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

By Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command
Photos courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
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Members of the 41st Special NCB on Hollandia, 1944. The Specials integrated in the latter stages of the war in the Pacific, some of the first fully integrated units in the Navy.

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 you may gaze upon the plaques of the 34th, 20th (Special) and 80th Naval Construction Battalions (NCBs). 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. More than 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. SM-07104_low

MM1c J.P. Weaver, Martinsburg, W.V., at the controls of a Seabee bulldozer. Weaver rose from seaman to petty officer in 20 months with the 34th NCB, earning the most promotions of any member during his first deployment in the Pacific

Prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 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 Dec. 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.

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. However, 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 Adm. 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 the Navy would enlist African Americans for the general service, with open enlistment for messmen and the new Seabees.

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Seabee divers from the 34th NCB work on a marine railway using improvised diving equipment, Gavutu, Solomon Islands, Nov. 8, 1943

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 regard to promotions and assignments. With almost 80 percent of the enlisted men hailing from the South, Rear Adm. Ben Moreell and other senior BuDocks leaders felt this arrangement would help produce a “crack battalion, one which will be proud of themselves and of the Seabees.” On Oct. 24, 1942, the Navy commissioned the African American 34th NCB which shipped out of Port Hueneme, Calif., 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.

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 Feb. 2. After advanced training, the unit moved to Gulfport, Miss., 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 15 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. 34th-NCB-Teneru_low

Members of the 34th NCB construct a timber pile bridge over the Teneru River on Guadalcanal using native lumber, July 10, 1944. 

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.

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Left to right, 34th NCB members MM3c Joseph E. Vaughn, Cambridge, Mass.; CM3c Harry E. Lash, Gastonia, N.C.; and GM3c William A. Shields, Trenton, N.J., displaying Purple Hearts for wounds received during Japanese bombing on Feb. 22, 1943. Photo taken May 28, 1944, at Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

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 20 percent of the original officers and petty officers. Their replacements were all screened for racial prejudices and southern men were predominately avoided. The new commanding officer, a New Yorker, organized a training program for enlisted personnel to be rerated and ensured that qualified men received the promotions unfairly denied them under the previous commander.

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A group of African American Seabee stevedores, members of a Special NCB, handle cargo above a landing craft. African Americans constituted the majority of personnel in a total of 15 Seabee Specials during World War II. 

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 original white officers and chiefs, aside from the medical and supply officers, and replaced them with non-southerners. SM-07115_low

Members of the 34th NCB erecting a 40 x 100 foot Quonset hut warehouse at Halavo Seaplane Base, Florida Island, Solomon Islands, Sept. 19, 1943.

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.

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The 80th NCB at work at Edinburgh Field, Trinidad, constructing a steel lighter-than-air hangar, Nov. 30, 1943. 

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 20th 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, Mich., 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.”


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