BETWEEN THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND THE KOREAN WAR
the victories in Europe and Asia, the U.S. Armed Forces rapidly
demobilized. The Seabees were part of this demobilization, and by
June 1946 their number had fallen from a peak strength of more than
250,000 men to approximately 20,000. In the continental United
States, the web of training bases and depots dissolved, and all
Seabee activity was concentrated at the Naval Construction Battalion
Center, Port Hueneme, California. As Seabee ranks continued to thin,
the early postwar years saw only a few battalions and small
construction battalion detachments scattered at naval bases and
stations abroad. Despite the diminished strength of the force, Seabee
peacetime activities took on a unique and diversified character.
Besides maintaining advanced bases built during the war, they were
confronted with many unprecedented construction assignments.
could be more unusual than Seabees building a fleet weather station
on Russian soil? Yet in September 1945, Seabees of the 114th Naval
Construction Battalion, stationed in the Aleutian Islands, were
ordered to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to accomplish just such a
project. They perhaps have the distinction of being the only
Americans invited to do construction work in the Union of Soviet
Socialist Republics. Also in 1945 and 1946, six battalions of
Seabees performed a variety of tasks on mainland China at Shanghai,
Tsingtao, Tangku, and other cities. Primary among them was the
construction of harbors and airfields to be used for the evacuation
of the defeated Japanese troops and the importation of supplies for
the war-torn Chinese nation.
was not the only nation to receive Seabee assistance after the guns
fell silent. As part of the occupation force, 13 construction
battalions and 3 special battalions were sent to Japan to aid U.S.
naval forces at Hiroshima, Kabayana, Yokosuka, Omura, Nagasaki,
Sasebo, and Kure. Out of the postwar rubble, they rebuilt all types
of facilities including airstrips, docks, houses, electric and
telephone systems, bridges, roads, recreation areas, and hospitals.
mid-1946 Seabees were assigned the task of constructing facilities
on Bikini Atoll in preparation for the historic atomic bomb tests
there. That same year Operation "High Jump" brought
Seabees to Antarctica for the first time. An initial detachment of
173 men accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd to Little America to build
new facilities and unload supplies and equipment.
Vieques Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico, was chosen as the site
for an interservice war exercise, code named Operation
"Portrex," Seabees performed a dual function. They were on
the scene prior to the "invasion" to reclaim the island's
abandoned wartime defense facilities. They then returned as
participants in the exercise and successfully built a pontoon
causeway which brought the invading army units ashore.
World War II the Seabees were a Naval Reserve organization, created
specifically for that war. Most Seabees were "USNR" and
served "for the duration plus six months." After the war,
however, it was clear that the Seabees, having more than proved
their worth, would be a valuable new addition to the regular Navy.
Thus, in 1947, the Seabees became part of the regular, peacetime
Navy. In December 1947 a Seabee Reserve Organization was established
to augment active-duty Seabees during national emergencies. Many of
these first Seabee reservists were Seabee veterans of World War II
who wished to continue to serve the nation. The first reserve
Seabees were organized into a number of divisions in each Naval
District. Each Seabee Reserve Division initially consisted of 5
officers and 40 enlisted men. Although by 1949 the number of active
duty Seabees had dwindled to 3,300, the Reserve Organization served
as a ready force for expansion in the coming emergency in Korea.
SEABEES IN THE
June 1950, following the invasion of South Korea by the armies of
communist North Korea, the Seabees found themselves at war again. As
part of the United States contingent of the United Nations force,
they rose to the challenge in the tradition of their "Can
Do" predecessors. By a calling-up reservists, their active-duty
force was expanded to more than 14,000.
15 September 1950 U.S. troops landed at Inchon in what has come to
be known as one of the most brilliant amphibious assaults in
history. Seabees achieved renown as the men who made it possible.
