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Seabee History: Between the Second World War and the Korean War

Following the victories in Europe and Asia, the U.S. Armed Forces rapidly demobilized. The Seabees were part of this demobilization, and by June 1946 their number had fallen from a peak strength of more than 250,000 men to approximately 20,000. In the continental United States, the web of training bases and depots dissolved, and all Seabee activity was concentrated at the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, California. As Seabee ranks continued to thin, the early postwar years saw only a few battalions and small construction battalion detachments scattered at naval bases and stations abroad.Despite the diminished strength of the force, Seabee peacetime activities took on a unique and diversified character. Besides maintaining advanced bases built during the war, they were confronted with many unprecedented construction assignments.

What could be more unusual than Seabees building a fleet weather station on Russian soil? Yet in September 1945, Seabees of the 114th Naval Construction Battalion, stationed in the Aleutian Islands, were ordered to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to accomplish just such a project. They perhaps have the distinction of being the only Americans invited to do construction work in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Also in 1945 and 1946, six battalions of Seabees performed a variety of tasks on mainland China at Shanghai, Tsingtao, Tangku, and other cities. Primary among them was the construction of harbors and airfields to be used for the evacuation of the defeated Japanese troops and the importation of supplies for the war-torn Chinese nation.

China was not the only nation to receive Seabee assistance after the guns fell silent. As part of the occupation force, 13 construction battalions and 3 special battalions were sent to Japan to aid U.S. naval forces at Hiroshima, Kabayana, Yokosuka, Omura, Nagasaki, Sasebo, and Kure. Out of the postwar rubble, they rebuilt all types of facilities including airstrips, docks, houses, electric and telephone systems, bridges, roads, recreation areas, and hospitals.

In mid-1946 Seabees were assigned the task of constructing facilities on Bikini Atoll in preparation for the historic atomic bomb tests there. That same year Operation "High Jump" brought Seabees to Antarctica for the first time. An initial detachment of 173 men accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd to Little America to build new facilities and unload supplies and equipment.

When Vieques Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico, was chosen as the site for an interservice war exercise, code named Operation "Portrex," Seabees performed a dual function. They were on the scene prior to the "invasion" to reclaim the island's abandoned wartime defense facilities. They then returned as participants in the exercise and successfully built a pontoon causeway which brought the invading army units ashore.

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 in Korea.


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 again.

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 other side.

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.


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 operations.

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.


Published: Thu Apr 16 13:52:23 EDT 2015