The Cactus Air Force

Guadalcanal — 1942

Some Background

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941 (an event that crippled the United States Pacific Fleet), Japan intended to seize a number of Pacific atolls for their own use.  Doing so would increase their access to natural resources and locations suitable as advanced military and naval bases.  Advanced Pacific Rim bases would extend the defensive perimeter of the Japanese home islands.  In addition to their successful attack against the US Fleet, the Japanese also seized control of Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Wake Island, New Britain, and Guam.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle for Midway Island (June 1942) thwarted additional Japanese efforts to seize advance bases.  Both battles were significant because (1) the Allied forces [Note 1] demonstrated to the world that the Empire of Japan was not invincible, and (2) the battles enabled the Allies to seize the initiative and launch a counter-offensive against the Japanese.  The United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand chose the Solomon Islands as their place, and August 1942 as their time.

Allied intelligence learned that the Japanese Imperial Navy (JIN) occupied Tulagi in May 1942 and had established a seaplane base in the Solomons.  They also discovered that the Japanese had embarked on the construction of an air base suitable for long-range bombers at Lunga Point on the island of Guadalcanal.  If the Allies failed to interdict Japan’s efforts, Japanese air forces would be in a position to disrupt allied lines of communication between Australia/New Zealand, and the United States.  Only one month earlier, in July, Australian reserve (territorial) battalions fought a stubborn action against Japanese advances in New Guinea.  Although victorious, Australian reserves were seriously depleted.  The arrival of the Second Imperial Force (Australia) in August (returning from the Mediterranean) allowed Australian forces to deny Japan’s seizure of Port Moresby, and Milne Bay.  The Australian victory, with supporting American forces, was Japan’s first land defeat in World War II.

The author of the plan to attack the Solomon Islands was Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet.  The US Marines invaded Tulagi and Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942 [Note 2], capturing the partially completed airfield at Lunga Point, although the airfield required additional work before the allied forces could use it.

Assembling Air Forces

Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC

The Americans renamed the field after Major Lofton R. Henderson, USMC [Note 3], who lost his life during the Battle of Midway while in command of VMSB-241.  The first allied aircraft to land on Henderson Field was a patrol bomber (designation PBY) on 12 August.  Eight days later, 31 Marine Corps Wildcat (F4F) fighters and Dauntless (SBD) dive bombers landed from the fast carrier USS Long Island.  Following them on 22 August was a squadron of U. S. Army Air-Cobra (P-39).  Additionally, B-17s began operations from Henderson Field (although the large bombers had an abysmal record against Japanese targets) [Note 4]. 

This ensemble of multi-service personnel and their dwindling collection of outdated, dilapidated, and inferior combat aircraft became known as the Cactus Air Force — “Cactus” being the Allied code name for Guadalcanal.  Henderson Field barely qualified as an airfield.  The Japanese designed it in an irregular shape, half of it sitting within a coconut grove, and its runway length was inadequate the wide range of for Allied aircraft.  Even after combat engineers began their work to improve the field, it remained in such poor condition that it caused as many losses to aircraft as those lost in air combat.  Rain, which was ever present on Guadalcanal, transformed the field into muddy swamp.  Some of the allied aircraft were too heavy for the matting used for expeditionary airfields; takeoffs and landing also damaged the field.  Despite these on-going problems, Henderson Field was essential to the U.S. effort of confronting the Japanese, distributing critical combat resupply, and evacuating wounded personnel.  Henderson Field was also vital as an alternate airfield for Navy pilots whose carriers were too badly damaged to recover them.

In mid-August 1942, Guadalcanal was very likely one of the most dangerous places on earth.  Allied naval forces were under constant threat of attack by Japanese air and naval forces.  To safeguard carriers and their air groups from possible submarine or enemy carrier aircraft, once the amphibious force disembarked at Guadalcanal, the U. S. Navy withdrew its carriers, transports, and resupply ships from the Solomon Islands.  This placed Allied ground forces at risk from Japanese naval artillery and air attack.  The Allies needed aircraft—badly.  Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF)-123 (flying F4Fs) began its operations at Henderson Field in mid-August.  One squadron was insufficient to demand, however.  The Allies needed more aircraft —sooner rather than later.  Higher headquarters scheduled the arrival VMF-223 and VMTB-232 on Guadalcanal around 16 August.  The pilots and aircraft arrived on 20 August, but because the demand for shipping exceeded available transport, ground crews became stranded in Hawaii; ground crews would not arrive on Guadalcanal until early September.  The formula was simple —no ground crews, no operational aircraft.

