Bay, Cuba. In addition, Seabees have provided engineering support to friendly nations in Asia, South
America and Africa, helping local forces to construct
schools, orphanages, and medical facilities.
The largest and most impressive project tackled by
the Seabees in the 1950s was the construction of Naval
Air Station Cubi Point in the Philippines. Beginning in
1951, it took five years and an estimated 20 million man-hours to build this strategically significant Navy base.
At Cubi Point, Seabees cut a mountain in half to
make way for a nearly two-mile long runway. They
blasted coral to fill a section of Subic Bay, filled
swampland, moved trees as much as 150 feet tall and
relocated a native fishing village. The result was an
air station and an adjacent pier capable of docking the
Navy’s largest Cold War-era carriers.
With the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965,
Seabees proved their readiness as warfighters once
again. They built infrastructure from the southern
Mekong Delta region to the Demilitarized Zone, providing airstrips, camps, hospitals, exchanges, roads,
warehouses, storage tanks, towers, fences and anything
having to do with fighting a war or providing creature
comforts for American and South Vietnamese forces.
The Seabee builder-fighters often were under siege,
fending off enemy forces alongside their Marine and
Army comrades. Seabees also conducted extensive civic
action throughout Vietnam with 13-man units known
as Seabee Teams. These teams specialized in community development work building bridges, dams, schools
and libraries, as well as digging wells, grading roads
and all other types of construction work to improve the
socio-economic conditions of the local population.
During the course of the Vietnam War, Seabee’s manpower climbed from 9,400 in 1965 to 26,000 in 1969.
In 1971, the Seabees began their largest peacetime
construction project, on Diego Garcia, an atoll in the
Indian Ocean. The project lasted 11 years and cost $200
million. The base was built to accommodate the Navy’s
largest ships and the biggest military cargo jets, and
proved invaluable during both Gulf Wars.
More than 5,000 Seabees served in Desert Shield
and Desert Storm. Among the many projects completed
during this period was the headquarters complex for I
Marine Expeditionary Force and a 15,000-man camp for
the II Marine Expeditionary Force. The completed camp
complex was dubbed “Wally World” after the mythical
theme park in the National Lampoon “Vacation” films.
After 9/11, Seabees continue to play a major role in
the Global War on Terrorism, with their force numbers
swelling to approximately 18,000 worldwide. The Seabees
served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in
Afghanistan. As early as November 2001, Seabees were
constructing the first of multiple forward operating bases
for U.S. and coalition forces.
In March 2003, the Seabees invaded Iraq along with
the U.S. Marines, and maneuvered, built and fought their
way to Baghdad. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Seabees
carried out their primary missions of building bridges
and roads, and conducted Civil Military Operations. In the
subsequent reconstruction of a liberated Iraq, they built
cultural bridges to the Iraqi people while digging wells,
constructing hospitals and producing schools.
In 2007, Seabees began providing support to U.S.
Africa Command. In addition to providing construction
assistance to the various branches of the U.S. military
serving all over the continent, Seabees provided human-
itarian civic assistance to local populations by drilling
wells and building much-needed basic infrastructure
such as schools, hospitals and bridges.
With the conclusion of combat operations in Iraq
and drawdown of efforts in Afghanistan, the number of
Seabees has fallen to about 10,000.
Despite having a force size that is roughly 3 per-
cent of what it was at the height of the World War II,
the Seabees continue to serve an essential role in sup-
porting the U.S. strategy for 21st-century seapower.
Whether constructing and maintaining naval bases
around the world or building forward expeditionary
bases for the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, Seabees
have served on the tip of the spear since 1942.
Since the 1950s, the Seabees have worked cooperatively with respect to maritime security and provided
humanitarian assistance and disaster relief globally.
This experience provides them useful historical “lessons
learned” that are applicable in today’s naval strategic
environment and should continue to make them indispensable to the U.S. Navy for the next 75 years. n
Dr. Lara Godbille is director of the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum
in Port Hueneme, Calif.
Seabees with the 53rd Naval Construction Battalion construct a tower
to hold automatic cameras to document atomic bomb explosions as
part of Operation Crossroads on an island near Bikini Atoll in 1946.