Saluting true laborers on Labor Day

September 04, 2000|By H. George Hahn II

THEIR average age was 31. They were skilled craftsmen. Many had wives and children. Many more had been employed at high wages in shipyards and war plants. And few were subject to the draft.

And they're due a smart salute on Labor Day because many of them were laborers. Their story was first told by William Huie in "Can Do!: The story of the Seabees" in 1944.

They were steam fitters and lumberjacks, surveyers, welders, demolition men, machinists, plumbers, electricians, longshoremen, carpenters and road graders.

And by the end of World War II they were 250,000 strong, led by 8,000 commissioned officers who were civil engineering graduates and petty officers who had been construction foremen in civilian life. They answered the call right after Pearl Harbor, when the Navy merged the Civil Engineering Corps (CEC) with the new Naval Construction Battalions (CB). On Dec. 28, 1941, the Seabees were born.

The name was more than a neat pun. In classical times the bee was a triple symbol of industry, creativity and ferocity. The Seabees knew how to work, so after learning to drill, swim, shoot and salute, these construction men shipped out.

If war is about breaking things up, the Seabees' job was to build them up -- and build them up after yet another bombing or strafing. In history's greatest construction war, the Seabees worked in the tradition of Archimedes, who designed sea defenses in the ancient world, and Xerxes, whose pontoon bridges helped make the Persians the greatest military threat of their time.

Charging off landing craft with the Marines in the Pacific, they cleared jungles and drained swamps to build the airstrips and ports that made hundreds of islands pontoons for a 12,000 mile bridge carrying Yankee retribution to Tokyo.

In Algeria, Morocco, Sicily and Salerno they built the causeways and drydocks that spearheaded the Allied advance. In Iceland and the Aleutians, they built bases. And always there were the Seabee stevedores with their slogan, "Keep the hook moving," loading and unloading ships on waters across the world.

The Seabees not only worked. They invented. Whether it was thousands of culverts and radiators made from steel drums or mess ovens and grills made from pontoon cubes or captured Japanese steel improvised for better tank traction, American ingenuity typified their effort.

But of all the Seabee inventions, the "magic box" may be the most important contribution to winning the war.

Shipped compactly as four flat sides, the cubes could be quickly assembled, bolted to treadways of 175 feet, towed alongside an LST toward a beach and rigged as a fast-lane gangplank for men, munitions and machines. Miles of pontoons across the Pacific were the modern parallel of Rome's highways that welded an empire.

And while they built like Romans, they fought like Spartans. They worked with their guns strapped to them while their buddies manned anti-aircraft and perimeter ordnance.

When a Japanese Zeke came flying flat and firing fast out of a dawn sun or submachine gun bursts acted like lethal headlights from dark scrub, their 'dozers, tractors and cranes became sudden gun mounts. And they fought with a vengeance.

The Seabees and Marines with whom they often hit the beaches were natural allies against the Navy -- and friendly rivals themselves. When the leathernecks would boast that if ever the Navy and Army got to heaven they would find the Marines guarding the streets, the Seabees would reply that it was they who had gotten there first to build the streets.

The brass agreed.

"I do not know how we could have gotten along without the Seabees," said Marine Gen. A. A. Vandegrift. And the Navy could call the Seabees first among equals: Adm. Thomas Kinkaid said, "Without the Seabees, the Navy would be lost in this war."

Not bad for the "old men" in Cracker Jack blues and whites who were the bulls eye of another Marine joke, "Never hit a Seabee; he may be your grandfather."

H. George Hahn is professor of English at Towson University and editor of "All Ahead Full," a publication of the Navy League of the United States. He is vice president of the Navy League's Baltimore Council.

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