Frequently Asked Questions
Seabee History: Introduction
Seabees of the United States Navy were born in the dark days following
Pearl Harbor when the task of building victory from defeat seemed
almost insurmountable. The Seabees were created in answer to a
crucial demand for builders who could fight.
Using sailors to
build shore-based facilities; however, was not a new idea. Ancient
Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans did it. In more recent
times, from the earliest days of the United States Navy, sailors
who were handy with tools occasionally did minor construction
chores at land bases.
THE FIRST "ADVANCED BASE"
American seamen were
first employed in large numbers for major shore construction during
the War of 1812. Early in 1813, the USS ESSEX, under the Command
of Captain David Porter, USN, rounded Cape Horn and became the
first Navy ship to carry the American flag into the Pacific Ocean.
The ESSEX began operating in Pacific waters and captured a British
commerce raider, several British merchantmen, and several large
British whaling ships. While sailing near the Galapagos Islands
in October, 1813, Captain Porter learned that a British naval
squadron had entered the Pacific and was searching for him. Because
he had been away from his home base for well over a year, Porter
decided to prepare his small squadron for the expected battle.
To do this, he needed a safe harbor in which to repair and re-equip
the ESSEX and some of his prizes that had been converted into
fighting ships. In the absence of secure facilities on South America's
west coast, he decided to take his ships to the Marquesas Islands.
After sailing through the Marquesas for a few days, he selected
the shore of a bay on Nukuhiva Island as the best site for constructing
the United States Navy's first advanced base.
Under Captain Porter's
direction, nearly 300 skilled artisans from his ships undertook
the building of the base. Approximately 4,000 friendly natives
obtained the materials and worked side-by-side with the Navy builders.
As a protection against unfriendly tribes, the men built a fort,
which was duly christened Fort Madison with the ceremonious raising
of the American flag. Other construction included a house for
Porter, a house for the other officers, a cooper's shop, a sail
loft, a bake shop, a guard house, a simple medical dispensary,
a stores building, an open-shed shelter for the Marine sentries,
a rudimentary dock, and ramps to haul the ships high onto the
beach. While this construction was underway, some unfriendly natives
occasionally attacked, and the Americans had to lay down their
tools, take up their weapons, and defend what they were building.
foster son, David Glasgow Farragut, a twelve year-old midshipman
assigned to the ESSEX, was an interested observer and a participant
in the construction of the base. When the Typee natives began
to attack the base, young Farragut was ashore. Alarmed at the
possible early demise of his foster son, Porter hustled him back
aboard the ESSEX for safekeeping.
During lulls in the
fighting and while construction was underway, Farragut was allowed
to go ashore and participate in the operations. However, at the
first signs of trouble with the unfriendly tribes, back to the
ESSEX or the SIR ANDREW HAMMOND he went. Even after he became
the United States Navy's first admiral some forty years later,
Farragut was still bemoaning his ill luck in not being allowed
to engage in active battle at Nukuhiva.
Upon its completion,
the Navy's first base was named "Madison's Ville," and
Nukuhiva Island was named "Madison Island," and the
adjoining waters were named "Massachusetts Bay." Porter
went so far as to claim the island as a United States possession.
In the entire proceedings, he conveniently ignored Spanish and
British claims going back respectively to the sixteenth and eighteenth
Even before construction
of the base was completed, the ESSEX and ESSEX JUNIOR were hauled
up the improvised ramps to the top of the beach. The site selected
for rehabilitating the ships was a small plain covered with shade-producing
coconut trees. Re-outfitting and repair operations started toward
the end of October 1813 and continued until the work was completed
early in December. Meanwhile, the other ships were serviced while
at anchor in the harbor. During the entire period, hostile natives
frequently attacked the workers, who, although sometimes hard
pressed, always managed to repel them.
Upon completion of
the project in December 1813, Captain Porter immediately sailed
with the ESSEX and ESSEX JUNIOR and eventually met the British
squadron. His two ships were bottled up in Valparaiso Harbor,
Chile, and attempts to break the blockade led to the capture of
the American ships in March 1814. Porter and his men thus became
prisoners of the British.