Battling enormous thirty-foot tides and a swift current while under
continuous enemy fire, they positioned pontoon causeways within
hours of the first beach assault. Following the landing, the
incident known as the "Great Seabee Train Robbery" took
place. The need to break the equipment bottleneck at the harbor
inspired a group of Seabees to steal behind enemy lines and capture
some abandoned locomotives. Despite enemy mortar fire, they brought
the engines back intact and turned them over to the Army
October Seabees ran their pontoon structures ashore again and set up
another operating port at Wonsan. When the strenuous harbor
construction and camp operations ceased to fill their days, they
branched into the unusual tasks of inspecting North Korean armament
on an abandoned mine-layer, clearing mined tunnels, and performing
repair work on nearby ships.
the Chinese Communists joined the retreating North Koreans to launch
another full scale invasion of South Korea, the Seabees were
compelled to redouble their efforts -- this time to help the
retreating U.N. forces. At Hungwan, Wonsan, and Inchon, where
Seabees had been instrumental in putting U.N. forces ashore, Seabee
pontoon causeways were now loaded with troops and equipment going
the other way.
February, however, the tide turned once again and the Seabees
returned to Inchon for another landing. They found their previously
constructed harbor facilities in a state of ruin, but, miraculously
enough, some of their sturdy pontoon structures were still in place.
After a rapid repair job, men and equipment streamed ashore again.
participation in the Korean War was certainly not limited to
amphibious operations. Another of their outstanding contributions
was in that specialty of their World War II predecessors -- airfield
construction. Seabees could be found throughout the war zone
constructing, repairing, and servicing the K-fields of the various
Marine Air Groups. The Seabees were broken up into numerous
detachments and each was assigned to an airfield designated with a
"K" number, such as K-3 at Pohang, K-18 at Kimbo, and K-2
the planes flying was an arduous and often dangerous task. At one
small airstrip on the 36th Parallel, chuck holes were opening up in
the failing concrete faster than they could be repaired. As it was
absolutely vital that the field remain open, the undaunted Seabees
graded, poured, and patched one side of the runway while bomb-laden
aircraft continued to fly off the other side.
relations with the Marine Corps were further cemented by a group of
nine Seabees who kept a 21-mile stretch of road open between an
isolated Marine intercept squadron and its source of supplies. They
worked round-the-clock in five-below-zero temperatures to
successfully fulfill their promise to rebuild any damaged bridge
within six hours.
of the most incredible Seabee feats of the war took place on the
small island of Yo in the Bay of Wonsan. In communist hands again in
1952, Wonsan was a key supply and transportation center for the
enemy. As such, carrier-based aircraft strikes against Wonsan and
points deeper in the interior were numerous and constant. Planes
were hit by enemy fire daily leaving their pilots with the unhappy
choice of either ditching at sea or attempting to land in enemy-held
territory. The need for an emergency airstrip was critical and,
under the code name Operation "Crippled Chick," a
detachment of Seabees came to the rescue. Put ashore on Yo Island,
they were given 35 days to construct a runway. Working under
constant artillery bombardment from neighboring enemy positions,
they managed to complete the 2,400-foot airstrip in only 16 days. By
a prearranged signal, "Steak is Ready," the Seabees
signaled that the job was done, and nine damaged aircraft landed on
the new field that same day.
rapid demobilization that followed the Second World War was not
repeated after the signing of the Korean Armistice in July 1953.
Crises in Berlin, Cuba, Africa, South America, and especially in
Southeast Asia created the necessity to maintain military strength
and preparedness. Seabee Reservists had helped meet the Korean
crisis, but the onset of the Cold War had indicated the need for a
basic reorganization of Seabee capabilities as well as for increased
Seabee numbers. Between 1949 and 1953, 13 battalions of two distinct
types were accordingly established. The new establishments signified
a gain in greater battalion mobility and specialization. The first
type, the new Amphibious Construction Battalions, were landing and
docking units. An integral part of the Fleet Amphibious Forces,
their mission was to place causeways and ship-to-shore fuel lines,
construct pontoon docks, and perform other functions necessary for
the expeditious landing of men, equipment, and supplies. Naval
Mobile Construction Battalions constituted the second type. They
were responsible for land construction of a wide variety, including
camps, roads, tank farms, airstrips, permanent waterfront
structures, and many other base facilities.