World War II Vets, Museum Mark Kickoff to Seabees’ 75th Anniversary
By GIDGET FUENTES, Special Correspondent
PORT HUENEME, Calif. — Navy Seabees, including several World War II veterans, gathered at this West Coast Seabee base last week to kick off a year-long celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Navy’s “Can Do” construction force.
Officials at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum unveiled new displays of Seabees’ work in Afghanistan and Iraq and during the Cold War era as well as a 75th anniversary painting that commemorates Seabees’ service through the years.
“For 75 years, Seabees... have been protecting the nation and serving the Navy and the Marine Corps with great pride and dedication,” Rear Adm. Bret Muilenburg, who heads Naval Facilities Engineering Command, told the crowd Jan. 18.
The museum event, Muilenburg said, “is a great kickoff to our year.”
Seabees date their existence to March 5, 1942.
The event at Naval Base Ventura County is the Navy’s first official celebration of its famous construction force, which this year also shares in the 150th anniversary of the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps and the 175th anniversary of the Naval Facilities and Engineering Command.
As World War II raged across Europe and into the Pacific following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rear Adm. Ben Moreell pressed the Navy to establish construction battalions to build facilities for U.S. troops. Moreell led the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks and knew the military would need airfields, logistics bases and garrison facilities including barracks, offices and hospitals to support troops at home and overseas.
A major recruitment effort eventually pulled in thousands of men, mostly in the construction trades, into the military — the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps — and newly trained Seabees quickly got to work globally. It was not just work on land but at sea with Seabees skilled in underwater construction and building the critical ports and piers that were in demand especially during the war’s Pacific island campaigns.
They were not just recruited to build, but to fight. Weapons marksmanship was as important as wielding a hammer, operating heavy vehicles or installing electrical lines. More than 325,00 men served as Seabees — a nickname drawn from CB, or construction battalion — during World War II, according to the Navy. Their famous “Can Do” attitude, affixed on recruiting and morale posters during the war, made them popular with the broader general public.
About 14,000 Seabees deployed to the Korean peninsula during the Korea conflict, some 26,000 Seabees went to Vietnam and, a generation later, 20,000 have served in Afghanistan and in Iraq, Muilenburg said. And throughout those times, thousands of Navy Seabees — men as well as women — have been at the tip of military engagement, in peacetime and in wartime, during overseas deployments and at homeport projects in the United States.
“We’re pretty good at self-promotion, just because we’re proud,” Muilenburg, a Seabee combat warfare officer and chief of the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), told the crowd. “We love to show off that Seabee patch. We’re proud to show off that Seabee combat warfare qualification.
“There’s a lot to be proud of,” he said, noting the generations of Seabees who have lived another motto: “We build. We fight.”
That’s the title of a painting by artist James Dietz newly displayed in the museum’s large central lobby. The painting is a “snapshot” of Seabee history, and its faces reflect actual Seabees around Port Hueneme, said retired Rear Adm. David J. Nash, chairman of the board of trustees of the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation.
Nash joined retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, and Lara Godbille, the museum director, with reopening the “Pacific” gallery. Its new exhibits tie Seabee operations from World War II through the Cold War and into recent operations “to tell a fuller history,” Godbille said.
The museum maintains a large and growing collection of historical artifacts donated by individuals and commands, Godbille said. The museum plans to expand a STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, Center that gives kids hands-on learning about Seabees and civil engineers, at times hearing about that from real-life Seabees who volunteer at the museum.
The 75th anniversary is a reminder of the shrinking population of World War II veterans, whose first-person accounts are becoming rare testaments of what their military service as a Seabee was really like. One of them, Macy Coffin, shared a glimpse of his experiences at the museum event.
Coffin, who will celebrate his 100th birthday later this week, was a newly assigned Seabee with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 82 during the war.
By his account, Coffin did not want to join the Army despite the service enticing his two of his brothers. He did not want to be on ships, either. But the hands-on work appealed to him, and after seeing recruiting posters, he enlisted and left for the Pacific as a third-class petty officer with the Seabee unit. They supported combat operations in south Pacific islands including Guadalcanal, building piers and fighting at times. Coffin’s tenure was short — he said he turned down re-enlistment when it was offered — but his love of Seabees endures.
Coffin’s personal account resonated with Construction Mechanic Constructionman Recruit Andrew Staple.
Staple, an 18-year-old Sailor attending the ceremony, said he wanted to serve in the military but also didn’t want to join the Army or be assigned to a ship. But he enlisted in the Navy intent on becoming a Seabee, and he hopes to one day earn the rank of senior chief and be “part of history.”
“I am proud that I could go fight for my country,” said Staple, who is attending “A” school at Port Hueneme. “You’ve got a lot of people to look up to here. If they need me for war, I’ll be there. I’m willing to show them what it’s about. I can’t wait.”