In the meantime,
Lieutenant John M. Gamble of the U.S. Marine Corps was left behind
at Nukuhiva Island to defend the advanced base and the remaining
three prize ships. For this task, he had but 22 American officers
and men and some sullen British prisoners. Gamble's assignment
proved to be beyond the capabilities of his force. Several thousand
native Typees began a series of attacks against Fort Madison and
Madison's Ville, the British prisoners mutinied, and even four
Americans deserted for the sake of native sweethearts. The gallant
Marine officer and his men were about to be overwhelmed, and they
knew it. Consequently, all hands were shifted to the most seaworthy
prize, the SIR ANDREW HAMMOND. A final native attack was repelled
with further casualties, and the ship got underway in May 1814,
with no charts and a seven-man crew almost too feeble to sail.
The United States Navy's first advanced base was thus abandoned
through necessity, and certainly not because of the "construction
force's" lack of fortitude and valor.
After a voyage of
nearly 2,500 miles, Lieutenant Gamble and his surviving crew of
three seamen and three Marines arrived in the Sandwich Islands.
They landed and immediately discovered that their tribulations
were not yet ended. HMS CHERUB was in the harbor, and the Americans
fell into the hands of the British. Ironically, this was the same
ship which had earlier captured Captain Porter and his men at
Although they may
seem remote from the Seabees of today, the Navy's operations in
the Marquesas Islands really are pertinent because precedents
were set. First, a requirement was established for an overseas
naval construction force. Then skilled craftsmen of the fleet
were selected in large numbers to man the force. The men built
a U.S. Navy advanced base. Finally, the builders were attacked
by hostile natives, and had to lay down their tools and take up
arms to defend what they had built. Essentially, these same functions
characterize today's Seabee builder-fighters.
TWELFTH REGIMENT (PUBLIC WORKS)
Skilled Navy craftsmen
were not again employed in large numbers for naval shore construction
activities until the period of the First World War. In 1917 the
Twelfth Regiment (Public Works) was organized at the Naval Training
Station, Great Lakes, Illinois. The development of the regiment
was an evolutionary process under the direction of three successive
Public Works Officers.
With the entry of
the United States into the First World War in April 1917, an immediate
requirement was established at Great Lakes for facilities to house,
process, and train 20,000 naval recruits. By the end of 1917,
the expansion of the war had increased the requirement, and facilities
were needed to handle 50,000 recruits.
The naval officer
responsible administrative and training operations at Great Lakes
was the commandant of the station, Captain William Moffet, USN.
When the initial requirement was levied, Captain Moffet did not
have sufficient funds at hand to construct the facilities. He
therefore went to Washington, D.C., and conferred with the Secretary
of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, and with the Chief of the Bureau
of Yards and Docks, Rear Admiral Frederic Harris, CEC, USN. These
two officials, controllers of the immediate purse strings for
naval construction activity, quickly agreed to release sufficient
funds for the initial increment of construction. Admiral Harris,
however, pointed out to Captain Moffet that a young officer of
the line was in charge of the Public Works Department, and he
suggested that a Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer should be appointed
to manage the department. Captain Moffet readily agreed to this
Norman M. Smith, CEC, USN, a graduate of the United States Naval
Academy and a one-time officer of the line who had transferred
to the Civil Engineer Corps, was appointed Public Works Officer
at Great Lakes. He assumed the post on 18 June 1917. At this time,
about 100 enlisted men already were assigned to the Public Works
Although most of
the major construction work was to be accomplished by civilian
contractors, Lieutenant Smith foresaw that the department would
have to be expanded. Skilled craftsmen, architects, draftsmen,
designers, and other professional and technical people were needed.
Because civilians with the requisite skills were difficult to
find, he decided to screen incoming recruits to obtain skilled
craftsmen. He found many, but not enough.
then began recruiting among civilians outside of the installation,
but because of commuting problems, qualified local craftsmen were
unwilling to become civilian employees. As a patriotic duty, however,
many were willing to join the Navy as petty officers with the
understanding that qualified men could apply later for commissions.
