As war clouds gathered over the vast Pacific Ocean in the late 1930s, the United States belatedly began to think of protecting the nation’s possessions of far-flung islands and atolls. Civilian contractors were hired to build runways, port facilities, barracks, fuel dumps, water towers, and fortifications in the Philippines, Guam, Midway, Wake, and especially Hawaii, the new home of the Pacific Fleet. The civilian workers relished the high-paying jobs especially after the lean early years of the Depression.
Military planners knew that they would be vulnerable if war broke out. By the “rules of war,” armed civilians could be considered guerrilla fighters and “legally” executed by the enemy. In the small circles of the military establishment in Washington, consideration was given to creating a construction corps within the Navy similar to the Army Corps of Engineers. Before December 1941, however, little was done.
Meanwhile, in the Atlantic in July 1941, the United States assumed responsibility for protecting Iceland to relieve the hard-pressed British. The call went out for civilian construction workers to beef up the island’s defenses and port facilities. Many experienced construction workers declined for fear of the deadly U-boats, the inhospitably cold climate, and the less than cordial population.
The Navy called on Admiral Ben Moreell, commander of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks), to find service personnel to fill the void; five companies of 99 men each were authorized. By December 7, 1941, about 200 experienced construction engineers and workers, many of them veterans of World War I, had signed up for the construction brigades. But they never got to Iceland.
When war came suddenly, the civilian construction workers fared badly. After Wake Island fell, more than 1,000 surrendering civilian workers were herded below decks in cramped Japanese prisoner ships to spend the rest of the war toiling in feverish labor camps under deteriorating conditions; 100 more were kept behind on Wake to perform construction work for their new masters. Sadly, in 1943, with Wake cut off from Japan and little food left on the island, they were all summarily executed.
Civilian workers also suffered on Guam and in the Philippines. It was clear that construction workers needed to be able to defend themselves and their construction projects.
As early as February 1942, the Navy acquired property at Quonset Point near Davisville, Rhode Island, which would be turned into a base to train the new Naval Construction Battalions and support the war in the Atlantic. Another base was constructed at Port Hueneme, California, to serve the same function in the Pacific; Caribbean operations were supported by a third new base at Gulfport, Mississippi.
The initial plan was for a single regiment-sized unit with three battalions. It wasn’t long before these Naval Construction Battalions (or CBs) acquired the official name of “Seabees.” After some debate, the Seabee program was placed under the command of the Civil Engineering Corps.
Overall command was entrusted to a professional civil engineer, the same Admiral Moreell, who had already begun recruiting construction workers for Iceland. He was an early advocate of the NCBs, and his men would soon be calling him the “King Bee.”
Moreell expanded his efforts to recruit men from the building trades. Construction engineers would become commissioned officers while foremen and supervisors were enlisted as petty officers.
Fortuitously, many of the early Seabees had learned their trade skills in the New Deal work programs established during the Depression. One of these programs, the National Youth Administration (NYA), continued to help.
The NYA had built youth camps across the country that were no longer in use. These were made available to the Seabees to assemble, orient, outfit, inoculate, and provide some physical conditioning for the new recruits before hurriedly shipping them out to the South Pacific. Some of these camps were put to use until the Seabees’ own camps were built.
To appease the labor unions that feared the Seabees would be in competition with them, Moreell promised that the Seabees would only work overseas except in the case of national emergencies. As it was, nearly 80 percent of the early Seabees were union members.
Construction was only part of the job for the Seabees. The other part of their duty was as combat soldiers, so they were trained in the use of small arms and military tactics. When trouble came, they were expected to drop their tools and pick up their guns.
This led to the creation of the Seabees’ motto: Construimus Batuimus—Latin for “We build. We fight.” Their slogan became “Can do!” Around the same time the iconic insignia of the Seabees was created. It featured a bee wearing a Navy hat while carrying a tommy gun, a hammer, and a wrench.
Even before the bases could be completed or the chain of command established, the 200 men who had been recruited to work in Iceland were joined by another 100 raw recruits. They were given three quick weeks of basic training, and in January 1942 they boarded ship along with 4,000 regular U.S. Army troops of the 13th Coast Artillery.
Their convoy made two stops to load equipment and supplies in five transport ships before steaming with its escorts to the French island of Bora Bora, where it arrived on February 17, 1942. The newly arrived Seabees became known as the 1st Construction Battalion Detachment and for the rest of the war called themselves the “Bobcats,” after the naval code name for Bora Bora. Their assignment was to construct a major air and sea refueling base for warships keeping the vital sea lanes open to Australia.
The Bobcats started with nothing. Their construction and moving equipment rested at the bottom of the supply ship holds. Ship’s cranes could lower cargo onto barges, but when the barges reached shore unloading them had to be done by hand.
The land-based cranes, bulldozers, and earthmovers were buried beneath everything else aboard the ships. So eight 7-inch, 13-ton naval guns meant for the island’s defense had to be laboriously hoisted into position by hand. (Some of these guns still remain on Bora Bora today). It would take 52 days to completely unload the five transports and the three additional ships that arrived soon after.
The men were subject to tropical diseases that sapped their strength. A few came down with the grotesque elephantiasis. Most of their food came from tins of questionable age. They endured incessant rain and mud with primitive facilities they had to build themselves.
Despite all obstacles, the Bobcats managed to set up 300 Quonset huts within three weeks. They built an airfield, docks, a power plant, and the all-important fuel tanks. To meet the Navy’s deadline for the fuel tanks, the 4,000 Army troops pitched in to help. Tankers brought in fuel as the men ashore worked long hours to position and assemble the holding tanks. The refueling station was up and running just in time to replenish the ships and planes that took part in the critical Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.
The Navy could not have fought in the Coral Sea without refueling at Bora Bora. For the first—but not the last—time, the enemy was surprised and confounded by the work of the Seabees. They and their Army partners were the unsung heroes of that battle. It had been hard work, and sometimes tempers flared. Their commander later wrote that his men “smelled like goats, lived like dogs, and worked like horses.”
Valuable logistics lessons were learned at Bora Bora. The Bobcats had been sent wheelbarrows without wheels. There were not enough spare parts for their trucks, and welding equipment arrived without protective masks.
Learning that civilians had done the loading of the transports that had caused so much trouble, the Seabees began to rely on themselves for loading and unloading the supply ships. Attention was given to what was being sent and the order in which equipment and supplies were needed ashore. They did such a good job that the Navy tasked them with the loading and unloading of all supply ships.
Back in the United States, Seabee recruiters continued to go after men with construction skills, but standards for physical fitness were relaxed. As a result the average age of the early enlistees was 37, and in some cases men in their 60s signed up.
In March, the 1st NCB shipped out to the islands of Tongatabu in the Tonga group and Efate in the New Hebrides. In May, the 2nd NCB arrived in Samoa. The 3rd NCB was sent to Fiji and Noumea in New Caledonia, the 4th to Alaska, and the 5th sent detachments to Midway, Palmyra, Johnston Island, and French Frigate Shoals. The Seabees began to build a ring of bases around the Japanese Pacific Ocean empire.
A detachment of the 1st NCB landed on Efate on May 4 to find a small group of Marines and Army engineers struggling to build an airfield. Delighted to see the newcomers, the soldiers and Marines gave pride of place to the Seabees for leadership. All three groups pooled their equipment and resources to complete the airstrip for the arrival of 20 planes on May 28.