Archive for March, 2014

Mar 8

Battle of Hampton Roads – The Little Known Story of USS Cumberland

Saturday, March 8, 2014 8:00 AM
Ramming of the U.S.S. Cumberland by the Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia), Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862 Alexander Charles Stuart - 1880

Ramming of the U.S.S. Cumberland by the Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia), Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862
Alexander Charles Stuart – 1880

By Naval History and Heritage Command

On Mar. 8, 1862, in the southern part of Virginia where the Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers meet the James River to empty into the Chesapeake Bay, in the region known as Hampton Roads, the first battle between ironclad warships occurred. Most of us remember the famous duel, which ended in a stalemate, between the two iron-clad, steam ships, USS Monitor, and CSS Virginia, which had been a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship called Merrimack.

Often forgotten are the other ships that were there, USS Cumberland, USS Congress and USS Minnesota. Before Virginia met her match in Monitor, she wreaked havoc on those ships destroying Congress and Cumberland, then pummeling Minnesota. But according to Historian Gordon Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the crew of Cumberland has earned the admiration of many. Their bravery echoes through the ages because despite impossible odds they never surrendered. Cumberland never struck her colors.

USS Cumberland

USS Cumberland

A year earlier on April 19, 1861, President Lincoln ordered the blockade of all ports in the seceded states, a group Virginia joined when it left the union on April 27. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles gave the order to scuttle all federal ships and 3,000 guns that could be used by separatist states. Nine ships were burned. The USS Cumberland had just arrived at the Navy Yard from her overseas duty station off the coast of Mexico. Her company was given the impossible task of carrying out the scuttling order. After doing what they could, the steam sloop USS Pawnee and the tug USS Yankee towed the ship up the Elizabeth River to safety.

Model of CSS Virginia by Alexander Lynch, 1939

Model of CSS Virginia by Alexander Lynch, 1939

Union Sailors were only able to burn Merrimack to the waterline on April 20, 1861. Her hull and steam engine were still intact. Merrimack would end up becoming the only ship with an intact engine for the Confederacy in the Chesapeake Bay area. Even the dry dock was barely destroyed. Confederate forces easily restored it to retrofit Merrimack into the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. Her engine and hull were refurbished with a significant addition: her prow, the forward most position of the bow above the waterline, was augmented with an iron ram. As Calhoun put it, the Confederacy had gone “back to the Roman Empire” reverting to old naval warfare by ramming opponents. She was also fitted with six, nine-inch Dahlgren guns and four six- to seven-inch Brooke rifles, which could pierce up to eight inches of armor plating. Virginia’s armor plating was two layers of 2-inch thick plates and surrounded her 14 gun ports. Within six months of Lincoln’s blockade and Welles’ order to scuttle her as the USS Merrimack, CSS Virginia was ready and commissioned Feb. 17, 1862.

CSS Virginia by Clary Ray

CSS Virginia by Clary Ray

On March 8,1862, Virginia made her assault on the sloop of war, Cumberland, which had been in commission for twenty years. She had been the flagship of the African Squadron stalking slave ships off of the African coast. Back then, Cumberland boasted 50 guns when she was a frigate, but in 1857, she was converted into a sloop-of-war which required removing her top deck and all guns from her spar deck. When asked if this adversely affected Cumberland’s ability, Calhoun said, “Not really. It definitely extended her life.” Cumberland was able to accommodate more versatile guns — she had 22 with 12 on her broad side as opposed to Virginia’s three. He added that Cumberland’s only fault was that she was an oak-wood-hulled sailing ship that depended on the wind, and on March 8, a calm day, she went “zero knots.”

Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Virginia rammed Cumberland’s starboard bow. This was nearly also Virginia’s undoing. By ramming Cumberland, she wedged and trapped herself in Cumberland’s thick oak hull. In fact, Virginia nearly sank with Cumberland, but broke free as Cumberland listed. By 3:30,Congress had surrendered. But not Cumberland. She would not surrender. Even though she had taken on water up to the main hatchway, her officers and crew continued fighting. According to her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George Morris, “It is impossible for me to individualize; alike officers and men all behaved in the most gallant manner,”and “showed the most perfect coolness….” Even the Confederate flag officer aboard Virginia was impressed and noted once Cumberland “commenced sinking, gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water. She went down with her colors flying.”

