Heroes: the Seabees
"...The first blinding explosion seemed to lift the tiny island high from its coral base, hold it for a breathless moment, then sickingly back again, shattered and exhausted..."
The original Naval Construction Battalion 121, commissioned during World War II, served closely with the U. S. Marine Corps. It even received a designation as the Third Battalion, 20th Marines, Fourth Marine Division.
While waiting for the Fourth Marine Division to be formed, these Seabees constructed facilities at Camp Pendleton, California. When deployed to the South Pacific in early 1944, the battalion served in the Marshall Islands in support of the Marines, and then island-hopped, eventually arriving at Saipan and its neighbor, Tinian. At Saipan, captured enemy airfields were repaired, while heavy fighting was still underway. After landng in Tinian, the battalion installed landing ramps, helped build 8500-foot runways for B-29 bombers, built control towers, taxiways, hard stands, fuel pipelines, and a tank farm. The Presidential Unit citation was awarded for its part in the assaults on the two islands. At the end of World War II the battalion was decommissioned.
A Battalion is Born
A small, listless group of Seabees, gathered before the outdoor bulletin board, waited patiently for the yeoman to finish. The brisk North Carolina breeze tugged at the men's clothing and rippled the typewritten sheet which the headquarters man was thumb-tacking into position. As the yeoman turned and pressed his way through the gathering, a score of eyes converged on the short, compendious notice:
May 10, 1943
Effective this date, this command will henceforth be known as the 121st Naval Construction Battalion re-designated 3rd Battalion, 20th Regiment, 4th Marine Division.
/s/ W. G. Byrne
Lt. Cmdr. CEC USNR
The men were silent for several seconds. Suddenly some raced away to spread the news through the barracks, others turned away with a slow smile and still others stayed to mingle with the group that was fast snowballing into a buzzing, excited mob. This was what these men had waited days and weeks and months for -- to be part of an outfit. No more drafts, no more replacement groups -- from now on they would live and train and work together as a unit. And whether it was a good unit or bad -- well, it would still be their battalion. A lot depended on their officers of course, but a lot more depended on the men.
Immediately they began to take new interest in their bunk-mates and the fellows with whom they had been playing pinochle or poker. Friendships sprang up over dinner and comes and bottles of beer. They discovered that the men in their platoons were out of the Twenty-first or Nineteenth or Fifty-third battalions. That some were from the Seventy-sixth, the Seventy-ninth, the Forty-ninth and many more. They found buddies from Oklahoma, New Jersey, New York, California and Texas; from Utah, Louisiana, New England; from Washington, Oregon, Florida -- even from North Carolina itself. The forty-eight were well represented here. Coined words such as slopchute, scuttlebutt, chowhound and earbanger became common--place in conversations and every man was sure he was grossly misrated. All agreed, however, that Handout Point, Camp LeJeune, New River, North Carolina, with its steam heated brick barracks, its soda fountains, bowling alleys, theaters and beer parlors, its libraries and hospitals, paved streets and tall trees and green grass -- Handout Point must be the most beautiful training center in the world. They couldn't know then, of course, that two years later Handout Point would seem even more desirable -- much more.
For the moment, however, the chief topic of speculation was their future with the Marine Corps, for by now it was obvious that the 121st was destined to become a part of the then infant, but later farm-famed 4th Marine Division. Each man was subsequently issued a complete outfit of Marine clothing in addition to their Navy clothing he already possessed. Some could count twenty-six pairs of trousers, six pair of shoes, eight hats and a corresponding quantity of other apparel in their seabags, duffle bags and foot lockers and old line Marine officers became hard pressed to distinguish their men from Seabees.
Some inkling of the type of work in store for them came when the school and work assignments were handed out. Men found themselves attending such things as pontoon, diving, and refrigeration schools -- classes in malaria control, demolition, and weapons. Others were dispatched to build a model camp on the base, make hinges without metal and construct buildings without nails.
Their spare time was spent on maneuvers, cutting trails through underbrush, building tank barriers, sleeping in the North Carolina swamps. They stood guard duty and took hikes and practiced shooting and dismantling a Springfield rifle until they could do it in their sleep. An through it all they were interviewed, classified, reassigned, then interviewed again.
On May 22, the 121st moved to Tent City -- still within the 200-odd square mile limits of Camp LeJeune but nothing like Handout Point. Still, the men were getting accustomed to such things now (or at least as accustomed as could be expected) and there were worse things that living in a tent. In fact the day was coming when most of these fellows were going to wish they had a tent to live in.
