Seabee Service with the Marines

By Commander James C. Rentfrow, U.S. Navy

The memories of 7 December 1941, less than a year earlier, remained with him. He had been a high school senior, living in Santa Cruz, California, when the attack on Hawaii took place. California’s West Coast was paralyzed with fear of a possible invasion. Santa Cruz was no exception. The city was blacked out on the night of 7 December, as reports of the devastating damage at Pearl Harbor continued to pour in.

As impossible as it might seem to present-day readers, invasion was a very real fear in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Local militias were formed, and many of the teenagers brought their .22 rifles down to the beach, ready to repel an enemy landing. It never came, of course, but two weeks later an oil tanker was shelled by a Japanese submarine 20 miles off the coast. The war had become real to the residents of Santa Cruz County. 1

Less than a year later, Edwards was standing outside the Marine recruiting station in San Francisco, intent on becoming a Leatherneck. There was only one problem: In 1942 the Corps was more selective than the other services about who it allowed to enlist. In the words of a somewhat bemused Marine recruiting sergeant, Edwards needed to “go home and grow some more.” Furious, he left the recruiting station more determined than ever to find his way to the action.

Back at work the following day, Edwards shared his experience with a coworker at Western Electric, who told him about a new Navy outfit: the Seabees. “They go right in with the Marines,” his friend told him. (Edwards, in retrospect, had no idea how true that statement would turn out to be.) He decided that it was worth a visit to the Navy recruiting office.

The Navy in 1942 could be fairly selective about who it took in. The draft sent men primarily to the Army and Marines. Potential recruits or draftees who had specialized training often found their way into the more technically orientated Navy or Army Air Forces. In 1942 the Seabees were actively seeking technically trained civilians. When Edwards walked into the Navy recruiting office in San Francisco and inquired about the Seabees, the recruiter immediately sent him to the downtown office where a Navy lieutenant commander enlisted the young electrician on the spot. Edwards was on his way to becoming a Seabee.

Problem of Building Bases

By the turn of the 20th century, naval planners understood that a protracted war in the Pacific would require advanced bases from which to operate U.S. ships. Working together, the Marine Corps School in Quantico, Virginia, and the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, spent the interwar years publishing articles and conducting wargames aimed at discerning the best locations for these advanced bases and the amount of manpower required to capture and operate them.

With all the attention paid to the problem of seizing and defending an advanced naval base, the issue of construction is significant only in its absence from the contemporary literature. In 1913 Major “Pete” Ellis, the Marine prophet of amphibious warfare, wrote that “It is realized that the construction of the type of redoubt necessary will be no small task . . . in most cases native labor will be available. If complete plans are proposed in time of peace and the men are trained to work, the scheme should be feasible.” 2

This tendency to worry more about the military aspects of advanced bases rather than the “boring” details of construction only became worse in the following decades. Realizing the incredible cost of continued capital-ship construction, the major naval powers (Great Britain, United States, Germany, France, and Japan) met in Washington, D.C., in November 1922 to discuss limitations on naval armaments and building programs. One of the concessions made to Japan to get it to agree to the famous 5:5:3 ratio in the Washington Naval Treaty (Japan being allowed a navy three-fifths the size of Great Britain’s or the United States’) was the U.S. agreement to cease all fortification of overseas bases in the Pacific. As naval planners turned their attention to issues of ship combat radius and the use of aircraft carriers, the ability to carry out expeditionary construction was allowed to languish. 3

In 1940, recognizing the coming crisis, the Bureau of Yards and Docks began (belatedly) to reinforce bases in the path of the coming Pacific conflict. Surprisingly, though, even in these last hours of national emergency, the Navy stuck to the paradigm of using private contract and civilian labor. 4 In much the same way that the State Department recently learned that it is often difficult to manage contracted civilian organizations in a war zone, the Department of the Navy was forced to come to grips with this dilemma in December 1941 when the garrison on Wake Island was overrun by the Japanese, resulting in the capture of more than 1,000 civilian contractors. The Navy realized that a requirement existed for a military construction force, and the idea of construction battalions—“CBs,” or “Seabees”—was born. 5

Basic Training

It was this rapidly growing organization that Jack Edwards joined in late 1942. Told that he would be undergoing basic training in Williamsburg, Virginia, Edwards was initially excited to be able to see something of the East Coast, a place he had never been. That excitement quickly evaporated as his train left California in the middle of the night. In his words, “We came and left at night, never got outside the gate . . . we knew less what was going on than anyone.” 6

Seaman Edwards found that Camp Allen, Virginia, was all about work. Much to his chagrin, there was no time for seeing the sights of Virginia’s historic tidewater region. Under the leadership of Captain John Ware, the Civil Engineering Corps officer charged with developing a training program for the Seabees, the recruits began the process of transformation from industrial workers to sailors. 7

On completion of basic training, Edwards was shipped back to Port Hueneme, California, where his parent unit, the 109th Naval Construction Battalion, was based. But about 50 newly minted Seabees, including Edwards, were drawn off and sent to the 121st Naval Construction Battalion, which was assigned directly to the 4th Marine Division, then forming at Camp Pendleton, California. 8 It appeared that Edwards would get his wish to fight with the Marines after all.

The 121st was redesignated the 3d Battalion, 20th Marines, 4th Marine Division; its sailors traded in their Navy dungarees for Marine fatigues; and training at Camp Pendleton began in earnest. 9 They repeated boot camp, this time “Marine style.” Edwards recalled that a “typical Marine sergeant—6’2’’, 180 lbs, a #2 hat and a #14 boot” drove them relentlessly as they prepared for amphibious operations: ship to shore maneuvers, camouflage training, swimming, and ship evacuation. “I spent enough time off that boot I should’a drawn flight pay. . . . That was my introduction to the Marines.” 10 Fortunately for the Seabee, the tough training would pay off.

Warm Up: Kwajalein

On 8 January 1944, the 4th Marine Division, with its Seabees embedded in the unit’s landing teams, moved to San Diego for embarkation. On the 13th, the convoy departed for overseas. In a pointed demonstration of industrial might and long-range power projection capabilities, the deployment of the 4th Marine Division marked the first time in the war that a unit had proceeded directly to combat from the continental United States. 11

En route, Edwards made a point of volunteering for duty on one of the transport’s deck guns, which were manned 24 hours a day. It gave him something to do, while getting him out of the stuffy troop berthing compartments belowdecks. 12

The Marshall Islands stood directly in the way of Admiral Chester Nimitz’ desired push through the Central Pacific toward Japan’s inner defense ring. While conventional military wisdom would have mandated a methodical mopping up of the entire island chain, the decision was made to bypass and isolate the smaller fortified islands and strike decisively at Kwajalein Atoll. 13 All Edwards had been told was that their objectives were code-named “Burlesque” and “Camouflage.” Once at sea, the men learned their true objective.

Regimental Combat Teams (RCTs) 23 and 24 were assigned the task of taking Roi-Namur, the connected islands that form the north end of Kwajalein Atoll. At 1100 on 1 February, RCT 23, along with Edwards and the team’s other Seabees, landed on Roi. Opposition was relatively light, and the Seabees soon got about their duties of bringing supplies ashore and repairing the small island’s airfield. The 109th NCB, Edward’s original unit, began arriving at the atoll the next day, and work began in earnest. 14

Edwards’ demolitions squad spent most of its time collecting unexploded shells, which it stored in a large ammunition dump at the main base site. Also at this same dump was the main supply of fuel oil and live ammunition. One night, Edward recalled, Japanese bombers laid incendiary bombs “right down through the middle of that thing, and it burned everything out.” 15

After making it through the bombing raid, Edwards was wounded the next day. By chance, it was the day before the 121st was ordered to leave the island. While trying to evacuate a buddy who had been wounded by shrapnel, he “saw a big flash and heard a heavy burst. . . . I was thrown up in the air and landed on some coral boulders.” 16 He woke up about four or five hours later with broken ribs. The hospital ship having already departed, Edwards was placed on a converted freighter headed for Hawaii.

More than 60 years later, Edwards watched on the news wounded soldiers being evacuated from Iraq on non-stop flights to Germany and the United States with a little good-natured bemusement, as he recalled spending nine days and eight nights on the uncomfortable freighter. This time there was no opportunity to volunteer for gun duty, as he was belowdecks in a bed. Eventually, he ended up in the Aiea Heights military hospital at Pearl Harbor. The hospital was so overcrowded that many patients, Edwards included, were placed on gurneys in the hallways.

Edwards was in the hospital for the next 28 days. He learned to smoke—a habit he would carry for the next 40 years—to pass the time. 17 Eventually he was discharged and able to rejoin the 121st NCB. The battalion had arrived back in Hawaii just after Edwards, in February 1944, and taken up residence on Maui while he had been in the hospital. Edwards recalled that when he was released he was “so weak that one of the Marines had to carry my gear up the gangplank.” 18

Training in Hawaii

Life on Maui had been busy for the 121st. By the time Edwards met back up with it in March, the unit was in the middle of building an airstrip to serve the 4th Marine Division’s camp. When not engaged in this activity, there was plenty of training. The 4th Division veterans of Roi-Namur teamed up with the 2d Marine Division veterans of Tarawa, and spent March and April preparing for the next island invasion. It was not a vacation. Edwards recalled endless hours on the rifle range, studying field tactics, and running up and down the beach. He particularly remembered the runs culminating in a grueling eight-hour 40-miler during which the runners were allowed only a 10-minute break every two hours.

Edwards’ specialty was demolitions, and he spent a lot of time training on dud ammunition. Several rehearsal landings were staged. Finally, between 15 and 19 May, the Marines and Seabees conducted a full-scale simulated landing under the protection of naval gunfire and aerial bombardment. 19 The upcoming invasion would be the Marines’ first two-division simultaneous landing, and every detail was practiced.

As usual, the men were told next to nothing about their ultimate objective or when the operation would take place. “One day we were loaded on the barges, and didn’t come back” is how Edwards recalled their departure for the island of Saipan.

‘We Took That Beach on Our Bellies’

In his book The Great War and Modern Memory , Paul Fussell discusses the process of memory and how the most vivid memories of combat are often of insignificant and incongruous, or ironic, things. On 15 June, Edwards was coming ashore on Saipan under murderous fire when he looked down and noticed in the water what he thought was a mass of kelp. Drawing closer, he was horrified to discover that the “kelp” was actually a clump of olive drab–clad Marine corpses. This picture dominates his memory of the landings. “We took that beach on our bellies,” the veteran recalled emphatically. 20

For the invasion, the 121st NCB was attached to the 4th Marine Division’s RCT 23. While the division landed on beaches opposite and to the south of Charan Kanoa, the 2d Marine Division came ashore to the north of the town; the Army’s 27th Infantry Division would begin landing late on D+1. Once the 4th Division’s initial regimental combat teams were ashore, they began advancing eastward. Edwards’ 13-man demolition squad was culled out and assigned to blow open the safe in the Charan Kanoa bank. Edwards recalled that after taking a lot of time to place satchel charges to blast open the bank, a 16-inch shell tore through one side of the building and out the other. “It exploded someplace else,” said Edwards, “all we had to do was walk around that side and walk in.” What they discovered inside was a treasure trove: “I never saw so much Jap yen in my life; you could fill a [truck] with it.”

Because they had been told that the only legal tender anywhere in theater would be the military scrip they were paid with, Edwards and the others largely ignored all this money. But later that year, as part of the occupation force in Japan, Edwards would be chagrined to notice those same yen were still legal tender there. So much for his chance at being rich.

After helping secure the town, the demolition squad joined the Marines’ eastward advance to cut the island in two and separate the enemy forces. As they struggled across cane fields near a large prewar sugar mill on the outskirts of Charan Kanoa, they began to encounter heavy fire. The Japanese defenders had zeroed in mortars and artillery batteries on the exposed fields, and their fire was murderous. “They tore us up with those mortars,” Edwards recalled. He caught 17 bits of shrapnel in his right leg. Sixteen of them were removed by a corpsman, one remains lodged in his leg to this day.

Moreover, a spotter posted in the smokestack of the nearby sugar mill was able to direct Japanese artillery fire for several days before the high structure was finally destroyed.21 Edwards’ battalion commander was wounded in the cane fields east of Charan Kanoa. In fact, Saipan turned out to be a particularly tough battle to be a battalion commander; 12 of the 27 Marines who initially led their infantry battalions into action on Saipan became casualties. 22

The fierce fighting continued as the 2d and 4th Marine divisions, with the 27th Infantry Division between them, began a northward push up into the island’s hills. Near the right flank of the advance, through rugged hilly territory, Edwards’ unit made painfully slow progress. He recalled that taking one hill required multiple assaults: “We were driven back three times. Took it the fourth time, at night.” 23

During this engagement, Edwards had one of his most harrowing and personal combat experiences. With a counterattacking Japanese soldier a few feet away, charging directly at him, Edwards “blew his stack.” It was the only time in his two years in combat that he experienced this sort of “out-of-body” experience, as adrenaline and a will to survive simply shut down the rest of his faculties. When he came to, the Seabee was sitting in a hole with his carbine and three other guys. He asked one of them what time it was, and was astonished to hear that it was 0215. The assault had jumped off at 2150. 24

As the push northward continued, Edwards, as a second-class petty officer, became a squad leader. He didn’t have a choice; the higher-ups had been killed or wounded. His first command soon was tested. Ordered to make safe some tank traps in a “cleared” area, he told his men to dress out lightly, carrying only Thompson submachine guns and carbines, as it would be a short mission in an area supposedly safe from enemy fire. Sadly, the squad would find that nothing on Saipan was safe from enemy fire.

As the group proceeded up a small gully toward the tank traps, they were hit from three sides by a Japanese unit that had infiltrated the U.S. lines. Enemy soldiers began to close in, and it appeared that the fighting soon would become hand-to-hand, but the Seabees were able to beat back the attack with some help from a Marine security patrol that had happened by and joined in the firefight. Edwards reported back to battalion headquarters with what was left of his demolition squad. Out of 13 men, 3 were dead and 5 wounded. Edwards was spot promoted to first-class petty officer.

It was also during this phase of the fighting that Edwards became proficient at the task of “cleaning out” the Japanese-occupied caves that were everywhere in the hilly terrain. The preferred method of attacking a cave stronghold was to toss in a hand grenade. But, as Edwards pointed out, afterward you had to go in; if you didn’t and any Japanese soldiers survived the grenade blast, they would come out and shoot you in the back after you passed by. Edwards was one of the smallest men in his squad, so it often fell to him to enter the confined cave openings, a .45-caliber pistol in one hand and a specially modified bayonet with brass knuckles for a hilt in the other (after the war Edwards’ wife would use the weapon for gardening). His job was to finish off anyone who might still be alive.

The Final Days

As the desperate Japanese defense began to crumble, Edwards was witness to a new and different kind of horror. Brainwashed by the garrison forces into believing that the advancing Americans would do horrible things to anyone taken alive, Japanese civilians in the path of U.S. forces began to commit suicide in rapidly growing numbers. Edwards saw civilians jump from Saipan’s steep cliffs onto rocks far below rather than risk life under American occupation. At one point, he recalled, one of his officers called for artillery fire to force the would-be jumpers back from the face of the cliff. 25

But once the Marines began to make personal contact with the civilians, they realized that the Americans weren’t there to harm them. 26 Edwards recollected one woman with a little baby coming forward to meet the advancing Leathernecks. The woman’s foot was mangled—almost completely torn off. Using a rifle, the Marines fashioned a sling to carry her down a hill to an aid station. Edwards followed, holding the baby. “I never will forget that kid. Not one movement, not one sound, no expression; just those blank eyes looking right straight at me. . . . It gave me the creeps.” 27

Edwards found himself better able to relate to the Japanese, both soldiers and civilians, than the average American serviceman. Although the Pacific war was fraught with racial overtones, he didn’t see things that way. He’d encountered Japanese culture growing up in California: “The Japanese were not new to me because I worked with them. I went to school with them.” 28 Edwards also respected their soldiers and the way they fought on Saipan. “The Japanese were no cowards. . . . They met us eyeball to eyeball.”

On to Japan

After Saipan was secured, most of the 121st packed up and headed to nearby Tinian. About 50 or so Seabees, including Edwards, stayed behind to help garrison the island. What might have seemed to be a good deal, however, soon became yet another ordeal, as he contracted malaria.