CSS Virginia Rams USS Cumberland

CSS Virginia Rams USS Cumberland

According to the account made by Capt. Marston aboard the screw frigate USS Roanoke, on March 8,1862, sometime after 1 p.m., Virginia “…was soon discovered passing out by Sewell’s Point, standing up toward Newport News,” and “…went up and immediately attacked the Congress and Cumberland, but particularly the latter ship,once she returned Virginia’s fire.”Cumberland’s nine and ten-inch Dahlgren guns, which at the time were popular and versatile, didn’t even phase Virginia.Also, the tide was against her. She could only use a few of her guns at a bad angle to attack Virginia.

Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Virginia rammed Cumberland’s starboard bow. This was nearly also Virginia’s undoing. By ramming Cumberland, she wedged and trapped herself in Cumberland’s thick oak hull. In fact, Virginia nearly sank with Cumberland, but broke free as Cumberland listed. By 3:30,Congress had surrendered. But not Cumberland. She would not surrender. Even though she had taken on water up to the main hatchway, her officers and crew continued fighting. According to her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George Morris, “It is impossible for me to individualize; alike officers and men all behaved in the most gallant manner,”and “showed the most perfect coolness….” Even the Confederate flag officer aboard Virginia was impressed and noted once Cumberland “commenced sinking, gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water. She went down with her colors flying.”

The battle had an immense impact on the U.S. Navy. According to Calhoun, the day Cumberland and Congress were destroyed, March 8, 1862, was recognized as a “disaster for the Navy,” having lost two major ships and more than 200 sailors. It was a “pivotal” moment in naval history as it was the last time the Navy would depend on sail ships in combat. In fact, the Navy immediately recalled all sail ships and, with few exceptions, used only ships equipped steam-powered engines. Navy Yards immediately began to fit ships with steam-powered engines that “did not need the wind or the tides to depend on”.

Cumberland’s 120 officers and crew went down in the James River still fighting,refusing to surrender or strike their colors. Cumberland also damaged two of Virginia’s guns. Congress would later give accolades to Cumberland noting she did more damage to Virginia than Monitor did.

Monitor-Merrimac-combat1

The next day CSS Virginia would attempt the same tactic — to ram and run over Monitor which arrived in the area on March 9, 1862. According to Monitor’s chief engineer, “She tried to run us down and sink us, as she did the Cumberland yesterday, but she got the worst of it. Her bow passed over our deck and our sharp upper edged side cut through the light iron shoe upon her stem and well into her oak.”

He added, “She will not try that again.”

Crewmen on deck of USS Monitor, July 1862

Crewmen on deck of USS Monitor, July 1862

——

Cumberland’s wreck is currently a Federally-protected site and is monitored during occasional visits by joint expeditions sponsored by NOAA’s Monitor Marine Sanctuary office, the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archeology branch, and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Artifacts from Cumberland can be seen at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va., one of NHHC’s nine official museums. More information on the history of Cumberland, artifacts from the ship, and the men who served on the vessel can be found at:

http://www.history.navy.mil/museums/hrnm/resources-uss-cumberland-center.html

USS Monitor Versus CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) and the Battle for Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862:
Selected Original Documents can be found at:

http://www.history.navy.mil/docs/civilwar/hamptonroads.htm

For more information on the Battle at Hampton Roads, visit the following links:

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=72338

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=72520

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=72578

 

 

 
Mar 6

Civil Engineer Corps unique among other military services

Thursday, March 6, 2014 8:03 AM

 

Civil engineers discussing new facility in Japan in 2012. (Photo courtesy of PWD Sasebo)

Civil engineers discussing new facility in Japan in 2012. (Photo courtesy of PWD Sasebo)

 Rear Adm. Kate Gregory, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command, and Chief of Civil Engineers

 This year, the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) observes its 147th anniversary, embracing a legacy of providing facilities engineering expertise to Navy and Marine Corps commanders that began on March 2, 1867. The CEC is a unique organization with no exact counterpart in any other service or any other Navy in the world. Its officers are the Navy’s professional engineers and architects, responsible for executing and managing the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the Navy’s shore facilities. CEC officers work primarily in three areas: construction contract management, public works, and with the Seabees.

Rear Adm. Katherine L. Gregory Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Chief of Civil Engineers

Rear Adm. Katherine L. Gregory
Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command
Chief of Civil Engineers

Today, the Civil Engineer Corps continues to support the Chief of Naval Operations’ tenets of “Warfighting First,” “Operate Forward,” and “Be Ready,” while adapting to changing national security threats, the drawdown from the war in Afghanistan, and fiscal uncertainties. The demand for CEC officers to support the capabilities of joint war fighters and supported commanders through efficient, innovative and responsive facilities and expeditionary expertise has never been more critical.

