By Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., Historian, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command
Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs speaks before assembled members of the 34th Naval Construction Battalion, Camp Kukum, Guadalcanal, July 23, 1944. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
Ask any member of the Naval Construction Force (NCF) who is considered “the father of the Seabees” and they will answer Adm. Ben Moreell. Ask them who is the “uncle of the Seabees,” and they may give a quizzical look.
In a military career covering two world wars, the legacy of Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs can be measured in the people and organizations he touched. At the time of his death in 1996, Combs had directly influenced, either in uniform or as an academic, perhaps more civil engineers in the Navy’s history than any other man. Therefore, he was considered to be the “uncle” of the Seabees.
As the assistant chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks) during World War II, Combs served as Moreell’s deputy, responsible for administering the Navy’s shore construction and development program. At the time of his appointment as assistant chief for BuDocks in 1938, fewer than 120 Civil Engineer Corps (CEC) officers were on active duty, and Combs knew all of them on a first-name basis. That number grew to more than 10,000 by war’s end, together with approximately 325,000 Seabees. Postwar, he became the “Dean of the Latter-Day CEC” while head of the Department of Civil Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Almost 400 military officers earned bachelor degrees in civil engineering under his guidance, predominantly CEC officers who went on to lead the NCF for decades to come.
Lewis Barton Combs was born on April 7, 1895, Manchester Center, Vt., the son of Louis D. and Stella Burgess Combs. In 1907, his family moved to Rensselaer, N.Y., where as a young boy he worked at the local golf course, caddying on occasion for Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the 16th president. He went on to college at nearby RPI, graduating in 1916 with his bachelors degree in civil engineering. Following graduation, the New York Central Railroad employed Combs as a maintenance engineer.
After America’s entry into World War I, Combs answered the call for national service. After scoring highly on a competitive examination for the CEC, Combs received an appointment as an assistant civil engineer in the Navy with the rank of lieutenant (junior grade) on Dec. 27, 1917. The start of 1918 found him attending an indoctrination course at the U.S. Naval Academy before reporting on Feb. 13 to the Washington Navy Yard for duty as assistant civil engineer in charge of field construction. Combs served in this assignment throughout the remainder of World War I until September 1919. Promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant in July 1918, Combs expressed disappointment for not receiving overseas duty in war-torn Europe.
Peacetime service, however, provided Combs overseas assignments and renewed recognition for his engineering and organizational skills. From September 1919 to June 1924, he served as the assistant to the engineer in chief, Republic of Haiti, with duties as director of Highways and Bridges, Harbor Development and Lighthouse Service. As part of his responsibilities, Combs organized and developed the latter two departments and construction programs. For his services, he received a letter of commendation from the President of Haiti and the Haitian National Order of Honour and Merit (rank of commander). Promoted to the permanent rank of lieutenant in July 1920, Combs built a strong rapport in Haiti with a fellow CEC lieutenant, Ben Moreell. This friendship would remain a permanent fixture for the rest of their lives as their careers each experienced an upwards trajectory.
Combs peers through the nose of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress, North Field, Tinian, Feb. 27, 1945. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum.
Returning to the United States in June 1924, Combs entered a period of service on both coasts until 1935. Through the remainder of the 1920s he worked at the Navy Yards at New York and Portsmouth, N.H. While in Portsmouth, he engaged in consultation with the Portland Cement Association in an extensive program for BuDocks involving tests and experiments with concrete construction in sea water. On April 27, 1925, he married Laura B. Warden in Rensselaer, N.Y., with Moreell as his best man. By year’s end, the Navy saw fit to promote Combs to lieutenant commander and to the grade of civil engineer. From 1929 to 1935, Combs served in Public Works for the 9th and 11th Naval Districts, and Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Ill., and Naval Operating Base, San Diego, Calif., respectively. In May 1935, Combs and his wife moved to the Republic of the Philippines for his assignment as Public Works officer of the 16th Naval District and Cavite Navy Yard. Promoted to the rank of commander, his work on the island of Luzon included surveying the southern islands, work which proved extremely valuable in the late 1930s. For these surveys and reports he was commended by the commander in chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet.
