The 69th NCB's Long Haul
By Steve Karoly
Often when we read of Seabees building a distant base naval base, the story begins thus: A Seabee battalion lands in the waves immediately proceeding ¾ sometimes preceding ¾ the Marines. As the Marines capture the island, the Seabees build a naval port to fuel and arm the fleet, an airfield to tend to the air forces and a supply depot to sustain all.
This story has a different twist: This time the Marines are not present; British and Canadian soldiers do their job. And instead of landing on a hostile beach, the Seabees disembark at a British occupied port 450 miles to the west of their objective.
Next the Seabees load their baggage and equipment onto British lorries and form large convoys. Then traveling east for two days at the heals of Field Marshal Montgomery's 21st Army Group, the Seabees set up a temporary camp in the middle of The Netherlands. There they wait for the British to capture their final objective.
Thus began one of the most unique missions in the annals of Seabee history. This is the story of the 69th NCBs 450-mile overland movement to take the German ports of Bremen and Bremerhaven.
Seabees deploy to England, France and Germany
After six months service with the 10th NCR at NOB Argentia, Newfoundland, Canada, the battalion deployed to England. Arriving in Plymouth three weeks after D-Day, the 69th NCB began pontoon construction for the Army. Detachments were sent to Plymouth, Southampton, Portland, Weymouth, Falmouth, Dunkswell and Exeter. They expanded airfields and bases for the Navy. Additional work was done in Rosneath, Scotland.
The 69th NCB next did a month's stint at Omaha Beach, Normandy in October and November 1944 where they operated Rhino ferries and pontoon causeways, unloading Army troops and equipment onto the beach.
Returning to Plymouth, the 69th NCB was once again dispersed to locations throughout Southern England. For the next six months, the Seabees focused on base construction.
Then came the call: the 69th NCB and detachment of CBMU 629 were to form the construction element for U. S. CTF 126. CTF 126's mission was to construct and operate naval advance bases at the northern German port cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven. These bases, located on the North Sea, were used to unload supplies for the American occupation forces in Germany.
"Sea going jeep jockeys" land
"Sea Going jeep jockeys of Uncle Sam's Navy landed in the German port of Bremen after a 450-mile cross country voyage. Assigned to take over harbor installations at the Big Weser River port when British Tommies captured the city, the sailors charted their course by road maps, bivouacked in German buildings and cooked their meals in the open air," reported the Paris Edition of the Stares and Stripes.
CTF 126, also known as Commander U. S. Naval Ports and Bases Germany, was organized into three parties: A reconnaissance group, composed of two reconnaissance parties, one each for Bremen and Bremerhaven, and two main body elements.
Lt. John Merle, OIC of the Seabee reconnaissance team for the Bremen reconnaissance party, tells the story: "While at Upporty, I was assigned two temporary additional duties, being two trips to London. . . . The purpose of these meetings was the assignment of a recon group from the 69th NCB to the British and Canadian forces. On April 1, 1945, two detachments each of one officer and five enlisted men were assigned to recon parties and logged out for CTF 126. I headed up the Bremen group and Lt. I. A. Kircher headed up the Bremerhaven group.
"We first landed in Ostend, Belgium and then headed north through Belgium and Holland. The task force (if you want to call it that) was led by a Capt. Vincent H. Godfrey who I remembered well because he had a navigator going down the road with him who couldn't even read a road map. And most of the crew were tigger happy kids."
The remainder of CTF 126 was organized into Naval Parties 1 through 8. Parties 1 through 4, as the first echelon to deploy to Germany, landed in Belgium in the first week of April 1945. The remaining parties were organized into the second echelon. They landed in Belgium a month later. The Seabees were assigned to Naval Parties 3 and 7.
The first echelon of Seabees departed Ostend, Belgium at 0500 on April 8, 1945. They moved slowly through Belgium in a 103-vehicle convoy. Seventeen hours and 220 miles later the convoy stopped and the men made camp in an open field near Kevelear, Germany. The convoy had traveled through Antwerp, Belgium and Venlo, Netherlands that day. During the night, the sound of artillery fire from the North reminded them that they were in the combat zone.
Although CTF 126 never came under direct attack from the retreating Germans, they felt the threat. They drove through countless villages devastated by the war. The Seabees were armed and ready to defend themselves.
"We stopped at one of the first towns in Holland for the night, and the group was assembled. One of the officers asked the captain what we should do in case of attack. . . . As it happened, about 10 minutes later, one of the German jet fighters came over the schoolyard, where we were assembled, and God knows we were lucky. He didn't do any strafing or bombing, which he could have done very easily. [He was] probably taking pictures instead," said Lt. Merle.
On April 9, the 69th NCB spent six and a half-hours on the road. Crossing the Rhine River at Rees, Germany over a Bailey bridge built by British Engineers, they turned north into the Netherlands again. The British aptly named the span, "London Bridge."
The Cruise Log of the 69th NCB continues: "Following closely at the heels of the Canadian 1st and British 2nd Armies . . . we passed though little Dutch towns that had been liberated for only a few days. As we passed through these places it seemed as if the entire population was on hand to welcome us. Happiness and relief from strain were written on everyones face."
"I was in the last truck of our convoy (other than the tow truck). The people were delighted to see us and as the last truck, our English driver would stay in town and allow us to communicate with the people. The people in Belgium and Holland were delighted and overwhelmed with us," said Joseph Campbell, a GM2c assigned to the armory.
