Seabees, still ready to Build & Fight After 80 Years

​Arising from a need to rapidly build bases on remote islands for the push across the Pacific during World War II, today’s Seabee force turns 80 this month.

Tracing their unofficial origins to 300 skilled artisans who built an advance base in 1813 for Captain David Porter’s squadron operating against the British along South America’s west coast, the Navy officially formed and christened its first Naval Construction Battalions in March 1942.

Recruited from tradesmen in 60 skilled trades– both “vertical” such as in building construction and “horizontal” such as in the construction of roads and airfields– the new “Seabees” were also trained to defend their positions as the islands and beaches they would land on would often still be very much in an active combat zone. Fitting the job, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell set their motto as “Construimus, Batuimus” roughly meaning “We Build, We Fight.”

Early members received only three weeks of training and were sent overseas. They carried at one time or another just about every rifle and pistol in the Navy’s inventory and pioneered such exotic arms as the Sedgley Glove Gun/Haight Fist Gun.

WWII Seabee posters
Seabee recruiting posters of the time, aimed at pulling often-draft-exempt skilled construction workers into the service, also emphasized the carpenters and heavy equipment operators would be expected to fight if needed, ready to leave the controls of their crane or grader, grab a carbine or Tommy gun, and get to work. 

Seabees marching WWII

“The Navy Seabees build a naval base in the South Pacific. These Navy Seabees march to work with rifles and bandoliers of ammunition. Seabees are trained to fight and work.” On numerous occasions, Seabees fought beside Marines in hand-to-hand combat against the Japanese troops, particularly on contested Henderson Field in Guadalcanal, then returned to their work once the attack was over. (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Seabees drill at a U.S. Navy base in Alaska.1943

“Seabees drill at a U.S. Navy base in Alaska. These sailors are training with guns and tools for construction duty under combat conditions, April 13, 1943.” Note the M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles. (Photo: U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)

Seabee Water Tender Second Class operating pump for water and manning an M1917 Browning machine gun in the Solomon Islands, 1944. 

Seabee Water Tender Second Class operating pump for water and manning an M1917 Browning machine gun in the Solomon Islands, 1944. 

Seabees unload pontoons and LSTs on Angaur in the Palau Islands,1944

“Seabees unload pontoons and LSTs on Angaur in the Palau Islands, converting the island into a formidable base. Also seen are bulldozers and cranes, photograph received 27 December 1944.” (U.S. Navy Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

“US Navy Seabees, who landed with the first wave of Marines, stand guard over a Japanese naval floatplane at Sasebo, Japan. Photographed by Private First Class C.O. Jones, September 1945.” Note the M1 Carbine. (Photo: National Museum of the U.S. Navy)

Seabees repair airstrip on Tarawa with heavy grading equipment and trucks. November 22, 1943

“Operation Galvanic, Invasion of Tarawa, November 1943. Seabees repair airstrip on Tarawa with heavy grading equipment and trucks. November 22, 1943.” (Photo: U.S. National Archives)

“Battle of Peleliu (Operation Stalemate), September-November 1944. Group of African-American Seabees acting as stretcher-bearers for the 7th Marines.” (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.)
Seabee sign Bougainville Island 1944
“This sign, near the Torokina fighter strip on Bougainville Island testifies to the U.S Marine Corps admiration for the Navy’s construction battalions.” (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Three U.S. B-29 Superfortresses roar over a Navy Seabee working on an unfinished section of the new U.S. base at Tinian

Three U.S. B-29 Superfortresses roar over a Navy Seabee working on an unfinished section of the new U.S. base at Tinian in the Marianas Islands. With their lumbering bulldozers and other heavy equipment, Seabees have enlarged and constructed airfields on Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, from which those huge planes are conducting large-scale attacks on industrial areas in Japan. (U.S. Navy Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

During World War II, some 350,000 men served in the Seabees, organized into no less than 315 regular and special construction battalions. They would construct over 400 advanced bases spanning from Iceland to New Guinea and Sicily to the Aleutian Islands, operating in all theaters. 