The training program was being intensified now and there was little time to even think about living quarters, much less use them. Maneuvers in the "boondocks" were running into several days and men were kept busy nursing the bite of a detestable little red but known as a "chigger." Hikes became longer and more strenuous and artisans were beginning to find their trades and work at them. Companies were dispatched to Norfolk for training periods in loading and unloading of large supplies. And every available moment was devoted to liberty -- in overcrowded Jacksonville, nearby Kinston or, for those within traveling distance, brief visits home with friends and families. Somehow the hot, sultry months of May, June and July were put behind. On August 4, 1943, the 121st began the first led of their western Journey.
Perhaps the most impressive factor about Camp Pendleton, Oceanside, California, was its vast size. If it wasn't larger than Camp LeJeune at least it was more spread out. Here the battalion had barracks again instead of tents, steel bunks instead of cots, girls in the Post Exchange, cool nights and good liberty. Here, too, some of the men saw oranges growing on trees for the first time in their lives.
The training was almost as different as the environment. There were ship-to-shore maneuvers, camouflage training, swimming and ship evacuation. Like New River, the battalion built another tent camp and unlike New River they invaded San Clemente Island, Laguna Beach, Hollywood, Los Angles, Long Beach, Santa Monica and points in every direction. Enjoyment ran high and the war seemed far away. Opinions were voiced that the war might end before the 121st got a crack at it. Then in November they sat quietly down and read about another Marine outfit that had gone into a place called Tarawa.
In December of 1943 the 121st Seabee-Marines celebrated their first Christmas as a battalion; an occasion which was slightly marred by the fact that they were preparing for another shipboard maneuver. On January 13, 1944, in the stillness of early morning, they slipped out of San Diego harbor.
121st Seabees 20th Marines 4th Marine Division
With a force of Marine Officers from the Fleet Marine Force, the 121st was re designated as 3rd Battalion, 20th Marines, 4th Marine Division they moved from New River, N.C., August 17, 1943, to Camp Pendleton, California, and embarked from San Diego January 8, 1944. The 121st joined the assault operations on Roi-Namur Islands then returned to Maui, Hawaiian Islands, the last of the outfit arriving there February 25, 1944.
The next operation for the 121st was the assault on Saipan on June 15, 1944, followed almost immediately by the invasion of Tinian On July 26. The outfit was stationed on Tinian until June 1945, when it moved back to Saipan and was still there at war's end. This Battalion was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its combat operations while attached to the Fourth Marine Division.
The Real Thing
The January maneuver, which began on the tradition unlucky "Friday the 13th." proved to be the longest to date. It lasted for 17 long days and was not without incident. When the men set foot on land again thay ran head-on into some 8,000 Japanese who were holding maneuvers the same day. Further investigation revealed that the Japs had been there nearly 25 years and that the names of the islands were Roi and Namur in the Marshall group. The weather was exceptionally bright and sunny for the first day of February but oddly enough, no one gave it much thought for the moment.
The aloofness which up until now had existed between the Marines and the Seabees, disappeared as if by magic. Both groups were in deadly earnest now and operated together like a well-oiled machine. They had only one goal -- kill Japs. The Seabees would get the supplies and ammunition ashore and the Leatherneck would throw it at the Nips. The tremendous respect which each group earned for the other in this, their first operation, proved invaluable throughout their long and successful association. In 72 houre, the Japs were gone.
For the next nine days, Roi and Namur were relatively quiet, tranquil, semi-trop!cal islands. Pup tents didn't afford the most restful sleep and bathing facilities were far from the best. The weather was hot, the flies and insects were bad -- but morale was good. There was work to do unloading ships and repairing airstrips and trying to find some way to let the folks at home know where you were and get it by the censor. There was no liberty because there was nowhere to go, but their war something new now -- more important than going to town. There were Jap souvenirs to be collected. Day by day, jealously guarded little stores were locked in sea-bags or carried in pockets. Watches, guns, knives, medals -- something to show the folks back home that the Japs had been encountered and defeated. A few hour; later they were wondering if they would ever see the folks back home again.
The night of February 12th began much the same as all the rest, except that maybe the moon was a little brighter. A crippled B-24 named "Sugar," the first American plane to land on Jap territory, had come in on the partially completed airstrip that evening, but by darkness a sedentary peacefulness pervaded all but the unloading area.
At midnight the graveyard shift arose, drank some coffee, and went down the beach to work. The moon was intensely bright now. A few yards from the water, huge stock piles of foods, medical supplies, ammunition and explosives were clearly visible in the brilliant yellow light. At 1:50 A. M. the alert founded.