The delay of ground crew at a critical period prompted Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. [Note 5] to order Major Charles H. “Fog” Hayes, serving as the Executive Officer, Marine Observation Squadron (VMO)-251 to proceed to Guadalcanal with 120 Seabees of the advance base force (operationally known as CUB-1) [Note 6] to assist the 1st Marine Division combat engineers in completing Henderson Field and then serve as ground crewmen for the Marine fighters and bombers presently en route.  Ensign George W. Polk, USN [Note 7] commanded the Seabee detachment.

Henderson Field, OFFiCIAL USMC PHOTO

The men from CUB-1 embarked aboard ship and departed Espiritu Santo on the evening of 13 August, taking with them 400 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel, 32 55-gallon drums of lubricant, 282 bombs (100 to 500 pounds), belted ammunition, tools, and critically needed aviation spare parts.  They arrived on Guadalcanal on 15 August and began assisting Marine engineers with their task of enlarging the airstrip.  Despite daily assaults by Japanese aircraft, Marine engineers and Seabees completed the field on 19 August.  CUB-1 technicians installed, tested, and operated an air-raid warning system in the Japanese-built field control tower.

VMF-223 with 19-aircraft and VMSB-232 with 12 planes arrived on 20 August; all aircraft arrived safely at Henderson Field and the pilots immediately began combat operations against Japanese aircraft over Guadalcanal.  As immediately, the Sailors of CUB-1 began servicing these aircraft with the tools and equipment at their disposal.  Aircraft refueling was by hand crank pumps when they were available but otherwise tipped over on the wings and funneled into the gasoline tanks.  Loading bombs was particularly difficult because hoists were rare; bombs had to be raised by hand … 100-500-pound bombs.  Belting ammunition was also accomplished by hand.  The gunners on the dive bombers loaded their ammunition by the same laborious method.

CUB-1 personnel performed these tasks for twelve days before the arrival of Marine ground crews.  As with all military personnel on Guadalcanal, CUB-1 crews suffered from malaria, dengue fever, fungus infections, sleepless nights, shortages of food, clothing, and supplies.  Living conditions on Guadalcanal were some of the most difficult ever faced by Marines.  Pilots and ground crews lived in mud-floored tents in a flooded coconut plantation called Mosquito Grove.  Everyone on Guadalcanal was subjected to mortal danger.  Japanese aircraft and artillery bombarded the airfield nearly every day.  On the night of 13-14 October 1942, two Japanese battleships fired more than 700 heavy shells into Henderson Field.  Ensign Polk’s men remained on the island until 15 February 1943.

For the first five days after the arrival of the Marine aviators, there was no “commander” of the air component; instead, the senior aviator reported directly to Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commanding General, 1st Marine Division.  Technically, the Cactus Air Force was under the authority of Rear Admiral McCain, but as the local senior-most commander, Vandegrift and his operational staff exercised direct authority over all air assets, whether Army, Navy, or Marine.

Colonel William W. Wallace served temporarily as the first air group commander.  On 3 September, Brigadier General Roy S. Geiger [Note 8] arrived to assume command as Commander, Aircraft, Guadalcanal (also, COMAIRCACTUS) and of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing.  By the time of Geiger’s arrival, air squadrons had already suffered significant losses.  The pilots were sick, undernourished, and demoralized.  Geiger changed that.  By his personality, energy, and positive attitude, General Geiger raised the collective spirits of squadron survivors.  The cost to Geiger, in the short-term, was that within a few months, the 57-year-old Geiger became seriously fatigued.  Eventually, General Vandegrift relieved Geiger of his duties and replaced him with Geiger’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Louis E. Woods [Note 9], who was one of the Marine Corps’ outstanding aviators.

Ground Combat Interface

As previously mentioned, the Japanese started construction of the airfield at Lunga Point in May 1942.  The landings of 11,000 Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and the Florida Islands on 7-8 August 1942 was a complete surprise to the Japanese—and they weren’t too happy about it.  As a response to the Allied landings, the Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Imperial Japanese Army’s (IJA) 17th Army (a corps-sized command under Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake), to retake Guadalcanal.  His advance force began to arrive on Guadalcanal on 19 August.  Allied planes operating from Henderson Field challenged Japan’s slow-moving transport ships, which had the effect of impeding Hyakutake’s efforts.  On 21 August, General Hyakutake ordered a force of just under a thousand men to seize the airfield.  Known as the Battle of Tenaru, Marines soundly defeated the IJA’s first attempt.

The IJA made a second attempt on 12-14 September, this time with a brigade-size force of 6,000 men.  Known as the Battle of Edson’s Ridge, the Marines repelled that attack, as well.  Convinced that the Japanese were not through with their attempts to reclaim Lunga Point, Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, commanding all Allied land forces in the Solomon Islands [Note 10], ordered the strengthening of defenses at Henderson Field.  He additionally ordered his Marines to increase combat patrolling in the area between Lunga Point and the Matanikau River.  IJA forces repulsed three different company-sized patrols operating near the Matanikau River between 23-27 September.  Between 6-9 October, a battalion of Marines crossed the Matanikau and inflicted heavy losses on the IJA 4th Infantry Regiment, forcing a Japanese withdrawal [Note 11].  

