During World War II the Seabees were a Naval Reserve organization,
created specifically for that war. Most Seabees were "USNR"
and served "for the duration plus six months." After
the war, however, it was clear that the Seabees, having more than
proved their worth, would be a valuable new addition to the regular
Navy. Thus, in 1947, the Seabees became part of the regular, peacetime
Navy. In December 1947 a Seabee Reserve Organization was established
to augment active-duty Seabees during national emergencies. Many
of these first Seabee reservists were Seabee veterans of World
War II who wished to continue to serve the nation. The first reserve
Seabees were organized into a number of divisions in each Naval
District. Each Seabee Reserve Division initially consisted of
5 officers and 40 enlisted men. Although by 1949 the number of
active duty Seabees had dwindled to 3,300, the Reserve Organization
served as a ready force for expansion in the coming emergency
SEABEES IN THE KOREAN WAR
In June 1950, following the invasion of South Korea by the
armies of communist North Korea, the Seabees found themselves
at war again. As part of the United States contingent of the United
Nations force, they rose to the challenge in the tradition of
their "Can Do" predecessors. By a calling-up reservists,
their active-duty force was expanded to more than 14,000.
On 15 September 1950 U.S. troops landed at Inchon in what
has come to be known as one of the most brilliant amphibious assaults
in history. Seabees achieved renown as the men who made it possible.
Battling enormous thirty-foot tides and a swift current while
under continuous enemy fire, they positioned pontoon causeways
within hours of the first beach assault. Following the landing,
the incident known as the "Great Seabee Train Robbery"
took place. The need to break the equipment bottleneck at the
harbor inspired a group of Seabees to steal behind enemy lines
and capture some abandoned locomotives. Despite enemy mortar fire,
they brought the engines back intact and turned them over to the
Army Transportation Corps.
In October Seabees ran their pontoon structures ashore again
and set up another operating port at Wonsan. When the strenuous
harbor construction and camp operations ceased to fill their days,
they branched into the unusual tasks of inspecting North Korean
armament on an abandoned mine-layer, clearing mined tunnels, and
performing repair work on nearby ships.
When the Chinese Communists joined the retreating North Koreans
to launch another full scale invasion of South Korea, the Seabees
were compelled to redouble their efforts -- this time to help
the retreating U.N. forces. At Hungwan, Wonsan, and Inchon, where
Seabees had been instrumental in putting U.N. forces ashore, Seabee
pontoon causeways were now loaded with troops and equipment going
the other way.
By February, however, the tide turned once again and the Seabees
returned to Inchon for another landing. They found their previously
constructed harbor facilities in a state of ruin, but, miraculously
enough, some of their sturdy pontoon structures were still in
place. After a rapid repair job, men and equipment streamed ashore
Seabee participation in the Korean War was certainly not limited
to amphibious operations. Another of their outstanding contributions
was in that specialty of their World War II predecessors -- airfield
construction. Seabees could be found throughout the war zone constructing,
repairing, and servicing the K-fields of the various Marine Air
Groups. The Seabees were broken up into numerous detachments and
each was assigned to an airfield designated with a "K"
number, such as K-3 at Pohang, K-18 at Kimbo, and K-2 at Taegu.
Keeping the planes flying was an arduous and often dangerous
task. At one small airstrip on the 36th Parallel, chuck holes
were opening up in the failing concrete faster than they could
be repaired. As it was absolutely vital that the field remain
open, the undaunted Seabees graded, poured, and patched one side
of the runway while bomb-laden aircraft continued to fly off the
Seabee relations with the Marine Corps were further cemented
by a group of nine Seabees who kept a 21-mile stretch of road
open between an isolated Marine intercept squadron and its source
of supplies. They worked round-the-clock in five-below-zero temperatures
to successfully fulfill their promise to rebuild any damaged bridge
within six hours.
One of the most incredible
Seabee feats of the war took place on the small island of Yo in
the Bay of Wonsan. In communist hands again in 1952, Wonsan was
a key supply and transportation center for the enemy. As such,
carrier-based aircraft strikes against Wonsan and points deeper
in the interior were numerous and constant. Planes were hit by
enemy fire daily leaving their pilots with the unhappy choice
of either ditching at sea or attempting to land in enemy-held
territory. The need for an emergency airstrip was critical and,
under the code name Operation "Crippled Chick," a detachment
of Seabees came to the rescue. Put ashore on Yo Island, they were
given 35 days to construct a runway. Working under constant artillery
bombardment from neighboring enemy positions, they managed to
complete the 2,400-foot airstrip in only 16 days. By a prearranged
signal, "Steak is Ready," the Seabees signaled that
the job was done, and nine damaged aircraft landed on the new
field that same day.