Captain Moffett approved this proviso, and it greatly facilitated
As a result of recruit
screening and civilian recruiting, nearly 600 men were obtained
for the Public Works Department by July 1917. These men were organized
into the Twelfth Regiment (Public Works). Essentially, the Public
Works Regiment was the Public Works Department. Because in those
days staff officers could not exercise military command, a young
officer of the line, Lieutenant William C. Davis, USN, was appointed
commanding officer of the regiment, and he served in that capacity
throughout its existence. He exercised military control, but the
Public Works Officers exercised technical control. Since Lieutenant
Davis was, in fact, a subordinate of the respective Public Works
Officers, there was never any real conflict between military and
The regiment was
a training as well as a working organization. The purpose of the
training was not necessarily to teach the artificer trades to
"green" men. Rather it was to assemble artificers, discover
the abilities of each, select the natural leaders, and teach them
military drill and discipline. The intent was to have these men
ready at all times for transfer to other naval stations or naval
bases in the United States and abroad, and to fighting ships.
The average time the men were retained at Great Lakes was from
three to four months, during which period they were used effectively
to perform public works functions.
Briefly, the Twelfth
Regiment (Public Works) drew the plans for the Great Lakes wartime
expansion, down to the minutest detail; and supervised all construction,
whether done by civilian contractors or by enlisted men. It saw
to the maintenance of buildings, grounds, roads, and railway;
and operated the power house, heating systems, water supply, and
sewage disposal. It also operated carpenter, machine, and paint
shops. To accomplish the maintenance and minor construction, detachments
from the regiment were assigned to all the camps at the Great
Lakes Naval Training Station.
of the numerous recruit training camps at Great Lakes was mainly
done by contractors and their employees. Camp Paul Jones was,
however, assigned to the Public Works Regiment, and the men of
the regiment turned a temporary tent camp into a semipermanent
facility. The major work at this regimental camp began in October
1917, and it was substantially completed by the end of the year.
On 30 December 1917
the regiment became "fully operational" at Camp Paul
Jones with 1,500 men, organized into three battalions.
Meanwhile, in the
summer of 1917, Commander George A. McKay, CEC, USN, became Public
Works Officer at Great Lakes. Lieutenant Smith remained as his
deputy for a few months, and upon being promoted to lieutenant
commander, departed for an assignment as Public Works Officer
at the Charleston Navy Yard in South Carolina.
On 30 January 1918
Commander McKay, in turn, was succeeded by Commander Walter Allen,
CEC, USN. The new Public Works Officer surveyed and analyzed his
department and decided that the organization was too cumbersome.
He, therefore, reorganized both the department and the Public
Works Regiment, which by April 1918 consisted of 2,400 men in
Throughout the latter
part of 1917 and all of 1918, men were withdrawn from the regiment
for assignment in the United States and abroad. In the spring
of 1918, 100 men were given special training in mechanics and
ordnance, and then sent to St. Nazaire in France to assemble the
famous Naval Railway Batteries. They joined the operational gun-crews
and performed combat duties along the railway lines in proximity
to the German lines.
Another 350 skilled
men from the Public Works Regiment were selected and sent to France.
Landing at the ports of Le Havre and Cherbourg, they were retained
in those areas to build and rehabilitate docks and wharves, lay
railroad tracks, and build communication facilities. On one occasion,
a team of men from this group went into Paris and converted the
Eiffel Tower into an antenna for a "Marconi wireless transmitting
In the summer of
1918, Captain Allen selected another complement of 200 men, who
went to France and constructed air bases along the coast.
During the autumn
of 1918, training operations at the Great Lakes Naval Training
Station reached a peak to satisfy the requirements of ships and
bases in the United States and abroad. By the end of October more
than 125,000 recruits had undergone training since the U.S. Navy
build up began in March and April of 1917. This expansion of training
and facilities, in turn, required a similar expansion in the strength
of the Public Works Department and the Twelfth Regiment. The peak
strength of the regiment was reached on 5 November 1918. Its comprised
55 officers and 6,211 enlisted men, formed into 11 battalions.
When the First World
War ended on 11 November 1918, training and construction operations
at Great Lakes ceased. The regiment gradually faded away by the
end of 1918. The war was over but not the memories.
An important aspect
of the Twelfth Regiment (Public Works) was its unofficial status.
