This year, the U.S. Navy marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of its Naval Construction Battalions, better known as the Seabees. Although the military had often designated individual units to engage in construction activities in peace and war, it wasn’t until December 28, 1941, that Rear Admiral Ben Moreel, chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, formally requested authority to organize a dedicated force whose role would be to support front line troops by building a wide range of facilities ranging from air fields to docks and tanks farms, along with a full range of permanent and temporary buildings. In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when civilian construction crews in the Pacific with captured, imprisoned, or executed by the Japanese, it became obvious that it was vital to establish military units trained to defend themselves while performing a host of construction activities. These men also had to be experienced — or quickly and appropriately trained in a variety of trades.
As author Kimon Skordiles noted in his 1973 book “The Seabees in War and Peace”, the Naval Construction Battalions of World War II literally “paved the road to victory.” The majority of these men, who would serve in every theater of operations from the frigid Arctic to the sweltering Pacific, were trained right here in Rhode Island in a hastily established but massive facility of some 200 permanent or temporary buildings on about 250 acres, adjacent to the huge Quonset Naval Air Station. Known by Seabees everywhere simply as “Davisville,” much of the base was laid out of what was, until the outbreak of the war, the Romano Vineyards (which produced upwards of 100,000 gallons of altar wine annually). Along with additional property requisitioned by the Navy, the base quickly took shape and was officially dedicated on June 27, 1942.
Christened Camp Endicott, 10 battalions totaling about 350 officers and some 15,000 enlisted men formed the first units. Most of the men were older than the average enlistees or recruits because they were experienced in trades from carpentry, to plumbing, electrical, and heavy equipment operations. During the war, some 325,000 enlisted and 7,960 officers served as Seabees. About 100,000 trained in Rhode Island. As needs grew, additional facilities were established in the South and on the West Coast.
Many of the military’s most innovative and valuable devices were created at Davisville, from the world-famed Quonset hut to metal pontoon devices that could be used to support amphibious landings, create bridges across rivers, and provide portable docking space in the immediate aftermath of an island or mainland invasion.
A chapter in the new book, World War II Rhode Island, is devoted to the Davisville story and includes the background of the creation of the Quonset hut as well as the Advanced Base Proving Ground and Depot at Allen Harbor, which served as a debarkation point for equipment as well as a test site for various applications of the pontoon systems ranging from floating drydocks, to barges and piers. The proving ground also served as a test site for water distillation plants, laundry equipment, and a host of other items that could be quickly assembled and then dismantled and moved again and again as the warfront advanced.
A replica of a Liberty ship deck was also built to train Seabees in cargo handing techniques, which were often carried out under enemy fire. Seabee recruits underwent basic military training, including the handling of small arms up to mobile field artillery. Training included hand-to-hand combat and, of course, close order drill. Many times over, Seabees dropped their shovels or jumped from their heavy equipment to repel enemy forces and then got right back to work. This was especially true in the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific. There, Seabees were vital to maintaining operational airfields that were often under continued enemy attack.
The majority of Seabees spent at least a part of their training at Davisville. During the war, an additional facility (Camp Thomas) was built north of Camp Endicott as a transient facility to serve Seabees arriving from boot camps for further training or coming from or headed to overseas assignment. Some 500 Quonset huts were built on the camp’s 142-acre site.
We shared the story of how the Quonset hut came to be in a previous feature article, and it is covered in depth in “World War II Rhode Island”. Capable of being erected by a team of eight men, using ordinary tools, the ubiquitous Quonsets were built in a variety of sizes and layouts, and many are still in use worldwide. Thousands of Quonsets could be found around Rhode Island’s many large military facilities, from Quonset Point to the PT Training Center in Melville (archival video) and the Newport Navy Base. Following the war, the Quonsets could be purchased for as little as $1,000. Incidentally, a major customer for the surplus units was Rhode Island State College (URI) in Kingston, where they were put to use as student housing to accommodate the huge influx of veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill.
