Construimus, Batuimus—”We Build, We Fight.”  is the motto of the Seabees- units of brave construction workers who helped the allies win World War Two. The Seabees fought on every front during the war and in the most well known battles, from the beaches of Normandy to Iwo Jima. These brave men weren’t just construction workers, they were soldiers that literally and figuratively paved the way for ally victory. 

Who Were the Seabees?

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the previously reluctant United States entered a war against three powerful adversaries. Because of this, America found itself in dire need of creating, training, and outfitting an army capable of facing an already raging war on two very different fronts: Europe and the Pacific. 

As the U.S. scrambled manpower and resources, it became clear that the war would require massive construction operations at home and abroad. It also became clear that the military needed experienced construction professionals – and they could not rely on civilians to get the job done. International law stated that civilians were not allowed to resist attacks. If they did, they risked being labeled guerilla fighters and possible execution by opposing forces. 

Thus, on January 5th, 1942, the U.S.Navy’s Bureau of Navigation gave Rear Admiral Ben Moreell the authority to organize construction naval units. Later, after some convincing, “ 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. With that, the United States established the now renowned seabees. But, of course, the Navy still had to find and recruit men (women did not widely join the Seabees until the 1970s) capable of acting as both fighters and construction workers. 

  • Fun Fact: “Seabees” is actually a play on words for CB, which is short for construction battalions.

Recruiting the Seabees

In the early days of the Seabees, the Navy sought out men who were already experienced in the construction trade. Unlike the normal recruitment process, the Navy put an emphasis on skill and experience rather than just age and fitness. Because of this, the Navy permitted those between 18 and 50 to join the ranks. In fact, in the beginning of the war, the average Seabee was 37 years old, much older than the average age for the rest of the army, which was 26. Later in 1942, Roosevelt halted voluntary enlistments and ordered that the Selective Service enlist men into the Seabees. Because of this, the Navy began recruiting younger, less experienced men.

Many of the initial recruits had been the same men who built much of America’s iconic infrastructure. Some had built our national highways, dug tunnels for subways, built New York’s skyscrapers, and the Boulder dam. Others had worked in shipyards and built docks, ocean liners, and wharfs. By the end of the war, some 325,000 men had enlisted in the Seabees.

Black Seabees Faced Discrimination and Broke Barriers 

Up until World War Two, the The U.S. Navy used discriminatory recruiting practices which generally excluded Black Americans. Those enlisted were limited to menial jobs like coal heavers, cooks, messmen, or stewards,” and were not allowed to hold skilled positions. In 1940, however, Roosevelt enacted the United State’s first peacetime draft by signing into law the Selective Training and Service Act. The draft stated that “any person, regardless of race or color…shall be afforded an opportunity to volunteer for…the land and naval forces of the United States.” 

However, a group of naval advisors objected to allowing Black Americans to join skilled positions. After much back and forth between the NAACPand Roosevelt, the president finally announced that Black American men could join positions like the Seabees. By the end of 1943, there were over 100,000 Black American men serving in the U.S. military, some 2,000 of which joined the Seabees. 

Still, Black Seabees faced intense discrimination. Black Seabee units were segregated and trained by white officers and were originally not allowed on combat vessels. Seabees in some battalions reportedly described constant racial slurs hurled at them, physical aggression towards them, and a lack of opportunity to report these abuses. Incredibly, the men who did speak out were either dishonorably or honorably (after protest by the NAACP) discharged from the Navy. 

In Spite of this, Black Seabees Helped Win the War

Despite this and more abuse, Black American Seabees built and fought hard for the United States. One example of their heroism was during the battle of Peleliu. During which, the 17th NCB, a segregated group of Black Seabees, not only tended to the wounded, but filled in for a dwindling number of marines even as they faced heavy gunfire and many casualties. Their bravery helped the allies take control of the island.

