wake. Their deeds were unparalleled in the history of
wartime construction. With eighty percent of the Naval Construction
Force concentrated on the three Pacific roads, they literally
built and fought their way to victory.
In the North, Central, South and Southwest Pacific areas,
the Seabees built 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition
magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals to serve
70,000 patients, tanks for the storage of 100,000,000 gallons
of gasoline, and housing for 1,500,000 men. In construction and
fighting operations, the Pacific Seabees suffered more than 200
combat deaths and earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts. They served
on four continents and on more than 300 islands.
Of the three Pacific roads to victory, perhaps the least significant
was the one which wound through the North Pacific. At the outset
of hostilities, however, this region, which included Alaska and
the Aleutian Islands, had been a Japanese target. The Japanese
campaign of 1942 that succeeded in seizing the Aleutian islands
of Attu and Kiska was partly a feint, partly a serious probe of
American defenses, and partly a move to prevent the United States
from invading the Japanese homeland through the Aleutian and Kurile
Islands. Many of the first Seabees were sent to the North Pacific
to help forestall what appeared at the time to be a major Japanese
By late June 1942 Seabees had landed in Alaska and had begun building
advanced bases on Adak, Amchitka, and other key islands in the
Aleutian chain. In 1943 these new bases were used to stage the
joint Army-Navy task force that recaptured Attu and Kiska. While
subsequent activity in the North Pacific was minimal, the long,
flanking arm of Seabee-built bases pointing toward the Japanese
home islands served as a substantial threat to the Japanese throughout
the remainder of the war. Even as action in the Central, South,
and Southwest Pacific areas became the major focus of attention,
the Japanese continued to look northward in fear.
Of the remaining two Pacific roads, the one through the steaming
jungles of the South and Southwest Pacific had the Philippines
as one of its principal destinations. The Seabees' first stop
along this road was in the Society Islands.
The First Naval Construction Battalion (later redesignated
the 1st Construction Battalion Detachment because of its small
size) left the United States in January of 1942 and, one month
later, landed on Bora Bora in the Society Islands. The men of
this battalion called themselves the "Bobcats" after
the code name BOBCAT, given to the island of Bora Bora. The Bobcats
were actually the advance party of the more than 325,000 men who
were to serve in the Naval Construction Force during the Second
World War. The Bobcats' mission was to construct a fueling station
that would service the many ships and planes necessary to defend
and keep open the sea lanes to Australia. Shortly after landing
on their tropical paradise, the Bobcats discovered that the island
had many climatic and hygienic disadvantages. Continual rainfall,
50 varieties of dysentery, skin disease, and the dreaded elephantiasis
all combined to make life miserable for the construction men.
To make their task even more difficult, the island, far from the
regular trade routes, had no piers from which to unload the supply-laden
ships. Despite these almost overwhelming problems, the Bobcats
immediately set about accomplishing their crucial objective. After
devising a method of bringing supplies ashore aboard pontoon barges,
they swiftly constructed the necessary fueling facilities. Their
strenuous efforts were later rewarded when the island's tank farms
supplied the ships and planes that fought the historic Battle
of the Coral Sea.
While the Bobcats labored on Bora Bora, two additional groups
of Navy construction men were organized into the 2nd and 3rd Construction
Battalion Detachments. Less than five months after the Bobcats
arrived on Bora Bora, the Second Detachment was sent to Tongatabu
in the Tonga Islands and the Third Detachment to Efate in the
These two islands were also on the supply route to Australia
and were being used as a staging area for a counterthrust by the
Allies against Japanese forces in the Southwest Pacific. On these
islands the Seabees constructed fuel tank farms, airfields, supply
depots, and other facilities to support military action in the
Coral Sea and Solomon Islands.
The island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides was closest
in proximity to Japanese-held Guadalcanal and, thus, rapidly assumed
major importance. Guadalcanal was the very tip of the Japanese
thrust down the Solomon chain toward the Allied southern communications
route. The need to destroy the big Japanese airfields nearing
completion on Guadalcanal was imperative. The Seabees of the 3rd
Construction Battalion Detachment were rushed from Efate to Espiritu
Santo and instructed to build a countermanding Allied bomber strip
as rapidly as possible. Within an incredible 20 days the detachment
had carved a 6,000 foot airstrip from virgin jungle. As a result
of this tremendous feat, the Allies were able to mount large scale
air attacks against Guadalcanal and destroy the dangerous Japanese
air base under construction there.
