Confluence of War: The Battle of the Atlantic, Iceland and Seabee Origins

Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., Historian, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

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Part of the assignment for the Bobcats involved emplacing several 7-inch coastal defense guns on Bora Bora’s heights. Without the use of heavy equipment, the men accomplished the task with skids and pure muscle power. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Seabees celebrate their birthday on March 5, a date selected in 1955 by Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks) Chief Rear Adm. John R. Perry for several reasons. This date coincided with the day in 1942 that the Bureau of Navigation (BuNav) granted approval to designate construction battalions as Seabees and for use of the now world-famous Fighting Seabee on major items of equipment. This date also enabled a joint celebration with the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), whose birth can be traced to March 2, 1867.

There is, however, another date one could claim as the birthday of the Seabees: Oct. 31, 1941. The story behind this particular date leads to an interesting convergence in the fall of 1941 of the Battle of the Atlantic, the birth of the Seabees and the Navy’s initial strategic focus in World War II.

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As BuDocks chief, Rear Adm. John R. Perry established the Seabee birthday of March 5, and was also one of the original CEC officers chosen to select the men who became the first Seabees. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

In the spring of 1940, the Nazi German war machine commenced a staggering campaign of conquest in Western Europe. From April to June, Nazi forces invaded and seized Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg and France. On May 10, the same day Germany invaded France, the British in a preemptive move invaded Iceland with a small force of Royal Marines. This denied the Germans’ use of the island for attacks on British merchant shipping lanes to the home isles. Neutral Iceland protested the flagrant violation of its sovereignty, managing to secure concessions from the British. These notably included the provision that no more than 2,200 Icelanders would be employed by the British to help construct badly needed military facilities.

By late summer attention focused on the air battles over the skies of England, but the Battle of the Atlantic remained of great concern to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The combined threats of German U-boat operations and Luftwaffe bombing raids threatened to starve out the British resolve to fight. On Sep. 2, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill reached an agreement whereby 50 mothballed American destroyers would be transferred to the Royal Navy in return for 99-year, rent-free leases at British possessions in the Caribbean and American air and naval base rights in Bermuda and Newfoundland. The “Destroyers for Bases Agreement” provided Churchill a badly needed boost in antisubmarine defenses and gave the Americans locations to build up the defensive positions in the hemisphere. Work soon began on constructing a major air base at Argentia, Newfoundland, in late December 1940, to defend the shipping lanes and American coastal waters from the U-boat threat.

In Iceland the British commenced construction of base facilities by the summer of 1940. Unfortunately, by early 1941 they needed help. Specifically, the British requested American assistance in construction of fuel oil storage facilities essential to fuel British operations on Iceland and store fuel reserves shipped from American tankers prior to transfer to British ships bound for Great Britain. Concurrently on March 11, 1941, Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease legislation into law, thereby allowing the transfer of large quantities of war materiel to the British and other allied nations. The German U-boat arm subsequently increased its operations against British merchant shipping to offset Lend-Lease, sinking 650,000 tons of vessels in April. In response, Roosevelt debated transferring additional warships from Pearl Harbor to join the Atlantic Fleet in escorting convoys bound for Great Britain. Instead, on April 18 the president chose to extend the American coastal security zone to a meridian roughly 50 miles west of Reykjavik, Iceland, approximately 2,300 nautical miles east of New York, placing its Navy increasingly at the forefront of the Battle of the Atlantic.

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The destroyer USS Kearny tied up alongside the destroyer USS Monssen at Reykjavik, Iceland, Oct. 19, 1941. Note the hole made by U-568’s torpedo on the starboard side. Source: National Archives

Events continued to develop and accelerate. On July 7, 1941, a force of 4,095 U.S. Marines arrived at Reykjavik harbor at the invitation of the Icelandic government to occupy the country and replace the British. The occupation, explained Roosevelt, enabled greater defense of Greenland and the northern portion of North America, protected North Atlantic shipping and ensured the steady flow of munitions to the British. With the Marines in place, on July 15 Roosevelt shifted the coastal security zone to 22 degrees west longitude, thus including all of Iceland. Prior to the American occupation, Lt. j.g. L.H. Hartung, CEC, USNR and Lt. Cmdr. E.P. Littlejohn, CEC, USNR visited Iceland to report on conditions for construction of the British fuel oil storage facilities. After the occupation, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Harold Stark directed for the construction of a fleet air base near Reykjavik. In September 1941, the George A. Fuller Company and Merritt-Chapman and Scott Corporation signed contracts for the fuel oil storage site and the fleet air base facilities. The first contingent of civilian workers left in early October for Iceland, arriving at month’s end.