At every Navy base around the globe, these men and women are on the job, around the clock. From public works to building design, from environmental assessment to alternative energy development, and even to disaster recovery efforts, the Navy’s civil engineers are there.

This same cadre of officers also leads the Seabees, who provide the naval expeditionary forces with a wide array of support. Whether helping to build a combat outpost so Marines can extend their reach in Afghanistan, erecting a pier that extends a kilometer into the surf to support logistics coming over the shore, working to open a damaged port in Haiti, or drilling a fresh water well in Africa, CEC-led Seabees live by their motto “Can Do!” and can be counted on to get the job done.

Rear Adm. Christopher Mossey visits with elements of three Seabee battalions in Afghanistan in 2011. Navy photo by Utilitiesman 2nd Class Vuong Ta

Rear Adm. Christopher Mossey visits with elements of three Seabee battalions in Afghanistan in 2011.
Navy photo by Utilitiesman 2nd Class Vuong Ta

As we celebrate nearly a century-and-a-half of dedicated service, this is a time to reflect upon the Civil Engineer Corp’s storied past, the critical work it is doing now, and the accomplishments it will achieve in the future. As CEC officer Cmdr. La Tanya Simms summarized it, “We don’t just build facilities and roads. We build partnerships, lasting legacies, solutions, and linkages to improve people’s lives.”

Happy 147th birthday, Civil Engineer Corps!

 Rear Adm. Gregory assumed duties as commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command and chief of civil engineers on Oct. 26, 2012.
Previously, Gregory served as commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific and the Pacific Fleet civil engineer. Her other facilities assignments include tours in Yokosuka, Japan; Naples, Italy; San Francisco; Adak, Alaska; and Pearl Harbor. She has also had staff tours in Washington, D.C., serving as the Seabee action officer and Chief of Naval Operations Overseas Bases planning and action officer.
Within the Naval Construction Force (Seabees), she has served with Amphibious Construction Battalion One; Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) One; commanding officer of NMCB 133; commander of the 30th Naval Construction Regiment; and chief of staff for the First Naval Construction Division. Throughout her Seabee tours, she deployed to the Western Pacific, Mediterranean, Iraq and Haiti.
Gregory is a native of St. Louis, and a 1982 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Southern California and George Washington University, and has completed the Senior Executive Program at the London School of Business.
She is a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a qualified military parachutist and Seabee combat warfare officer.

 
Mar 5

After much deliberation, Seabees settle on March 5 as birthday

Wednesday, March 5, 2014 1:15 PM
Description: Diego Garcia (July 9, 2004) U.S. Navy Seabees with Underwater Construction Team Two (UCT-2) at Diego Garcia British Indian Ocean Territory, step into the water at the beginning of a scheduled dive July 9, 2004. Photo by U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Michael Hight

U.S. Navy Seabees with Underwater Construction Team Two (UCT-2) at Diego Garcia British Indian Ocean Territory, step into the water at the beginning of a scheduled dive July 9, 2004. Photo by U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Hight

By Lara Godbille, Ph.D., Director, US Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command

Since March 5, 1942, the U.S. Navy has employed an elite cadre of construction battalions better known as Seabees. Guided by the motto, “We Build, We Fight,” over the past 72 years the Seabees have served in all major American conflicts, supported humanitarian efforts, and helped to build communities and nations around the globe. Today, Seabees young and old are celebrating the birthday of this unique organization; however, March 5th has not always been its birthday. 

 

Rear Adm. Ben Moreell personally furnished Seabees with their official motto: Construimus, Batuimus -- "We Build, We Fight."

Rear Adm. Ben Moreell personally furnished Seabees with their official motto: Construimus, Batuimus — “We Build, We Fight.”

 

 

From its inception during World War until 1954, the anniversary of the Seabee was observed on December 28th. This was the date on which Adm. Ben Moreell requested authority from the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation to recruit enlisted personnel to serve in a naval construction force. Rear Adm. John R. Perry, CEC, USN, the Chief of Bureau of Yards and Docks (the predecessor to NAVFAC), made the decision to change the Seabee birthday. When serving as the Commanding Officer of the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme, Calif., in the early 1950s, Perry recognized the Seabee birthday occurred at a hectic time of the year. Many the Seabees were on holiday leave during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Family commitments coupled with the financial strain of the holidays made it difficult for all to participate in what Perry considered a suitable celebration for the Seabee birthday.

