Admiral Ernest King, the US Chief of Naval Operations, and indefatigable advocate of an Allied “Japan First” policy, saw that the inevitable American counterattack in the Pacific would require a US Navy capability and capacity to build multiple naval facilities on captured Japanese islands in order to prepare for further operations. In late 1941, the US Navy had no such capability. The interwar system for building facilities relied on designated naval officers who outsourced the work to civilian, native, or colonial contractors and then oversaw the project to completion. This method was used for all of America’s overseas possessions, and was fine for peacetime. But the use of civilian labor for constructing wartime infrastructure could be construed as a violation of the laws of warfare, and the civilians labeled as “unlawful combatants”. Furthermore, the use of civilian contracts was too time consuming for wartime when facilities would be required within weeks, and sometimes days and hours, of a landing on a Japanese held island. The Navy’s proposed solution, “naval construction battalions”, would need to follow close behind, if not accompany, the Marine Corps’ assault forces. In January 1942, Adm King authorized the formation of a Naval Construction Regiment of three battalions that could not only provide infrastructure support for the US Navy and Marines in remote locations, but also defend themselves if need be.
Though they could find sailors that could defend themselves, they couldn’t find many in the active duty navy, or even naval reserve, that had the necessary skillsets to provide the infrastructure support. For obvious reasons, the sailors were required to be master journeymen in over 150 different trades, such as electrician, mason, carpenter etc. There were few resident in the force, and those that were, were immediately sent to Tongatabu and Effate in the South Pacific to build critical convoy refueling stations between the United States and Australia. By February, the US Navy realized they couldn’t man the construction battalions, or “CB”s for short.
On 5 March, 1942, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, the Chief of the Navy Bureau for Yards and Docks authorized the direct recruiting of civilians into the “SeaBees”, a term he allowed for use by the recruiters. The recruiters were unleashed on the big construction sites across the US looking for those skilled enough and between the ages of 18 and 50 (Though the recruiters didn’t look too hard at the ages: the oldest in that initial recruiting drive was 62, the average 37). By April, the need was so great that SeaBee recruits went through a short basic training of just three weeks before they were assigned to an adhoc detachment and shipped overseas.
The SeaBees would be with the Marines during the first air attack on Midway, endure the shelling of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, and participate in every American naval campaign in the Pacific. By the end of the war, 191 US naval construction battalions were created.
“We build. We fight”