Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Seabees

Title: African-American Seabees
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U.S. Navy Construction Battalions. Organized during the opening days of U.S. involvement in the war, the Seabees built the infrastructure that enabled the navy to extend its operations globally during World War II. Seabees turned the jungles of the Pacific islands into the docks and air bases that allowed the United States to carry out its island-hopping and leapfrogging strategies and to conduct the strategic bombing of Japan.

As U.S. involvement in the war approached in 1941, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell saw that the continued construction of overseas bases, which would be essential to the United States in the event of war with Japan, would be in jeopardy because the civilian crews, which were prohibited from carrying weapons by international law, were at risk from enemy attack. As a solution, he advocated institution of an organization composed of skilled construction laborers who were naval personnel. After the labor unions protested that these battalions would take work away from civilian construction workers, Moreell agreed that his units would only serve overseas, leaving stateside construction for civilian contractors.

On 2 January 1942, Congress authorized the organization of Naval Construction Battalions, the nickname "Seabee" being derived from the initials. The Seabee symbol was a flying fighting bee wearing a sailor cap and carrying a machine gun, wrench, and hammer. The slogan of the Seabees was Construimus, Batiumus (we build, we fight).

In a change from other navy units, Seabees were commanded by officers of the Civil Engineering Corps (CEC) who were trained for construction work. The 250,000 men and 8,000 officers who became Seabees were the men who had built American subways and skyscrapers. Seabees were recruited based on their civilian skills and experience in more than 60 skilled trades. Because experience was the key factor, normal physical standards applied to fighting men were relaxed. Seabees ranged in age from 18 to 50, with the average being 37. There were reports that some Seabees were as old as 60. Seabees also received higher pay than the average enlisted man; their pay was equivalent at least to that of petty officers. Because their primary mission was to build, not fight, the Seabees spent only three weeks at boot camp and received only basic small-arms training.

Seabees served in all the war theaters and took part in most of the major operations, but the majority of them served in the South Pacific Theater. They built new naval bases and additions to existing ones, docks, staging facilities, warehouses, hospitals, roads, and airstrips. Aided by such innovations as Marston mats, Quonset huts, and prefabricated buildings, Seabee units were able to construct large air bases in a matter of days. Special battalions were also organized, known as Seabee Special Battalions. The first Seabee Special Battalion was composed of enlisted men trained as stevedores and longshoremen to unload the ships in combat zones. Among other units were those that maintained the bases, repaired tires, built pontoon bridges, drove trucks, and handled the transportation and storage of fuel. Although they were not organized as a fighting unit, individual Seabees received 33 Silver Stars and 5 Navy Crosses during the war.

Pamela Feltus


Further Reading
Castillo, Edmund L. Seabees of World War II. New York: Random House, 1963.; Huie, William Bradford. Can Do! The Story of the Seabees. Washington, DC: U.S. Naval Institute, 1997.; Kimmel, Jay. U.S. Navy Seabees: Since Pearl Harbor. Portland, OR: Cory Stevens Publishing, 1995.
 

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