Monday, December 12, 2011
More About Seabees and My Dad
My mom died on November 24 and left my dad at 22, a widower. Her death was just a short time before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which occurred on December 7, 1941. I was not even one year old and had lost my mother and was about to have my father away in a terrible war.
My dad owned his own trucking and construction business and was beginning to accumulate the necessary equipment to be successful. Therefore, when the United States Navy Seabees began advertising for recruits, it seemed like a good match for him. He could serve his country doing what he knew best.
According to the history written on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, “After the attack and the United States entry into the war, the use of civilian labor in war zones became impractical. The Navy therefore created Construction Battalions (from which the abbreviation ‘C.B.’ became Seabees).”
It became clear that a militarized Naval Construction Force to build advance bases in the war zone was necessary.
On 28 December 1941, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, requested specific authority to create Navy construction units. On 5 January 1942, he gained authority from the Bureau of Navigation to recruit men from the construction trades for assignment to a Naval Construction Regiment. The regiment was composed of three Naval Construction Battalions.
The Bureau of Yards and Docks considered who should command the construction battalions and whether the newly established construction battalions be commanded by officers of the Civil Engineer Corps who were trained in the skills required for the performance of construction work.
Admiral Moreell personally inquired of the Secretary of the Navy for an answer. On 19 March 1942, after due deliberation, the Secretary gave authority for officers of the Civil Engineer Corps to exercise military authority over all officers and enlisted men assigned to construction units.
The Secretary's decision was incorporated in Navy regulations and was a significant morale booster for Civil Engineer Corps officers. The Seabees were tied into combat operations, the primary reason for the existence of any military force. Admiral Moreell's success contributed to the achievement and high esteem of the Seabees.
Next, the Bureau of Yards and Docks was confronted with the problem of recruiting, enlisting, training and organizing the Seabees. Battalions were created and logistics ironed out to support the Seabees in their operations. Workable plans were quickly developed and improvised.
The first voluntarily enlisted Seabees were not raw recruits. Stress was placed on experience and skill. Recruits only needed to adapt their civilian construction skills to military needs. Physical standards were less rigid than in other branches of the armed forces. The age range for enlistment was 18–50. However, several men past 60 had joined.
In the early years of the war, the average age of Seabees was 37.
The first recruits were the men who had skills gained on civilian construction projects.
Dad Howard qualified as being experienced. He owned his own construction and trucking business which he began by hauling coal. He had also, by then, built bridges, roads, and completed other construction projects.
By the end of the war, 325,000 men like him had enlisted in the Seabees. They knew more than 60 skilled trades.
At Naval Construction Training Centers and Advanced Base Depots established on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Seabees were taught military discipline and the use of light arms. Although technically support troops, Seabees at work, particularly during the early days of base development in the Pacific, frequently found themselves in conflict with the enemy.
When we went on a visit to Melanie, who lives in Milford, MA, with AnnMarie and family, we took my father along. We visited Newport on Road Island, the area where my father had been stationed for part of his training.
He had completed in basic training in California.
As the war continued, battle-weary construction battalions and other units in the Pacific were returned to the United States to the Construction Battalion Recuperation and Replacement Center at Camp Parks, Shoemaker, California. At Camp Parks, battalions were reformed and reorganized, or as was the case in several instances, the battalions were simply disestablished and the men assigned to other battalions.
Battle worn Seabees were given 30-day leaves for rest and recuperation. Most of the time, those on R&R did not come home but went to Hawaii. My dad said he had no happy memories of the place and did not care to ever go back. I can well-imagine what it must have been like knowing the war horrors seen to contemplate a moment of peace before going back to carnage.
At some point, after I was walking and was probably about age 2, my father came back to Price. I have some photos of him with me. He must have either been between training and deployment or home for reassignment. I am not certain. He was in his Navy uniform. The visit was just a hiatus because he then returned to battle in the Pacific. I didn’t see him again until I was five, almost six.
Dad spent his entire war experience in the Pacific.
During his war service, Dad was assigned to 135th NCB, the 65th NCB, the 17th NCB and 9th NCB.
He had the rating of MM2/c and, later, the rating MM1/C (T).