By 17 October, IJA forces on Guadalcanal numbered 17,000 troops, which included the 2nd Infantry Division (under Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama), one regiment of the 38th Infantry Division, and artillery and tank units.  The IJN ordered heavy and light cruisers to support Hyakutake and conduct bombardments of Allied positions, including Henderson Field, warranted because the Cactus Air Force posed significant threats to Japanese transports ferrying replacements and supplies from Rabaul [Note 12].  On 13 October, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto dispatched a naval force under Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita to bombard Henderson Field.  Kurita’s force included two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.  Beginning at 01:33, the Japanese Navy fired just under 1,000 rounds into the Lunga Point perimeter.  The Japanese attack destroyed most of the aviation fuel, 48 of the Cactus Air Force’s 90 aircraft, and killed 41 men —of which were six CAF ground crewmen.  As devastating as this attack was, Seabees restored the airfield to operating conditions within a few hours.

As Japanese infantry under Lieutenant General Maruyama began their march toward Lunga Point, aircraft of the 11th Air Fleet at Rabaul attacked Henderson Field with 11 G4M2 bombers and 28 A6M2 Zero fighters.  The Cactus Air Force responded with 24 F4F Wildcats and 4 P-39s.  A large and complex air battle ensured.  Allied aviators could not determine how many losses they imposed on the Japanese, but on F4F received extensive battle damage with no loss of its pilot.   

Just after nightfall on 23 October, two battalions of Japanese infantry (supported by tanks) attacked Marine positions behind a barrage of artillery.  Marines quickly destroyed all nine tanks and responded with devastating artillery fire.  Forty Marine howitzers fired 6,000 rounds into the attacking Japanese.  The Japanese broke off their attack shortly after 01:00 hours.  Partly in response to this attack, 2/7 (under LtCol Hanneken) redeployed to the Matanikau and assumed advanced defensive positions.  LtCol Louis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1/7 (with around 700 men) was the only battalion left to defend Henderson Field, a 2,500-yard perimeter on the southern face of Lunga Point.  Puller’s outposts reported enemy movement at around 21:00 hours.

Heavy rain began falling an hour or so before, the torrential downpour inhibiting the advance of a Japanese infantry regiment.  In the dark of night under a pouring rain, a Japanese battalion more or less stumbled into Puller’s defensive line at around 22:00.  The Marines repulsed the Japanese advance, but the Japanese commander believed that his battalion had taken Lunga Point.  At around 00:15, the IJA’s 11th Company of the 3rd Battalion assaulted the perimeter held by Marines from Alpha Company.  Within thirty minutes, the Marines destroyed the 11th Company.

Further west, at around 01:15, the 9th Company charged into positions held by Charlie 1/7.  Within around five minutes, a machine-gun section led by Sergeant John A. Basilone, killed nearly every member of the 9th Company.  Ten minutes after that, Marine artillery had a murderous effect on the IJA regiment’s assembly area.  Puller requested reinforcement at 03:30.   The 3rd Battalion, 164th US Infantry rushed forward and quickly reinforced Puller’s perimeter.  Just before dawn, the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 29th Infantry penetrated Allied artillery and assaulted the Marine position.  1/7 Marines killed most of these men, but about one-hundred Japanese broke through the American defense and created a bulging salient in the center of Puller’s line.

With daybreak on 24 October, the Japanese 2nd Battalion joined the assault, but the Marines soon defeated them, and they withdrew almost as quickly as they had appeared.  Puller ordered his Marines to attack and eradicate the 100-or-so enemy soldiers within the salient, and to search and destroy any Japanese remaining alive forward of the battalion’s perimeter.  Marines performing these tasks ended up killing around 400 additional enemy troops.  But the battle was far from over.  IJN platforms began to pummel the Marines just after midnight.  A destroyer assault force chased away to US minesweepers, destroyed the US tugboat Seminole and an American Patrol Torpedo Boat.  Just after 10:00, Marine shore batteries hit and damaged one Japanese destroyer.  Cactus Air Force dive bombers attacked a second Japanese navy assault force which caused the sinking of a Japanese cruiser.  While this was going on, 82 Japanese bombers and fighters from the 11th Air Fleet attacked Henderson Field in six separate waves throughout the day.  The Cactus Air Force also attacked Japanese Aircraft, inflicting the loss of 11 fighters, 2 bombers, and one reconnaissance aircraft.  The Allies lost two aircraft, but recovered the crews.