When the Marines finally invaded nearby Guadalcanal, the men
of the 6th Naval Construction Battalion followed them ashore and
thus became the first Seabees to build under combat conditions.
They immediately began the arduous task of repairing the airfield,
now named Henderson Field that they had earlier helped to destroy.
This became a never-ending job, because as fast as the builders
leveled the strip and put down Marston matting, the Japanese would
send bombers overhead to drop high explosives on their work. Nevertheless,
in the midst of battle, the Seabees were able to repair shell
and bomb holes faster than the Japanese could make them. The Allied
pilots desperately needed the use of Henderson Field, so the Seabees
kept this precious airstrip in almost continuous operation.
The first decorated Seabee hero of the war, Seaman 2nd Class
Lawrence C. "Bucky" Meyer, USNR, was among the Seabees
of the 6th battalion who worked on Henderson Field. In his off-time,
he salvaged and repaired an abandoned machine gun, which, on 3
October 1942, he used to shoot down a Japanese Zero fighter making
a strafing run. For this exploit, he was awarded the Silver Star.
It was, however, a posthumous award, for 13 days after shooting
down the plane, "Bucky" Myer was killed in action when
the gasoline barge on which he was working was struck by Japanese
On the same day Guadalcanal was invaded, Marines landed on
Tulagi Island, a short distance across the Sealark Channel. Once
again the Seabees also came ashore, but this time to construct
an important torpedo patrol boat and repair base for the U.S.
Fleet. The base played a strategic role during the savage sea
battles in the "slot," the narrow channel between the
islands of Tulagi, Savo, and Guadalcanal. Patrol boats darted
from the Seabee-built advanced base to scout Japanese offensive
moves, and crippled American ships limped in to receive temporary
As the Allies continued to island hop up the Solomon chain,
the Russells, Rendova, New Georgia, and Bougainville also became
centers of a frenzied construction effort by Seabee units. At
the same time, Seabees in the Southwest Pacific were driving northward
from Australia to New Guinea and the Philippines.
It was during the landing on Treasury Island in the Solomons,
on 28 November 1943, that Fireman 1st Class Aurelio Tassone, USNR,
of the 87th Naval Construction Battalion created that legendary
figure of the Seabee astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy
positions. Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the
landing when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, CEC, USNR, told him
a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance from the beach.
Tassone drove his dozer toward the pillbox, using the blade as
a shield, while Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with
his carbine. Under continuous heavy fire, Tassone crushed the
pillbox with the dozer blade, killing all 12 of its occupants.
For this act Tassone was awarded the Silver Star.
Although Seabees were only supposed to fight to defend what
they built, such acts of heroism were numerous. In all, Seabees
earned 33 Silver Stars and 5 Navy Crosses during World War II.
But they also paid a price: 272 enlisted men and 18 officers killed
in action. In addition to deaths sustained as a result of enemy
action, more than 500 Seabees died in accidents, for construction
is essentially a hazardous business.
Another milestone in Seabee history was in the making in 1943
-- but the location was Hollywood rather than the South Pacific.
Made in 1943 and released in early 1944, the motion picture The
Fighting Seabees, starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward,
made "Seabee" a household word during the latter part
of the war. This picture also began a relationship between John
Wayne and the Seabees which was to last more than three decades.
In fact, John Wayne's last motion picture was Home for the
Seabees, a Navy documentary filmed in 1977 at the Naval Construction
Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, California. This was most appropriate,
since the exteriors of The Fighting Seabees, had
been filmed in and around the same base during World War II.
While Hollywood made films, however, the grim reality of the
war continued. Initially, the Seabees in the Southwest Pacific
busied themselves enlarging and constructing new, vital staging
and supply ports at several Australian coastal points. By mid-1943,
however, Merauke, on the underbelly of New Guinea, resounded with
the roar of battle and the clatter of Seabee hammers and bulldozers.
