From Skyscrapers to Warfighters
That spirit comes from the dark days of December 1941 as the dust cleared on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States found itself thrust into war on two fronts. In the European Theater, servicemen would battle Hitler and his Third Reich, while in the Pacific, the U.S. would wage war from the sea to island jungles against the rising sun of the Japanese Empire.
Prior to the war, contractors had built military bases, but civilians could not fight back if they encountered danger and conflict during construction, something that was almost certain to happen during the fierce fight to save the world. The Navy needed men to build advance bases throughout the Pacific, then, at the drop of a hat, put down their tools and pick up weapons to defend their positions. They would need to build AND fight.
"We used to have construction teams build the bases," said retired Senior Chief Construction Electrician Chester Urbati, who resides at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi. "And civilians can't fight wars; if they do, that makes them - what we call today - a terrorist. So Ben Morrell, who was one of our first admirals in the Seabees, decided to make military construction workers."
Under Rear Adm. Ben Morrell of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, the first construction battalions, better known as CB or Seabee, were formed March 5, 1942. In fact, the Navy recruited the first wave of Seabees from civilian construction trades, resulting in an average age of 37. Equipment operators, welders, steel workers, builders - every construction trade was called upon to assist in the war effort.
"I didn't know what a Seabee was when I first joined," Urbati recalled, his Boston accent weaving history and walking us down his memory lane. "I was a reservist and was a civilian construction electrician in Boston and my boss asked me why I wasn't a Seabee."
Urbati's boss was a reserve Seabee himself. He invited Urbati to train with them for the weekend. After sitting by a fire and telling sea stories, Urbati put in his transfer request. Even though he lost a stripe, it was well worth it to Urbati, who would retire in 1993 after more than 20 years in the Seabees.