After completing mop-up operations, ground Marines began improving their defense works and redeploying troops to strengthen the line.  In the West, Colonel Hanneken tied in with the 5th Marines; Puller’s Marines and the soldiers of 3/164 disentangled and repositioned themselves to form unit cohesive defenses.  The 1st Marine Division reserve force, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2) moved in behind 1/7 and 3/164.  The IJA still had more to say to the Allied forces at Lunga Point.

General Maruyama regrouped his beleaguered forces, adding the 16th Infantry Regiment from his force reserve.  At around 20:00 on 25 October and extending into the early morning hours of the 26th, the Japanese made numerous frontal assaults against the Marine/Army line (Puller/Colonel Hall).  The Marines employed well-aimed small arms, automatic weapons, artillery, and canister fire from 37-mm guns directly into the attacking force with devastating effect.  Marines completely wiped out the headquarters element of the 16th Infantry Regiment, including the regimental commander and four of the regiment’s battalion commanders.  Another attack came at 03:00 on 26 October.  Colonel Akinosuke Oka’s 124th Infantry Regiment hit the Matanikau defenses manned by LtCol Hanneken’s 2/7.  Fox Company received the brunt of Oka’s attack.  Machine-gun section leader Mitchell Paige destroyed many of his attackers, but the Japanese managed to kill all of the Marines except for Paige and an assistant gunner in their assault.  By 05:00, Oka’s 3rd Battalion managed to push the remains of Fox Company out of their defensive positions.  Major Odell M. Conoley, Hanneken’s executive officer, quickly organized a counter-attack, leading the survivors of Fox Company and elements of Golf and Charlie companies to retake the ridge line.  Within an hour, the Japanese pushed the Japanese back, which ended Colonel Oka’s assault.  2/7’s casualties included 14 killed and 32 wounded.  Oka’s losses exceeded 300 dead.

Aftermath

Six Marine aviators in the Cactus Air Force received the Medal of Honor: Major John L. Smith, USMC, CO VMF-223; Major Robert E. Galer, USMC, CO VMF-224; Captain Joseph J. Foss, USMC, XO VMF-121 (Former Governor of South Dakota); Lieutenant Colonel Harold W. Bauer, USMC, CO VMF-212; First Lieutenant Jefferson J. DeBlanc, USMC, VMF-112; and First Lieutenant James E. Swett, USMC, VMF-221.

Medals of honor awarded other personnel included Major Kenneth D. Bailey, USMC (KIA), Sergeant John Basilone, USMC, Corporal Anthony Casamento, USMC, Platoon Sergeant Mitchell Paige, USMC [Note 13], Major Charles W. Davis, USA, Colonel Merritt A. Edson, USMC, Sergeant William G. Fournier, USA, Specialist Lewis Hall, USA (KIA), Signalman First Class Douglas A. Munro, USCG, (KIA), Rear Admiral Normal Scott, USN (KIA), and Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift, USMC.  

In all, 20 Marine Corps aviation squadrons served on Guadalcanal.  Joining them, at various times, were ten U. S. Navy air squadrons (5 operating from USS Enterprise), two USAAF squadrons, and one Royal New Zealand air squadron.   

Sources:

  1. 1.Braun, S. M.  The Struggle for Guadalcanal (American Battles and Campaigns).  New York: Putnam, 1969.
  2. 2.Christ, J. F.  Battalion of the Damned: The First Marine Paratroopers at Gavutu and Bloody Ridge, 1942.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007
  3. 3.De Chant, J. A.  Devilbirds.  New York: Harper Bros., 1947.
  4. 4.Mersky, P. B.  U.S. Marine Corps Aviation—1912 to the Present.  Nautical Publishing, 1983.
  5. 5.Paige, M.  My Story, A Marine Named Mitch: The Autobiography of Mitchell Paige, Colonel, United States Marine Corps (Retired).  Palo Alto: Bradford Adams & Company, 1975.
  6. 6.Sherrod, R.  History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II.  Washington: Combat Forces Press, 1952.
  7. 7.Simmons, E. H.  The United States Marines: A History (Fourth Edition).  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1]The Allied forces in the Pacific during World War II were the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Soviet Union, and China.  As a practical matter, given the requirements of global war at other locations in the world, and limitations of certain Allied countries to participate in the conflict, the US played the largest role in the Pacific War.

[2] The Guadalcanal campaign lasted through 9 February 1943.

[3] Initially identified by the Japanese as simply Code RXI, the incomplete airfield became the focus of one of the great battles of the Pacific war in World War II.  Major Henderson (1903-1942) was a graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy (Class of 1926) and served in China, various Caribbean stations, and aboard the carriers Langley, Ranger, and Saratoga.