After building an important bomber strip that helped fend off
Japanese air attacks, they constructed a communications station
at Port Moresby.
Finally, on 26 December 1943, the Seabees joined the First
Marine Division in an assault on Japanese-held Cape Gloucester,
New Britain. During the battle, Seabees bulldozed paths to the
Japanese lines so that American tanks could attack the hostile
positions. By New Year's Day, the Japanese airstrips were captured
and the American flag flew over the entire Cape.
The Admiralty Islands atop the Bismark Sea became the key
to the isolation of Rabaul and the final neutralization of enemy
forces on New Britain. When the Allies seized Manus Island and
the adjacent smaller Los Negros Island, enemy supply and communication
lines from all points north and east were cut. In the busy months
following the capture of the Admiralties, the Seabees transformed
Manus and Los Negros into the largest U.S. naval and air base
in the Southwest Pacific. By 1944 the new base had become the
primary location for service, supply, and repair of the Seventh
U.S. Fleet. During the same month, the capture of Emirau Island
in the Saint Matthias group completed the encirclement of Rabaul.
There the Seabees built a strategic, two-field air base, huge
storage and fuel dumps, a floating dry dock, miles of roads, and
a base for torpedo patrol boats.
Leapfrogging ahead with General Douglas MacArthur's forces,
the Seabees reached Hollandia and turned it into a major forward
base that was later instrumental in the liberation of the Philippines.
In fact, the Seabees of the Third Naval Construction Brigade were
still with General MacArthur when the South and Southwest Pacific
roads to victory converged on the Philippine Island of Leyte in
October 1944. Naval Construction Battalions operated the pontoon
barges and causeway units that brought the Allied Forces ashore
and fulfilled General MacArthur's famous promise to one day return.
These Seabees were soon joined by those of the Second and
Seventh Naval Construction Brigades, units that had been organized
and staged in the Hawaiian Islands. This vast Naval Construction
Force of 37,000 men spread out into the adjoining major islands
and began building the facilities that were needed to make the
Philippines a great forward base in the Pacific, indeed one of
the last steps on the way to the invasion of the Japanese home
The Seabees of this force built U.S. Navy and Army airfields,
supply depots, staging areas for men and materials, training areas
and camp-sites. Seventh Fleet headquarters was moved to the Philippines
and Seabees built the facilities that this enormous fleet required:
fleet anchorages, submarine bases, ships repair facilities, fast
torpedo boat bases. By the summer of 1945, U.S. military forces
were prepared and poised for that last step on the South Pacific
road to victory.
While the Seabees in the South and Southwest Pacific were
hacking their way through vermin-infested jungles toward the Philippines,
their comrades to the north were striking across the Central Pacific
island chains straight at the heart of the Japanese Empire. It
was on this extremely hazardous road to victory that the Seabees
perhaps made their greatest contributions toward winning the war.
They continually played a major role in the savage fighting which
characterized the island- hopping campaign in the Central Pacific.
One after the other, the Gilberts, Marshalls, Carolines, and Marianas
were seized. After landing in the initial Marine assaults, Seabee
battalions built on these islands the advanced bases from which
the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Marines, and the Army moved inexorably
toward the Japanese homeland.
Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts was one of the toughest of them
all. Only after savage fighting at a cost of nearly 1,000 American
dead were the Japanese defenders overwhelmed. On Tarawa, the Seabees
landed with the Marines and in a mere fifteen hours put a shell-pocked
airfield back into operation.
On the atolls of Kwajalein, Eniwetok, and Majuro in the Marshalls,
the Seabees rendered further assistance in the destruction of
Japan's eastern defense perimeter. Seabees converted the idyllic
atoll of Majuro into one of the major fleet anchorages in the
Pacific, and similarly transformed Kwajalein Atoll into a major
aviation facility. The Carolines were the third stepping-stone
on the Central Pacific road to Tokyo. Combat and construction
in this island chain served yet another purpose. When the fleet
and air facilities in the western Carolines were made operable
by the Seabees, the islands were used as bases to support the
coming liberation of the Philippines.
