7 Important Things to Know About the First US Navy Seabees

Construction Battalion Navy Yard on Bougainville with the Seabee Expression, 1943. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

When the U.S. military absolutely, positively needs something built in a hurry, they call on the Navy's elite construction crews: the Seabees. With more than 14,000 active and reserve personnel on the roster, there seems to be nothing they can't build -- even if the bad guys don't want them there.

With the motto "Can Do," Navy Seabees have been seen in some of the world's most troubled hotspots. From the islands of both theaters of World War II to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan today, the road to victory was paved by Seabees.

3rd Marine Division, 2nd Raider's sign during the Bougainville Campaign, 1943. (U.S. Navy Seabee Museum)

1. "Seabees" Is a Play on Words.

The Seabees' name isn't actually "Seabees." The unit's official name is United States Naval Construction Battalions, or CB, for short. It's much easier to say "CB" or "Seabee" than "United States Naval Construction Battalions," or even "construction battalions."

A name like Seabees also lends itself to the easy creation of morale patches and insignia, which are all the rage in the military, if you haven't noticed.

2. The Original Mascot Was a Beaver.

This makes sense when you think about it. The beaver is an industrious mammal, at home in both the water and on land. Frank Iafrate, designer of the original logo, was instructed to create one using a Disney-type character, according to the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. Iafrate then discovered the beaver runs away when threatened. That's not a good mascot for the U.S. Navy, especially during World War II.

"Then I thought of a bee. ... The busy worker, who doesn't bother you unless you bother him. But provoked, the bee stings. It seemed like an ideal symbol," Iafrate told CNN in 2015.

(National World War II Museum)

3. The Navy Needed Fighting Construction Workers.

Even in the days of World War II, the U.S. military had no problem contracting out construction projects to third parties. Unfortunately, civilian construction workers building critical infrastructure aren't allowed to fight back when attacked. Under international law, they could be considered guerrilla fighters and might be executed when captured.

A construction crew that also happens to be a military unit, however, would make a pretty big surprise for any enemy against which they thought they were about to get an easy win on any given day. Attacking Japanese troops would learn quickly they were fighting construction workers trained by the Marine Corps.

Hence their other motto, "We build, we fight."

4. Seabees Were the Oldest and Highest-Paid Sailors in WWII.

In recruiting the first Seabees, the Navy was looking for the same seasoned skilled tradesmen found on any major construction site in America. They had to be talented and fast, even if they were a little bit older than other recruits. As a result, they received higher rank upon entering the Navy than most other recruits, too.

In order to fill the Seabees' ranks with these skilled workers, physical standards and age limits were waived for any recruit under age 50. Some 60-year-olds still managed to slip through, so the mean age for a Seabee during the war was 37, when the average age for the rest of the military was just 26.

5. A Seabee Unit Could Do Almost Anything.

With just more than 1,100 skilled men and officers, a Navy construction battalion could be deployed and build almost anything. It was made up of four companies of construction workers and deployed alongside medical, dental and logistics personnel, along with all the other kinds of professions a unit needs in the field.

As construction projects became bigger and more complex, multiple CB units were deployed to the same projects. By the end of the war, the Navy had more than 258,000 men working in the Seabees, well short of the number it needed.

6. Black Seabees Filled in for Fallen Marines at Peleliu.

The need for cargo handlers increased throughout the war, Black men were drafted to fill those ranks in segregated units. The 17th Special CB unit was attached to the 1st Marine Pioneers the day they landed on Peleliu (pronounced peh-luh-loo). As Japanese resistance stiffened, the 17th CB began hauling ammunition to the front and carrying the wounded to the rear.

As the fighting on Peleliu ground on, more and more Marines were falling to enemy fire. For three days, the Black sailors of the 17th Special Construction Battalion filled in for those who were killed or wounded by the enemy.

During World War II, the 17th Special Seabees, attached to the 7th Marine Regiment, rest amid the rubble on the island of Peleliu, Sept. 1944. (National Archives)

7. The Original Seabees Built Projects in Every Theater.

Seabees were paving the way to victory for the Allies every step of the way. They built more than 400 projects at a cost of $11 billion in the Caribbean, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, England, France, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, China, Alaska, the Philippines and most of the islands in between.

An estimated 300 Seabees were killed in action, and another 500 were killed in construction accidents. The Navy's go-to construction crews also earned five Navy Crosses, 33 Silver Stars and 2,000 Purple Hearts.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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