At usual, work stopped and the men dispersed into small groups. Some grumbled at the interruption. Others were thankful for the respite, and all spoke of invincibility of the American forces. Lights were extinguished half-heartediy and where it was convenient cigarettes burned brightly. This was the fourth or fifth alert the 121st had gone through and they accepted it with all of the nonchalance and disdain that characterized the most battle-hardened movie veteran. After several long minutes the search lights stabbed their long fingers into the sky. ack-ack guns barked, and the more curious stepped out in the open to get an unobstructed view of anything that might happen. Then as suddenly as they had come on, the searchlights winked out, the guns fell silent and a loud rustling whisper tore through the night air like an evil spirit. In the next instant it happened.
The first blinding explosion seemed to lift the tiny island high from its coral base, hold it for a breathless moment, then sickingly back again, shattered and exhausted. Hoarse, pitiful screams rent the air and fear gripped the hearts of even the most intrepid. A hot, stiffling wall of concussion knocked some down, picked others up, like pieces of confetti. The first bomb had hit dead center in thousands upon thousands of pounds of American explosives. Then came more bombs and more explosives until it was impossible to distinguish between the two. The island was illuminated as though by a giant sun, and ear-splitting flashes and roars seemed to be growing louder and more numerous each second. Small arms fire, hand grenades, rockets, mines and bombs had scattered over the entire area and were exploding at will. Boats and ships with decks ablaze tried frantically to extricate themselves from the firey beach, the tent area had become a holocaust, and all the while men prayed and worked and prayed some more.
When dawn broke on the charred and battered island some four hours later, smoke was still rosing from numerous fires, scattered explosions were still audible and men began to emerge from holes and pillboxes like dazed, drunken automatons. The entire area had been levelled off by a giant charcoal hand. Musters were called to determine the wounded, the missing, and the dead. A boy who had swum five miles out to sea was returned by boat and on the far end of the island "Sugar" was still standing. Men were picking through the charred remains of what had once been sea-bags and chests, searching for such items as pictures of wives and sweetheards, safety razors, money -- and Jap souvenirs, but the Japs had destroyed most of their souvenirs this nght -- and many American ones besides. The 121st had received its first serious casualties -- two dead, many near death, and several wounded. Other outfits weren't so lucky. Now it was Hollywood and New Yourk and Texas that seemed far away -- and the worst was still to come.
On February 15, under previously received orders, the battalion sailed from the Marshalls. For many, their sold possessions consisted of a single pair of shorts in which they had been sleeping on the night of the raid. Morale, unfortunately, was almost as low as supplies. But from somewhere in the recesses of their minds, most of them recalled a mental vow they had taken almost a year ago -- through thick and thin, for better or for worse -- it was still their battalion. Food, clothing, courage and blood were given where it was needed. Nine hungry, miserable days later, they reached Hawaii.
The two and a half months on Maui, in the Hawaiian Islands, proved to be a panacea which no mortal doctor could have administered. Time, the great healer, did double duty. The battalion met their rear echelon and recounted to old friends. There was liberty again in Paiia, Wailuku, Lahaina and Kahului. There were beer and steaks and poker and movies, cocoanuts, pineapples, and bananas. It wass far from a holiday, because the 121st never stopped working. They were the engineers of the 4th Marine Division and camp maintenance wa a big part of the job. But compared to being on Roi and Namur or stuck in the bowels of a transport -- Hawaii was truly a paradise.
All too soon, in early Man, they once more received "the word". The 4th Marines were on the march again, to write another chapter in their glorious history. Where? Well, no one knew exactly. But many had a good idea. Somewhere out in this vast Pacific wa an island that the United States Army and Nave planes had bee showing a good deal of interest in lately. An island called Saipan.
Saipan and Tinian Invasions
June 15, 1944 brought the dawn of a day long to be remembered in the lives of those who belonged to the 4th Marine Division and of course the 121st Naval Construction Battalion, for it was on this day that the second large invasion of Japanese territory was to be executed by these units. The experiences that were encountered in the Marshalls and the extra training just undergone had made us realize that the enemy was no push-over.
It was a beautiful morning and no one had thought that the island of Saipan with Mt. Tapotchu in the distance could give forth such a "wallop" as was received by the men making a beachead. The island looked very peaceful from the distance with green hills and fields of sugar cane. The smoke stacks of the sugar mill were to be a land mark and could be seen from our position before disembarking. "H" hour was set at 0830 but everyone was up and above deck long before that time watching the bombardment of the coast by our big battle ships and destroyers. It was apparent that we had air superiority.
As the first waves neared the beach they encountered plenty of fire from shore. After the first wave landed the fire became intense. The following waves of LVT's were hit with many casualties. By 1230 on "D" day most of the battalion had landed on the beach in front of the town of Charon Kanoa. The day was spent in dodging shells and digging fox-holes. Many of the men were posted as guards on enemy wrecked boats and others guarded the stockade with its growing population of men, women and children. That night was one of sleeplessness as shells were still falling and there was also a possibility of an attack from the sea.