Admiral Moreel had already come up with the acronym “Seabee” taken from the more formal Naval Construction Battalion and its motto “Construimus, Batuimus” (We Build, We Fight). The unit needed a symbol, though, and here’s where Rhode Island again enters the unit’s colorful history. One of this writer’s favorite stories, recounted in detail in World War II Rhode Island, is the creation of the famed Seabee logo, “The Fighting Bee.”
A North Providence native with a talent for caricature, Frank Iafrate was working as a civilian file clerk at Quonset Point in 1942 where he was known around the base for his creation of caricatures of various officers. He had wanted to become a cartoonist for Walt Disney, but the war intervened. This writer interviewed Iafrate before his death in 2000 and here, in his own words is the story of the famed Seabee mascot.
“One day a Navy lieutenant came in. He was the officer in charge of some 250 recruits who had been brought in to the newly established Naval Construction Battalions. He had heard of my caricatures and asked me if I could produce a “Disney-type” insignia to represent the C-Bs. He explained that while they would support the Marines, they would not be an offensive group, but could defend themselves if they had to.
“My first thought was the beaver, a builder. But then I did some research, and found out that when a beaver is threatened it runs away. So, the beaver was out. Then I thought of a bee — the busy worker, who doesn’t bother you unless you bother him. But provoked, the bee stings. It seemed like an ideal symbol.
“The rest came easily. I gave the bee a white sailor’s cap, various tools to show his construction talents, and finally a Tommy gun to show his fighting ability. I made the bee a third-class petty officer (an E-4) with the 1942 Naval insignia.
“This rank was generally used by the first Seabees on each arm … a machinist’s mate, a carpenter’s mate, and a gunner’s mate. I originally put the C.E.C. insignia on each wrist of the bee to show that he was part of the Navy Civil Engineer’s Corps (this was eventually dropped from the design). And I put the letter “Q” for Quonset on the outer circle of the insignia.
“The insignia drawing took me about three hours one Sunday afternoon. The next morning, I showed it to the officer in charge. He showed it to the captain, who sent it off to Admiral Moreel, the chief of civil engineers in Washington. It turned out that Admiral Moreell was about to start a nationwide campaign to create an identity for the new Construction Battalions. When he saw my sketch, he requested only one revision… that the “Q” in the insignia be changed to a hawser rope, for national recognition.”
The bee as a symbol for these men who worked together at sea naturally led to the name “Seabees.” That’s how the name was created – in Rhode Island, early in the war. And this is how we recognize that tough and talented group known as the “Seabees” today.
Not long after he brought the Fighting Bee to life, Frank Iafrate enlisted in the US Navy. During the war he served in a Seabee Construction Maintenance Unit (CBMU). After the war, he pursued a successful career in graphic design in Providence. In 1971, he provided a drawing of the original Bee to the Navy so that they could construct a large steel replica of the logo. That Bee stood guard at the main entrance to the Seabee Base at Davisville for the next 25 years. Eventually, when the Seabee base was closed in the late 1990s, the Bee was donated to the Seabee Museum, located within the Quonset Davisville Industrial Park, where it stands today, mounted on another famed Seabee invention, a section of a metal pontoon bridge.
More than 325,000 men served with the Seabees in World War II, building and often fighting to defend what they built. There are currently about 18,000 Navy Seabees serving worldwide. Two thirds are reservists. Active duty Seabees serve in eight active Battalions, two Amphibious Construction Battalions (ACB’s) and two Underwater Construction Teams (UCTs). With a primary mission of providing continuing construction in a war zone, the Seabees are ready to deploy on short notice to any point on the globe. Upon arrival, they work night and day. Seabees also conduct humanitarian missions worldwide, including earthquake and hurricane recovery efforts in the United States. And it all began in Davisville, Rhode Island. The true spirit of the Seabees is their “Can Do” philosophy. It’s a timeless belief representing Seabees past, present, and future.
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