In full-scale military fashion, Gulfport’s Navy Construction Training Center (NCTC) has begun its celebration of 50 years having transformed boys and girls into men and women builders and soldiers.
The first-phase producers of the highly regarded Navy Seabees held an outdoor ceremony Thursday near their headquarters before hundreds of military personnel standing in attention.
It was July 13, 1967, when the center was commissioned in Gulfport, inside the Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC), which then trained petty officers for elaborate construction duties during the Vietnam War.
“I arrived in Gulfport a week prior the commissioning, to find a very small staff with no – I repeat, no – experience at what we had the task to do,” said now retired Capt. J. B. Leap, the first commanding officer of the school, who returned to help celebrate the anniversary. He said the pride and dedication in his staff more than made up for the lack of resources and curriculum developed at the time.
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“By commission day, we had a program in place,” said Leap. “In five weeks, we graduated our first company (approximately 60), every one of which went to a battalion.”
NCTC has been the first stage for many new Navy recruits, who are usually young, green and just beginning manhood and womanhood.
“They’re typically right out of high school, or one or two years out, but they don’t really come with a whole lot of technical or hands-on skills,” said current NCTC Commander, Ana Franco.
“They spend some time at boot camp. Then this is where we teach them how to be a Seabee.”
The new Seabees are thrust into basic construction training, such as welding, steel work, drywall, laying concrete slabs, wall framing, installing a roof and other skills.
NCTC is also celebrating 75 years of the birth of the Navy Seabee, established during World War II, when they started serving a critical duo-role. Seabees primarily have provided militarized construction services, in lieu of using private construction companies, but have also possessed the training and courage to put down their tools and bear arms in times of warfare and conflict.
“Remember that these fresh off-the-streets civilians were turned into credible military petty officers, solely due to the leadership they experienced with their company commander,” said Leap, who helped train about 9,000 Seabees, before going to another assignment in 1969. “We stayed with them day and night for five weeks; they were the heart and soul of our organization.”
“Those hands-on skills is what they can take and be engineers in the field, supporting our war fighters,” said Commander Franco. “When they leave here, they are Seabees. Then they join their first operational unit, usually a naval mobile construction battalion. We also train Army and Air Force engineers.”
Speakers at the ceremony were also reminded of NCTC’s critical roles during the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s two most destructive natural disasters – Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Leap took his battalion through Camille.
“I can’t tell you how stressful that was; there wasn’t much left of Pass Christian,” Leap recalled.
Retired Commander Bill Finn took them through Katrina.
“I remembered the teamwork of NCTC. Being the shore commander here, I felt our unit was reaching out there to the families of those battalions that were deployed during the hurricane,” said Finn. “I remembered the Army, Navy and Air Force all pulling together. Once we got the ‘all clear,’ we went out to help recover the base, but we also went out to the community, actually putting our training to practice.”
NCTC soldiers gave temporary repair to over 300 homes and restored three local schools. Other duties included clearing roads, securing buildings and restoring emergency shelters and gas stations.
Today, NCTC annually train 2,000 Navy, Army and Air force students through over 78,000 days of training and in 18 formal courses. Their high impact has been awarded by several accommodations from the Naval Education and Training Command, Center for Seabees and Facilities Engineering, Navy Community Service Programs and others.
“Gulfport has been dubbed Seabee Town USA,” said Franco. “We get such great support from the community. From day one, we try to instill in these young men and women that we owe something back to them.”
During the two days of festivities, celebrations will include alumni tours of the school and a cake cutting memorializing the occasion.