At no time was it considered an official U.S. Navy unit. It was
merely the creature of the commandant of the Great Lakes Naval
Training Station. It was organized and developed by three successive
Public Works Officers, and owed its existence solely to the administrative,
operational, and training needs of the Public Works Department.
Efficiency was the keynote of its existence.
PLANNING BETWEEN THE TWO WORLD WARS
Although the Twelfth
Regiment (Public Works) was dissolved in the general demobilization
that followed the end of the First World War, the germ of the
pioneering idea remained in the minds of many Navy Civil Engineers.
Sometime during the early 1930s, for example, the planners of
the Bureau of Yards and Docks began providing for "Navy Construction
Battalions" in the bureau's contingency war plans. Unfortunately,
the identity of the creator of the term went unrecorded. During
the decade the successive heads of the bureau's War Plans Office
were Captain George McKay, CEC, USN; Captain Carl Carlson, CEC,
USN; and Captain Walter Allen, CEC, USN.
In 1934 Captain Carlson's
version of the plans was circulated to the Navy Yards, and later
the Chief of Naval Operations tentatively approved the concept
of "Navy Construction Battalions". In 1935 Rear Admiral
Norman Smith, CEC, USN, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks,
selected Captain Walter Allen, his War Plans Officer, to represent
the bureau on the War Plans Board, the supreme agency for all
aspects of national war planning. Captain Allen ably presented
the bureau's concept of "Naval Construction Battalions"
to the War Plans Board. The concept was subsequently adopted for
inclusion in the national Rainbow war plans that were developed
during the last half of the 1930s.
All this may sound
more imposing than it really was. From the practical point of
view, the plans actually contained only an idea and a name. Implementing
details and procedures were inadequate and unworkable. The great
weakness of the "Navy Construction Battalions" concept,
indeed the fatal flaw, was the provision for dual control of the
battalions: military control to be exercised by Navy officers
of the line, and construction control to be exercised by Navy
Civil Engineer Corps officers. There were no provisions for good
military organization and military training for the battalions,
which were requisites necessary to create high morale, discipline,
and cooperation among the men. Moreover, the original plans contemplated
the formation of battalions to construct training stations throughout
the United States, an obvious throwback to the Twelfth Regiment
(Public Works). On completion of the training stations, the battalions
would move to forward areas.
Moreover, the war
plans provided only for construction battalions with limited operational
duties; no other types of units or expanded duties were included.
This oversight narrowed the scope of possible activities. Finally,
no provisions were provided for recruiting, enlisting, training
and developing training facilities for the enlisted personnel
of the construction battalions.
When war finally came, most of the provisions of these plans
would have to be shelved. Workable and more pertinent and practical
procedures were developed in their place.
Meanwhile, Rear Admiral
Ben Moreell, CEC, USN, became Chief of the Bureau of Yards and
Docks in December 1937. It was a time of international crisis
and rivalry in both Europe and Asia. In the late 1930s the tense
international situation brought quick authorization from the United
States Congress to expand naval shore activities. The new construction,
started in the Caribbean and Central Pacific in 1939, followed
the customary peacetime pattern: contracts were awarded to private
construction firms that performed the work with civilian personnel,
under the administrative direction of Navy Officers in Charge
By the summer of
1941, large naval bases were under construction at Guam, Midway,
Wake, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda, Trinidad,
and at many other places. To facilitate the work, the Bureau of
Yards and Docks decided to organize military Headquarters Construction
Companies. Under the immediate control of the Officers in Charge
of Construction at the bases, the men of the companies were to
be utilized as draftsmen and engineering aids and for administrative
duties as inspectors and supervisors to oversee the work of the
civilian construction contractors. The companies, each consisting
of two officers and 99 enlisted men, were not to do any actual
On 31 October 1941
the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral Chester W.
Nimitz, USN, authorized the establishment of the first Headquarters
Construction Company and the enlistment of its men. The men were
recruited in November. By the beginning of December 1941, the
company was formed and the men were undergoing boot training at
the Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island. On 16 December 1941,
four additional companies were authorized. By then, however, events
had outstripped planning, and all the men recruited under this
authority would be used for loftier purposes.