The heroes of the United States Navy weren’t only the men and women on the front lines. Behind the scenes, doing incredible things that the general public wouldn’t necessarily know about, was a group of naval volunteers performing tasks that, while they wouldn’t make headlines, would assist in the war in an crucial way.
After the shock of the events at Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt approved the creation of US Naval Construction Battalions—CBs, or Seabees—that would serve to build a series of naval bases as necessary throughout the war. Starting in March of 1942, men enlisted voluntarily, typically from construction trades, to serve under Admiral Ben Moreell and the Civil Engineer Corps.
These volunteers worked under the mantra: “We built, we fight!” They traveled from island to island during World War II, constructing yards as needed for the growing US Navy. For the first nine months, volunteers poured in until a change in policy, when the Seabees began to be provided by Selective Service System recruiting.
Though their main goal was to construct naval bases for the United States, the Seabees were entering territories that would be easy targets for the enemy, which had already proved crafty enough to surprise the United States with little effort. One of the first things these volunteers went through was combat training and then, for most of the battalions when they were initially formed, were sent to an Advanced Base Depot at Davisville, RI or Port Hueneme, CA for more advanced training.
For the duration of the Second World War, the Seabees were responsible for constructing over 400 naval bases spread between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. As the number of Seabees grew, the battalions were divided into Special Construction Battalions until 190 different battalions were created, but while construction was what they were best known for, the Seabees were also sometimes put on the front line, such as in the invasion of Okinawa, where they closely followed invading forces to assist in supply handling and immediate construction.
From Conflict to Construction to Conquest
The creation of the Seabees is another example of how Japan sealed its fate by bombing Pearl Harbor. Though the Seabees weren’t directly involved in the destruction of Japan’s fighting forces or the takeover of many islands, their part in building American naval bases throughout both theaters of operation helped push the US Navy across the Pacific and the Atlantic.
While the Construction Battalions were largely disbanded after World War II, their presence has been felt through the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and right up to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Compared to the over 325,000 men who served during World War II, fewer than 10,000 are still actively in service today.