Before Pearl Harbor, there were about 70,000 civilian contractors staffing a major military construction program in the Pacific.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the surprise attack by the Japanese military on the U.S. Navy base in Hawaii claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Americans and left 1,100 wounded. Two battleships were destroyed, two were sunk but eventually recovered and three damaged. Eleven other ships were damaged and more than 180 aircraft destroyed.
Marvin Westcott, a Gulfport resident who returned to Pearl Harbor on the USS Balch the following morning, told the Sun Herald, “You know, those battleships, they were the kings of the Navy. Here they were, turned over, on fire, burning. And the bodies in the water.”
The U.S. was soon at war. And aside from the causalities and mobilizations, the new theater of war also presented the military with a conundrum. They couldn’t leave the civilian contractors in the Pacific, vulnerable and unable to fight back. But officials also knew all those construction projects needed to be completed. If anything, with the declaration of war, they needed to be expanded even further.
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Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, the chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks, had recommended establishing Naval Construction Battalions before the attack. On Dec. 28, 1941, a new request went up the chain of command. On Jan. 5, 1942, it was approved.
The idea was for the Navy to attract men already in the construction industry and other related trades rather than trying to quickly teach the average 18-year-old enlisted man the trades. The maximum age for the Seabees was 57.
The Seabee name and logo were approved in March 1942. About 325,000 Seabees served in World War II.
“It’s amazing how fast things moved in WWII,” said Bill Hildebrand, the Seabee Historical Association president.
A Seabee base in Rhode Island was open and functioning June 1942. One in California opened in April 1942 and the base in Gulfport, now called the Gulfport Naval Construction Battalion Center and home to thousands of Atlantic-fleet Seabees, also opened in June 1942.
“To think today about trying to build a base and get it open for business in a few months, it’s hard to conceive,” Hildebrand said.
The Seabees’ beginnings are remembered in “The Song of the Seabees,” the first verse of which goes, “We’re the Seabees of the Navy, We can build and we can fight, We’ll pave the way to victory, And guard it day and night, And we promise that we remember, The Seventh of December...”
After the war was over, the entire military scaled back and there were questions about about what would become of the Seabees. In 1947, the Department of Defense embarked upon a study to determine where to go in the future.
“One of the issues the Navy took on was, ‘Do we keep the Seabees?’ ” Hildebrand said. “They never had them before. They were created as a temporary organization, so was there a place for them in the future?”
The decision was made to make the Seabees a permanent part of the Navy.
Today, there are almost 14,000 active and reserve Seabees. More than 4,000 are stationed in Gulfport.
Would the Seabees ever have been created if not for the Pearl Harbor attack? It’s hard to say.
During the Vietnam War, the organization quickly expanded again, reaching out to the construction industry for recruits. That may or may not have happened if the basis for the organization weren’t already in place.
Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. There will be a ceremony at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, one in D’Iberville and one at the Seabee Base.
“The Pearl Harbor anniversary is important to the Navy’s heritage,” base spokesman Brian Lamar said. “It was a tragic and dramatic event that changed the course of the Navy.”