Today marks the 69th anniversary of D-day, when the Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. Whereas all branches of the Armed Forces who took place in the invasion deserve recognition, I wanted to dedicate this blog post to a group that I hadn’t heard of until I read about them in Scientific American’s archive: the Seabees.
The Scientific American article from February 1943 described the Seabees as “the newest branch of the Navy, and one of our most dramatic and romantic services.” The name is derived from the phonetic spelling of “CB”, or “Construction Battalion.” Officially created by Rear Adm. Ben Morell, then chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks, on March 5, 1942, the Seabees were seen as a necessity after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. It became clear that troops and bases would be needed in far-off parts of the Pacific, and it was too dangerous for civilians to do the work. The first Seabees headquarters was established at a naval base in Davisville, R.I. There, Camp Thomas was set up as a personnel receiving station, and Camp Endicott as the Naval Construction Training Center. A second base, Camp Allen, was later established in Norfolk, Va.
The Seabees logo was designed by Frank J. Iafrate, a civilian plan file clerk at the Naval Air Station in Quonset Point, R.I., who later joined the group. It is described in the article as “a zooming bee, with white Navy hat perkily cocked above the fighting-mad expression on his tough face, with spitting Tommy gun in his forehands, streaks across the hawser-encircled blue background of the insignia.” The bee carries a hammer and wrench to symbolize technical capabilities, and also the badges of a gunner’s mate, machinist’s mate and carpenter’s mate.
Recruitment for the Seabees focused more on technical skills and labor experience than physicality. It’s members include men who worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, painters, pipe-fitters, plumbers, riggers, steelworkers, cooks, launderers, draftsmen, sail-makers, divers, doctors and dentists—to name a few. Combat and construction were the core tenants of the outfit, and their motto, “Construmus Batumius,” or “We Build, We Fight” summed up the attitude needed to join. Scientific American’s article put it this way, “…if you’re over 16 and under 51, still in good health, and want to line up with a two-fisted crew of really tough hombres who fight with one hand and build naval bases with the other, you may volunteer for service in the Seabees.”
New recruits went through boot camp, similar to that of other military divisions, but with more focus on the technical tasks they would perform. Boot camp was physically demanding. Older-aged recruits (many were veterans of World War I) sometimes had difficulty with this stage of training, and were urged to “take it easy” because they were valued more for their knowledge and skills than their physical abilities. Along with training in their technical duties, the Seabees also underwent regular military training, including military courtesy, combat signals, rifle marksmanship, extended order drill, techniques of the .45 pistol, hand grenades, the Thompson submachine gun, bayonet drill, the layout of bases and principles of air-raid protection. In short, Seabees had to be prepared to build and battle when they went out on a mission. After boot camp recruits were sent to training camps where they learned how to perform specific land jobs (putting up and tearing down huts, building storage tanks holding up to 10,000 gallons of water, clearing tree stumps with dynamite, constructing concrete forms, building roads with steel mesh in sandy landscapes, bulldozing, welding etcetera) and sea operations (building pontoons, piers, dry docks and landing barges).
Seabees would learn through lectures and labor how to properly construct and operate boilers, heaters, engines, evaporators and purifiers, electric generators, pontoons, propulsion units, and dry docks. They had to be proficient in refrigeration, welding, small arms, concrete work, carpentry, diving, excavation, hut erection and firefighting. Although each member had his own special area of expertise, it was necessary that everyone be able to perform any sort of necessary task in order to help one another and complete projects with speed and precision. Due to this mind-set, the Seabees became a very tight-knit group.
When training was finished, a battalion would leave for “Island X”—code for their destination. Scientific American described a battalion of Seabees as “a safari of over a thousand men with everything they’ll need for months—from toothpaste to aspirin, roast beef to a cold glass of beer, work gloves to a new pair of pants. Then add your list of all conceivable equipment, machinery and materials to build a city in which to live, to carve an airport out of a jungle, to build storages, bases and landing facilities on a coral reef.” Arriving at their destination, Seabees could find themselves having to erect, construct or repair bases on an island or mainland. Sometimes, the areas would already be occupied by the Navy, Army, or Marine Corps, but often the Seabees had to rely on their combat training and drive the enemy out before their construction could begin. In these cases, once a base was built Seabees also had the responsibility of holding off the enemy until Allied forces arrived.
During World War II 325,000 men served with the Seabees. They participated in every major amphibious assault and were among the first to arrive to the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Their initial job was to demolish underwater and onshore steel barriers that had been set up by the Germans to slow attacking forces. When daylight came the Seabees were spotted by German forces and came under attack. Heavy causalities resulted, but the surviving Seabees pressed on and successfully detonated the barriers to make way for the oncoming Allied invasion.
Their work didn’t end there. Next, pontoon causeways had to be constructed to allow troops to charge onto the beaches. Again, this was all done while under fire, but the quickness with which the Seabees worked allowed a great number of causeways to be built in a short amount of time, and German troops were swiftly pushed back. In addition to the causeways Seabees were in charge of maneuvering larger ferries called “Rhinos” full of men and supplies from the ships to the shore. They also constructed offshore cargo and docking facilities and piers out of old cargo ships, steel pontoons and prefabricated concrete structures from the U.K. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, “The huge port area that was formed out of this odd combination of materials became known as Mulberry A. Even after the artificial harbor was partially destroyed in a severe storm the Seabees landed hundreds of thousands of tons of war material daily.” Less than a month after the initial invasion, over one million Allied infantry had stormed the beaches, thanks to the work of the Seabees.
The Seabees continued to be a part of every major war fought in by the U.S. since World War II. They are currently still doing work in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also help with reconstruction efforts in areas all over the world needing disaster relief and aid. With a rich history and many honors to their name, the Seabees deserve a big thanks for their contributions to the defense of the nation and the impacts they’ve made on the history of modern warfare.