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ADM Ben Moreell, CEC, USN: Founder of the Seabees and shaper of the modern Civil Engineer Corps

Vice Admiral Ben Moreell, (C.E.C.), USN., Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, circa mid-1945
VADM Ben Moreell

ADM Ben Moreell is the single most important Civil Engineer Corps officer in the history of the corps.  He was Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks during the most challenging period in the history of the Navy and Civil Engineer Corps -- World War II. Through his personal initiative, an effective naval construction force, the Seabees, was created and the power to command this force was given to Civil Engineer Corps officers.

Ben Moreell was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on 14 September 1892, the son of immigrant parents, Samuel and Sophia Moreell. When he was two years old, his parents moved to New  York City, and four years later, the family settled permanently in St. Louis, Missouri. The father, Samuel, worked at various occupations there including those of dyer, deputy sheriff, and leather merchant. The mother, “Sophie,” was self-employed as a dressmaker.

Ben Moreell’s gifts and drive manifested themselves early.  Having completed his primary education in only six years, Ben went to work during the summer in a shoe factory at the age of twelve; he made $3.00 a week. To augment his earnings at the factory, every Sunday morning he got up at the crack of dawn to sell newspapers. His mother, who loved reading, urged her son to read as much as possible. Ben and his sister haunted the second hand bookstores and it was said that they were thrown out of more of them than anyone one else in St. Louis.

Ben Moreell attended St. Louis's Central High School, taking five subjects during each of the first two years and six during the last two. Not satisfied with that, he stayed after school twice a week to do additional work in college algebra and Latin. Ben, however, was not just a bookworm; he was also intensely interested in athletics. His father, Samuel, was so dismayed by the fact that young Ben played ball every day after school that he predicted his son would flunk.  His father was a hard taskmaster when it came to education. When Ben brought home a report card with seven “A”'s and one “B”, the father exclaimed, “Doch ein B!” (Nevertheless, one “B”).

At sixteen, Ben Moreell graduated at the head of his class and was awarded a four-year scholarship to St. Louis's Washington University. In college Ben was both a brilliant student and an outstanding athlete -- and he did this while also holding down a job to supplement his scholarship. His interest in athletics was so great that Ben Moreell was both captain of the track team and fullback of the football team. He was especially renowned for making a 70-yard run to tie up a game against Missouri, and the local newspapers fondly referred to him as “Benny.” While at Washington, he was elected a member of two honors fraternities, Tau Beta Pi and  Sigma Xi.  He graduated in 1913 with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering.

Following graduation, Ben Moreell took a job as Resident and Designing Engineer on construction projects for the St. Louis Department of Sewers; he held this position until 1917. In that year he took a competitive examination for a commission in the Civil Engineer Corps. In June, shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, he was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade, and, following a brief indoctrination course at the Naval Academy, began his career as assistant to the Public Works Officer of the New York Navy Yard.

In October 1917 Moreell was advanced to the temporary rank of lieutenant. A short time later, in January 1918, he became an aide on the staff of the Commander, Azores Detachment, Atlantic Fleet, with additional duty as the Public Works Officer of the U.S. Naval Base at Ponta Delgada, San Miguel, the Azores. He served in this capacity until May 1919.

While in the Azores, LT Moreell is reputed to have very favorably impressed the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, one Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt called on Moreell, who was ill at the time, to commend him for his excellent work in building gun emplacements.

From June 1919 until September 1920 Moreell served as the Civil Engineer Member of the Plant Board, headquartered at Quincy, Massachusetts, with collateral duty as the Plant Engineer of   the U.S. Destroyer Plant at Squantum.

Ben Moreell's next assignment took him out of the U.S. and placed him in a position that required both diplomacy and technical expertise; in September 1920 Moreell became Principal Assistant and Executive Officer to the Engineer in Charge, Department of Public Works of the Republic of Haiti. Following a period of anarchy which culminated in the death of the Haitian president at the hands of a mob in 1915 and the landing of U.S. Marines from the USS WASHINGTON, the U.S. occupied and governed Haiti for 19 years. During this period, U.S. personnel ran the various departments of the Haitian government and built an effective infrastructure to serve the Haitian people after the U.S. departure. Moreell served under CDR Archibald L. Parsons, CEC, USN, who had been appointed Engineer in Chief in August 1920.

Parsons would later be Chief of Bureau of Yards and Docks from 1929 to 1933. During the four years that Moreell spent in Haiti he became proficient in French, a skill that he would maintain and use throughout his career. The Haitian government awarded Moreell the Order of “Honneur et Merite” (grade of “Commandeur”) for his exceptional service there. The government also awarded CDR Parsons and LT Moreell two other special medals for their service.