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The USS Reuben James, the first U.S. Navy vessel lost in World War II, sunk by the U-552on Oct. 31, 1941. Source: National Archives

But with American warships escorting convoys bound for Great Britain as far east as Iceland, the inevitability of German U-boat attacks increased. On Sept. 4, the World War I-era destroyer USS Greer dueled with the U-652, each side exchanging fire without injury. A week later, Roosevelt announced a “shoot-on-sight” policy, publicly articulating secret orders issued months prior wherein American ships and aircraft could fire on German or Italian naval forces should they be found within 100 miles of an American-escorted convoy or Iceland. Germany drew first blood with this new policy, when on Oct. 17 the U-568 torpedoed the destroyer USS Kearny 400 miles south of Iceland, killing 11 Sailors. Only days before, work commenced on the Fleet Air Base on Iceland but climate compounded by manpower shortages inhibited the pace of construction.

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The circular letter authorizing the creation of the Headquarters Construction Company (HCC), the first Seabees, Oct. 31, 1941. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

In the last days of October 1941, BuDocks and BuNav met to discuss civilian construction operations at advance bases. The recent developments with the USS Greer and USS Kearny presumably informed the participants in the meeting that the likelihood of war loomed ominously. The following day, BuDocks Chief Rear Adm. Ben Moreell wrote to BuNav Chief Rear Adm. Chester W. Nimitz recommending early enrollment for personnel in the Naval Reserve into a Headquarters Construction Company (HCC) composed of 99 men to assist the CEC officer-in-charge of construction at the naval bases in Iceland, “and at such other places as may be necessary.” The company would serve in Iceland as an administrative unit to manage labor and assorted issues should war break out and interrupt civilian construction contracts.

Three days later on Oct. 31, BuNav granted BuDocks’ request and authorized personnel from Class V-6 of the Naval Reserve into the 99-man HCC. To assist BuNav in selecting persons for this company, BuDocks tapped three CEC lieutenant commanders, including John R. Perry. After the company personnel were selected and received indoctrination training, the men were ordered to Naval Air Station, Quonset Point, R.I.

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The U.S. Navy Fuel Depot constructed by a mix of civilian contractors and the 28th Naval Construction Battalion, as seen on July 14, 1943. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Only hours before a yeoman typed the letter authorizing the HCC, a U-boat struck again. In the early morning hours of Oct. 31, the destroyer USS Reuben James was escorting convoy HX 156 approximately 600 miles west of Ireland. Around 5:30 a.m., the submarine U-552 torpedoed and sank the Reuben James, killing 115 members of her crew. With the U.S. Navy essentially at war with Germany, the construction on Iceland focused primarily on the Fleet Air Base to allow PBY-5A Catalina patrol aircraft to find, fix and attack U-boats in and around Icelandic waters. With the American Neutrality Act all but dead with the turn of events in late 1941 (it was officially repealed on Nov. 17, 1941) the air base with its obvious offensive and defensive capabilities took priority over the fuel storage facilities.

Events in the Pacific soon shifted the focus and mission of the initial HCC. After the surprise attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy on the American military installations on Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, BuDocks ordered the acceleration of all advance base construction contracts. This also came with recognition of the need to complete the base construction with military personnel. On Dec. 16, 1941, one day prior to his selection as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Nimitz authorized the enlistment of four more HCCs. Moreell, two days later, wrote to now Adm. Nimitz that BuDocks had “begun the enlistment of construction battalions who will have all ratings of construction workers with the idea that we will send them to these outlying bases to complete the bases once we get the civilians off.”