"We crossed back into Holland and got a big welcome; joy was contagious. We threw gum, cigarettes, chocolate, K-rations and biscuits from the trucks," wrote CCM Robert Gillespie in the 69th NCB veterans newsletter, SiNi CoBa (for Sixty-Ninth Construction Battalion). (Chief Gillespie was a member of Lt. Merle's reconnaissance team.)
"People were unbelievable thankful, happy and friendly," said CSF Tom Batchelor.
That night they made camp in the abandoned yard of the Stork Manufacturing Plant in Helengo, Netherlands. For the next two weeks, the 69th NCB were the guests of the Dutch people while they waited for Bremen to fall.
Seabees build a staging camp
So what do 350 waylaid Seabee do for two weeks? They build.
They made the camp as home-like as possible. The Stork Plant was renovated for occupancy. Repairs were made; a field galley was set up so the crew could have hot chow; and electrical service and utilities were established. This was all done with construction materials procured from the Dutch Underground.
By the end of the first week, the 69th NCB had hot baths using coal from a German mine 50 miles distant. As part of a recreation program, tours were offered to local points of interest, including German V-1 launch sites. And, of course, all trucks and equipment were checked and overhauled in preparation for the coming move into Germany.
Despite long hours and anticipation, Chief Gillespie remembers there was time for friendly rivalry between the Seabees and their British drivers: Upon arrival in Helengo, "the British told the Hollanders we were prisoners of war. It did not take the kids long to find out differently." The Seabees talent and kindness soon proved otherwise. Their kindness and ability to build won the confidence to the Dutch people.
At 0600 on April 24, they began the 12-hour journey to their final destination: Bremen and Bremerhaven.
Signs at the German border reminded the Seabees they were entering a conquered country. "The big change came when we crossed the boarder into Germany. The big sign forbidding any contact with Germans greeted us just over the boarder. The people looked at us with sullen expressions. I remember wondering if they were frightened, mad or just plain burned out," said BM2c George Schmitt.
Movement into Bremen
The 69th NCB arrived in 22 miles southeast of their objective at 1800 on April 24, 1945. Camp was set up in Verden, Germany because Bremen was still under siege by Allied forces.
The 69th NCB occupied barracks formerly used by the German cavalry. The Seabees found ammunition, grenades, mines and booby-traps strewn everywhere. In order to occupy the buildings, a team of Seabees cleared the area of munitions. "The interior of the buildings were in deplorable condition. Work was stated immediately to restore all utility services and within a few days water, light, heat and power were available for the whole compound," said the official report of the 69th NCB.
Each night the Seabees were alerted for combat action. On the night of April 26, the Germans unsuccessfully attempted to strafe the Navy compound. The Seabees could see the work of the artillery and Air Force as the attack on Bremen continued.
Bremen fell to the British 1st Army on April 27, 1945. On April 28, Cdr. Frank N. Walsh, Commanding Officer of the 69th NCB, Lt. John Merle and SF2c Class W. C. Callender became the first Seabees to enter Bremen. As members of a naval reconnaissance party, they surveyed damage and made plans for construction of the NAB.
Even as the reconnaissance party did their work, a battery of British artillery fired from a field adjacent to the building selected as the naval barracks. The docks were alive with machine gun fire. German snipers fired at targets and several time bombs exploded. Then on April 30, the 69th NCB received reports the Germans had launched an unsuccessful counterattack on Bremen. Despite this threat and all of the munitions the Seabees had to clear in Verden, no Seabees were killed or wounded.
Then on May 4, 1945, the 69th NCB even kept one of the Seabees highest traditions: They "landed" before the Marines, or the Army in this case. "Not to be out done by the Sea Bees in the Pacific, . . . this unit had the pleasure of welcoming the 9th U. S. Armys entrance into the city of Bremen," said Cdr. Walsh in a report to Admiral Ben Morrell. The 9th Army had come north from the American Zone of Occupation to provide security in the American Enclave, formed around the cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven.
The 69th NCB started its movement into Bremen on April 29. By May 3, when that last of the Seabees from the first echelon had relocated to Bremen, work was in full swing. Instead of constructing a base from the ground up, buildings formerly occupied by the German Army and Navy were renovated for the NAB. Barracks, offices, port facilities, shops and galleys were made ready for the base.
On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended.
The second echelon of the 69th NCB landed in Ostend, Belgium on May 9. Two days later, Naval Parties 4 through 8 headed east toward Bremen. Arriving on May 13 at 1630, the second echelon joined the first echelon of the battalion. From there, the 69th NCB and CBMU 629 proceeded to build the bases at Bremen and Bremerhaven.
Construction detachments were quickly dispersed to several locations in Germany. Lt. Kircher led a large detail to Bremerhaven on May 14.Toward the end of the month, Lt. Merle led a reconnaissance party to Frankfurt where he made plans to renovate several buildings as the headquarters for the Commander U. S. Naval Forces Germany.
Ultimately, the CBMU 629 detachment completed their job and returned to its base in Paris, France and the 69th NCB sent a large detachment to Frankfurt.
By June when construction projects were almost done, the 69th NCB became the first Seabee unit to relocate by air. Starting on June 22 with two planeloads daily of 15 Seabees each, the battalion began the long journey home. By September, all Seabees were returned to their homeport in Davisville, Rhode Island, and on September 24, 1945, the 69th NCB was decommissioned, ending two and a half years of service.
This story is found in No. 2 (Spring 1998) of the Seabee Log.