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CHIPS Articles: The Sting of the Bee: 75 Years of the Navy Seabee

The Sting of the Bee: 75 Years of the Navy Seabee
By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Charlotte C. Oliver, Defense Media Activity - March 10, 2017
The Seabees, affectionately called "Dirt Sailors," have been present in every war and conflict since World War II. But these tough men and women do more than build latrines and airstrips; they are also trained to defend what they build. Throughout 2017, the Navy will celebrate 75 years of the Seabees, their mettle and their "can do" spirit.

From Skyscrapers to Warfighters

That spirit comes from the dark days of December 1941 as the dust cleared on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States found itself thrust into war on two fronts. In the European Theater, servicemen would battle Hitler and his Third Reich, while in the Pacific, the U.S. would wage war from the sea to island jungles against the rising sun of the Japanese Empire.

Prior to the war, contractors had built military bases, but civilians could not fight back if they encountered danger and conflict during construction, something that was almost certain to happen during the fierce fight to save the world. The Navy needed men to build advance bases throughout the Pacific, then, at the drop of a hat, put down their tools and pick up weapons to defend their positions. They would need to build AND fight.

"We used to have construction teams build the bases," said retired Senior Chief Construction Electrician Chester Urbati, who resides at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi. "And civilians can't fight wars; if they do, that makes them — what we call today — a terrorist. So Ben Morrell, who was one of our first admirals in the Seabees, decided to make military construction workers."

Under Rear Adm. Ben Morrell of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, the first construction battalions, better known as CB or Seabee, were formed March 5, 1942. In fact, the Navy recruited the first wave of Seabees from civilian construction trades, resulting in an average age of 37. Equipment operators, welders, steel workers, builders — every construction trade was called upon to assist in the war effort.

"I didn't know what a Seabee was when I first joined," Urbati recalled, his Boston accent weaving history and walking us down his memory lane. "I was a reservist and was a civilian construction electrician in Boston and my boss asked me why I wasn't a Seabee."

Urbati's boss was a reserve Seabee himself. He invited Urbati to train with them for the weekend. After sitting by a fire and telling sea stories, Urbati put in his transfer request. Even though he lost a stripe, it was well worth it to Urbati, who would retire in 1993 after more than 20 years in the Seabees.

More than 325,000 men served with the Seabees during the war, building and fighting on six continents and more than 300 islands in the Pacific, where they were needed most. The Seabees worked side-by-side with Marines, coming ashore to work as soon as Marines secured the beachheads. They built 111 major airstrips and 441 piers, tanks for the storage of 100 million gallons of fuel, housing for 1.5 million men and hospitals for 70,000 patients.

Retired Senior Chief Electrician Stonewall Sterrett enlisted in the Navy as a young man in 1943. His battalion shipped to the Admiralty Islands in the South Pacific in 1945 and trained at Guadalcanal before landing at Okinawa, Japan, where he stayed until the war's end.

"When news broke that the war had ended we were all pretty excited because it meant we would be going home," recalled Sterrett. "I had been overseas for about 15 to 20 months at that time. When we found out that the Japanese had surrendered, we all threw our hands up in the air yelling, 'Hoorah, hoorah, hoorah!' It was a terrific feeling to be going back home."

World War II came to a close and many men returned home to their civilian jobs. But more than 10,000 men would be called upon for the Korean War just five years later. Seabees landed at Inchon where, within hours of arrival, they battled not only extreme tides but enemy fire to build causeways for incoming troops. During the Korean War, one of the largest earth-moving projects in the world also took place: the two-mile-long runway at Cubi Point, Philippines.

Operation Deep Freeze began on Antarctica in 1955. Seabees deployed to the icy continent to build scientific bases. The first wintering over division included 200 Seabees who constructed a 6,000-foot ice runway on McMurdo Sound. The airstrip was completed in time for the advance party of Deep Freeze II to become the first to arrive at the South Pole by plane.