 [4] B-17 aircraft were unsuitable for use against Japanese ships at sea.  High altitude bombing of moving targets could hardly yield the results of Torpedo/Dive Bomber aircraft.  Moreover, B-17 crews were young, inexperienced airmen who, while doing their level best, could not engage enemy ships with precision.

 [5] At the time, Admiral McCain served as Commander, Aircraft South Pacific (1941-42).  He was the grandfather of John S. McCain III, former Navy aviator POW and US Senator from Arizona.

[6] See also: Building the Hive.

[7] George W. Polk enlisted with the Naval Construction Battalion at the beginning of World War II.  He also served as a “volunteer” dive bomber and reconnaissance pilot, receiving combat wounds and suffering from malaria, which required nearly a year of hospitalization.  After the war, Polk joined CBS news as a journalist.  Communist insurgents murdered him while he was covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

[8] Roy Stanley Geiger (1885-1947) was a native of Florida who completed university and law school before enlisting in the US Marine Corps.  While serving as a corporal in 1909, Geiger completed a series of professional examinations to obtain a commission to second lieutenant on 5 February 1909.  After ten years of ground service, Geiger reported for aviation training in 1917 and subsequently became Naval Aviator #49 on 9 June.  Geiger was variously described as curt, cold, ruthless, and determined.  Geiger became the first Marine Corps general to command a United States Army during the Battle of Okinawa. 

[9] Lieutenant General Woods later commanded the tactical air forces under the 10th U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa.

[10] The 7th Marine Regiment arrived on Guadalcanal on 18 September, adding an additional 4,157 men to Vandegrift’s ground combat element.

[11] Meanwhile, Major General Millard F. Harmon, Commander, U. S. Army Forces, South Pacific, convinced Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, Commander, Allied Forces, South Pacific, to reinforce the Marines immediately; one division of Marines, he argued, was insufficient to defend an island the size of Guadalcanal.  Subsequently, the U. S. 164th Infantry Regiment (North Dakota Army National Guard) arrived on Guadalcanal on 13 October 1942.

[12] Allied naval forces intercepted one of these Japanese bombardment missions on the night of 11 October, resulting in a Japanese defeat at the Battle of Cape Esperance. 

[13] Colonel Paige died on 15 November 2003, aged 85 years.  He was the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Building the Hive

Nothing happens in war without logistics.”

—Field Marshal Sir William Slim, British Army

USN 001

Some Background

Navy ships cannot remain at sea forever.  Shortly after the establishment of the U. S. Navy, senior officers began planning for ports and facilities that would enable the Navy to build and maintain its vessels, warehouse stores and ammunition, and where the navy could develop training programs for the rank and file.  Included was the requirement to hire civil engineers capable of overseeing its base construction efforts.  The Navy’s first hire was a man named Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect.

Latrobe was the son of a Moravian[1] minister of French descent in Yorkshire, England, educated in England and Germany.  A widower, he migrated to the United States with his two young children in 1786.  Latrobe found the profession of civil engineering and architecture in America barely adequate but left it in the hands of careful, thoughtful, professional men.  Latrobe’s building standards dominated in the United States until the American Civil War.

In 1804, the U. S. Navy appointed Benjamin Latrobe Engineer of the Navy Department[2].   Latrobe immediately began drafting plans for the construction of the Washington Navy Yard[3].  In 1809, Latrobe drafted plans for additional navy yards in New York and at Norfolk, Virginia.  Despite his contributions to the emerging Navy Department, Mr. Latrobe was never an employee of the Navy Department; he was a civilian architect contracted by the Navy Department.  The Navy Department did not implement his plan for New York and Norfolk until long after his death.

In 1826, Congress approved funding for the construction of two dry docks (in Boston and Norfolk); the Navy appointed a noted Bostonian engineer to design and construct them.  His name was Loammi Baldwin, a descendant of Deacon Henry Baldwin, an original settler of North Woburn, Massachusetts.  Between 1826-34, Baldwin served as Superintendent of Dry Docks and Inspector of Navy Yards.  Like Latrobe, Baldwin was a contract employee with no official position within the Navy Department.

William P. S. Sanger (1810-1890) was also from Massachusetts.  In 1826, Sanger was apprenticed to Baldwin to learn the trade of civil engineering[4]; between 1827-1834, Sanger represented Baldwin during his absences at the construction of the dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia.  Although Sanger was only a temporary employee initially, he would later play a central role in the development of civil engineering in the Navy and the creation of the Navy Civil Engineering Corps.  In 1836, Sanger was appointed to serve as Civil Engineer for the Navy and assigned to the staff of the Board of Navy Commissioners, a board of three Navy captains who served as the Secretary of the Navy’s principal advisory staff.

