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, VirginiaAfrican American Seabees training in Virginia

Left: Seabees practice constructing a sand roadway at Camp Peary near Williams­burg, Virginia. After com­pleting three weeks of boot training at Camp Allen in Norfolk, Virginia, and later at its suc­ces­sor, Camp Peary, 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 PacificSeabees 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. Trag­ically, 42 Seabees of the 133rd Battalion lost their lives on Iwo Jima on D‑Day, February 19, 1945, out of several thousand over the course of the 36‑day campaign. Suffice it to say, how­ever, that Seabees lost more men to accidents than to enemy action.

Seabee construction detail, Pacific theaterQuonset 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