The 1950s also saw tensions rise in Southeast Asia. As the conflict grew hotter, the communist North Vietnam invaded the South and America became involved, Seabees deployed and put their skills to the test in the tropical jungles.

A Hero Rises

The Seabee's motto: Construimus, Batuimus — "We Build, We Fight" — was never more true than during Vietnam.

In June 1965, Construction Mechanic 3rd Class Marvin G. Shields was killed during the Battle of Dong Xoai. For his heroics he would be posthumously be awarded the Medal of Honor.

"For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with United States Navy Seabee Team 1104 at Dong Xoai, Republic of Vietnam, on 10 June 1965," his citation reads.

When Shields and his team came under attack by reinforced Viet Cong forces armed with machine guns and other weapons, Shields was wounded, but "continued to resupply his fellow Americans needed ammunition and to return the enemy fire for a period of approximately three hours." Shields was wounded a second time, but continued to not only fight, but carry his more critically wounded to safety for four more hours. Without hesitation, Shields volunteered to assist his commander in knocking out an enemy machine gun emplacement. Their hazardous mission was a success, but on return to their compound, Shields was mortally wounded by hostile fire.

Shields was laid to rest with a Marine Corps honor guard at Gardiner Cemetery, Gardiner, Washington on June 19, 1965. He remains the only Seabee ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Ever the Humanitarian

After Vietnam, the Seabees built and repaired Navy bases in Puerto Rico, Japan, Guam, Greece, Sicily and Spain. The Seabees also constructed their largest peacetime project on the small island atoll in the Indian Ocean: Diego Garcia. After 11 years and $200 million worth of construction, the island base can take on the Navy's largest ships and the military's biggest cargo jets, services that were heavily used during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, which launched after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

Today's Seabees still build and fight — most recently in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — but they are also humanitarians, a mission they began after the Korean War in 1953 when they responded to a catastrophic earthquake in Greece, becoming known as "The Navy's Goodwill Ambassadors." In the years since, Seabees provided disaster relief domestically in the months after Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf coast in 1969, and assisted in the recovery efforts of victims of the 1994 Northridge earthquake that struck California.

Internationally, Seabees deployed to Somalia where they delivered humanitarian relief during Operation Restore Hope from 1992 to 1993. Then, Christmas Day 1995 saw Seabees arrive in Croatia where they built camps to support the Army as part of Operation Joint Endeavor, the peacekeeping effort in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the deadliest hurricane seasons on record in 1998 found the Seabees helping with clean up and relief efforts from Hurricane Georges in the Caribbean and Hurricane Mitch in Central America, causing more damage when mudflows swept the flooded country.

Seabees have also assisted remote and developing countries around the world in building or improving many roads, orphanages and public utilities. In fact, from hurricanes and typhoons to flooding and mudflows to earthquakes and tsunamis to building orphanages and hospitals, the Seabees have brought their "can do" spirit the world over.

But what does "can do" mean?

"It means we could do anything they wanted us to do," said Sterrett. "We could build anything they told us. If they wanted us to build an airfield, we could build an airfield. Anything."

"If you're assigned something, you're going to do it," Vietnam veteran and retired Chief Utilitiesman Richard Worth said. "There's no saying you can't."

Seabees are in many ways different than the Sailors who navigate the seas. The main difference you can see in any Seabee, whether brand new to a battalion or that weathered veteran reminiscing of times long ago, is how close and tight knit their brother and sister 'Bees are.

"You get to know a lot of people in the 'Bees," said Urbati. "You might go from one battalion to another, but eventually you meet up again."

For 75 years Seabees have endured wars and natural disasters. Even with mud soaked uniforms and sweaty brows they have shone bright, showing the world they "can do."

Reprinted from the U.S. Navy’s All Hands online magazine:

Historic images of Navy Seabees. U.S. Navy photos.
Historic images of Navy Seabees. U.S. Navy photos.

The official logo for the 75th anniversary of the Seabees.
The official logo for the 75th anniversary of the Seabees.
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