Several historically significant dates in Seabee history were considered for the new birthdate. For example, October 31st was a contender as it was the day in 1941 that the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation directed Adm. Moreell to form of a Headquarters Construction Company of ninety-nine men for duty in Iceland. These men, combined with four other companies formed the core of what would be the Bobcats and the First Naval Construction Battalion. March 19 was also contemplated as it was the day in 1942 that the Secretary of the Navy authorized Civil Engineer Corps Officers to serve as Commanding Officers of the newly formed Construction Battalions.

Built by the 111th Naval Construction Battalion, the Mulberry at Normandy had large concrete and/or steel pontoons installed at regular intervals for strengthening. Omaha shoreline is viewed in background in this June 1944 photo.

Built by the 111th Naval Construction Battalion,
the Mulberry at Normandy had large concrete and/or steel pontoons installed at regular intervals for strengthening. Omaha shoreline is viewed in background in this June 1944 photo.

After deliberations by leadership in the Bureau of Yards and Dock’s Seabee Division, March 5th was determined to be the most appropriate day to celebrate the Seabee birthday as it had dual significance. Not only was March 5th the date in 1942 that the Construction Battalions were given official permission to assume the name of Seabees, but it was also the anniversary date of the Civil Engineer Corps which had been established in 1867.

Seabee Construction electrician works on improvements to the power distribution system at Camp Hoover, Da Nang, Vietnam, Nov. 21, 1968. U.S. Navy photo

Seabee Construction electrician works on improvements to the power distribution system at Camp Hoover, Da Nang, Vietnam, Nov. 21, 1968. U.S. Navy photo

Even though some aspects of the Seabee organization have changed throughout the years – including its birthday – there is a distinctive ethos that defines and binds the Seabee community whether they served in Guadalcanal or in Afghanistan. This attitude is hard to define, but you know it if you’ve ever known a Seabee no matter their era; I like to describe it is “Can do!” coated in compassion. This sense of Seabee pride and connectedness to a larger Seabee community that spans both geography and time is what is make days like this one as special as it is.

Godbille is the director of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. Part of Naval History and Heritage Command’s nine museums, the mission of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum is to select, collect, preserve and display historic material relating to the history of the Naval Construction Force, better known as the SEABEES, and the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps. The second oldest of the official Navy museums, the  Seabee Museum  was established in 1947 in Port Hueneme, Calf., which today is part of Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC).

 MUSEUM HOURS

 Mon – Sat: 9am to 4pm, Sun: 12pm to 4pm, closed all Federal holidays

Admission and parking are free.

The Museum is open to the public and tours can be arranged for schools or other groups. Call (805) 982-5167 or email seabeemuseum@navy.mil

 Visit the Seabee Museum’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/seabeemuseum?ref=br_tf 

To read about the Seabees during World War II and their efforts with building for a nation and for equality click here.

 

 
Mar 4

Building for a Nation and for Equality: African American Seabees in World War II

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 8:41 PM

 Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command

 

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion erecting a 40 x 100 foot Quonset hut warehouse at Halavo Seaplane Base, Florida Island, Solomon Islands, September 19, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion erecting a 40 x 100 foot Quonset hut warehouse at Halavo Seaplane Base, Florida Island, Solomon Islands, September 19, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Visitors to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum may wish to walk to the display of battalion plaques from World War II. Among the blur of polished wood, painted plaster, and engraved metal one may gaze upon the plaques of the 34th, 20th (Special), and 80th Naval Construction Battalions (NCB). The plaque for the 20th bears the motto “Proving Our Worth,” an apt description for men fighting for victory over fascism abroad and discrimination at home. Over 12,500 African Americans served in Seabee units in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II, a group largely forgotten today. During the war these men not only built advanced bases and offloaded cargo, but helped break institutional conceptions of race, paving the road toward complete integration of the Navy.

 

MM1c J.P. Weaver of Martinsburg, WV at the controls of a Seabee dozer. Weaver rose from Seaman to Petty Officers in 20 months with the 34th Naval Construction Battalion, earning the most promotion of any member during its first deployment in the Pacific. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

MM1c J.P. Weaver of Martinsburg, WV at the controls of a Seabee dozer. Weaver rose from Seaman to Petty Officers in 20 months with the 34th Naval Construction Battalion, earning the most promotion of any member during its first deployment in the Pacific. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Navy debated its exclusionary and discriminatory race policies. In June 1940, only 2.3 percent of the Navy’s personnel were African American, almost all serving as stewards for white officers and chiefs in the messman branch. Passage of the Selective Service and Training Act in September 1940 necessitated the Navy to change its policies, as the legislation stated that “any person, regardless of race or color . . . shall be afforded an opportunity to volunteer for . . . the land and naval forces of the United States.” Subsequently, Navy Secretary Frank Knox established a committee to investigate the integration of African Americans into the service. The committee’s December 1941 report, however, argued against enlisting African Americans as other than mess attendants due to “the limitations of the characteristics of members of certain races.” But after December 7, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) pressed the White House and Knox to accept African Americans for service other than stewards.

