From Alaska to Okinawa: An Original Seabee Reflects

By M. Alberto Rivera [Originally published in Seabee Magazine, Winter 2010]

 Barracks

In the barracks, c.1943. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command

Like many young men of his generation, 18-year-old Ronald A. Kozak answered the call of duty after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He enlisted in the Navy in 1942.

The Seabees, a  brand-new outfit in the Navy, were in dire need of men and, according to Kozak, “We were at war and at that time all enlistees in the Navy were assigned to the Seabees, at least where I enlisted on Church Street in New York. The Seabees were new to the Navy so they needed all the manpower they could get, regardless of age or experience. I do not regret at all the fact that I was put in the Seabees. I’m proud of it.”

After completing boot camp at Camp Braddock, Norfolk, Va., Kozak and his fellow new recruits went to Gulfport, Miss., for advanced training. Then, Kozak went on to serve in the 79th Naval Construction Battalion (NCB).

The Aleutian Islands Campaign is an often overlooked part of WWII history. Alaska – still a territory at the time – was a battleground. And as Gen. Billy Mitchell said before Congress in 1935, “… whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.”

On June 3, 1942, a Japanese invasion force 8,000 strong, attacked and took control of  Unalaska Island. In the following days they repeated this action on Kiska and Attu islands. The Japanese had designs to launch attacks against the West Coast of the United States from these bases.

The 79th NCB unit was shipped to Port Hueneme, Calif., where Kozak and 1,100 other ‘Bees caught the USS Chaumont (AP-5) and headed north. They would become the maintenance battalion for the Naval Air Station and Naval Base, Kodiak, Alaska.

Adak

Seabee-built camp at Adak, c.1942. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command

“In 1943 part of our battalion was sent with the Marines to secure that island. They sure did,” said Kozak. “The Aleutian Islands, being part of Alaska, were one of our main defenses to the West Coast of the United States. If the Japanese ever gained control of those islands, in no time they would invade the mainland of this country. We had to make sure they didn’t.

“No matter where our duties took us we always had to carry the .30 calibre carbine rifle,” he said. “We built roads on the sides of mountains, and helped maintain the Naval Air Station and its runways so our planes could keep up their constant air watch on that part of the Pacific. We maintained the whole naval base from electricity to everything else. We had to be there or the Japanese would.”

May 1943 saw an 18-day battle for Attu Island. U.S. forces engaged the well dug-in Japanese, many already battle-hardened from time spent in Manchuria. The fighting was grim. Of the 3,000 or so Japanese troops on Attu Island, only 28 were taken prisoner.

On Aug. 15, an Allied invasion force landed on Kiska. The units were comprised of American and Canadian troops. They found the island abandoned. Under the cover of fog, the Japanese left, believing their position to be vulnerable as Attu had been.

Kozak spent 17 months in the Aleutians before returning to the states on 30 days’ leave. He then shipped off to Camp Shoemaker in California where intense training began for battle in the Pacific. After spending some time deployed to Saipan, Kozak’s next fight was Okinawa.

Okinawa is still remembered as one of the bloodiest battles recorded – ever. It took nearly three months to secure the island. Allied forces were subjected to ongoing fighting from a fierce and determined enemy, as well as heavy rains.

“If I recall,” said Kozak, “when we landed on Okinawa the Army was about a mile to our left and the Marines about a mile to our right. We went inland about a mile when suddenly all Hell broke loose. Thank God for our Marine training; we were able to bring that battle to a successful close. Then we set up our base in the hills. Even after the island was secured we still had bombings, but we were getting ready for the invasion of Japan.”

DutchHarbor

Dutch Harbor, c.1942. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command

“Nature wasn’t helpful either,” said Kozak. “Monsoon rains wreaked havoc, turning the battlefield into soup.”

The island was secured June 21, 1945. Everyone’s attention turned to training for the invasion of Japan.

“Yes, we suffered some casualties on Okinawa, but thank God President Harry Truman decided to drop the A-bombs. That decision saved thousands of American lives and wounded,” Kozak said. “Just let me add that the Seabees during WWII in both the Pacific and Europe, while under fire from the enemy, accomplished a great deal to end that war. And to this day, they deserve all the honor they proudly earned. Once again they not only proved ‘Can Do,’ but sure did and continue to do so.”

M. Alberto Rivera served in NMCB 40’s Public Affairs Office in the early 1990s

 


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