From 1924 to 1926 Moreell served as Principal Assistant, and later as Public Works Officer, at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia. While serving at Norfolk, Moreell was promoted to lieutenant commander, effective 4 June 1925. In June 1926 he was designated Assistant Design Manager of the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington, DC. However, just prior to this assignment an event took place which could have changed the history of the Civil Engineer Corps as well as that of the nation: LCDR Ben Moreell decided to resign from the Navy.

For some years previous to 1926, LCDR Moreell had had a problem with a high blood-sugar  level. He controlled it by diet while in Haiti, but had apparently decided that it would adversely impact his hopes for a Navy career. In March 1926 he submitted his resignation from the Navy; however, following an exhaustive physical examination, focusing on his specific problem, he was informed that his condition would not adversely impact his naval career. He, therefore,   withdrew his resignation in April 1926.

While serving as Assistant Design Manager at the bureau, Moreell wrote Standards of Design for Concrete in his spare time (the book was published in 1929). This work was praised as one of the most outstanding treatises on concrete and was favorably received throughout the engineering profession, both in the U.S. and abroad.

In June 1930 Moreell became the Public Works Officer of the Navy Yard, Puget Sound, Washington, and of the Thirteenth Naval District, Seattle, Washington. In this capacity, he handled a large emergency construction program with outstanding results and received a commendation from the Navy Department.

In June 1932 Moreell was selected to attend a special course of instruction at the Ecole des Pants et Chaussees in Paris in order to study European engineering, design, and construction   practices. This selection was a real privilege for a young Civil Engineer Corps officer and Ben Moreell's knowledge of French from his Haiti days as well as his exceptional career performance probably had much to do with his selection.

After completing the course and returning from Europe, LCDR Moreell reported in June 1933 for a second tour as Assistant Design Manager of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. As such, he had personal supervision over the design of the new Ship Model Testing Basin at Carderock, Maryland {later named the David W. Taylor Model Basin). It was during this period that Moreell applied some of what he had learned in Paris in writing his treatise “Articulations for Concrete Structures.” The American Concrete Institute awarded him the Wason Medal for this work. In May 1935 Moreell was made Project Manager of the bureau's Shipbuilding and Repair Facilities, Storage and Submarine Base Section; and the following month he was promoted to commander. In August 1937 CDR Moreell became the Public Works Officer of the Navy Yard, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with additional duty as Public Works Officer of the Fourteenth Naval District.

In the closing months of 1937 RADM Norman Smith's term as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks was coming to an end. Many perceptive individuals recognized that the United States could be involved in a major war within a few years and thought it imperative that the Bureau of Yards and Docks have a relatively young and energetic chief who would be able to carry the load and act decisively and quickly. Story has it that two former chiefs prevailed directly upon President Roosevelt to select CDR Ben Moreell the next chief. Whatever the truth of this story, Ben Moreell was selected to succeed Smith. In December 1937 CDR Moreell officially became Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and was advanced to the temporary rank of rear admiral. At forty-five, Moreell was one of the youngest officers to hold that rank. He was selected over seven more senior commanders, seven captains, and one rear admiral {RADM Parsons, who already had been Chief, but was still on active duty with the permanent rank of rear admiral). On 1 June 1941 RADM Moreell was promoted to the permanent rank of captain; however, he never wore a captain's four stripes because he was still Chief and still a temporary rear admiral.

One of RADM Moreell's first accomplishments upon becoming chief was to survey the Navy's docking, repair, and base facilities in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. He found the condition of the Pacific facilities to be far less than the anticipated need and vigorously urged their expansion, particularly the bases in Hawaii, and at Midway and Wake islands. Aware that the ships that count are those that can stay in the battle line and that repair facilities must be located as close as possible to the probable scene of action, RADM Moreell urged the construction of two giant graving docks at Pearl Harbor and the transfer of an inactive floating dry dock from New Orleans. These dry docks were later to prove invaluable for repairing the battleships crippled during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Among Ben Moreell's most important accomplishments was the execution of the world's largest integrated shore establishment construction program. This vast five year program represented an investment of more than $10 billion, or approximately fifteen times the value of the whole prewar shore establishment. Before the end of World War II, this vast network of facilities totaled more than 900 naval bases and stations, including 300 advance bases, some as large as medium size cities.    Construction of these facilities kept pace with the rapid advance of U.S. forces and provided the support necessary to sustain the far-flung operations of the U.S. Fleet during the war. The construction of this support structure was illustrative of RADM Moreell's creed: “Hard work is the best road to success, and there is no substitute.”