Sanger W P S 001
William P. S. Sanger

When the Navy Department reorganized in 1836, the Board of Navy Commissioners was replaced by five bureaus intended to oversee various aspects of naval operations.  The bureau system remained in place for the next 124 years.  The first of these was the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks, which may serve to illustrate the importance placed on yards and docks by the Navy hierarchy.  Along with this emphasis, the Navy required someone to oversee yards and docks programs, which was never an easy task.  Although the Navy Civil Engineer Corps wasn’t established until 1867, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur appointed William Sanger Civil Engineer of Yards and Docks in September 1842.

On 2 March 1867, the Navy established its Civil Engineer Corps and charged it with responsibility for constructing and repairing all buildings, docks, and wharves servicing U. S. Navy ships.  Civil engineers would supervise a naval architecture, direct the activities of master builders, and oversee public works initiatives.  Civil engineers were not required to wear a navy uniform until 1881 officers.  From then until today, Navy civil engineers have worn their unique service insignia[5].

In the early 1900s, civilian construction companies worked on a contract basis for the United States Navy.  On the eve of World War II, the number of civilian contractors working for the navy at overseas locations numbered around 70,000 men.  What made this particularly significant was an international agreement making it illegal for civilian employees to resist any armed attack.  To do so would classify them as guerilla fighters and this, in turn, would subject them to summary execution.  This is what happened when the Japanese invaded Wake Island[6].

The concept of a Naval Construction Battalion (NCB) was envisaged in 1934 as a war plan contingency, a concept that received the approval of the Chief of Naval Operations (then, an administrative post rather than an operational one).  In 1935, Captain Walter Allen, a war plans officer, was assigned to represent BuDocks on the war planning board.  Allen presented the NCB concept to the War Planning Board, which included it in the Rainbow Plan[7].

A major flaw in the proposal for NCBs was its dual chain of command; military control would be exercised by line officers of the fleet, while construction operations would fall under the purview of officers of the Civil Engineer Corps.  The plan for NCBs also ignored the importance of military organization, training, discipline, and creating esprit de corps within the force.  Last, at least initially, NCB plans focused almost entirely on the construction of training stations within the Continental United States (CONUS) with little attention to the deployment of NCBs to overseas locations.

Rear Admiral (RAdm) Ben Moreell was a leading proponent for Navy Construction Battalions (CBs, also Seabees).  In December 1937, Moreell became Chief, Bureau of Yards and Docks.  RAdm Moreell (1892-1978) graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering in 1913.  He joined the Navy at the beginning of World War I.  Owing to his educational specialty, the Navy offered him a direct appointment to Lieutenant Junior Grade in the Civil Engineer Corps.  Moreell was assigned to the Azores, where he met and was befriended by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Early in his career, the Navy recognized Moreell for his exceptional ability.  While serving as a lieutenant commander, Moreell was sent to Europe to study military engineering design and construction.  In 1933, he returned to the United States to supervise the Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland.

Moreell B 001In December 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the advancement of Lieutenant Commander Moreell to Rear Admiral, by-passing commander, and captain, and appointed him to head the Bureau of Yards and Docks while concurrently serving as Chief of Civil Engineers of the Navy.  With great foresight, Moreell urged the construction of two giant drydocks at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and initiated Navy construction projects on Midway and Wake Island.  The Pearl Harbor project was completed in time to repair navy ships damaged during the Japanese attack on 7 December 1941 and the Midway project was completed in time to play an important role in the Battle of Midway.

By summer 1941, civilian construction crews were working on Guam, Midway, Pearl Harbor, Iceland, Newfoundland, and Bermuda.  Adm. Moreell took the decision that the navy needed to improve its project supervision.  To accomplish this, he requested the establishment of Headquarters Construction Companies, each containing two officers and 99 enlisted men.  The mission of the construction companies involved the conduct of drafting, surveys, and project inspections.  RAdm. Chester W. Nimitz, then serving as Chief, Bureau of Navigation, authorized the 1st Headquarters Construction Company on 31 October 1941; recruitment began in the following month.  The first recruit training class, quite remarkably, began at Newport, Rhode Island on 7 December 1941.

On 28 December 1941, RAdm Moreell requested authority to commission three Naval Construction Battalions.  Approval was granted on 5 January 1942 and a call for qualified recruits went out almost immediately.  The 1st Naval Construction Detachment was organized from the 1st Headquarters Construction Company, which was then assigned to Operation Bobcat in Bora Bora[8].  The Detachment was tasked to construct a military supply base, oil depot, airstrip, seaplane base, and defensive fortifications.  In total, 7 ships and 7,000 men were assigned to the base at Bora Bora.