It was during his assignment with the 135th that he was stationed on Tinian.
Some of the first battalions were sent overseas immediately upon completion of boot training. The usual practice, however, was to ship the newly-formed battalion to an Advanced Base Depot at either Davisville, Rhode Island, or Port Hueneme, California for staging and outfitting.
The Seabees received six weeks of advanced military and technical training, unit training, and then were shipped overseas.
The construction battalion comprised four companies that included the necessary construction skills for doing any job, plus a headquarters company consisting of medical and dental professionals and technicians, administrative personnel, storekeepers, cooks, and similar specialists. The complement of a standard battalion originally was set at 32 officers and 1,073 men, but from time to time the complement varied in number.
As the war continued, construction projects became more complex. More than one battalion was often 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 where the battalions were organized into 11 regiments and 4 brigades. All were under a Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer, Commodore Andrew G. Bisset.
His command also included 45,000 United States Army engineers, aviation engineers, and a few British engineers for a total of 100,000 construction troops, the largest concentration of construction troops during the war.
Although the Seabees began with the formation of regular construction battalions the Bureau of Yards and Docks realized the need for special-purpose units. While the battalion itself was versatile enough to handle almost any project, it would have been a wasteful use of men to assign a full battalion to a project that could be done equally well by a smaller group of specialists.
The first departure from the standard battalion was the Special Construction Battalion, or as it was commonly known, the Seabee Special. These special battalions were composed of stevedores and longshoremen who were needed to break a bottleneck in the unloading of ships in combat zones.
Another smaller, specialized unit within the Seabee organization was the Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit, which was about one-quarter the size of a regular construction battalion and was organized to take over the maintenance of a base after a regular battalion had completed construction and moved on to its next assignment.
Still another specialized Seabee unit was the construction battalion detachment, ranging in size from 6 to 600 men, who did everything from operating tire-repair shops to dredges. A principal use was the handling, assembling, launching, and placing of pontoon causeways.
Additional specialized units were the motor trucking battalions, the pontoon assembly detachments that manufactured pontoons in forward areas, and petroleum detachments of experts in the installation of pipelines and petroleum facilities.
Seabees were organized into 151 regular construction battalions, 39 special construction battalions, 164 construction battalion detachments, 136 construction battalion maintenance units, 5 pontoon assembly detachments, 54 regiments, 12 brigades, and under various designations, 5 naval construction forces. They performed in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of Operation. At a cost of nearly $11 billion and many casualties, they constructed over 400 advanced bases along five figurative “roads” which all had their beginnings in the continental United States. The South Atlantic road wound through the Caribbean Sea to Africa, Sicily, and up the Italian peninsula. The North Atlantic road passed through Newfoundland to Iceland, Great Britain, France, and Germany. The North Pacific road passed through Alaska and along the Aleutian Island chain. The Central Pacific road passed through the Hawaiian, Marshall, Gilbert, Mariana, and Ryukyu Islands. The South Pacific road went through the South Sea islands to Samoa, the Solomons, New Guinea, and the Philippines. All the Pacific roads converged on Japan and the Asiatic mainland.
Dad was a Seabee in the Pacific Theater of Operations. These construction battlions earned the gratitude and respect of Allied fighting men who served with or followed them. Their actions were incomparable in history. With eighty percent of the Naval Construction Force concentrated on the three Pacific roads, they built and fought their way to victory.
In the North, Central, South and Southwest Pacific areas, the 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 100,000,000 gallons of gasoline, and housing for 1,500,000 men. In construction and fighting operations, the Pacific Seabees suffered more than 200 combat deaths and earned more than 2,000 Purple Hearts. They served on four continents and on more than 300 islands.
Many of the first Seabees were sent to the North Pacific to stop what looked like might become a major Japanese offensive. By late June 1942 Seabees had landed in Alaska and had begun building advanced bases on key islands in the Aleutian chain. In 1943, these new bases were used to stage the joint Army-Navy force that recaptured Attu and Kiska. The long arm of Seabee-built bases pointing toward Japan served as a threat to the Japanese.
Of the remaining two Pacific roads, the one through the jungles of the South and Southwest Pacific had the Philippines as one of its principal destinations. The Seabees' first stop along this road was in the Society Islands.
