By Gina Nichols, Archivist/Head of Collections Department, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
Editor’s note: This is Part Two in the series about how the Seabee’s were created. Read Part One here.
From 1940-1941, BuDocks used contractors to develop and construct outlying bases on territories owned or governed by the United States. But, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks) could no longer utilize service contractors or their civilian employees in combat zones. Under military law, contractors and their civilian labor force could not offer resistance when under attack. Any civilian bearing arms would be considered a guerilla and would be liable to summary execution if captured. Civilian labor also lacked the military training to defend themselves or their facility. This hard lesson was learned when the naval bases at Wake, Cavite, and Guam were overtaken by the Japanese in December 1941, and the surviving men, whether military or civilian, were either executed or taken prisoner.
The Need to Build AND Fight Becomes Evident
RADM Ben Moreell, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, decided that the only satisfactory solution to continuing construction in potential war zones would be to use military personnel under military command to complete the projects. In response, BuDocks created the Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Seabees, to build the Navy’s advance bases around the world.
Shortly after Admiral Ernest King requested the War Plans Division recommend a base to establish a fueling station in the South Pacific, BuDocks developed the 1st Naval Construction Detachment, the first Seabee unit, known as the Bobcats for the island’s codename. The Bobcats were formed around the newly created 1st Headquarters Construction Company (HCC) which was trained and equipped for assignment in Iceland, but had not left the U.S. yet. The 1st HCC consisted of 1 Civil Engineer Corps officer and 99 enlisted men originally tasked to oversee the construction performed by civilian labor at overseas bases. The Navy added 150 general service recruits with no construction experience from the Newport Basic Training Camp and additional personnel to increase the unit’s size before departure.
Their First Mission
According to the historical summary “Bobcats” by the Bureau of Yards and Docks, the Bora Bora expedition arrived on February 17, 1942, with the intent to immediately unload supplies and materiel. However, the two currently existing small coral piers could not support the weight of the vehicles or supplies. Personnel loaded the cargo badly and essential items were either removed from the outfitting lists or left on the dock on the Atlantic seaboard. Much of the essential equipment to unload and transport the heavy gear was either inadequate or packed at the bottom of the hull. The pontoon barges, used to build temporary piers, were accessible, but the pontoon jewelry, used to connect the pontoons together, was at the bottom of the hold. This hard learned lesson was the impetus to the creation of the Seabee Specials; stevedores trained to strategically load and unload ships in combat zones.
The information about local conditions on Bora Bora, acquired from a 19th century French map, turned out to be inaccurate. Reconnaissance groups were sent out to survey the terrain and check on available water supplies which ended up being non-existent. Steps were immediately taken to build a water system including dams on the main streams, a distribution system used to supply the camps across the base, and a water distillation plant.
Essential construction included building bridge heads and widening roads to handle two-way traffic flow. Road construction was slow as all heavy equipment was still on board the ship. It took three weeks to locate a crane and unload it so that heavy materials could be removed.
By mid-March work began to construct defensive gun emplacements. Eight 7-inch guns were hauled 1,000 to 2,000 feet up the peaks to defend the burgeoning base. The men also constructed eight magazines, four battery command posts, and one defensive command post at the harbor.
The Seabees were tasked to complete the airstrip, build the seaplane ramp, construct fuel tanks, and erect Quonset huts for barracks, supplies, and shops. Hangars were constructed for aircraft out of elephant Quonset huts (40’ x 100’), raised 2.5 feet off the ground with only three sides attached.
Would it be safe to say that they Bobcats were, for all intent and purpose, the very first Seabees? It seems like later in the text you change reference, but we need to make this clear for the reader.
The successful victories at the Solomon Islands, the Coral Sea, and Midway led the U.S. to move forward much sooner than it had originally intended. Initially, the U.S. planned to hunker down on early island bases to support the fleet and armed forces with supplies, hospital beds, and fuel. Before all projects could be completed, the Bora Bora base became obsolete and was well out of the war zone. By April 1, 1944 the base was placed in reduced status and the airfield maintained only as an emergency landing field.
As the U.S. drove farther across the Pacific, the Seabees played a vital role in constructing essential air, submarine, and supply bases. The magnitude and importance of advance bases in the Pacific and European Theaters and the prominent role the Navy played in these operations were essential to winning the war.
Click on Link to read, Code Name: BOBCAT – PART ONE,
Bureau of Yards and Docks. . Bobcat. Unpublished, Bureau of Yards and Docks.
Bureau of Yards and Docks. [circa 1945]. Bora Bora. Unpublished, Bureau of Yards and Docks.
United States. 1947. Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, 1940-1946. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.