By dawn of the next day the shelling had somewhat subsided and plans were being made to bring in badly needed supplies and equipment from floating dumps and ships. At 0900 a report was received that the enemy was attacking through the sugar mill. Defensive positions were taken and every one was on alert. The 2nd Marine Division had pocketed a group of Japanese in the sugar mill and while running into our machine gun fire they retreated inland and were annihilated by the troops in waiting. To boost our morale just a bit, the 27th Army Division was landed during the night. Now with the 2nd and 4th Marine Division and the 27th Army division the enemy did have quite a problem on his hands.
The following days were similar to our first ones with such excitement as dog fights, air alerts, sniper fire, sleepless nights caused by the heavy gun fire and last, but not least, the possibility of souvenir hunting. By this time the C and K rations already were getting tiresome and with the help of bananas, Japanese sakie and beer, life was having its lighter moments.
The beach work was progressing at great speed and supplies were coming in at an encouraging rate. Our work as beach party ended on D plus 4 and we headed for a new assignment of clearing the Jap Aslito air field and getting it ready for operation. Everyone worked with utmost diligence with what gear was available. With the help of Japanese equipment and improvised brooms made of brush the field was ready for planes by nightfall. Great joy went through the camp when the first plane landed on the strip. It was a Navy TBF that landed about 1800 five days after "D" day. Soon after transports, night fighters and B-24's landed. This gave us a feeling of security for the nightly raiders needed to have something like the P-61 or "Black Widows" to keep them at a distance.
The work of the battalion was not all air strip work but included railroad and road repair, the reconstruction of Jap installations that were to be but in operation. This work was not going on unnoticed by the enemy for snipers were firing on our men while they were working. A roving guard was maintained at all times. The air alerts were getting to be a nightly habit and to our joy planes occasionally would be shot down.
After Saipan was secured, 9 July 1944, the battalion's major job was to put the railroad in condition and also to get ready for the Tinian invasion. Equipment and supplies had to be procured and gear on hand to be put in good condition. A pier was constructed and a road to a hospital located near the beach. The battalion also built ramps for LVT's which played an important part on the beach of Tinian. A special detail of picked men were sent to Tinian to set up these ramps on "J" day which was the day that Tinian was invaded. The battalion was alerted on July 24th and moved to the beach above Charan Kanoa for further instructions. Two days later the battalion boarded two LCT's with all equipment and supplies and headed toward Tinian. It was impossible to land on Tinian this day and it was necessary to spend a sleepless, rainy night and the LCT's. The invasion of Tinian was not as difficult as that on Saipan and it can be laid to the fact that the enemy on Tinian had an opportunity to see at close range just what the Saipan campaign was like. The following morning about 0800 landings were made on the beach and the march to the air field was begun. Our advance parties had the situation well in hand and it was nice to get a welcome from some of our own men. The men again worked hard to get the strip in readiness for the first planes. This time we had brought with us enough brooms and other equipment and the task of cleaning the field progressed very rapidly. The first plane to arrive was a P-47 and from then on planes came inwith supplies and evacuated wounded with he utmost speed.
Work on the airfield and roads kept most of the men busy while others were making the camp conditions a bit better. Salvage crews were bringing in supplies and equipment and that could be used in further work of the battalion and also in our small stock of supplies.
The shanty town about the administration building was day by day getting to be quite a project as men brought in salvaged material to make their homes a bit more comfortable. The food situation grew acute as the ocean was too rough to unload the necessary cargo for carrying on the assault. For more that four weeks "C" rations were all that could be procured. It was rough for the men but they all realized the situation and very few complained. Surveyors were laying out a new camp site and it was promised that soon our regular gallery and equipment would arrive with the rear echelon. Living under combat conditions and also trying to do a good construction job was more of a problem than what many of us expected.
Looking back over this period it can be said that the 121st worked as traditional Seabees during the invasion days and with the scarcity of equipment and supplies did a job to be proud of. Living conditions were crude and the time-honored serviceman's privilege of "griping" was taken full advantage of but the men stuck to their work, did a fine job and emerged with the self-assurance and pride of a recognized veteran combat construction crew.
Images from the 121st Naval Construction Battalion Cruisebook:
Aslito Air Strip
121st Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees')
Submitted by John J. Ratomski
Source: Cruisebook for the 121st Naval Construction Battalion
Some web sites that are about the Navy SEABEE's and related material:
History of the Seabees'
Navy Seabees' Veterans of America
Naval Construction Force (Seabees')
Sixth Special NCB
Seabee Sites on the Internet
76th Seabees of WWII
Seabee Museum and Memorial Park
Original Story submitted 5 January 2005.
Story added to website on 8 January 2005