The First Naval Construction Battalion (later redesignated the 1st Construction Battalion Detachment because of its small size) left the United States in January 1942 and, one month later, landed on Bora Bora in the Society Islands. This battalion called themselves the "Bobcats" after the code name BOBCAT, given to the island of Bora Bora. The Bobcats were the advance party of more than 325,000 men who would serve in the Naval Construction Force during the war. The Bobcats' mission was to construct a fueling station that would service the many ships and planes necessary to defend and keep open the sea lanes to Australia.
Soon after landing, the Bobcats discovered the island had disadvantages. Continual rainfall and disease combined to make life miserable for Seabees. The island, far from the regular trade routes, had no piers from which to unload the supply-laden ships. The Bobcats devised a method of bringing supplies ashore aboard pontoon barges and swiftly constructed fueling facilities. The island's tank farms supplied ships and planes that fought the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Two additional groups of Navy construction forces were organized into the 2nd and 3rd Construction Battalion Detachments. Less than five months after the Bobcats arrived on Bora Bora, the Second Detachment was sent to Tongatapu in the Tonga Islands and the Third Detachment to Efate in the New Hebrides.
These two islands were on the supply route to Australia and were being used as a staging area for a counterthrust by the Allies in the Southwest Pacific. The Seabees constructed fuel tank farms, airfields, supply depots, and needed facilities to support military action in the Coral Sea and Solomon Islands.
Guadalcanal was the tip of the Japanese push along the Solomon chain toward the Allied southern communications route. The big Japanese airfields nearing completion on Guadalcanal needed to be destroyed.
The Seabees of the 3rd Construction Battalion Detachment were instructed to build an Allied bomber strip. Within 20 days the detachment had built a 6,000-foot airstrip. As a result, the Allies were able to mount air attacks against Guadalcanal and destroy the Japanese air base under construction.
When the Marines invaded Guadalcanal, the 6th Naval Construction Battalion followed them ashore and became the first Seabees to build under combat conditions. They began repairing the airfield, now named Henderson Field, they had helped destroy.
As fast as the builders leveled the strip and put down Marston matting, the Japanese would send bombers to drop high explosives on their work. In the midst of battle, the Seabees were able to repair shell and bomb holes faster than the Japanese could make them. Allied pilots needed the use of the field, so the Seabees kept the airstrip in operation.
Dad said that this happened to him many times. It was neccessary, he said, to keep working on the airstrips so our planes could take off for counterattack and so they could land again.
Japanese soldiers would attack the ships in the harbor.
“I got up on the roof of a truck and was watching the bombing,” said Dad. “The other guys told me I was crazy and that I just made a good target.”
It seemed to him that the soldiers were all targets all ready, he said.
There were times when his buddys next to him would be killed and he would be left alive and he would wonder why.
The first decorated Seabee hero of the war, Seaman 2nd Class Lawrence C. "Bucky" Meyer, USNR, was among the Seabees of the 6th battalion who worked on Henderson Field. In his off-time, he salvaged and repaired an abandoned machine gun, which, on 3 October 1942, he used to shoot down a Japanese Zero fighter making a strafing run. For this, he was awarded the Silver Star. It was a posthumous award, because 13 days after shooting down the plane, "Bucky" Myer was killed in action when the gasoline barge on which he was working was struck by Japanese naval gunfire.
On the same day Guadalcanal was invaded, Marines landed on Tulagi Island. The Seabees came ashore to construct a torpedo patrol boat and repair base for the U.S. Fleet. The base played a strategic role during sea battles in the “slot.” Patrol boats darted from the Seabee-built base to scout Japanese moves, and crippled American ships came to receive temporary Seabee repairs.
As the Allies continued up the Solomon chain, other islands became centers of construction by Seabee units. At the same time, Seabees in the Southwest Pacific were driving northward from Australia to New Guinea and the Philippines.
