Story by MC2 Kenneth Rodriguez Santiago, U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs
PEARL HARBOR – Throughout World War II, approximately 250,000 forward-deployed Seabees constructed and repaired bases in Guadalcanal, communication stations in Papua New Guinea and bunkers to assist the war effort. Today, the number of forward-deployed Seabees operating in the Pacific is around 800. They operate in the Philippines, Timor-Leste, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Vietnam, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pohnpei Palawan, Indonesia, Diego Garcia, Guam, South Korea, San Clemente, California and Hawaii building schools, hospitals, and providing humanitarian assistance.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, U.S. Navy chief of the bureau of yards and docks, recommended establishing Naval Construction Battalions because international law prohibited civilian contractors from working overseas to build military installations. In early January 1942, the first construction units, dubbed Seabees, organized and quickly deployed to Bora Bora.
Capt. Steven Stasick, commodore, Thirtieth Naval Construction Regiment (NCR), located in Guam, said that Seabees play a crucial role in supporting the Fleet and U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) combatant commands’ missions.
“While Seabees work tirelessly to ensure a fully trained and seamless cooperation in the event of a conflict, expanding collaboration and cooperation with allies and partners in the region is an important part of the Seabee mission around the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “There is no better signal of our desire to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific than U.S. Naval operations in the region.”
Seabee detachments provide local populations with construction efforts such as building new schools and medical clinics in difficult to reach or remote locations in an effort to enhance quality of life for residents of local communities. Stasick highlighted how the Seabees’ impact to communities throughout the Pacific has helped establish lasting relationships that are valuable to continued cooperation today.
“The work the Seabees perform is invaluable to a wide range of audiences,” said Stasick. “The Seabees provide critical infrastructure, which benefits the entire Indo-Pacific. Their physical presence is a tangible means of demonstrating U.S. commitment and partnership.”
This year alone, Seabees are working on more than 40 construction projects in at least 17 locations throughout the Indo-Pacific and continue to work with local military and partner nation construction teams. They have detachments and exercises from San Clemente Island, California to Diego Garcia, located in the Indian Ocean.
“The Navy is the most forward deployed service in the Department of Defense,” said Rear Adm. John Adametz, Commander, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific and U.S. Pacific Fleet, Fleet Civil Engineer. “We are often needed in more places than where our large platforms are capable of going, and that’s where the Seabees come in. Our Seabees are multi-faceted; they can build on land, on the sea, and underwater.”
Adametz said the Seabees deployed to Timor-Leste are building a medical facility, which benefits the local population twofold – improving infrastructure and helping locals improve their building skill-set. He added that Seabees enable the Fleet as a soft power of choice by winning hearts and minds through construction, training, and subject matter expert exchange programs.
“In the Philippines and Timor, our Seabees work hand-in-hand with local forces,” said Senior Chief Constructionman Jeanna Carlock, 30th NCR Operations Chief. Carlock said during the upcoming annual Hari’i Hamutuk joint-nation engagement, (Tetun for “Building Together”) held in Timor-Leste, military engineers from the Seabees, USMC, Japan Ground Self Defense Force, Australian Defense Force and the Forces Falintil de Timor-Leste will participate in subject matter exchanges and complete community improvement projects including a clinic, school, and local military installations at each iteration.
Currently, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 4, NMCB 133, Underwater Construction Team (UCT) 2 and Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit 303 are distributed throughout Oceania providing local populations with construction efforts such as building new schools and medical clinics in difficult to reach or remote locations.
During Pacific Partnership 2019 in Thailand – the largest annual multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief-preparedness mission conducted in the Indo-Pacific – the local engineers and Seabees constructed a new four-stall facility for students and faculty to improve the Ban Mabfugthong School. They also constructed a library at the Ban Surasak School. In Balikatan, they built a single classroom for disabled students.
“Building schools is important for the locals, as it can change the lives of the children in these regions,” said Lt. Charles Bell, operations officer for U.S. Pacific Fleet, fleet civil engineer. “These schools, clinics and military constructions will be here for decades to come, symbolizing the trust and friendship the U.S. Navy forged with these nations during the construction.”
Other Seabee construction projects currently underway include a sanitation project in Vietnam, a health clinic in Timor-Leste, and a maritime infrastructure assessment program implemented by UCT 2 for the Federated States of Micronesia in order to maintain and expand Pohnpei’s harbor port.
Sailors across these commands commented about how rewarding it is to work side-by-side with their foreign partners.
“I am incredibly grateful to be a part of a unique experience supporting the local population and seeing the end results of hard work, which improve the community,” said Equipment Operator 3rd Class Joshua Nunn, attached to NMCB 133. “I take great pleasure in contributing to the improvement in the quality of life for people who truly deserve it. Experiences like this deployment make me truly proud to be a Seabee.”
Nunn also spoke about the unique leadership opportunities presented to him on this deployment.
“One of the most memorable and rewarding experiences on this deployment is having apprentices, and being able to share my knowledge with them,” said Nunn. “They will one day become equipment operators and that is extremely helpful to the work force in Palau.”
For the past 77 years, the Seabees built schools, clinics, military installations, and repaired buildings in every imaginable condition to improve the lives of the people all across the Pacific. The value they bring as a versatile force continues to allow the Navy to adapt quickly to any mission requirements that may be required today or tomorrow.