Loosely translated, the title Latin phrase means, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It is one of the many mottos of the U.S. Navy’s legendary Seabees. “Can do!” is the most common Seabee motto because of their ability to always get the job done quickly. Another is, “We have done so much for so long with so little that now we can do anything with nothing.”
In the long history of the Navy, Seabees are of fairly new origin. In late December 1941, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, was gravely concerned about the loss of life among civilian construction workers on the Pacific islands that the Japanese had conquered. Realizing that a uniformed Naval Construction Force would be required for the island-hopping campaigns that lay ahead, Moreell proposed the formation of Naval Construction Battalions made up of skilled construction workers. The concept was approved early in 1942. Part of the approval was the authority to grant naval rank based on years of experience in the construction industry. The initials C.B. spawned the nickname, “Seabees.”
Admiral Moreell approached the Construction Trades Council of the labor unions for help in recruiting construction experts. As a quid pro quo, the admiral promised that Seabees would never be used in the continental U.S. in competition with the civilian construction industry. Thousands of skilled construction men were soon flooding recruiting offices. Many were the men who had built the prodigious public works of the New Deal era.
After a short boot camp in Virginia, the new Seabees were sent to Davisville, Rhode Island, or Port Hueneme, California, and formed into battalions officered by members of the Navy Civil Engineer Corps. One of the Davisville Seabees designed the iconic fighting bee emblem for which the units became famous. Construction battalions were soon deploying to the far-flung battlefronts.
Seabees went ashore at Guadalcanal a couple of weeks after the Marines first landed. They finished the new airfield (Henderson Field) begun by Marine engineers and started building the piers, housing, roads and other facilities necessary to a modern fighting force. With the Japanese Navy bombing and shelling the airfield on a regular basis, Seabees camped in bunkers alongside the runway. As soon as the “all clear” was sounded, they rushed out with their equipment and pre-positioned materials and filled in the holes and installed new steel plank pavement. The Marines were full of praise for how the Seabees kept Henderson Field operating in those crucial months of 1942.
The teenaged Marines were also astounded by how old some Seabees looked. The official average age of the World War II Seabee was 37. The actual average was much higher. Men in their sixties lied about their age in order to serve. The young Marines developed the saying, “Never hit a Seabee. He may be some Marine’s father!” The Seabees adopted the Marine slogan, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” into “Once a Seabee, always a Seabee.” There are no such things as “former Marines” or “former Seabees.”
Over 325,000 Seabees served in World War II. Besides constructing sprawling based and airfields throughout the Pacific, the Seabees also built and fought on six continents. The amphibious landings at Sicily and Normandy would have been impossible without the Seabees and their pontoon causeways and Rhino ferries. A Marine on Iwo Jima paid the Seabees perhaps the ultimate compliment when he posted the following poem on a roadside sign:
And when we reach the isles of Japan
With our hats at a jaunty tilt,
We’ll enter the city of Tokyo
On roads that the Seabees built!
Seabees have played pivotal roles in all of America’s conflicts since WWII. Seabee- placed pontoon causeways allowed the Marines to cross the seawall at Inchon in Korea, reversing the course of the war. Twenty-two active duty and reserve Seabee battalions built the critical ports, bases, roads, and airfields the U.S. forces used in Vietnam. Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the military operations in Afghanistan would not have been possible without widespread Seabee support.
Last month, I spent a weekend at a reunion of Seabees from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Forty. I was Operations Officer of this battalion in 1968 and 1969. My experiences there formed the basis of my Vietnam War novel, Asphalt and Blood. We old Seabees swapped sea stories and generally enjoyed each other’s company. We also dedicated an NMCB 40 plaque at the Navy Memorial and visited the Vietnam Wall and Korean War Memorial. Although few of us retained the slender bodies of our youth, we still have Seabee fire in our bellies. All retain a fierce espirit de corps and pride in being a Seabee. I felt honored to be in the presence of these valiant Americans and their families.