It was during the landing on Treasury Island in the Solomons, on 28 November 1943, that Fireman 1st Class Aurelio Tassone, USNR, of the 87th Naval Construction Battalion created the legendary figure of the Seabee astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy positions. Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the landing when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, CEC, USNR, told him a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance from the beach. Tassone drove his dozer toward the pillbox, using the blade as a shield, while Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with his carbine. Under continuous heavy fire, Tassone crushed the pillbox with the dozer blade, killing all 12 of its occupants. For this act Tassone was awarded the Silver Star.
Since the blade of a bulldozer could be left in a position to protect the driver, my father and others, also used the blade as a shield. Hand grenades would bounce off the curved blade. When the dozer driver got to the pillbox or area where the Japanese soldiers were concentrated, he would lower the blade swiftly and bury the enemy in earth. Dad said he buried many men alive and could hear their screams.
“It was them or us,” he said. “That is war.”
Although Seabees were only supposed to fight to defend what they built, such acts of heroism were numerous. In all, Seabees earned 33 Silver Stars and 5 Navy Crosses during World War II. But they also paid a price: 272 enlisted men and 18 officers killed in action. In addition more than 500 Seabees died in accidents. Construction is essentially a hazardous business.
Another milestone in Seabee history was in the making of a film in 1943 and released in early 1944. The motion picture “The Fighting Seabees,” starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward, made “Seabee” a household word during the latter part of the war.
Seabees in the Southwest Pacific constructed new staging and supply ports at several Australian coastal points. By mid-1943, however, MeNew Guinea, resounded with the roar of battle and the clatter of Seabee hammers and bulldozers. After building an important bomber strip that helped fend off Japanese air attacks, they constructed a communications station at Port Moresby.
Finally, on 26 December 1943, the Seabees joined the First Marine Division in an assault on Japanese-held Cape Gloucester, New Britain. During the battle, Seabees bulldozed paths to the Japanese lines so that American tanks could attack the hostile positions. By New Year's Day, the Japanese airstrips were captured and the American flag flew over the entire Cape.
In the busy months following the capture of the Admiralties, the Seabees transformed Manus and Los Negros into the largest U.S. naval and air base in the Southwest Pacific. By 1944 the new base had become the primary location for service, supply, and repair of the Seventh U.S. Fleet. During the same month, the capture of Emirau Island completed the encirclement of Rabaul. There the Seabees built a strategic, two-field air base, huge storage and fuel dumps, a floating dry dock, miles of roads, and a base for torpedo patrol boats.
Leapfrogging ahead with General Douglas MacArthur's forces, the Seabees reached Hollandia and turned it into base instrumental in the liberation of the Philippines. The Seabees of the Third Naval Construction Brigade were still with General MacArthur when the South and Southwest Pacific roads to victory converged on the Philippine Island of Leyte in October 1944. Naval Construction Battalions operated the pontoon barges and causeway units that brought the Allied Forces ashore and fulfilled General MacArthur's famous promise to one day return.
Seabees were soon joined by those of the Second and Seventh Naval Construction Brigades, began building the facilities that were needed to make the Philippines a great forward base in the Pacific.
The Seabees of this force built U.S. Navy and Army airfields, supply depots, staging areas for men and materials, training areas and camp-sites. Seventh Fleet headquarters moved to the Philippines and Seabees built the facilities that the fleet required: fleet anchorages, submarine bases, ships repair facilities, fast torpedo boat bases. By the summer of 1945, U.S. military forces were prepared and poised for that last step on the South Pacific road to victory.
While the Seabees in the South and Southwest Pacific were in the Philippines, those to the north were moving across the Central Pacific island chains. It was on this hazardous road that the Seabees perhaps made their greatest contributions toward winning the war.
They played a major role in the savage fighting which characterized the island- hopping campaign in the Central Pacific. After landing in the initial Marine assaults, Seabee battalions built the advanced bases from which the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the Marines, and the Army moved toward the Japanese homeland.
Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts was one of the toughest of them all. At a cost of nearly 1,000 American dead, the Seabees, who landed with the Marines in a mere fifteen hours put a shell-pocked airfield back into operation.