The 2nd and 3rd Construction companies formed the nucleus of the 1st CB Battalion at Charleston, SC; these were soon deployed as the 2nd and 3rd Construction Detachments.  The 4th and 5th companies formed the 2nd CB Battalion and deployed as the 4th and 5th Construction Detachments.

Seabees 001The dual chain of command issue was finally resolved when Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox gave full authority over the Seabees to the Civil Engineer Corps.  Construction Battalions were officially recognized as Seabees on 5 March 1942.

To safeguard the location of projects in furtherance of advanced base construction, the Navy coded each project.  They were either Lion, Cub, Oak, or Acorn.  Lion 1-6, for example, primarily involved fleet bases projects.  Cub projects numbered 1-12 involved secondary fleet base projects.  Oak and Acorn projects were airfield construction programs.

In the Atlantic, the Seabees’ most complex task was preparation for the Allied landing at Normandy.  Subsequent operations took place along the Rhine and some of these involved “front line” work. 

The Navy-Marine Corps Team

USMC SealMarine Corps historian and author Gordon L. Rottman observed, “…one of the biggest contributions the Navy made to the Marine Corps during World War II was the creation of the Seabees.”  The Marine Corps, in turn, had a tremendous influence on Seabee organization, training, and combat history.

When Seabees first formed, they did not have a functional training facility of their own.  Upon leaving Navy boot camp, Seabee trainees were sent to National Youth Administration camps spread over four states.  To solve this problem, the Marine Corps created tables of organization that included NCBs.  It was through this process that Seabee companies were organized, equipment was standardized, and combatants received intensified military training through various regimental combat and advance base structures.

Early on, the Marine Corps’ requested one Seabee battalion in general support of an Amphibious Corps.  This was initially denied, but before the end of the year, Seabee Battalions 18, 19, and 25 were supporting advanced Marine forces as combat engineers, each of these being attached to composite engineer regiments (the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th Marines).

In 1944, the demand for increased infantry caused the Marine Corps to deactivate its engineer regiments, but each Marine division retained a Seabee battalion in general support.  For operations on Iwo Jima, the 133rd and 31st Seabees were attached to the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions.  During the 5th Marine Division’s post-war occupation of China, the 116th Seabees accompanied them.  The 83rd, 122nd, and 33rd Seabees supported the III Amphibious Corps.

Navy Seabees were no “one-trick pony.”  In addition to combat engineering, they also participated as Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and Underwater Demolition Teams (UTDs), the forerunner of the Navy Seals organization.

The difficult we do now; the impossible takes a little longer.

During World War II, Seabees constructed 400 advanced bases across the Pacific to Asia, and from the Caribbean and Atlantic to African and European shores.  They frequently landed with assault forces, bringing with them skills in demolition operations, including places such as North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Southern France, at Normandy, and operations crossing the Rhine River into Germany.  They were builders and fighters.  In the Pacific region, they constructed 111 major airstrips, 441 piers, 2,558 ammunition magazines, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals —and all of it completed in the heat of battle.

Service Partnerships

On 27 October 1943, Allied forces landed on the Treasury Islands group, which were part of the Solomon Islands.  US and New Zealand forces assaulted entrenched Japanese troops as part of an effort to secure Mono and Stirling Islands so that a radar station could be established on the former, with the latter a staging area in preparation for the assault on Bougainville.  By taking the Treasury Islands, Allied forces would isolate Bougainville and Rabaul and eliminate the Japanese garrison.  On 28 November, Fireman First Class Aurelio Tassone, U. S. Navy Reserve, assigned to the 87th Naval Construction Battalion, created a legendary figure of the Seabees astride his bulldozer rolling over enemy positions.  According to the Naval History and Heritage Command …

Tassone-Turnbull 001Petty Officer Tassone was driving his bulldozer ashore during the landing of the Seabees when Lieutenant Charles E. Turnbull, Civil Engineer Corps, USN, told him that a Japanese pillbox was holding up the advance of the landing force from its beachhead.   While Lieutenant Turnbull provided covering fire with his carbine, Tassone drove forward using his front blade as a shield against sustained Japanese automatic weapons fire.  Tassone crushed the pillbox with the dozer blade killing all twelve of its Japanese defenders.  For his courage under fire, Tassone was awarded the Navy Silver Star medal.

During World War II, Seabees earned five Navy Cross medals, and the nation’s third-highest award for exceptional combat service, 33 Silver Star medals.  They also paid a heavy price: 18 officers and 272 enlisted men killed in action.  An additional 500 Seabees died as a result of non-combat injuries while performing hazardous construction operations.

