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The Fighting Seabees of World War II

By CE1 Robert A. Germinsky, USNR

Formally organized in March 1942, the Naval Construction Battalions (Seabees) arose from the military's growing need for base construction, primarily in the Pacific theater. Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, realized that when war came, civilian construction workers, who were doing the bulk of the Navy's overseas building, had no place in a combat zone. By international law, these workers could not be armed, had no way to defend themselves and had to rely on the Navy for protection.

Moreell's vision of civilian construction workers trapped in a combat zone tragically came true at Wake Island. The workers, caught there when war broke across the Pacific, could not be evacuated from Wake. They remained on the island to the end. Those who were weren't killed were taken prisoner. Physically able workers were forced to complete their projects and then maintain them. Later, these civilian construction workers were executed by firing squad even though they were never armed, clearly weren■t spies and posed no threat to the Japanese garrison on the island.

In light of these events, Moreell was finally given the go-ahead to form a military unit composed of construction specialists who would also be able to defend themselves against attack, and hold and defend the construction site.

Drawing from the ranks of virtually every civilian construction specialty, the first battalions began forming and training at Camp Endicott, Davisville, Rhode Island ("The Original Home of the Seabees"). The Seabees take their name from the first two letters of the words "construction battalions" (CBs). They even came up with their own symbol: a bee in a sailor hat holding a Tommy gun and assorted tools in his many "hands." The Seabees were unique in that Civil Engineer Corps officers were placed in command of the battalions and regiments, rather than line officers (officers who can command ships). This was a first in Navy history.

The first organized Seabee battalion deployed overseas to Bora Bora in the Pacific, where it began construction of a fuel tank farm. The first Seabee unit to debut in a combat zone did so on Sept. 1, 1942, when elements of the 6th Naval Construction Battalion went ashore at Guadalcanal. Using mostly captured Japanese equipment, they finished Henderson Field. This work was accomplished under trying conditions, not only from the enemy, but from the weather as well. Fighting rain, mud, sniper fire, artillery and bombing, the field was finished and maintained by the Seabees.

After Guadalcanal, Seabees took part in every island invasion in the Pacific. They could be found building airstrips, roads and camps within hours of the invasion's start, quite often working while under fire. Eventually, the Seabees participated in every theater of operation in World War II. In Europe, their greatest construction project was the building of the artificial harbor at Normandy, immediately after the invasion.

As a new unit composed of specialists, the Seabees were unique not only in their skills, but also in their ages. Many were well past draft age, and all were working in critical civilian occupations that would defer them from serving, even if they were of draft age. Nevertheless, these individuals gave up their well-paying civilian jobs and deferments, and volunteered to accept the hardships and sacrifices of military life in the name of patriotism and the desire to contribute directly to America's war effort.

While the average age of a Marine rifleman in World War II was 19, the typical Seabee was 34. This gave rise to one of the Marines■ favorite expressions: "Be kind to a Seabee, he might be your father." It seems that the "kids" in the Marines couldn't help but have fun at the expense of the "old men" building and fighting by their sides. Perhaps a truer expression of the Marines' feelings came from a sign they erected on Bougainville: "So when we reach the 'Isle of Japan' with our caps at a jaunty tilt, we'll enter the city of Tokyo on the roads the Seabees built."

Using their specialized construction skills learned as civilians, along with military and combat skills taught by the Navy, Seabees fought and literally "paved" a colorful trail across the battlefields of World War II. No problem was too big to overcome, and their ingenuity as well as their individualism became legendary.

Seabees were not generally impressed with rank; a primary reason being that most Seabees were quite a bit older than many of the officers they encountered. One night on guard duty, so the story goes, a Seabee saw someone approaching his post. "Who goes there, friend or foe?" came the challenge. "Friend," came the reply.

"Well, advance friend, and come on over here," said the Seabee. The individual approaching the post asked, "Do you know who I am?"

"Nope," replied the 'Bee. He was told, "I'm the admiral commanding this operation."

"Well," said the 'Bee, mulling this bit of information, "that's a pretty important job, Bub, don't louse it up."

One Pacific commander summed up his ■Bees this way: "They're a rough, tough bunch of men who don't give a damn for anything but getting the job done, the war won and going home."

Whether tapping underground springs for hot water for showers and cooking, rigging a method for hauling coast artillery guns up mountains, repairing bomb-damaged runways under fire, or putting admirals in their place, these "'Bees of the Seven Seas" proved day after day that their motto "Can Do" was not just a motto, but a way of life.


Department of the Navy. Public Affairs Office, Commander Reserve Naval Construction Force. History of the U.S. Navy Seabees. Gulfport, Mississippi, 1989.

Department of the Navy. Naval Facililties Engineering Command. The 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Navy Seabees. Alexandria, Virginia, 1992.

Navy & Marine Corps World War II Commemorative Committee
Navy Office of Information (CHINFO)
The Pentagon, Room 2E352
Washington, DC 20350-1200

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