After the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States entry into the war, the use of civilian labor in war zones became impractical. Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.
The need for a militarized Naval Construction Force to build advance bases in the war zone was self-evident. Therefore, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell determined to activate, organize, and man Navy construction units. On 28 December 1941, he requested specific authority to carry out this decision, and 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 composed of three Naval Construction Battalions. This is the actual beginning of the renowned Seabees, who obtained their designation from the initial letters of Construction Battalion. Admiral Moreell personally furnished them with their official motto: Construimus, Batuimus -- "We Build, We Fight."
An urgent problem confronting the Bureau of Yards and Docks was who should command the construction battalions. By Navy regulations, military command of naval personnel was limited to line officers. Yet it was deemed essential that the newly established construction battalions should be commanded by officers of the Civil Engineer Corps who were trained in the skills required for the performance of construction work. The bureau proposed that the necessary command authority should be bestowed on its Civil Engineer Corps officers. However, the Bureau of Naval Personnel (successor to the Bureau of Navigation) strongly objected to this proposal.
Despite this opposition, Admiral Moreell personally presented the question to the Secretary of the Navy. 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, which was incorporated in Navy regulations, removed a major roadblock in the conduct of Seabee operations. Of equal importance, it constituted a very significant morale booster for Civil Engineer Corps officers because it provided a lawful command authority status that tied them intimately into combat operations, the primary reason for the existence of any military force. From all points of view, Admiral Moreell's success in achieving this end contributed ultimately to the great success and fame of the Seabees.
With authorization to establish construction battalions at hand and the question of who was to command the Seabees settled, the Bureau of Yards and Docks was confronted with the problem of recruiting, enlisting, and training Seabees, and then organizing the battalions and logistically supporting them in their operations. Plans for accomplishing these tasks were not available. Workable Plans were quickly developed, however, and because of the exigencies of the war much improvising was done.
The first Seabees were not raw recruits when they voluntarily enlisted. Emphasis in recruiting them was placed on experience and skill, so all they had to do was adapt their civilian construction skills to military needs. To obtain men with the necessary qualifications, physical standards were less rigid than in other branches of the armed forces. The age range for enlistment was 18-50, but after the formation of the initial battalions, it was discovered that several men past 60 had managed to join up, clearly an early manifestation of Seabee ingenuity. During the early days of the war, the average age of Seabees was 37. After December 1942 voluntary enlistments were halted by orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and men for the construction battalions had to be obtained through the Selective Service System. Henceforward, Seabees were on average much younger and came into the service with only rudimentary skills.
The first recruits were the men who had helped to build Boulder Dam, the national highways, and New York's skyscrapers; who had worked in the mines and quarries and dug the subway tunnels; who had worked in shipyards and built docks and wharfs and even ocean liners and aircraft carriers. By the end of the war, 325,000 such men had enlisted in the Seabees. They knew more than 60 skilled trades, not to mention the unofficial ones of souvenir making and "moonlight procurement." Nearly 11,400 officers joined the Civil Engineer Corps during the war, and 7,960 of them served with the Seabees.
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.
After completing three weeks of boot training at Camp Allen, and later at its successor, Camp Peary, both in Virginia, the Seabees were formed into construction battalions or other types of construction units. Some of the very first battalions were sent overseas immediately upon completion of boot training because of the urgent need for naval construction. The usual procedure, however, was to ship the newly- formed battalion to an Advanced Base Depot at either Davisville, Rhode Island, or Port Hueneme, California. There the battalions, and later other units, underwent staging and outfitting. The Seabees received about six weeks of advanced military and technical training, underwent considerable unit training, and then were shipped to an overseas assignment. About 175,000 Seabees were staged directly through Port Hueneme during the war.
As the war proceeded, 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. Seabees were given 30-day leaves and also plenty of time for rest and recuperation. Eligible men were frequently discharged at Camp Parks. On a much smaller scale, the Advance Base Receiving Barracks at Davisville, Rhode Island, performed similar functions for Atlantic battalions.
The construction battalion, the fundamental unit of the Seabee organization, 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 progressed and construction projects became larger and more complex, more than one battalion frequently had to be assigned to a base. For efficient administrative control, these battalions were organized into a regiment, and 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 and the battalions were organized into 11 regiments and 4 brigades, which, in turn, were all under the command of the Commander, Construction Troops, who was a Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer, Commodore Andrew G. Bisset. Moreover, his command also included 45,000 United States Army engineers, aviation engineers, and a few British engineers. He therefore commanded 100,000 construction troops in all, the largest concentration of construction troops during the entire war.
Although the Seabees began with the formation of regular construction battalions only, the Bureau of Yards and Docks soon 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 badly needed to break a bottleneck in the unloading of ships in combat zones. Their officers, drawn largely from the Merchant Marine and personnel of stevedoring companies, were commissioned in the Civil Engineer Corps. The enlisted men were trained practically from scratch, and the efficiency of their training was demonstrated by the fact that cargo handling in combat zones compared favorably to that in the most efficient ports in the United States.
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. It 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, depending on the specialized nature of its function. These detachments did everything from operating tire-repair shops to dredges. A principal use for them, however, 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 comprised of experts in the installation of pipelines and petroleum facilities.
In the Second World War, the 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.
SEABEE ROADS TO VICTORY IN THE SECOND WORLD WARDurin g the Second World War, the Seabees performed now legendary deeds 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 to victory 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 Philippine's. All the Pacific roads converged on Japan and the Asiatic mainland.