By Gina Nichols, Archivist/Head of Collections Department, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
Editor’s note: What does a Bobcat, Pearl Harbor and the South Pacific have to do with the creation of the Seabees? A lot. Read this two-part blog series to find out how 75 years ago, the Navy established a fighting force unlike any other!
Codenamed “BOBCAT,” the small island of Bora Bora in the Society Islands, was destined to become the first advance base built during World War II. From this little known island the U.S. launched its island-hopping campaign across the Pacific to Japan and victory.
The morning of December 7, 1941, brought to light not only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but also the failure of the U.S. to take the Japanese threat seriously. With the attacks throughout the Pacific on December 7-8, the Navy’s plans for an offensive action were discarded overnight. The Japanese had seized the Pacific and the early counter-offensive planned as part of Rainbow 5 was now beyond the capability of the armed forces.
The one piece of good fortune to come out of the Pearl Harbor attack was that the Japanese focused their attack almost exclusively on the ships and airplanes; not against the supporting installations. In addition, all three Pacific aircraft carriers put to sea just days before and were safe. The repair shops escaped severe damage and immediately set to repair damaged ships and rescue trapped sailors; and the fuel tank farm, which was filled to capacity, was untouched. Had an equal amount of damage been done to the piers, wharfs, repair shops, fuel tanks, ammunition dumps, and dry docks, not to mention the carriers, the U.S. ability to operate in the South Pacific would have been further reduced to token efforts. The U.S. Pacific Fleet base operations would also have been forced to fall back two thousand miles to the Pacific Coast.
The immediate problem the United States faced was the necessity of restoring defenses around the country and stopping Japanese progress into the South Pacific. Both strategies were purely defensive and involved defending the three key Pacific points in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Panama Canal.
Within a month of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval position in the Pacific had weakened immensely. Guam and Wake had fallen to the Japanese; the Philippines were cutoff and there was no way to send them support; the British lost Hong Kong; Singapore was under siege; and the Japanese had invaded the Dutch East Indies. Only the southern route via the South Sea Islands was open as a possible strategic plan. Part of this plan included providing supporting bases from Sydney to Panama, a distance of 7,800 miles. The only naval asset within this range was the tiny naval station in Tutuila, Samoa, which was incapable of expanding to handle the extensive logistical problems ahead. One favorable factor was that the route ran through a long line of islands still under Allied control.
Aside from rapid construction, the Pacific bases also required a high degree of flexibility and adaptability. They needed to be garrisoned, act as operating bases for air and search squadrons, and be equipped with harbor defense installations. The bases also needed logistical properties to support the operating forces as they expanded. Other necessities included fueling stations; protected anchorages; staging points for airplanes and troops; and repair, medical, and supply facilities.
On December 25, 1941, Admiral Ernest King, soon to become Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet, requested the War Plans Division study the concept of creating a refueling base in the central South Pacific area, specifically the Marquesas, Society or Cook Islands. Five days later the group recommended a base be established on Bora Bora within the Society Islands because of its location, potable water supply, and defensive harbor. On January 8, 1942, the Joint Basic Army and Navy Plan for the Occupation and Defense of Bora Bora was issued, which laid out the base development plan and set the expedition departure date for January 25.
The base was to be established by the Navy and defended by the Army. The Navy was tasked to construct, administer, and operate the Naval Fuel Depot, seaplane base, and harbor facilities. In order to prepare for this expedition, materials had to be assembled from all parts of the country. Personnel and material were amassed, ships selected and armed, and loaded at three separate ports as part of a joint venture. The expedition sailed January 27, 1942, which, under the circumstances, was a considerable achievement.
Immediately after issuing the joint plan for Bora Bora, studies began for the establishment of additional advance bases in the South Pacific to complete the link to Australia. Many of these locations, including the bases at Efate, Tongatabu, and Samoa, were established in areas where little prior preparation existed.
The Navy cannot function without the supplies and equipment necessary to keep it functioning making bases as essential as ships and personnel. As the U.S. advanced across the Pacific, capturing or building bases in one amphibious operation after another, the bases became a springboard for the next advance towards the enemy stronghold. Those two concepts – the need to man and equip the fleet as the Navy expanded across the Pacifc – was the first step towards establishing today’s Seabees.
Read, Code Name: BOBCAT – PART Two, to find out the full story our how Seabees came to be!