Seabees: America's Unsung HeroesQ & A With "War Stories" Producer

“War Stories” producer Ayse Wieting takes you inside this Sunday’s episode, “The Navy's Fighting Seabees.”

Tune in Sunday, March 12, 2006 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET

FOX FAN: Who are the Seabees and how did they get their start?

AYSE WIETING: The "Seabees" are the U.S. Navy's construction battalions. Each present-day battalion has approximately 650 highly-skilled members — plumbers, electricians, heavy equipment operators, etc. — who are all trained to fight back if attacked. Their nickname comes from the initials of their military occupational specialty: "C" for construction and "B" for battalion. CBs eventually became "Seabees" due to their sea-faring nature and also partly due to their magnificent logo, created by civilian Frank Iafrate in 1942. The logo depicts a very determined bee sporting a white sailor's hat, a hammer, a wrench and a Tommy gun for when he fights. (see photo below)

U.S. Navy
Seabees consider Rear Admiral Ben Moreell to be their founding father, or "King Bee." The Seabees didn't exist prior to World War II, but by December 1941, there were some 70,000 civilian contractors working for the Navy building advanced bases, mostly throughout the Pacific on tiny specks of coral like Midway, Wake and Guam. As war clouds gathered over Asia and Europe, Moreell had the foresight to recognize that having civilians in the middle of a war zone would be very dangerous and highly impractical, and so he rallied for the creation of construction units of skilled builders trained to fight. The Seabees were born on March 5, 1942. Moreell personally furnished them with their motto — "We Build, We Fight" — from the Latin phrase, “Construimus, Batuimus.”

FF: How do they differ from civilian contractors?

AW: The main difference between a Seabee and a civilian contractor is that a Seabee is part of a military organization; but otherwise, they're very similar. When the Seabees were created in World War II, so urgent was the need for skilled professionals, that Moreell looked to the very men who built the Hoover Dam, Triboro Bridge and Empire State Building and recruited from their ranks. The very first Seabees were those same civilian contractors who were trained to fight, and then sent right back out to do the same job for the Navy. This is the reason why the average age of a World War II Seabee was 35 — they were “old-timers,” hardcore construction workers who didn't need to be taught how to build things, because their expertise was already unparalleled.

FF: Talk about some of their more notable projects and how they impacted specific battles and conflicts.

AW: During World War II, the Seabees were a force to be reckoned with. I like to think that World War II was won on the roads that Seabees built. In just five years, they built more than 400 advanced bases for the Navy — most notably on Tinian, which at the time was the world's largest airport. Both atomic bombs left for Japan from airstrips Seabees built on that tiny Pacific island.

Five years later, as war raged in Korea, five Seabee battalions were hard at work in the Philippines, building Naval Air Station Cubi Point, which to this day is considered the largest earth-moving project ever undertaken by the military. More earth was moved in the construction of Cubi Point than in the building of the Panama Canal.

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The Vietnam War saw the first and only Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to a Seabee. He was Construction Mechanic Third Class Marvin Shields, a soft-spoken lumberjack from Washington state. During the June 1965 Battle of Dong Xoai, Shields, even though he was seriously wounded, went above and beyond the call of duty and volunteered to help knock out an enemy machine gun position. I had the honor of meeting two of his fellow Seabees — Frank Peterlin and Johnny McCully — each who shared their memories of the battle with LTC Oliver North and I. Both are featured in this Sunday’s episode.

A little-known fact about the Seabees is their involvement in humanitarian missions. They are so dedicated to "helping people help themselves," that they are sometimes referred to as the "Navy's goodwill ambassadors." Seabees were deployed to Pakistan to perform disaster recovery following the tragic earthquake. They also worked in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At any given time, Seabees can be found in the most remote corners of the world, building roads, schools, orphanages and public utilities — lending a helping hand to those who need it most.

FF: What impressed you the most about the Seabees when producing the episode?

AW: I was most impressed by the Seabees of the 133rd Naval Construction Battalion who served on the island of Iwo Jima during World War II. They landed beside the Marines during the initial assault waves and ultimately suffered almost 50% casualties (the highest of any Seabee battalion of the war.) Seabees are trained to fight, but they are not trained for this type of amphibious assault. I spoke to several veterans of the 133rd NCB and was most impressed by how they managed to hold their own. They continued to unload equipment and build roads while under heavy enemy fire. It is a remarkable chapter in Seabee history, one that just exemplifies their legendary "Can Do!" spirit.

FF: What do you think will surprise people when they watch this Sunday?

AW: I think they'll be amazed at how hard these men and women work, most of the time, under life-threatening circumstances. The courage and fortitude all Seabees have shown throughout history is inspirational. For example, they are the unsung heroes behind the landings at Normandy — arguably the ones who made the invasion and its aftermath a success. By towing and building the artificial "Mulberry" harbors off the Norman coast, these men brought ashore the much-needed equipment and supplies for our troops already mired in battle. In typical Seabee fashion, they built the harbors in record time while under constant assault by German soldiers.

Our viewers will also catch a glimpse of how Seabees are trained today. It is striking to see how much has changed since World War II, yet so much has remained the same. When the Seabees were created, they recruited men who were already trained professionals, and taught them how to fight. Today, Seabees are not only trained how to fight, but how to build. Despite this major change in the recruitment process, the outcome is the same. Seabees today are just as talented and just as ingenious as their World War II predecessors and it's remarkable how their "Can Do!" spirit has been passed on from generation to generation.