Leading up to Veterans Day, NCCER highlights the Navy Seabees, who combine the combat effectiveness of the military with the craft skills of the construction industry. This is part three of a five-part series, focusing on the Seabees’ activities during the Cold War. After the devastation of World War II, the Earth hoped for more peaceful times. Unfortunately, peace was fleeting. Even as the ashes from history’s deadliest war settled and rebuilding began, the pot for the next conflict began to simmer. With the United States and the Soviet Union left as the world’s two superpowers, a natural economic and political rivalry developed. The result was the Cold War. Although no direct battles between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were fought, the Cold War was marked by a series of proxy wars pitting one nation’s interests against the others. Conflict broke out in Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere as ideas and influencers struggled to assert their dominance. When the U.S. became involved in these conflicts, it often required infrastructure to be built in support of its efforts. When bases, barracks and airfields were needed, the U.S. called in the Navy Seabees, an elite group trained in both construction and combat. SEABEES IN KOREA Although the Seabees had largely demobilized following the conclusion of World War II, the outbreak of the Korean War led to more than 10,000 men being called up to active duty in 1950. Inchon The Seabees played an important role in the Battle of Inchon, in which the United Nations forces led a surprise amphibious assault. The battle turned the momentum of the war back in favor of South Korea and the UN. The Seabees were responsible for setting up pontoon causeways for the landing troops, which they accomplished despite 30-foot tides and a swift current. Inchon-web Members of Amphibious Construction Battalion ONE, known as “Acey Bone,” after the invasion of Inchon. Photo from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. The Great Seabee Train Robbery The Battle of Inchon also brings one of the legendary stories of Seabee heroism and moxie. To help move troops and equipment faster, a group of Seabees volunteered to sneak behind enemy lines and steal some abandoned trains. When the Seabees arrived at the trains, they realized it was stopped in front of a brewery. Loading up the train with some beer and sake, the Seabees drove the locomotives through the bullets and shells of surprised North Koreans back to friendly territory. The heist became known as the “Great Seabee Train Robbery.” Cubi Point At the height of the Korean War, the Navy wanted a new air station built at Cubi Point in the Philippines. Local civilian contractors did not believe the project was possible due to the thick jungle and the massive Zombales Mountains. The Seabees were determined to live up to their “Can Do” motto, though. They cut a mountain in half, cleared brush and filled in swampland to create the base at Cubi Point. The project took nearly 20 million man-hours to complete. SEABEES IN VIETNAM Passage to Freedom Before the outbreak of the Vietnam conflict, the Seabees were deployed to the region in 1954 to help facilitate the “Passage to Freedom,” a mass migration from communist North Vietnam to South Vietnam. More than 800,000 Vietnamese voluntarily headed south as part of a provision of the Geneva Accords. The Seabees built refugee tent camps and their water and energy facilities. As the Geneva Accords prevented military units in French Indo-China, the Seabees participated in these humanitarian efforts in civilian clothes without national markings. War in Vietnam As tensions boiled over and war in Vietnam broke out, the Seabees were present much as they had been in WWII and Korea. The Seabees constructed bases, airfields, fueling stations, warehouses, roads, and hospitals across the theater. With the guerilla and ambush tactics of the Viet Cong, fortifications and perimeter defenses for these facilities was crucial. Chu Lai Airfield In May 1965, the first Seabee battalion arrived in Vietnam to build a Marine airfield at Chu Lai. The 3,500-foot facility was operational in just 24 days and continued to grow larger as the Seabees expanded the base. Liberty Bridge Liberty-Bridge-web Seabees work on the Liberty Bridge, spanning the Thu Bon River. Photo from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. One of the more impressive Seabees projects from Vietnam was the Liberty Bridge, a 2,040-foot long bridge that spanned the Thu Bon River. With Vietnam’s monsoon seasons, the bridge was built 32 feet above the lowest water level to withstand the flooding. Despite the environmental hazards and setbacks caused by attacks from the many enemy forces in the area, the bridge was completed in five months in 1967. A Sustainable Future While the Seabees gave military support to the Army and Marines, they also were vital to the “civic action” aspect of the conflict in Vietnam. Winning the battle for minds and hearts in the region was almost as important as winning the physical battles. The infrastructure the Seabees built in South Vietnam helped to raise the quality of life in the underdeveloped parts of the country. Even as other U.S. troops were pulling out, the Seabees remained and helped to build hospitals, schools, roads and clean water facilities. But the Seabees also wanted to help the Vietnamese help themselves. They passed on construction skills and techniques to the Vietnamese so that they could continue the progress after the Americans were gone. OTHER SEABEE ACTIVITIES DURING THE COLD WAR In the Cold War, the Seabees were not only working in the warzones. For certain projects, the U.S. used the Seabees more exclusively for their construction capabilities. One such example of this was in Antarctica as part of Operation Deep Freeze. The least explored area on Earth, several nations participated in this discovery and experimentation operation in the South Pole. The Seabees helped construct living areas, storage facilities and laboratories, as well as compacted roads and runways. deepfreeze-web The Geodesic Dome in Antarctica, built by the Seabees as part of Operation Deep Freeze. Photo from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. Another example was the naval base on the Diego Garcia atoll in the Indian Ocean, which began construction in 1971. Originally intended as a communications station, the project continued to expand and became a major military base. Working with civilian contractors, Diego Garcia became the Seabees’ largest peacetime construction project — an estimated $200 million effort. As they had done in Vietnam, the Seabees were dispatched to underdeveloped countries around the world to help build roads, schools and hospitals. Acting much like the military version of the Peace Corps, these efforts were intended to not only help those in need, but to also spread good will and positive feelings toward the U.S. and capitalism during the Cold War.
  hospital-web Seabees lay brick for a children’s hospital in Vietnam in 1969. Photo from the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum. MAKING AN IMPACT AROUND THE WORLD In one of the tensest times in world history, the Navy Seabees used their craft skills to make a positive impact through both their military and peaceful construction projects during the Cold War. Click here to read part four of our Seabees series to learn about some of the projects and missions the Seabees have taken on in the Middle East and in the War on Terror. EARN NCCER INDUSTRY-RECOGNIZED CREDENTIALS Like the Seabees, many military veterans have acquired craft skills during their service. These skills and experiences are a great asset when looking for a career after being discharged. By applying your skills and earning NCCER credentials, you can show potential employers what you know. Click here to learn more about NCCER’s Hard Hat Heroes program.

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  1. Walter Sauers | Nov 08, 2018
    great job Jonathon , as a retired Seabee i read this with pride!

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    About NCCER

    NCCER develops standardized construction and maintenance curricula and assessments with portable credentials. These credentials are tracked through NCCER’s National Registry which allows organizations and companies to track the qualifications of their craft professionals and/or check the qualifications of possible new hires. The National Registry also assists craft professionals by maintaining their records in a secure database.