Black Seabees also fought equally hard for equality. One notable battalion, the 34th NCB, at one point staged a hunger strike to fight for more equitable treatment. The strike lasted for two days while the men continued labor. Eventually, the Navy fired many of the higher up officers responsible for overseeing the men (who had actively participated in discrimination). These brave acts helped pave the way to a desegregated army beginning in 1948

For more information about Black Seabees see this article. 

Seabees At War

During WWII there were 151 regular construction battalions, 39 special units, 164 detachments, 136 maintenance units, 54 regiments, 12 brigades, 5 pontoon boat assemblies, and 5 naval forces. So, as you can imagine, the Seabees performed a huge variety of tasks for the Allies. 

In fact, the original WWII Seabees helped the Allies in almost every step of the way. Seabees built roads, boat causeways, airstrips, army bases, airfields, wharf facilities and other similar projects. They also built housing for 1.5 million soldiers, tanks for storing gasoline, warehouses, and hospitals capable of caring for 70,000 wounded people.  By the end of the war, the Seabees had built over 400 projects which cost some $11 billion in “the Caribbean, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, England, France, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, China, Alaska, the Philippines and most of the islands in between.”

But the Seabees weren’t just construction workers, they were also marines. For example, during the D-Day Normandy invasion, the Seabees were the first troops to arrive at shore. Their job was to destroy the steel and concrete barriers that the Germans had built in the water and on the beaches to forestall any amphibious landings.” The Seabees came under heavy fire by the Germans and experienced many casualties. Amazingly, they were able to successfully perform their duties and helped lead the Allies to victory. The Battle of Normandy is just one example of the Seabees’ heroic sacrifices. In the end, the war took the lives of over 200 Seabees. Another 2,000 received Purple Hearts for injuries they received in battle.

Seabees in Their Own Words

It can be difficult to imagine what life was like for a Seabee. Lukily, we have the words of a veteran who lived through battles in Guam, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima. In an interview with CSPAN, WWII veteran of the Seabees 301st Battalion, Ira Rigger, described his experience in the service. He explained that he first joined the Navy fresh out of high school in 1942 while he was working as a surveyor. At the time, he had hopes of doing “romantic work” on the South Sea Islands; instead the Navy assigned him to watch a boiler at Camp Perry. “Things didn’t always work out the way you thought they would in the service.” Rigger said in the interview.

Eventually, Rigger found himself working with his battalion on Guam in 1944. There, the Navy tasked him and those in his group with turning a shallow lagoon into a deep-water harbor. To do this, the crew had to lay dynamite charges across the lagoon floor and detonate it at a safe distance. After doing this many times, the units formed a harbor capable of holding ally ships.  Most days Rigger was on the surveying boat, but on some days he would be on the boat that detonated the dynamite. Rigger shared a distinct memory that highlighted the everyday danger of his position: 

“I remember that one day that I was glad I wasn’t on it. Because… After they laid their grid they backed the boat off as usual, not knowing they backed it off over a charge. It didn’t go off the day before. We never found anything of those men or the boat. It was just blown to smithereens.

The Cost of War

For all soldiers, the cost of war is immense. At the end of the interview Rigger describes having to prepare a cemetery for just under 7,000 marines. 

“For a time it was up to me and probably other surveyors to lay out the crosses and the stars of David,” he said, “…that was a sobering sight. The cemetery when it was finished looked like a wheat field.”  

Legacy of the Seabees

Thanks in large part to the work and sacrifices of the Seabees, the Allies were victorious in World War Two. But the legacy of the Seabees didn’t stop with the end of the war. After 1945, the Seabees became a permanent fixture in the U.S. Navy and built and fought in every conflict thereafter. Seabees have also been instrumental during peacetime. Seabees are often deployed during natural disasters and helped rebuild after hurricanes Katrina, Ivan, Maria, and more as well as the tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Today there are nearly 14,00 total Seabees serving in the US Navy including 7,000 active duty members. Besides being ready for any conflict that should arrive, Seabees help scientists on Antarctica, maintain camp David, and assist in the maintenance of U.S. embassies consulates around the world.

 

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