When Japanese forces carried out the infamous surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. Navy was alerted of the need for a militarized construction force as the attack marked the United States’ entry into World War II. On December 28, 1941, three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell requested the authority to create Naval Construction Battalions which would be comprised of military-trained, skilled American laborers who could build anything, anywhere under any conditions.
Before World War II (the last 1930s), the U.S. observed the need to prepare militarily and Congress authorized the expansion of naval shore activities to the Caribbean, then to the Central Pacific. The U.S. Navy awarded contracts to civilian construction firms that employed native civilian populations and U.S. citizens who fell under the command of naval officers overseeing construction projects. These firms would go on to build several large bases on Guam, Midway, Wake, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, Bermuda, and Trinidad. However, international law dictated that civilians that came under enemy military attacks would not be able to resist and could be executed. This remarkable mandate added to the U.S. concern to have a military-trained construction entity if and when war arrived.
Unfortunately, Pearl Harbor served as a tragic wakeup call that pushed Rear Admiral Moreell’s December 28th authorization request to create Naval Construction Battalions. It would be just over a week when the Bureau of Navigation would give the go-ahead and on January 5, 1942, the original Construction Battalions (CBs) were formed at the new naval base in Davisville, Rhode Island. On January 17, 1942, less than two weeks later, the First Construction Detachment made up of 296 men deployed and arrived in Bora Bora on February 17, 1942.
On March 5, 1942, the Department of the Navy officially named all Construction Battalion personnel the now famous Seabees. Their motto, Construimus, Batuimus (We Build, We Fight), was personally supplied by Rear Admiral Moreell. Their logo, the Fighting Bee, was created by Rhode Islander Frank J. Iafrate, a civilian file clerk who later enlisted and served as a Chief Carpentersmate with a CB Maintenance Unit.
The history of the Seabees is storied by legendary deeds spanning the globe. World War II saw them construct over 400 advanced bases in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of operation. More than 325,000 Seabees served in WWII and they were among the first to go ashore during D-Day of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944 (See below) as members of naval combat demolition units. When the war entered demobilization, the Bees’ base depot and training center were closed in December 1945 and the units were renamed Mobile Construction Battalions (MCBs) where members carried out support ops in Cuba and throughout the Pacific.
This would not be the end of the Seabees however…
In June 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea in a move that would kickstart a civil war that later involved the U.S. and China. The Davisville base was reactivated and the Seabees once again got into the fight, this time providing pontoon causeways, serving side by side with the Marine Corps and Army, building and defending what they built. Perhaps the largest accomplishment in the Korean War was building Cubi Point that saw the Seabees essentially cut a mountain in half to make way for a two-mile long runway. Cubi Point would be comprised of an air station with an adjacent pier capable of docking the Navy’s largest carriers.
- Annual deployments starting in 1955 to Antarctica to build and expand scientific bases that included constructing a 6,000-foot ice runway on McMurdo Sound despite a blizzard.
- From 1965 to 1970, they supported Marines in Vietnam by building aircraft support facilities, roads, and bridges but also helped the Vietnamese by paving roads, digging wells, providing medical treatment, and building schools, hospitals, utilities systems, roads and other community facilities.
- Building a base on Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, a project that lasted 11 years and cost $200M. The base would provide invaluable during Operations DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM.
- During the Gulf War, more than 5,000 Seabees built advanced bases, constructed airfields, provided petroleum and water facilities, and went with the Marines into Kuwait.
- Seabees deployed to Beirut following the 1982 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon to build underground bunkers for the Marines.
- Relief and recovery efforts following Hurricanes Camille, Andrew, George, Mitch, Katrina, Ivan, and Maria.
- Construction support and disaster relief in the wake of the Haiti earthquake.
Today, the Seabees continue to serve in the Global War on Terrorism. They have repaired runway facilities in Afghanistan and built aircraft parking, munitions storage, landing pads, bridges, and camps in Kuwait and Iraq. About two-thirds of Seabees today are reservists with active duty members serving in six active Battalions, two Amphibious Construction Battalions (ACBs), and two Underwater Construction Team (UCTs).
The U.S. Navy continues to reach out to recruit Seabees as builders, construction electricians and mechanics, engineering aids, equipment operators, steel workers, and utilitiesmen. Check out the video below for more information on today’s Seabees.
Last and very certainly not least, to all our Seabees, past and present, out there: Thank you for building up and defending the nation!
- Building the Road to Freedom, CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation
- Construction Careers, U.S. Navy
- Seabee History, Seabee Museum & Memorial Park
- Seabee Magazine
- Seabees, Naval History & Heritage Command
- 10 Things You Need to Know About Your Seabees!, Naval History & Heritage Command
- U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Navy History & Heritage Command