The seizure of the Marianas spelled the beginning of the end for the Japanese. The loss of the islands cut the Japanese line of defense and, even more important, gave the United States an airbase from which bombers could strike at the very heart of the Japanese Empire, the homeland. It was during Operation "Forager," as the Marianas Campaign was named, that the Seabees made one of their most significant contributions in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
Seabees and Marines landed together on the beaches of first Saipan, then Guam, and finally Tinian. The very same day the Marines captured Aslito, the main Japanese airfield on Saipan, the Seabees went to work repairing its bomb-damaged runways. Stopping only to fend off Japanese counterattacks, they succeeded in making the airstrip operational within four days.
During the three week battle for Guam, the Seabees participated by unloading ships and performing vital construction jobs directed at eventually turning the island into the advanced headquarters for the United States Pacific Fleet, an airbase for Japan-bound B-29s, and a huge center of war supply.
The invasion of Tinian called for yet another exhibition of Seabee ingenuity. Because its narrow beaches were covered with low coral cliffs, Seabees devised and operated special movable ramps which made the landings possible. Once ashore, and even as the battle raged, their bulldozers accomplished prodigious feats of construction on the damaged and unfinished Japanese airfield.
What was needed after the successful Marianas campaign was an emergency landing field much closer to the Japanese homeland that would service crippled bombers returning from raids and enable shorter- ranged fighter planes to accompany the giant bombers to their targets. The island chosen for this purpose was Iwo Jima, scene of some of the most savage fighting of the war.
On 19 February 1945, the Fifth Amphibious Corps, which included the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion and elements of the 31st Naval Construction Battalion, hit the beaches. During the assault, the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion suffered more men killed or wounded than any other Seabee battalion. The Seabees later built an emergency landing field and fighter airstrips needed by the Allies.
Seabees played a key role in the last big operation of the island war, the seizure of Okinawa. The main invasion forces landed on Okinawa's west coast Hagushi beaches on Easter Sunday, 1 April 1945. Off the amphibious landing craft and over pontoons placed by the 130th Naval Construction Battalion went the 24th Army Corps and Third Amphibious Corps. Right beside them were the 58th, 71st and 145th Naval Construction Battalions. A few days later, two additional Naval Construction Battalions, the 44th and 130th, landed. The fighting was heavy and prolonged, and organized resistance did not cease until 21 June 1945.
The Seabees' task on Okinawa, whose physical facilities a fierce bombardment had all but destroyed, they built ocean ports, a grid of roads, bomber and fighter fields, a seaplane base, quonset villages, tank farms, storage dumps, hospitals, and ship repair facilities.
Nearly 55,000 Seabees, organized into four brigades, participated in Okinawa construction operations. By the beginning of August 1945, sufficient facilities, supplies, and manpower were available to mount an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
While the Allied forces in the Philippines and on Okinawa were readying themselves for the final battles that would get them to Tokyo and complete the roads to victory, decisive events were taking place on the island of Tinian in the Marianas.
This was where my father was now located.
During the summer of 1945, the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) arrived at Tinian from the Naval Weapons Center at Port Chicago, California. Seabees of the Sixth Naval Construction Brigade helped with the unloading of the components of a newly- developed weapon. The Seabees then stored the elements in a shed built by themselves, and organized a detachment to guard the shed and its mysterious contents. Scientists assembled the weapon in the shed with several Seabees assisting as handymen.
My father helped construct the runway on Tinian where the Enola Gay landed and where the airplane lifted off on its way to drop the first atomic bombs.
“We knew something was up,” said Dad. “It was of a much stronger construction than any airstrips we had built before.”
On 6 August 1945 the new weapon was loaded into a U.S. Army Air Force B-29 bomber, named the Enola Gay. A short time later, the Enola Gay took off with its secret load from Tinian's North Field, which the Seabees had built, and started on her mission to Japan. Later in the day, the mission ended with the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Realizing that the war was lost, the Japanese government negotiated a cease fire that went into effect on 16 August. On 2 September 1945 Japan formally surrendered, and Allied forces occupied the Japanese home islands in a peaceful manner. Thus, the Pacific roads to victory reached their final destination.
With the general demobilization following the war, the Construction Battalions were reduced to 3,300 men on active duty by 1950. Between 1949 and 1953, Naval Construction Battalions were organized into two types of units: Amphibious Construction Battalions (ACBs) and Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs).