The B-29 Superfortress known as Enola Gay on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, near Dulles International Airport.(Wikimedia Commons)
As was mentioned in our post from last week, Naval Station Norfolk was the last temporary duty station for the CH-46 Sea Knight that landed last Saturday at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the National Air and Space Museum, nearly 50 years after it entered service with the United States Marine Corps and Navy. Seventy years ago today, another aircraft on permanent display at Udvar-Hazy ushered in the era of atomic warfare by dropping a bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. As historians by the dozens have documented, the bomb carried by the B-29 Superfortress known as Enola Gay was the fruition of the work of thousands of scientists and engineers employed by the Manhattan Project. There is, however, a Hampton Roads connection to that aircraft's story as well; one that involves another major innovation in warfare not commonly acknowledged in histories of the event, but without which the events of August 6, 1945, would not have occurred.
August 6 is when historians like to reflect and opine upon the two titans of the Manhattan Project, Physicist Robert Oppenheimer and Brigadier General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers. On this seventieth anniversary of the fateful day that Enola Gay lifted off from North Field on Tinian Island in the Marianas, I would like to introduce you to a man who helped pioneer the very concept that made the construction of North Field and over 400 other military bases possible. It was a concept that in its execution was arguably more consequential in the effort to defeat Japan than the Manhattan Project itself. After all, the largest air base ever created up to that time, not to mention 110 other major airstrips constructed across the Pacific by American forces during the war, didn't just spring out of nowhere to support Enola Gay, Bocks Car, and the thousands of other American and allied aircraft operating against Japan at the time. A commander couldn't simply hire out a local contractor to conjure up a base on a small coral atoll thousands of miles out in the Pacific under enemy fire.
It took Sailors with special skills and abilities to perform duties we largely take for granted in today's globally deployed Navy, but at the beginning of World War II, they were unheard of.
Within a few months, however, the Seabees would arrive.
Not unlike the challenge confronting Brig. Gen. Groves and Dr. Oppenheimer when their project began, a great national resource had to be harnessed to help the American war effort. In the case of the Seabees, that great resource was American construction and engineering capability. That American civilian construction workers and engineers were already among the best in the world was beyond dispute. But how would the workers who produced such marvels as the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the Empire State Building be able to build the infrastructure Marines and Sailors would depend upon in combat theaters, under hostile combat conditions, that would help America win the war? How were they to gain equal facility with the bayonet as they had with a pick axe and wield a Thompson submachine gun as effectively as a pneumatic rivet gun? That challenge would become the undertaking of one man:
Admiral Ben Moreell, credited as the creator of the Seabees and the first "four-star" of the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
Artwork by Robert Muchley for Penna Art, WPA, between 1941-43.
(Work Progress Administration/ National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
Although 1942 began with turf battles between CEC officers and those of the unrestricted line concerning who would lead the regiments of the embryonic naval force, finally being settled by Navy Secretary Frank Knox in March, the war would not wait. Training facilities for new Seabees would open at a breakneck pace during 1942, starting in Hampton Roads. The very first Seabees, however, were drawn from the ranks of skilled tradesmen who had volunteered for the naval service and were trained at New Deal-era National Youth Administration camps soon after the beginning of the year.
The first of an estimated 325,000 men to enlist into the Seabees during the war left the United States on January 27, 1942, in a detachment bound for the island of Bora-Bora, roughly 140 miles from the French territory of Tahiti, which they reached on February 17. By late June 1942, Seabees were also already at work in the Aleutians, building bases to prevent the Japanese from moving any closer to Alaska, and as staging areas for recapturing the islands of Attu and Kiska from Imperial Japanese forces.
When it comes to August 6, 1945, and the many stories that are published at this time each year about the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, historians of World War II typically mention two critical facilities: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. For the Seabee project, two new Hampton Roads facilities, Camp Allen in Norfolk and Camp Peary near Williamsburg, played instrumental roles in early construction battalion formation and development.
Captain J.G. Ware, who would go on to become NCTC Camp Peary's first commanding officer, inspects Seabee selectees at Camp Allen in early 1942. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
Stevedore training is conducted aboard a mockup of a transport vessel at Camp Allen in 1942. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
|Seabees train at Camp Peary, 1943. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)|
Seabee selectees try not to lose their white hats along the obstacle course at Camp Peary, 1943. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
Seabees train and are graded for accuracy at the 300-yard rifle range at Camp Peary in 1943. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
While the Manhattan Engineer District scientists deep within the American heartland spent the war immersed in the outer reaches of high technology, the Seabees thousands of miles away had been fighting their way across the Pacific by their wits, frequently with whatever they had on hand. For example, an enterprising Seabee created special ramps for Marine Corps LVT-2 "Doodlebug" amphibious landing craft from the remains of a Japanese sugar mill on nearby Saipan, which enabled the Marines invading Tinian to easily scale coral cliffs ringing the invasion sites.
One of the specially-modified LVT (Landing Vehicle, Tracked) 2 amphibious vehicles used during the Tinian invasion. (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)
The two mammoth wartime programs, one for the atomic bomb and the other to create the military infrastructure that brought mainland Japan within strategic bombing range, finally intersected on Tinian in July 1945. After USS Indianapolis (CA-35) arrived at Tinian on July 26, 1945, with Manhattan Engineer District material and personnel from the Naval Weapons Center at Port Chicago, California, Seabees of the 6th Naval Construction Brigade not only helped unload the highly classified components making up the atomic bombs, but they also built and guarded the shed housing the scientists who had traveled to Tinian in order to assemble them.
So if you ever find yourself traveling down Moreell Street near Naval Station Norfolk on a sultry August evening, or spend an afternoon at the Camp Allen Shooting Range, or if you happen to cruise past Camp Peary on your way to Williamsburg, just remember that the long-gone facilities that once existed there were the hallowed grounds where some of the first Seabees were made. Much of their handiwork in far-flung, hard-won areas of the world, like the Second World War's largest airfield on Tinian, have also faded into obscurity. Like the atomic bomb, however, the Seabees are with us still, and always will be, as long as, in the words of one of their early songs, we're "in to win."
Special thanks to Deputy Public Affairs Officer C.D. Neal of Marine Corps Forces Command and Mike Fogleman of Camp Allen.