The Seabees

The Navy Seabees were created at the start of World War II. The Navy first relied on civilian contractors to build advance bases on Pacific islands starting in 1940, but after the fall of Wake Island it became important to train construction workers to also be soldiers. The following selections explain the origin of the Seabees:

map from Defense of Wake
"The so-called Hepburn Board, headed by Rear Admiral A.J. Hepburn, U.S.N., was created in May 1938, to institute a strategic survey and report to Congress on United States needs for additional naval bases and facilities. Its recommendations, many, though not all of which were adopted (the fortification and development of Guam went by the board), constituted throughout the prewar period a fundamental strategic plan for development of United States naval bases in the Atlantic and Pacific" The report gave high priority to Wake Island and "recommended a $7,500,000 three-year base-development program intended to make the atoll an advance air base, primarily for long-range patrol-plane reconnaissance, and secondarily an intermediate station on the air route to the Far East. Wrote the Board: 'The immediate continuous operations of patrol planes from Wake would be vital at the outbreak of war in the Pacific.' In response to me Hepburn recommendations, initial development of Wake was initiated early in 1941, beginning, as is always the case in peacetime, with base-construction at first priority and defense distinctly secondary. . . . About 1 August, Major Lewis A. Hohn, with five officers and 173 enlisted Marines and sailors from the 1st Defense Battalion, commenced loading USS Regulus, a 20-year old 'Hog Island' transport which would carry the battalion advance detail to Wake. Regulus sailed on 8 August, and, after an uneventful voyage out, arrived off Wake on 19 August. Disembarkation and lightering ashore of weapons and camp equipment--mainly the latter--were begun without delay, and, by the time the Regulus departed, on 22 August, camp had been made in the now-abandoned contract workmen's original temporary "rag camp" facing the lagoon on a site toward the west end of the south leg of Wake Island. To distinguish this camp from the luxurious new one completed west of Heel Point for the 1,200 Pacific Naval Air Base contract workmen, the Marine camp was designated as Camp 1, and the civilian establishment as Camp 2. . . . In August 1941, Wake was in rapid transition from its past wild solitude to the mechanized modernity of an outlying air base. Patrol-lane facilities and a concrete ramp were already available on Peale. Just inshore of Peacock Point, along the south leg of Wake Island, a narrow airstrip, 5,000 by 200 feet. had been chopped out of the dense growth. A main road-net, 30-foot packed coral, was rapidly taking shape as the contractor's workmen, equipped with every mechanical aid, blasted, slashed and dozed Wake into the image of America. In a broader sense, as well, however, the Wake of Autumn, 1941, was literally in the image of America: an island in the path of inevitable war; an island vibrant with unceasing construction in a effort to recapture time lost; an island militarily naked. In spite of the mounting pressure, however, rigid official separation existed between the construction efforts of Marines and of the contractors. Operating on a semiprivate basis, with the heavy equipment, supplies and facilities which American civilian enterprise takes for granted, the naval air base contract proceeded with its mission of building roads, shops, utilities, quarters, air-base facilities and the like, but no military defenses. The Marines, with little engineering equipment save picks and shovels or the luxury of a borrowed civilian bulldozer, were required to install their heavy weapons by hand, hew out emplacements and foxholes from the coral, and maintain their own living facilities as well. Understanding this basic difference in available means, the Navy's construction representative, Lieutenant Commander Elmer B. Greey, USN, as well as the civilian general superintendent, Mr. N.D. Teters, did their best in small ways and by small aids to assist the shorthanded and meagerly equipped Marines. At no time--even after the outbreak of war--did the contractor's establishment or workmen come under full military control." (from Defense of Wake, Chapter 1)

"After the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States entry into the war, the use of civilian labor in war zones became impractical. Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.
logo from History of the Seabees
The need for a militarized Naval Construction Force to build advance bases in the war zone was self-evident. Therefore, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell determined to activate, organize, and man Navy construction units. On 28 December 1941, he requested specific authority to carry out this decision, and on 5 January 1942, he gained authority from the Bureau of Navigation to recruit men from the construction trades for assignment to a Naval Construction Regiment composed of three Naval Construction Battalions. This is the actual beginning of the renowned Seabees, who obtained their designation from the initial letters of Construction Battalion. Admiral Moreell personally furnished them with their official motto: Construimus, Batuimus -- "We Build, We Fight." . . . . "The first recruits were the men who had helped to build Boulder Dam, the national highways, and New York's skyscrapers; who had worked in the mines and quarries and dug the subway tunnels; who had worked in shipyards and built docks and wharfs and even ocean liners and aircraft carriers. By the end of the war, 325,000 such men had enlisted in the Seabees. They knew more than 60 skilled trades, not to mention the unofficial ones of souvenir making and "moonlight procurement." Nearly 11,400 officers joined the Civil Engineer Corps during the war, and 7,960 of them served with the Seabees." (quote from History of the Seabees by Dr. Vincent A. Transano)

"The first naval construction unit to deploy from the United States was designated the First Construction Detachment. The unit left Quonset Point (Newport), Rhode Island, on 17 January 1942. It stopped at Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, and on 27 January left for Bora Bora in the Societies Islands with the mission of constructing a fueling station and other facilities. The 296 men of the unit arrived on 17 February 1942. This unit took on the name of Bobcat Detachment as Bobcat was the code name for Bora Bora. On 5 March, Construction Battalion personnel were officially named Seabees by the Navy Department and the fighting, building bee insignia and shoulder patch was approved." (quote from Larry DeVries, Navy Seabees on Guadalcanal


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