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Fleet Air Base, Reykjavik, Iceland, Oct. 15, 1943. This base served both U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Air Force operations, with C-47 transports visible in the lower right. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

On Dec. 28, Moreell wrote to BuNav and proposed the organization of a construction regiment composed of three battalions, each in turn composed of four companies of 226 men and one 168-man headquarters unit. Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs, the new BuNav chief, approved Moreell’s proposal on Jan. 5, 1942, with the construction battalion personnel ratings modeled on those of the original HCC.

And what of the original 99-man company created initially for work in Iceland? In the aftermath of America’s entry into World War II on Dec. 25, 1941, Adm. Ernest J. King ordered the War Plans Division of the Chief of Naval Operation’s office under the direction of Rear Adm. Richmond K. Turner to “proceed at once to study the matter of a fueling base in the central South Pacific area,” which five days later recommended that a base be established in Travanui Harbor on Bora Bora in the Society Islands. The purpose of the base was to protect the supply and communications lines with Australia and New Zealand, lines now threatened by Japanese forces. A formal Joint Basic Plan developed on Jan. 8, 1942, with the U.S. Army directed that a fueling base – codenamed BOBCAT – be established at Bora Bora by the Navy and defended by the Army.

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Bora Bora’s Mt. Pahia seen seaward from the west of Teavanui Pass, with Motu Ahuna Island to the left in the foreground, July 20, 1942. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

Meanwhile, having completed its training and organization at Quonset Point Naval Air Station, the 99-man company suddenly found itself on the move. With assignment to Iceland canceled, the Navy shipped the men south to the Charleston Navy Yard, S.C. On Jan. 22, 1942, they joined 138 apprentice seamen from Newport, R.I., and 13 petty officers, an assortment of gunner’s mates and members from the commissary branch, to commission the 1st Naval Construction Battalion (later broken into the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Construction Detachments). Eight CEC officers joined the battalion, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Harold M. Sylvester. The battalion shipped out Jan. 27 for Bora Bora. Trained for administrative work with civilian contractors in Iceland, the original 99-man HCC arrived at Bora Bora on Feb. 17, over 8,300 miles away and almost 50 degrees Fahrenheit difference to build an advance base from scratch.

The 1st Naval Construction Detachment, dubbed “Bobcats” for the Bora Bora codename, centered on the original 99-man Iceland company. On the island, they overcame limited training, experience and a total lack of facilities to unload their transports and construct a water distribution system, air station, seaplane ramp, fuel storage facilities, Quonset huts and defensive gun batteries, literally hauling the 7-inch guns on skids up the sides of 1,000 – 2,000-foot slopes at 45-degree angles before emplacement. With their work complete at Bora Bora by March 1943, the men shipped out in September for New Caledonia and joined the 22nd Marine Regiment on Samoa. The ensuing months witnessed the Bobcats joining in the invasions of Eniwetok, Kwajalein, and building facilities for the Marines at Guadalcanal. On May 4, 1944, the Navy deactivated the original Bobcats, with some men having spent 28 months on continuous overseas duty.

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The original pioneering Seabees, trained for Iceland and deployed to the South Pacific: the Bobcats. Source: U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

The strategic situation of October 1941 that gave birth to the HCC shifted dramatically with the outbreak of the Pacific War less than two months later. The precarious nature of the supply line to Australia and New Zealand, coupled with the crippling of the Pacific Fleet, trumped Iceland’s immediate strategic importance in the Battle of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, Iceland remained a BuDocks priority and in August and December 1942 Seabees from the 9th and 28th Naval Construction Battalions, respectively, arrived to relieve the civilian contractors, completing all work by late 1943. Although the Seabees rose to prominence because of the Pacific War, it was the early American involvement in the Battle of the Atlantic which resulted in the birth of the first Seabees, whose haphazard deployment might also be deemed the first instance of “Can Do” in action.


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Consolidated by Dr. Frank A. Blazich Jr., Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command

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