Nat’s South Pacific
What the Heck is a Seabee?
On December 8, 1941, the United States found itself suddenly at war—and unprepared. Throughout the 1930s, as the Nazis—and the Japanese—were growing ever more belligerent, the urgent pleas of leaders and planners who wanted to strengthen US military capabilities had largely been rejected.
To fight, men needed more than courage
Now an immense and rapid build-up of manpower, supplies, and supply lines was required. The nation’s armed forces needed not just millions of men, but millions of guns; infinite rounds of ammunition, heavy artillery, explosives and shells; thousands of planes and ships, trucks, and tanks; tons of food, clothing, and basic supplies, everything from mess kits to toilet paper. And all of it would have to be transported to distant shores.
They needed bases and supply lines
When Congress declared war, it quickly became clear that victory would depend on the US Navy’s ability to build “roads”— routes across the great oceans and across the skies. Fighting ships required safe harbors with docking, repair, maintenance, refueling and resupply facilities. Fighter and reconnaissance planes and bombers needed airfields. Delivering men and matériel to the front lines required advance bases—with warehouses, tank farms, and ammunition dumps where vast quantities of supplies, fuel and weaponry could be stored; plus staging areas where fighting units could be housed and fed; hospitals where the wounded could be cared for; and the utilities to keep all this going—electricity, water, communications.
Who would do the building?
Up until the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy had depended on civilians to build its facilities. The Naval Bureau of Yards and Docks oversaw construction, but the actual hands-on work of building was done by civilian contractors. This arrangement would have to change. The position of civilian workers on military bases in wartime was completely untenable. Under international law, if they took up arms against an enemy force, even to defend themselves, they could be executed as guerillas. If they were killed or captured, the Navy had no mechanism for providing aid or compensation to their families.
In the days after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked US bases throughout the Pacific in quick succession—in the Philippines, on the island of Canton, on Guam and on tiny Pacific islands. The civilians working on those bases were captured, along with the small Marine units who had been quickly overwhelmed—outnumbered and outgunned by the Japanese. Nearly all were made prisoners of war. The days of civilian construction workers were over. The Navy had to recruit men who could fight as well as build. A new organization had to be created from scratch.
A fighting-mad bumblebee
On January 5, 1942, the first Naval Construction Battalions were authorized. The initials of the words Construction Battalion (C.B. or “Sea” “Bee”) suggested an appropriate insignia: a fighting-mad bumblebee, holding a Tommy gun, as well as construction tools; he could deliver a stinging blow and at the same time “get the job done!” These men would be sailors. They would focus on building rather than fighting, and they would be able to defend themselves.
The call went out, not for the usual green recruits, but for experienced construction workers, skilled tradesmen, and artisans; men who could innovate when proper supplies and equipment could not be had, men willing to work under difficult, extreme, conditions—even under fire.
By war’s end, about 350,000 men had responded. They represented virtually every construction trade and building profession. They were the men who had built America—everything from houses and highways to harbor facilities and hydroelectric plants: the Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam; New York skyscrapers and the vast network of projects that comprise the Tennessee Valley Authority. Older than most sailors, many would have been exempt from the draft. And yet, they answered their country’s call.
Over the next three and a half years they would build 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, over 2,500 ammunition magazines, hospital capacity for 70,000 patients, 700 square blocks of warehouses, housing for a million and a half troops, and storage tanks holding one hundred million gallons of gasoline. Over 300 Seabees would lose their lives working and fighting, right on the front lines. Over two thousand would be awarded Purple Hearts. The Seabees built America’s victory.