Navy Seabees celebrate 79th birthday on March 5

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BLAIRSVILLE, Ga – “The only trouble with your Seabees is that I do not have enough of them,” General Douglas MacArthur reportedly told, father of the Seabees, Admiral Ben Moreell. If history’s been any indication, America and the U.S. military have certainly benefitted from their continuous hard work.

Union County Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris honored the Seabees by signing a proclamation declaring March 5, 2021, “United States Navy Seabees 79th Birthday.” He asked all citizens to join him in recognizing the unit.

Union County Seabees Proclamation

Union County Seabees Proclamation

“I’m truly grateful for the 20 years I spent in the Navy, the tour of duty in Vietnam, and also for the fact here it wasn’t just the Seabees who built so much. I’m grateful for people like David and Patrick and Lamar for a community up here where we can still support people in need,” U.S. Navy Seabee Richard Hoibraten said. He and four other members of the American Island X-3 Blairsville Chapter attended the meeting.

Admiral Moreell requested the commission of three CBs on December 28, 1941, and on March 5, 1942, Fleet Admiral Chester William Nimitz, Sr granted his request. The first HQ construction company formed the first Naval Construction Detachment and was deployed to Bora Bora as part of Operation Bobcat. These Seabees were known as “Bobcats.”

The second and third companies formed the First Naval Construction Battalion at Charleston, South Carolina. CB Six was the first one deployed as a battalion.

Initial Seabees were recruited from civilian construction trades and placed under the Naval Civil Engineer Corps leadership. The Navy emphasized experience and skill – virtually any electricians, carpenters, plumbers, or equipment operators were welcome in the Seabees. The first recruits to the Seabees were skilled tradesmen who helped to build Boulder Dam, U.S. highways, skyscrapers, subway tunnels, and much more. Their tradesman background earned the Seabees some of the highest wages in were the military. In 1942, the average of a Seabee enlistee was 37 due to waiving the physical and age standards. Men up to 50 could sign up.

Admiral Ben Moreell

Admiral Ben Moreell

In December of 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the Selective Service System to provide Seabee recruits. Voluntary enlistment ended in October 1943 and started back in December 1944. By the end of World War II, more than 325,000 served in a construction battalion.  They comprised 151 construction battalions and 39 special battalions.

Two African American units, the 34th and the 80th battalions, were commissioned in 1942 too. Some mistreatment occurred in both companies, and the 34th went on a hunger strike. By the end of the war, 15 of the special units were “colored.” These men served in some of the first fully integrated Navy units.

For the invasion of Okinawa, four construction brigades of 55,000 men built the infrastructure to help defeat the Imperial Japanese Army. Seabees served on six continents and constructed over 300 island bases. They erected airfields, airstrips, piers, wharves, breakwaters, PT & seaplane bases, bridges, roads, com-centers, fuel farms, hospitals, barracks, and whatever else the U.S. military needed.

Seabee veterans present at the Union Commission meeting.

Seabee veterans present at the Union Commission meeting.

Since then, Seabees have employed their knowledge and skill in the Korean War, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and countries worldwide. Each time living up to their philosophy of “can do!”

The first member of the Seabees to receive the Medal of Honor was Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Marvin G. Shields for his Vietnam service. It was awarded posthumously, and he was also the first Navy Veteran decorated for his service in Vietnam. The USS Marvin Shields (DE 1066) was named after him.

Seabees in Hollywood

In 1944, the battalion was recognized in a major motion picture, starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward – The Fighting Seabees. The film had the biggest budget in its studio’s history, $1.5 million, and they worked with the Navy and Marine Corp to shoot at several California, Virginia, and Rhode Island bases. Camp Peary in Virginia served as the Seabees Bootcamp, and Port Hueneme in California was their West Coast base. The Fighting Seabees garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Walter Scharf and Roy Webb.

The Fighting Seabees movie poster

The Fighting Seabees movie poster

Seabees in the Space Race

As part of the push to “conquer” space before the Soviets, the Seabees amphibious unit assisted in building the Tektite habitat in Great Lameshur Bay at Lameshur, U.S. Virgin Islands. The battalion and 17 divers installed the first science in the seas program, funded by NASA and sponsored by the U.S. Government. They also constructed 12 huts for base camp in the Virgin Islands that are still used today as the Environmental Resource Station. The project eventually led to the creation of the Navy’s Seabee Underwater Construction Teams.

Today, the ambitious construction battalions one and two continue to assist NASA, specifically moving the Orion boilerplate test article and a recovery exercise of the Orion spacecraft. A boilerplate is a mass simulator; in other words, it’s nonfunctional and used for testing. The Orion spacecraft is a partly reusable capsule designed for human spaceflight.

Seabees and the CIA

After the Seabees left Camp Peary, the CIA moved into the compound. In 1947, a construction battalion detachment began maintaining the Naval Technical Training Unit in Tanapag, Saipan, formerly a base for the Office of War Information. A year later, the site became a public works site for the Seabees. The same year, the CIA used the Naval Technical Training Unit as a cover and restricted access to the base in Tanapag, Saipan. They constructed Capitol Hill for operations. It covered the northern half of Saipan and included four radio towers. In 1953, the Seabees ceased using the area for public works.

Paris presenting the proclamation.

Paris presenting the proclamation.

A year before the Bay of Pigs, the CIA enlisted the Seabees in a top-secret mission. The agency wanted two radio towers airstrip, dock, and Quonsets on Swan Island. They didn’t provide the Seabees with construction plans. Det Tango of MCB 6 received the project. LSTs 1046 and 1056 sent men and materials.

Seabees and the State Department

During the Cold War, the Navy and the United States found a plethora of uses for the Seabees. The Department of State enlisted construction battalions to secure embassies after discovering listening devices in the United States Moscow Embassy. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion FOUR, Detachment November found several “bugs” in the Warsaw, Poland embassy building. They received credit for saving the Prague location from a fire. Seabees’ accomplishments led to the creation of the Naval Support Unit. Those assigned to the Department of State as a Regional Security Officer were responsible for installing alarm systems, CCTV cameras, electromagnetic locks, safes, vehicle barriers, and securing compounds. They also conducted security sweeps of embassies for counterintelligence devices. The support unit must wear civilian clothes due to diplomatic protocol.

Seabee mascot a bee

“The Navy Seabees, even though they’re a small unit, compared to regular Naval forces, are steeped in tradition all the way back to 1942, March 5. We started our island here with just a few people or so, but now we have probably around 30 Seabees, or so that settled here,” a member of the American Island X-3 Blairsville Chapter stated.

Today, the majority of Seabees are reservists. The active Seabees serve in six active Battalions, two Amphibious Construction Battalions (ACB’s), and two Underwater Construction Teams (UCT’s). Still, they remain ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. All Seabees are prepared to follow their motto Construimus, Batuimus, or “We Build, We Fight.”

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