Thursday, August 6, 2015

Remembering a Project Much Bigger than Manhattan

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)
Two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ben Moreell, then a rear admiral of the Civil Engineers Corps (CEC) serving as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, sent an urgent request to the Bureau of Navigation to form a Naval Construction Regiment, citing international law and the impracticability of civilian labor to meet the unprecedented wartime challenges confronting the Navy.  The request's ultimate effect on the Navy and Marine Corps' warfighting strategy was not unlike that made on the U.S. Government's overall strategy by the letter Albert Einstein sent Franklin Delano Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, except that the effect of Moreell's request was almost immediate.  The Bureau of Navigation officially approved Moreell's request on January 5, 1942.  In contrast, the Manhattan Engineer District was not created by the Army Chief of Engineers until August 16 of that year.      

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.
Some of the very first Seabees completed recruit training at Naval Training Station (NTS) Norfolk, then went on to occupational and combat training at the first Naval Construction Training Center (NCTC), located at Camp Walter H. Allen, which was commissioned only ten days before this photo was taken. Because Camp Allen was not technically completed until August 15, 1942, these men probably helped construct the final sections of the small base as a part of their training.  Then again, because of the immediate need for skilled labor at this early date they might have been immediately sent overseas.  Many of them are already wearing the "crows" of petty officers or even the fouled anchors of Chief Petty Officers, denoting their commensurate experience in the private sector.  (Photo Courtesy Werner Peyinghaus)

This detail image taken from the right hand side of the photo above shows that, like other Navy recruits undergoing basic training at NTS Norfolk at the time, Seabees graduated basic training in what was then called a "platoon."  Instead of going to sea as members of ship's companies or squadrons afterward, however, Seabees would continue to be organized along the lines of other services such as the Marine Corps.  Three Seabee platoons would make up a construction company.  Four construction companies of 224 men each and a headquarters company of 169 (consisting of command, medical, and supply personnel) would make up a construction battalion, and three construction battalions would make up a construction regiment.  INSET: typical rating badges for Seabees entering the Navy at the time (note the one worn by a basic training graduate in the photograph) included Carpenter's Mate, Ship Fitter or Metal Smith.  Because of the catch-all "CB" (Construction Battalion) rating badge at lower right, the moniker of "Seabee" was practically an inevitability. Not pictured is the rating badge for the Aviation Carpenter's Mate, which was identical to that of the Carpenter's Mate, except with wings added.  (Inset photos: The Bluejacket's ManualEleventh Edition [Naval Institute Press, 1943], 198-199)
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.

Photographed on July 4, 1942, the main portion of NCTC Camp Allen in what was then known as the South Annex of Naval Operating Base (NOB) Norfolk, bordered by Sewells Point Golf Course to the east and the Virginian Railway tracks and Admiral Taussig Boulevard (along the present route of I-564) to the north, is still in the final stages of construction, which was completed on August 15. (HRNM Collection)

This February 1942 map of Camp Allen shows pretty clearly that the boundaries of this modest facility have not changed significantly since its establishment of a Naval Construction Training Center in 1942, although it only retained that role for a short time and in the 73 years since has undergone significant changes to its mission, and even its name (more on that in a future blog post).  Significantly, however, Boush Creek bordering the facility to the West was subsequently pushed underground by civil engineers and no longer appears on maps.  The only geographic feature that seems to have survived unscathed to the present day is the municipal golf course.  (History of Development, Naval Facilities, Sewell Point Area, 1917-1951 [Norfolk: Publications and Printing Office, Fifth Naval District, 1952]/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)  

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)
As plans fell into place for other Naval Construction Training Centers around the nation, training in the Hampton Roads area was also expanded to the 1,600-acre Camp Bradford within present-day Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story.  The 11,000-acre Camp Peary, bordered on the north by the York River on a much larger tract of land than Camp Allen, was commissioned on November 16, 1942, to give advanced training to the burgeoning numbers of Seabee recruits.  By March 17, 1943, not only had Camp Peary taken over the basic training of Seabees from Naval Training Station Norfolk, but it had also taken over the one-month primary Seabee training courses of Camps Allen and Bradford.  A one-month advanced training course was also offered at Camp Peary which included five days on the camp's rifle range and instruction on subjects such as camouflage and air raid protective measures.  Men entered Camp Peary as civilian selectees with no formal military training and left as highly trained deployable Seabees, roughly 80 percent of whom would see action in the Pacific Theater.

According to an official contemporary source, all primary and advanced training of enlisted Seabees as well as the Civil Engineering Corps officers leading them were consolidated from other Hampton Roads locations to Camp Peary (shown here on August 18, 1943) by March, 1943. (HRNM Collection) 

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) 
Seabees became indispensable to the Marine Corps from the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942 onward, but they also ingratiated themselves with naval aviators and Army Air Corps pilots along the way.  The invasion, capture, and transformation of Tinian by the Fourth Marine Division and Sixth Naval Construction Brigade, conducted over the second half of 1944, was an outstanding example of what made the Seabees unique and valuable to everyone they worked with.

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.

Within about five months of taking over Tinian Island, the Seabees of the Sixth Naval Construction Battalion produced the largest air base on the planet from the ashes of three small Japanese airfields suited only for fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.  The new North and West Fields on Tinian were capable of handling nearly 450 massive B-29 Superfortresses at one time.  (Official Navy Photo/ U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)    
Superfortresses of the Tinian-based B-29 fleet sweeping low over Seabees working on unfinished sections of the new Marianas base. Note the heavy 21-ton cat-and-earth mover operated by Clarence Swinney. (U.S. Army Air Corps Photo/ National Museum of the U.S. Navy)
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.  


Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading and viewing these photos. My father,Paul Litherland, served in the Seabees and trained at Camp Allen in February 1943, before being transferred to Camp Peary and later to Davisville, RI. He later served at Dutch Harbor, Alaska for 28 months.

Thank you for this site and the information.
Scott Litherland

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading and viewing these photos. My father,Paul Litherland, served in the Seabees and trained at Camp Allen in February 1943, before being transferred to Camp Peary and later to Davisville, RI. He later served at Dutch Harbor, Alaska for 28 months.

Thank you for this site and the information.
Scott Litherland