By William C. Shaner II, Exhibit Curator, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command
Photos courtesy of Lara Godbille, Director, U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Naval History and Heritage Command
Navy etiquette, customs and uniforms have been changing for over 230 years, yet their purpose has remained the same – to provide Sailors with stability, camaraderie and a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. For the Seabees, the “Fighting Bee” logo on their uniform give them just that. And it all started because this unique organization could not be properly categorized under World War II uniform regulations.
The idea for the Seabee logo evolved when the men of the 1st Naval Construction Detachment (NCD), the “Bobcats,” were training at Naval Air Station, Quonset Point, R.I., in early 1942.
Frank Iafrate was working as a civilian file clerk for the Navy and was in charge of an office that held confidential drawings of naval dock installations located across the United States. Whenever a researcher would come in to look at the drawings, Iafrate would pass the time by drawing caricatures of the researchers. The practice gave Iafrate the reputation as an artist.
Lt. Schilstone, officer in charge of the Bobcats, learned about Iafrate’s talent and asked him to make a “Disney-like” logo for the new group of construction men.
Iafrate’s first idea was that of a “Busy Beaver,” but after some research at the local library he found out that beavers run when danger is around. His second design concept was of a bee “who works industriously and yet is capable of stinging you if you try to claim his property.”
It took Iafrate three hours on a Sunday afternoon to complete the drawing of the bee. He gave the bee a white hat to make him “Navy,” tools to show his construction talents, a Tommy gun to show his fighting ability, a Civil Engineers Corps insignia on each wrist to show he was part of the CEC, and he also made him a third class petty officer.
Another design for the Seabee insignia that gained popularity was a bare-chested man, holding a sledgehammer and wearing a helmet. Frank Iafrate’s “Fighting Bee” was submitted first and chosen before the other design gained more traction. The Fighting Bee was adopted as the Seabees’ official logo on March 16, 1942.
Even though the Bee was adopted as the official logo of the Seabees, it was not allowed to be worn on the uniform. The Bee was only authorized as equipment marking. Therefore, for the first six months of their existence the Seabees were indistinguishable from fleet Sailors.
Eventually, the Seabees were given fleet ratings and specialty marks close to their civilian trade. For example, a bulldozer operator was rated as a machinist’s mate. However, the obvious problem with the practice was that Seabees were not qualified to perform the same tasks as the rated fleet Sailors with the same specialty.
In May 1942, the Navy solved the visual aspect of the problem by simply abolishing specialty marks for Seabees. While Seabees continued to use fleet specialty titles, such as machinist’s mate, they could no longer wear the corresponding specialty marks. Instead, all rated Seabees wore the embroidered letters “CB” in place of specialty mark on their rating badge.
The new practice proved to be insufficient and by December 17, 1942, the Seabees returned to wearing traditional fleet rates. It was decided that the addition of the letters “CB” embroidered on the lower left sleeve would signify that the Sailor was a not a fleet machinist’s mate but a Seabee machinist’s mate. This style also proved ineffective and months later the Navy still did not have an acceptable means of identifying Seabees.
In mid-1943, the Bureau of Yards and Docks took a new approach and proposed to the Navy Uniform Board that the official Seabee insignia become part of the uniform, much like how the Army identified different divisions with colorful shoulder patches.
The first proposal to make the Seabee insignia part of the Seabee uniform was disapproved because, “the ‘Fighting Bee’ logo was not in keeping with the dignity of the Naval uniform.”
The Bureau of Yards and Docks stayed vigilant and on October 14, 1944, the Seabee insignia was officially approved as part of the Seabee uniform. The 2 ¾” embroidered Seabee logo patch was to be worn on the left sleeve ½” below the shoulder seam. For the remainder of WWII, Seabees wore the insignia on their uniforms. In 1947, the circular shoulder patch was discontinued and was eventually replaced with a larger, less colorful logo incorporated on the left chest pocket after the Seabees became a permanent part of the Navy.