With that saying in mind no doubt, RADM Moreell set an example for his subordinates; he was nearly always the first man to arrive in the morning and among the last to leave at night, a practice which other officers felt obliged to emulate.Moreell had no patience for those who waited for work to come to them; he once told a friend “If you can't find enough work to keep busy, you can always write a book” (advice he, himself, followed on several occasions). He never accepted a task unless he felt that he could devote sufficient time to do it right. Those who met Moreell for the first time were always impressed by his dynamic personality; Moreell was direct, forceful, brief and to the point, but always friendly. His close associates addressed him as “Ben,” and his subordinates spoke of him when he was not present as “Big Ben.” While he wasted no time, one of his most endearing traits was his penchant for talking to people and listening to their problems.

As war appeared more likely and one of the most probable antagonists appeared to be the Japanese Empire, it became apparent that construction in forwards areas of the Pacific, isolated islands for the most part, might prove difficult for civilian contractors. Navy construction work was performed under contract by general contractors using civilian construction workers; in the event of war, however, such workers would be at risk in forward areas. As civilians they and the projects they built would be at the enemy's mercy. Even if trained and armed they could not defend themselves or their works without running the risk of being shot as guerrillas, if captured. Thus, such workers would have to be protected by separate military units which would constitute a drain on manpower needed elsewhere. What was needed was a militarized Navy construction force, akin to Army Corps of Engineer units, that could, if need be, defend what it built.

The concept of a naval construction force had, in fact, been added to the bureau's war plans sometime during the 1930s.   CAPTs McKay and Allen, and RADM Smith, officers who had played a pivotal role in the development of such an ad hoc force during World War I, were responsible for this addition. Nevertheless, nothing concrete was done with the idea prior to 1941.

A new type of Navy unit did appear in late 1941, although it was not a construction unit.To facilitate the great worldwide construction program then underway, the Bureau of Yards and Docks proposed the establishment of the “Headquarters Construction Company,” composed of two officers and ninety-nine enlisted men. Under the direction of the officer in charge of construction of a given project, the men of the Headquarters Construction Company would serve as draftsmen, engineering aids, and inspectors. They were to perform administrative duties and oversee the work of the civilian contractors, but were not, themselves, to perform actual construction work. RADM Chester W. Nimitz, USN, then Chief of the Bureau of Navigation (the forerunner of today's Naval Military Personnel Command), authorized the first Headquarters Construction Company on 31 October 1941.  By 1 December 1941 men had been recruited for the unit and were undergoing basic training at the Newport Naval Station in Rhode Island.

On the same date that the Headquarters Construction Company was authorized, RADM Ben Moreell was sworn in for his second term as Chief of Bureau of Yards and Docks and, six days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was plunged into World War II. On 16 December the Navy authorized four additional headquarters companies; however, the Pearl Harbor attack had changed the entire situation and the Headquarters Construction Company program was abandoned.  The fate of civilian construction workers on Wake Island and Guam demonstrated the folly of thrusting civilian employees into war zones. This led directly to the creation of the Naval Construction Force.

On 28 December 1941 RADM Moreell requested authority to raise Navy construction units. On 5 January 1942 the Bureau of Navigation granted him authority to recruit experienced construction workers and organize them into a construction regiment comprising three battalions. However, the construction unit included in the approved Navy war plans differed in one important aspect from the unit envisaged by Ben Moreell: command was to be the prerogative of a line officer. The war plans called for a line officer commanding officer who would be responsible for combat leadership, discipline and military justice. Under him would be a Civil Engineer Corps officer who would be in charge of actual construction. It must be remembered that at this time no staff officer had the power of command. RADM Moreell recognized that this bifurcated command structure would be unworkable in practice. He went directly to the Secretary of the Navy and requested that Civil Engineer Corps officers be placed in command of the new construction units. On 19 March 1942 Secretary Knox granted that authority; however, Civil Engineer Corps officers were to bear the title “officer in charge” rather than “commanding officer.” The gaining of command status for Civil Engineering Corps officers was one of Ben Moreell's most important accomplishments. It is doubtful that the new Naval Construction Force, which acquired the name “Seabees” on 5 March 1942, could have been welded into an effective force with the dual control system originally envisioned. For this reason alone, if for no other, Ben Moreell justly earned the title “Father of the Seabees.”

The first Headquarters Construction Company was augmented with general service recruits and recommissioned as the “First Construction Battalion, USN,” on 21 January 1942. The unit shipped out immediately to build critically needed facilities on Bora Bora. From this small beginning the Seabees would increase to more 250JOOO men and 12,000 officers and would take part in every amphibious operation undertaken by U.S. forces during the war, in many instances, landing with the first waves of assault troops.