Wedding portrait of Lewis B. Combs and Laura B. Warden, April 27, 1925. From left to right, standing: Lt. Richard Livingston, USMC; Lt. Ben Moreell, CEC, USN; Lt. Lewis B. Combs, CEC, USN; Laura B. Warden; Ruth Sheldon; Lt. Albert A.L. Ort, CEC, USNR; Lt. Robert L. McLellan, CEC, USN; Lt. Reeves, USACE. Seated, left to right: Lt. Lewis N. Moeller, CEC, USN; unknown. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
In June 1937, Combs returned to the United States and reported for duty at BuDocks in Washington, D.C. Here he served as officer in charge of construction, Naval Experimental Model Basin, Carderock, Md., until Jan. 28, 1938, when he became assistant chief at BuDocks. Combs remained the assistant chief for eight years, the longest such tenure of any officer in the Navy . Elevated to the rank of rear admiral on Sept. 21, 1942, this latter promotion made Combs the first officer in the Navy to hold flag rank while an assistant bureau chief.
Throughout 1944 to 1945, he personally conducted inspections of construction battalions in the Caribbean and Pacific, traveling more than 100,000 miles to personally meet with Seabees, boosting morale and welfare, listening to problems, and bringing information from the field back to BuDocks headquarters. In the area of training, Combs’ guidance was invaluable in the development and establishment of the CEC Officers School, today located in Port Hueneme, Calif. While at Port Hueneme in the fall of 1943, Combs entered the film industry, serving as a technical adviser during the making of The Fighting Seabees and forming a lifelong friendship with lead actor John Wayne. Wayne would call on Combs’ advice again during production of Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Home for the Seabees (1977).
Combs on the set of The Fighting Seabees, Camp Pendleton, Calif., with actor John Wayne, 1943.
After the formal surrender of the Japanese in September 1945, Combs’ wartime contributions received formal recognition. He received an honorary doctorate in engineering and delivered the commencement address at RPI on Oct. 24, 1945. After he completed his tour as BuDocks’ assistant chief on Feb, 18, 1946, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal for orchestrating the world’s largest integrated construction program in the building of more than 900 naval bases and stations, an investment of more than $15 billion. On March 1, Combs became director, Atlantic Division, BuDocks, N.Y., where he served until ordered home and relieved of all active duty on Oct. 23, 1947. He was transferred to the Retired List of the Navy on Dec. 1, 1947, at the permanent rank of rear admiral.
Following his retirement, Combs returned to Rensselaer, N.Y., where he was appointed to the title of professor and made head of the Department of Civil Engineering at RPI on Jan. 1, 1948. At the institute, Combs oversaw the undergraduate and graduate civil engineer programs, paying particular attention to the “CEC Qualification Program” for Naval Academy and Coast Guard Academy graduates. This accelerated three-year program provided graduates with both a bachelors and masters in civil engineering. During Combs’ tenure, 395 men, including nine U.S. Air Force and four U.S. Marine Corps officers, earned the bachelors degree, with 126 receiving a masters degree. Combs initially planned to retire in June 1960 as a professor emeritus, but opted to stay on as department head for another academic year, finally retiring in June 1961.
Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs inspects training for Seabee stevedores, Camp Endicott, Davisville, R.I., May 20, 1944.
While at RPI, Combs maintained close ties with his former CEC officers, as well as BuDocks. He returned to active duty twice, first in 1955 to accompany BuDocks Chief RADM John R. Perry on an inspection tour of the base construction program in Spain, and again in 1959 traveling to the Arctic with USAF Major General Augustus M. Minton for a tour of the Distant Early Warning line of radar sites. For his contributions to military engineer education, the Society of American Military Engineers presented Combs with the Bliss Medal on May 15, 1961, making him the first CEC recipient of the award.
Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs receives the Navy Distinguished Service Medal from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, Feb. 26, 1946. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
Citation for Combs’ Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
For the next three decades, Combs remained active in his community. A frequent guest speaker at Seabee Balls, high school graduations, engineering conferences and other community functions, his memory and compassionate nature remained hallmarks of his character. He died in Red Hook, N.Y., on May 20, 1996, at the age of 101, preceded in death by his wife of 71 years, Laura, on March 8, 1996.
Although largely an unsung figure in the establishment and growth of the NCF, Combs’ contributions live on in the accomplishments of Seabees, the CEC and at RPI. The institute has selected Combs for induction into the Alumni Hall of Fame for the 2013-2014 academic year. Opening at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum to coincide with his birthday, a new exhibit, “The Century Before Seabees: The Bureau of Yards and Docks, 1842 – 1942,” chronicles the first 100 years of BuDocks and features a prominent display about Combs, artifacts from his career, and the lasting bond between RPI and the CEC.
Retired Adm. Ben Moreell, CEC, USN (left), and retired Rear Adm. Lewis B. Combs, CEC, USN, pause during an inspection of the National Naval Medical Center, Washington, D.C., 1974.