SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia — The U.S. Navy Seabees were created during World War II to build and fight their way across Europe and the Pacific after civilian construction workers became frequent enemy targets.
Today, they are America’s on-the-ground ambassadors, fighting for hearts and minds by putting new schools, clinics and water projects in places where aid money and diplomacy aren’t enough to foster favorable policy.
Despite their integral role in foreign relations in at least 30 countries, from Ethiopia to Macedonia to Cambodia, the Seabees are not immune to Washington’s fiscal realities. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the nine battalions are being downsized. Two battalions deactivated in September, with plans for one more to be cut by 2014.
It’s a scenario that has played out after every war, but this time — with the Seabees’ role bigger than ever in recent years — it has many questioning the move and leaves the Seabees stung by deep cutbacks.
“It’s more a sense of pride,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Bryan Delarmente, of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, said in Cambodia as he worked to finish a well project to provide fresh drinking water to students at the Asean English School in Sihanoukville. “Down the line, people are going to be asking, ‘What command were you in? Oh, 74. What’s that?’ ’’
NMCB 7 was the first to go, being decommissioned Sept. 5. NMCB 40 — which recently won the 2011 Rear Adm. Eugene J. Peltier Award for most outstanding active-duty battalion — was next, hanging up the tool belts on Sept. 12. Sailors from NMCB 74 say they have been told they will be decommissioned in 2014, although Navy officials say that has not been finalized.
There are about 600 sailors per battalion, according to First Naval Construction Division spokesman Daryl Smith. Some will relocate, and the force will be trimmed by about 1,500 through retirements, separations and job reclassifications.
The move to cut the battalions from nine to six made “a lot of people scratch their heads,” said Lt. Cmdr. E.B. Miller, executive officer of NMCB 40, especially in countries where there are no other U.S. boots on the ground. He hopes NMCB 40 is recommissioned, but history indicates there would have to be another war to make that happen.
Cambodia is one example of the Seabees’ clout, where the U.S. and China vie for favor. Though impoverished and still recovering from the massacres of the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields,” it holds a strategic position while bordering Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
As the mid-morning sun began to intensify in early September, Chief Petty Officer Stephen Frazier, of NMCB 74, chatted in the shade with Prum Sarang, vice director of the Hunsen Khrong Primary School in Sihanoukville.
Students darted in and out of several moldy school buildings while Frazier told Sarang that his Seabees would be there the following week to renovate one of the decrepit buildings and dig a new well for about 1,200 students who had no clean drinking water.
As the men looked for a spot to put the well, Frazier saw a student run outside and go to the bathroom in the weeds — the only place to relieve oneself at the sprawling compound. Sarang mentioned plans to install an outhouse, but Frazier had a better idea: He would try to steer some funding to the school from a Seabee initiative to build bathrooms in Cambodia.
When Frazier started to leave, Sarang hugged him. Asked if he was happy Americans had come to Cambodia, he beamed a toothy smile: “Yes.”
The Cambodian government is also making use of the Seabees to bolster its own Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
“The U.S. Navy and other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces are working with the armed forces on skills in peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, maritime security, counterterrorism and disaster response, according to a U.S. government official who asked his name not be used because he was not authorized to speak on the record, “This collaborative partnership strengthens the professional capacity of the RCAF, allowing the U.S. government to achieve its mission objectives in Cambodia,” he said. “The Seabees are key components to pursuing these objectives.”
Builders ... with guns
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the use of civilian construction workers in war zones became “impractical,” according to the Seabees’ website. Civilians were not allowed to resist enemy attacks under international law and faced execution as guerillas if they did so.
“The need for a militarized Naval Construction Force to build advance bases in the war zone was self-evident,” the website said.
On Dec. 28, 1941, Rear Adm. Ben Moreell requested the authority to activate, organize and man Navy construction units. About a week later, he gained the authority from the Bureau of Navigation “to recruit men from the construction trades for assignment to a Naval Construction Regiment composed of three Naval Construction Battalions.”
