Military Monday – “Can Do!” The Story of the Seabees

Ever wonder how the U.S. accomplished everything during World War II to win the war? It took good old American pride, courage, determination, strength, and plenty of ingenuity! We have all heard the story of the infantrymen, the pilots, and the Marines who fought the war. But have you heard the story of those men who helped build the war?

I’m talking about the men who carved roads and airstrips out of the jungle so our pilots could land on remote islands. Men who built the camps and hospitals to house and care for our troops. And the men who built the pontoons and harbors so we could land anywhere and everywhere around the globe. Men who were like a modern day “MacGyver” from the 1980’s television show, who could build a hospital out of a piece of bubble gum and string.

Who were these men? These 1940s era MacGyver’s? The United States Navy Seabees.

Image by the Works Progress Administration during WWII and available in the public domain.

Image by the Works Progress Administration during WWII and available in the public domain.

A Seabee was a member of one of the construction battalions of the Civil Engineer Corps of the U.S. Navy. The Seabees were civilian volunteers who worked in the construction field. The name Seabee was a play on words which came from the initials C.B. which stood for Construction Battalion. This group did not exist prior to World War II. Prior to the war, the U.S. Navy hired private contractors to handle their construction jobs.

The U.S. did not have Naval Bases spread out across the world as we do today so there was not a pressing need for the Navy to have its own construction unit. The Seabees were the men who helped build those bases, and build the “roads around the world” connecting one base to another, island by island and continent by continent, to help win the war.

As part of research I’ve been doing for a client on his WWII Seabee ancestor, I read a book called “Can Do!” The Story of the Seabees. Written by William Bradford Huie. First, I must tell you I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing was excellent because of the description and language used, and the fact that Huie told it like it was when he wrote it in 1944.

Reading this, Huie wanted you to feel a sense of pride where the Seabees were concerned. He stated in the beginning of the book, that “if [the book] convinces you that a hell-roaring Seabee, mounted on a 20-ton bulldozer, will lead the parade through the ruins of Tokyo, then it will have served one of its purposes.” You really do feel that pride as you proceed through the book.

You feel the good natured ribbing between the Seabees who built the roads to get every other branch of the service where they needed to go, especially the Marines, and the Marines who defended the roads they built. You see both the dark and light sides of war through the stories of many Seabees who speak through the book. You learn about the impressive work these men did while fighting rain, mud, disease, insects, snakes, spiders, little food, extreme heat, and lack of sleep all while dodging bombs and bullets. The book also gives you a greater understanding of WHY it took so long to win the war in the Pacific.

The one really important thing about this book for family historians, is that Huie mentions the names of many Seabees and he tells you both in the text and footnotes the name, rank, and where that Seabee was from! It makes this a very valuable resource for anyone who had a Seabee in the family. The appendix has a list of all those men who were killed in action, those that received medals, and an appendix of poems written by and about the Seabees.

This book takes you on the journey of the Seabees from 1942 until just before D-Day and primarily in the Pacific. Huie wrote a second book (which I have to read) called “From Omaha to Okinawa.” This book picks up where the other leaves off.

If you are looking for a great resource on the Seabees, do not miss Huie’s two books! Quick reads that will take you back in time.

© 2013, Generations, Woodridge, IL

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