Some World War II veterans shouldered rifles over dusty hills and through torrid jungles. Others flew in cramped cockpits, toiled in the crowded engine rooms of storm-tossed destroyers or served up hot meals on the chow line.
Ira Rigger, however, lugged the levels and tripods and other tools of the surveying trade around one shell-blasted Pacific Island after another, the World War II veteran recalled in a 2021 interview broadcast on C-SPAN.
Rigger is one of a dwindling number of surviving members of the United States Navy Seabees, construction units that fought in World War II with shovels, bulldozers, concrete and steel.
The Seabees rolled out the infrastructure that paved the way for the Allied victory, serving on every major front and offensive, from the beaches of Normandy to the sands of Iwo Jima.
The Seabees played an especially crucial role in the Pacific, where the fighting took place across thousands of miles of oceans and scattered atolls. The construction workers, many of them experienced tradesmen in their 30s and 40s, repaired airfields after enemy raids, transformed lagoons into deep water harbors and forged supply roads.
True to his service in the Seabees, Rigger used a highway analogy to describe his years in the Pacific Theater during the C-SPAN segment on the 75th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima.
“My talk today is my World War II road to Japan,” Rigger said in the interview. “When I say road I am actually talking ocean. The rest stops were islands we had to take possession of before we could move on the next step.”
Launching a construction army
In the weeks following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that spawned the United States’ entrance into World War II, the US found itself faced with the immense logistical challenges of fighting a global war on two fronts.
Navy officials decided against trying to use private contractors for a job that would involve building countless bases, airfields, ports and warehouses across the world. Additionally, civilian contractors would not have even the small shred of protection granted to service members under the Geneva Convention. If captured wearing civilian clothes, they could be executed as potential spies or partisans, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
The Navy instead decided to form a series of specialized construction battalions.
On Jan. 5, 1942, Rear Admiral Ben Moreell, who had championed the idea, was given a green light to recruit thousands of construction workers from contractors and jobsites across the US.
The newly minted Naval Construction Battalions were soon dubbed the Seabees, based on the initials C and B. Moreell, who would go down in history as the founder of the Seabees. This also supplied the new force with an official motto: Construimus, Batuimus—”We Build, We Fight.”
Navy recruiters initially focused on signing up construction industry veterans, turning to the men who “had helped to build Boulder Dam, the national highways, and New York’s skyscrapers.”
The average Seabee age was 37, with some men more than 60 years old even managing to sneak through, the Naval history notes, citing an early example of the ingenuity that would become a characteristic of the Seabees throughout the war.
The Seabees quickly made a name for themselves.
As the US Marines fought a desperate battle in the late summer and fall of 1942 for the pivotal island of Guadalcanal, the Seabees played a crucial role in keeping the Japanese at bay.
Crews scrambled to fill in bomb craters on Henderson Field amid daily air and naval bombardment, helping keep the small but determined group of Marine and Navy pilots defending the island in the air.
Meanwhile, news of the Seabees’ exploits made them an increasing draw for potential young recruits like Rigger, who was just out of high school and working as a surveyor when he volunteered in the fall of 1942.
Filled with “romantic” visions of working on far-off islands in the South Pacific, Rigger was eager to join the fight, but instead found himself with a far more prosaic job.
“Instead of going to the South Sea islands to do all this romantic work, I was put to work watching a boiler at Camp Perry,” Rigger recalled. “Things didn’t always work out the way you thought they would in the service.”
After a stint as a plumber, another job he had no training for, Rigger found himself on a ship headed out of Hawaii for an unknown destination—his Seabees unit, the 301st Construction Battalion, was assigned harbor building duties.
Fate or chance intervened. Rigger overheard a pair of officers in a ship passageway talking about a desperate shortage of surveyors and stepped forward to volunteer his services.
Later, landing on Guam in the wake of the recapture of the island from the Japanese in the summer of 1944, Rigger finally was able to put his surveying skills to work, with his battalion handed the task of turning a shallow, sleepy lagoon into a deep-water harbor.
Rigger was part of crews that motored out in small boats to lay a grid of dynamite charges across the floor of the lagoon, detonating the charges after backing off to a safe distance. It was a process that was then repeated, steadily deepening and expanding an inlet that had been only 18 inches at low tide.