The seizure of the Marianas spelled the beginning of the end
for the Japanese. The loss of the islands cut the Japanese line
of defense and, even more important, gave the United States an
airbase from which bombers could strike at the very heart of the
Japanese Empire, the homeland. It was during Operation "Forager,"
as the Marianas Campaign was named, that the Seabees made one
of their most significant contributions in the Pacific Theater
Seabees and Marines landed together on the beaches of first
Saipan, then Guam, and finally Tinian. The very same day the Marines
captured Aslito, the main Japanese airfield on Saipan, the Seabees
went to work repairing its bomb-damaged runways. Stopping only
to fend off Japanese counterattacks, they succeeded in making
the airstrip operational within four days. During the three week
battle for Guam, the Seabees participated by unloading ships and
performing vital construction jobs directed at eventually turning
the island into the advanced headquarters for the United States
Pacific Fleet, an airbase for Japan-bound B-29s, and a huge center
of war supply. The invasion of Tinian called for yet another exhibition
of Seabee ingenuity. Because its narrow beaches were covered with
low coral cliffs, Seabees devised and operated special movable
ramps which made the landings possible. Once ashore, and even
as the battle raged, their bulldozers accomplished prodigious
feats of construction on the damaged and unfinished Japanese airfield.
What was needed after the successful Marianas campaign was
an emergency landing field much closer to the Japanese homeland
that would service crippled bombers returning from raids and enable
shorter- ranged fighter planes to accompany the giant bombers
to their targets. The island chosen for this purpose was Iwo Jima,
scene of some of the most savage fighting of the war. On 19 February
1945, the Fifth Amphibious Corps, which included the 133rd Naval
Construction Battalion and elements of the 31st Naval Construction
Battalion, hit the beaches. During the assault, the 133rd Naval
Construction Battalion had the dubious honor of suffering more
men killed or wounded than any other Seabee battalion in any previous
or subsequent engagement. Although only minor construction was
accomplished during the first ten days of the operation, the Seabees
later built one crucial emergency landing field and fighter airstrips
so desperately needed by the Allies.
The Seabees also played a key role in the last big operation
of the island war, the seizure of Okinawa. The main invasion forces
landed on Okinawa's west coast Hagushi beaches on Easter Sunday,
1 April 1945. Off the amphibious landing craft and over pontoons
placed by the 130th Naval Construction Battalion went the 24th
Army Corps and Third Amphibious Corps. Right beside them were
the 58th, 71st and 145th Naval Construction Battalions. A few
days later, two additional Naval Construction Battalions, the
44th and 130th, landed. The fighting was heavy and prolonged,
and organized resistance did not cease until 21 June 1945.
The Seabees' task on Okinawa was truly immense. On this agrarian
island, whose physical facilities a fierce bombardment had all
but destroyed, they built ocean ports, a grid of roads, bomber
and fighter fields, a seaplane base, quonset villages, tank farms,
storage dumps, hospitals, and ship repair facilities.
Nearly 55,000 Seabees, organized into four brigades, participated
in Okinawa construction operations. By the beginning of August
1945, sufficient facilities, supplies, and manpower were at hand
to mount an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
While the Allied forces in the Philippines and on Okinawa
were readying themselves for the final battles that would get
them to Tokyo and complete the roads to victory, decisive events
were taking place elsewhere, on the island of Tinian in the Marianas.
During the summer of 1945, the USS INDIANAPOLIS arrived at Tinian
from the Naval Weapons Center at Port Chicago, California. Seabees
of the Sixth Naval Construction Brigade helped with the unloading
of the components of a newly- developed weapon. The Seabees then
stored the elements in a shed built by themselves, and organized
a detachment to guard the shed and its mysterious contents. Scientists
assembled the weapon in the shed with several Seabees assisting
On 6 August 1945 the new weapon was loaded into a U.S. Army
Air Force B-29 bomber, named the Enola Gay. A short time
later, the Enola Gay took off with its secret load from
Tinian's North Field, which the Seabees had built, and started
on her mission to Japan. Later in the day, the mission ended with
the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
13 November 1997