 

Members of the 41st Special Naval Construction Battalion on Hollandia in 1944. The Specials integrated in the latter stages of the war in the Pacific, some of the first full-integrated units in the Navy. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Members of the 41st Special Naval Construction Battalion on Hollandia in 1944. The Specials integrated in the latter stages of the war in the Pacific, some of the first full-integrated units in the Navy. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, balancing the issues of race while pursuing a two-front war, pressed for a compromise solution. In January 1942, Knox asked the Navy’s General Board to submit plans for African Americans to serve in billets outside of the steward branch, but the new plans only reinforced prevalent racial views that African Americans exclusively remain in the messman branch. Roosevelt remained unconvinced, and requested Knox reinvestigate the matter. In late February, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Harold R. Stark recommended that African Americans could be rated in construction battalions or serve in the naval shore establishment. On April 7, 1942, Knox announced that the Navy would enlist African Americans for the general service, with open enlistment for messmen and the new Seabees.

Seabee divers from the 34th Naval Construction Battalion work on a marine railway using improvised diving equipment, Gavutu, Solomon Islands, November 8, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Seabee divers from the 34th Naval Construction Battalion work on a marine railway using improvised diving equipment, Gavutu, Solomon Islands, November 8, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

 

For the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks), recruitment and organization for African American construction battalions began in April 1942. In September, 880 African American men from 37 states reported to Camp Allen near Norfolk, VA to become Seabees. To command the new units, BuDocks decided to use southern white men, chosen for “their ability and knowledge in handling” African Americans, but who also received orders to treat all personnel without difference in regards to promotions and assignments. With almost eighty percent of the enlisted men hailing from the South, RADM Ben Moreell and other senior BuDocks leaders felt this arrangement would help produce a “crack battalion, one which will be proud of themselves and to the Seabees.” On October 24, 1942, the Navy commissioned the African American 34th NCB which shipped out of Port Hueneme, CA for the Pacific. The men served 20 months overseas, constructing naval facilities at Espiritu Santo and in the Solomon Islands before returning to Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme in October 1944.

 

The 80th Naval Construction Battalion at work at Edinburgh Field, Trinidad construction a steel lighter-than-air hangar, November 30, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The 80th Naval Construction Battalion at work at Edinburgh Field, Trinidad construction a steel lighter-than-air hangar, November 30, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Around the time the 34th shipped out in January 1943, the second African American construction battalion, the 80th NCB, formed at Camp Allen and commissioned on February 2. After advanced training, the unit moved to Gulfport, MS before embarking for assignment to Trinidad in July. As with the 34th, the 80th’s officers and chiefs were also white southerners, although the battalion’s African American personnel mostly came from northern states. Also in July 1943, the first of fifteen predominantly African American stevedore construction battalions, termed “specials,” commissioned. All but one of these specials served in the Pacific. These battalions varied considerably in composition from the 34th and 80th NCBs. While still commanded by white officers, the 15th, 17th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Specials had at least one African American chief petty officer, and the white leadership consisted predominately of non-southerners, less inclined to impose the edifice of segregation in the workplace or at the base camps.

While deployed, the men of the two construction battalions performed their assignments admirably and efficiently, but the corrosive effects of commander-imposed racism and discrimination would result in two imbroglios for the Navy. Initially, nothing appeared out of order with either battalion. In the Pacific, the 34th endured Japanese bombing raids and lost five men killed and 35 wounded in their first deployment. Their work in the Solomons garnered numerous commendations and citations for exceptional service. In Trinidad, the 80th constructed a massive airship hangar and other airfield facilities in defense of the Caribbean from German U-boat operations. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Moreell, and other dignitaries visited the unit to inspect their progress.