The rapid demobilization that followed the Second World War
was not repeated after the signing of the Korean Armistice in
July 1953. Crises in Berlin, Cuba, Africa, South America, and
especially in Southeast Asia created the necessity to maintain
military strength and preparedness. Seabee Reservists had helped
meet the Korean crisis, but the onset of the Cold War had indicated
the need for a basic reorganization of Seabee capabilities as
well as for increased Seabee numbers. Between 1949 and 1953, 13
battalions of two distinct types were accordingly established.
The new establishments signified a gain in greater battalion mobility
and specialization. The first type, the new Amphibious Construction
Battalions, were landing and docking units. An integral part of
the Fleet Amphibious Forces, their mission was to place causeways
and ship-to-shore fuel lines, construct pontoon docks, and perform
other functions necessary for the expeditious landing of men,
equipment, and supplies. Naval Mobile Construction Battalions
constituted the second type. They were responsible for land construction
of a wide variety, including camps, roads, tank farms, airstrips,
permanent waterfront structures, and many other base facilities.
BETWEEN THE KOREAN WAR AND THE VIETNAM
Wide diversity marked the activity of the reorganized battalions
during the decades following the Korean Armistice. The tasks of
the Seabees were the tasks of a watchful peacetime. Wide-ranging,
of tremendous variety, many were pioneering and experimental as
well. They were a part of the developing roles -- in defense and
in science -- of the U.S. Navy. In this decade, Seabee builders
were again on six continents.
More building and less fighting became the keynote of Seabee
activities and their peacetime achievements were no less impressive
than those of wartime. On Okinawa, for example, the Seabees built
a Marine Corps Air Facility using concrete precasting methods
that earned the admiration of contractors throughout the Pacific
area. Elsewhere, a small detachment of Seabees supervised and
instructed Ecuadorans in modern construction methods while building
a new Ecuadoran Naval Academy.
Beginning in 1955 Seabees began deploying yearly to the continent
of Antarctica. As participants in Operation "Deep Freeze,"
their mission was to build and expand scientific bases located
on the frozen continent. The first "wintering over"
party included 200 Seabees who distinguished themselves by constructing
a 6,000-foot ice runway on McMurdo Sound. Despite a blizzard which
once destroyed the entire project, the airstrip was completed
in time for the advance party of Deep Freeze II to become the
first men to arrive at the South Pole by plane. The Seabees next
assignment was to build a permanent scientific base on the continent.
Over the following years, and under the most adverse conditions,
Seabees added to their list of accomplishments such things as
snow-compacted roads, underground storage, laboratories, and living
areas. One of the most notable achievements took place in 1962
when the Navy's builders constructed the continent's first nuclear
power plant at McMurdo Station.
By far the largest and most impressive project tackled by
the Seabees in the 1950s was the construction of Cubi Point Naval
Air Station in the Philippines. Civilian contractors, after taking
one look at the forbidding Zombales Mountains and the maze of
jungle at Cubi Point, claimed it could not be done. Nevertheless,
the Seabees proceeded to do it! Begun in 1951 at the height of
the Korean War, it took five years and an estimated 20-million
man-hours to build this new, major Navy base. At Cubi Point Seabees
cut a mountain in half to make way for a nearly two-mile long
runway. They blasted coral to fill a section of Subic Bay, filled
swampland, moved trees as much as a hundred and fifty feet tall
and six to eight feet in diameter, and even relocated a native
fishing village. The result was an air station, and an adjacent
pier that was capable of docking the Navy's largest carriers.
Undoubtedly as important as the finished project, however, was
the indispensable leadership and construction experience gained
by the postwar generation of Seabees. The construction of Cubi
Point Naval Air Station was a mammoth learning experience as well
as a superb job well done.
The Seabee Reserve organization began a series of important
changes in 1960. Following the Korean War the reserve grew to
242 divisions, each with 4 officers and 50 enlisted men. In July
1960 the Chief of Naval Operations granted authority for the establishment
of 18 reserve battalions. These battalions were to be formed from
the reserve divisions. In July 1961 battalion active duty training
was initiated. In July 1967 the Chief of Naval Operations approved
the establishment of four regimental staffs, later an additional
four staffs were approved. This process of evolution finally culminated
in the establishment of the 1st Reserve Naval Construction Brigade
in September 1969. The brigade exercised overall control of the
Reserve Naval Construction Force.
In 1961 the Seabees assembled a huge floating dry dock at
Holy Loch, Scotland, for the service and repair of the Polaris
missile submarines which cruised beneath the waters off Northern
Europe. The dry dock, with a submarine tender anchored alongside,
gave the vital submarines a base that ended long trans-ocean cruises
for the purpose of repair and resupply.
In 1962 Project "Judy" brought the Seabees to the
historic Greek plain of Marathon. Living in a tent camp in a rural
community, they built a Naval Communication Station from scratch.
When the job was completed in 1965, the Seabees had fabricated
and erected more than 100 major antennas and created a base with
all the comforts of home.