During the course of the war, Ben Moreell traveled to forward areas and combat zones in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operations in order to personally assess how his Seabees were performing. In 1944, prior to the Normandy invasion, he went on an inspection tour of Great Britain to survey preparations for the upcoming landings and in August 1945 he toured the Pacific, stopping at Okinawa to determine the progress of construction there.

On 1 February 1944 Ben Moreell was promoted to Vice Admiral. At the time, he was not only the first Civil Engineer Corps officer to hold that rank but also the youngest officer in the Navy's history to do so. Between 1949 and 1959, nine other Civil Engineer Corps officers would be promoted to vice admiral -- but only upon retirement from active duty or from the Naval Reserve.

In addition to managing the huge wartime shore base construction program, Ben Moreell also represented the Secretary of the Navy from November 1943 to October 1945 on a committee charged with expediting the lagging construction of critically-needed production facilities for 100-octane gasoline. Moreell carried out a thorough investigation of the delayed construction  and determined the causes. He then worked tirelessly to see the program through to completion, first by evaluating the 100-octane gasoline project in relation to other primary war projects, then by loaning industrialists serving as naval officers to aid the subcontractors in expediting delivery of material and equipment to the plants, and finally by drawing upon armed forces personnel to provide labor when civilian workers could not be obtained. The successful completion of this program assured the constant availability of 100-octane gasoline, vitally needed for air  operations in all theaters of the war.

In October 1945 VADM Moreell was designated Officer in Charge of Petroleum Facilities to administer refineries and pipelines to be seized in accordance with Executive Order No. 9639 after labor strikes had put them out of operation. Following unsuccessful negotiations between management and the unions in October, the industry suffered a complete work stoppage and plunged the nation into an oil crisis. VADM Moreell promptly carried out the unprecedented executive order and seized 49 oil refineries and 4 pipelines. He then organized the Naval Petroleum Plants Office and restored and maintained full production at all the seized facilities, inspiring confidence in both labor and management. He carried out this responsibility until April 1946.

On 1 December 1945 VADM Moreell completed his second tour as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. After eight years as chief, which included service during the greatest war in U.S. history, the "King Bee" was appointed Chief of the Material Division of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy. A few months later, in May 1946, he was appointed Deputy Coal Mines Administrator, in charge of the operation and administration of the bituminous coal mines seized by Executive Order No. 9728. The Secretary of the Interior subsequently appointed him the Coal Mines Administrator and, as such, VADM Moreell had complete charge of this activity. In May 1946 Moreell also became a member of a board of consulting engineers established to advise on improvements to the Panama Canal to meet the future needs of interoceanic commerce and national defense.

On 11 June 1946 VADM Ben Moreell was promoted to the rank of Admiral, thus, becoming the first non-Naval Academy graduate as well as the first, and to date, only Navy staff Corps officer to hold four-star rank. A few months later, on 30 September 1946, ADM Moreell was relieved of all active duty and retired from the Navy. Thus, an almost incredible Navy career drew to a close. From a humble beginning, ADM Moreell rose to four-star rank in the Navy and oversaw construction and maintenance of all Navy facilities during World War II. He personally intervened to establish a militarized Navy construction force, the Seabees, and secured the right of command for his fellow Civil Engineer Corps officers so that they could direct the activities of the new force. In addition to his great responsibility as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, he also took on additional responsibilities, such as managing strike-bound oil refineries and coal mines. His drive, energy, and accomplishments clearly make ADM Ben Moreell the single most important Civil Engineer Corps officer in the history of corps. However, even though his naval career was ended, his accomplishments would continue in his subsequent civilian career.

One day after he retired, Ben Moreell was elected President of the Turner Construction   Company of New York. After a few months at Turner, Moreell became Chairman of the Board and President of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under his leadership Jones & Laughlin initiated a $500 million expansion program which added impetus to Pittsburgh's redevelopment. When Jones & Laughlin decided to build a new $70 million open hearth shop in a blighted area of Pittsburgh's South Side, Ben Moreell, working with the union and city government, found homes for the 296 families that had to relocate from the area.

