Long Ago and Far Away
By Jack Gallant
Within the covers of a faded blue and gold-jacketed book, the spine broken, bound with a strip of silver duct tape, is a narrative of memories. A reflection of history, heroes, honor and the horror of a war five decades ago.
This is a profile of life and times, places, men and events of one unit in World War II. It's the story of the 63rd Naval Construction Battalion, men who traveled half the world; a single story among very, very many. One profile, one book, one unit, one point in time.
It's a history of faded snapshots, words scribed across 160-plus well-worn pages. A dog-eared book, ragged edges, water-stained paper, the motto "can do!" in raised letters at the bottom of the cover.
Once golden, faded now, the four-inch block numerals "63" are slashed with a banner "United States Naval Construction Battalion" on the cover of memories, memories of men known all over the world as Seabees.
Seabees numbered a quarter-million, the majority of them men in their 30s and 40s, skilled in construction trades, volunteers trained now with the tools of war to supplement shovels, wrenches, jackhammers and bulldozers.
Men too old to serve, men with families and deferments. Men with a will to win, and a deep pride in their country. Men who answered the call, volunteered to serve. Men who went to war.
The 63rd's itinerary to the Pacific war began in Virginia: "December 8, 1942, is a day long to be remembered by the men of the 63rd NCB, for it was then that their troop trains steamed into historic Williamsburg, VA. Alighting from warm railway coaches, the fledgling Seabees were herded into open trucks and bumped along rocky roads to Camp Peary. En route, in rain driven by a brisk wind from seaward, the men were efficiently soaked and properly conditioned for their introduction to Camp Peary, known to Seabees throughout the world as the 'land that God forgot.'"
Forty-one of the 1,200 who detrain are veterans of the first World War, serving "like proverbial fire horses. The bell rang and the fight was on!" They, and their colleagues, stepped forward.
"There came a day, 1 March 1943, when the battalion was inspected, approved, given its colors and standard, and commissioned. It was a proud day for the officers and men to be at last 'on their ownț with no more howling drill instructors, no more truculent Marines urging them over break-neck obstacle courses. They were 'Fighting Seabees' now and ready for anything--come what would."
Embarked the next month aboard transports at Port Hueneme, California, "there was no clue as to the ship's destination and only by observation of the sun and stars were the men able to keep track of the direction of travel." Six days out, the SS MorMacPort dipped below 0 degrees longitude, and novice travelers were initiated by "King Neptune" and his court into seasoned equator-crossing Shellbacks. Landfall 14 days out at the Fiji Islands.
"For days the MorMacPort lay in the harbor as working parties learned the stevedoring art by discharging cargo from their ship, restoring some semblance of order to supply deports on shore, and ultimately, reloading their supplies aboard the USS LaSalle for continuance of their voyage to 'Island X.'"
"A few submarine alerts broke the monotony of the short trip to New Caledonia where, at Noumea, full realization of the extent of the war was apparent. Every nook and corner of the large harbor was filled with vessels flying Stars and Stripes. Seabee hearts began to swell with pride."
In convoy with five troop ships, and protected by an aircraft carrier and a screen of destroyers, LaSalle and the 63rd departed New Caledonia as "tension and an awareness of danger increased as the ships penetrated deeper into waters well known to be menacing."
GUADALCANAL: "If they had been visitors from Mars, the men of the 63rd NCB could scarcely have been more out of their element. That was the case when they arrived on Guadalcanal in June 1943."
Towering trees, dense vegetation, a fantasy land of "lizards as large as small crocodiles, snakes that fly, toads that eat flesh and fish that climb trees." And, the scattered remnants of a Japanese military force, although defeated, refusing to surrender.
Guadalcanal, its name equated with a hard-fought campaign that began on Aug. 7, 1942, was now the main route on the highway across the Pacific's island-hopping campaign to victory. A route marked by the skills, labor, sweat and determination of the Seabees who scratch-built airfields, harbor facilities and piers, and constructed roads, barracks, hospitals, fuel depots and massive supply dumps. Seabees were the workforce of the Pacific.
