Return to Guadalcanal
By Steve Karoly
It seems the Seabees have a calamitous relationship with Guadalcanal. They only call on the tropical isle after tragedy shakes the island. Today is no different than World War II.
Japanese occupation of Guadalcanal and construction of the airfield, which threatened nearby Espiritu Santo and New Caledonia, brought the Seabees in 1942. The watchwords of the day were stop Japanese aggression and liberate conquered territories. This meant airfields lots of them. Thats what drew the Seabees to Guadalcanal the first time.
The force of nature brought them the second time. Cyclone Namu swept across the island in May 1986, leaving a path of destruction. This time natural disaster and the politics of the Cold War drew the Seabees.
EO2 Anthony Missico, Jr. remembers the political rumors about the deployment. Originally, he remembers, they were to take an amphibious ship directly from Port Hueneme. But because of political wrangling, the 93-man detail deployed to Okinawa with the main body of the battalion. A New York Times article reported on November 4, 1986 that the Seabee deployment was part of an effort to counter increasing Soviet influence in the region.
Seabees rebuild road and bridges
So 41 years after that last Seabees left the island, the USS Bristol County (LST 1198) bearing NMCB 3s Detail Guadalcanal eased into its berth in Honiara. The Seabees came to repair the damaged infrastructure. September 9, 1986 marked the first time since CBMU 520's departure on August 22, 1945 that Seabees lived on the island.
Detail Guadalcanal arrived 44 years and eight days after the first Seabees of the 6th NCB landed on Guadalcanal. After the 10-day sea voyage from Okinawa, the Seabees initiated Operation Kennel Sun to "test their capabilities in amphibious and construction operations." That was the official reason for their deployment. In truth, they spent 90 days on the islands of Guadalcanal and nearby Malaita repairing storm damage from Cyclone Namu.
Instead of boarding in the luxurious hotels used by the thousands of sport divers and environmentally minded tourists who flock to Guadalcanal each year, they set up a tent camp on the west end of Kukum Field, an airfield built by the 18th NCB. Although long abandoned, Missico said, "The airfield was still flat and as straight as the day it was laid."
The Seabees were tasked with setting up "a non-tactical military camp in an austere and adverse environment." All the amenities of home like showers, laundry and heads made the camp self-sufficient. A Seabee master chief who visited the Seabees said it reminded him of the Seabee camps in Vietnam, according Missico.
Their primary mission, however, was to "perform extensive disaster recovery project work and civic action on the islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita," according NMCB 3s deployment completion report. "Construction maintained a rapid pace throughout the 90-day deployment as detail personnel worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week under arduous and extreme conditions of this remote site."
Seabee tours battlefields of World War II
Memorials are everywhere on Guadalcanal. Monuments to the dead have been erected at several key locations. Thirteen American, Australian and Japanese ships lay entombed in Iron Bottom Sound. And many battlefields, like Bloody Ridge and Alligator Creek, remain littered with the instruments of war.
Its nature resources and a long forgotten war are important elements of Guadalcanals economy. Tropical beauty, breath taking scuba diving sites and remnants of war draw some 11,500 visitors annually. The war continues to play a substantial role in the struggling nations economy.
From the minute the airplane turns into its final approach, visitors are reminded of battle. Henderson Field, built on the Lunga Plain by Marines Engineers and Seabees of the 6th NCB, is the gateway to the Solomon Islands. They drive over Seabee built roads and bridges to the luxurious resort hotels of Honiara.
Missico called himself the tourists tourist. He many non-working hours touring the battlefields. As the equipment dispatcher for the unit, he had access to vehicles. "Being dispatcher I always drove a car. I would rent [a car] and get some of my crew and some of the mechanics and wed tour," Missico said.
They made friends with a teenage boy who, when dismissed by his school teacher, became their tour guide. He took Missico and his buddies to Galloping Horse and Sea Horse Ridges on the Matanikau River, site of fierce fighting between the Japanese and Americans late in the campaign for Guadalcanal. And they visited Bloody Ridge, a flat north-south ridge system that guards the approaches to Henderson Field.
Their guide knew all the war sites. As a child, he played around the foxholes and ridges. He traced the battle lines and knew were war relics were hidden in the thick jungle. He guided them to a Japanese Zero buried deep in the forest. He took them on walking tours to battlegrounds littered with the waste of war. "You could look down on the ground and still see the canvas buttons, the bullet rounds, the shells. The place is littered."
"What made Bloody Ridge so unusual was the grassy plain in the middle of a jungle," Missico said as he described steep terrain formed by a ravine along the ridge. "A lot of the trails going up and down the ravine needed to be guarded. So youre on these trails and its hot and humid and youre slipping and falling. You can barely keep your footing."
Residents of Guadalcanal welcomed the Seabees into their homes and their hearts. The young Seabees followed a time-honored American tradition of giving chocolate to children as their fathers and grandfathers had in wars past. Missicos assessment of his hosts was to the point: "I tell you those people loved us."
Once again, the Seabees had a lasting effect on Guadalcanal. Although on a smaller scale than their World War II brothers, the Seabees of NMCB 3 built roads and bridges. This time, these infrastructure repairs were for the people of Guadalcanal, not to support a massive war machine. Then on December 6, 1986, the USS Schenectady (LST 1185) called on Honiara to return NMCB 3s Detail Guadalcanal to Okinawa.
Six years later, another group of Seabees came. This time a much smaller group, Civic Action Team 0703, landed to support Marine Task Force Guadalcanal for Operation Remembrance, a Marine led expedition to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the First Marine Divisions landings on the island.
The American Embassy characterized the influence a small group of young Seabees had on Guadalcanal: "The Seabees returned to a dying World War II legend on Guadalcanal, cherished by the elders but forgotten by the youth. By their cheerful hard work they brought the legend alive."
The active duty battalions of today, NMCBs 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 40, 74, and 133, deploy to four camps from their homeports of Gulfport, Mississippi and Port Hueneme, California. These camps are:
From these camps, details are sent to such diverse locations as Bosnia, Korea and Thailand.
This story is found in No. 3 (Summer 1998) of the Seabee Log.