In 1951 the Junior Chamber of Commerce chose Ben Moreell as the “Pittsburgh Man of the Year.” He also received the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews that year. In 1956 he received the Page One Award of the Pittsburgh Newspaper Guild. Writing in The Freeman Magazine, Rev. Edmund A. Opitz said of him:

He is a naval engineer who is now one of the nation's top-flight industrialists. Among industrialists, he is one of the most vigorous and articulate spokesman for free capitalistic enterprise. In addition, Ben Moreell is a prime mover in the well-known “Pittsburgh Experiment” which brings religion into the market places and social clubs of that city. It is evident that the Admiral's concern for individual freedom and limited government is inseparable from his religious beliefs.

ADM Moreell gave up the presidency of Jones & Laughlin in 1952, but remained Chairman of the Board until 1957 and stayed on the Board of Directors until his retirement in 1964. For some years after that, he worked as a private business consultant.

In 1953 ADM Moreell accepted an appointment from former President Herbert Hoover to serve as chairman of the task force on water resources and power for the Second Hoover Commission. He was also a member of the board of consulting engineers for the Panama Canal.

After his retirement from the Navy, ADM Moreell became intensely interested in political philosophy and religion. He wrote numerous works and spoke before diverse audiences on these subjects. A staunch conservative, Ben Moreell, in 1958, joined with the Honorable Charles Edison, former Secretary of the Navy and former Governor of New Jersey and then Chairman of the Board of McGraw-Edison Company, and Mr. Henning Prentis, Chairman of the Board of the Armstrong Cork Company, to found Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA). ACA was conceived as a nonpartisan, nonprofit, nationwide, political action organization whose goal was to help elect to Congress men and women who were dedicated to the restoration and preservation of the spirit and principles of the U.S. Constitution, as expounded by the founding fathers. Ben Moreell remained chairman of ACA until 1973.The titles of some of his addresses and publications are indicative of his philosophy: “Government and Moral Law,” “In Search of Freedom,” “Moral Responsibility and Liberty,” “To Communism via Majority Vote,” “Religion in American Life: A Layman's Appraisal,” “The Role of American Business in Social Progress,” and “What Price Socialism,” to name but a few.

In 1975 the Construction Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers selected ADM Moreell as one of the ten men who contributed most to the advancement of construction methods during the past half century. In 1977 the same organization gave Ben Moreell its President's Award for "distinguished service to his country in times of war and peace."

ADM Ben Moreell's long, accomplishment filled life came to an end in Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on 30 July 1978.   He was buried at Arlington Cemetery.

Physically, Ben Moreell was a man of formidable presence; he towered well over six feet, was powerfully built, and square of jaw. He remained vigorous throughout his life; and, in fact, when seventy physically helped to subdue a burglar who had invaded his house.

In addition to the Haitian medals already mentioned, ADM Moreell was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for “...exceptionally meritorious service to the Government of the United States in a duty of great responsibility as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and Chief of Civil Engineers, U. S. Navy, from December 7, 1941, to August 31, 1945.” The citation concludes by saying that ADM Moreell displayed “...great originality and exceptional capacity for bold innovations,” and that he '”...inspired in his subordinates a degree of loyalty and devotion   to duty outstanding in the Naval service to the end that the Fleet received support in degree and kind unprecedented in the history of Naval warfare.” For his efforts from 1943 to 1945 in connection with the provision of 100-octane fuel production facilities, ADM Moreell was awarded the Legion of Merit; and for his efforts in 1945 and 1946 to resolve the crisis in oil production he was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a second Distinguished Service Medal. Finally, Great Britain awarded ADM Moreell the Order of the British Empire, Military Branch, Rank of Commander, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the allied war effort.

ADM Moreell has also been honored in many other ways. In 1955 the Society of American Military Engineers created and awarded a new medal, the Moreell Medal. This medal is given annually to active, former, reserve, and retired Civil Engineer Corps officers and to civilian employees of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in recognition for outstanding contributions to military engineering through achievement in design, construction, administration, research and development. In 1968 a new wing of the CEC-Seabee Museum at the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, California, was named the “Ben Moreell Wing.” A portion of the new wing was dedicated to ADM Moreell's personal memorabilia and the remainder to other important Civil Engineer Corps officers. In similar fashion, the library of the Naval School, Civil Engineer Corps Officers, Port Hueneme, California, was named the "Moreell Library" in ADM Moreell's honor and his private papers were placed in a vault there. Finally, in 1980 a “Ben Moreell Memorial” was dedicated at the Naval Academy. The memorial consisted of a bust sculpted by Felix de Weldon, creator of the famous Marine Corps Memorial.

Nevertheless, the most fitting memorials to ADM Ben Moreell and perhaps those which most pleased him were the titles “Father of the Seabees” and “King Bee.”

Speeches and Publications by Ben Moreell

Published: Mon Jan 27 13:24:53 EST 2020