Washington, D.C. December 28, 1941

The Seabees were in effect combat engineers of the U.S. Navy, working and, when neces­sary, fighting on land. On this date in 1941 Rear Admiral Ben Moreell requested autho­rity to orga­nize a mili­ta­rized Naval Con­struc­tion Force, and a week later he gained per­mis­sion from the Bureau of Navi­ga­tion (later called the Bureau of Naval Per­son­nel) to recruit men from the con­struc­tion trades (sur­veyors, civil­ian engi­neers, car­pen­ters, plumbers, steam-shovel oper­a­tors, truck drivers, and the like) for assign­ment to one of sev­eral new Naval Con­struc­tion Bat­talions. The bat­talions’ popu­lar name—Sea­bees—derives from the initials “CB” for Construction Battalions, which was their official designation.

On August 11, 1942, the Naval Con­struc­tion Training Cen­ter, known as Camp Endi­cott, was com­mis­sioned at Davis­ville, Rhode Island, and trained over 100,000 Sea­bees during the war. Four months earlier a base for sup­porting the Naval Con­struc­tion Force was estab­lished at Port Hue­neme, Cali­for­nia. This base became respon­sible for shipping 20 mil­lion tons of equip­ment and war mate­riel and a quarter-million men to support Allied operations in the Pacific.

At first Seabees were civil­ian volun­teers, though draftees joined later. Because of the em­pha­sis on experi­ence and skill rather than physi­cal stan­dards, the aver­age age of Sea­bees during the early days of the war was 37. More than 325,000 men served with the Sea­bees in all thea­ters of war but mainly in the Pacific. Typically Sea­bees would land very shortly after the init­ial assault force and imme­di­ately begin work on building air­strips, bridges, roads, gaso­line stor­age tanks, cargo and docking facil­i­ties, piers, pon­toon cause­ways, and Quon­set huts for ware­houses, hospi­tals, housing, and other base facili­ties. The men oper­ated under fire and fre­quently were forced to take part in the fighting to defend them­selves and their con­struc­tion projects. With­out their efforts neither the D‑Day landings in Normandy (Opera­tion Over­lord) nor the Pacific island-hopping strategy that led to victory over Japan would have been possible.

U.S. Navy Seabees in the Pacific Theater, 1942–1945

Seabee recruiting poster

Above: With their “Can Do!” motto, Sea­bees brought the war to the enemy’s home turf and waters. They served on four conti­nents and on more than 300 islands, ranging from South Amer­ica and the Carib­bean, to the North Atlantic, the Medi­ter­ra­nean, Europe, Alaska and the Aleu­tians, and the Pacific. By the end of World War II, 325,000 men, repre­senting more than 60 skilled trades, had enlisted in the Seabees.

Seabee recruits at Camp Peary, Virginia African American Seabees training in Virginia

Left: Seabees practice constructing a sand roadway at Camp Peary, Virginia. After com­pleting three weeks of boot training at Camp Allen, and later at its suc­ces­sor, Camp Peary, both in Virginia, Sea­bees were formed into con­struc­tion battalions or other types of con­struc­tion units. A stan­dard con­struc­tion bat­talion orig­i­nally was set at 32 offi­cers and 1,073 men, but from time to time the com­ple­ment varied in num­ber. As the war pro­gressed and con­struc­tion pro­jects became larger and more com­plex, more than one bat­talion fre­quently had to be assigned to a base. For effi­cient admin­is­tra­tive con­trol, these bat­talions were orga­nized into a regi­ment. When neces­sary, two or more regi­ments were orga­nized into a bri­gade, and, as required, two or more bri­gades were orga­nized into a naval con­struc­tion force. For example, 55,000 Sea­bees were assigned to Oki­nawa and the 190 bat­talions on the island were organized into 11 regiments and four brigades.

Right: This group of African American Sea­bees trained at Camp Allen and Camp Brad­ford near Nor­folk, Virginia, where they were taught, as were all Sea­bees, mili­tary dis­ci­pline and the use of light arms. Although tech­ni­cally sup­port troops, Sea­bees, par­ticu­larly during the early days of base develop­ment in the Pacific, frequently found themselves in combat against the enemy.

Seabees in South Pacific Seabees in Guam, Western Pacific

Above: In the North, Central, South, and South­west Pacific areas Sea­bees built 111 major air­strips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammu­ni­tion maga­zines, 700 square blocks of ware­houses, hospi­tals to serve 70,000 patients, tanks for the stor­age of 100 mil­lion gal­lons of gaso­line, and housing for 1,500,000 ser­vice mem­bers. In con­struc­tion and fighting opera­tions, the Pacific Sea­bees suffered more than 200 com­bat deaths and earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts.

Seabee construction detail, Pacific theater Quonset village at Tolosa on Leyte Gulf, Philippines

Above: In the photo on the left, Seabees are shown laying the foun­da­tion for (most likely) a Quon­set hut—a light­weight prefabri­cated struc­ture of corru­gated galva­nized steel having a semi­circular cross-section. On the right, mem­bers of the 61st Sea­bees have erected a Quon­set vil­lage at Tolosa on Leyte Gulf, which pro­vided quar­ters, offices, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion facili­ties for the U.S. Seventh Fleet and the Philip­pine Sea Frontier head­quarters during the last months of the war. Between 150,000 and 170,000 Quon­set huts were manufactured during World War II.

Rear Admiral Ben Moreell Introduces Documentary on U.S. Navy Construction Battalions, or Seabees

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