Unglamorous and backbreaking, the 63rd's initial major project on "the Canal" was an 80-square-mile program to destroy the breeding grounds of malaria-carrying insects "by swamp and lagoon draining, stream clearance and depression filling." Work started on June 24. When completed, more than 20 miles of roads, "16.5 miles, as a last resort, by hand labor," had been constructed by the 664 officers and men assigned. Some 100 miles of stream ran free to the sea. The Seabees moved 400,000 cubic yards of earth to level and fill water-filled depressions.
"Lagoons, land-locked by sand-bars, were fitted with oil-drum culverts to permit excess tidal fluctuations to vary the lagoon level. The inflow of salt water at high tide rendered lagoon water sufficiently alkaline to inhibit mosquito breeding."
The 63rd's history notes, "there was little fun on these jobs," but as footnote, "there were some thrills." Massive, more than 60, air raids by Japanese bombers. An encounter with Japanese troops on a tropical trail. And "it's no fish story," the 10-foot crocodile that chased a work party out of the Tenaru River.
There was also the trial of a 63rd Seabee.
He was charged with leaving his shipmates without permission and striking out with the 1st Marine Raider Battalion when that unit assaulted Japanese forces near Bairoka Harbor, at Munda. He was exonerated when the Marine officer in charge of the operation initiated a Silver Star recommendation, the nation's third highest honor for heroism. The man "attached himself to a machine gun crew, serviced and manned the gun with devastating effect upon the enemy when all other members of the crew had been killed or disabled by mortar fire."
There were other commendations and citations as the 63rd moved across the Pacific during 1944 and 1945. Journeys by convoys to Auckland, New Zealand, and Noumea, New Caledonia; return to Guadalcanal; and transit to the island of Emirau, "a tiny dot in the vast expanse of the Pacific."
Emirau, in the St. Matthias group of the Bismarck Archipelago, was transformed from raw jungle, coral and sand by the 63rd and three other Seabee battalions [27th, 61st and 88th Seabees, commanded by the 18th Regiment--SCK]. It became a massive advance naval base with all the functions of a harbor port military city, including an airfield.
Six months of two, six-hour shifts per man, per day, and the job was completed. Board ships again, to the Admiralty Islands, and construct another massive base at Manus, recently secured from the Japanese.
Work at Manus progressed into 1945, and the 63rd followed the news of U.S. ground and naval forces, which had begun the liberation of the Philippines. Rumor spread the Seabees would be sent back to the states by April for deactivation. Rumor proved wrong.
"It was on a bright and sunny Sunday, 25 March, that troops boarded the SS Mexico with full infantry gear for the voyage to Manila. . . . Slow progress was made in the South China Sea, but Luzon loomed on the northeastern horizon in the early afternoon of Friday, 6 April."
The 63rd Seabees newest camp was in the Manila suburb of Pasay. The unit's major assignment was the construction of 7th Fleet headquarters, a massive 40-acre project of buildings and facilities on the war-ruined site of the former Manila Polo Club. Work on that project ended for these Seabees on Sunday, July 22, a day described in their history as "drizzling." But, a day with a brighter tomorrow. There was an announcement, and it was official. The 63rd was heading stateside.
July 24, 1945, more than two years since they had departed for "Island X," the Seabees of the 63rd sailed for an unnoticed and unheralded 3:45 a.m. arrival in San Francisco on Aug. 15, 1945.
The tale of the 63rd is but one profile, one of the many stories in the Seabees' World War II chronicles. Five decades old now, these cruise books with time-faded and dog-eared pages, still open to tell their "Can Do" story of long ago and far away.
This story of the 63rd Naval Construction Battalion was made possible by Paul J. Matchuny, a veteran of the unit and member of the 63rd Seabee Association, who generously loaned his copy of the unit's cruise book.
Navy & Marine Corps World War II Commemorative