In the Pacific alone, they would build no less than 111 airstrips while suffering over 200 combat deaths. A further 500 Seabees were killed during their highly dangerous construction work under adverse field conditions. In addition to 33 Silver Stars and 5 Navy Crosses, ‘Bees also earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts in WWII, the hard way. 

Korea and Vietnam

Drawn down to a force of just 3,300 by 1949, the Seabees remained a “Can Do” part of the Navy and Marines’ shore establishment and would rapidly expand to serve in the Korean War and Vietnam. During the latter conflict in Southeast Asia, the Seabees expanded to over 26,000 men in no less than 23 assorted Naval Mobile and Amphibious Construction Battalions by 1969.

In most cases, the bases in which Marines fought from during those conflicts were constructed and improved by Seabees, often, as in WWII, under threat from the enemy. 

The Cold War, Desert Storm, and Beyond

Besides service in Korea and Vietnam, the “Fighting Seabees” engaged in new frontiers around the world during the Cold War, constructing bases everywhere the Navy went including in remote Diego Garcia, Greece, Spain, Antarctica, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. They served in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Restore Hope, in Bosnia, in Panama, in Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

Seabees Desert Storm
“Capt. Mel Hamm, left, commander, Fleet Hospital Operations and Training Command, and Lt. Vic Modeer of Reserve Naval Construction Battalion Hospital Unit 22 discuss the construction of Fleet Hospital Six during Operation Desert Shield.”

NavSeabee Det Sarajevo in blown up church. Feb 1996 Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina

“NavSeabee Det Sarajevo in blown up church. Feb 1996 Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina” (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

“Deh Dadi TWO, Afghanistan (Feb. 28, 2011) Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 40 begin their journey back to homeport in Port Hueneme, Calif.” (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Michael B. Watkins/Released)

Seabees laying concrete in Djibouti 2011

“Djibouti (Jan. 20, 2011) Builder Constructionmen Diana Aceves, right, and Daniel Fuentes, both assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 74, Detail Horn of Africa, pour concrete during a construction project at Ecole 5 Primary School.” Note that Seabee construction rates have been open to women since 1973. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Lindsey/Released)

The Seabees today still train to “build with rifles on their back.” 

Seabees with M240 machine gun Hunter Liggett, 2016
“Camp Hunter Liggett, Calif. (April 27, 2016) A Seabee assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 5 yells out enemy locations to his teammates during a simulated attack during a field training exercise. The exercise prepares and tests the battalion’s ability to enter hostile locations, build assigned construction projects and defend against enemy attacks using realistic scenarios while being evaluated.” (U.S. Navy photo by Utilitiesman 3rd Class Stephen Sisler/Released) 

Seabees Camp Shelby 2018 in a trench

“Camp Shelby, Miss. (Aug. 20, 2018) Seabees stand inside their fighting position during Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 133’s field training exercise (FTX) at Camp Shelby. FTX provides a robust training environment where Seabee forces plan and execute multiple mission essential tasks including convoy security, force protection, and camp buildup before deployment.” (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class George M. Bell/Released) 

Seabee jungle training Okinawa

“Okinawa, Japan (Jan. 12, 2016) Ensign Frank S. Sysko assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 3 holds his breath while he exits a mud-filled trench during a jungle warfare training evolution hosted by Marines with the Jungle Warfare Training Center (JWTC).”  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Gomez/Released) 

The unique Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist insignia, issued to qualified Naval Construction Force members since 1993, tells a bit of the unit’s history. 

Seabee Combat Warfare Specialist insignia
It incorporates the old-school WWII Seabee “We build, we fight” motto of the sailor bee with a Tommy gun as well as an M1903 Springfield (one of the few times the Springer makes it to patches or insignia) and a cutlass. Interestingly, Seabees often carried all three weapons in WWII, using M1928 and M1 Thompsons, the 1903A3, and, on occasion, ship’s cutlasses (the latter as machetes).

 

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