During the Korean War, 10,000 World War II Era Seabees were recalled to active service.  They served during the landing at Inchon and participated in combat activity elsewhere, performing magnificently as combat engineers.  While Seabees were fighting in Korea, others were constructing an air station at Cubi Point, Philippine Islands —a massive undertaking that necessitated the removal of a two-mile stretch of mountain foothills, which, after having removed 20 million cubic yards of soil, became a project equivalent to the construction of the Panama Canal.

Seabees deployed to Vietnam twice during the 1950s.  In June 1954 they supported Operation Passage to Freedom; two years later Seabees were deployed to map and survey the roads in South Vietnam.  In 1964, Seabees constructed outlying operational bases and fire support bases near Dam Pau and Tri Ton.  Beginning in 1965, NCB personnel supported Marines at Khe Sanh and Chu Lai.

Shields Marvin CM3 USN
CM3 Marvin Shields, USN

On the night of 9 June 1965, the unfinished Army Special Forces camp at Dong Xoai was mortared and attacked by the 272nd Viet Cong Regiment, an assault by an estimated 2,000 communist troops.  The Special Forces camp fell to the enemy the next morning.  Having been wounded by mortar fire during the assault, Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin G. Shields fought alongside his Special Forces counterparts helping forward positions in the resupply of much-needed ammunition.  Wounded for a second time by shrapnel and shot in the jaw on 10 June, he helped carry wounded soldiers to safer positions, including the fallen commanding officer.  After four more hours of intense fighting and greatly weakened by the loss of blood, Shields volunteered to help Second Lieutenant Charles Q. Williams, destroy an enemy machine gun outside the perimeter, which was threatening to kill everyone in an adjacent district headquarters building.  During this fight, Williams was wounded for the third time, and Shields for the fourth time, shot in both his legs.  Although evacuated, Shields died on the aeromedical evacuation helicopter.  Petty Officer Shields became the first and the only Seabee to receive the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life beyond the call of duty.  Shields and Petty Officer William C. Hoover lost their lives and seven additional Seabees received wounds that required medical evacuation during this battle.

More than 5,000 Seabees served in the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq War.  Since 1990, Seabees have provided vital construction skills in support of civil action programs across the globe, including the Middle East, the Philippine Islands, and in response to natural disasters inside the United States.  At the present time, there are six active-duty Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs), split between Atlantic and Pacific fleet commands.

There is no question whether the United States will again face a significant national emergency.  When that happens, we can only hope (and pray) that we will still have available to us a lethal and exceedingly competent Naval Mobile Construction Battalion: America’s Fighting Seabees.

Sources:

  1. Historian, Naval Facilities Engineering Command. History of the Seabees.  Washington, 1996.
  2. Huie, W. B. Can Do!  The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 1997
  3. Huie, W. B. From Omaha to Okinawa, The Story of the Seabees.  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012
  4. Kubic, C. R., and James P. Rife. Bridges to Baghdad: The U. S. Navy Seabees in the Iraq War.  Thomas Publications, 2009
  5. L. Germany First: The Basic Concept of Allied Strategy in World War II.  US Army Center of Military History, 1960
  6. Olsen, A. N. The King Bee.  Trafford Publishing, 2007

 Endnotes:

[1] Moravia was a crown land of the Bohemian Crown from 1348 to 1918, an imperial state within the Holy Roman Empire from 1004 to 1806, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1804-1867.

[2] At this time, the Navy Department consisted of the Secretary of the Navy, three clerks, and the Chief Engineer.

[3] Navy officials ordered the Washington Navy Yard fired to keep it out of the hands of the British invaders in 1814.  The essential design of the navy yard remains a Latrobe design and the main gate on Eighth Street is the original base entry point.

[4] In 1826, the only formal training in engineering was the US Military Academy.  All other training was informally achieved through apprenticeships.

[5] It was never clear that the Act of 2 March 1867 intended civil engineers to serve as commissioned officers; the wording is too brief and vague for an adequate conclusion, but as the act stated, “… shall be appointed by the president …” the Secretary of the Navy assumed that his civil engineers should be commissioned as officers of the U. S. Navy.  The Secretary did not implement this interpretation until 1 January 1869, but dates of rank were backdated to 13 March 1863.

[6] When the Japanese invaded Wake Island on 23 December 1941, 70 civilian construction workers were killed when they took up arms against the Japanese.  After the fall of the island, 1,104 civilian construction workers were taken into captivity and forced to perform labor in the construction of Japanese defensive positions.  Of these, 180 died in captivity believed starved and beaten to death by brutish Japanese guards.

[7] American war planners realized that the United States faced the possibility of war on multiple fronts, against a coalition of enemies, the Joint Planning Board of the Army and Navy developed a new series of war plans.  They were called the Rainbow Plans … color-coded plans drawn up previously.

[8] An island in the leeward group of the western part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.