Marines who were wounded or otherwise unfit for duty were evacuated back to the States, Edwards wistfully recalled. Not so for Navy personnel. They were cared for in theater. So, after having lived with the Marines and worn their uniform for much of the past year and a half, Edwards found himself in a field hospital on Guam, living five men to a tent (“dirt floor and one light bulb”), while he recovered from his malaria bout.

Once he was reasonably well, the Navy managed to put him to work immediately. The 109th NCB was on Guam, responsible for engineering and public works for the garrison. Edwards was reattached to his original unit and put to work caring for massive electrical generators.

Eventually, Edwards and about 20 or so other members of the 109th were detached to the 72nd Naval Construction Battalion (Demolitions), forming on the other side of Guam. The unit began training for the invasion of Japan. Edwards noted that the Seabees “were not looking forward to doing that.” Fortunately, they didn’t have to. The plans for an assault became plans for an occupation, which Edwards took part in. He garrisoned the former submarine base at Sasebo until Christmas 1945, when he boarded a transport for the long-awaited return trip to the States. 29

The wartime military was, more often than not, successful in pairing eager volunteers with the duty that would enable them to make the greatest contribution to the war effort. Jack Edwards’ story is testimony to this. The young electrician was exactly what the Seabees were looking for—an experienced tradesman willing to practice his civilian skills in a military uniform.

It’s important, though, not to overlook the fact that those experienced tradesmen often did more than build Quonset huts and airstrips and tend electrical generators. Seabees such as Jack Edwards found themselves wearing uniforms bearing the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor and crawling through jungles alongside their Marine counterparts. They were instrumental in the United States’ success in the Pacific war, and set the standard to follow for our naval expeditionary forces that fought on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.



1. Santa Cruz County: A Century , “The 1940’s: Responding to the War Effort,” The Santa Cruz Sentinel , np, www.santacruzsentinel.com/extra/century/41/index.html , accessed on 12 October, 2007.

2. Manuscript, Captain E. H. Ellis, The Denial of Bases (1913), 5, Collection 8, Series 2, Box 79, Folder 11 (XBAA), Naval War College Archives, Newport, RI.

3. James C. Rentfrow, unpublished manuscript, High Pressure Steam and Naval Strategy , University of Maryland, 2005.

4. William B. Huie, Can Do! The Story of the Seabees (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 66.

5. Ibid., 61–79, discuss the fall of Wake Island. The formation of the Seabees is discussed on 81–89.

6. Jack Edwards, oral history, interview by author, 19 January 2007.

7. Huie, 87.

8. Heroes: The Seabees , np, http://carol_fus.tripod.com/navy_hero_121st_ncb.html , accessed on 13 September 2007. Also Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007.

9. Ibid. See also John C. Chapin, The Fourth Marine Division in World War II (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 1974), Appendix B: “Composition of the Division,” 66B.

10. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007. See also Heroes: The Seabees for an account of the 121st’s training.

11. John C. Chapin, Breaking the Outer Ring: Marine Landings in the Marshall Islands (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1994), 2.

12. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007.

13. Ibid.

14. Letter, Officer-in-Charge, 109th Naval Construction Battalion, to Chief of Naval Personnel, 6 June 1945, Subject: Itinerary of the 109th Naval Construction Battalion. Copy of letter provided to author by the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum, Port Hueneme, CA.

15. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007. See also Henry Shaw et. al., Central Pacific Drive: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II , vol. 3, 179; Heroes: The Seabees , and Building the Navy’s Bases , 354.

16. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Jeter Allen Isely, The U.S. Marines and Amphibious War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 318.

20. Edwards, oral history, 19 January and 30 December 2007. See also Harold J. Goldberg, D-Day in the Pacific (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 70, for similar experiences on the beaches during the landings.

21. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007. See also Goldberg, D-Day in the Pacific , 81, for another account of the spotter in the smokestack.

22. Carl W. Huffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End (Washington, DC: Historical Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 1950), 270–73.

23. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007.

24. Ibid.

25. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007. All accounts of the Saipan fighting discuss the horror of watching Japanese civilians jump from the cliffs. See Goldberg, D-Day in the Pacific , 195–204 as an example.

26. Huffman, Saipan , 111.

27. Ibid.

28. Edwards, oral history, 19 January 2007.

29. Edwards, oral history, 19 January and 30 December 2007.

 

 
 

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