So I’m reviewing a collection of Pacific War oral histories titled, weirdly enough, The Pacific War Remembered. It’s a reissue of a book first published during the mid-1980s. It consists of compact testimonials from American protagonists in the greatest of all sea wars. And a sprightly read it is.
The book is enlightening in several respects. First, let’s wax philosophical. Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson maintained that “there is properly no history; only biography.” In other words, history is the sum of the biographies of all the individuals, living or dead, who make up humanity. If Emerson has it right, the more individual stories come to light, the richer and more textured our understanding of the past.
In military history, though, accenting the words and deeds of senior officers and officials represents the path more traveled. There are practical reasons for this. Junior folk toil away in relative obscurity unless they do something flashy. They typically get short shrift in histories because they leave behind less evidence for researchers to study. What higher-ups say and do is more likely to be documented—making it easier for historians to research and write about them.
And then there’s the drama factor. Fighting forces tend to dominate the history books. What they do in contact with the enemy exudes glamour and excites interest among readers. In other words, an account of fleets or brigades in action is more memorable and salesworthy than an account of support forces hauling bullets, beans, and black oil to frontline units, or of civil engineers building infrastructure. Never mind that fighting forces seldom thrive in action absent unsexy support endeavors.
The Pacific War Remembered spurns the habit of dwelling on the high and mighty or on frontline forces. Many of the contributors are senior officers, but they were junior officers during the events they recount. Plus, editor John T. Mason Jr. leavens more dramatic chapters—say, fighter ace Jimmy Thach’s recollection of how he developed the “Thach Weave” tactic to help U.S. Navy fighters overcome the vaunted Japanese Zero—with memories from those who provided behind-the-scenes support. Enlisted people even put in an appearance, retelling frightful experiences at Pearl Harbor.
My favorite chapter comes from the support realm, in part because the story unspools right here on the Narragansett Bay, in part because it has something to say about how to execute maritime strategy in the Pacific in the here and now. The U.S. Navy Construction Corps—better known as the Seabees—was an unusual beast. Its officers hailed from the engineering professions, while the enlisted ranks, as Mason puts it, were filled with “carpenters, mechanics, steelworkers, electricians, truck drivers, bulldozer operators, and ‘patriotic artisans.’”
Demographics gave rise to an organization with range. In 1942, for example, Seabees built a tank farm and fueling station at the navy’s temporary base on Tulagi, near Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, along with a torpedo-boat base and a hospital. They volunteered to repair ships as well. In a single year they mended around 450 vessels, replacing propellers on 120 of them. With no drydocks, they had to remove and install propellers underwater. And with no underwater breathing gear, they fashioned it from gas masks, compressors, and hoses. This all in a tropical clime where rainfall averaged 320 inches per year.
This was the MacGyver of organizations, able to perform astounding feats with a paperclip and a stick of gum.
Captain Willard G. Triest reminisces on his experience as a youthful Seabee officer during Operation Bobcat, a base-building project early in World War II. Captain Triest was stationed at Quonset Point, on the western shores of the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. He recalls how, as a lieutenant, he was assigned to construct a “supersecret” base in the Christmas Islands, around 1,000 nautical miles south of Hawaii. The order came down on New Year’s Eve 1941. Bobcat would represent the first stepping-stone across the Pacific Ocean for Australia-bound shipping. Outfitting the base involved erecting infrastructure to support 5,000 army troops and replenish ships that tarried there on their journeys down under.
This might sound like a workaday routine for any construction corps. They exist to build stuff. But here’s Triest with the kicker: “This all had to be done and the equipment accumulated—about twenty thousand tons of it—and loaded on two ships in Quonset Point in two weeks—I repeat in two weeks!” Designers had little way to judge the terrain. An old German map and a movie that happened to feature the site for the facility were their guide. But there was more to Bobcat than drawing up plans and gathering hardware. The SeaBees ruled out using contractors to do the building, but no one already in uniform boasted the necessary expertise. That meant they also had to recruit an engineer who specialized in tank farms and piping to commission as an officer to oversee the project. Welders were also at a premium. Reports Triest, “you couldn’t pry a welder loose from a shipyard to save your soul” because shipbuilders were constructing the two-ocean navy ordained by Congress in 1940.
To find an engineer the project bosses went to Standard Oil, negotiating with a supervisor named Shorty Duddleston to join the team. There’s a madcap element to the tale of how Duddleston became a navy officer. He told the Bobcat leadership forthrightly that he only had a high-school education, was physically unfit for service, and had no clearance to perform secret work.
Under navy procedures, these were disqualifiers for commissioned service.
Whereupon Admiral Ernie King, who doubled as the U.S. Navy’s administrative and operational chief—making him the most powerful officer in the service’s history—involved himself directly in the project. King waived the clearance requirement and instructed his staff to commission Duddleston as an officer . . . by the end of the workday! When Duddleston reported for his physical he told the doctor forthrightly: “I’m color-blind, I’m flat-footed, I’m knock-kneed, I have less than half my teeth, and whatever else may be wrong, but I’m in fine shape.” The medical staff issued eight waivers after a perfunctory physical, and that was that. Duddleston was wearing navy khaki that night.
It’s good to be Admiral King.
The Operation Bobcat supervisors recruited welders from Texas and Louisiana oilfields. After drawing up specifications for the facility and equipment, they ordered pumps, tanks, and auxiliary gear to be trucked across the country to Quonset Point. They repeatedly had to pull rank, prevailing on top leadership to intercede when administrators balked and ensure the effort got the priority it deserved. And sure enough, 18,000 tons of equipment was on scene within ten days of the order setting the project in motion. About 9,000 tons went aboard each freighter.
The vessels put to sea on time, stopping at Charleston to pick up the new Seabee recruits. They loaded an extra 2,000 tons’ worth of gear that had arrived late in Rhode Island and been trucked south by a 400-vehicle convoy. The freighters then steamed on to Bora Bora, conducting an impromptu welding school along the voyage. Bobcat was complete in August 1942 according to Willard Triest. He estimated that Shorty Duddleston went on to build eight to ten more fuel bases around the Pacific during the war.
Ralph Waldo Emerson would applaud stories such as Operation Bobcat for enriching our view of U.S. maritime history. But there’s more to the saga of Bobcat than human interest, or even an awesome—and hurried—feat of engineering. Naval leaders are again talking about using Pacific islands as strategic implements, touting concepts such as “Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations” and “Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment.” Operation Bobcat serves as a reminder that there’s more to strategy and operations than combatant ships and planes doing battle with hostile forces. Neglect of support arms such as the Seabees, the combat-logistics fleet, or the U.S. Merchant Marine could cost the United States dearly during a new Pacific war.
It’s hard to amass combat power when it’s needed, where it’s needed, without robust auxiliaries. It’s also hard to regenerate combat power after taking a blow in action. Such a contestant is brittle.
And Bobcat is a reminder that every forward naval or military base need not be an elaborate affair like a Yokosuka or Sasebo, home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet. Dispersing infrastructure among many smaller-scale bases bolsters resiliency—helping the fleet ride out an assault on major installations and fight on. Which in the end is what it’s all about.
And lastly, the episode is a parable on the virtues of flexibility and entrepreneurship. Most rules and regulations can be bent or broken in times of need. If so, they may not be serving much purpose. It should not take an Ernie King to intercede with the navy apparatus to assure that what needs to be done gets done. The less bureaucratic the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps make themselves, the better.
Let’s clear away bureaucratic underbrush—and recapture the spirit of the Pacific War.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, which appears on the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Professional Reading Lists. The views voiced here are his alone.