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Seabee History: Introduction

The 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.


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.

Captain Porter's 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 centuries.

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 Valparaiso.

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.


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 Moffett readily agreed to this proposal.

Accordingly, Lieutenant 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 Department.

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.

Lieutenant Smith 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 recruiting.

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 technical control.

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.

The construction 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 five battalions.

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 station."

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.


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 of Construction.

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 construction work.

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.


Published: Fri Feb 17 06:38:24 EST 2017