“This is the actual beginning of the renowned Seabees, who obtained their designation from the initial letters of Construction Battalion,” the website said. “Admiral Moreell personally furnished them with their official motto: ‘Construimus, Batuimus’ — ‘We Build, We Fight.’ ”
During World War II, more than 325,000 men served with the Seabees on six continents and more than 300 islands, Smith said. They built 111 major airstrips, 700 square blocks of warehouses, hospitals for 70,000 patients, storage tanks for 100 million gallons of gasoline and housing for 1.5 million men.
On June 6, 1944, Seabees were some of the first Americans ashore during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, as members of naval combat demolition units. “Fearless 74” was activated on April 28, 1943, according to the battalion’s website. It became a major part of the WWII island-hopping campaign to take back Japanese-held territory in the South Pacific. The forces hit beachheads in the footsteps of the Marines and built support facilities on Tarawa, Kwajalein and the Berlin Islands.
They were inactivated on Oct. 31, 1945, at the conclusion of the war, and Seabees numbers dwindled to as low as 5,000, Smith said.
Units were recommissioned as the need arose, then cut as conflicts waned.
In the case of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the Seabees commissioned an additional regiment and battalion to bring the total number of Seabees to about 16,600, Smith said. Of those, 7,600 were active-duty and 9,000 were reserves.
Their numbers in Afghanistan increased with President Barack Obama’s surge strategy in 2009, but dropped back to two battalions who work to build combat outposts and forward operating bases, as well as building and maintaining roads and bridges.
For this deployment, NMCB 74 is spread across the Pacific and southeast Asia, including a detachment in Cambodia, where the countryside is teeming with cobras, land mines, dengue fever and malaria.
Since an initial deployment in 2010, the Navy has sent a detachment to do specific projects for two months. That mission has been expanding. NMCB 74’s current deployment runs June to December, and it will be relieved by NMCB 5 in January.
“Anytime they see Americans on these projects, they see we’re here to do good things and provide aid where it’s needed,” said Lt. j.g. Logan Parmele, NMCB 74’s officer in charge of the Cambodia detachment. “It shows a military can serve another role and have a big impact. It shows we do have a heart.”
Getting to work
After their arrival, the 22 Seabees of NMCB 74 began work on three projects almost simultaneously: in Kampungkreng, O Chrov — both remote Cham Muslim communities — and Prey Slek in Takeo province. They were joined by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces engineers.
“The three buildings that we built, normally that would be our whole deployment, and we were able to do all three buildings in, like, 60 days,” Frazier said. “Now we’re going to build a fourth building, and the two school rehabs and the four wells.”
Frazier said the exercise aided the Cambodian people, helped establish a great rapport between the armed forces of both countries and allowed for an exchange of ideas on local materials and building techniques. The Seabees and the Cambodian engineers worked long hours with no days off, sometimes in monsoons.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment to actually be doing something for the people,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Charles Poplin said. “Helps you sleep good at night.”
The facilities they built are already being put to good use.
On Sept. 4, Frazier and Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Smaltz, the detachment’s corpsman, drove down a long dirt road to make sure everything was going smoothly at the O Chrov Health Center. It was here, across the street from the local Cambodian People’s Party headquarters, where they built a two-room, post-natal care facility.
The Seabees also refurbished the existing health center and renovated the toilet facilities while braving hard stares from the village’s Muslim residents, including women covered head to toe in black hijabs.
As Frazier and Smaltz walked by the new clinic’s open door, a weary mother in a head scarf lay on a bed inside. Clinic workers attended to her as the sound of a baby crying filled the air.
“Everybody is really appreciative,” Frazier said. “Especially at O Chrov.”
The health center provides primary care for residents of 11 villages in Sihanouk province, or 11,684 people, and averages 300 patients per month.
To get to the small facility, patients travel up to 11 miles by boat, moped or bike. The nearest hospital is 21 miles away.
“Now they can treat more people,” Frazier said. “Now they have a better place.”