Seabees Build on 75 Years of History
In honor of today, March 5, 2018, as the 76th birthday of the Seabees, we throw it back to this article from the February 23, 2017 edition of the VC Star that commemorates its 75th birthday and their ongoing mission.
From the shores of Normandy to the beaches of Vietnam and from the mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of Iraq, they have laid the groundwork for every U.S. military operation since World War II.
Deployed to some of the most remote spots in the world — the atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the Saudi Arabian desert and the South Pole in Antarctica — they were told to “make it work” decades before reality TV popularized the phrase.
And they followed through on the order. Working under extreme conditions wrought by weather and war, they erected camps, bases, airfields and roads in the run-up to combat with the enemy.
Sometimes they came under fire themselves, these warrior-builders trained to carry a hammer in one hand, a machine gun in the other.
They are the men and women of the U.S. Navy Seabees, and they celebrate their 75th anniversary March 5.
Carpenters, plumbers, steelworkers, engineers, crane operators and other tradespeople who form their ranks have built a reputation over seven and a half decades for carrying out their missions with ingenuity and grit.
Some even do it underwater in rivers and oceans. Dive teams encumbered by heavy gear and limited visibility lay pipe, build ramps and recover weapons, sometimes bodies.
ABOVE: Interview with Capt. Mike Saum, who commands the Port Hueneme Seabees
When not preparing for war, Seabees use their skills to build hospitals, schools and amenities for people around the world struck by natural disasters or strife.
“At the beginning, I was just proud to serve my country and proud to be a Seabee,” said Lawrence Sharpe, command master chief of Naval Construction Group 1, home of the Seabees at Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme. “It turned into being proud of the work we do for the folks overseas and the difference we make in their lives.”
A Seabee (short for construction battalion — CB) is a member of the Naval Construction Force, whose primary mission is to support the Navy and Marine Corps by building whatever is necessary to wage war.
They constructed docks and causeways during the invasion of Normandy in 1944 to end Hitler’s march on Europe, and they worked near the front lines under enemy fire during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mentally tough, physically fit and highly skilled, they were tapped by the Navy in the 1950s to construct and maintain scientific bases in Antarctica.
And they’ve done it all with little fanfare, their talents sometimes overshadowed by flashier brethren in fighter planes and special forces.
“They don’t brag much; it’s not their style,” said Kim Crowell, curator of the Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme.
Port Hueneme is home to the Pacific Seabees and one of two Seabee bases in the United States. The other is in Gulfport, Mississippi, where the Atlantic Seabees are based.
“Our main job is to plan for war,” said Capt. Mike Saum, who commands the Port Hueneme Seabees. “We train and prepare for it, and we deploy to prepare for combat operations.”
On the humanitarian front, Seabees responded to devastating earthquakes that shook Haiti and Fukushima, Japan, in 2010 and 2011, respectively, and to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
“You can’t predict when those are going to happen,” Saum said. “You just have to be ready to go if called on.”
Last year, the Pacific Seabees partnered with all branches of the U.S. armed forces and military branches in 17 countries, including Australia, Cambodia, the Philippines and Bangladesh, to carry out humanitarian projects. Pacific Seabees in Cambodia, Timor-Leste in Southeast Asia, Micronesia, the Philippines, Palau and the Marshall Islands built six schools and restrooms, a clinic and two maternity wards that helped more than 18,000 people in developing communities.
“The good thing is, anywhere we go, whether you’re overseas, whether you’re in some of these smaller island countries, they’re very appreciative of what we bring,” Saum said. “We’re very lucky because we prepare for war while building partnerships. Seabees are generally welcome around the world.”
Today, the men and women of the Seabees are 11,000 strong in active and reserve units, and they continue to prepare for any call of duty.
“Our mission is to man, train, equip,” Saum said. “We’ve got the people in the battalion, they’ve got the training they need, and they’ve got the equipment they need to do the mission that the Navy and Marine Corps needs them to do.”
At the height of World War II, the number of active-duty Seabees had swelled to 325,000 — as many people as there are in the entire Navy today. By 1946, that number had fallen to 20,000. Just before the Korean War, their ranks had dwindled to around 3,000.
“Across time, we will ebb and flow,” Saum said.
In addition to Naval Construction Group 1, its two regiments, three battalions and three reserve battalions, Port Hueneme is also home to an underwater construction team. A construction maintenance unit in San Diego is attached to the base, as well.
With a new commander-in-chief, President Donald Trump, the Seabees’ mission remains unchanged, Saum said.
“We’re going to continue doing what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re going to continue to train. As long as there’s going to be expeditionary forces on land, they’re going to need what we do.”