What’s in the Seabee Museum Archive?

By Amber Delacruz, Archivist, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The U.S. Navy Seabee Museum’s archival collection represents the history of the Seabees, Civil Engineer Corps, and naval shore establishment. We select, collect, preserve and display materials relevant to Seabee History. The archives primarily consist of:

  • Newsletters           
  • Ephemera
  • Photographs
  • Maps
  • Deployment Completion Reports
  • Monthly Reports
  • Rosters showing the movement of personnel

Originally meant to be temporary records, they have been retained by our archive because they reflect the history of the Seabees from 1942 to the present. The records document the history of the naval shore establishment from its inception in 1799 to the present. They’re important because of real property and land ownership issues and questions that arise and also because of the details of the construction and humanitarian aid that Seabees have accomplished on all seven continents.

Our records are mainly used for:

  1. VA Claims: veterans contact us to obtain record that they were in a certain place at a certain time. They may have been exposed to something or experienced an event that still affects them today, and they need proof that they were deployed to a specific location in order to receive VA benefits and services.
  2. Environmental Cleanup: in order to address environmental concerns, various government and private agencies contact us to find out about construction projects within specific locations.
  3. National Landmarks: people contact us to receive more information about a specific place and the events that occurred there, to see if those locations may be eligible to be added to the register of National Historical Landmarks.
  4. Individuals looking for information about their family. We often receive questions from people looking for information about their fathers or grandfathers service. Often these family members didn’t talk much about their service, so they want to find out more information. Although we don’t keep records of individual Seabees or Civil Engineer Corps officers, we do have unit records. From these, they can find out where their family member was stationed and gather details about what they may have experienced.
  5. Governments trying to determine what happened and where. For example, the Japanese government is actively seeking to locate their WWII war dead in the Pacific. They recently contacted us to see if we had specific information about where the WWII Japanese cemetery was located on the island of Peleliu.

Collection Spotlight: African American Seabees

One of our “uncommon” collections is specifically about African American Seabees. Materials in the collection are compiled from the different battalion records and general histories of the Seabees, and there are also separate and distinct records for each of those battalions.

In 1940, only 2.3% of Sailors were African American, and almost all served as stewards for officers and mess men, or cooks. In the summer of 1942, the Navy opened all general service ratings to blacks, with the stipulation that they be segregated in training schools, quarters, and military units.

What you see in the Seabee African American collection are records of the implementation of new policies throughout the war. They reflect society and the military at a particular time and place. The 34th Naval Construction Battalion, for instance, was one of the first of these new predominately black construction battalions, and consisted of African-American personnel who had previous construction experience – electricians, carpenters, blacksmiths, draftsmen, steelworkers, etc.  During WWII, 12,500 African Americans served in Seabee units in the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters. There were 2 black Naval Construction Battalions (and as an example, the 34th Naval Construction Battalion consisted of 880 black men and 280 white men), and 15 predominately black stevedore construction battalions, or Specials.

Our records include photographs, memos, press releases, correspondence and project reports. Some of the specific types of items you’ll find are:

-Photographs of these African American battalions undergoing basic military training and working on projects

1943: Construction of Ilu River bridge on Highway 50 at Guadalcanal, by men of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion

 

-Photographs of Purple Heart recipients proudly accepting their medals for their service

February 1944: Joseph E. Vaughn, MM3c, Harry E. Lash, CM3c, and William A. Shields, GM3c, members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion. Awarded the Purple Heart Medals for wounds received during enemy bombing on Feb 22, 1943, Kukum, Guadalcanal.

 

-Photographs of black divers using improvised gas mask to supplement their diving gear, showing the ingenuity of these groundbreaking new Seabees

November 1943: three divers working on the marine railway at Gavuta. Note the improvised diving gear made from gas mask. From left to right: H.M. Douglas, Sic(CB); T.A. Blair, CM2c (CB) and I. Phillip, SF2c (CB).

 

-Memos between the Bureau of Yards and Docks and Admiral Ben Moreell, founder of the Seabees, detailing and discussing where to train these new Seabees

This collection is interesting, relevant and important. It maintains record for a unique time in Navy’s history when, much like today’s inclusion of women on submarines, the Navy adapted to be a more inclusive force.  It also provides a way for people, who may not usually interact with a military archive, to connect with the materials and learn about history from sources that they may not have previously considered.

Interested in seeing what the Seabee Museum has to teach you? Go to our website and learn more about Navy’s “Can Do” Sailors!

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