“When the job was finished, there was an aircraft carrier in there—that gives you an idea of what our crew could do,” Rigger said.
But it was not without cost, for it was dangerous work, with one crew lost after an unexploded charge from a previous demolition went off unexpectedly.
“Some days I was on that boat—that was one day I was glad I wasn’t on it,” Rigger said. “We never found anyone.”
Rigger would go to work on construction crews in two other bloody island battles.
At Peleliu, an island the Marines stormed in the fall of 1944, Rigger and his fellow Seabees built a channel through a coral reef that surrounded the island, enabling supply barges to go through.
The Seabees were told not to bring any food or shelter, only to find supplies or tents awaiting them on the island.
Instead, they were forced to scavenge rations off dead Marines. Rigger’s weight fell to 125 pounds, and some fellow Seabees were hospitalized with malnutrition.
“Whoever was giving out instructions had failed to tell anyone we were coming,” Rigger recalled.
Later, in the spring of 1945, Rigger and the Seabees took part in one of the last major battles of the war: the fight for Iwo Jima.
Their first assignment was to build a dock, an attempt that failed when a pile of ammunition went off, killing several people. Footprints from enemy infiltrators, who lurked in a network of tunnels that honeycombed the island, were later found in the area.
Rigger’s last job on Iwo Jima came after the fighting had ceased, surveying the ground for the cemetery where thousands of Marines and other service members who died in the battle are now buried.
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Still, not everyone’s service in the Seabees was so eventful.
Like Rigger, Ned Connor found himself on a ship in the middle of the Pacific, headed for destinations unknown.
After a stop in the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, the ship—an Italian luxury liner seized by the US and converted into a troop ship—finally arrived at its destination, a port facility on the coast of Papua New Guinea, Connor recalled in a 2017 interview with the American Veterans Center.
There, he and his fellow Seabees began unloading supply ships, mostly American, but some British and a few from various Scandinavian countries.
Connor operated the winch used to lift cargo out of the ships.
Days, weeks and then months flew by, with Connor and his fellow Seabees all the while wondering what their next assignment would be as the Navy and Marines hopped from island to island, battling ever closer to Japan.
But as it turned out, this would be his battalion’s first and last stop.
“We just stayed there and wondered where we are going to go next and we never went anywhere until the war was over,” Connor recalled.
This sense of being in the dark wasn’t unusual, Rigger noted. Information was strictly controlled during the war, with enlisted men and noncommissioned officers rarely clued in on the details.
“They loaded us up on a liberty ship and off we went,” Rigger recalled. “Enlisted men were never told where they were going,” though rumors, dubbed “scuttlebutt,” abounded.
Rigger and Connor were just two of 325,000 members who served in the Seabees during World War II.
The ranks have thinned dramatically over the years. Out of the 16 million men and women who served in all branches of the US armed forces in World War II, an estimated 326,000 are still alive today.
But the contributions of the Seabees and the construction workers who filled their ranks have earned their place in history. The construction workers who served in this special force played a crucial role in what William Bradford Huie, author of “Can Do!” the first history of the Seabees, described as the “world’s greatest construction war.”
The Seabees built hundreds of bases across the world, including an immense amount of infrastructure in the Pacific, often in remote locations.
The numbers are mindboggling to contemplate.
The Seabees, according to the Navy’s official history, built housing for 1.5 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. They also built tanks for storing 100 million gallons of gas, 700 square blocks of warehouses and hospitals with the capacity to treat 70,000 patients.
And that’s before we get to the 111 major airstrips, 441 piers and 2,558 ammunition magazines built by the dozens of naval construction battalions that served on fronts ranging from the Pacific to Italy to northwest Europe, according to the US Navy’s history of the force.
All told, 200 Seabees were killed in combat, with another 2,000 receiving Purple Hearts for wounds received in battle.
“The Seabees performed now legendary deeds in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of Operation,” the Navy’s history notes. “At a cost of nearly $11 billion and many casualties, they constructed more than 400 advanced bases along five figurative roads to victory, which all had their beginnings in the continental United States.”