Seabees participated in building missile ranges in the Atlantic
and Pacific. They were also constructed housing and apartment
complexes for U.S. servicemen and their families.
As indicated by the above-cited construction projects, Seabees
during this period could be found everywhere. Construction battalions
regularly deployed to Guam, Okinawa, Midway, the Philippines,
Cuba, Newfoundland, and Spain. Seabee detachments could also be
found at dozens of lesser U.S. naval facilities throughout the
world. The Seabees' primary mission was base expansion and maintenance.
Their assignments included building and paving roads, laying sewer
lines and water mains, building airfield and harbor facilities,
restoring and converting old structures for new uses, wiring buildings,
and erecting power lines. Such duty kept the battalions in a high
state of readiness for the eventuality of advanced base building
and amphibious support when war came again. The Cold War era was
not without crises. In 1958, when dissidents threatened to overthrow
the government of Lebanon and United States assistance was requested,
Seabees brought the Marines ashore over their pontoon causeways.
In addition to participating in the landing, the Seabees there
were divided into Beach Salvage Teams to recover swamped equipment,
improve beaches, and build roads.
Seabees were once again poised for action and on the scene
in 1962 when, following the successful conclusion of the Cuban
Missile Crisis, it was felt that Fidel Castro's regime might retaliate
against the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Under the
constant threat of imminent ground attack or sniper fire, Seabees
worked with speed and skill to fortify the base perimeter.
During this period Seabees assumed yet another new role --
that of an operationally-ready disaster relief force. Trained
to build and fight, Seabees proved equally capable of quickly
rebuilding ruins and combatting peril. When the Greek island of
Cephalonia was devastated by an earthquake in 1953, Seabees took
part in emergency relief operations. In mid-January 1961 Seabees,
with typical ingenuity, used pontoons to save a California beach
community threatened by tremendous tides. Seabees restored power
and rebuilt damaged structures when Typhoon "Karen"
destroyed much of Guam in 1962. Later, in 1964, Seabees were on
the scene restoring utilities and building roads in a matter of
hours after Alaska was struck by a devastating earthquake and
tidal wave. When yet another typhoon ravaged an island in the
Azores, Seabees arrived quickly with prefabricated housing units
to lend vital assistance to the homeless. On several occasions,
Seabees manned their equipment to successfully battle forest and
brush fires in the United States.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Seabee Teams, another proud
addition to the Seabee family, were born. This era marked the
first use of these small detachments for local military aid and
socioeconomic projects in underdeveloped countries. By 1963 this
vital aid program had been refined in both organization and aims,
and had become a regular feature of Seabee activity abroad. The
Seabee Team usually consisted of thirteen carefully selected,
experienced men -- one junior Civil Engineer Corps officer, eleven
construction men, and a hospital corpsman. Such teams proved exceptionally
effective in rural development programs and for teaching construction
skills to people in such diverse locations as Africa, Central
and South America, Southeast Asia, and later in the Trust Territories
of the Pacific Islands. For instance, in 1962 a Seabee Team arrived
in the Republic of Haiti to restore a collapsing municipal pier
that was vital to the national economy. The following year Spanish-speaking
Seabees built and staffed a technical school in Santo Domingo.
A Seabee Team in Costa Rica protected the imperiled city of Cartago
from a disastrous mud-flow by building dams and dikes. In other
far-flung locations Seabee Teams constructed roads, schools, orphanages,
public utilities, and many other community structures.
However, much more important than the actual construction
work they accomplished were the skills team members imparted to
the local residents. Their true success was in enabling the local
populous to continue old projects and initiate new ones long after
the Seabees have left the region. There is no doubt that the "Can
Do" Seabee Teams have more than earned their additional measure
of recognition as the "Navy's Peace Corps."
It was during the summer of 1964 that the Seabees first went
to work for the State Department. The program was initiated following
the discovery of electronic surveillance devices planted throughout
the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. To prevent future incidents of this
nature, Seabees were used to perform all construction and renovation
in security sensitive areas of Foreign Service facilities abroad.
In addition, they were tasked with the supervision of private
contractors assigned to do construction work in non-sensitive
areas. Despite its beginnings in 1964, it was not until 1966 that
the Naval Support Unit, State Department, was officially established
to administer Seabees assigned to support the Foreign Service.
Because of the superb on-the-job performance of these Seabees,
the State Department happily made them a permanent part of its
Thus, a peacetime pattern of battalion training and deployment
took shape in the years following the Korean War. This pattern,
however, was drastically altered in 1965. The war in Vietnam brought
American military intervention on a large scale and effected major
changes in Seabee activity worldwide. In the spring of 1965, there
were 9,400 Seabees on active duty at various sea and shore locations;
most of these Seabees were assigned to ten, reduced-strength Naval
Mobile Construction Battalions. These relatively few Seabees,
however, were fully prepared to write a new chapter in the history of the builder-fighters.