Upon returning to the United States in late 1944, racial tensions in the 34th boiled over at Camp Rousseau, Port Hueneme. While rebuilding for its next deployment, the commanding officer refused to rate any African American as a chief petty officer, and instituted segregated barracks, mess lines, and mess huts. African American petty officers were used for unskilled manual labor and never placed in charge of working parties. With morale low, the African American personnel of the battalion staged a hunger strike from March 2 – 3, 1945, refusing to eat but continuing to perform all scheduled duties. In response, following a Board of Investigation, BuDocks relieved the commanding officer, his executive officer, and twenty percent of the original officers and petty officers. Their replacements were all screened for racial prejudices and southern men predominately avoided. The new commanding officer, a New Yorker, organized a training program for enlisted personnel to be rerated and ensured that qualified men receive the promotions unfairly denied them under the previous commander.

Left to right, 34th National Construction Battalion members MM3c Joseph E. Vaughn of Cambridge, MA, CM3c Harry E. Lash of Gastonia, NC, and GM3c William A. Shields of Trenton, NJ displaying Purple Hearts for wounds received by Japanese bombing on February 22, 1943. Photo taken May 28, 1944 at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Left to right, 34th National Construction Battalion members MM3c Joseph E. Vaughn of Cambridge, MA, CM3c Harry E. Lash of Gastonia, NC, and GM3c William A. Shields of Trenton, NJ displaying Purple Hearts for wounds received by Japanese bombing on February 22, 1943. Photo taken May 28, 1944 at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

 

For the men of the 80th, discrimination in Gulfport prior to embarkation continued on their transport at sea and at Trinidad, where segregated facilities manifested themselves. After the Officer in Charge heard complaints from a group of Seabees about racial discrimination in the battalion in September 1943, the commander initiated the discharge of 19 members for what he deemed seditious behavior bordering on mutiny. The commanding officer of the Naval Operating Base, Trinidad and commandant of the Tenth Naval District approved the discharges. The discharged men thereafter contacted the NAACP and the African American media, who demanded answers from the Secretary of the Navy. Under the legal guidance of the NAACP and their special counsel, Thurgood Marshall, a review board upgraded the discharges of 14 of the men in April 1945. Meanwhile, after the battalion returned to Port Hueneme in July 1944, BuDocks ordered the removal of the Officer in Charge and all of the original white officers and chiefs, aside from the medical and supply officers, and replaced them with non-southerners.

BuDocks could have easily disbanded both battalions and declared African Americans incompatible with the Seabees, but instead chose to recognize the error of its way and change its policies. A Civil Engineer Corps officer noted during the war how when choosing officers for a Seabee unit, “A man may be from the north, south, east or west. If his attitude is to do the best possible job he knows how, regardless of what the color of his personnel is, that is the man we want as an officer for our colored Seabees.” The work of African American units proved equal to that of white units. Leadership – as with any military unit – made the difference in morale and efficiency. This is particularly noted in the African American special battalions, which often reported high morale and performance. After replacing the leadership of the two construction battalions, BuDocks redeployed both units to the Pacific in 1945, where they worked without incident and with high morale.

The accomplishments of African American Seabees in World War II demonstrated then and now that the spirit of “Can Do” does not differentiate between age, race, or gender. By late 1945 as American forces closed in on Japan, several African American Seabee specials integrated, and white and black Seabees found themselves unloading ships or constructing advance bases, united together for victory. These constituted, arguably, the Navy’s first fully-integrated units in the twentieth century. Perhaps more importantly for these Seabees, they recognized how their work in the Pacific factored into the fight against discrimination at home. Writing in April 1945, 80th NCB member CM1c Arthur H. Turner of Detroit, MI declared: “Wherever we go, whatever our assignment may be, we still employ all our talents and efforts to do a good job, one that will be a lasting monument to the navy and to the negro race.”

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion construct a timber pile bridge over the Teneru River on Guadalcanal using native lumber, July 10, 1944. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion construct a timber pile bridge over the Teneru River on Guadalcanal using native lumber, July 10, 1944. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

 

Part of Naval History and Heritage Command’s nine museums the mission of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum is to select, collect, preserve and display historic material relating to the history of the Naval Construction Force, better known as the SEABEES, and the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps.

The second oldest of the official Navy museums, the Seabee Museum was established in 1947 in Port Hueneme, Calf., which today is part of Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC).

 

MUSEUM HOURS

 Mon – Sat: 9am to 4pm

Sun: 12pm to 4pm

Closed all Federal holidays

Admission and parking are free.

 The Museum is open to the public and tours can be arranged for schools or other groups.

Call (805) 982-5167 or email seabeemuseum@navy.mil

Visit the Seabee Museum’s Facebook page.

 
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